Archive for July 2016

It has survived calls for abrogation by some of the nation’s foremost political and civil society voices. It has survived an epic protest: last week Manipur’s Irom Sharmila decided to end her 16-year hunger strike to have it scrapped. What’s the reason that the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act — or the debate over it — refuses to die? Sonia Sarkar reports Earlier this week, 16 years after she went on a hunger strike, Irom Sharmila announced that she’d had enough. She was going to call off the fast. Back in November 2000, Sharmila, then 28, had vowed she would not eat until the government repealed the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA), a law that has been defended and decried alike since it was invoked in 1958. As year piled upon year and Irom held out with her protest, chained to a tube that force-fed her, charged with attempting to commit suicide, she began to symbolise a fight to the finish. Iron Lady, her many admirers began to call her, a woman of rare nerve and resolve who would eventually see AFSPA cast in the bin. But in the end, it is Irom who has had to bow out on her vow; AFSPA survives, its notorious lease on Kashmir and parts of the Northeast untouched.

Have Irom’s 16 years without a morsel been all in vain then?

“Exactly,” agrees Kiren Rijiju, the junior Union minister for home affairs, matter-of-factly. “The situation has not improved to the extent in Manipur that AFSPA can be lifted.”

Nothing, it seems, can dent this Act – not outrage or opposition from the country’s most influential corners, not even a marathon one-woman vigil that made Irom a global human rights cause celebre.

Clearly, the Indian state – and successive governments of varying hues and ideologies – will not give up on AFSPA because it is seen as a national bulwark of sorts, critical to safeguarding security interests and stamping out anything that would threaten them. It is probably worth noting that AFSPA reigns on India’s fragile territorial fringes – in Kashmir and across major parts of the Northeast. TADA and POTA can fall to public outcry and pressure; not AFSPA.

The provisions of AFSPA allow soldiers of the army and battalions of the Border Security Force (BSF) operationally placed under the army in counter-insurgency campaigns to arrest anyone without a warrant and carry out searches without consent. It also offers them, controversially, blanket immunities from persecution in cases of excesses committed.

“The big question is, why do we require an Act under which military forces are allowed to fight their own people,” asks social activist Gautam Navlakha. “That’s what Sharmila has been asking, too.”

Those who have been lobbying for the repeal of AFSPA believe that abuse of military powers is built into the Act; its provisions are a lure to human rights violations such as fake encounters, murders and rapes. There have been numerous cases where AFSPA is alleged to have been misused by security forces. Irom’s fast was triggered by one such – the killing by soldiers of 10 civilians waiting at a bus-stand outside the Manipur capital, Imphal.

It’s not just activists who want the removal of the Act. Supreme Court (SC) appointed committees, too, have described it over the years as “a symbol of oppression”, “an object of hate” and “instruments of discrimination and high handedness”.

Earlier this month, the SC ordered a probe into 1,528 cases of alleged fake encounters in Manipur that took place over the last 20 years. It also said that indefinite deployment of armed forces in the name of restoring normalcy under AFSPA “would mock at our democratic process”. The court observed that “ordinarily our armed forces should not be used against our countrymen and women”.

On the other hand, though, the army stresses it has a tough job fighting internal insurgencies – often arguing that it is not its mandate in any case, and defending AFSPA as an essential requirement. “If the army is deployed in a state to fight an internal situation, there has to be AFSPA, too,” asserts retired Lieutenant-General H.S. Panag, a counter-insurgency expert. “How do you expect the army to operate under civil magistrates?”

Security experts also believe that in strife-torn regions, the army should have the liberty to take on-the-spot decisions. “It’s not a football match but a struggle between life and death in a counter-insurgency situation,” says Delhi-based strategic affairs analyst Ajai Sahni.

Some retired army officers, however, admit in private that there are occasions when young officers get “carried away”. Often, says a retired senior officer, it is “patriotic zeal” that fuels them. “But there are also chances of getting awards if they kill more terrorists. So it becomes an obsession to kill and that leads to rogue operations.”

What troubles activists is that the law gives protection to such officers. A case against a soldier is registered under AFSPA and he cannot be tried in the civil court without the permission of the Centre. Rarely does the Centre give consent. In most cases, there is no trial, and when there is one, it happens in an army court. Only in a few cases have soldiers been court martialed.

