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Newly-elected Kairana MP Tabassum Hasan tells Sonia Sarkar why she thinks it is possible to defeat the BJP in 2019.

The apartment in Delhi’s Jamia Nagar belongs to Tabassum Hasan’s younger brother. It is 11am but I am told Hasan fell asleep after sehri – the pre-dawn meal of fasting Muslims during the month of Ramzan – and she is still sleeping. These days, only the mornings are somewhat easy for her. In the evenings, she is busy attending iftar parties organised by various political parties. She is the toast of iftars, everyone wants to invite her after she dealt a stunning defeat to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the recent Kairana Lok Sabha bypolls.

It is not long before Hasan enters the drawing room dressed in a white and pink cotton salwar-kameez. She says, “Everyone is congratulating me as if all of them were desperately waiting to see me win.”

The 47-year-old is now the only Muslim MP from Uttar Pradesh – a state with 19.26 per cent Muslim population. Hasan, who will begin her stint in this monsoon session, says, “Being the single Muslim MP from UP, everyone will keep an eye on me. I feel I have a huge responsibility now as a politician.”

The Kairana seat fell vacant after the sitting BJP member, Hukum Singh, passed away this year. Hasan, who belongs to the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD), was backed by the Congress, Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and Samajwadi Party (SP).

Many regard the Kairana defeat of the BJP as the preview to a BJP-mukt UP in the 2019 parliamentary polls. In the 2014 polls, the BJP had secured 71 out of 80 seats in the state. But this March, the party lost two bypolls, one in Gorakhpur and the other in Phulpur. Kairana fell in May – it was the third big loss in a row.

But this is not the first time that Hasan has won this parliamentary seat. She won it in 2009 too. “But this win gives out the message that when the Opposition is united, the BJP and its communal agenda can be defeated.”

Hasan is wary of the BJP’s “communal agenda”. She has witnessed it in her own constituency. In 2013, a year before the BJP came to power at the Centre, 62 people died in communal violence in Shamli, the area under her jurisdiction, and neighbouring Muzaffarnagar. BJP leaders, including the late Hukum Singh, Sanjeev Balyan, Sangeet Som and Suresh Rana, were booked for instigating violence. After the riots, came the issue of mass Hindu exodus from Kairana. Singh blamed the Muslims for it, though much later, questions were raised about the authenticity of such claims.

In these bypolls, the BJP played the Jat vs Muslim card. But Hasan claims she got over 80 per cent of the Jat votes. “These Jats are Hindus. Why do you think they supported me? Ram, Krishna, Allah, all were with me,” says Hasan, who won by 50,000 votes.

Shortly before the bypolls last month, the BJP and Bajrang Dal also raked up the issue of “reverse” love jihad. Earlier, they had alleged that Hindu girls were being lured away by Muslim men and dubbed the phenomenon “love jihad”. This time round, they alleged that Hindu men were being made to join Islam with the promise of a job and marriage with a Muslim girl.

Hasan laughs at this. “The biggest love jihads have happened in the homes of BJP leaders. The party’s national spokesperson Shahnawaz Hussain’s wife, Renu, and minority affairs minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi’s wife, Seema, are both Hindus. Who will talk about them?” she asks, and then adds indignantly, “Is this even an issue?”

The BJP never talks about issues that matter, she lashes out. She points out how around the time of the Kairana bypolls, the party created much hullabaloo over a portrait of Muhammad Ali Jinnah that has been in Aligarh Muslim University for decades. Opposing the BJP’s attempt to divert from real issues, RLD leader Jayant Chaudhary coined the slogan, “Jinnah nahin, ganna chalega… Not Jinnah, sugarcane is the real issue here”. It was a nod to the statewide problem of non-payment of dues to sugarcane farmers by sugar mills.

Currently, the unpaid dues stand at Rs 1,000 crore. Hasan says, “Plus, the price of compost has gone up, the power tariff for tube wells has increased and soaring diesel prices are also taking a toll on farmers. Why doesn’t the BJP talk about all this?”

