Archive for February 2016

Often described as the last bastion of the Left, Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University is in the middle of a political tug of war. Sonia Sarkar and V. Kumara Swamy report that while the Right is pulling hard, the Left is holding on

  • Imaging: Sabyasachi Kundu

The union leader sits alone on a bench, next to a heap of roses. Students walk up to him, each one carrying a rose which they hand over to him. Saurabh Kumar Sharma chucks them on a table near him.

Flowers, slogans, placards, meetings and marches – Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) is in the thick of it all. For 10 days now, the university – often described as the last bastion of the Left – has been in a state of turmoil. Students are out on the streets, classes have been suspended in many of the centres, teachers are in emergency meetings and mass lectures are being held on the campus.

It all started on February 9, when Sharma, joint secretary of the JNU Students Union (JNUSU) and a member of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), lodged a police complaint about a meeting that had been held on the campus. The police stormed in and arrested JNUSU president Kanhaiya Kumar – and all hell broke loose.

Sharma’s outfit is backed by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP); Kumar is a member of the All India Students Federation (AISF), led by the Communist Party of India. Sharma alleged that Kumar, along with other students, had shouted “anti-national slogans” at the meeting which marked the third anniversary of the execution of Afzal Guru, convicted of attacking Parliament. Since then, students and teachers have been condemned as “anti-nationals”, and there have been calls for the closure of JNU.

“At any point in time there are around 8,000 students in JNU,” says former vice-chancellor S.K. Sopory. “It saddens me that one of the finest institutions in the country is being labelled anti-national just because of slogans shouted by 20-odd students.”

Many inside and outside the institute do not view this as a mere fight between two opposing students’ groups. They smell a conspiracy – of the BJP trying to make inroads into what has largely been a liberal institute.

“There is apprehension among students that the BJP is trying to capture JNU and bring the university under the fold of saffron ideology,” former VC B.B. Bhattacharya says.

Some faculty members believe that there is a larger move to portray the university as a den of “anti-nationals”. In November last year, Panchjanya, a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) journal, said JNU was home to “a huge anti-national block which has the aim of disintegrating India”.

Former JNUSU president Sandeep Singh believes the BJP wants to “polarise” the country over the JNU issue. “It wants to earn political mileage by telling the country that JNU produces anti-nationals,” he says.

Last September, BJP leader Subramanian Swamy stirred up a storm when he referred to JNU’s students and teachers as “Naxalites”. For a while, JNU was abuzz with rumours, baseless as they turned out, that Swamy would be the new VC after Sopory’s term ended in January.

It was the new VC, M. Jagadesh Kumar, who gave permission to the police to enter the campus and look for Kumar and other students in hostels. “I would never have allowed the police to enter the campus,” Bhattacharya says.

Earlier this week, as thousands of students came out on the streets with placards and slogans, BJP member of Parliament Chandan Mitra called for the closure of JNU.

“JNU has a long history of sedition and anti-national politics and it is not easy to combat it intellectually or through campus politics,” he says. “So the best way is to vacate the hostels and shut the university down. It can be restarted in a different way, with a different curriculum, a different set of students and a different administration,” he elaborates.

Most members of the faculty believe that this is part of a larger plan to stifle dissent. “The BJP government knows very clearly that this is one place where people openly dissent,” says JNU professor Kamal Mitra Chenoy.

But the real battle, for the present, is being fought between student groups. One of the developments in recent years in JNU has been the strengthening of the ABVP. Last September, it made a comeback in the JNUSU central panel after 14 years when it bagged the post of the joint secretary. Sharma believes he was elected because he talked of “real” issues.

“The Left parties talk about war in Syria and elections in the US. We talk about campus issues such as inadequate hostels, inconsistent Wi-Fi connection on the campus and a poor placement cell,” he says.

Trouble has been brewing on the 1,000-acre for a while. In November, an ABVP member and student of Sanskrit organised a havan, a fire-lit ritual, in his hostel room. When wardens stopped him, a complaint was lodged and one of the wardens was questioned by the police.

Some ABVP students did not allow a Kashmiri stall at a food festival in JNU. They protested when the All India Backward Students’ Forum organised a Mahishasur Divas to hail the buffalo-demon slain by Durga. And they have been protesting against Guru being hailed as a martyr.

“We tried to stop them earlier too but they didn’t listen,” says JNU ABVP president Rohit Singh. “It was important to teach them a lesson.”