There have been many such cases in Kashmir, too. In 1991, dozens of women in Kunan Poshpora, 120km from Srinagar, were allegedly raped by army men. Fifteen years later, the police is yet to close the investigations.

“When a case goes to the army court, very often there is a cover-up by the seniors,” says former BSF chief E.N. Rammohan, who has served in both Kashmir and the Northeast.

AFSPA is such a hot potato that even political parties try not to touch it. The Kashmir government, however, has lately been making noises against it. Last week, chief minister Mehbooba Mufti asked for the withdrawal of AFSPA on an “experimental” basis. In her earlier avatar as Opposition leader, Mehbooba led dozens of protest marches demanding the repeal of AFSPA.

What happened with her predecessor and National Conference leader, Omar Abdullah, is more interesting and symptomatic of the obdurate entity AFSPA is. During UPA II, when Abdullah was chief minister, he held detailed discussions with the then home minister P. Chidambaram, on repealing AFSPA, at least from some central districts of the Kashmir Valley. The two agreed – much later, Chidambaram was to write in his widely-read newspaper column that AFSPA “has no place in democratic society” – and were close to announcing a repeal when the security forces got into the act. They made a presentation to the two leaders, bluntly conveying that the army could not operate without AFSPA and would take its hands off counter-insurgency, the choice was theirs. The repeal never happened.

Civil rights activists in Kashmir believe, though, that political protestations are a sham. “Politicians are trying to tell the people that they have bargained well with the Centre. But the people of Kashmir don’t just want the Act to go; they want the army to go,” says Khurram Parvez, a Srinagar-based civil society activist.

To top it, the activists – and even some defence experts – believe that some state governments do not actually mind the presence of the army. “It is easier for a government to shoot a gun from the army’s shoulder. It is easier for governments to call an area disturbed and send for the army,” says retired Lieutenant-General J.B.S. Yadava, who’d also served in Kashmir.

Political ambivalence on AFSPA continues; some defend it strongly as an essential instrument of state, others flay it, especially when they are not in office. Former Union home minister Shivraj Patil admits that the law gives the army the “licence” to kill. But having said that he rushes to its defence: “The harshness can change but the law must stay,” he says. Lawyer and activist Nandita Haksar pooh-poohs the suggestion that AFSPA can be made more humane. “It’s not about making the Act nicer. It must go,” she says.

But for it to go, the state has to move. Minister Rijiju points out that a state imposes AFSPA, and it is up to the state to revoke it. Then, he at once goes out, as a central minister, to emphasise its necessity. So long as there is insurgence, AFSPA won’t go, he says. “As far as the Northeast is concerned, AFSPA will remain implemented.”

For all its infamy, and for all the names it has been called, AFSPA isn’t going anywhere for the moment. Its most prominent opponent, Irom Sharmila, will be gone from her long and hungry vigil against it later this week. When she leaves Room A-4 of the Imphal Hospital and steps out, she will still roam an AFSPA regime and come upon, all too frequently, the prickly barbed fences that represent it.

IMG_1799 (1).PNGWe We are in another season of tumult in Kashmir. Violence has been spiralling in the Valley ever since the 22-year-old Hizb-ul Mujahideen (HM) commander, Burhan Muzaffar Wani, was killed on July 8. More than 40 people have been killed in sporadic clashes with security forces. Miles away from the scene of action, across a forever tense Line of Control, sits Syed Salahuddin, fount of the HM, Kashmir’s only homegrown militant outfit – for most, a shadowy figure that drifts between Muzaffarabad, Lahore and Islamabad and looms over Kashmir. Some believe that the seed of the turmoil in Kashmir was planted when Salahuddin – then known as Mohammed Yusuf Shah – fought an election in the state as a candidate of the Muslim United Front from Srinagar’s Amirakadal constituency in 1987. His supporters hold that he was winning by a wide margin, but widespread electoral rigging led to his unexpected defeat. The seat was won by Ghulam Mohiuddin Shah of the National Conference. Two years later, he had crossed the border into Pakistan, and launched an armed struggle for the freedom of Kashmir. Salahuddin, who is on the NIA’s ‘most wanted’ list, warns that there’s more trouble on the way, if security forces do not stop killing ‘unarmed’ civilians. And it won’t be restricted to Kashmir alone: ‘We will hit everywhere and anywhere we like.’ Pertinently, at one point the militant also offered himself as a peace mediator between India and Pakistan. Sonia Sarkar spoke to him for an hour over Skype, imo and telephone. Excerpts:
Q. Did you know Burhan Muzaffar Wani?
A. I did not meet him but he was inspired by me. There are thousands of mujahideen in Kashmir whom I have not met, but who follow me and my path.Q. How do you see the recent spurt in violence after the killing of Burhan Wani?

