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Sonia Sarkar travels to South Africa, the land where Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi came into his own, and stumbles upon an unpleasant reality.

” You gave us Mohandas Gandhi, we returned him to you as Mahatma Gandhi” – Nelson Mandela

When Durban resident Thabi Myeni was nine, she learnt that Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was a peace-loving freedom fighter and one of South Africa’s struggle icons. Says Myeni, a student of KwaZulu-Natal University, “That Gandhi was anti-Black, I discovered only now.” Since the discovery, the 20-year-old’s list of national heroes – Nelson Mandela, Steve Biko, Robert Sobukwe and Teboho “Tsietsi” MacDonald Mashinini – has grown shorter by a name.

As an Indian visiting South Africa, one would like to believe that Gandhi is widely celebrated here. In recent times, the Indian government has also enforced that narrative.

In 2016, Prime Minister Narendra Modi took the train from Pentrich to Pietermaritzburg, the same one that the young Gandhi was thrown out of in 1893. He also launched a permanent exhibition showcasing the lives of Gandhi and Nelson Mandela at the Old Fort in Johannesburg’s Constitution Hill, former prison complex and currently seat of the Constitutional Court of South Africa. Last year, minister of state for defence, V.K. Singh, inaugurated a Gandhi museum in Durban.

But interactions with locals reveal a growing resentment against Gandhi. In 2015, Gandhi’s statue at Johannesburg was painted white by a man who was part of the larger campaign against Gandhi. Protesters demonstrated with placards reading “Racist Gandhi must fall”. Around that time the hashtag #Ghandimustfall took Twitter by storm. (Ghandi is a popular way of spelling Gandhi in South Africa.)

In 2012, the African grassroots organisation, Mazibuye African Forum, rejected the suggestion that Gandhi should be respected as an anti-colonial figure in South Africa’s history. And even before that, in 2007, several thousand copies of US-based Indian academic Velu Annamalai’s Gandhi: A Stooge of the White South African Government, which depicts Gandhi’s proximity to the Whites, were circulated in Durban.

Many believe that fuelling the Gandhi hatred further was the 2015 book, The South African Gandhi. Written by South Africa-based professors Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed, one of the points the book makes is that Gandhi’s South African avatar was an Empire loyalist. The writers dwell on how Gandhi regarded the Boer-Brit war (1899-1902) as an opportunity to demonstrate his loyalty to the Empire.

The other grouse – and perhaps a bigger one – against Gandhi is voiced by Vahed. He says, “While he was in South Africa, his concern was solely with the Indian minority.”

Indeed, historically, there is no evidence to show that Gandhi had any links with Black leaders of South Africa such as Solomon Plaatje, John Langalibalele Dube and John Tengo Jabavu or their fight against racism.

Founder of the revolutionary socialist party, Black First Land First, Andile Mngxitama says present-day Blacks regard “Ghandi” as a tool of colonialism. “He is no hero of ours,” says Mngxitama. “He supported more taxes on the impoverished African people and turned a blind eye to the brutality of the Empire on Africans,” he adds.

Lawyer Princewill Ubani, who runs a blog called Facts About Africa, is well acquainted with Gandhi’s racial speeches. He tells The Telegraph, how at a speech in Mumbai in 1896, Gandhi stated that the Europeans in Natal wished to degrade Indians to the level of the “raw kaffir“, whose occupation was hunting and whose sole ambition “to collect a certain number of cattle to buy a wife with, and then, pass his life in indolence and nakedness”.

Says Ubani, “He [Gandhi] used the racial slur ‘ kaffir‘ repeatedly to refer to native Blacks. That’s the equivalent of a White calling an African-American ‘nigger’ in the US.”

When Ubani posted Gandhi’s racist comments on Twitter in 2015, comments poured in from fellow South Africans. One wrote, “I wish he was alive so I could shoot him again.” Another person commented, “This is why I’m always complaining about other Indians not caring about Black rights.”

In 1893, at the request of a wealthy Gujarati merchant, the 24-year-old barrister, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, arrived in South Africa to resolve a commercial dispute with a family member. Eventually, he started raising concerns of the Indians who lived there – mostly indentured labourers, passenger migrants, traders, moneylenders and petty shopkeepers.

One of the main concerns of Indians was the bill that sought to disenfranchise them – the Natives Legislative Assembly Bill of 1894. In their petitions against it, the Indians, with Gandhi as their spokesman, complained that it would “rank the Indian lower than the rawest Native”.

In the paper “Gandhi and the Black People of South Africa”, James D. Hunt writes: “When his civil disobedience began Indians were jailed with the Natives, and Gandhi led protests over being given the Native diet and about having to share cells with them.”

Ela Gandhi is the granddaughter of the Mahatma and the caretaker of the Gandhi museum at Durban’s Phoenix settlement, which is also considered the birthplace of Satyagraha. When asked about Gandhi’s discriminatory ways, she says, “His views were a result of his lack of contact with the African people in the early years of his stay in South Africa. His later experiences made him understand things differently and his views changed.”

Adds Arun Gandhi, Gandhi’s grandson, “Gandhi was not born a Mahatma. He was born an ordinary person but had the innate desire to become a better person. As a young barrister he was full of arrogance and British culture.”

