Archive for April 2018

“Politics is being played in the name of religion. But it is about time we wake up. A Hindu should help a Muslim and a Muslim should help a Hindu.” – Deepika Singh Rajawat

She is tugging at her black lawyer’s robe to keep it from flapping in the wind. Her eyes are heavily kohled. Her brows knitted. A pair of black oval glasses sits firmly on her nose. There is a determined expression on her face. A tattoo on her right hand reads – Only the weak can be cruel. This image of Jammu-based lawyer Deepika Singh Rajawat has gone viral. Many believe it has become a symbol of women’s empowerment in India.

I tell this to Rajawat. “If this image gives an impression that women have become fearless today, I feel empowered myself,” she tells me over phone from Jammu.

“I strongly feel only the weak are hostile and oppressive; the bold are always very gentle,” says the 38-year-old who is fighting the case for the eight-year-old girl who was allegedly sedated and gang-raped inside a temple in Kathua in Jammu for several days before she was murdered. The child’s mutilated body was found on January 17, seven days after she went missing.

All eight accused in the case have been arrested. But the past two months have been harrowing for Rajawat, who faced huge opposition from her colleagues at the Jammu and Kashmir High Court Bar Association for taking up the case of a Bakarwal Muslim girl.

The president of the association, Bhupinder Singh Salathia, and other office bearers had allegedly threatened her inside the court complex, and warned her against taking up the case. “On April 4, Salathia told me, they have called for suspension of work and I should not work during the strike and I shouldn’t ‘spread filth’ here. He said if I didn’t stop, he knew the means to stop me,” says Rajawat.

Rajawat filed an affidavit before the high court, wherein she complained that Salathia tried to outrage her modesty. But that did not deter other lawyers from intimidating her. They started threatening her on social media. She says, “One lawyer said on Facebook that I would not be forgiven. It really disturbed me. I realised they can create problems for me even outside the court.”

And that is when she filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court in which she not only cited these threats, but also asked for the case to be transferred to Chandigarh to ensure fair trial. The apex court had ordered the state government to provide adequate security for her and the victim’s family. But a bench headed by the Chief Justice of India, Dipak Mishra, later agreed to hear the appeal of two of the accused who want the trial to be conducted in Jammu and the probe to be handed over to the CBI.

Though the victim’s family has opposed this demand, a Bar Council of India report states that this demand is “justified”. The Supreme Court has stayed the trial till May 7 and also said that it would transfer the case from Kathua in the “slightest possibility” of lack of fair trial.

In the meantime, last week, the Jammu and Kashmir High Court Bar Association filed a counter-affidavit in the Supreme Court denying all allegations of having threatened Rajawat.

Rajawat, however, says that besides threats, she is facing social boycott. She has been removed from the WhatsApp groups of lawyers. Even women lawyers have not come out in her support. “The other day, a woman public notary refused to do the work I requested,” she tells me.

This is not the first time Rajawat has been targeted. In 2012, slogans were raised against her and her Bar Association membership was cancelled, when she took up the case of a 12-year-old girl, who died at the residence of an advocate in Jammu under mysterious circumstances.

As for the Kathua case, initially, Rajawat was just following it closely. She got involved much later, in February, when the parents demanded that the investigation by the crime branch of Jammu and Kashmir police be monitored by the high court. She filed a writ petition before the court appealing that it seek periodical reports from the Special Investigative Team (SIT).

Thus far, three SITs have been formed. Finally, it was the crime branch SIT that filed the chargesheet and got the case moving. Rajawat clarifies that the victim’s family is satisfied with the investigation of the current SIT. But it wasn’t easy for it to do its job. Activists of the Hindu nationalist group, Hindu Ekta Manch, and lawyers from Jammu allegedly tried to stop the crime branch from filing the chargesheet in the court of the chief judicial magistrate on April 9.

The protesting lawyers stepped onto the streets waving the Tricolour and chanting “Bharat Mata Ki Jai” in support of the accused. Even in their counter-affidavit to the Supreme Court, the lawyers mentioned that they were responsible citizens who wanted to fight the “break-India and anti-national forces”. To these, the feisty Rajawat says, “Lawyers have to look after the interests of the society, it is not possible to do so by waving the Tricolour or chanting ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’.”

