Archive for November 2019

Is the new data protection bill the final nail in the coffin before India turns into a surveillance State?

By Sonia Sarkar

Social media is a boon as long as it can be used as a propaganda tool by the State. It is a bane when people use it to criticize the government. Asian countries, including Bangladesh, Singapore, Vietnam and China, which launched the digital revolution in the past few years, are giving the impression that they are allowing people to be a part of the global cyberspace. In reality, they are curtailing cyber freedom in the name of national security. India will join the bandwagon soon. After all, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party doesn’t like dissenters.

In Bangladesh, the government has used the Digital Security Act, 2018 to target people who called for reforms in government service recruitment and for better road safety measures through social media campaigns. The police invoked the law against demonstrators for allegedly spreading false propaganda online. The law also came down heavily on press freedom and was used to arrest journalists and confiscate their equipment without a court order. This year itself, at least four journalists have been arrested for publishing “false information” online about the government and posting “provocative” status on social media.

Vietnam enacted its cybersecurity law this year to stave off cyberattacks and weed out hostile forces. The ruling communist government stated that Facebook violated this law, allowing Vietnamese users to post anti-government content, and delayed removing such content even after being requested to do so. Interestingly, in Vietnam, it is the government’s prerogative to decide what is ‘illegal’.

Similarly, Singapore’s Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act, which has come into effect, gives the government the power to order social media sites to put warnings next to posts that the authorities label false and damaging to Singapore’s interests. People fear that this would stifle free speech online and empower the ruling People’s Action Party to curb dissent. According to the law, individuals who post false statements that threaten ‘public interest’ on social media would risk up to five years in prison or a fine of 37,000 US dollars. In a country where the rhetoric of nationalism is shrill, there isn’t a clear indication of what is considered to be ‘public interest’.

China, characteristically, has gone a step ahead by blocking access to non-China based online communications platforms. As per the China Internet Security Law in 2016, network operators need to cooperate with Chinese security agencies and allow them full access to data on request. Again, this is being done in the name of national security and to safeguard public interest.

Picking up a cue from its ‘adversary’, India has proposed the personal data protection bill, which would allow the government to access encrypted messages on apps. The BJP, which used online platforms extensively to run campaigns such as #MainBhiChowkidar and #ModiHaiTohMumkinHai, has now turned against it. Once the law is enacted, the government would have the right to ask online platforms to remove content that it considers to be ‘false’ and against ‘national interest’. Such a legislation would give sweeping powers to the government to access personal data, thereby posing a threat to the people’s constitutional right to privacy. This could leave no place safe for people to speak freely in the world’s largest democracy.

Last year, the government had authorized 10 of its agencies to intercept and monitor information from any computer. This April, an Israeli firm reportedly hacked into WhatsApp messages to spy on activists, journalists and political dissidents. Even though the Indian State claimed its innocence, the Israeli firm clarified that it only works with government agencies. This is illuminating, given the BJP’s approach towards people’s freedoms and constitutional rights.

The question is this: is the new data protection bill the final nail in the coffin before India turns into a surveillance State?

Published in The Telegraph on 22 November 2019 –




 Filmmaker Kalpana Lajmi, Bhupen Hazarika’s partner of 39 years, talks to Sonia Sarkar about her passionate relationship with the legendary singer, his commitment to his work and his liking for Bengali cuisine

There is a chill in the Guwahati air — as if underlining the climate of bereavement and sorrow. At almost every crossing, huge hoardings pour out condolence messages. We feel your absence, says one. We pay homage to you, says another.

Three weeks after the death of Bhupen Hazarika, the city is still in mourning. As the driver of my car puts it, “Every leaf of every tree here has been grieving his loss.”

But as I enter a three-storey house — called Nirjarapar, or stream on its side — in east Guwahati’s Chandmari, the mood is different. There is a sense of calm and peace in the house. Filmmaker Kalpana Lajmi — Hazarika’s partner for 39 years — is not red eyed any more. But then, as she says, the fact that he is no more is still to sink in. “I have been attending to streams of people since his cremation. I haven’t got the time to mourn,” says Lajmi, 57.


However, a month before the death of the Dadasaheb Phalke award and Padma Bhushan winner, she realised he was slipping away. “I used to cry inconsolably then. Perhaps, I was preparing myself for this day.”

