Archive for September 2016

Sonia Sarkar reports the struggle theatre artistes are having to wage to keep the stage clear of scissor-happy censors

If you love your theatre, this may come as a surprise to you. Theatre goers, says the censor board of Maharashtra, only want to see “good things” being staged.

“We are not going to issue certificates to plays which show problems faced by the people,” says Arun Nalawade, chairman of the Maharashtra Rangbhoomi Parinirikshan Mandal. “People want to watch only good things. Playwrights must understand that,” adds the head of the board that is currently vetting a dozen scripts on the recent incidents of assaults on Dalits by cow vigilantes.

Not surprisingly, cinema and theatre veteran Amol Palekar has moved court. Earlier this week, Palekar filed a petition in the Bombay High Court challenging the pre-censorship of scripts, calling it a violation of the right to freedom of speech and expression.

Playwright Premanand Gajvee knows that well. Earlier this year, the board refused to pass his play Chhavani, calling it “unconstitutional”. The play questioned social inequality in the country against the backdrop of the Naxalite movement.

“They sat on my script for a year-and-a-half but never explained to me what was so ‘unconstitutional’ in the script,” says Gajvee, who finally got permission this month to stage the play.

There are examples galore in Maharashtra. The censor board demanded 10 cuts in Janardhan Jadhav’s Marathi play Jai Bhim, Jai Bharat, which depicted an imagined conversation among B.R. Ambedkar, M.K. Gandhi and a Dalit activist. Playwrights complain that the board asks for arbitrary cuts, sometimes issues an “A” certificate for plays with no adult content or just junks a script without citing reasons.

“We think a hundred times before writing a script because we know we will be harassed by the censor board if we don’t listen to their dos and don’ts. If we continue to do this for long, our artistic genius will die. It’s about time we fight for our rights legally,” says Gajvee. Palekar, he adds, had consulted him before moving court.

But theatre censorship is not restricted to Maharashtra. Gujarat, like Maharashtra, has a censor board for plays. Soon after the post-Godhra riots of 2002, theatre man Roysten Abel sought to stage The Spirit of Anne Frank, a story set in a train carrying passengers to Baroda. But the board asked for 90 cuts before it could be staged in Ahmedabad. The director defied the order and staged the play without the cuts.

Similar complaints are voiced by playwrights and directors in other states. In places such as Delhi, scripts are vetted by the police – and this system poses its own problems. “In 2005, when we were doing a play called Mr Jinnah (on Muhammad Ali Jinnah), breaking the myths about him, we were told by the police that we could not stage it because it glorified Jinnah,” director Arvind Gaur of Asmita Theatre says.

Directors hold that the censors get worried if a play goes against what is largely seen as a social norm. If in the 70s, Vijay Tendulkar’s Sakharam Binder was banned because it revolved around a man who brought home castaway wives of other men, in 2016, Marathi playwright and director Bindumadhav Khire ran into trouble because his plays Fredy and Purushottam dealt with gender issues.

“The board objected to three lines and two cuss words which I used in Purushottam, about a same-sex couple. For Fredy, a black comedy about masculinity in Bollywood, the board suggested 14 cuts,” Khire points out.

Dancer-director Mallika Sarabhai believes that often there is no logic to the censors’ demands. She was asked to delete the word “shit” in a play on manual scavengers, titled Unsuni.

“How can you tell the story of a manual scavenger without using this word,” Sarabhai asks.

Of course, censorship is not new to theatre. Way back in 1876, Dinabandhu Mitra’s play Neel Darpan, about the revolt of indigo farmers in Bengal, was described by the British as “scurrilous”, leading to the enactment of a law.

The conflict between administrations and dramatists carried on over the years. Theatre icon Utpal Dutt was arrested by the Congress government in Bengal because it feared that his 1965 play Kallol – on the 1946 naval uprising – would spark anti-Congress protests. Dutt “cleverly used the historical context to mask his political intent,” writes Arnab Banerji of the University of Georgia in a paper titled Rehearsals for a revolution: The Political Theater of Utpal Dutt.