Gandhi might be a much debated, even disliked figure in present-day South Africa, but loved or hated, he has always been part of the popular discourse of the country.

“Many of those fighting apartheid did take lessons from Gandhi. His philosophy remains embedded in the culture of South Africa as it does globally,” says Sello Hatang, the CEO of Nelson Mandela Foundation, a Johannesburg-based non-profit organisation. Mandela himself was inspired by Gandhi and his ideas of non-violence.

The small and big Gandhi memorials all over South Africa are proof of the embeddedness Hatang talks about. Johannesburg’s central business district, where Gandhi appeared at the courthouse, is called Gandhi Square. There is a Gandhi Memorial in Johannesburg’s Fordsburg to commemorate the protests by the Indian community in 1908, when the anti-Asian Black Act came into existence. There is also a Mahatma Gandhi Memorial hospital in Durban.

A lot of these memorials came up during the Mandela years, when the idea of a multicultural or Rainbow nation was still popular. “But that Rainbow faded as economic problems and race tensions surfaced,” says Vahed.

Other social scientists also point out that the tension between Indians and native South Africans is not new. There are reasons enough for this. During the apartheid era (1948-1991), Indians managed to build their own institutions of education and trade networks, while the Blacks enjoyed minimum rights. Even after apartheid ended, a significant portion of Indians was well placed to take up new opportunities – economic and political – but a large section of Blacks was still doing menial jobs. This animosity has only intensified over the years.

Blacks believe that like Gandhi, Indians are also influenced by colonial conditioning. Last July, South African revolutionary socialist political party Economic Freedom Fighters’ commander-in-chief, Julius Malema, said the success of Indian businesses in KwaZulu Natal was based on their strategies of exploitation and monopolisation of the economy. Educated unemployed Blacks believe Indians are being given preference for jobs and government tenders. Many young Blacks have, in fact, resorted to violence to press forth their demands.

In this climate, it has become easier to project a racial hostility stemming from political, social and economic inequalities onto a representative figure. Hence, the altered reading of Gandhi. Says Hatang, “Gandhi and his statues have become sights of contention over the hierarchy of inequality that apartheid sowed and its continued manifestations in democratic South Africa.”

In “Gandhi And The Black People Of South Africa”, Hunt puts things in perspective. He speaks of the general tendency to wish that heroes would have been consistently heroic throughout their lives. And then drawing attention to the reality of Gandhi, he writes, “Gandhi began as a perfectly ordinary intelligent lawyer trying to establish a career. In time he transformed himself into something else. It is that transformation which should interest us.”




The ruling Sangh has taken upon itself the task of educating our educators. Sonia Sarkar takes a close look at the altered grammar of teachers’ training programmes .


LESSON PLAN: Atul Kothari (right), national secretary of Shiksha Sanskriti Utthan Nyas, addressing teachers at CPDHE
Picture: Sonia Sarkar

A class is in progress. A man in white kurta-pyjama and a blue Nehru jacket is on the dais. He chants, ” Hey Prabhu, mrityu do Akhand Bharat mein… Dear Lord, I wish to die in undivided India.” Next, he extends both hands towards the audience and asks, ” Sauda manzoor ki nahin… Are you game or no?” “Yeeeesss,” the audience responds in chorus. “So raise both your hands,” the man commands. “Bharat Mata ki jai!” he cries out thrice and the audience repeats after him and, thereafter, dissolves into claps and cheers.

The venue: Delhi University’s Centre for Professional Development in Higher Education (CPDHE). The occasion: An orientation programme and refresher course for university teachers. In the audience are 220 central university teachers from across the country.

Nationalist chest thumping is the new normal. Here too, the class leader is a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh leader, Indresh Kumar; no surprises there. The surprise, if at all, lies elsewhere.

Picture: Sonia Sarkar

The point of the four-week orientation and three-week refresher courses is to widen the repertoire of educationists through lectures by seasoned academics and professionals. The thrust of these is supposed to be on the use of e-learning in curricula, innovations in classroom teaching, stress management, conflict management, environmental threats… The exercise is non-negotiable for career advancement and crucial to promotions.

In previous years, the CPDHE’s speaker list has included former election commissioner S.Y. Quraishi, historian Irfan Habib, former Delhi University vice-chancellors Deepak Nayyar and Deepak Pental. So what’s with Indresh Kumar raising slogans now?

Ask and you learn that since 2014, teachers’ orientations have developed a Right spin. The list of speakers drawn up by the CPDHE now frequently includes the likes of Indresh Kumar, BJP general secretary Ram Madhav, Right-wing ideologue K.N. Govindacharya, editor of the RSS mouthpiece, Organiser, Prafulla Ketkar, and so on.

Discussions and addresses, no matter what the broad title, eventually boil down to lectures on the “bad influences of the West”, Jawaharlal Nehru’s vices and, of course, Akhand Bharat. The last refers to the RSS belief that one day India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Indonesia, and indeed vast parts of Afghanistan, will reunite through popular goodwill. The talks are delivered in Sanskritised Hindi, ignoring the fact that many attending teachers are from non-Hindi speaking states.

