Archive for January 2017

fwThe government has made a slogan of the brave Indian jawan to settle political arguments. It has also left the same jawan ill-provided and restive. Sonia Sarkar reports

  • Illustration: Suman Choudhury

“An army marches on its stomach.”
– Napoleon Bonaparte

On paper, it sounds like a feast. Milk and eggs for breakfast. Four days a week, non-vegetarian dishes – chicken, mutton or fish – are to be served.

Border Security Force (BSF) jawan Tej Bahadur Yadav would scoff at that. “We sleep hungry,” he says in a video that has gone viral, pointing to the burnt paranthas and watery daal that he has just been served at a border post.

Jawans or soldiers have never been in the news as much as now. They make the emblazoned mascot for the Narendra Modi government, invoked over issues as wide ranging as demonetisation and student agitations. But a hollow, ill-fed mascot, the ranks of jawans would complain.

The jawan mantra has often been chanted. Tired of standing in ATM queues? Think of the jawans who stand on the borders. Kicking up a fuss over students’ rights? Think of the jawans. Shivering in the cold without power? Think of the jawans. “It’s when you (jawans) guard the border, people sleep without fear,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi extolled them last Diwali.

But Yadav’s video has put the arc lights on how the jawans themselves sleep – on an empty stomach. “Finally, someone had the courage to speak up,” a BSF jawan in Srinagar says. “Does the government want us to fight on an empty stomach?”

The government has taken some steps – the commandant and the second-in-command of the 29th Battalion, where Yadav is posted, have been moved to Tripura pending a probe into his allegations.

But the video has kicked up a cacophony of complaints. Jawans speak of low quality food, inadequate clothing, pay disparities and harassment by seniors. And the grouse is not just from paramilitary forces such as the BSF and the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), they also come from the army.

Last week, CRPF constable Jeet Singh went public demanding parity in pay and other benefits for the central armed police forces with the army. In another social media message, an army jawan alleged harassment by superiors for writing about soldiers’ problems.

Clearly, for the government, which has been holding up the gut-wrenching symbol of the veer jawan, there is trouble afoot.

“It’s unfortunate the way the government is projecting the soldier as a symbol of nationalism. The government should have dealt with their problems first,” says C. Uday Bhaskar, director of the Society for Policy Studies, a Delhi-based think tank.

Jawans have been at the wrong end of supplies and treatment for long. They seldom protested. But now that they are being daily lionised to serve the purposes of the government, they are speaking out. Access to social media sites has made it easier. “The PM has been advertising Digital India. So what’s wrong if soldiers use this platform to express their concerns?” a CRPF sub-inspector asks.

What troubles paramilitary jawans the most is the disparity in pay with counterparts in the army. But while parity seems like a distant dream, they are highlighting more pressing needs such as proper food and attire.

Adequate nutrition is essential to keep the soldier’s morale high, points out a 2008 paper authored by researchers at the Defence Food Research Laboratory (DFRL) and Defence Institute of Physiology and Allied Sciences (DIPAS).

A BSF jawan needs 3,850 calories a day, and a CRPF jawan, 2,900, states the government. In both the forces, mess committees comprising constables, sub-inspectors and fourth-class staffers decide the menu. The monthly ration allowance for the former is Rs 2,905 and for the latter, Rs 2,868.60.

But jawans complain of corruption that deprives them of their share of food. A retired CRPF jawan states that constables are often “forced” by their seniors to buy rations from designated shops, which offer 5-7 per cent of their profits to the seniors. “Even if these shops sell low quality daal or rice or artificially coloured spices, jawans have to buy from them,” he grumbles.

A senior BSF officer admits that there are cases of food being siphoned off canteens and sold to locals for money. “In Kashmir, some personnel may exchange a sack of rice with the bakarwals (cattle-rearing nomads) for a sheep,” he says.

The BSF sends tinned food to its jawans in places too remote for fresh supplies. The watery daal in Yadav’s video was part of tinned rations, supplied by the army because Yadav is posted on the Line of Control.