Bengal’s theatre also witnessed censorship during the Left Front regime. Hooligans backed by the ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist) often disrupted shows of plays that took on the government. Liberal voices have been gagged in the Trinamul Congress’s Bengal, too.

“The Trinamul went a step ahead and created its own theatre group, Natya Sajan (now disbanded), which controlled the theatre scene. No invitations were sent to theatre artistes who didn’t subscribe to the party’s ideology to perform in festivals. These artistes would also never get an auditorium for their plays,” theatre group Swapnasandhani’s director Koushik Sen says.

Political plays have often borne the brunt of an administration’s ire. Vijay Tendulkar’s Ghasiram Kotwal was banned in 1972 because the play looked at the rise of the Shiv Sena. In 2009, when Gajvee produced Gandhi-Ambedkar, where he sought to present the differences between the two leaders on caste, the censor board suggested 60 cuts.
Artistes often have to deal with religious and cultural groups, too. In 2003, some Hindutva groups objected to Habib Tanvir’s Jamadarin urf Ponga Pandit which dealt with issues such as the caste system and superstition.


But, clearly, what makes theatre relevant is that directors and writers refuse to buckle under pressure. “I will soon present a play called Gandhi @ The saffron brigade will create problems but nothing can stop me,” says Gaur.
The show, as they say, must go on.

Link of the story published in The Telegraph, September 25, 2016 (

Returning to Bangladesh is like going away to find myself home


DHAKA IS a bit like Calcutta – noisy, chaotic. I connect the Bangladesh capital with traffic jams and those cage-like green auto-rickshaws that give new meaning to claustrophobia. But this time, as I leave the Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport behind, on my way to Banani in the north of Dhaka, I cut through an eerie silence.

The city is a ghost town. The autos are missing, and there are no crippling gridlocks. A festival is around the corner, but there is little sign of the joyousness that comes with Eid.

Dhaka is observing a two-day national mourning to pay homage to those killed in a terror attack in an upmarket cafeteria. I land there three days after the attack that killed 20 people, most of them foreigners, in Dhaka’s diplomatic zone, Gulshan.

Chaos on the roads is a sign of normal life in Dhaka; calm indicates that not all is well. When I visited Dhaka for the first time in 2011, all was well: the city was loud and messy. I was on my way there from Jessore – and was surprised to see towering buildings, flyovers and glitzy malls in the capital. Jessore, on the other hand, was the archetypal sleepy town.

Jessore is an hour’s drive from Benapole, the Bangladesh border town which is commonly used as a crossover between Dhaka and Calcutta. I was there to chase a story on child carriers who illegally ferried sugar, urea, bicycles, cough syrups and even country-made pistols to Bangladesh from India.

Unlike Dhaka, there was no “rush hour” in Jessore. There were no newly-paved footpaths or highrises either. There was a time when Jessore had the biggest cinema hall of Bangladesh. But Monihar had been overtaken by multiplexes elsewhere. Jessore, however, now boasts of a technology park, multi-cuisine restaurants and malls.

It is also a treasure trove of heritage. The Jessore Institute Public Library, established in 1851, is Bangladesh’s oldest and largest library, with a huge collection of books, manuscripts, journals and newspapers. And you can’t go to Jessore and not see the massive sculpture called Bijoy, at the Michael Madhusudan Memorial College campus, dedicated to the martyrs of the Bangladesh War of Liberation of 1971.

Going to Jessore was like going home – albeit a home I had never visited. Jessore is the place my ancestors came from. For years, I held up the flag of “Opaar Bangla” and participated in various Bangal vs Ghoti debates, where I left no stone unturned to make the former look superior in every respect (knowledge, food, hospitality and much more) to the latter. So when I reached Jessore, it was like a dream come true – I was in the place that I belonged to. Like a true Bangal, I told myself, ” Aah, amago dash.”

