Archive for March 2016

Skinny jeans and dead bodies, billiard tables and teen soldiers — Karbala
is a story of conflicting images. Sonia Sarkar visits the holy city in Iraq and
finds that another war is being waged

Friday evenings at the Al Kawthar shopping complex on Al-Jumhuriya Street in Karbala are busy. Less than 100 metres from the shrine of Imam Hussein Ibn Ali, burqa clad women shop for leather bags, skinny jeans and heart-shaped soft toys. A few yards away, cheerful young men play billiards inside a noisy cafeteria. By the Nahr-al-Furat – the Euphrates – families unwind.

But it doesn’t take much to change the mood in Karbala. A group of young men in uniform, carrying three dead bodies, marches towards the Karbala shrine. The dead are men killed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), or Daesh, in war-ravaged Fallujah, 120km from Karbala, home to 1.86 million Iraqis.

Just 100km from the Iraqi capital of Baghdad, Karbala is a picture of contrasting images. On the one hand, there are five-star hotels, shopping malls, theme parks, 5D theatres and apartments. On the other hand, huge billboards with photographs of young men killed by the ISIS, cavalcades of armoured vehicles and video clips from the warfront on television remind visitors that the country is still at war.

    • AND LIFE GOES ON:  A garment shop in Karbala



    An 8-year-old boy, whose father was killed by the ISIS, celebrates his birthday at a camp

“The two images of Karbala could be contrasting but they are a part of each other. Both represent today’s reality of Iraq,” Muhammad Alawadi Al Musawi, lecturer, department of history, University of Karbala, points out.

Karbala is where Hussein Ibn Ali, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad, was believed to have been killed by the ruler of the Umayyad dynasty, Yazid, in 680 AD. Some 50 million tourists visit it every year.

Efforts are on to erase the picture of violence that is today associated with Iraq. And the movement is being spearheaded by the shrine, whose coffers are rich.

“We want to make Karbala a world class city and change the face of Iraq. The world believes Iraq is all about war but we want to change the image of Iraq through Karbala,” says Fawzy Al-Shaher, general manager, Khayrat Al-Sobtayn, an investment company floated by the shrine. “We want to make Karbala the next developed city after Baghdad in Iraq.”

With a two-year budget of US $500 million, it has started several projects. One of the biggest is the construction of the Imam Hussein International Airport with help from China. Currently, all major airlines operate from the Najaf airport, 76km from Karbala.

Old-timers point out that Karbala, which witnessed Shia unrest against former President Saddam Hussein in 1979, was a neglected city during his regime. But now it is unrecognisable. With construction galore, land rates are shooting up as malls, restaurants and auditoriums come up.

  • A jewellery shop

“The effort is to tell the world that Iraq is beyond sectarian divide between the Shias and Sunnis,” says Sheikh Mahdi Al Karbalai, the chief cleric of the Holy Shrine of Imam Hussain.

Ironically, war cannot be taken out of the lives of the people of Karbala – or of Iraq. Iraq has been ravaged by war several times in the past 35 years. In 1980, the protracted Iran-Iraq war began as Saddam attacked Iran. In 1991, he invaded Kuwait in what was to be known as the Gulf War. Iraq was forced to retreat and economic sanctions were imposed on it. In 2003, US forces invaded Iraq, supposedly to destroy weapons of mass destruction. Saddam was captured and executed in 2006.

In 2014, a new war began, as the ISIS seized huge swathes of areas in northern and western Iraq, including the cities of Mosul, Fallujah and Tikrit. The town of Jurf al-Sakhar, 60km from Karbala, was captured by the ISIS but recaptured by Iraqi forces in 2014.

Karbala has been relatively safe, but there was an incident in 2007 when 12 men from Qods Force, a branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, disguised as US soldiers, entered the Provincial Joint Coordination Center in Karbala and killed five US army men.

But the shadow of the war continues to loom over Karbala. Even toy shops are not spared.