Satwant Atwal, IG, BSF headquarters, states that an enquiry will look at “any systemic aberrations” and suggest corrective intervention. “The welfare of the troops is of the highest priority,” she says. The forces do have redress mechanisms for jawans – such as complaining to their seniors.

But this is not the first time that food supplied to jawans is being questioned. In 2011, Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee said dry rations were consumed by army troops well past their expiry date. Over 74 per cent of fresh fruits and vegetables issued to units by supply depots also failed prescribed norms, it said. In 2007, high-calorie food items meant for soldiers in Siachen were seized from shops in Leh; irregularities were found in the procurement of meat in Ladakh.

The DFRL-DIPAS team writes that in the camps they visited, they found most jawans were dissatisfied with the quality and quantity of food. This was highlighted during the Kargil battle, too. “…they sent us puris and sabzi. At those heights puris and sabzi freeze to stone, you can’t eat any of it,” The Telegraph had quoted a young army officer at Drass as saying during the 1999 conflict.

Moreover, jawans are at times not adequately geared for harsh weather conditions. “When they move from moderate weather conditions to severe cold conditions, arranging special clothing such as snow boots, woollen socks and jackets is a problem. But we somehow manage,” says a BSF assistant commandant.


Security experts say that there is very little sense of ownership among the chiefs of the paramilitary forces because they are not the direct recruits. These officers come from the Indian Police Service, even if they have never been into any operational role before. Jawans feel that their chiefs never understand the real problems because they don’t know what it is to serve at the front.

Questions sent by The Telegraph to Kiren Rijiju, minister for home affairs, went unanswered. The army headquarters did respond. “The method chosen by the jawan to air perceived grievance was in violation of laid down rules and regulations and military discipline. A very effective and responsive grievance redress mechanism exists in the army, which, it is evident, the concerned jawan ignored to invoke. Specific complaints made by him are however being investigated,” said the army PRO, Col Rohan Anand.



But the issues are, of course, known. In a 2008 report, the Comptroller and the Auditor General had referred to problems relating to procurement of special clothing, mentioning the use of partly torn and recycled special clothing for winter. In 2007, high quality trousers, jackets and parachutes meant for the army at Siachen were found in Leh shops. The Telegraph had reported that soldiers deployed on the Kargil front were seen arriving at the frosty wind-blown heights in “canvas shoes and cotton jackets”.

Inadequate arrangements often lead to tragedy. In 2014, eight BSF personnel were found unconscious in the Paloura base camp because they had inhaled carbon monoxide caused by lighting a kangri in a closed room to keep warm.

Harassment by seniors is another common grievance. An army jawan is on a hunger strike in Madhya Pradesh in protest against the “menial jobs” he is forced to do for his seniors. An Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) constable has similar complaints. “I have even washed officers’ undergarments. Those who refuse to do such jobs are denied leave by the seniors,” he says.

Leave is a problem because most paramilitary forces are understaffed. “The CRPF, which is now filling 24,000 vacancies, is a reserved force, which should be deployed only when there is an exigency. But 80 per cent of our jawans are always deployed,” a CRPF officer points out.

Long working hours, living in harsh conditions and harassment by seniors can lead to fragging – killing of seniors or colleagues – or suicides. “Most jawans have rural backgrounds and join the force because of the social respect attached to the uniform. Their morale is affected on a daily basis when they are deprived of their basic rights,” says retired ITBP inspector Rajender Yadav. “Those who cannot cope commit suicide.”

Despite the rising discontent, the foot soldiers carry on. “When my jawan complains that he is doing everything for the country but the government doesn’t care for him, I tell him: ‘Desh ke liye kar rahe ho ‘,” a BSF officer says. Ask what you can do for the country, but not what the country can do for you.

A shorter version of the story appeared in The Telegraph | Sunday, January 22, 2017 |

It’s winter, the high season of dining. Ever wondered how many varieties of flesh we consume as a nation? Take a guess, with Sonia Sarkar

The meat is boiled in water with salt and chilli. No spices, no oil. Leafy vegetables and ginger added as garnish. Sometimes, the fresh meat is roasted on a spit or smoke-dried and preserved in bamboo baskets for future use. That’s how the Adi tribe of Arunachal Pradesh likes its favoured table flesh: porcupine.