She seems to believe that no attempt by the Hindutva brigade to resurrect the Hindu versus Muslim debate can help the BJP anymore. “The fact that I am sitting in front of you as an elected MP is the biggest proof of that. Our strategy is to keep a direct connect with the people, raise real issues in Parliament, solve people’s problems. That’s the only way to defeat the BJP in 2019,” she says, as she pulls her white embroidered dupatta to cover her head. “Dhul chatayenge in sabko… We will make them bite the dust.”

In this hour-long meeting, for the first time, Hasan speaks with so much aggression. She is otherwise not much of a talker; one has to prod her for detailed answers. And she is very soft-spoken, too. I cannot help but ask how she hopes to survive in the male-dominated Parliament. “Don’t go by this side of mine,” she says. “I can be tough if need be.”

In a resolute voice she tells me she doesn’t really want anyone to project her success as a triumph of woman power. In fact, she clearly says, she doesn’t want to play the woman card for her political gains. “I won not because I am a woman. My opponent, Mriganka Singh, daughter of Hukum Singh, is also a woman. The fight was equal.”

Hasan grew up in a family of wealthy farmers at Saharanpur in west UP. She and her two sisters enjoyed absolute freedom at home. Her younger brother, Mansoor, tells me, “All important decisions were and are still taken by our sisters. Our parents never listened to the sons much.”

Her maternal grandfather, Shafquat Jung, was a Congress MP from Kairana between 1971 and 1977. Her father, Akhtar Hasan, was the pradhan, or chief, of the Sarsawa block in Saharanpur. Hasan tells me she had watched both of them at work closely and understood the tricks of the trade well before she took the plunge. She was also aware of the risks one takes in elections. She learnt how to garner the support of grassroots workers, too. “A lot of women don’t understand politics even if they join it. They cannot even decide whom to vote for; they do as the men in their family want them to do. That never happened in my case.”

The political training continued even after marriage. Her father-in-law, also Akhtar Hasan, was a Congress MP from Kairana between 1984 and 1989. “He was an astute politician,” says Hasan. She adds that while the older generations in both families were Congress loyalists, she and her husband, Munawwar Hasan, were closer to the SP.

Munawwar was elected to the Lok Sabha from Kairana in 1996 and Muzaffarnagar in 2004 on an SP ticket. Later, he joined the BSP. All through his political career, Tabassum sat through political meetings, played an active role in a lot of inner party decision-making and co-ordinated with party workers at the ground level. When Munawwar died in an accident, she assumed charge and fought the 2009 elections on a BSP ticket. “I had to take his legacy forward,” says Munawwar’s widow, who has since joined the RLD.

I tell her she has the reputation of being quite the party-hopper, to which she replies, “I always changed parties for the welfare of the people.”

Since her victory, Hasan has been targeted by various pro-BJP sites on social media. In those posts, certain controversial statements have been falsely attributed to her. A Facebook page titled “Yogi Adityanath-True Indian” quoted her as having said, “This is the victory of Allah and the defeat of Ram.” This post was shared over 3,700 times. Hasan finally lodged a police complaint and an investigation is currently underway.

She says, “I would like to ask the BJP, if you are fighting so much for Muslim women and their issues of triple talaq and talking about “sabka saath, sabka vikas”, then why are you so worried about a Muslim woman going to Parliament.”


Gorakhpur paediatrician Dr Kafeel Khan, currently out on bail, talks to Sonia Sarkar about the fateful night that changed his life

Dr Kafeel Khan with his daughter

When I meet him, he is trying to cajole

his little girl, Zabrina, into playing with him. First, he tosses her in the air, then pulls her onto his lap and thereafter, rocks her back and forth. But she is not interested, shrugs off his overtures and runs away.

“My daughter cannot recognise me anymore,” says Kafeel Khan, the 38-year-old paediatrician from Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh, who is just back home after spending eight months in jail.

Zabrina was barely eleven months old when Kafeel was arrested last September. She used to crawl then; now she can walk, climb and run. She could barely say “Papa” then, now she can string whole sentences. Says Kafeel, “As a paediatrician, I always tell parents, never miss the milestone moments of your child. But I have missed all her milestones. I couldn’t even celebrate her first birthday.”

