Archive for May 2016

Karan Singh is out with a novel — a new version of an old work. But writing is just one of his passions. He tells Sonia Sarkar that he was Shakespeare’s Olivia in a school play, loves the Dire Straits and sings Dogri songs

Karan Singh sits ramrod straight on a sofa. His black labrador, Kaalu, walks up to the senior Congressman, breathing heavily into a plate that holds two cocktail samosas.

The former minister and governor picks one up and delicately bites into it. “I eat light,” he says.

But eating light is just one of the reasons why the octogenarian is so fit. “For two hours every morning I worship all the gods – Surya, Shiva and Ganesha. I also do rajyoga, the breathing exercise. This gives me energy and positivity,” he says, fiddling with a copper bracelet that has the words “Om Namah Shivaya” inscribed on it.

Singh is a Shiva devotee. His novel, Mountain of Shiva, an updated version of a previous work, has just been brought out by a new publishing house, Palimpsest. Ashok, the protagonist, follows a guru to Shiva’s abode in the Himalayas to fulfil his spiritual quest.

“In the previous edition, the quest was unfulfilled. But then I thought I must write what happened thereafter,” he explains.

The need to write the novel (his only novel so far), which he first penned 30 years ago, came from his own search for spiritual understanding. “If I were not born a yuvraj (prince), maybe I would have been Ashok,” says the son of the last ruler of the former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir, Hari Singh.

A conversation with Singh is incomplete without talk of troubled Kashmir. Singh tries to stay away from the subject, ducking questions with his stock reply – “I was mostly abroad when the conflict erupted”. You can, however, take a man out of Kashmir, but not Kashmir out of the man. When he opens up, there is no stopping him.

The recent controversy when Kashmiri and non-Kashmiri students clashed at the National Institute of Technology (NIT) in Srinagar troubles him. The clash – allegedly sparked by some anti-India slogans shouted by a section of students after India lost a cricket match in the World T20 series – led to some non-Kashmiri students leaving the campus.

“If non-Kashmiri students start leaving the campus, Kashmiri students might be targeted in other parts of the country. Kashmiri and non-Kashmiri students mean Muslim and non-Muslim students,” he says. “We must not allow a repeat of the post-Kokrajhar riots,” he says – referring to the exodus of Northeasterners from Bangalore after Bodo-Muslim riots in Assam’s Kokrajhar in 2012.

Singh blames the People’s Democratic Party (PDP)-Bharatiya Janata Party state government and chief minister Mehbooba Mufti for the crisis in NIT. “It’s the responsibility of the state government to give students adequate security. This issue blew up after she took over, which is not a good sign.”

Singh, clearly, doesn’t think very highly of Mehbooba, though he respected her father, the former chief minister of the state, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed. “Mufti Saab was a senior man. He had his own stature. Mehbooba was to Mufti Saab what Amit Shah is to (Narendra) Modi. She used to organise the cadre and meetings. Now tell me, what is Amit Shah without Modi,” he asks.

Does his criticism of the PDP go down well in the family? His son, Vikramaditya, after all is in the PDP.

“No, there is no jhagra over political differences,” he replies.

In fact, there is celebration in the family. Vikramaditya’s daughter, Mriganka, is going to be married to the grandson of former Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh. The engagement has just taken place.

Singh fishes out a glossy magazine which featured his grandchildren, Mriganka and Martand, on its cover. “She looks exactly like my wife,” he says.

Singh was 19 – and the regent in Jammu and Kashmir – when he was married to Yasho Rajya Lakshmi, the granddaughter of the last Rana Prime Minister of Nepal, Mohan Shamsher Jang Bahadur Rana. Marriages in the family have mostly taken place with erstwhile royals. Vikramaditya is married to Chitrangada Raje Scindia, daughter of Madhavrao Scindia, who was the titular Maharaja of Gwalior. Amarinder Singh is the head of the erstwhile royal family of Patiala.

Why do the former rajahs continue to use their title, long after the abolition of princely states, I ask. “I have renounced my title. After my father died, I announced that I would never use the title of Maharaja,” he says.

I point out that when I had called his office for an appointment, a staffer had instructed me to address him as His Highness in my email. (I didn’t.)

Singh looks embarrassed. “Oh, I am going to blast these guys,” he says.The former minister is 85, but his use of words – along with his carriage and looks – makes him appear decades younger. Singh, in his trademark dark grey suit and Nehru cap, puts his palms on his face like a beauty queen just awarded the crown in a pageant. “Can you imagine I turned 85 in March,” he exclaims.

We are sitting in his office in his central Delhi residence. The books lined up in the shelves include a collection of Tagore, some classical poetry and Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay’sKrishna Charitra. These days, he adds, he is reading U.R. Ananthamurthy’s Hindutva or Hind Swaraj.