We talk about how large numbers have come out against the victim’s community, the nomadic Bakarwals, because they are Muslims. There is a call to boycott them too. In fact, the lawyers also demanded that Rohingya Muslims be thrown out of Jammu, an issue they have been raising for long, but something that has no connection with the rape case. There is a concerted effort by Hindutva forces to project Jammu as a Hindu-dominated place as opposed to the Muslim-dominated Kashmir. “My Jammu is not them. My Jammu is me. My Jammu is those people who are not communal’,” says Rajawat.

Rajawat is married to a Rajput working in Bahrain, but is a Kashmiri Pandit herself. She migrated to Jammu with her parents, who worked in the state education department, four years before the mass exodus of Pandits from the Valley in 1990.

She tells me it pains her to see how, so many years on, the Kashmiri Pandit vs Kashmiri Muslim debate continues. A section of Hindu nationalists alleged she had links with the Hurriyat – the political platform of the separatist movement – because she was helping a Muslim family. “It is so painful to see, my own people make such allegations,” she says.

She feels religion has become a part of every public discourse now. “For the first time I am seeing that religion is being dragged into a rape case,” she says. And adds, “Politics is being played in the name of religion. But it is about time we wake up. A Hindu should help a Muslim and a Muslim should help a Hindu.”

It has been an hour-long call. I can now hear her voice getting more assertive. The connection is poor and every time we reconnect and resume conversation, she crosschecks if I heard her correctly last time.

Recently, a media channel claimed that Rajawat and her team member, a Bakarwal called Talib Hussain, spent a couple of days at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University to mobilise funds. In fact, there was speculation if the money would at all reach the victim’s family. Rajawat tells me, neither she nor anyone from her team has taken any money for the case.

“There is a force that is working against this case,” she thunders. Last week, her Twitter handle, which she had not used in a while, was hacked, reactivated and the image of the Kathua rape victim was uploaded as header photo. “The larger motive of a section of people is to keep me engaged in arguments and counter-arguments so that my case is hampered. They are trying to break my strength which is not going to happen,” she says.

Our call is interrupted once again. This time it is not the connection snapping, but a call from the Supreme Court lawyer, Indira Jaisingh, who is also part of the legal team looking into the Kathua case.

Rajawat has worked closely with Jaisingh the past nine years of her legal career. She has been fighting for compensation for landmine victims on the line of control. She also filed a PIL for a mentally disturbed Pakistani woman who crossed the border inadvertently and was jailed in Jammu for 26 years. She won the case and the woman was allowed to go back to Pakistan. This January she took up the case of a woman who accused a serving sub-judge of rape; the accused is now behind bars.

Rajawat says she always wanted to become a lawyer as she wanted to be a “roaring” voice. Says the mother of a five-year-old, “My daughter is my real power and strength.” Then adds quietly, “I am fighting this case also for her.”

Far removed from political jingoism and posturing, individual efforts are afoot to make whole a splintered Kashmiriness, says Sonia Sarkar



Only connect: Jaibeer Ahmad (above) and (top) Meanka Handu    

As Facebook pages go, Raabta is fairly basic. A stack of cards in muted colours, the image of a bench emblazoned on each – stark, awaiting its occupants – and jottings upon jottings. In some cases, as the written word spills onto the screen, an audio clip comes alive. Clang, clang, clang, the rabab quivers with emotion, and its soulful notes falling on alien ears seem to emanate from a sad hollow core.

Raabta might mean connection in Urdu, but this page, launched earlier this year, is about lost connections and old yearnings.

The community page for Kashmiris describes itself sans specifics thus – “…a small endeavour to help search and reconnect old friends, neighbours, school mates, colleagues who haven’t heard from each other in three decades.” Gurgaon-based Jaibeer Ahmad, who is from Kashmir, launched it. Ahmad, however, tells The Telegraph, “This page is only to reconnect those who parted ways in 1990 and reconnect them.”

One post is about Chennai-based Samir Pandita who has been looking for his teacher these past 35 years. “My favourite teacher was Mohammed Sayed from Bon-Bhawan Mattan… I am not sure where he is currently.” An S.A. Wahid is looking for classmates Vijay Pandita and Ajay Bhat. He has put out as much detail as he could summon from memory – Vijay lived in a rented house next to Regina cinema, Ajay was from old town Baramulla. More details. Someone is looking for a Vinod Kumar who used to live at Dharkocha near Temple Khankah-i-sokta between Safa Kadal and Nawa Kadal. There is an Anamika from Canada looking for childhood friend Saeba. Someone else looking for a third son “just born in a different house”.