Kafeel, who was assistant professor at Baba Raghav Das Medical College (BRDMC) in Gorakhpur, and eight others were held responsible for the deaths of at least 60 infants over a span of five days.

It all started on August 10, 2017, when the agency, Pushpa Sales, stopped supplying oxygen to the government-run hospital because of non-payment of dues worth Rs 68 lakh. Apparently, the company had sent 14 reminders to the authorities, including BRDMC principal Rajiv Mishra, UP health minister Siddharth Nath Singh and chief minister Yogi Adityanath to clear dues, but nobody paid any heed.

Dr Kafeel Khan with his family.

Pictures: Sonia Sarkar

When the hospital ran out of its supply of liquid oxygen by 7.30pm, an alert was put out on the WhatsApp group of the doctors. Kafeel was on leave, but upon getting the message he rushed to the hospital.

As he goes over that day’s incidents with me at his three-storey house – with an armed guard stationed at the entrance – in UP’s Basantpur, Kafeel claims he called the head of the department of paediatrics, Mahima Mittal, and Mishra, but nobody responded.

He says he arranged cylinders from a local hospital and a local agency. “There was no oxygen available in the hospital from 11.30pm to 1.30am. Every day, 12-13 children were dying of premature birth or because of Japanese encephalitis. But on August 10, 30 infants died. I cannot deny that the sudden stoppage of oxygen supply was one of the reasons for these deaths.”

He picks up his phone to show me an image from that fateful night. Four living infants along with a dead one cramped into a single warmer at the hospital’s neo-natal intensive care unit. He also shows me screenshots of the calls he made to the higher authorities and the cash memos for the oxygen cylinders he bought from local vendors.

Along with his colleagues, Kafeel procured over 250 cylinders in 48 hours. The oxygen tank finally arrived on the night of August 12. By then, television channels were running his images and hailing him as the saviour. But on August 13, when Adityanath arrived to inspect the reason for the deaths, he blasted Kafeel.

“He told me, ‘You are Dr Kafeel? You bought cylinders? You think you are a hero? I will see…’ He thought I had informed the media about the mess in the hospital. At that point, my life turned upside down,” he recalls.

And before he knew it, Kafeel had moved from being saviour to villain.

Charges of corruption were levelled at him; it was alleged that he was running a private nursing home and diverting oxygen cylinders from the medical college to this nursing home. He lost his post of nodal officer under the National Health Mission at the 100-bed acute encephalitis syndrome ward at BRDMC. Well-wishers warned him that he could be killed in an encounter.

Fearing for his life, he left for Delhi on August 17 and stayed at an undisclosed location for a fortnight. Since he was untraceable, the police allegedly harassed his family. Kafeel’s daai, the elderly helper at his Basantpur home, tells in chaste Bhojpuri how the cops would often come around at night, banging on their door, when no male member was present in the house. When she refused to let them in, they barged in and ransac

On September 1, Kafeel’s elder brother, Adeel, was detained by the special task force (STF) in Lucknow. Realising that things could get worse, Adeel asked his brother to return. Says Kafeel, “I surrendered before the STF in Lucknow on September 2.”

Illustration: Suman Choudhury

The STF took him to a government guest-house in Sahjanwa, 251 kilometres from Lucknow, before handing him over to the police. He says, “They threatened to slap on me charges under the National Security Act. It was Id al-Adha that day, but I was not even allowed to offer prayers.”

Here, I ask him, if he was made a scapegoat because he is a Muslim; the ideological inclinations of the Adityanath regime are, after all, known to all. He pauses. His eyes, restless and sleep-deprived, are fixed on the floor for a few seconds. “When Mohammed Akhlaque was killed for allegedly storing beef and Junaid Khan was killed by random men during an argument over a train seat, I condemned them on Facebook. But when it happened to me…” He does not complete his sentence.

After another pause, he says, “Only Yogi ji will tell you if my Muslim identity was the only reason for punishing me. Yes, after a point, I thought I won’t be able to get out for the next five years, as long as he [Adityanath] is there.”