“Every child wants to buy a toy gun or a military tank,” says Sala Al Hashmi, owner of a toy shop in Karbala. “Children see visuals of men in uniform brandishing guns and want to be like them.”

Children, as young as eight, speak of defeating the ISIS. “I want to fight Daesh,” says eight-year-old Murtaba Rahim, who is celebrating his birthday in a military camp in Karbala. His father was killed by the ISIS four years ago while he was protecting the Sayyidah Zaynab mosque in Syria, the centre of religious studies for Shias.

Teenagers have been making a beeline for the mobilisation force, al-Hashd al-Shaabi, which was formed in 2014 after the Shiite cleric, the grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, gave out a call to civilians to fight the ISIS. Civilians are now trained in using weapons such as Kalashnikovs, Tabuk sniper rifles and M2 Browning machine guns by the Iraqi army under the supervision of military advisers from the US, Canada and Iran.

Sixteen-year-old Ali Fadal Abbas is among the 1.2 lakh civilians to have joined the force. Son of a daily wage earner, Abbas has been promised a monthly salary of Rs 40,106 (US$600) but has not received any wages for the past three months because of a fund crunch.

“But that doesn’t stop us from fighting. The ISIS has attacked our homes; we have to save our homes,” he says.

  • Men playing billards

But Iraq is not just about battling enemies. Azhar Talafar owns a garment shop in Karbala and likes to play billiards in the evenings. For him, life is “normal”, he says.

“I will also go [join the forces] when there is need. Till then, I can relax,” he says.

Muhammad Youssif is not overly worried about the ISIS either. He is celebrating the grand wedding of a cousin in a five-star hotel, where the room tariff for a night is around Rs 11,695. “We can afford this. And a wedding is special,” Youssif says.

Life in parts of Iraq is changing rapidly, and there are some concerns, too.

Elders are worried about drug addiction among the youth. In 2012, the city police had shut down the cafés and billiard halls in the city, holding that they were being used by drug dealers. The other emerging problem is of the use of alcohol – outlawed by Islamic law. Reports of trucks loaded with alcohol being seized by the administration often appear in local newspapers. Rehabilitation centres have come up in the city, too, to deal with drug and alcohol abuse.

“These are the new challenges besides the war. We have to deal with them firmly,” Al Musawi says.

War, clearly, is an unending metaphor.

The reporter visited Karbala at the invitation of the administrators of the Holy Shrine of Imam Hussain

The story was published in The Telegraph:

– A move to scale down pictorial warnings on cigarette packets has set off alarm bells in some sectors. Health experts tell Sonia Sarkar that they fear a proposed law that seeks to curb the use of tobacco may also be diluted

NO SMOKE WITHOUT FIRE: Experts fear that the government may end up diluting the stringent Cotpa Bill, 2015

From April 1 this year, cigarette packets were going to be substantially different. A government notification last year had said that 85 per cent of a packet would be devoted to a pictorial health warning on the ill effects of smoking. But recently a parliamentary committee recommended that it be reduced to 50 per cent.

The proposal came from the Lok Sabha committee on subordinate legislation headed by the Bharatiya Janata Party member of Parliament, Dilip Gandhi.

The development has caused a flutter in anti-tobacco circles in the country.  Does it mean the government is not serious about tackling tobacco use? What is the fate of a stringent bill that seeks to address the issue?

Indeed, there has been no recent movement on the Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products (Prohibition of Advertisement and Regulation of Trade and Commerce, Production, Supply and Distribution) Amendment Bill, 2015, or the Cotpa Bill. After the bill was drafted a year ago, the Union health and family welfare ministry invited comments from stakeholders. The ministry received over 2,00,000 views but has not moved on the front, a source says.

“We have not received any directive from the health minister J.P. Nadda’s office. Copies of the comments are lying in sacks,” says a member of the National Tobacco Control Programme, a government initiative for tobacco control in India.
With experts linking the use of tobacco to health problems, the bill was drafted to check the high consumption of tobacco in India. According to the University of Melbourne, 275 million Indians use tobacco, leading to nearly one million deaths a year.