So I ask him about the debate on Hinduism and nationalism. “The biggest problem is that there aren’t any Hindu intellectuals. The Right wingers say that Left intellectuals have dominated so far, now it’s their turn. But the Right wingers don’t have anyone of the stature of Left scholars such as Romila Thapar or the late Bipan Chandra. The Right wing suffers from an intellectual void,” he says.

Singh’s association with the Congress goes back to the Sixties. He was close to former Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi. He was the health minister when Gandhi imposed Emergency in 1975 and Sanjay Gandhi started his nasbandicampaign, forcibly sterilising people.

“We had our own targets for nasbandi, which we would have achieved in normal circumstances. But Sanjay Gandhi came in and forced it upon the people. I kept writing to the chief ministers of various states, saying that I was getting reports of coercion, please look into it,” he recalls. “But yes,” he admits, “I never objected to what he was doing.”

Singh, however, adds that he once wrote to Indira Gandhi, urging her to resign. “We never thought that the Emergency would go this way,” he rues.

The former governor of Jammu and Kashmir also feels that successive governments have failed Kashmir. “There is always a trust deficit among Kashmiris. I would say that whoever has come to power in Delhi has failed the Kashmiris. To put it mildly, the issue has to be handled with great courage and statesmanship.”

He believes that Prime Minister Narendra Modi – whom he calls Narendra bhai – has done “some healing” with Pakistan by inviting Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to his oath-taking ceremony, visiting Sharif in Lahore and also allowing the Pakistani investigating team to Pathankot to look into the terror attack there. “But he has not done any healing with the Kashmiris,” he says.

While we are on Kashmir, I ask him a question that is often posed by the people of the Valley. Why did Hari Singh sign the instrument of accession of Jammu and Kashmir to India? Generations of Kashmiris have held this act as the cause of the conflict in the region.

For the first time, I see a furrow on Singh’s forehead. The smile, too, has gone.

“My father signed it to save Kashmir. If he had not agreed to it, then Kashmiris would have all been killed by the invaders,” he replies.

Singh has seen the changing face of Kashmir – and of Indian politics. He talks about the increasing role of muscle and money power in today’s politics. “There is a change in the texture of politics,” he holds.

Politics, the Rajya Sabha member adds, is also more broad-based today. “Earlier, it was more about bhadraloks. Now…,” he says, his voice petering off. “I don’t want to put any label to it.”

Singh, who once chaired the ethics committee of the Rajya Sabha, sees more disruptions in Parliament than before. “These weaken the structure of democracy because the idea of Parliament is to debate. Previously, we had such amazing parliamentarians as A.K. Gopalan and Somnath Chatterjee, who used to haul the government over the coals through debates. But what people do now – such as disrupting proceedings and going to the well of the House – is a negation of democracy.”

But his own party members have been stalling Parliament repeatedly, I point out. Doesn’t he tell them to mend their ways? “I,” he asks incredulously, and laughs. Clearly, there is nothing much that he can say any more to party members.

Instead, he would rather focus his energies on music. Singh – who studied in Doon School and earned his doctorate in political science from Delhi University – is a great fan of the band, Dire Straits. And he loves to sing Dogri songs. He has even brought out an album of songs in Dogri, the language of the people of Jammu. Every Friday evening, he does riyaaz – practise music.

He loves the stage, too. “You will be amazed to know that my debut performance was when I played Olivia in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night in school,” he laughs.

On Monday, he was back on the dais, but this time for the launch of a book on Indira Gandhi. And, as always, he sat straight. Clearly, 85 is just a number.

(The story was originally published in on May 29, 2016)

The gay community in Bangladesh is in despair. Brutal attacks on the editor of Bangladesh’s sole gay magazine and an activist have prompted gay people to go into hiding or leave the country, finds Sonia Sarkar
True colourS: A rainbow rally in Bangladesh; Pic:Roopbaan; (below) Dhee, the nation’s first gay comic strip character

Dhee, the curly-haired small-town girl, is in love – with a girl in her class. As she grows older, her parents urge her to marry a suitable boy. She doesn’t know what to do – should she get married to a man or take her life? Should she leave her country or stay back to speak for gay rights?

Dhee is the protagonist of Bangladesh’s eponymous first gay comic strip.

Like her, the 24-year-old gay activist Sharif Hasan Bappy of Sylhet, some 240km from Dhaka, is unsure about his future. Islamist radicals have threatened to kill him for his sexual orientation.

“The caller asked me to have my last meal and say my last prayers because they would kill me soon,” Bappy says. “If I have to be safe, I have to leave Bangladesh.”