When old connections are re-established, those experiences are posted too. A day after Pandita posted his message, his teacher was traced. “We spoke for over 30 minutes on the phone, recalled the school days and caught up with each other’s lives,” says Pandita, who is now a general manager with a chain of hotels. Dubai-based media professional Sameer Bhat connected with neighbour Arun Koul. “Nearly 28 years later when he said ‘hello’ over the phone, I could immediately recognise the voice. He was unmistakably Bunty bya[that’s how Kashmiris pronounce bhaiyya meaning brother].” He adds, “The first thing Bunty bya asked, ‘Do you still wear a watch on your right hand.’ He remembered.” Others recall with fondness, shared feasts, a tumble in the snow, the sheen mohnuv or the snowman.

Meanka Handu, another Kashmiri Pandit who left Srinagar in April 1990, is also trying to reconnect with her homeland, but through humour. The IT professional based in the National Capital Region’s Noida area has started a YouTube channel called “Asvun Koshur”, which means “smiling, happy Kashmiri”. Asvun Koshur contains a series of family-oriented comic video monologues presenting unknown aspects of Kashmiri culture and language. Though Handu keeps switching between Hindi and Kashmiri, the humour eludes translation. But it has traction within the Kashmiri community. The channel to date has 10,000 followers. A lot of elderly people from Kashmir watch her videos. Says Handu, “Language is a common thread that binds us, Kashmiris, regardless of our faith and individual beliefs.”

Raabta and Asvun Koshur are celebrations of a holistic Kashmiriness. Post the outbreak of militancy in the Valley, there was a mass exodus of Kashmiri Pandits. It has almost three decades since, but Pandits continue to ache for the land they had to leave perforce. Kashmiri Muslims stayed on, but life as they knew it changed. While steering clear from all talk of who is to blame for what and who fared the worse, Ahmad and Handu seem to be attempting a social corrective in the interest of Kashmiriyat.

Amit Wanchoo, a Pandit who lives in Srinagar’s Jawahar Nagar, talks about the syncretic culture of the Valley that was. He says, “Pandits ate the halal meat as did Muslims. Before a wedding, a Kashmiri Pandit would seek blessings of the eldest Muslim neighbour and vice versa.” The two communities, apparently, celebrated a series of festivals together. In fact, as a nod to this, Ahmad launched Raabta on Herath or Shiv Ratri.

Some years ago, Wanchoo also started an initiative called Salaam Mahara – that’s how Kashmiri Muslims greet Pandits. It tries to bridge the gap between the two communities. Last year, a programme called Ikwaith or coming together was organised on Eid. This March, another one was organised on Kashmiri new year, Navreh. He organises cultural shows, sponsors trips of Pandit students from Jammu to visit Srinagar and live with locals in camps. “This is how we plan to change the narratives and bridge the gaps between two communities,” says Wanchoo, whose grandfather was killed by militants in 1992.

Bridging the gap is what Delhi-based singer Pragnya Wakhlu is doing too. In one of her songs, titled Henzay – Returning to Peace, she has tried to fuse the Butta and Musalman wanwuns or Hindu and Muslim musical styles. In 2017, she released a Kashmiri-English album, Kahwa Speaks. In the title track, kahwa is the metaphor for Kashmir. She says, “Just as kahwa is made of saffron, cinnamon and cardamom, the fragrance of each coming together to make a wonderful brew, life in Kashmir is beautiful when all the communities come together.”

Raabta founder Ahmad wants to start a campaign next – to reconnect erstwhile neighbours in the Valley, “beyond the virtual world”. He says, “The tagline would be – do you miss your neighbour.”



A UP-based journalist has launched a broadcast service on WhatsApp. But the medium’s boon is also its bane, says Sonia Sarkar


What’s up? Rumours and fake videos about Mohammad Akhlaque (top) and Kanhaiya Kumar spread like wildfire through social media

At 8pm every day, Shivendra Gaur pushes out the evening bulletin to 15,400 subscribers on WhatsApp. The journalist based in Pilibhit, Uttar Pradesh, runs his broadcast service, Rocket Post Live, exclusively on this platform.