This particular winter morning, Indresh Kumar and the other speakers are supposed to speak on the topic “Eternal Indian Culture, Spiritualism and Life Values”. The panel is diverse – the newly appointed vice-chancellor of Pondicherry University, Gurmeet Singh; professor of the Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies in Varanasi, Wangchuk Dorjee Negi; and the vice-chancellor of Jamia Millia Islamia, Talat Ahmad. And, of course, there is Indresh Kumar.

All very well, except that the programme comes to be so tweaked that Kumar gets more than an hour to hold forth on Hindutva, while the others have to wrap up their speeches in five to seven minutes.

Once on stage, Kumar perhaps forgets he is not campaigning for votes. And that among his audience are qualified educators across disciplines. Soon, his speech outgrows the subject at hand. First comes some Congress bashing. He tells the teachers, “Congress under the leadership of Nehru didn’t get freedom for India; he divided the country.”

Next, he presents some startling statistics. He says, “In a span of two months after Partition, over three crore people were displaced, 10 lakh people died, four lakh women committed suicide to save their honour and 1,300 temples and gurdwaras were destroyed.” Mind you, no source, no attribution offered. There is only his word for it.

Historian and former professor of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) Mridula Mukherjee says, “Credible sources quote that there were losses but they were much smaller in number as compared to this. Plus, the figure about women is absolutely off the mark.”

The CPDHE’s orientation programme is thus lost in nationalistic rhetoric, leaving many teachers angry. A few come forward to say as much, but fearing consequences, do not wish to be identified. “They are training to brainwash us. This is not what I came for,” says a teacher from the Northeast.

The teacher’s anger brings to mind a chillingly prophetic film from the 1980s – Satyajit Ray’s Hirak Rajar Deshe. In the film, the tyrant king attempts to consolidate his power and position with the help of an ingenious invention – the brainwashing chamber. Systematically, different sections of the populace – peasants, miners, labourers – are rounded up and all individual thought erased and replaced by new pro-establishment chants.

In Ray’s film, the Raja’s most formidable, most intelligent, most indomitable adversary is the educationist. The Raja wants the school shut down and the teachers and students brainwashed.

Orientation programmes and refresher courses are a must for college and university teachers. The invitee list is drawn up by the institution, no direct state interference.

The CPDHE is not alone in thus yielding space and place to the empowered Right-wing. The Academic Staff College of JNU, which is responsible for training teachers, has also upped the number of Right-inspired speakers and trainers in recent times. The director of the Academic Staff College of Jamia Millia Islamia, Anisur Rahman, too admits there is informal pressure from the academic world to invite RSS ideologues. “But I refuse to give in,” he says.

At a JNU teachers’ training programme, a guest prescribed satsang for teachers after retirement. In yet another session, participating teachers were targeted for their proximity to Left-leaning academics. “Since I did my PhD under historian Irfan Habib, a guest speaker told me, ‘Habib has distorted history; now we are going to rewrite history.’ When I objected, he said, ‘If you want a career, you should never object.'”

At a training programme in DU two years ago, when Jesus and Mary College teacher Richa Raj objected to a guest’s speaker’s insistence on lecturing in sanskritised Hindi because according to him, ‘Hindi hamari rashtra bhasha hai,’ she was told off thus : ” Aap shant nahin hai. Aap swasth nahin hai…You are not at peace, you are not well.” Amit Suman, a teacher from Kirori Mal College, who attended the same session, recalls how one speaker likened subatomic particles – electrons, protons and neutrons – to the Hindu Trinity of Brahma-Vishnu-Maheshwar.

Does this mean that the Narendra Modi dispensation at the Centre is arm-twisting teachers and higher academic institutions into toeing its political line and becoming propaganda instruments? It isn’t as if politics or governments haven’t influenced or tried to dominate academia in the past, but what’s beginning to unfold on campus institutions is probably a more brazen thrust by the powers to impose its worldview which is often at variance with pluralist and inclusive ideas of India itself.

Blatant myth-making continues full steam. In one of the DU sessions titled “Indian Thoughts and Thinkers”, Mahesh Chandra Sharma, a former BJP MP, brings up Ram Mandir. He also asks, “But what about Luvpur [present day Lahore] that Ram’s son, Luv, had created?”

Kumar talks about banished Chinese forces from Doklam and how Kailash-Mansarovar in Tibet was never China’s. “We should get it back,” he thunders. It is a different matter that over 1,600 Chinese troops are still camping in Bhutan’s Doklam area and that historians say there is no evidence that Mount Kailash was part of India. And then suddenly he is talking economics. “I will say, ‘Chinese goods’, you will say, ‘Talaq, talaq, talaq’.” It is all about bombast and marking the enemy to rouse the dormant Hindu in everyone.

At one of these sessions, Ram Madhav, says, “The future of this country depends on whether the last man on this country’s soil has love for it or not.” ” Mitron,” he intones after a fashion that is by now well-known to every Indian. Such is the power of repetition.