Singer and composer Hazarika died in a Mumbai hospital after respiratory and kidney failure. His body was cremated in Guwahati. There was a public outpouring of grief as hundreds of thousands of people turned up to pay their last respects to Assam’s best known cultural icon.

For Lajmi, however, the grief was intensely private. “It was terrible to see him turn into ashes. But I had promised to be with him till the end,” says Lajmi.

She had pledged to be with him way back in 1971. She was 17 and studying psychology at Mumbai’s St Xavier’s College, and he was 45 and already an established singer and composer. They first met when he was scoring the music for Aarop, a film directed by Lajmi’s uncle, Atma Ram. “I was awed by his charisma,” she recalls.

She was introduced to his music with the song He Dola, which portrayed the life of palanquin bearers. “Being a teenager with an artistic bent of mind, I was bowled over by his creative genius. He was a rebel, a maverick, a humanist — and also an indisciplined and disorganised person,” says Lajmi with a smile.

Five years into the relationship, she decided to move in with him to his Golf Club Road flat in Calcutta. “My father thought that the attraction would not last for long. My mother is still not able to accept the relationship,” she says.

But she went ahead — to become not just his companion but also his manager. “He was an alcoholic then and spent all his money unwisely. So I had to convince him to put things in order.”

But Lajmi, then in her early 20s, soon realised it was going to be an “uphill” task. “The initial days were tumultuous. Though he was much ahead of his time when it came to work, he also had a conservative mindset. It was difficult for him to accept a woman managing his work.” Lajmi points out that she — the daughter of artist Lalita Lajmi and niece of filmmaker Guru Dutt — came from a “progressive-minded” family. “Such prejudices did not exist in my family,” she says.

“Earlier, in most social gatherings, he introduced me as his manager,” she remembers. “From the mid-1980s, he started calling me his partner,” says Lajmi, who directed her first Hindi feature film Ek Pal in 1986. Hazarika composed and sang for the film.

But why did they not get married? He had, after all, separated from his wife Priyamvada Patel almost 20 years before Hazarika met Lajmi. Patel lives in Canada, while their son Tej, who was present at his funeral, is in the US.

“He was horrified by the idea of marriage. I also gradually realised that he would never have made a good husband for anyone,” she says.

Two years ago, though, he did propose marriage, but Lajmi turned him down. “Perhaps he was insecure that I would leave him because he was ailing. For me, marriage made no sense then. But you know it is impossible to understand the mind of a man,” says Lajmi, and then advises me — perhaps only half in jest — to remain single.

The two didn’t consider having children either. “I love children but bringing up children outside marriage is difficult in India.”

But right now, Lajmi is fighting a battle with Hazarika’s son over the Bhupen Hazarika Cultural Trust, set up by Hazarika in 2000. “The trustees are more interested in holding on to his estates rather than preserving his legacy,” Tej said at a press conference — angering Lajmi, who called his comments “wild, blasphemous and irresponsible”.

Tej, she counters, did not keep in touch with his father when he was alive. “Why didn’t he try to know about Bhupenda’s work and the trust all these years,” asks Lajmi, who is now the chairperson and secretary of the trust after Hazarika.

“This is an insult to each and every eminent member of the trust. But I also feel that it is a label against me personally because Tej presumes his father has bequeathed everything to me, even before the will has been read,” she says.

The will’s not out, but what she has certainly inherited from him is the will to carry on. “He was very proud of me and my work. He always encouraged me,” she says, running her fingers through her short hair. The sparkle of her gold and diamond rings catches my attention. I ask her if any of these were gifts from Hazarika. “He paid for a couple of them but never chose them for me,” she laughs.

Hazarika’s career started when he was barely 10. Legend has it that he was spotted by Assam’s leading cultural lights — Jyotiprasad Agarwala and Bishnuprasad Rabha — when he was singing a devotional song. As a 12-year-old, he sang two songs in Agarwala’s film Indramalati. He wrote his first song Agnijugor firingoti moi at 13. Later, he produced, directed, composed and sang for several Assamese language films, including Era Bator SurShakuntala and Pratidhwani.

A leading member of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA), a Left cultural group that was a part of the freedom movement, Hazarika was known for his rich baritone voice as well his lyrics, which touched on themes ranging from romance to social and political issues.