You heard that right, it’s porcupine.

Not very far from Arunachal, in Nagaland, the Ao tribe relishes the wild bear, listed as endangered, on festivals. The priest gets the head of the animal, the rest is devoured by his tribespeople. But pregnant women avoid eating it; the bear is considered a “stupid” animal.

Indians love their meat. Contrary to the notion that Indians are a largely vegetarian people, a 2014 Registrar General of India survey shows that seven out of 10 Indians are non-vegetarians. Chicken, mutton, lamb, beef, fish and crabs are commonplace. From the melt-in-your mouth galauti kebab of Lucknow to the tangy achari murg of Jodhpur to the spicy beef curry of Kerala, the list is endless. But Indians go beyond the conventional culinary delights.

Besides porcupine and bear, they eat frogs, snakes, dogs, rats, rabbits, yaks, turtles, barking deer, worms, quails and snails, pigeons and turtle doves, mud-snappers and mallards, what not.

This fascination for different forms of meat is nothing new. According to Om Prakash’s Food and Drinks in Ancient India, flesh of a wide range of animals – horses, rams, barren cows, sheep and buffaloes – was cooked in the Rigvedic period (c.1500-c.500 BCE). There is evidence that peacocks and alligators were eaten during the Satavahana period (271 BCE to 30 BCE).

The culinary map of India is vast and fascinating. “It’s a myth that Indians are vegetarians,” says foodie and food historian Pushpesh Pant. “The quantum of meat eating in India is influenced by the economy, climate and the habitat we stay close to.” He adds an essential caveat: “A lot of endangered birds are eaten in India. For example, quail and partridge meat are banned in our country but people eat them in Bhopal, Hyderabad and Awadh.”

We are serious about what we eat, or abstain from, so serious we can kill over them. Here’s a catalogue:

Porcupine: The Indian porcupine, about 32-inches long with a seven-inch tail, is eaten by the Adis of Arunachal Pradesh, Kathkaris of Maharashtra, Tiwa hunters of Karbi Anglong, Assam, and in Bihar. Killing a porcupine is tough because of its sharp quills but its white meat is soft and succulent.

Bear: Apart from the Ao tribe of Nagaland, the Purums of Manipur – settled mostly in Chandel district – also eat bear. They devour shong-amei-but, a curry made out of the entrails of the animal, especially during festivals.

Mithun:The tender meat of mithun, or bison, is eaten by the tribals in Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Mizoram. It is the state animal of Arunachal and is the most prized dowry in the state’s Adi tribe weddings. It is sacrificed on the wedding day by the bride’s brother and then portions of meat are distributed among the villagers. The head of the animal is often relished with opo (rice beer).

Rabbit/hare: Rabbit eating is popular in Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Bihar. In fact, it was once promoted by the Bihar government. In 2011, Bihar’s former animal husbandry and fisheries minister and BJP leader, Giriraj Singh, urged people to eat rabbit because it is low on fat and high on protein.

Rabbit, which is a game meat, is also part of the Jodhpuri royal cuisine. The succulent khud khargosh (rabbit meat cooked underground) is eaten during the summers when the hare is lean.

Pig: Pork is widely eaten in Manipur, Mizoram, Chhattisgarh, Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh, Tripura, Goa and Karnataka among others. Pork musadang (pork cubes dry roasted with green chillies) and Chunga Bejong (spiced pork served in bamboo cooked in wood fire) are dished out in Tripura homes. Goans love their vindaloo and sorpotel especially during Christmas.

Boar: People in various parts of the country go pig-sticking for sport. In Rajasthan, boar spare ribs or bhansalas, are marinated in a mixture of dry yogurt, browned onions, garlic, ginger, coriander, red chilli and kachri (meat tenderiser) before being smoked, spitted on skewers, and grilled over hot coals. Boar is widely popular in Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Punjab, Nagaland, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh too.