My paternal grandfather, Adhir Kumar Sarkar, a timber merchant, lived in a sprawling two-storey house with long white columns, overlooking a thakur dalan (where the deity was kept for daily worship), in the erstwhile Khashial village in Jessore. Several acres of rice fields surrounded the house, we were told. Middle-aged Nakuruddin Mia used to look after the fields when grandfather shifted his base partially to Calcutta in the late 30s. Even though he visited Khashial at regular intervals, the visits during the Durga Puja were special for the family: gatherings, lunch, new clothes, entertainment, celebrations.

My efforts to locate Khashial were in vain. The village doesn’t exist anymore, I was told. But I traced my roots partially to the ancestral house of the Bengali poet and father of the Bengali sonnet, Michael Madhusudan Dutt. At his house-turned-museum in Sagordari, I came across a signboard of the Jessore and Khulna Co-operative Bank, which had an office in the complex. My grandfather was a member of the board. I felt like an achiever to have partially traced the past.

The spiral staircases of the house took me to the room on the first floor, whose walls were plastered with photographs of Dutt, his poems and even some of his answer scripts. At the entrance of his house was his epitaph, a verse of his own. A few days before his death on June 29, 1873, Dutt gave the verse to Debaki, who, some historians say, was romantically interested in him. It read:

“…On the bosom of the earth,

Enjoys the sweet eternal sleep

Poet Madhusudan of the Duttas.”

These words rang in my ears for days.

As I touch the soil of Bangladesh once again this June, I wonder how life would have been if my grandfather had chosen to stay back, like many other Bengali Hindu families. But the thought doesn’t stay with me for long as I quickly recall the words of a Hindu friend from Dhaka: ” Din kaal bhalo na, bujhla. Amra khub bhoye thaktesi” – these are not good times, we live in fear.

Indeed, attacks on Hindus – bloggers, priests and activists – by Islamic radicals are rampant in Bangladesh these days. The social fabric of Bangladesh is changing. Young men from elite families are joining terror outfits. The other sign of radicalisation is the use of veils by women. Hijab or burqa is not mandatory in Bangladesh, yet more and more women are wearing one these days. An old timer of Dhaka tells me, “Even some years ago, if a woman from the relatively conservative part of old Dhaka stepped out of her house in a burqa, the local urchins would tease her with the words ‘Burqe wali bua, tere burqe mein chuha’ (There is a mouse in your burqa, aunt).”

But I decide that for my grandfather’s sake, I will always celebrate Bangladesh. I leave for India after a special Eid meal at my friend’s place. The taste of the shorshe ilish – mustard hilsa – and maachch chorchori – a mix of various kinds of fish – stays with me long after I return home.

The man who brought the ISIS footprint to Dhaka remains at large and could still be in Bangladesh. Sonia Sarkar has exclusive details from an ongoing probe

He is 30, has an egg-shaped face and a neat French beard. In a photograph that the Bangladesh police have circulated, he is seen wearing retro, rectangular glasses. But he could well be the unkempt rickshaw-puller you see, or perhaps the daily-wager waiting for a job. Tamim Ahmed Chowdhury – who is believed to have masterminded the terror assault in a Dhaka café last month – could well be moving around in disguise.

This Tuesday, the Bangladesh police said they had arrested four women and identified seven others connected with the July 1 attack on the Holey Artisan Bakery in Dhaka, in which 20 people were killed. But the one who still evades arrest is Chowdhury, a Canadian-citizen of Bangladeshi origin, with a US$ 25,000 (over Rs 16 lakh) bounty on his head.

“We are trying but we have not been able to arrest him yet,” says Mufti Mahmud Khan, director (media) of the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), Bangladesh’s anti-terrorism unit.

Researchers studying Chowdhury’s movements believe that he may be hiding in a densely populated city such as Dhaka. “It is easier to hide in a busy suburb, where you can move freely without people getting suspicious of you,” says Amarnath Amarasingam, a Canadian scholar currently a fellow in the extremism programme at the George Washington University in the US capital.