A. Burhan Muzaffar Wani was not just any man killed by security forces. He is the sentiment of the Kashmir Valley. Every person in the Valley – man, woman and child – all of them are attached to this sentiment. There is a Burhan in every corner of the Kashmir Valley. This sentiment will not go away with the killing of Burhan Wani.

Q. Media reports said that the founder of the Lashkar-e-Toiba and the mastermind of the 2008 Mumbai terror attack, Hafiz Saeed, and you organised a prayer meeting for Wani in Muzaffarabad. Also, in Lahore, Saeed said that there would be more trouble for Kashmir. What exactly did he mean?

A. I organised the prayer meeting for Wani. I did not invite Hafiz Saeed to come, but he offered to come on his own.

I agree with Hafiz Saeed. More trouble means that when the security forces of India are killing unarmed Kashmiris, we will intensify and escalate our attacks not just in Kashmir but elsewhere. There is no alternative left for us.

We want to stress that it is for the good of the Indian government to understand that the people of Kashmir are asking for their right to self-determination. If they don’t, we have to start target-oriented attacks.

Q. But the Indian government blames militant leaders like you for encouraging people to come out in protest to the streets, leading to civilian deaths…

A. It is government propaganda that we are pushing the people of Kashmir to come out on streets and protest. Children, doctors, government servants, old men, mothers – they are not coming out on the streets because I asked them to do so. They are committed to their cause.

Q. Aren’t you using the bodybags to fuel your movement? How is the Hurriyat helping you?

A. Hurriyat leaders are with us, shoulder to shoulder in the ongoing freedom struggle. Syed Ali Shah Geelani, Mirwaiz Umer Farooq and Shabir Shah – all of them are with us on the same page. They are in touch with us on a regular basis. But I have been cautious and have not spoken with any top separatist leader in the past one week. They are also supporting it (the protest) because themujahideen and the children, who are getting killed, are their children as well.

Q. Many youngsters are dying in these protests. Don’t you think it’s your responsibility to stop these children from going out on the streets so that this cycle of death comes to an end?

A. What we are seeing on the streets of Kashmir is a spontaneous public reaction to the killing of Wani. Also, there is pent up anger against the security forces because every day, somebody or the other is being targeted. You must understand that the youths of Kashmir, who are protesting on the streets, are a part of the generation which was born during the armed struggle. They have grown up witnessing unrest, killings and crackdowns. You need to understand their desperation to be freed from India on the basis of the fact that they are attacking heavily armed security forces with stones. It means they have no fear for life and they are not ready to compromise their right to self-determination.

Q. What is your plan of action in Kashmir now?

A. Our armed struggle and political struggle will carry on simultaneously. So far, our effort was to limit our activities to Jammu and Kashmir. If the Narendra Modi government continues to oppress the Kashmiris and if the security forces increase their assault on Kashmiris, I promise that we will hit everywhere and anywhere we like. We will go to any extent. You will see it, we will intensify our attacks.

Q. Several of your family members including your four sons are government employees. What’s their part in all this? Did you ever ask your sons to join the militancy movement?

A. I have not asked a single man to join militancy. It is the choice of the person to join it. It could be possible that my sons don’t think I am doing the right thing. You should understand that people joining us feel it strongly from within. They think this is the most befitting reply to oppression.

Q. How are you using the social media to recruit young men into militancy?

A. We don’t recruit people. Young boys are coming to us on their own because they have been facing assault by the Indian government. If we don’t recruit them, then they will pick up stones and protest on the streets. Also, the social media revolution is everywhere in the world. The young and educated Kashmiris do not need to learn from me how to use the social media. They know how to make the best use of it.

Q. Don’t you think, your movement has failed because it’s been 26 years since the struggle began – and there has been no real outcome? Also, according to security agencies, militancy has decreased in the Valley. Have you lost the war?