Though a child of Assam, Hazarika was in many ways a national and global citizen. Bengal — where his Ganga tumi is an anthem — saw him as its own. He also composed for many Bengali films, including Jibon Trishna and Jonakir Aalo. Across the border in Bangladesh, he was equally feted for his Joy joy nobojato Bangladesh (triumphal salutations to newly born Bangladesh) — a song that celebrated the country’s liberation.

“Bengal and Calcutta made him a world citizen,” says Lajmi. He loved the “artistic fervour” of Bengal, she adds, as much as he loved its other flavours.

A gourmet, he was particularly fond of begun bhaja and kasha mangsho, she says as we sit down to lunch — over dal, crispy eggplant fritters and mustard fish. “He also loved cooking Bengali dishes, especially shorshe chingri bhape (steamed prawns in mustard),” she says, licking the spicy mustard paste off her fingers. “He was a Bengali — both artistically and intrinsically. In fact, he was hyperactive like most Bengalis,” she laughs.

He was a passionate lover too, says Lajmi, who fondly called him Bhupso — a name she coined to rhyme with their pet dog Lapso in their Calcutta home. Reading, watching television and creating songs — this is how the two spent their evenings together.

Hazarika, she adds, loved wine and women. “I knew he had his flings. But those women were romancing a celebrity. I knew he was committed to me,” she says.

And she was so committed to him that his career came well before hers. “I made only six feature films in these many years because for me his work was the priority,” says the director whose acclaimed women-centric films include RudaaliDaman and Darmiyaan.

In 1996, they moved to Lajmi’s apartment in Lokhandwala in Mumbai. Mumbai was as much a home for Hazarika as the other cities. He composed several songs for Bollywood — including Dil hum hum kare for Rudaali. Recently, Hazarika sang M.K. Gandhi’s favourite bhajan Vaishnava jana to in the film Gandhi To Hitler.

“After 2006, I found no time for my own work because of his prolonged illness,” she says.

But despite being his committed companion, Lajmi has often been under attack. Two years ago, she was mired in a controversy after images of the ailing singer being carried in a chair to the banks of the river Brahmaputra for a commercial shoot were splashed by the media. She was accused of pushing him to work despite his frail health. “Strangely, these are the same people who are now coming to express their condolences. I suppose this is an act of penance for them,” she says.

Lajmi was also accused of pushing him towards the Bharatiya Janata Party when Hazarika fought and lost an election as a BJP candidate in the 2004 Lok Sabha election from Guwahati. “Actually, I tried to dissuade him — but he was determined as he wanted to do something fruitful in politics,” she now replies. “But the people of Assam did not like it and they thought he betrayed the Left since he had long been associated with the IPTA,” she says.

Hazarika, who had been an independent legislator in Assam from 1967 to 1972, felt he had been rejected by the people when he lost heavily in 2004. At the same time, she says, some family members sued him, accusing him of usurping family property. “He suffered his first heart attack in 2006. Three years later, he underwent a bypass surgery. Slowly, he went into depression,” she says as her voice trails off.

The fear of death started to stalk him. “He often asked me if he would be remembered after his death. Ay bedona loye Bhupen da ghusi gol (Bhupen da left with a lot of pain),” she says in her accented Assamese.

But Lajmi stresses that his music and memories will be with her forever — even though he has moved on. “He was not someone who could be held back at one place, she says, recalling his song Moi eti jajabor (I am a nomad). He is still here, there and everywhere.

(Interview published in The Telegraph on 27 November 2011:

For the past half-a-decade, the artform has been dabbling in issues such as social injustice, corruption, human rights and the refugee crisis.

Street art of Athens, Street art of Athens , sunday eye, Street art of Athens sunday eye, indian express, indian express news

Credit: INO
The walls of the neighbourhoods of Athens, especially Metaxourgeio, Psirri, Keramikos and Exarcheia, are plastered with tags, graffitis and murals that make political commentary.