Kafeel’s wife, Shabista, and mother, Nuzhat Parveen, met the chief minister to plead his case, but all that Adityanath apparently told them was – “Justice will be done.”

The family remained silent for many months, but on April 9, when Manish Bhandari, the owner of Pushpa Sales and one of the nine accused, got bail, they realised they needed to expedite Kafeel’s case.

On April 18, Kafeel wrote a 10-page letter, explaining his role and appealing for justice. He wrote, “I surrendered to save my family from humiliation and misery, thinking, when I have not done anything wrong, I should get justice.”

The family released the letter to the national media. A week later, Kafeel was granted bail by the Allahabad High Court, which ruled out charges of “negligence” against him. “I still consider those 48 hours [from August 10 night to August 12] more harrowing than the eight months in jail. I am out now, my mother has got her child back, but those parents will never get their kids back,” says Kafeel.

Indeed. Some of the families I spoke with are still not convinced about Kafeel’s innocence. Some hospital officials believe he did nothing to save lives. It is uncertain if Kafeel will ever be back in the hospital; his suspension order is yet to be revoked. He says, “If they call me respectfully, I will go back. But I am not desperate to join them. I have suffered so much humiliation and misery.”

He plans to open a hospital to treat children suffering from Japanese encephalitis. Gorakhpur badly needs one. Right now, BRDMC is the only one that caters to ailing infants from UP, Bihar and Nepal. Primary healthcare centres in Adityanath’s constituency are tardy, hence the pressure on this hospital. “My hospital would cater to the needy,” promises Kafeel, fiddling with his goatee.

In eight months, his beard had grown longer than usual, but now the goatee is back. He is dressed in a white shirt, a pair of black trousers and a chequered tie, perhaps attired for a television interview earlier in the day. He has lost around 10 kilos.

In jail, he found solace in books. He read Ken Follett’s The Pillars Of The Earth, S.J. Whitcomb’s The World Never Ends and Robin Sharma’s Who Will Cry When You Die. Says Kafeel, “My biggest lesson from these was, I should never run away from a situation.”

Our meeting is interrupted by visitors. As he shares his ordeal with them, I enter his mother’s room. She is busy surfing news channels. All these months, she has been glued to the television, hoping to hear some news related to her son’s case. But they never showed anything on him, she complains, except when he was arrested and released.

Even Kafeel thought people had forgotten him. But on the day of his release, hundreds greeted him carrying banners saying “Dr Kafeel is our hero” and “Congratulations”. “I realised I am no longer tainted,” he says.

It’s Shab-e-Barat, the night of forgiveness for Muslims. I urge him to take a family photo before he leaves to pray. He stands next to Shabista, who has been stirring biryani rice in the kitchen. He drags an unwilling Zabrina into the frame too. In a few seconds, however, the child leaves their side and rushes to feed a cow at the main door.

Looking at her fondly feeding the bovine, I wonder, what Adityanath would have to say.


1979: Khan is born to an engineer father and a homemaker mother in Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh

1998: Completes school from the Mahatma Gandhi Inter College there

2000-2012: Completes MBBS and MD from Manipal University, Karnataka

2013: Returns to Gorakhpur and joins Baba Raghav Das Medical College (BRDMC) as a senior resident for three years

2016: In August, is appointed assistant professor in the department of paediatrics

2017: Gets embroiled in the controversy that follows the BRDMC infant deaths. Goes undercover for a while but emerges thereafter and surrenders to the police

April 25, 2018: Is granted bail after spending eight months in jail


This story first appeared in The Telegraph, May 6, 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.




Vijoo Krishnan, the man behind the stirring Maharashtra farmers’ march, spells out political necessities to Sonia Sarkar


There is no forgetting the image of the resolute foot. Calloused. Caked with earth and awash with blood. The skin torn in one place, flesh exposed – raw and red, screaming. It was one among 50,000, probably many more, pairs that covered 180 kilometres from Nashik to Mumbai for rights – the rights of the farmers of Maharashtra.