JNU students believe that they are also being singled out because they took on the Centre late last year. JNU students were prominent in sit-ins outside the University Grants Commission office in protest against a move by the ministry of human resources and development (HRD). The ministry had announced that it planned to scrap fellowships granted to research students who had not cleared an examination that was required by those seeking a lecturer’s job.

“JNU students were at the forefront of the ‘Occupy UGC’ movement. The Centre has been targeting us since then,” says N. Sai Balaji, councillor, School of International Studies, JNU.

Indeed, JNU students have been at the centre of many movements in recent times. They organised two all-India mobilisation marches to express support for striking students of the Film and Television Institute of India. They rose in protest when the Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle, a student outfit in the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, was de-recognised for being critical of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. And they led marches against the death of Hyderabad University’s Dalit student Rohith Vemula.

“Our voice and strength always irk those in power,” JNUSU vice-president Shehla Rashid says.

But can a handful of students trouble a government so much that an entire administration ends up hounding them for raising slogans? Many believe they can, because JNU has been for long a red rag for RSS-led groups.

The university was set up in 1969 with, among other things, the objectives of “national integration, social justice, secularism and the democratic way of life”. It came up at a time when the Communist Party of India swayed policy in the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s government. Over the years, many of the faculty posts were held by Left or liberal academics.

“The Left always dominated the campus. It is only recently that the Right wing is also making its presence felt,” says JNU registrar Bhupinder Zutshi.

Not surprisingly, people such as political scientist Yogendra Yadav believe that the present crisis is “a well thought out attempt” by the BJP to capture JNU. “The BJP has political and economic power but it doesn’t have the control of any intellectual establishment,” Yadav says.

“Given the prominence of JNU, its identification with the Left and its questions on nationalism, JNU becomes a soft target,” he holds.

So, every now and then, efforts are made to open small doors in JNU. When the National Democratic Alliance-1 was at the Centre, the then HRD minister Murli Manohar Joshi set up the Special Centre for Sanskrit Studies in 2001. “Left-wing groups accused him of saffronising JNU,” says former JNU student and ABVP worker Navneet Kumar.

Old-timers recall that in the late Eighties and early Nineties, when the BJP started gaining ground, meetings were held in JNU, convened by party ideologues such as Govindacharya. In 1991, the ABVP won its first seat as joint secretary in JNUSU. In 1996, it bagged three central posts. “It established us firmly on the campus,” says former ABVP leader Shiv Shakti Bakshi, executive editor of Kamal Sandesh, a BJP mouthpiece.

Watch out for more. “We will make further inroads into JNU with this anti-national stance taken by some groups,” BJP MP Tarun Vijay says.

That is, of course, if the teachers and students at JNU allow them to do so.

The teachers have been busy. Instead of a sit-in, they have organised a “teach-in” to protest against the arrest of Kumar and related events. The mass lectures, open to all students, have been dealing with issues such as nationalism, regions and civil liberties. Next week, the topic is Gandhi’s nation. Nationalism, anyone?


From hostel accommodation and admission fees to protests against the Emergency and nuclear tests, JNU students over the years have agitated on a wide range of issues. Some of the campaigns:
1975: The Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi led to massive campus unrest. Several student leaders were jailed

1983: A protest in favour of “deprivation points” for other backward classes during admission snowballed into a huge protest. Around 350 students spent two weeks in Delhi’s Tihar Jail

1993: Massive protests were held for the restoration of deprivation points and against proposed fee hikes. Both were successful

2015: Led by JNU students, huge demonstrations were held under the  ‘Occupy UGC’ movement


JNU was where many leaders cut their political teeth. Among them were:

D.P. Tripathi: The Nationalist Congress Party member of Parliament was an Students’ Federation of India, or SFI, member. As JNUSU president during the Emergency, he went underground. Still remembered for stopping Maneka Gandhi, then a student of German in JNU, from entering a classroom

Prakash Karat: The former general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPI(M) was president in 1972-73, but lost the next year to the Free Thinkers’ Anand Kumar, ex JNU professor and a former member of Aam Aadmi Party

Sitaram Yechury: The CPI(M) general secretary was thrice president. A postgraduate student in economics, he had been jailed during the Emergency

Chandrasekhar Prasad: President for two terms in the mid-90s, he led several agitations. He was shot dead in 1997 in Siwan, Bihar, while addressing a meeting

Kavita Krishnan: She was elected joint secretary in 1995. She spent time in jail after organising protests against Prasad’s murder. Was on the forefront of the Nirbhaya protests in Delhi

Nirmala Sitharaman: The minister of state for commerce and industry did her PhD from JNU and was a Free Thinker.