The bill stipulates strong measures such as plain packaging of cigarettes — without a brand name — as has been done in Australia. A clause in the earlier bill, Cotpa 2003, allows branding or advertisement. “But the proposed bill has done away with the proviso,” the member says.

Plain packaging has led to a fall in smoking in Australia. In 2014, the Australian government-sponsored National Drugs Strategy Household Survey showed that the smoking rate fell by 15 per cent between 2010 and 2013.
The new bill also proposes prohibition of advertisement of tobacco products in films, on the Internet and cell phones. The bill proposes a ban on on-site advertising of tobacco products and shops selling cigarettes and other tobacco products, which often have hoardings of brand names.

There has been pressure on successive Indian governments to bring in stringent law to deter tobacco use and follow the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) of the World Health Organization in compliance with international standards of Tobacco control, which proposed the scrapping of designated smoking areas in hotels, restaurants and airports (barring international airports) to prevent exposure of non-smokers to harmful emissions.

Responding to a global movement against tobacco, the would-be law spells out stringent punishments. “The penalty for smoking in restricted areas has been raised from Rs 200 to Rs 1,000. Anyone found manufacturing tobacco products without the specified warning will be liable for imprisonment for up to two years or fine up to Rs 50,000 or both on their first offence. For the second and subsequent offences, the imprisonment can be up to five years with a fine of up to Rs 1 lakh. This will be a big deterrent,” says advocate Prashant Bhushan, who had argued on behalf of Health for Millions Trust, a Delhi-based non government organisation which advocated the ban on the sale of gutkha and paan masala with tobacco in the Supreme Court in 2013.

The new bill also states that the tobacco products and cigarettes in approved packaging will now be sold only to those above 21 years of age as against 18. An earlier parliamentary standing committee on the Cotpa Bill had observed that if people were kept away from tobacco for the first 20 years of their life, there was high probability that they would always stay tobacco-free.

The new bill also proposes establishing a National Tobacco Control Organisation to implement and monitor the provisions of Cotpa.

But public health experts say that the bill also has certain grey areas which need to be addressed. “For example, the act should specifically mention that cinema halls, stadia, cantonments and shopping malls will be 100 per cent smoke-free. The amendments also do not take into account the growing threat of electronic cigarettes, which are easily available for sale through online portals,” says Monika Arora, associate professor, Public Health Foundation of India, an NGO on public health advocacy.

Activists fear that the bill may be diluted because of pressure from the tobacco industry. One of the controversial measures is the government’s attempt to ban the sale of loose cigarettes and other tobacco products. “Tobacco growers and tobacco product manufacturers have been raising objections to it,” Bhushan says.

The ban, the Federation of Karnataka Virginia Tobacco Growers Association says, will lead to “illegal, non tax-paid cigarettes or other cheaper types of tobacco consumption like bidis”. In a statement, it says: “We demand a more equitable and practical policy regime balancing the public health concerns with impact on livelihood of millions of farmers and workers and policies covering all forms of tobacco consumption without discrimination against cigarettes.”

Some believe the government may be sitting on the bill because of the concerns of tobacco growers, who say that more than 60 per cent of the total crop produce is used for making cigarettes. Such restrictions, they hold, will lead to huge financial losses. The government will also feel the pinch, for it earns around Rs 30,000 crore as excise duty on cigarettes.
Public health experts stress that there will be strong opposition from the tobacco industry because the measures will affect their turnover. “This silence on the part of the ministry clearly shows that even if the bill comes up, it will be diluted,” Bhushan says.

A ministry source says that the bill is being delayed because of the tobacco growers’ concerns. “They have sent us their opinions. We have to consider them before finalising the bill,” the official says. “We cannot rush.”

But others argue about the need to move fast. “The government should understand that they are not building a national highway that they will do it in phases,” says Alok Mukhopadhyay, chairman of the Voluntary Health Association of India. “They have to do it right away because we are losing lives every day.”