A. What has India got in these 26 years, tell me? Have they got Kashmiris with them? Let me tell you, in a freedom movement, a struggle of 26 years is nothing. India’s freedom movement went on for 90 years, so how do you even say that 26 years is enough? If there is no militancy and if we have lost the war, where is the need for such heavy deployment of security forces in Kashmir? Let me tell you, everyone in Kashmir is into the freedom movement now.

Q. Why is the Kashmir movement getting Islamised?

A. The Kashmiri movement was Islamised from day one. Why do you think an educated young man, who has a bright future otherwise, is willing to die? Is he mad? Azaadi is not his objective. What will he do with azaadi if he dies during the struggle?

He is into militancy because he knows that if he dies for a noble cause, he would become a martyr, as per Islam. We tell him that he would get into the “real life” after this death and he would get peace. Khuda usse raazi hoga.

Q. Is the ISIS with you?

A. There is no ISIS at all [in Kashmir]. This is fabricated propaganda by the Indian government. There is no support for ISIS, Al Qaeda and Taliban in Kashmir.

Q. Has there been any step by the Indian government to reach out to you? Do you think it would be difficult for you to operate in Kashmir because the BJP government under Narendra Modi has a more hardline approach?

A. [Atal Bihari] Vaj- payee was broad-minded. There is no com- parison of Modi with Vajpayee.

We still believe in peace but subject to one condition – let the Modi government give up dilly-dallying with the Kashmir issue. He should first accept that Kashmir is a disputed territory.

Q. You had earlier accepted that you were fighting Pakistan’s war in Kashmir. This time, how is Pakistan helping you to fuel the tension in Kashmir?

A. Let India agree to come to the table for our right to self-determination – it is my personal obligation [that I will get] Pakistan to the “peace” table.

The story was published in The Telegraph, July 17. Link :

He’s the one parents of young boys in Bangladesh should be wary of. His job is to draw students into the terror fold, and to ensure that an attacker’s background is not very different from that of his targets, finds Sonia Sarkar

  • Thinkstock

He is in a tee and a pair of blue jeans. The goatee is well trimmed. He is a teacher in a private university in Dhaka, and a member of the Hizb ut-Tahrir, a radical organisation in Bangladesh. When he is not teaching young students, he seeks to “radicalise” them. He is a recruiter who identifies youngsters who feel that Islam is under attack, and urges them to do their bit to defend their faith.

“We identify men who are meritorious but could be motivated to work… across the world. We are showing them the right path,” says the professor.

Across Bangladesh, young men from well-to-do families are being drawn into the terror fold, as the July 1 attack on a cafeteria in Dhaka demonstrated. And leading them into the path are men who are not very different – articulate, well dressed and from similar backgrounds.

The old-fashioned image of the fundamentalist recruiter has taken a beating. The new recruiters are tech-savvy men who look for potential recruits on social networking forums, coaching institutes, neighbourhood cafés and private colleges. And they are men who had been similarly recruited.

The idea behind recruiting men from upper middle-class families is to ensure that when an attack is planned, the assailants look no different from their targets, security analysts say.

“Striking at an upmarket café would be far easier for someone who frequents the café or knows the area well. When the attacker is from the same class as the targets, nobody will suspect him,” points out Dhaka-based security and defence analyst Brigadier-General (retd) M. Sakhawat Hussain.

Last week, when a group of terrorists raided Holey Artisan Bakery, a café in Dhaka’s diplomatic enclave, Gulshan, and killed 20 people, mostly foreigners, the police discovered that three of the young terrorists belonged to influential families of Bangladesh. The father of one of the attackers is a leader of the ruling Awami League.

The three gunmen, identified by the police as Nibras Islam, Rohan Imtiaz and Meer Saameh Mubasher, had studied in elite institutes in Dhaka. Islam had also studied in Malaysia.

Preliminary evidence shows that these men belonged to the militant group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The ISIS released photographs of the attackers on their website a few hours after the massacre.

Last week, a video featuring three Bangladeshi boys, again from influential families, who were believed to have gone to Syria, surfaced. They spoke of more attacks.

According to the police, the two terrorist groups active in Bangladesh at present are the Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT) and Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB). Both give arms training to their recruits.

There are also radical groups such as Hizb ut-Tahrir and Hefajote Islam, but their focus is on influencing the youth with radical views. Some of their recruits, however, are sent for training to ABT and JMB. Police officials reveal that the banned ABT and JMB have close links with terrorist groups al Qaida and the ISIS.