As Chowdhury’s story is pieced together by researchers and security experts, little-known facts are being unearthed about the man who is on Bangladesh’s most wanted list. His grandfather, Abdul Majid, belonged to Sadimapur in Sylhet and was a member of the infamous East Pakistan Central Peace Committee, formed by the Pakistan Army to crush rebels of the Liberation War of Bangladesh in 1971.

But Chowdhury’s life unfolded thousands of miles from Sylhet. He grew up in Canada, where his father, Shafiq Ahmed, who worked for a shipping company, had migrated in the early Seventies. Young Tamim is remembered as a shy and skinny boy when he was studying at the J.L. Forster Secondary School in Ontario.

He was seemingly fond of track and field activities – but always lagged behind other participants. He represented his school in an inter-school meet in 2004. He was last among 45 entrants in the 100 metre dash, last of 30 in javelin throw, and last among 28 in shot put throw, says Devin Gray, communications co-ordinator, Ontario Federation of School Athletic Associations.

After finishing school, Chowdhury joined the University of Windsor to major in chemistry. University authorities refused to speak about their ex- student, but his acquaintances told Amarasingam that he was a “regular guy” in college.

That he had changed became apparent after 2011, when he finished college. That was when he moved to Calgary, the ski resort town in Canada’s Alberta Province, where, local newspaper reports say, there has been a rise in the number of Islamic groups in recent times.

Chowdhury is believed to have joined a small prayer group in Calgary and come in contact with two locals – a white Canadian called Damian Clairmont who converted to Islam and a Pakistani-Canadian called Salman Ashrafi. Clairmont joined the al-Qaida-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra and was killed by the Free Syrian Army in 2014; Ashrafi joined the ISIS and was killed in a suicide bombing in Iraq in 2013.

People around him started noticing the changes in the boy from Ontario. Amarasingam was told that he had become “domineering” and “arrogant”. Some who met him in 2012 said he was “full of himself” and “unbearable” because of his extreme views.

“This is part and parcel of the radicalisation process. He believed that he had discovered the truth whereas everyone else was living a falsehood,” says Amarasingam, who also co-directs a study of western foreign fighters at the University of Waterloo in Ontario.

Initial investigations by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police reveal that Chowdhury believed in the teachings of Anwar al-Awlaki, a pro-al-Qaida propagandist killed in 2011. He followed his online speeches and videos, which urged Muslims in the West to either go abroad or conduct terrorist attacks at home. Investigators say Chowdhury had started uploading posts as Abu Dujana al-Muhajir in a blog called Beneath which Rivers Flow. The blog had been started by a man called Ahmad Waseem, who is believed to have joined the ISIS and was killed by Kurdish forces in 2015.

In his blog posts, he wrote that he and others had taken up arms against a “global system of oppression” in which “innocent men, women and children are pleading for our help”. He described the Canadian government as “evil” and “despotic”. Jihad, he wrote, was going to be as Canadian as maple syrup.

Chowdhury’s radicalisation worried the community. In 2013, religious leaders in Windsor urged him not to talk to local Muslim youths. “There was a sense that he was radicalising fellow youth and goading them into something,” Amarasingam says. A year later, in his blog posts, he denounced the local imams as “deviant” and said they had been outnumbered by militants.

Details about his life in Canada are still sketchy. It is believed that he is married and has three children. What is not clear is when he left Canada. Some believe it was when the police started questioning him after Waseem joined the ISIS in 2013. But some reports state that he may have gone to Syria in 2012.

“People I interviewed had told me that he had almost certainly gone to Syria, either directly from Calgary or from Windsor, probably in late 2012. But another source claims he saw him hanging around the University of Calgary in 2013,” Amarasingam says.

There are conflicting reports about when Chowdhury entered Bangladesh but as per immigration records, he landed in Dhaka in October 2013.After arriving, he worked in populated areas such as Mirpur, Gazipur and Savar, police officials believe. They also claim that he started recruiting members to the Bangladesh Islami Chhatrashibir, the students’ outfit of the Bangladesh radical group, Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh.