‘JNU… can deal with its internal challenges on its own’

The vice-chancellor of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) likes to keep a low profile – and there’s good reason for him to want to do so. Ten days after M. Jagadesh Kumar joined JNU, it erupted in flames. The police entered the campus in South Delhi and arrested students’ union leader Kanhaiya Kumar – and there was mayhem.
For Kumar, 55, who was a professor of electrical engineering in IIT Delhi before he moved to JNU, this was a new world. Kumar’s father – from Mamidala village in the Nalgonda district of Telangana – was a teacher. Having come from a financially weaker section of society, Kumar says that he can easily empathise with students who belong to deprived sections. He recalls that he walked five kilometres to his college in Hyderabad because he could not afford the bus fare.
A karate expert, Kumar’s initial days in JNU have been ominous. But he tells Sonia Sarkar – in his first interview to the media – that if he could go back, he would still take the path that he followed. “Whether it was yesterday or today, I would have taken the same decision,” he says. Excerpts from the email interview:

TRIAL BY FIRE: M. Jagadesh Kumar, vice-chancellor of JNU

Q: How do you react to the developments that have rocked JNU?
A: I am a team player and I want ideas to start from the bottom of the pyramid and propagate upwards. I was overwhelmed by the way the students, staff and faculty accepted me in JNU. It is this moral support that makes me take my decisions in a cool and calm manner. Even for problems which appear to be insurmountable, my experience tells me that we can always begin with an approximate solution and fine-tune it.
JNU has strong foundations in terms of free speech, debate and discussion on topics that affect our society. Students will have their opinion and observations on what is happening around them. As a scientist and a teacher, I always encourage my students to think out of the box.
Q: You have dealt with students for many decades. What kind of a strategy do you need to follow in JNU?
A: I treat them as equals. I have confidence in them that they can think objectively and progressively. [I will] Provide an environment where they can express their opinions without any fear.
Q: There is belief that efforts are on to stifle the liberal voice of JNU. What do you have to say?
A: JNU has a strong tradition of being open-minded in its approach to analysing societal challenges. We will continue to do so. However, it needs to be underlined that like any other Indian, every JNUite believes in our Constitution. We will never encourage any activity which is unconstitutional and unlawful.
Q: A BJP MP has said that JNU should be shut down and there should be a complete revamp of the institute. Do you agree?
A: We have always maintained that JNU, like any other central university, is an autonomous body. It can deal with its internal challenges on its own.
Q: Looking back, do you think you would have handled the crisis in JNU differently?
A: There is a saying that if you tell the truth, you do not have to remember anything. I always take my decisions in a fair and transparent manner through consultations with my colleagues. Therefore, whether it was yesterday or today, I would have taken the same decision. However, I would like to point out that I will continue to learn through my experiences and improve my world view.
Q: Students everywhere are known to be anti-establishment. Where do you draw the line between what’s anti-establishment and anti-national?
A: For me, our Indian Constitution is the guiding principle. Our Constitution provides the right to freedom of expression, debate and discussion. Whatever we do should be within the boundaries of what the Constitution tells us.
Q: Senior lawyers such as Shanti Bhushan and Soli Sorabjee have said that questioning the government about Afzal Guru’s execution is not seditious. Don’t you think students should have the liberty to ask questions?
A: All of us have a right to question the government and its policies. That is how we provide feedback to the government so that correctional measures can be taken. However, I again underline that whatever we do should be within the boundaries of what the Constitution tells us.
Q: Is there pressure from the government?
A: [There is] Absolutely no pressure from anyone. JNU is autonomous and we handle our internal matters ourselves.
Q: Is there a lesson that you have learnt from these developments as an academic and as an administrator?
A: The guideline I follow is not to panic when a crisis springs up uninformed. Do not lose your smile even in the most stressful conditions and keep communicating with stakeholders. Be objective and never be judgmental. Be a good listener and be approachable.