There is acute consternation in Bangladesh about young men joining the ranks of terror groups. According to unofficial police estimates, 70 young men have been missing this year – and many of them, are suspected to have join- ed such groups.

Five of the July 1 attackers had been missing from home. Abir Rahman, one of the young men killed by the police at the Sholakia Idgah on Thursday, too, had been missing from home since March.

“We are trying to compile data to know what happened to each of the missing children, especially from these (upmarket) areas,” says Commander Mufti Mahmud Khan, director (media) of the counter-terrorism unit, Rapid Action Battalion.

Of course, recruitment of young men into terrorist organisations is not new. The security officials state that for decades, the students’ outfit, the Bangladesh Islami Chhatrashibir, has been recruiting young impoverished madrasa students for the JMB.

The officials hold that a large number of engineering students were enrolled into the JMB by the Chhatrashibir, which offered them scholarships, free coaching and books when they were in college. But now, simultaneously, recruiters are zeroing in on students of private colleges and reputable schools.

The recruiters are also young men, many in the age group of 18-24 years, like their recruits. “They too belong to the same strata of society,” says Zia Rahman, founding chairman of the department of criminology in Dhaka University.

The modus operandi of recruitment is simple. First, the recruiters identify young men studying in reputed private institutes on Facebook (FB) or other social media sites. Many FB pages such as Ansarullah Bangla Team, Basher Kella and Islami Online Activist are used to connect with possible recruits. Some of these pages have been banned by the government, but new ones crop up from time to time.

One of the common ways of starting a conversation with a potential recruit is by posting “religious” images in open groups where discussion on politics and religion often takes place. Then the recruiter follows every person who hits the “like” button by visiting their individual profiles.

Next, he sends a personal message, with a greeting. If the young man replies, discussions follow, mostly on religion. After some days, the recruiter invites the FB account holder out for a cup of coffee in a café. The conversation usually touches upon a host of subjects.

“If we sense that the person is disappointed with the government, we discuss religion. We talk about the condition of Muslims across the world, the attack on Islam by the West and also about jihad elsewhere in the world,” a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir says.

A few meetings later, videos and literature on jihad are sent to the young man. Some of the literature deals with suicide bombings.

The videos highlight attacks on Muslims. Then there are videos of youngsters in the ISIS being trained in Syria and of armed children dressed in military fatigues marching on the streets of Syria. Pictures of young boys holding assault rifles, with messages such as “What’s your excuse?” or “What’s stopping you?”, have been found in the cell phones of Bangladeshi youth.

“The idea is to keep showing him such videos till he yearns for more,” the Hizb ut-Tahrir member says.

Once he is in the fold, the next step is to train him in the use of arms. The ABT – which was said to have been behind the killing of bloggers and liberal thinkers in Bangladesh in the last two years – tutors potential recruits on the use of machetes through videos sent on WhatsApp, security forces say.

Some of the recruitment is conducted through fellow students in colleges or coaching institutes, or through teachers in private educational institutes. A senior leader of Hefajote Islam says that some 1,000 teachers in various private institutions are affiliated to the group.

Hasnat Karim, one of the suspects held by the police for the July 1 attack, was dismissed from his job as a professor in the North South University in Dhaka in 2012 for his alleged links with the Hizb ut-Tahrir. Two students from the university were sentenced to death for killing blogger Rajib Haider last year. Abir Rahman too was a student of this university.

“These days, parents are not aware of the whereabouts of their children, how do we keep track of all 22,000 students? Also, because many of our teachers are part-timers, it is difficult to know who is affiliated to which organisation. But, of late, we have installed CCTV cameras on campus to keep an eye on the activities of students and teachers,” says Yasmin Kamal, member, board of trustees, North South University.

The government, too, is keeping a close watch on colleges now. “Our detective department is trying to find out why so many boys from these institutes have joined terrorism,” Bangladesh home affairs minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal told The Telegraph .

There are other reasons why students are being drawn into terror activities. For one, students in private universities can easily get influenced by what their teachers have to say in a climate where there are no other outlets – such as students’ unions – for channelling their energies, Rahman of Dhaka University points out.

Another reason, cited by cultural experts, is the fact that students, unlike those in previous generations, have little involvement with cultural and literary activities. Their main preoccupation is the Internet. The number of Internet users in Bangladesh increased from 35 lakh in 2008 to 6.1 crore in March 2016.