A Muslim teacher from the South who attended the CPDHE session says, “The guests tell us lies, they are propagating RSS ideology. This is dangerous.” But voices of protest are rare, most people are aware that the wise thing to do is acquiesce. Gurpreet Kaur, who is from Shri Ram College of Commerce, says, “It is okay to learn these things. We often tend to ignore our past and our culture.”

But veteran academicians are extremely worried. They can see what some of the others are too close to fathom. Says Mridula Mukherjee, “This is not a public space where political leaders can come and speak; this is a platform where subject experts of eminence come to interact with teachers. That’s the norm set by the University Grants Commission.”

“Teachers are being given regressive, and bigoted information, rather misinformation is masquerading as knowledge,” says Upinder Singh, who teaches History at DU. “There is absolutely no connection with what we are supposed to do to become world-class universities and what is happening on the ground.”

CPDHE director Geeta Singh, however, defends her agenda as an exercise in “Indianness”. She says, “Keeping in mind the recent developments in the universities – the JNU episode and the agitation over Rohith Vemula’s death – we need to keep our campuses sanitised; hence these sessions.”

And so it all boils down to sanitisation. Swachh Bharat.


Ahead of Swami Vivekananda’s 155th birth anniversary, Sonia Sarkar reports on Hindutva’s concerted bid to co-opt him and how unfitting that effort is

Last February a group of students congregated at the foot of the life-size statue of Swami Vivekananda in Delhi University’s Arts Faculty complex. The black sculpture of the 19th century sage-philosopher is modelled on the famed Chicago pose – turban on head, buttoned up robe, sash around waist, head at an angle, square jaw and bulky frame creating an aura of confidence and composure, folded arms suggest a stolid defence, and making benign the overall effect, a pair of soulful eyes. One T.J. Desai, who was associated with the establishment of the early Vedanta circle in London and had attended Vivekananda’s lectures, had commented – he looked more prince and less sadhu.

That day at Delhi Univer-sity (DU), slogans such as “Hindustan me rehna hoga, Vande Mataram kehna hoga” and “Bharat ke gaddaron ko, goli maaro saalon ko” filled the air. The next thing you knew, a scuffle had broken out between the ABVP crowd and the Left-wing students’ organisation of DU’s Ramjas College. The issue: JNU student leader Umar Khalid, a virulent opponent of the RSS-BJP led Right-wing, had been invited to speak at a literary event in the college.

The invitation to Khalid was cancelled, but a year hence, ABVP’s national media convener Saket Bahuguna tells The Telegraph, “Vivekananda stood for unity and integrity of the country. We were protesting against someone who believes in breaking up India.”

A comparison of the original 1893 Thomas Harrison photograph of Vivekananda taken at Chicago and DU’s stone rendition reveals a difference. The eyes of the statue are narrowed, the brows a wee bit more angular. Is the mouth also a bit too firm? Is this Vivekananda more warrior than sadhu?

Icons are supposed to help beam onto the masses a particular ideology, emblazon in people’s minds the dominant thought of the times, also checkmate icons of the previous regime. Ever since it assumed power in 2014, the BJP government has been working to create its own iconography.

But not many Indians are aware what V.D. Savarkar or Deendayal Upadhyaya or M.S. Golwalkar look like. Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel is not invisible, but not visible enough. After Ram perhaps, Vivekananda is the only other icon in the BJP-RSS quiver with an already accepted visual identity and a recall value.

Besides, there is that ready-made saffron hue; the famed Chicago story – the 1893 Parliament of the World’s Religions and a dashing Hindu rep; and, of course, the echo of a name. In 2016, BJP’s national general secretary Ram Madhav said, “Narendras tend to be courageous,” drawing a parallel between the PM Narendra Modi and Vivekananda, who was born Narendranath Dutta.

As professor of Religion and Asian Studies at Pennsylvania’s Elizabethtown College, Jeffery D. Long, puts it, “It is convenient for the Right-wingers to invoke Vivekananda because he is universally accepted. It is easier to convince people about your agenda or ideology if you cite him in favour of the point of view you propagate.”

Not one to miss an opportunity that might gain traction, yield more votes, the BJP does just that. Today, Vivekananda’s face powers countless campaigns – Swachh Bharat, women’s empowerment… References to him abound in the PM’s speeches – be it at the US Congress or in his radio show, Mann Ki Baat. Three years ago, a webpage was launched by the Centre to mark the 152nd Birth Anniversary of Vivekananda on January 12, which is also celebrated as National Youth Day. Some will recall how way back in 2012, Modi did a “Vivekananda Yuva Vikas Yatra” before the Gujarat Assembly elections, wherein a statue of Vivekananda was rolled out atop a chariot. In 2014, a comic book titled Bal Narendra was released – it also features stories of the “fearless” young Narendra reading books on Vivekananda.

In truth, though, it was Rajiv Gandhi who declared Vivekananda’s birthday as National Youth Day in 1984; there are extensive writings on him by Jawaharlal Nehru; Mahatma Gandhi spoke extensively about him, even visited Belur Math, the headquarters of the Ramakrishna Mission. But all of these are conscious and deliberate omissions by Right-wingers who have decided to foist Vivekananda on the general Indian consciousness as the flagbearer of Hindutva ideology.

And that’s problematic because?