The threat is real, as most gay people in Bangladesh know. Last month, 35-year-old Xulhaz Mannan, who edited Bangladesh’s only lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) magazine, Roopbaan, and fellow activist Mahbub Tonoy, 25, were killed in Dhaka. A member of the banned Islamist group, Ansarullah Bangla Team, was arrested for the murders.

Homosexuality is a crime in Bangladesh, as it is in India. But what worries the community is the attack by radicals, who see homosexuality as un-Islamic. After Mannan’s death, most gay rights activists have gone into hiding. Some have left Bangladesh or are preparing to leave.

International human rights groups say they have been getting requests from activists in Bangladesh seeking help to flee the country. “Over the past year, we have been helping a range of activists in Bangladesh, including from the LGBT community, who are in need of protection – some of them have been forced to flee the country. It is a sad indication of how dire the situation is that these requests for help are becoming more frequent,” says Amnesty International’s South Asia director, Champa Patel.

Help has been sought from gay rights activists in India, too. “Gay people from Bangladesh have been contacting me to understand if India can be a safe haven for them,” says Harish Iyer, equal rights activist and advisor for the think tank, Mission for Indian Gay & Lesbian Empowerment. “I have been telling them that if people are unsafe in a small town in India, they can go and live in any big city. Nobody is running after gays with a machete in their hand,” he adds.

But threats to life stalk members of groups such as Roopbaan, Bandhu and Boys of Bangladesh. The warnings, they say, come from Jamaat-e-Islami, Bangladesh Islami Chhatrashibir, Bangladesh Awami Olama League, Ansarullah Bangla Team and Hefajote Islam. Most threats are on the phone or conveyed through anonymous letters or the social media.

After Roopbaan came out with its first edition in 2014, Mannan received a death threat. The printer of the magazine was also warned.

A close watch is being kept on the work of academics dealing with gender rights, too. Sources in Dhaka University and Rangpur’s Begum Rokeya University say students affiliated with radical organisations record lectures on gender rights in classrooms and threaten their teachers later if they feel that the lessons are “un-Islamic”.

The situation has worsened with the killing of atheist bloggers, teachers and Sufi leaders in the last one year. “A fear psychosis has been created to ensure nobody dares to think out of the box,” says Saikh Imtiaz, chair, department of women and gender studies, Dhaka University.

It is this climate of fear that prompted Riamoni Chisty, 22, to move to Munster in Germany in January. He claims that he received threats from various Islamic groups for working for gay rights in Comilla. He says that he was sexually assaulted by a group of radicals in 2010. In 2012, the youth wing of a fundamental group said he would be paraded naked if he continued with his activism.

“Either you choose to leave the country or you remain confined to your house,” Chisty says.

Visual artist Xecon Uddin, 29, moved to Paris five years ago. Uddin’s paintings depicting male nudity angered the fundamentalists, he says. “Bangladesh is a country for those who remain silent about sexuality; not for those who choose to talk about it,” he says.

But Islamist organisations stress that they will continue to oppose anything un-Islamic. “In a Muslim-majority country like ours, how can we allow a handful of homosexuals to damage our culture and society,” asks Hefajote Islam secretary-general Junaid Babu Nogori.

Police, however, say gay rights activists have nothing to worry. “We are prepared to give full security to anybody from that community,” assures Muhammad Abdul Batin, joint commissioner (detective branch), Dhaka Metropolitan Police.

Gay rights groups have been active in Bangladesh for the past 17 years. In 1999, a Bangladeshi known just as Rengyu started an e-group called GayBangladesh. Later, other closed online groups – Teen_Gay_Bangladesh and Boys of Bangladesh – came up.

In 2012, a film on homosexuality in Bangladesh, titled Amra Ki Etoi Bhinno (Are we so different?), received the award for best documentary film in the Mumbai International Queer festival. The same year, Boys of Bangladesh participated in an LGBT festival organised by the Goethe-Institut in Dhaka.

There is encouragement coming from within Bangladesh, too. When transgenders were officially recognised as the third gender in Bangladesh in 2013, gay rights activists gathered strength. In 2014, the first gay parade was organised. “The parade was the first sign of defiance and also a public appeal to decriminalise gay sex,” a gay rights activist says.

Online dating sites such as and somoprem and blogs on gay relationships such as and have become popular, too. Light humour on gay relationships is a hit on social media. A video by a Dhaka-based comedy collective ShowoffsDhk, titled “If Gay marriage is legalised in Bangladesh”, went viral on YouTube last year.

Some gay rights groups have been discussing issues at meetings, or bringing them up through poetry, storytelling, photography and paintings. In 2014, Roopbaan was launched and in the same year, Bangladeshi photographer Gazi Nafis Ahmed held a photo exhibition “Inner Face” on gay relationships. A year later, Dhee came out as a comic strip, circulated among gay groups.