Turtle: Among the Jeru and Cari tribes of North Andaman, there is a turtle-eating ceremony for the girl when she attains first menstruation. Surveys have found that Christians in Kerala also consume turtles while its eggs are eaten by all communities. People in Jharkhand and Bengal also eat turtles, which are now endangered.

Duck: In Assam, Kumurat diya hanhor mangxo (duck meat curry) is a favourite among locals. Cooked with ash gourd and spiced up with crushed black pepper, duck meat has a distinctive flavour. Christians in Goa love their sweet and sour duck curry. The Wanchos of Arunachal Pradesh relish duck meat. In Kashmir, they have it roasted on an open fire, or curried. It is eaten in Bengal and Bihar as well.

Dog: In Nagaland and Mizoram, black dog meat is part of the regular diet. It is eaten for its punchy taste. The spices they use are Naga pepper ( mejinga), Naga mircha and bamboo shoot.

Frog: Frog legs are a delicacy among the Lepchas of Sikkim. Prepared in multiple ways, it is believed that frog legs can cure various stomach related ailments. In Naga kitchens, frogs are cooked till dry with Naga pepper, ginger, garlic and Naga chilli. Some love their meat with anishi (a preparation made of dried yam leaves). Frogs are eaten when one is injured because locals believe it helps heal faster.

Monkey: It would be wrong to create an impression that you could walk into a restaurant in Kohima and order a plate of monkey brains but monkey is eaten in some parts of Nagaland, and also Arunachal Pradesh.

Rats: The high protein patal bageri (rat meat) is popular among the Musahars, the rat-eating community of Bihar, Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh. In fact, in 2008, Bihar’s former chief minister, Jitan Ram Manjhi, who hails from the same community, tried to popularise rat meat in restaurants.

For the Adis of Arunachal, rats are a must on the menu in any festival. For them, the most delicious parts are the tail and legs. The Gonds and Bhumias of eastern Mandla, Madhya Pradesh, too eat rat legs.

Elephant: Some research papers suggest that the Adis eat elephants as well.

Yak: Yak meat is naturally lean and around 97 per cent fat-free. This red meat, which is high in protein and low in calories, is consumed by the Sulungs of Arunachal Pradesh, and also by Ladakhis and Sikkimese. The latter eat yak blood cubes too as a snack. It is made by drawing around 0.25 kilogram of blood from yak, poured into a pan and boiled on a slow fire until the blood solidifies. Then it is cut into cubes and hot butter and white sugar are added to it.

Quail: Jodhpuris love roasted quails marinated with a melon-like fruit of the kachri plant that grows wild in the desert. The Maharajas of Rampur, the descendants of Nawab Raza Ali Khan, also keep bater kibiryani in their royal cuisine. The Chettiars of Tamil Nadu fry quails to make their crispy and spicy, ” kada fry”.

Red ant: The sour red ant chutney is known as chaprah in Bastar. And in Jharkhand, especially in Chaibasa, it is known as demta (local word for ant). The ants are cleaned and cooked in a mix of fresh tomato, garlic and chillies and tossed with onions in oil. The mix is dried in the heat before serving.

Monitor lizard: In 2003, a drug addict rickshaw puller from Amritsar came into news when he ate lizards to get a high but for a section of tribes in Assam and Kerala, monitor lizard is a part of the diet.

Insects: In a 2013 book, Edible Insects: future prospects for food and feed security, the Food and Agriculture Organisation stated that insects could be a viable replacement for meat in the event of a food shortage over the next century. Bodos consume many insects such as caterpillars, termites, grasshoppers, crickets and beetles. Even the Nagas consume over 42 different species of insects.

Snakes: India is known to be a land of snake-charmers but there are tribes who eat snakes. Recently, a man from Jharkhand’s Harmu village in Lohardaga hit the headlines when he chewed and swallowed a snake shortly after it bit him. Some studies say snakes are eaten in Nagaland too.