Because they are half-truths, extrapolations. Because they are merely imposing their brand of Hindutva onto him.

The appropriation of Vivekananda did not happen overnight. The RSS’s first mega Vivekananda project was the construction of the Vivekananda Rock Memorial in 1970 at Kanyakumari. It was the initiative of RSS heavyweight Eknath Ranade. The Vivekananda statue in DU was set up in 1978, when BJP leader Vijay Goel was the Delhi University Students’ Union president. In 1993, during the centenary celebrations for Vivekananda’s Chicago speech, Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader Ashok Singhal had said that the demolition of Babri Masjid would be recorded in “letters of gold” and Hindus would not rest till the Ram Mandir was built.

This yolking of man, agenda and event was grossly unfair, but there it was. In 2009, a Right-wing think tank, Vivekananda International Foundation, was established in Delhi under the aegis of the charitable organisation, Vivekananda Kendra, run by Ranade. Among its lead cast used to be Ajit Doval, currently the national security adviser.

 A pose, a speech, a robe, a name, some quotes – it is possible to reduce Vivekananda to tropes, except that the man was much more. The evidence is in his upbringing and education. The evidence lies in his written and spoken word.According to a bio-sketch in the Dictionary of National Biography, 1974, Vivekananda’s home atmosphere was a blend of modernism and orthodoxy. His brother, Bhupendranath, has written about how their father “was a respecter of the Bible and the Diwan-i-Hafiz”, for which he was criticised by many. He writes, “If it be a sin to be a student of comparative religion and to respect all cults, then Biswanath [Vivekananda’s father] had undoubtedly committed that sin.” Their mother, Bhuvaneswari Devi, who made an abiding impression on Vivekananda, was a devout Hindu.

So far as formal education goes, Narendranath did BA from Scottish Church College, and thereafter studied Law – he did not take the final examinations, though. He was widely read, hugely invested in social reforms and knowledgeable about the Vedas. “He was a reformer and criticised prevalent practices of Hindu religion just as he might be critical of Christian or Islamic religious practices,” says historian Mridula Mukherjee.

Did Vivekananda put a premium on Hindusim? Yes, he did. According to Jeffery Long, Vivekananda was convinced that if Hindus could awaken to their past greatness, they could live with dignity and pride in their traditions. But Long also makes it clear that this did not translate into hatred for other traditions.

Vivekananda did say of Islam that it was a religion that had “shed so much blood” and “been cruel to other men”, but he also said this – “For our own motherland a junction of the two great systems, Hinduism and Islam – Vedanta brain and Islam body – is the only hope. I see in my mind’s eye the future perfect India rising out of this…”

And when Vivekananda spoke about Hinduism, he did not use the word “Hindutva” – that was a coinage of Savarkar. “Vivekananda warned against the forces of sectarianism and bigotry and invoked the Bhagavad Gita to emphasise the message of universal acceptance. But not many understand it,” says Veena Howard, a trustee member of the Parliament of the World’s Religions, a global interfaith body.

In recent times, Hindu groups have been using Vivekananda to force-feed their neo-nationalism. The way it works is, they proceed by negation. They define things that are considered anti-national, such as denouncing Western culture, beef eating… And every time, they push down people’s throats a theory, they invoke Vivekananda. “Vivekananda realised that Western culture was not good for him.” (He actually spoke against Western Imperialism.) “Vivekananda said eating beef is disgusting.” (He actually conceded that Brahmins at some point ate beef; he also said it was allowable for people who work hard, but not for those who are going to be bhaktas.)

Long points out that the word “nationalism” is used only once in Swami Vivekananda’s Complete Works, and that too in reference to European nationalism; but there are a number of references to “patriotism” – not surprising given the immediate context was the freedom movement.

In Bengal, the BJP has turned Vivekananda into a people bait. In 2013, Modi meditated in Vivekananda’s room in Belur Math. In 2017, BJP president Amit Shah went to Vivekananda’s north Calcutta house to pay tribute. The RSS organised a film festival in Calcutta titled “Manush Chai” to promote “nationalism and Indian ethos”. The posters had on them Vivekananda’s image and a famous quote – “Give me hundred energetic young men and I shall transform India.” The saffron forces are actually body-shopping.

Of course, Bengal state general secretary of the RSS, Jisnu Basu, says, “Our mission is man-making. We want the youth to make this country prosperous just as Vivekananda wanted. That was the essence of the festival too.”

And while there are murmurs of protest, there has been no concentrated effort, no strong voice objecting to this misappropriation of Vivekananda. Internationally, however, there have been stray efforts to resuscitate his teachings of acceptance and inclusiveness.

In 2013, on the occasion of his 150th birth anniversary, Australian playwright and director Alex Broun’s play, Oneness – Voice without form, was staged at the Sydney Opera House. He tells The Telegraph over email, “The play carried the message of Vedanta that all religions in essence are same.”

Actors from nine countries including Sri Lanka and Palestine came together to perform. Calcutta-based actor-singer Shaheb Chattopadhyay played the lead. He speaks about how Vivekananda’s idea of oneness was reflected in the play as it had actors of different nationalities and faiths “coming under one roof for one purpose”. He adds, “Each one of us brought in his idea of love, peace and acceptance.”