” Dhee gave voice to many lesbians in Bangladesh, who were under-represented,” says Rizwana Rahman (name changed), who was part of the team that conceptualised the character.

Dhee’s fate remains undecided – just like that of thousands of homosexual people in Bangladesh. “The first part of the comic ends with Dhee’s dilemma. In the second part, we will sketch out her journey but that will be decided by the people of the community through workshops. Workshops are now stalled because of these threats,” Rahman says.

For many activists, the future lies in continuing the battle at home. “Once you leave the country, you close all doors of return,” Chisty says.

(This story was originally published in The Telegraph on May 29,2016.Link:

Shivaji makes way for Sankardev. There is no talk of banning beef. Instead, there is re-telling of regional history and embracing local icons. A new idiom for a new land – that is the BJP-RSS strategy to gain a foothold in the Northeast, report V. Kumara Swamy, Sonia Sarkar and Prasun Chaudhuri

The saffron flag is out – and there is cause for celebration. Seventy years after a seed was planted in Guwahati by a young pracharak (preacher), the tree has borne fruit. Not surprisingly, the mood in the 830-odd Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) shakhas in Assam is euphoric.

And Assam, where the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will for the first time form a government, is just the beginning, RSS activists believe.

The door to the Northeast has opened up.

“Finally a patriotic party is now ruling the biggest state in the Northeast. I hope other states in the region will follow,” says Sankar Das Kalita, prant prachar pramukh, North Assam. He adds that around 60 per cent of the BJP winners in the state have strong links with the RSS.
Sankardev, a socio-religious reformer, after whom the RSS named its first school in Assam
There are many reasons for the BJP’s success in Assam – its tie-up with a regional party, going with a candidate as chief minister, polarisation of votes on communal lines, anti-incumbency sentiments and so on. But RSS pracharaks point out that they have been building up a slow campaign over the years, highlighting local icons in a bid to win over people. The campaigns linking Hindu mythology with the region, re-telling of local history and shaping historical characters have been carried out through RSS shakhas, schools, ashrams and social activities.

“The RSS realised that although the Northeast is a melting pot of several ethnic groups, every group is independent-minded and proud of its own culture and identity,” says an Assamese author and activist who does not want to be identified.

That the icons revered in many parts of the country wouldn’t work in the Northeast became apparent to Dadarao Parmarth, an RSS pracharak from Nagpur, when he was sent to work in Assam in 1946.

Parmarth found that Chhatrapati Shivaji, for instance, did not ring a bell in Assam. Later, RSS pracharaks found that many of the issues that worked as electoral planks elsewhere – such as building a Ram temple in Ayodhya – had little effect in the Northeast. And, certainly, campaigns against cow slaughter among beef-eating communities were bound to fail.

So in Assam, the pracharaks focused on local icons such as the 16th century scholar and socio-religious reformer Sankardev to spread “religious nationalism”. Pragjyotisha and Kamarupa – as the region was known in epics – were invoked. In Arunachal Pradesh, RSS meetings would stress that Rukmini, the wife of Lord Krishna, was a tribal princess from the region.
Rani Gaidinliu, a Naga reformist who fought the British, is projected as an icon in Manipur
“The RSS chose to name its first school in Assam Sankardev Shishu Kunja way back in 1979,” points out Malini Bhattacharjee, political scientist, Azim Premji University, Bangalore, who has worked on the influence of Hindutva in the Northeast. Sankardev’s portraits in several schools in Assam are next to those of RSS leaders K.B. Hedgewar and M.S. Golwalkar.

Sankardev, human rights activist and journalist Ajit Kumar Bhuyan stresses, was made an electoral issue by the BJP when it launched a campaign against the alleged occupation of satras or monasteries of Sankardev by “illegal immigrants” during the polls.

“It is an issue that matters to most Assamese Hindus because almost every family is affiliated to one or the other of the satras spread across the state,” Bhuyan says.

The BJP also made an icon out of freedom fighter Gopinath Bordoloi, presenting him as a “Hindutva” hero because he had resisted Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s move to take Assam into East Pakistan.

“We told the people of Assam that when a son of this soil (Bordoloi) did not let Assam go into East Pakistan, how could they allow ‘foreigners’ from Bangladesh to come and settle in Assam,” says Ramesh Sheladar, former general secretary of the BJP in Assam and former RSS pracharak.

In Manipur, the RSS and the BJP have been holding up images of Rani Gaidinliu, a Naga reformist who fought the British and Christian missionaries. The Centre, according to reports, has been planning to include freedom fighters from the Northeast in NCERT textbooks.

“The RSS is also promoting Tikendrajit Singh (prince of Manipur who fought against the British in 1889) and other princes who were exiled to the Andaman jail,” says Naorem Mohen Singh, a Manipuri filmmaker who runs a social media campaign to popularise Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the Northeast.