Additional reporting by T.V. Jayan in New Delhi

Published in The Telegraph on February 21, 2016.


‘I have created a dot. That’s my corner’

Back in those days when television was a one-channel wonder, a man called Pavan Malhotra was quite a heart-throb. It transpires that in the era of multi-channel television, he still has a huge fan following, going by the number of people who landed up for a Pavan Malhotra retrospective in the capital recently. But that’s not surprising, for the man who is best remembered as Hari – the humble hard-working youth who ran a small shop for repairing bicycles in the television serial Nukkad – has reinvented himself. The 57-year-old actor who became a television star with his role in shows that included Circus and Zameen Aasmaan and later acted in films such as Saeed Mirza’s Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro and Buddhadeb Dasgupta’s Bagh Bahadur has been appearing in regional cinema of late. He starred in the Telugu film Aithe and in two Punjabi films, Punjab 1984and Eh Janam Tumhare Lekhe. On the sidelines of the retrospective Unmasking Pavan, he talked to Sonia Sarkar about his journey. Extracts:

Q: What are your future projects?

A: I am currently shooting for Rustom with Akshay Kumar, produced by Neeraj Pandey and directed by Tinu Desai. I am also doing a film with Sanjay Puran Singh Chauhan, the maker of the 2010 film Lahore, which will be released in the next few months.

Q: Tell us about your journey from theatre to television to films.

A: While I was studying in Class X, in Manav Sthali School in Delhi, a friend took me to Feisal Alkazi’s Ruchika Theatre during the summer vacations. I got a role as part of a crowd in the play Tughlaq . Then Feisal started giving me roles in various plays. But I mostly didn’t know what was going on. It took me a while to understand serious political subjects such as Marxism. Somebody had then jokingly said that Karl and Marx were two brothers – and I believed him. In another Hindi play, Father, I played the role of an orderly. I didn’t even know the meaning of the word. I knew nothing – but slowly I learnt. That was also when I got some backstage roles in programmes on Doordarshan.

Then one day, I got a call from a friend who said that the production team of Gandhi needed a wardrobe assistant. When they were shooting in Delhi, I worked with them. Then the crew moved to Mumbai and asked me to move with them. Soon thereafter, my theatre friends, Ravi Baswani and Sudhir Mishra, asked me to work as a production assistant for the filmJaane Bhi Do Yaaro (1983). It was around that time that I got the role of Hari in Saeed Mirza’s Nukkad . Then came cinema with Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro.

Q: Did you – like many others – have to struggle in your initial days in Mumbai?

A: I can tell you 500 stories of struggle but I would never like to romanticise my story. If you change your city and you don’t have a permanent job, you should be ready for a struggle. When I was living in Delhi with my father, he made me sweep the floor of his office too. He used to say that if I didn’t learn this, I wouldn’t learn anything in life. He had also told me that if I wanted to work, I had to learn to keep my ego aside. I survived in Mumbai because of this lesson.

  • Always different: Pavan Malhotra in Bhaag Milkha Bhaag

Q: Are your films watched only by one section of people?

A: Many years ago, Doordarshan was, one evening, showing Satyajit Ray’s Jalsaghar . I was watching it in my living room. I turned around and saw my house help watching it too with a lot of interest. So, basically, one has to tell a good story. I think most of my films had a good story – so people liked them.

Q: Every role of yours in every film – from Salim Langde … and Bagh Bahadur to Dilli 6 and Bhaag Milkha Bhaag – is different. How do you manage to play different characters without casting the shadow of one over the other?

A: I work on the body language and voice of the character. And it is a conscious decision to play a different character in each film because the characters remain alive in the mind of the audience even if the actor is forgotten.

Q: After Salim , underworld dons contacted you…

A: One day, when I was standing with my scooter at a petrol station near Centaur Hotel in Mumbai, a man came up to me and said that Haji Mastan loved my acting. He asked me to call him. I didn’t. Again one day, someone came to my house to ask if I would like to visit Dawood Ibrahim in Dubai. He would make it easy for me in Bollywood. But I told him that I didn’t need a shortcut to success.