Chattopadhyay makes another observation. He tells us how the play was staged in Australia and Dubai, but did not find any sponsors in Calcutta. He says, “It is so unfortunate that nobody is keen to sponsor a play on Vivekananda in his birthplace. That clearly reflects the apathy of the people.”

Indeed, it is one thing for the forces of Hindutva to misappropriate Vivekananda, quite another thing to let them do so.

Or, eventually, for them to be able to.

(This story was published in The Telegraph, January 7, 2018 —


Here are the interviews of Calcutta-based actor-singer Shaheb Chattopadhyay and Australian playwright and director Alex Broun.

Shaheb Chattopadhyay played the lead in Broun’s “Oneness — voice without form”, a play based on the life of Swami Vivekananda. Chattopadhyay, who received standing ovation from the audience at the historic Sydney Opera House and at Brisbane for his impressive performance in September 2013, calls it the most memorable experience of his acting career so far. Broun says, Chattopadhyay’s resemblance to Vivekananda in voice, stature and appearance is truly remarkable. A marvellous singer, Chattopadhyay also sang two songs in the play.  Many would know, Vivekananda himself was a very good singer.


Pic: Shaheb Chattopadhyay with Dana Dajani, a Palestinian actor who played Sister Nivedita in the play at Sydney Opera House (September 2013).

Excerpts from Shaheb Chattopadhyay’s telephonic interview.

Q. What was so special about performing in ‘Oneness’?

A. It was an experience of a lifetime for me. It would always remain special for me, personally and professionally.

I was going through a personal crisis when I had to leave for Australia for nearly two months for the play in 2013. My father was suffering from a terminal illness; I was in two minds — whether to go or not. But my father said, the show must go on and I must perform. He promised, he will be there for me when I am back and he did keep his promise. When I came back, I showed him the recording of our performance at Brisbane; he was thrilled. It was a highly emotional moment for both of us.

(His father passed away in January the next year).

Professionally, I would say, this has been one of the most significant works of my career, so far. Working with actors from nine different countries — playing Vivekananda at the Sydney Opera House in front of international audience — receiving huge applause from them — it was a fantastic experience.

Q. How did the play bring in Vivekananda’s idea of oneness? How did your co-artists see him?

A. The idea of Vivekananda’s “oneness” was reflected in the play as actors of different nationalities, culture and religious beliefs came under one roof for one purpose. Each one of us brought in Vivekananda’s idea of love, peace, tolerance and acceptance. Also, all the co-artists looked prepared. They read his teachings extensively, they knew what he stood for.

 Q. How do you see the relevance of Vivekananda and his “oneness” in today’s divisive India?

A. Vivekananda spoke about acceptance but we have failed to understand what he stood for. In India, we are becoming extremely divisive and intolerant. It is unfortunate that what we are witnessing today is what Vivekananda had feared India will become, more than 100 years ago.

Q.How do you see the appropriation of Vivekananda by certain political parties in our country?

A. Politicians are using Vivekananda’s name and image for pocket interests. It’s nothing but a political gimmick.  I am not sure how many of them actually understand Vivekananda in true sense.

Q. Do you plan to stage the play in India?

A. I have been trying to get sponsorship for the play in Calcutta but failed. It clearly shows the apathy of the people. It is one thing to invoke Vivekananda in speeches or use his image in political events and it is another thing to actually make an effort to understand him through a genuine piece of work on him.


Interview with Alex Broun

Fifty-two-year-old Australian playwright and screenwriter, Alex Broun has worked extensively with short and sweet, a series of theatre festivals for productions of ten minutes or less. Born in Sydney, Australia, he has been referred to as “the Shakespeare of short plays.” Oneness – Voice without form was commissioned by the Vedanta Society of New South Wales in honour of the 150th birth anniversary of Swami Vivekananda.

(Excerpts from the E-mail interview with Alex Broun

Q. Why did you write this play? What influenced you to explore Swami Vivekananda?

A. Oneness – Voice without form was commissioned by the Vedanta Society of New South Wales in honour of the 150th birth anniversary of Swami Vivekananda. The play was designed to be the centerpiece of celebrations in Australia.

The play was extremely challenging to write as the Vedanta Society wanted the play to not only tell the extraordinary story of Vivekananda’s life but also encapsulate his teachings. The play also had to address his spiritual journey, which is something very unusual in Australian theatre, though more common place in Indian theatre. Vivekananda was also a renowned singer, so the play also had to give focus to that facet of his character.

After numerous consultations with the Swamis (monks) and Pravrajikas (nuns) and considerable research I decided to break the play up into four parts or acts: Vivekanandas early life as Naren; his meeting with Ramakrishna and spiritual awakening; his travels to the west, including his history making speech at the Parliament of Religions; and his return to India, where he set up the Ramakrishna Mission.

Along the way the play charted the important moments, relationships and events of his life. Although naturalistic in form the play also encompasses visual elements of movement and dance, traditional in Indian theatre, that needed to be considered when writing the play.