In Meghalaya, U. Tirot Singh, a Khasi chief who fought the British in the 18th century, is the Hindutva hero. Another icon is the patriotic U. Kiang Nangbah, who was hanged by the British in 1862. The RSS, local activists say, has been working closely with the rooster-worshipping Seng Khasi tribe (of the Khasi hills) that hasn’t converted to Christianity and the Niam Tre, a socio-cultural and religious organisation from the Jaintia Hills.

“We talk about these heroes to instill a sense of pride in the locals and invoke a sense of nationalism. We urge them not to change their tradition and religion,” a former RSS pracharak from Meghalaya says.

But trying to “Hinduise” local heroes doesn’t always work. The RSS’s attempts to build a campaign around Lachit Barphukan – commander of the Ahom kingdom who led the 1671 Battle of Saraighat against the Mughals – failed.

“They tried to make it a Hindu vs Muslim issue. But Barphukan’s immediate lieutenant was a Muslim and the Mughal forces were led by a Hindu,” says Chandan Kumar Sharma, a sociologist at Tezpur University.

In Nagaland, rediscovering Rani Gaidinliu did not yield much result either. The Centre had decided to construct a memorial in Kohima for her, but dropped the idea after protests from several civil society organisations.
Rukmini, the RSS stresses, was a tribal princess from Arunachal Pradesh
Naga activist Zhatsu Angami says, “Their attempt to project Rani Gaidinliu as a Naga icon has fallen flat on its face. In Christian-dominated Nagaland, it is only the Heraka faith followers who look up to her. The rest consider her anti-Naga.”

Imolemba Jamir, president, Ao Senden, an apex tribal body of the Ao Naga, one of the three largest tribal organisations, says that the Sangh hasn’t been successful in its attempts in Nagaland. “They have, however, been running several schools,” he says.

But RSS watchers point out that in their bid to make inroads into the Northeast, the RSS and the BJP have been staying away from contentious issues.

For instance, on the issue of whether beef eating janajatis should be considered Hindus, the Sangh has taken a nuanced position, says Bhattacharjee. “They have said that it is not such a big problem as it is out of sheer economic necessity that they have been eating beef,” she elaborates.

In Arunachal Pradesh, the RSS has embraced several animist tribes, and drawn them into the larger Hindutva fold. For instance, the Tangsa tribe, whose supreme spirit, the Rangfraa, was never bound by any symbol, has now taken the shape of the Hindu god Shiva.

But Sangh activists insist that they are being recognised in the region also because of their work. “We have around 3,500 homeopathy doctors in Assam and another 500 in rest of the region. They work tirelessly for the health of the tribal people. We run hundreds of schools where thousands of children study. You cannot box us into one corner. We are for the uplift of every segment of society in the region,” says Bharat Kumar, the Guwahati-based head of Sahakar Bharti, a Sangh-linked co-operative organisation.

The Vanavasi Kalyan Ashram has been active in the Northeast since the late Seventies and has established medical dispensaries in tribal districts besides sanskar kendras (cultural centres), schools and balwadis (pre-schools).

The most visible representation of RSS, of course, is the shakha. The camps are spread all over the Northeast and have been growing in recent years. In Assam, the number has grown from 400 five years ago to 830 today. In Manipur there are around 150 shakhas, in Arunachal 50, and four in Nagaland. There are some 250 shakhas of the Rashtriya Sevika Samiti, the women’s wing of the RSS, in the Northeast.

According to Bhattacharjee, some of the other RSS-affiliated organisations working in the Northeast are Sanskar Bharati (for disseminating Hindu culture), Shikshan Mandal (focused on development of a “Hindu curriculum”), Bharatiya Sahitya Parishad (a literary society), Itihas Sankalan Samiti (for history) and Sahkar Bharati (a co-operative society).

“One has to agree that they have been working tirelessly in the field like missionaries used to. They are there in tribal areas. They come to the rescue during natural disasters and have also taken sides in tribal conflicts. This way they have been successful in building a huge network,” Sharma of Tezpur University says.

And it seems that, after all these years, the fruits of labour are ready to be plucked. In Manipur, the BJP has already made a dent, winning two Assembly seats in a bypoll in November 2015. The elected members were former Trinamul Congress leaders.

An Imphal-based priest, who runs a Catholic medical centre, says there is a two-pronged strategy at work in the Northeast. While the RSS has been working quietly at the grassroots levels, particularly among tribal communities, the BJP’s strategy seems to be “buying” political leaders from other parties.

The formula seems to be working. “Assam ho gaya, Arunachal ki baari hai” (Assam is done, now it’s the turn of Arunachal Pradesh),” says Tai Tagak, former president of the Arunachal Pradesh BJP. And before that, of course, there’s Manipur. The buzz in the state is that elections, slated for next year, may well be advanced. The iron, as the saying goes, is hot.