Twelve men, dressed in formals, are busy “eating up” money served on a long table. A few supplicating hands of starving people reach up towards the table to grab their share. That’s just the story of Greece in short, depicted on the walls of Gazi, once an industrial hub of the capital city, Athens. This 100-m-wide and 9-m-tall mural by Greek artist INO is a dark work of symbolism, inspired by the 15th-century mural painting, The Last Supper, by the Italian artist Leonardo da Vinci. “Tricky people are trying to get into the game with the corrupted deals. It’s them who are trying to get a share of the pie, while majority of people have been left out,” says the INO spokesperson.
The image which came up in February this year reflects the growing inequality in Greece.


The newly-elected Prime Minister of Greece, the centre-right New Democracy party’s Kyriakos Mitsotakis, has to cope with all these challenges. As of now, the walls of Athens don’t have nice things to say about his extreme nationalist supporters. Five months before the elections, the mural, Liberte, Egalite, Pisokolite, painted by street art group at Metaxourgeio, created a buzz. Pisokolite is a slang in Greek which means anal sex. This mural which shows protesting people, including a naked man with the flag of Greece, takes a potshot at the rally that took place in January on the streets of Athens, opposing the move by the Greek MPs to ratify a landmark accord allowing the country’s tiny northern neighbour Macedonia to change its name to North Macedonia. The nationalist protesters claim Macedonia belongs to the Greek people.

“Figures depicted in the mural are real people, including the naked person who participated in the rally. This mural and its title is a bitter comment on the fascists who participated in the rally, hence the use of slang,” says 43-year-old Psycho Brunette Boy, the nickname of one of the group of street artists formed in 2014. The walls of Athens will tell you, a section of Greeks are not happy with the fascists. In one mural at Kerameikos, stencil artist Lotek (not real name) shows smiling faces of a young man and a woman. The message reads —“F**k fascism — Long live the troublemakers.” “Athens is not Berlin” is next to a sketch of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, caricaturised as Mickey Mouse, is a barometer of popular sentiment against the European Union and its role in Greek austerity, started in 2010.

Political graffiti was common in Athens even during the Axis occupation and the 1940s civil war. But the contemporary street art got a new lease of life during the 2007-08 financial crisis, when it depicted deepening recession, civil unrest and unemployment. For the past half-a-decade, the artform has been dabbling in issues such as social injustice, corruption, human rights and the refugee crisis. For example, one of the interactive murals in Manolis Anastasakos’s To Differ series is on the refugees coming into Greece. The artist drew the outline of the figures, while the colour was added by immigrants. It was viewed as a collaborative project of inclusion. Artist Fikos, 32, made a mural called, Bodies near the port of Piareus, the main port of Athens, showing a pile of naked bodies. “Thousands of refugees arrive at Piraeus from the Aegean islands. These are exhausted, sunburnt bodies, bodies carrying feelings, memories, hope, colours of the East, these bodies are stripped of everything,” says Fikos. Another moving mural at Exarcheia shows the image of queer and human rights activist, Zak Kostopoulos, who was lynched to death on the streets of Athens in September last year. It demands “justice for Zak/Zackie.”

“Street art is a form of resistance in Greece. The only necessity we recognise is the necessity of resistance in whatever way everyone thinks appropriate. We have chosen to express our truth and resist in a way that cannot be distorted,” says Brunette Boy. Street art is a form of activism. The thick angular fonts of the letters written on the walls suggest anger and frustration of the artists. But a lot of graffiti on the streets are also doodles difficult to decipher. Many see these doodles as vandalisation of public space. Gregory, a 29-year-old priest at Greek orthodox church in Monastiraki near Acropolis, says, “It’s all dirty. There is no message.”

According to Fikos, it’s Greek temperament that “confuses freedom with promiscuity.” “In Athens, literally everything is covered by tags. Unfortunately, Greeks are big fans of the triptych ‘cheap-fast-easy,’ so that’s another reason why we are seeing this huge production of graffiti but not as many big murals. Anyone could take a spray and do whatever he or she likes, not many want to work hard for years in order to develop a nice, mature painting style. Few would pay for that,” says Fikos. Yet, for many, street art renews hope — a hope to fight for a better life in Greece, a “dying” nation. “For us, street art is the same as freedom of speech,” says Psycho Brunette Boy.

This article first appeared in the print edition on October 27, 2019 under the title ‘Liberty, equality, graffiti’ in The Indian Express: y-eye/street-art-of-athens-6086265/

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