Chowdhury, Amarasingam says, worked as a “project manager”, drawing young men into the ISIS fold, organising attacks and establishing links with the central leadership of the ISIS. “If you have the stamp of having visited Syria, then you can have many followers,” he adds.

According to intelligence officials in India, who have also been following the Dhaka attack, Chowdhury stayed in touch with the ISIS leadership regarding the café attack. They also claim that the ISIS in Syria established initial links with five attackers – all in the age group of 18-24 years – through fake Facebook accounts. Once they came into the ISIS fold, the interactions took place through encrypted messaging applications such as Pidgin and Threema.

Chowdhury was kept in the loop but he did not meet the boys to begin with, the officials add. Some of his team members in Bangladesh established links with them to see how committed they were to their cause. It is likely that a meeting with Chowdhury took place in one of his Dhaka hideouts after the boys had left home.

Intelligence officials in Dhaka have revealed that on the day of the attack, Chowdhury, along with the five assailants, came out of an apartment in the Bashundhara residential area. They were spotted near the café at around 8.45pm. Later, the five men stormed in with their weapons, but Chowdhury was not with them. They also believe that nine militants, who were killed by the Dhaka police three weeks ago, had had a meeting with Chowdhury earlier.

In some circles, Chowdhury is also known as Shaykh Abu Ibrahim al-Hanif, the “amir (chief) of the Khilafah’s (ISIS) soldiers in Bengal”, the Bangladesh intelligence officials claim. In an eight-page interview to the ISIS mouthpieceDabiq in April this year, Chowdhury, alias al-Hanif, warned Bangladesh of terror attacks.

“Soldiers are presently sharpening their knives to slaughter the atheists, the mockers of the prophet and every other apostate in the region,” he was quoted as saying. In the interview, he also vowed to “slaughter” non-believers throughout Bangladesh. Police officials claim that Chowdhury’s team killed a Hindu priest in June this year.

In the same interview, he said a group based in Bangladesh would facilitate “guerilla” attacks in India.

On Tuesday, the police said that Chowdhury had been tracked down in Dhaka. Unconfirmed reports earlier said he might have crossed over to Meghalaya in India while running for cover.

The man is still running; and for once, he has taken the lead in a race.

Tracking Terror Next Door

• Bangladesh government denies the presence of the ISIS in the country. But investigations have revealed that Tamim Ahmed Chowdhury, also known as Shaykh Abu Ibrahim al-Hanif, is the so-called ‘amir (chief) of
the Khilafah’s (ISIS) soldiers in Bengal’.

• A video clip was released in July by the ISIS which featured three Bangla-speaking youths. They were believed to be Bangladeshi ISIS fighters in Raqqah, Syria. They said there would be more attacks in Bangladesh.

• Over 261 men, mostly in the age group of 18-24 years, have gone missing in Bangladesh this year. Dhaka police officials believe that some of them have joined terrorist organisations.

• Besides Tamim, Dhaka Metropolitan Police is looking for Nurul Hasan Marzan, who too is believed to have been involved in recent terror attacks.

• The terrorist group, Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh, is believed to be affiliated with the ISIS.

• Other terrorist organisations active in Bangladesh are the al-Qaida in the Indian Sub-continent (AQIS) and Ansarulla Bangla Team

It is a tough time to be a Dalit voice in the BJP. Sonia Sarkar meets Udit Raj, the party’s Lok Sabha MP from North West Delhi, to measure the depths of his discomfort

  • Illustration Suman Choudhury

Udit Raj looks angry. He frowns as an aide tells him that there’s a call from a former Prime Minister’s nephew. “Arrey, chhoro yaar,” he shouts at him – just forget it. He looks more and more irritated as people flood the room. And his eyebrows merge into one harsh slash.