“People eagerly wait for my bulletin; if I get a bit delayed, I start receiving frantic calls,” says Gaur. From news updates to three to five-minute bulletins, everything reaches subscribers, courtesy the “broadcast list feature” on WhatsApp. “The broadcast list doesn’t work for spammers. Only subscribers who have my number saved in their contacts list get my broadcast message,” adds Gaur, who launched the service in 2016.

WhatsApp, the Facebook-owned chat app, has the highest number of users in India. Available in 10 local Indian languages as of January 2018, it has over 1.5 billion monthly active users worldwide, out of which 250 millions, the highest, are from India.

Gaur disseminates news through 71 WhatsApp groups divided on the basis of blocks in every district. Last year, two stories were picked up by national dailies. “Our story forced the government to pay for the treatment of a farmer who was attacked by a tiger inside a tiger reserve. He was engaged for work there by government officials. In 2016, one of our stories on honour killing in Pilibhit led to the arrest of the accused,” he claims.

Rocket Post Live, available to subscribers against an annual fee, has proved to be a successful business model. Gaur leads a team of seven reporters and camerapersons who gather news from Pilibhit, Bareilly and Shahjahanpur districts. He says he didn’t approach advertisers because he didn’t want content to be governed by advertisement. But once subscription increased, advertisers made a beeline. “Last year, the revenue from advertisements was Rs 6.5 lakh. During Holi, an additional revenue worth Rs 2 lakh was generated,” he says.

Shivendra Gaur

Many have suggested that Gaur launch a separate app but he is not convinced. According to him, WhatsApp is the place to be. That is the global trend too. The 2017 Digital News Report, published by UK’s Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, says WhatsApp is the major source of news in over 34 countries. India, though, was not part of the study.

But in India, last year, the marketing solutions company, InterPublic Group, in association with FCB Cogito Consulting, released New Realities, a study which said YouTube and WhatsApp are the top two trusted social media platforms. A 2015 study, The Habits of Online Newspaper Readers in India, by photojournalist Pradip Tewari claimed 62.6 per cent people subscribe to online newspapers, most of which provide news free of cost. It also revealed that 56 per cent respondents share news with friends on social media or email them.

Digital strategists believe that at a time when a lot of people are reading news off their mobiles, WhatsApp as a news platform is an intelligent move. “It is interesting to see how a social relationship in a peer-to-peer network is being translated into a dedicated audience for news sharing. After all, WhatsApp is where the people are and news publishers cannot stay away from it when chasing greater reach and engagement,” says Sumandro Chattapadhyay, research director at Bangalore’s Centre for Internet and Society, which works on Internet and digital technologies.

But the platform has its limitations. First, only 256 people can be accommodated in a single broadcast list. Second, no more than 1,200 messages can be broadcast at one go. And after a broadcast to five lists (alternate term for groups), one has to wait for 11 minutes before moving to the next five. Third, subscription-based models cannot sustain traditional media houses, which depend on revenue from advertisements. Also, owing to end-to-end encryption, senders and recipients can only view messages, the origin of information is neither obvious nor easy to trace.

Most importantly, perhaps, the consequences of running fake news on this platform are far more immediate than any other. In 2015, Mohammad Akhlaque was lynched to death in UP’s Dadri after the rumour that he had stored beef at home spread like wildfire on WhatsApp. In 2016, fake videos showing the then students’ union president of Jawaharlal Nehru University, Kanhaiya Kumar, shouting anti-India slogans and circulating on WhatsApp led to his arrest. JNU students faced harassment on the streets of Delhi and elsewhere for the longest possible time after that, all because millions had seen this video.

Tracing the source of problematic WhatsApp content is difficult. WhatsApp is working on a feature that will alert users to chain-messages but till then the onus is on journalists to counter fake news, says Gaur. In India, mainstream media does not play any immediate role in countering fake news on WhatsApp because it doesn’t have an organised presence there. Says Gaur, “When credible news agencies start using WhatsApp to disseminate news, people will take it seriously.”

Pratik Sinha, founder of anti-propaganda site AltNews, is not so sure that this will happen. Sinha, who used WhatsApp to disseminate news for over six months, says, “News which is ‘alarmist’ in nature circulates faster on WhatsApp. It is not possible to reach out to the same group of people circulating fake news using this medium because WhatsApp is a peer-to-peer network. The only way to reach this section is through traditional forms of mass media.”

Caveats notwithstanding, Gaur is on an expansion mode. Plans to expand the news service to all other districts of UP. Unstoppable, just like the WhatsApp forwards.