“Recruiters have identified the huge cultural void in society today. They are tapping a generation that has little knowledge about the history of Bangladesh. These young men have an identity crisis,” says journalist-filmmaker Shahriar Kabir.

The identity of many youngsters, he rues, is primarily religious. “It is unfortunate that the children of this generation can relate more to 1947, when lines were drawn between India and Pakistan on the basis of religion, and not 1971, when Bangladesh was born of linguistic demands,” Kabir says.

It is this religious identity that the recruiters are zeroing in on. Security experts point out that they look out for overly religious youngsters.

“We also look for introverts, people who are capable of keeping secrets,” the Hizb ut-Tahrir-affiliated teacher says. “Also, we don’t meet them in groups; the meetings have to be one-on-one.”

Rahman believes that what the recruiters seek to hone is the rebellious streak in young men. “They look for people whom they can convince that it is romantic to be a rebel. Also, young college students are full of zeal and vigour, which is tapped by the recruiters.”

In the aftermath of the Gulshan killings, as images of people weeping and paying homage to the dead with tuberoses flood the media, another image is going to stay etched in the memories of the people of Bangladesh – and others. It is that of five smiling boys, holding an assault rifle.


The Congress’s fortunes might have reached a nadir, but senior party leader Kapil Sibal is humming Mast hawa and Tere bina. The busy lawyer-lyricist,
however, finds time for a metaphysical chit-chat with Sonia Sarkar 

It’s not easy being Kapil Sibal. When he speaks on politics, he is trolled. When he is elected to the Rajya Sabha, his opponents do their best to have him defeated. And when he talks of love in a song for a Hindi film, there is an outcry, though the hullabaloo, of course, is more over the film than the song.

Let’s start with his love song. Earlier this week, a Hindi film called Shorgul, based on the riots of Muzaffarnagar, was released in many parts of the country, but was not allowed to be screened in theatre halls in parts of western Uttar Pradesh. Sibal , 67, had written two songs for the film. One was an item number called Mast hawa (crazy current); the other a love song called Tere bina (without you).

“All of us have a romantic streak is us,” the senior Congress leader says modestly. “That’s why we are fallible, aren’t we?” Sibal switches on his iPad and zooms in on his debut Bollywood song Tu jaldi bata de (tell me), which he wrote for a 2013 crime thriller, Bandook.

It’s been a busy week for Sibal. His comments about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s interview to a television channel led to an uproar on social media sites. “Modi ji, have a press conference. Let our journalists ask you questions. This is better than an interview with one person,” Sibal had said after the interview.

The Twitterati, as one would expect, had pounced on him. What exactly did he mean by “our” journalists, they asked. Indeed, just what did he mean by that?

“When I said, ‘our’ journalists, I meant journalists sitting in front of us at press conferences. They (PM Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party) may have journalists in their pocket but we don’t.”

Sibal, who has been fighting the BJP for long years, was a mite shaken during the RS elections from Uttar Pradesh last month. He had been nominated by the Congress, and was expected to sail through, but an independent candidate, backed by the BJP, put a spoke in his wheel. The candidate, Preeti Mahapatra, got 18 first preference votes cutting across party lines. Sibal finally made it through with 25 first preference votes. Six Congress MLAs have been expelled for not supporting him. Three of the six voted in favour of Mahapatra, the others sided with the BSP.

“The BJP had sent her (Mahapatra) to poach votes. It shows the mindset of the party. Cabinet ministers – Rajnath Singh and Arun Jaitley – moved heaven and earth hoping to ensure that I wouldn’t get into the Rajya Sabha. They made it out to be like a Lok Sabha election,” Sibal says.

No, it’s not easy being Kapil Sibal. And it’s certainly not easy to be in a party that is seen losing ground in almost every state. Is that because the party doesn’t have a credible leader any more? Rahul Gandhi – who once evocatively spoke of farm widows in Parliament – is being lampooned as Pappu across the media, social and otherwise.

“If you look at the army of trolls who use that term, you’ll understand that it’s part of a political campaign by the BJP in the social media,” he says. “But personal politics cannot work in a huge country like India. In 2019, we’ll know who the real Pappu is,” he says, referring to the next general election.

Looking at the state of the Congress, few would believe that the party could reclaim power, I point out. “We have to get our act together. We have only 44 seats (in the Lok Sabha). We have a long way to go,” he says.