The march that culminated a fortnight ago ended with the BJP-led government in Maharashtra acceding to the key demands of farmers. The man behind this massive long march, however, remains steadfast in his refusal to take any credit for it. “I was just present in solidarity with them. Leaders such as Ashok Dhawale, J.P. Gavit, Kishan Gujar and Ajit Nawale made this happen,” says 44-year-old Vijoo Krishnan, joint secretary of the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS), the largest Left-affiliated farmers’ organisation with 1.6 crore members across India.

It has been difficult to catch Vijoo who is based in Delhi but has been on the move continuously. “The biggest thing is, it was the march of the farmers for their survival,” he says, as he leans back in the white plastic chair in his office in central Delhi. His words are forceful, without being aggressive. The pleasant smile never quite leaves his face.

You would not be blamed for thinking this mass protest was really easy to pull off, except that it was not. This long march didn’t become historic overnight. It was the result of a concerted effort of the AIKS for many months to organise farmers against the neo-liberal economic policies of the state and the Centre. “Our leaders have been preparing people to walk in this heat for months. Collecting grain, firewood and essentials for making this a success,” says Vijoo, who is also a member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

He tells us how one of the comrades put out on social media a 40-second video of the rally, which caught the imagination of urban Indians. “Many social media enthusiasts, even those not belonging to our party, shared the video. Some even asked us for images which they shared on Twitter and Facebook – this forced mainstream media to cover it.”

Vijoo’s engagement with farmers’ woes is no one-off. For the last one decade, he has been proactive in raising agrarian issues related to minimum support price for crops, waiver of loans, land rights and land acquisition. And since the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power in 2014, he has been more busy than usual.

“Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s promise to bring ‘acchhe din’ or good times for farmers during the 2014 general elections campaign has fallen flat. He had promised cheaper loans, pension and insurance for farmers, fair and remunerative prices for crops as stated by the National Commission on Farmers but nothing happened. Instead, there has been a drastic cut in the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Yojna, public investment in agriculture has been reduced, and cattle farmers have been lynched in the name of cow protection,” he says.

Speaking of lynching, didn’t the AIKS recently organise a two-day meeting under the umbrella of Bhumi Adhikar Andolan, a conglomerate of 300 grassroots organisations, to address the issue? He nods. “Attacks by cow vigilantes are not just attacks on minorities and Dalits but also attacks on agriculture and the economy of the farmers.”

Has the AIKS been able to garner support of the farmers of Bengal who moved away from the Left parties following the Singur and Nandigram land acquisition controversies? “Attacks on cadres by the Trinamool Congress workers have led to a considerable fall in our membership,” says Vijoo.

The AIKS apparently had one crore members across Bengal until 2011 but the numbers dropped to 60 lakh in 2013. “It has gone up to 80 lakh now,” he points out. According to him, the farmers of Bengal are in distress under the leadership of Mamata Banerjee. His Bengal-based colleague, Amal Haldar, also told The Telegraph that reeling under huge debt since 2011, 208 potato and paddy farmers across the state have committed suicide.

Vijoo continues, “Plus, the minimum support price announced by the central government is Rs 1,550 per quintal for paddy. In Bengal, the farmers get around Rs 800-1,200 per quintal because there is no government procurement. The traders procure it, so they eat up the money.”

In one corner of Vijoo’s spartan office room is a red martyr’s column – meant to commemorate comrades who have died. It is a mobile structure and scribbled on it is the red salute – ” Amar Shaheedon ko Lal Salam“. It brings to mind the recent bloodbath between the Left and RSS workers in Kerala. According to one estimate, 85 CPI(M) workers and 65 RSS workers have been killed between 2007 and 2017. “RSS has opened shakhas even in Kannur, where the Left has the strongest base. But they have not been able to gain prominence,” says Vijoo, who originally belongs to Karivellur village in Kerala’s Kannur district.

He talks about the RSS’ violence in Tripura, how its workers have been torching CPI(M) offices there. “They started by demolishing Lenin’s statue, then they demolished statues of B.R. Ambedkar and the Dravidian icon Periyar – their intolerance makes them want all those ideologies opposing theirs to perish.”