With additional reporting by Smitha Verma in New Delhi and Sharmistha Ghosal in Calcutta

– A new report on prisoners sentenced to death in India finds that many convicts did not get a fair trial. Sonia Sarkar zeroes in on five ways the law was violated

While the debate on the death penalty continues, the spotlight is now on the kind of trial a prisoner on death row often undergoes. The Death Penalty India Report, compiled by the Delhi-based National Law University (NLU), points out that many among those sentenced to death were denied even their basic legal rights. That explains, perhaps, why only 4.9 per cent death sentences have been upheld by appellate courts in the past 15 years.

Some of the basic violations, as listed by the report, released recently, are:


The law states that prisoners should not be handcuffed in court but the Death Penalty India Report states that prisoners on death row are routinely handcuffed when they appear for their trials.
“There were instances recorded of prisoners who were kept handcuffed even in the courtroom while proceedings were taking place,” the report states.

This is in violation of Section 49 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) which disallows handcuffing unless it is feared the prisoner will escape or there can be harm.

Former Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer in Prem Shankar Shukla vs Delhi Administration (1980) described handcuffing as “inhuman, cruel and unreasonable”. Prisoners should be handcuffed only if the State has no other way of ensuring   the prisoner doesn’t escape, or if the prisoner is deemed dangerous.

But this is a routine violation, points out Mumbai-based lawyer Farhana Shah. “The common argument used by the police is there is apprehension that the person, if not handcuffed, will abscond. But nobody cares that the law is being violated,” says Shah, who represented Ajmal Kasab, executed for the 2008 attacks in Mumbai.


The NLU team asked 189 prisoners who were on death row if they were represented when they were first produced before the magistrate. But 89.4 per cent said they did not have a lawyer.

Article 21 of the Constitution casts the obligation on the State to preserve life. In M.H. Hoskot vs State of Maharashtra (1978), the Supreme Court said the right to free legal aid was the duty of the government and an implicit aspect of Article 21 in ensuring fairness. Section 304 of the CrPC states that if the accused is not represented by a lawyer, or cannot engage one, the court shall assign a pleader for his or her defence at the expense of the State.

Legal educator N.R. Madhava Menon says that no criminal trial can happen without a defence lawyer and the lawyer should be assigned before the trial starts. “It is the responsibility of the court (precisely the judge) that the accused gets a lawyer and understands the implications of the charges made against him or her. Also, the accused should be told that he or she is entitled to plead not guilty if he or she is innocent,” the founder vice-chancellor of the West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences states.

But legal observers hold that lawyers provided by the government seldom take an interest in a case. “There are instances when lawyers from state legal services authority do not meet the accused in jail. In such instances, the accused doesn’t get a fair representation in the court,” Shah says. This is especially true in terror cases, legal experts point out.


Section 207 of the CrPC states that the magistrate has to furnish the accused with a copy of the chargesheet, along with other relevant documents — such as the first information report, statements made by persons whom the police may seek to examine as witnesses and judicial confessions before the magistrate.

But the report states that 60 out of the 255 prisoners on death row, when asked if they had received a chargesheet, replied that they had not. The 195 prisoners who did receive a copy of the chargesheet said they were given this after the trial began, or even after the pronouncement of the trial court judgment.

Worse, even after the chargesheet was provided to them, few understood the language. “Understanding the convoluted language of the chargesheet is mostly impossible for prisoners,” lawyer Shah states.


The law provides for direct interaction between the judge and the accused (without any role of the lawyers) and this is seen as an integral element of a fair trial. It is an obligation upon the judge under Section 313 of the CrPC to explain simply and clearly each of the incriminating circumstances presented by the prosecution to the accused.

This, however, is denied to prisoners sentenced to death, the report states. “Often, prisoners complain that they don’t get an opportunity to explain their version as the questions are in a ‘Yes or No’ format,” Shreya Rastogi, co-author of the report, says.

Legal experts say that questions should be asked in such a way that there is no room for confusion. This is when the court will be in a position to know all the circumstances which have been brought in evidence against the accused, and the questions put by it can cover this entire gamut.

“Section 313 of the CrPC allows the judge to have a conversation with the accused,” Supreme Court advocate K.T.S. Tulsi says. “But it is done in a mechanical manner and is dictated by the prosecutor. The accused is made to sit on the floor. He or she doesn’t have the guts to get up and tell his or her story.”


Under the law, when an accused is sentenced to imprisonment, a copy of the judgment should be provided to him or her immediately after the pronouncement of the sentence, free of cost. Section 363 of the CrPC also allows the accused to apply for a translated copy of the judgment in a language that the accused understands.