Squirrel: The Malayan giant and orange-bellied squirrels are hunted in Ziro valley of Arunachal Pradesh for its meat. They are had roasted.

Peacock: The Bhumia tribe of Madhya Pradesh eats flesh of peacocks. But, of course, they commit a crime if they do; the peacock is our national bird.

We also eat a lot of crow, but of that, another day.

They’ve been at the forefront of social and political activism in Manipur but women haven’t got their due share in power yet. The forthcoming Assembly elections hold out little hope that things will change. Sonia Sarkar looks into the reasons why


  • LADIES LAST: Irom Sharmila Chanu (centre)

Imphal. It’s 4am. At five degrees, 44-year-old Irom Sharmila Chanu warms up with an hour-long suryanamaskar. She boils some rice and ‘laphu tharo’ (banana florets) for breakfast. At 7am, donning her green phanek and yellow pullover with a pink shawl, she prepares for a long day ahead. A water bottle, hat and a scarf in the bicycle basket, she sets off for Thoubal, 30 kilometres away.

“I like to start early. I get more hours of the day to meet people,” says Sharmila, famed rights activist and co-convener of the newly formed People’s Resurgence and Justice Alliance (PRJA).

She is having to work hard. After all, she is taking on the three-time sitting chief minister of Manipur and Congress leader, Okram Ibobi Singh, in the forthcoming Assembly elections. Also, being a woman politician in Manipur isn’t easy.

Bharatiya Janata Party’s Indira Oinam, who has been into politics for the past eight years, knows better. “As women politicians, we are made to feel that we are intruding into the man’s world and every day, we need to fight this patriarchal mindset,” says Indira, who too has pitted herself against Ibobi Singh (this is her second attempt at unseating him).

  • Indira Oinam

The irony is that women feel politically left out in a state where they have been at the forefront of many a battle. “Having women participate in social agitations is one thing, giving them their rights in politics quite another. We have failed to do the latter,” says S. Mangi Singh, professor of political science at Manipur University.

There is only a handful of women in politics in Manipur. In the outgoing state Assembly, only three of the 60 MLAs are women. And for the coming Assembly, only two women other than Sharmila and Indira have entered the fray. Both are from Congress – Akoijam Mirabai Devi from Patsoi constituency in west Imphal and Nemcha Kipgen, a Kuki from the Kangpokpi constituency in Sadar Hills. The celebrated boxer and the Rajya Sabha MP, Mary Kom, is likely to be courted by the BJP for campaigning.

“There are only a few women candidates because it’s predominantly a patriarchal society, so the real decision-making power lies with men,” Mangi Singh says.

But it’s not that women in Manipur have no say in society at all. Two Nupi Lan (women’s agitation) movements, the first in 1904 and then in 1939, both against the British, became the defining moments of woman power in the state. Protests led by Rani Gaidinliu against the British, forcing them to leave Manipur, is a local legend. In 1925 and 1932, women also led agitations against the increase of water tax by the then king.

When the late Indira Gandhi was addressing a gathering in Imphal’s polo ground in 1969, women staged a black flag vigil to press their demand for statehood. Curfew was imposed but three years later, statehood was granted.

  • Nemcha Kipgen

An all-woman campaign for prohibition, called Nisha Bandh, was much highlighted in the 70s. Irom Sharmila’s 16-year-long fast to repeal the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) is iconic, of course. Also, Meira Paibis, or women torchbearers, redefined public protests when 12 naked Manipuri women agitated against the killing of 34-year-old Thangjam Manorama Devi by security forces. Imphal’s all-women Ima market, centre point of the Nupi Lan movement, is considered to be a sign of women’s economic progress.

“But in politics, women are treated as second-class citizens,” says 57-year-old Akoijam Mirabai, the social welfare and co-operatives minister. “People feel women are not committed to politics and their focus is the family.”

That’s the reason Mirabai never got married. “I wanted to tell people that I am serious about politics,” she says.