But he doesn’t believe the Left is going to perish anytime soon? The success of the recent farmers’ rally in Maharashtra – wherein the state government agreed to waive their loans, stop forceful acquisition of farm lands and compensate farmers hit by natural calamity – is proof for Vijoo that it isn’t. “These struggles ensure that an atmosphere is created for the defeat of communal forces. We may have had electoral reverses but nobody can write off the Left just yet.”

But given the recent electoral performance of the Left, it doesn’t look like it can defeat “communal forces” by itself. Then again, the top CPI(M) leadership has refused to establish an alliance with BJP’s biggest opposition, Congress. Since the Left withdrew support for the Congress-led UPA-I government in 2008 over the Indo-US nuclear deal, the two haven’t seen eye to eye. “We have to channelise all energies to defeat the BJP in all seats, whether we are directly in the contest or not. We need not have an alliance or understanding with the Congress,” he says. Then adds, “Yet our position against the BJP as the main enemy may indirectly benefit the Congress.”

Vijoo stresses that the Congress should be clear about its strategy, especially on the recent violence by the Sangh and affiliated forces. A fact-finding report – titled “Divide and Rule in the Name of Cow”, brought out by Bhumi Adhikar Andolan this month – criticises the Congress for not taking a stand on lynching.

What does he make of Congress president Rahul Gandhi and his temple run? Does he think Congress is adopting a soft-Hindutva approach? “That also is there,” Vijoo says. “This is a hypocritical position – they have to give it up.”

And the Left’s own niggling issues – how does he see the Prakash Karat vs Sitaram Yechury fight resolve itself? “It is media hype,” he says. “Ours is a democratic party. For us, there could be different opinions but we go by what the party congress decides.”

At this point, a buzzing wasp enters the scene making Vijoo nostalgic. He recalls how a wasp stung him during his JNU days. Those days he was campaigning for the Delhi University Students’ Union elections. “I couldn’t recognise myself in the mirror for many days,” laughs the former JNU students’ union president, thus taking the sting out of an otherwise intense discussion.

We get chatting about his student days, JNU then, JNU now. The conversation turns to the current crop of student leaders from the institution – Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid, Shehla Rashid. Vijoo says that individual leaders get a lot of attention these days. “In our times, it was always the organisation that got precedence.” Could it be that this seminal philosophy defines his characteristic reticence, the reluctance he expressed earlier on at being credited with the success of the farmers’ rally? Perhaps.

We are still on JNU. And he says after a minute’s thought, “There should be better linkages between the similar ideologies that have cropped up.” If you ask him, even beyond the campus, the band of young leaders – Jignesh Mevani, Chandrashekhar Azad and Akhil Gogoi – should come together. He says, “They should be part of the issue-based unity against the communal BJP. They should organise into a new, unified force.”

Is it possible in Bengal?

“Given the kind of attacks our workers have been facing in Bengal, the corruption, compromises with communal forces and the kind of policies, Trinamool has adopted, doesn’t give any scope for electoral alliance,” he explains. 

As I get up to leave, I spot a poster with the visual of a blood-soaked trident and the nib of a fountain pen. The message scrawled on it reads: “Choose which side you are on”. That’s for us, not him. His choices couldn’t be clearer.

Enabled by the dominant political temper, shaming and bashing Muslims is fast becoming an accepted trend among India’s cosmopolitan smart set. And it begins early, at school. Sonia Sarkar reports on why this should worry us all.

When 12-year-old Noopur invited her friend Asifa home for her birthday party, her father said, “Do you really want to call a Muslim home?” Asifa attended the party but when she got to know about the reservations of the host family, she distanced herself from Noopur. “I don’t want to engage with anybody who looks at me differently because of my religious identity,” says the Class VIII student of a prominent west Delhi school.

Two years ago, on August 13, students of a posh Greater Noida school were exchanging greetings. “Happy Independence Day in advance,” each said to the other; it was going to be a two-day school break. Class V student Abirah, however, forgot to add the “in advance” bit to her greeting. That did it. A classmate immediately started to taunt her saying, “It’s Independence Day for you today because you are from ‘P’ [or Pakistan, apparently the geography that must not be named].” There was the factual inaccuracy – Pakistan’s Independence Day is August 14 – but their barbs found their mark. Abirah, the only Muslim girl in class, was horrified. On returning home, she asked her mother, Hafiza Sheikh, if she was a Pakistani. “I told her, no, you are an Indian,” Hafiza tells The Telegraph.