Q: How do you feel when you see your college junior Shah Rukh Khan, who acted with you in the television series, Circus , and is now a superstar?

A: I feel that it is important to talk to oneself and ask, “Do you want to do this? Are you enjoying this?” I feel in this whole film industry collage, I have created a dot. That’s my corner.

If I think that Shah Rukh has a bungalow and I should have one too, there will be no end to my desires. I will start eyeing someone’s island. It’s not possible to get everything in life.

Q: Television series were real during your time…

A: People have often told me, why can’t we make Nukkad again? I tell them, even if we make it, you will not watch it. These days, television works on advertising and advertising has nothing to do with content. It has to do with eyeballs.

Q: Recently, comedian Kiku Sharda was arrested for imitating Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh. As an artiste, do you believe freedom of speech and expression is being compromised?

A: There are – and have been – problems in society. But we have to fix these problems. One has to keep fighting for the freedom of expression.

Muffler: check. Floaters: check. Radio spots: check. As Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal marks his first year in office, V. Kumara Swamy and Sonia Sarkar look at how he has been projecting himself as the man on the street

It was a busy Sunday for Visakhapatnam businessman Sumit Agrawal. He went around the neighbourhood collecting money to be sent to Delhi for what he believed was a noble cause. The neighbours did their bit, too, and a demand draft for Rs 364 was sent to the chief minister of Delhi, Arvind Kejriwal, on Monday.

“I humbly request your good self to kindly accept this small contribution & use it to buy a nice pair of black formal shoes,” the businessman said in a letter to the CM.

The CM had worn his customary sandals to a reception for French President François Hollande at the Rashtrapati Bhawan last month. The choice of footwear troubled Agrawal. “You were representing the country that day… not staging a dharna at an Aam Aadmi Party rally at Ramlila Maidan or Jantar Mantar,” Agrawal wrote.

The businessman was mistaken. As Kejriwal marks his first year in office on February 14, it is clear that, at every opportunity, the leader of Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) would like to underline his man-on-the-street image. He is, at any point, holding a dharna – literally or figuratively.

But then he came to power riding dharnas. And though the quiet bureaucrat in the income tax office in Delhi who became a right to information activist before joining Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption campaign had vowed that that he would never enter party politics, he did so with aplomb – and a great many sit-ins – in 2012.

“It’s difficult to understand Kejriwal’s style of functioning. Every day, he is into a fight with some agency or the other. He seems to be an unusual politician. It doesn’t really matter if he speaks or dresses up like a common man, it is important to see what this ‘common man’ has done for the thousands of other common men who voted him to power,” former Delhi chief minister Sheila Dixit says.

But if there is one thing that Kejriwal has worked hard on, it’s his image of the man next door. If Prime Minister Narendra Modi likes to dress up – a formal galabandh on one occasion, a heavily embroidered shawl draped carelessly over a kurta on another – Kejriwal sticks to his uniform. A muffler and sweater with trousers in winter, a plain shirt and pair of trousers in summer. Occasionally, a Gandhi cap. And, of course, his floaters – worn with socks when it’s cold.

It is this image that he seeks to highlight in government radio spots that flooded Delhi during and after a state government move to control pollution. The ads were about an experiment when cars with odd and even numbers were allowed out only on alternate days for a fortnight last month.

In the ads, Kejriwal approaches the listener like an old acquaintance, using words and pauses the way one would in a conversation. ” Haan ji… kaise hai” – Hi, how are you – he starts.

His aides hold that more than 80 per cent of the ads have been conceived by him and he writes his own script. “He knows how to convey the most complicated thing in the most simple manner,” AAP spokesperson Ashutosh says.

As a communicator, Kejriwal has outdone himself. But the question being asked is if the government has done any significant work for the one year it has been in power.

Government watchers say that some major steps have been taken. The government doubled the education budget for the state and major changes are taking place in teaching methods and curriculum in government schools. A call centre has been set up to register complaints against corrupt officials. And the odd-and-even experiment to control traffic congestion and ensuing pollution has largely been lauded.

But for much of the year, the government hurtled from one crisis to another. The CM picked fights with the lieutenant governor over distribution of power, hasn’t been able to cut through the bureaucratic thicket and hasn’t attempted to resolve a shortfall of over Rs 1,500 crore in municipal budgets which has led to non-payment of salaries and strikes. He has been under pressure over a CBI raid on his office over corruption allegations against his principal secretary.