The play was developed through readings and workshops over a 12-month period between July 2012 and June 2013. Devotees, Swamis and Pravrajikas attended workshops of the play to give their input and feedback on the script.

It was a joyous and wonderful process to work on the play and definitely one of the highlights of my career in the theatre. It was such an important story to tell and I’m honoured I got the chance to tell it.

The play enjoyed sold out performances when it was presented at the Sydney Opera House in Sydney and at BEMAC in Brisbane. It also had a very successful season in Dubai in 2015. We hope to re-mount it again in the future.

My play is not the definitive story of Vivekananda. Hopefully many different versions of this story will be continued to be told throughout the ages.

Q.  How do you see the relevance of Vivekananda in today’s world where there is an overall rise of right-wing? Do you think creative artists and academic experts need to explore Vivekananda more in such troubled times?

A. The story of Swami Vivekananda is a truly remarkable one – and his message of oneness still as powerful as ever. How can this brilliant young man from Kolkata have affected the world and our lives so deeply? It is something everyone involved in our production was touched with since they began working on the play. Is it because his words carry such basic human truths, expressed in such heart felt lyrical phrases? Vivekananda offers us a path to peace – we simply need to open our arms and embrace it.

It was a great challenge to portray the character of Swami Vivekananda and I spent many hours reading through his complete works for many months. One man’s struggle to search for enlightenment – his life was really quite extraordinary.

He is a great character someone who wanted to find God and how he struggled to spread the message of his Guru Swami Ramakrishna. How he impressed people like John D Rockfeller and Sara Bernhardt in those days, who became his disciples. He is a great character on stage.

It took a lot of time and thought to put his life into a script, something that will carry the message of Vedanta – that all religions in essence are same though their paths may be different, with the aim to ultimately find spiritual enlightenment. Especially in today’s world which is full of tension due only to religions.

Vivekananda swept away the division and tensions between different sects and faiths. His was a doctrine of tolerance, inclusivity and compassion.

I think everyone in life – artist, teacher, politician, academic – can draw something from the teachings of Vivekananda, especially in these complex and difficult times.

There is so much friction in the world due to the concept of ‘otherness’ – Vivekananda was all about tearing down those barriers

 Q. There is a growing intolerance towards Islam – do you think Vivekananda’s teachings on religion is important to remember to fight such intolerance?

A. Absolutely. In Oneness his feisty US supporter Kate Sanborn asks him: “What is the best religion?” To which Vivekananda replies: “Choose whichever you wish – but please don’t presume to be wise enough to say that your choice is good and all others are bad.”

Such perfect and simple words which ring true now as much as they did when he uttered them over a century ago. How much more peaceful and prosperous the world would be if everyone could just embrace this message?

There is also another story where Vivekananda acknowledges and praises an Islamic holy man, much to the surprise of his fellow monks.

Vivekananda saw all religions as one – different pathways to the same destination. This vision is a treasure we must hold in our hearts on a daily basis.

Q. Would you like to stage the play in India?

A. Absolutely. We would love to stage the play in India and it would be great to see Shaheb’s portrayal come to life in Vivekananda’s homeland.

The play relates to all Hindu and Indian communities as well as all followers of Vivekananda, as well as all those interested in Vedantic principles and beliefs – so I’m sure there would be a great demand.

I hope we get a chance to re-stage it across India.

Q.  The lady who played Nivedita was a Palestinian actor Dana Dajani. what a wonderful choice- I would say. I am sure her religion was certainly not a problem to cast her. Did you think twice of her religion before casting her?

A. It was important when we staged the play that the cast represented many nationalities and beliefs – to reflect the universality of Vivekananda’s teachings and life.

When we staged the play in Australia it was performed by a mixture of professional actors, including leading Bengali actor Shaheb Chattopadhyay (who was brought in to play the older Vivekananda) and Dana Dajani (who was brought in to play Sister Nivedita), and local devotees of Vivekananda and members of the local Hindu community.

Dana is a Dubai based Muslim actress, who played the role of sister Nivedita. The Holy mother was played by Isaro Kayitsi while a South African actor Robert Rhode played Swami Ramakrishna.

The play has such a varied and multicultural cast, which was special as they were all deeply touched by the life story of this great man who changed the world through his message.”

It was a life changing experience for us all who are involved in the project.

Q. How was it working with Shaheb Chattopadhyay?

A. It was great to work with Shaheb whose resemblance to Vivekananda in voice, stature and appearance is truly remarkable. He also reprised the role in Dubai where again he was extraordinary.


Swami Vivekananda was a man of many parts. It’s impossible to understand him in totality by reading a few selected quotes or just his much celebrated speech at the Parliament of World’s Religions at Chicago in 1893. The more you read him, the more you realise, it is not enough. Indians, largely know, Vivekananda through various interpretations, and misinterpretations of his teachings, letters and speeches.

Hindu groups such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) do quote Vivekananda every time they want to emphasise their “Hindutva” ideology. He is being seen as the champion of Hindu nationalism but the fact is the word ‘nationalism’ is only used once in Swami Vivekananda’s Complete Works, and that in reference to European nationalism.