There is good reason for the Dalit member of Parliament (MP) to be incensed. There has been a spate of attacks on Dalits across the country – by members of militant Hindu groups affiliated to Udit Raj’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). In Una in Gujarat, four Dalit men were lashed by a mob of cow protectors, led by a Shiv Sena leader. Three members of a Dalit family in Karnataka’s Chikmagalur district were attacked by the Bajrang Dal for alleged cattle theft and slaughter. Earlier this week, two Dalit men in Lucknow were thrashed by a group of so-called cow vigilantes for allegedly skinning a dead cow.

“I am ashamed of these cow vigilantes,” Udit Raj, Lok Sabha member from North West Delhi says. “I am ashamed to see Dalits being treated worse than animals by people who belong to their own religion.”

He is angry, no doubt, but circumspect, too. For, while the BJP leadership has been accused of looking the other way as its supporters run amok, Udit Raj – who joined the party just before the general elections two years ago – cannot speak up. In fact, in a newspaper article this week, he tried to give the BJP an exit route, by underlining that it wasn’t just his party that was at fault. “Violence and atrocities against Dalits cannot be linked to any party or government,” he wrote.

But clearly, Udit Raj is in a bind. Dalits are upset with the former bureaucrat they once thought would usher in change. At his residence in Lutyens’s Delhi, scores of Dalit men, from Maharashtra, Gujarat and Bihar, have gathered to voice their worries. They want him to tell the top BJP leadership – including Prime Minister Narendra Modi – that these attacks have to stop.

Udit Raj, 55, has not been able to do that. He has not met Modi or BJP president Amit Shah. Behind closed doors, he has been telling his aides that there is little he can do. ” Kya karein, koi sunne ke liye raazi hi nahin hai – what can I do, nobody is ready to listen to me.”

He has been waiting for an appointment with Modi and Shah for over a week now. “They decide according to their priority, I think,” he says.

Neither Udit Raj, nor the issue of Dalits, are apparently priorities for the BJP at the moment. It is, at best, two-faced on the issue. Modi often invokes the name and thoughts of Dalit icon B.R. Ambedkar in his speeches. He inaugurated an Ambedkar memorial in London and launched commemorative coins on him. But he did not condemn the recent attacks on Dalits or pull up the then BJP vice-president in Uttar Pradesh, Dayashankar Singh, for his sexist denigration of Bahujan Samaj Party leader Mayawati. And though Singh was later expelled from the party, there was no reaction from Modi when Raja Singh, a BJP MLA from Hyderabad, described the Una beating of Dalits as a “good thing” in a video uploaded on his Facebook page.

“But why do you want the Prime Minister to speak on this issue? The Union home minister (Rajnath Singh), has ensured the arrest of the culprits of the Una attack,” Udit Raj counters defensively, “And I, myself, have asked for Raja Singh’s expulsion.”

But it is evident his voice doesn’t go too far in the party. Raja Singh is still an MLA, and very much in the BJP. Not surprisingly, many of Udit Raj’s supporters have been asking him what he’s still doing in the BJP.

Why did he join the BJP, a party that has for long been dominated by upper castes, widely perceived as “Manuvadi”? He waves a hand in the air, indicating that he doesn’t want to talk about it. He finally replies, choosing his words with care. “I joined the party because I thought I would bring a change in the condition of Dalits,” he says. “I thought the party was ready to give space to Dalits.”

Udit Raj admits that “caste does play a role” in the upper caste-dominated party. “It has always been so. Dalit leader (and former party president) Bangaru Laxman was thrown out of the party for being caught on camera while accepting a bribe in a fake defence deal expose by Tehelka because he was a Dalit. But the other accused in the case, George Fernandes, was re-inducted as the defence minister in the National Democratic Alliance government even before the inquiry was over. Justice was not done to Laxman by the party because he was a Dalit,” he says.