But with no opposition to talk of – AAP has 67 of the 70 seats in the Delhi Assembly – the failures are seldom talked of. Instead, he, or occasionally his deputy, Manish Sisodia, engages with the public directly on issues that would interest them – corruption, pollution or consumer rights.

The idea, AAP insiders say, is to move from one issue to another before discord sets in. “We monitor ads to check when people feel irritated and start abusing us for saying the same thing – is it after 7 days or 10 days? We keep a check on the saturation level,” says Delhi state unit convener Dilip Pandey, in charge of communication.

The strategy, on the face of it, seems to be working. “First it was electricity and water. Then it was corruption, which was followed by the odd-even scheme. People have been given a new issue every time something loses its novelty,” says former bureaucrat Shakti Sinha. “But I am not sure if these have been followed up and monitored closely,” the ex-finance secretary in the Delhi government adds.

For Kejriwal, clearly, a lot of the action is in the public arena. When his office was raided by the CBI, he took on Prime Minister Narendra Modi and finance minister Arun Jaitley publicly. The last time he was in power – for 48 days in 2013-14 – he threw in the towel when he felt besieged. This time, Kejriwal has gone to town over the Centre’s alleged moves against him.

“People think he is confrontational but that’s not the case. Earlier, he was more impulsive, now he is calmer,” a close associate says. “His understanding of politics and society is wider now and more in-depth.”

Indeed, if there is one thing that Kejriwal has demonstrated this year, it’s the fact that he is, contrary to popular perception, an inveterate politician.

Consider the way he has tackled dissidence, or people who could challenge him.

During his days as a fledgling activist against corruption, Kejriwal had a print-out pinned on the wall in his office in Ghaziabad. It was a shot from the film Munna Bhai MBBS. The original poster had Sanjay Dutt on a motorcycle, and his sidekick, Arshad Warsi, in the sidecar. Dutt’s face was replaced by Anna Hazare’s, and Warsi’s by Kejriwal’s. The message was clear: Hazare would lead the charge while Kejriwal would be his loyal lieutenant.

But Hazare – who gave Kejriwal a boost – is now a closed chapter. Even the other stalwarts who were Kejriwal’s equals when AAP was being formed are out in the cold.

“From a consensus builder, he turned into some sort of a dictator. Only yes men got his ear. Yogendra Yadav and Prashant Bhushan were men with backbone – and it was only a matter of time before they were kicked out. He wouldn’t like a competitor,” a former associate says.

His political moves should not surprise his associates, for Kejriwal has shown on many occasions that he thinks like a clever politician. An AAP member recalls how, while campaigning for the Lok Sabha elections in Punjab, Kejriwal looked at a crowd of mostly traders at a rally, and asked one of his candidates to point out that he belonged to the same community.

“I was shocked that he wanted votes highlighting his caste. He is like any other politician now. And he is more concerned about the next election than anything else,” alleges Harinder Singh Khalsa, AAP member of Parliament from Fatehgarh, Punjab.

But then, politics is all about mining votes – and making alliances. In recent months, Kejriwal has voiced his support for state leaders Nitish Kumar and Mamata Banerjee. Efforts are on perhaps to form an alliance to take on the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress in the next general election.

Before that, though, he has to effectively rule Delhi. “In Delhi, a battle is being played out at a political level. Officials will not be motivated to work in an enthusiastic manner if this daily uncertainty continues,” says Shailaja Chandra, former chief secretary, Delhi government.

Chandra believes that citizens want predictability in their daily lives. “That is absolutely lacking because of these constant upheavals. Citizens are not interested in day-to-day politics which disturb their world,” she says.

Also, much before the next general poll is the Assembly election in Punjab next year. It was thought that AAP could give a good fight to the ruling Akali Dal and the opposition Congress, but there is dissent brewing in the AAP camp now.

“AAP has the same high command culture as any other party and the coterie around Kejriwal keeps him in a world far removed from reality,” Khalsa says.

As Kejriwal returns to the capital today after ayurvedic treatment in Bangalore, he will have his hands full. His aides expect him to promptly get back to his punishing schedule – up at 5am, yoga, and then a spate of phone calls before setting out. “He always returns calls but his timing is odd. He calls at 5.30am – and I often forget what I want to discuss,” an aide says.

And, of course, the battle with the Centre will continue. Kejriwal came fighting the Establishment. And so what that he’s the Establishment now?