Congress watchers believe that the party is not trying very hard to get its act together. They refer to the recent appointment of Asha Kumari, convicted in a land grab case, as the Congress in-charge of Punjab, which goes to poll next year.

“BJP president Amit Shah has been charged with murder. Babubhai Bokhiria, involved in illegal mining, continues to be a minister in Gujarat. B.S. Yeddyurappa was involved in illegal land dealings is the president of the Karnataka BJP. Is that all right for the BJP? Why are fingers always being pointed at the Congress?”

Sibal breaks off to take a call, and I look around his office on the second floor of a palatial house that he’s leased in Jor Bagh in central Delhi. The bookshelves behind him are filled with fiction and non-fiction, as well as legal journals and copies of judgments. There is a framed photograph of Tagore by his side, while Shakespeare is framed on the wall. Sibal, as is well known, acted in several Shakespeare plays as a student of St. Stephen’s College, which he joined after schooling in Chandigarh.

Sibal later studied law – completing a master’s degree in maritime law at Harvard when his late wife, Nina, who was an Indian Foreign Service officer, was posted to the United States. One of the most prominent constitutional lawyers of India, Sibal was the additional solicitor-general of India from 1989 to 1990. In 2005, he got married again – his wife, Promila, is a social activist.

With the Congress out of power at the Centre – Sibal was a minister during the United Progressive Alliance’s two terms – the Supreme Court lawyer has the time to practise law. He defended Modi’s opponent, Patidar leader Hardik Patel, in court.

Sibal also represented Trinamul’s Madan Mitra in the Saradha scam – for which he was sharply criticised by his party colleagues in Bengal. Congress leader Adhir Chowdhury wrote to party president Sonia Gandhi in 2015, urging her not to allow Sibal to take part in any party meeting in the state.

“Some Congress leader from West Bengal, charged with murder, came to me for advice. So should I give advice only to Congressmen? I am a lawyer by profession. What’s their problem? I don’t cow down to these things,” he replies.

Sibal also defended Jawaharlal Nehru University students’ union president Kanhaiya Kumar in Delhi in the high court. Kumar’s arrest from the JNU campus had evoked nationwide condemnation.

“Universities are not places where police can come and arrest people. Let the children have a discourse as they want to. They will learn as they move on in life. But to target individuals and institutions is dangerous,” Sibal says.

The former human resource development minister is critical of the way the ministry is now being run. “The harm the ministry is causing to the future generation is unimaginable,” he says.

I mention, in the context of JNU’s Kumar, who has been charged with sedition, that the controversy started over student protests about Afzal Guru who was executed in 2013, when the UPA was in power. It has been often said that Guru was not given a fair trial, and that he was hanged without his family being informed.

As a lawyer who defended the Kashmiri separatist leader and co-founder of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, Maqbool Bhat (who, too, was hanged), does he believe that Guru’s execution was a right move?

Sibal does not give a clear answer. “The judiciary is entitled to finally resolve a dispute. Not every decision is right,” he replies.

The former minister, who won his first Lok Sabha election from Delhi’s Chandni Chowk constituency in 2004 by defeating the current human resource development minister Smriti Irani, has often been criticised for his own tenures as minister.

As minister of communications and IT, he had claimed in 2011 that “zero loss” was caused by distributing 2G licences on a first-come, first-served basis. The Comptroller and Auditor General of India estimated the loss at Rs 1.76 crore. Sibal, however, stands by his comment.

“I meant that it’s not our policy to auction the spectrum. Where is the question of loss? Now that you have auctioned it, it is in loss. We did not auction it. The sum, Rs 1.76 crore, had not been pocketed by us,” he clarifies.

He has been reminded again by his aides of appointments with clients. We have discussed a range of subjects, and it’s time for me to leave.

But before that, he wants me to listen to one of his poems, a particular favourite that has been sung by Adnan Sami. The first line goes like this: Iss jahan mein mera kuchh bhi nahin hai, jo mera hai who bhi mera nahin hai – nothing in this world belongs to me, not even that which is mine.

“That’s the philosophy of my life. Everything I have is meaningless,” explains Sibal, who also released an album, Raunaq, with music director A.R. Rahman two years ago.

His last words ring in my ears as I walk towards the main gate of the house, past his brown Toyota Camry. No, it’s not easy being Kapil Sibal.

(This was published in The Telegraph, July 3,2016.