But in most cases, death row convicts were not given a copy of the judgment, the report finds. Prisoners also did not get a translated copy of the judgment, originally written in English, when they asked for it. However, in the M.H. Hoskot case, the Supreme Court had observed that being given a copy of judgment to the accused was a part of the right to appeal.
“These violations clearly show how just the criminal justice system is,” says former VC Menon.

IMG_1269IMG_1277Kashmir’s young are no longer just shouting slogans on the streets. Their smartphones are their new battlefield – as well as their ammunition, finds Sonia Sarkar

Like millions of other young teens, Usman Hussain spends considerable time on Facebook and YouTube. But the 13-year-old student of a Srinagar public school surfs for information that is not likely to interest his peers elsewhere in the country. He spends almost seven hours a day on the activities of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and related issues.”I want to know what the world has to say on conflict and Islam. It helps me to understand my identity and role as a Muslim,” Hussain says.Nazir Masood, 22, is glued to the social media, too. But the student of Srinagar’s National Institute of Technology (NIT) doesn’t waste time poking friends or sharing the latest musical hits. He uses the platform to voice his protest against government moves and policies.”This is our platform for resistance. We resist, so we exist. Otherwise nobody would bother to listen to us,” he says.In Srinagar, the stage for resistance has moved from the streets to the Internet. The youth, the police say, is being “radicalised” by the Internet, and expressing their views on sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

Masood’s Facebook page, for instance, is flooded with photographs, videos and articles against the deployment of security forces on the NIT campus after two groups of students – Kashmiris and those from outside Kashmir – got into a fight over a recent cricket match where India was defeated.

“ISIS is the most searched word on the Internet in Kashmir,” a senior police officer says. “The radicalisation of the youth on the social media is a cause for concern in Kashmir,” adds another senior police official. An eight-member cyber team was set up by the police last year to keep a close check on the social media. So far, the team has only been monitoring the sites.

According to a 2015 report of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, over 35 lakh people in Jammu and Kashmir use the Net, and the state has 97 lakh mobile phones. An internal survey by the ruling Jammu and Kashmir Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) reveals that even in villages in Pulwama, Shopian and Anantnag, where electricity is available for only two hours a day on an average, a large number of people own smartphones with 2G connections.

Indeed, almost every young Kashmiri has a smartphone in hand. The phones – once used by the youth to assure their parents that they were safe – help them gather and share information, and voice dissent.

“Our children have been caged for years in Kashmir. Social media sites give them the wings to reach out to the outside world,” says Masood’s father, a Srinagar businessman. “But they shouldn’t do anything that would create trouble for them and us.”

But the police have been sniffing trouble – though they seek to stress that there is little danger of Kashmiri youth moving to outfits such as the ISIS. Some of the popular Facebook pages in Kashmir are Pulwama Live, Islamic Jamiat Talba and Tral – the Land of Martyrs, and Burhan the Fighter. Burhan is a reference to Burhan Muzaffar Wani, the 21-year-old commander of the militant group, Hizb-ul-Mujahideen.

The pages have 3,500 to 12,000 followers, and carry photographs and videos of militants posing with Kalashnikovs, funerals of militants and videos of militants calling for violence.

Among the popular hashtags on Twitter, frequently retweeted by Kashmiris, are GoIndiaGoBack, Indianoppressedkashmir, Kashmirbleeds, IamBurhan and FreeKashmir.

The Kashmir police have blocked 186 pages which portrayed militants as heroes and propagated anti-India sentiments in the last one year. Among them were FB pages such as India ki Mout, Rahii Mir, Mujahideen-e-Islam and Tral Tigers Tigers.

Social scientists fear that young Kashmiris, who have always been on the forefront of the movement for secession, are now looking at Islamic movements across the globe and showing a readiness to embrace radical forms of Islam.

“Kashmir’s youth are looking for a global Islamic identity,” stresses sociologist Farah Qayoom of Kashmir University. “More and more young men and women are turning towards [the ultra conservative] Salafism. And they are using the social media for a selective interpretation of Islam.”

What attracts the young to the social media are parallels that they see across the world – of struggles for nationhood, police and army action against the youth and uprisings. “Social networking for Kashmiris is all about telling their story of alienation in India and also connecting to those who have similar stories to tell,” points out Srinagar-based psychiatrist Mushtaq Margoub.

Indeed, when a 12-year-old Palestinian girl who had been jailed by Israel was released recently, the news was widely shared by Kashmiri youngsters on Facebook. “We relate to it because children have been picked up by the police and kept in custody for months in Kashmir,” Kashmir University student Nadeem Muhammad says.

There are several other reasons why social media sites are becoming more and more popular in Kashmir. For one, Kashmiris tend not to trust mainstream media, especially television, and look at Internet as a source for news.