It is not that Muslim children were never teased about their religious identity before. The difference lately is that stigmatisation of Muslims as “Pakistanis”, “terrorists”, “beef-eaters”, “wife abusers”, “polygamists”, etc. is no longer limited to the economically disadvantaged or socially conservative sections of the populace. Urban educated Muslims, professional success and consequent financial well-being notwithstanding, are also targets.

Travelling through forwards from smartphone to smartphone; echoed by the ruling political dispensation in word and deed, discussed in “in” conversations in carpeted living rooms – these stigmas have found their way into mainstream Indian consciousness as life-truths. And as happens with life-truths, they are being handed down to the next generation with all the ceremony and seriousness reserved for all things heirloom.

In the 2018 book, Mothering a Muslim, Nazia Erum writes extensively on this. Erum, who is based in Noida in the National Capital Region, captures in her book how Muslim children from affluent families are bullied by peers in elite schools across India’s metros and how the current political climate is responsible for this.

In her book, she narrates the experience of one Asma Rizwan, a professor of English. When Asma was asked by a neighbour, in the 1970s, “Are you a Muslim?” she had replied, ” Tum hoge Mussalman – main toh Asma hoon… You might be a Muslim, I am Asma.” Erum adds, “But when a kindergarten student is asked the same today, she replies, ‘Yes, I am a Muslim but I don’t eat beef’.”

Putting out disclaimers, even as one breathes, is tedious way to be. It is easier to bring on the counter-offence.

Delhi-based counsellor Geetanjali Kumar cites one time when a Class VII student of an east Delhi school was asked to pull down his pants by his non-Muslim classmates. They had also teased, calling him “Mulla-Pulla”. He retaliated with stinging gendered abuses. “During counselling, he asked me: If they are right, how am I wrong?” says Geetanjali.

Erum writes about an incident, wherein 17-year-old Raffat was called terrorist by a classmate. When his mother took up the matter with the other child’s parent, the latter said Raffat too had called her child fat. “Fat and terrorist – are they same?” Erum asks.

In an open letter #MotherAgainstBullying, Erum writes: “While the situation often borders on violence among boys, it mostly comes out in the form of subtle jokes among girls: ‘ Kya tumhare mamma papa bomb banate hain? [Do your parents make bombs at home?]’ and sometimes as misogyny along with Islamophobia in statements like ‘Isn’t your father angry that your legs are exposed in your skirt? Is he part of ISIS? Will he shoot us?'” Juvenile, yes, but not too different from public and political rhetoric that is turning pervasive.

Politicians such as the BJP’s Giriraj Singh and Surendra Singh never tire of saying, Muslims will be packed off to Pakistan if they don’t support beef ban or don’t chant Bharat Mata Ki Jai or Vande Mataram. BJP MP Vinay Katiyar said Muslims should not even be living in India. “Acceptability of anti-Muslim feelings has become part of the popular culture, which is reflected in elite schools. Since the easily available Muslim is the person in your class, he or she is targeted,” says Hilal Ahmed, associate professor of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi.

He adds, “When the non-Muslim elite children see that their Muslim peers are also equipped to avail of the same privileges as they do, they cannot fit them into the stereotypical image of the poor and suffering Muslim they have formed. By bullying, they assert their superiority, using the idiom of nationalism. The message is – you are also powerful like I am but you are a traitor and I am a patriot – commonly heard outside schools, too.”

Stereotyped beliefs about Muslims might have existed in the minds of many non-Muslims for decades. But what is happening now is different.

In the existing political climate, prejudices are not just flourishing but parading as indisputable truths. Mumbai-based media professional Arif Ahmed, who studied in a convent school in Nashik, recalls how his friends used to address him by the Marathi cuss word for circumcised men but he never took offence. “There was no malice,” he says. He adds, “But now, if any child calls a classmate by such a name, it would be an informed choice.”