But the journey wasn’t easy for her when she joined politics in 1980 at the age of 17 – first as part of the Congress Sevadal and then the Mahila Congress. “My neighbours used to tell my parents that my image as a woman would be tarnished if I joined politics. I fought every gaze and every taunt because I knew politics was my true calling,” says Mirabai, who hails from Taobungkhok in west Imphal.

There are several deterrents for women. “Women lack winnability. Even if we want to give tickets to women, we would lose out seats because the BJP might just put up stronger male candidates there. Social goals and political gains cannot go hand in hand,” says a Manipuri Congress leader.

In contrast to national politics, where political parties often foreground women candidates, keeping their glamour quotient in mind, Manipur politicians don’t look at “glamour” as a valid reason to give tickets to women. But glamour or no glamour, Indira thinks, women should get a chance. “When our PM talks about beti bachao, beti padhao, women should get priority in politics,” she says.

A senior BJP leader in Imphal argues that elections are all about money and muscle power and women fail to exhibit both, in most cases. “Indira will fight against Ibobi Singh but we are not projecting her as the CM candidate,” says the BJP leader.

Indira, who fetched 3,668 votes in the 2012 elections, the second largest tally any BJP candidate swung in Manipur, has faced such a bias once before. In 2014, Indira was expecting to get the ticket for Inner Manipur parliamentary constituency but the party chose R.K. Ranjan Singh, instead. Women members of the party protested openly, but quite in vain.

In the past, women in Manipur have mostly contested elections under the legacy of their powerful husbands in politics. For example, former Manipur King Bodhachandra’s wife, Srimati Ishwari Devi, contested from the Inner Manipur parliamentary constituency in 1952, but lost.

The first elected woman in the Manipur state Assembly, Hangmila Shaiza, came into politics in 1990 after the assasination of her husband and the former chief minister, Yangmaso Shaiza. Similarly, K. Apabi Devi won the 1992 by-elections after MLA K. Bira Singh died in a plane crash. Both benefited from “sympathy votes”, writes Binarani Devi in her paper, “Electoral Politics and Women”.

Again, Wahengbam Leima Devi, wife of Angou Singh, contested and got elected from Singh’s seat in 2000, only after Singh became an MP. Landhoni Devi, wife of Ibobi Singh, contested and won from the Khangabok constituency in 2007 and 2012 after Singh vacated it as he could retain only one, and that was Thoubal. In Ibobi Singh’s party, patriarchy rules. “Now that his son, Okram Surajkumar, is contesting, Landhoni Devi has had to sacrifice her seat. A woman has to make way for the male members of the family,” a state Congress leader says.

Mirabai feels that her singlehood is certainly a boon for her as a politician. “Being single, I don’t have the compulsion to listen to my husband, at least,” she laughs.

  • M.C. Mary Kom

Mirabai and Nemcha are the only two women to have made a mark in mainstream Manipuri politics without any political patronage. “When I joined politics in 2012, many discouraged me but now they are happy to see that I have sustained,” says Nemcha, who left her job as a nurse in Delhi’s All India Institute of Medical Sciences to join politics.

Nemcha – her husband S.T. Thangboi Kipgen is chairman of the United People’s Front, a Kuki militant group – claims one of her biggest achievements is forcing the government to create the new district of Kangpokpi – a longstanding demand of the people of her constituency. The creation of seven new districts, which led to an economic blockade by the Nagas, is one of the issues in the Manipur elections, besides the Centre’s secret peace deal with the NSCN-IM, corruption, unemployment and repeal of AFSPA.

But issues related to women such as compensation to widows, whose husbands were killed either by the militants or the state forces, and women’s empowerment are also likely to enter party manifestos.

In fact, political parties often float women self-help groups to generate funds. In Manipur, a woman’s entry into politics is mostly through social work. Both Indira and Mirabai were well-known social workers before joining politics. But few make it to the decision-making level of the party.

Here, another irony. Female voters have outnumbered the male voters in almost every Manipur election. In 2012, 6,94,893 women cast their votes as opposed to 6,31,223 men. The truth remains, though, that – as Sharmila herself rues – even women voters lack confidence in women candidates. She’s set on contesting nevertheless.