There was a time when Kashmiris had few channels for expressing their anger. Those days, people would write their grievances in sealed envelopes and leave them at the UN observers’ office in Srinagar, recalls artist Masood Hussain. “While dropping the envelopes, people used to chant, ‘azaadi‘.” The situation changed with the advent of the world press corps. The Kashmiri’s angry voice was carried abroad by representatives of international news groups who reported extensively from Kashmir.

Now social media sites have replaced the world press. “The mainstream media censor our grievances, so we share our stories on social media with the world,” says Zaraq Jahan, an undergraduate student at Kashmir University. “My mother often says, I’ve heard such-and-such thing has happened. Just check it out on the Internet,” adds another student.

Continuing police and army action against Kashmiris has fanned the simmering anger among the young, politicians stress. Waheed Rehman Parra, the youth wing president of the PDP, believes that the killing of children by security forces in 2010, the hanging of Afzal Guru (convicted for the 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament) in 2013 and other such incidents have “exacerbated the simmering anger and hatred” against the Centre. “What we see on social media is the manifestation of this anger and hatred,” he says.

Qayoom adds, “This generation of Kashmiris has grown up witnessing frisking, crackdowns, disappearances, summons to police stations and killings. So resistance on social media seems an obvious way for them to express their anger.”

Attacks on Muslims in other parts of the country, such as the lynching of a Muslim man in Dadri, have also added to the Kashmiri’s sense of alienation, a police officer admits. Kashmiri students have been attacked, too – in Rajasthan, Meerut, Mohali and Greater Noida in recent times.

“Even after witnessing such incidents against Kashmiris, if we don’t become radical now, then when,” asks Mushin Khan, a student of Kashmir University.

It’s not just angry posts that flood the sites. Black humour also crops up often. Mir Suhail, a 26-year-old cartoonist, has been taking potshots at Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In one cartoon, he shows the PM standing behind his wax statue, recently unveiled by Madame Tussauds, watching a man hanging from a tree. “This man represents anyone who is oppressed in India – cattle traders, Dalits or farmers,” Suhail says.

One of Suhail’s cartoons, criticising the hanging of Guru, was pulled down by Facebook in February this year.

The government, too, has on occasion banned Internet in the Valley. When the news of a Handwara girl who had allegedly been molested by security forces spread last month, Internet was disconnected for three days. Last year, too, Internet lines were severed for three days when the Vishwa Hindu Parishad threatened to impose an economic blockade on Kashmir if cows were slaughtered for Eid.

There is concern in political quarters about the trend. “The Kashmir conflict was always political. But now many young Kashmiris are trying to give it a religious colour after being influenced by the conflict in West Asia,” says Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, chairman, Awami Action Committee. “It has influenced them so much that they don’t listen to us when we try to dissuade them from moving towards this ideology.”

The police say they are now planning to use the social media to foil the radicals. “But we have just taken baby steps,” a senior police officer admits. “And whatever we do, the youth will be much ahead of us when it comes to using social media sites.”

The use of the social media has so far hampered the administration only in one way. Word spreads fast about police raids or search operations, and the youth reach the spot almost at once. “Sometimes we’ve had to abandon our operations because of the crowds,” the police official says.

There have been sporadic incidents of masked men waving ISIS flags in the Valley in recent times. A 23-year-old man from Ganderbal in Kashmir, who was in Dubai, was arrested in January this year by the National Investigation Agency for alleged links with the ISIS. But the police stress that they are not worried about radicalism leading to a rise in militancy in Kashmir.

“Not all those who have been radicalised on social media are joining militancy,” says the inspector-general of police, Syed Javaid Mujtaba Gillani. “It is easier to be a Facebook jihadi than to fight on the ground.”

But for young Kashmiris, the arena for the battle is indeed shifting. And people like Suhail are not going to give up their campaign on the social media. The cartoonist says his friends often warn him that the security forces may target him for his “radical” art.

“But the security forces don’t understand that what is radical for them is the reality for us,” he says.

Facebook pages blocked by police

186 pages blocked since 2015. Some of them are:

  • India ki Mout
  • Qaidai Azamm
  • Tral The Land of Martyrs
  • AK Burhan
  • Malik malik [burhan bhai]
  • Mujahideen-e-islam
  • Tral Tigers Tigers
  • Tral The Beauty Land

Popular hashtags on Twitter

#GoIndiaGoBack, #Indianoppressedkashmir,  #Kashmirbleeds,  #IamBurhan, #IamKashmir,  #RagdaRagda,  #AndOccupation,  #FreeKashmir,  #BlackDay  #Illegaloccupation

( Some names have been changed to protect identities)

A longer version of the story is published in The Telegraph on May 8, 2015