Hafiza, who is the mother of the Greater Noida school student, Abirah, says her daughter has become extra conscious of her Muslim identity. She says, “Abirah tells me not to say khuda haafiz or salaam – salutations typical to the Muslim community – over the phone when I am in her school premises.”

Bangalore-based Anuradha Alize Ahmed’s Bengali Hindu mother, Anuradha Basu, says, her child is not too open about embracing her “Muslim side” either. “She avoids saying her full name. I assume she doesn’t want to feel out of place because she doesn’t have Muslim friends,” says Anuradha.

Twenty years ago when Anuradha Alize’s father, Rumman Ahmed, routinely travelled to Delhi from Calcutta on train, he never gave his full name while booking the ticket. “India has had a history of communal violence. If something happens, a Muslim will be the first to be identified,” says Rumman. It was a subversion of identity and as subversions go, not a happy thing, but voluntary nevertheless.

Saima, mother of Class VIII student Asifa, witnessed many riots in Kanpur in the 1990s as a child but never felt alienated. But she, too, believes that the anti-Muslim sentiment deeply ingrained in people’s psyche today is here to stay. In Asifa’s class, conversations about “why do Muslims pray aloud” or “why do they keep a beard” are not uncommon.

Abhishek Kabir, a law student based in Calcutta, was once told by someone that his eyes were just like a Muslim’s. “This person was possibly trying to suggest I apply surma. I laughed and took it as a compliment,” he says.

Mumbai-based media professional Afrida Rahman, whose children go to an international school and have never faced Muslim-shaming, plans a similar line of combat if it comes to that. “If my child is called a Pakistani, I would say, ask your friend, what’s wrong with being one?” Some schools are doing their bit. At Springdales (Pusa Road), Delhi, contemporary political and social issues are discussed. But compared to the epidemic at hand, one-off efforts seem like too little, too late.

When it does not come down to finger-pointing, prejudice finds expression in social exclusion. Psychologist Rajat Mitra talks about a Muslim teen who attends school in south Delhi. He says, “Whenever she is part of a night-out plan, mothers of other girls in the group do not allow their kids to join.” These things, however subtle, affect a young mind.

Often, it leads to self-censorship too. When Abirah’s aunt, Ghazala Wahab, who runs a magazine on national security, narrated her niece’s episode – her classmates had taunted her over the Independence Day greeting – on Facebook, her brother wanted her to remove the post fearing his child would be identified. “I was more upset with this defeatist mindset of a family member,” says Ghazala.

She recalls when she was in school in Agra 28 years ago, Muslims didn’t have to be so conscious of their identity. Acceptability among non-Muslim friends was never a problem. “They demanded scrumptious kebabs from my mom’s kitchen but my niece never takes non-vegetarian food to school,” she says.

In a situation where there is no scope for dialogue or air clearing, this dogged othering has behavioral fallouts. In some cases, Muslim children are left feeling more determined than ever to wear their religion on their person. “They are often told by the haraam police [haraam means sacrilege] they can’t do this or that or they are not doing enough to be a Muslim which confuses them,” says Erum.

Experts feel that for some, harbouring radical thoughts is often seen as a befitting reply to alienation, which may lead to systematic radicalisation. A study titled “Why join ISIS? The Causes of Terrorism from the Muslim Youth Perspective” by University of Huddersfield, UK, stated alienation and discrimination are common drivers of terrorism. “Radical ideologues play upon the vulnerability and pain. If you see the trend worldwide, intelligent children belonging to affluent families are getting radicalised,” says Mitra.

Erum cautions in her book: “In today’s political climate we have to be concerned about where and how far we are pushing our children.” Indeed.

Published in The Telegraph : March 25, 2018


  • ranginee09: It is clear, justice eludes many but to imprison a man for his humanitarian deeds in a civilised society leaves an permanent blotch in our criminal ju
  • ranginee09: The article points-out a very pertinent social ill. Social ostracisation in childhood may have unwanted results later in life. A child victim is not a
  • Seeker and her search: Thanks for reading, Anne. Yes, I know what you are saying.