Yet, he joined the party, after his own outfit, the Indian Justice Party, which he floated in 2003, failed to make a mark. He stresses that he is not an “ace” politician – he is certainly not in the league of former Uttar Pradesh chief minister Mayawati, who has emerged as the undisputed political face of Dalits. But Udit Raj and Mayawati cannot be on the same platform – the grapevine has it that he was keen to strike an alliance with her; she wasn’t. Though Udit Raj criticises Dayashankar Singh’s derogatory remarks on Mayawati, he also believes that her supporters were wrong to hurl abuse at Singh’s daughter. “That’s not right at all,” he maintains.

He doesn’t want to talk about Mayawati’s chances in the Uttar Pradesh elections – though there is speculation that she may gain, electorally, from the BJP parivar‘s attacks on Dalits. But he does believe that the BJP, which got 24 per cent of the national Dalit vote share in 2014, will suffer in UP because of the attacks on Dalits. He merely stops with saying: “These incidents will have some bearing on the elections.”

He should know – for Udit Raj understands the Dalit mind in Uttar Pradesh. This was where he grew up – in Sirsa village in Allahabad. And this was where he started to raise his voice against oppression – in fact, at home itself. He was in his teens when he stood up against his father for physically abusing his mother. In the Lala Ram Lal Agarwal Inter College and later at the Allahabad University, this lanky dark-skinned angry young man fought for the rights of the oppressed.

Udit Raj, who had been named Ram Raj by his parents, converted to Buddhism in 2001 to escape the “tyranny” of upper castes and rechristened himself. “It was a rebirth for me, so I changed my name to Udit Raj. Udit means awakened.”

His wife, Seema Bahl, is from an upper caste. They met at the National Academy of Direct Taxes, where the two budding revenue service officers had gone for training. “In one of our initial meetings, I told her that I was a Dalit. To this, she asked, what does that mean? I was so impressed that I decided I had to marry her.”

In the Indian Revenue Service – which he quit when he launched the Indian Justice Party – he made a name for himself as the voice of Dalits in government. It was his “uncompromising effort”, he says, that forced the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government to pass the 81st, 82nd and 85th constitutional amendments, leading to the revival of reservations in promotion for SC/ST categories, which had been held “unconstitutional” by the Supreme Court.

That was then. Observers of Dalit politics believe he no longer has the rage that was his calling card once. “Some parliamentarians tell me that I was far more fearless when I was not in the BJP,” he says. “But I tell them, I still hold my militant image.”

If he does, he has kept it hidden from his party leaders so far. His voice was not heard when Dalit student Rohith Vemula committed suicide after being subjected to discrimination in Hyderabad University in January this year. He did not object to some of his party leaders calling his alma mater, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), anti-national, or when JNU student leaders were arrested by the police. He, however, did attend a Mahishasura Shaadat Divas, to worship the demon who battled Durga, in JNU in 2013 – a celebration that had been condemned by the student wing of the BJP and some party leaders.

His aides say that in private, Udit Raj often expresses helplessness at not being able to push his party to help the community. Does that mean he may leave the BJP? Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal has urged him to do so – but Udit Raj is not going anywhere, not yet anyway.

“I should be in the party and hope to get my due one day,” he says. For the present, he would be happy merely to get that appointment he has sought with Modi.


1980: Ram Raj joins JNU. Born a khatik — a Scheduled Caste — the quick-tempered young man quickly earns a reputation championing Dalit rights
1988: Cracks the civil services, is selected for the Indian Revenue Service. Senior to Arvind Kejriwal by a couple of years, Raj is known as Gabbar Singh in the IT department
1997: Appointed national president of the newly formed All India Confederation of SC/ST Organizations
2001: Citing indignity suffered by Dalits under Hinduism, publicly embraces Buddhism and becomes Udit Raj; had earlier cast away his family name, Sonkar
2003: Resigns his government job and floats a political party — the Indian Justice Party. Looks, rather desperately, to make a political opening but fails
2014: Shuns Modi-bashing and joins the BJP. Gets the party’s Lok Sabha ticket from North West Delhi and beats former Union minister Krishna Tirath of the Congress to enter Parliament