“There are a number of references to ‘patriotism’ in his works, some positive and some negative. The positive references all relate to the Indian independence movement, still in its early stages in his time. The negative one’s relate to patriotism’s limitedness and partiality,” says Professor Jeffery D. Long, Professor of Religion and Asian Studies
Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania.

“The big issue in regard to Hindu nationalism today, it seems, relates to fear and hatred of other religious communities. This issue, Vivekananda addresses very strongly throughout his works, emphasizing the unity and harmony of religions, and the ideal not only of tolerance, which he says is insufficient, but of acceptance,” Long who is writing a book titled, ‘Arise! Awake! Swami Vivekananda Speaks to the Twenty-first Century,’ adds.

Long says Vivekananda’s teaching is far too complex, profound, and expansive to be fit easily into any political party, program, or slogan.  Given his emphasis on restoring Hindu pride specifically (and Indian pride more generally) during the period of British imperial rule, it is quite understandable that adherents of Hindutva, who also want to assert Hindu pride, would find a champion in him.  But simply to equate his teaching with Hindutva is, in my opinion, simplistic, whether this is being done by adherents of Hindutva or by their critics.

Many adherents of Hindutva who admire Swami Vivekananda are deeply critical of Mahatma Gandhi.  Yet there is much overlap between their ideals, and Vivekananda was a direct and strong inspiration and influence on Gandhi, who even tried to meet with Vivekananda when Vivekananda was on his deathbed.  The same Swami Vivekananda who sought to inspire pride in Hindus also said, “My master [Sri Ramakrishna] used to say that these names, as Hindu, Christian, etc., stand as great bars to all brotherly feelings between man and man. We must try to break them down first. They have lost all their good powers and now only stand as baneful influences under whose black magic even the best of us behave like demons.”

Here are some more examples where Vivekananda’s views have been distorted by the Hindu groups.


Hindu groups do invoke Vivekananda when they talk about nationalism. Let’s see what Vivekananda said: “…true nationalism in India can only be based on unity of religion. The problems in India are more complicated, more momentous, than the problems in any other country. Race, religion, language, government – all these together make a nation. The one common ground that we have is our sacred tradition, our religion. That is the only common ground….”

“The unity of religion is therefore absolutely necessary as the first condition of the future of India. There must be the recognition of one religion throughout the length and breadth of this land. What do I mean by one religion? Not in the sense of one religion as held among the Christians or the Mohammedans or the Buddhists… We know that our religion has certain common ground, common to all our sects, however, varying their consciousness may be , however different their claims may be. So there are certain common grounds; and within their limitations this religion of ours admits of a marvelous variation , an infinite amount of liberty to think and live our own lives.”

In today’s India, Hindu parties have been only using the religion to divide the country. But for him, Hinduism is a religion which accepted others. He said, “our watchword will be acceptance and not exclusion.” He added, “Not only toleration  but also acceptance. Toleration means that I think that you are wrong and I am just allowing you to live.I believe in acceptance. I accept all religions that were in the past and worship them all.

I worship God with every one of them in whatever form they worship Him. I shall go to the mosque of the Mohammedans; I shall enter the Christian’s Church and kneel before the Crucifix. I shall take refuge in a Buddhist temple where I shall take refuge in Buddha and in his law. I shall go into the forest and sit down in meditation with the Hindu, who is trying to see the Light which enlightens the heart of everyone.”


The Hindu groups have unleashed their goons on the road to kill Dalits and Muslims for allegedly skinning cows and eating beef. And on several national platforms, the Hindu leaders would invoke Vivekananda to defend how eating beef is not permissible in India.

But read what exactly Vivekananda said on beef-eating :

“The Brahmins at one time ate beef and married Sudras…calf was killed to please a guest. Sudras cooked for Brahmins.”

“You will be astonished if I tell you that, according to the old ceremonials, he is not a good Hindu who does not eat beef. On certain occasions he must sacrifice a bull and eat it. That is disgusting now. However they may differ from each other in India, in that they are all one — they never eat beef. The ancient sacrifices and the ancient gods, they are all gone; modern India belongs to the spiritual part of the Vedas.”

“If we did not eat beef and mutton, there would be no butchers. Eating meat is only allowable for people who do very hard work, and who are not going to be Bhaktas; but if you are going to be Bhaktas, you should avoid meat.” — So beef-eating is a no-no for Bhaktas!

Sita – the ideal woman

For example, it is true that Vivekananda held Sita as an ideal woman, a fact that Hindu groups love to acknowledge because they too think Sita was ideal and all Indian women should be like her. But they don’t tell the world that , Vivekananda also said, he would not impose any idea on the educated women leaving them to make their own decisions.  He writes, “With such education women will solve their own problems. They have all the time been trained in helpless, servile dependence on others and so they are good only to weep at the slightest approach of a mishap or danger. Along with other things, they should acquire the spirit of valour and heroism. In the present day it has become necessary for them also to learn self-defence.

Western culture

One would often hear the RSS ideologues asking Indian youth to denounce Western culture; here again, they invoke Vivekananda for this to make a stronger argument. But read what Vivekananda had to say about the West. In his various teachings, Vivekananda has expressed his gratitude to the British for giving India a centralized administration, for helping to destroy caste privilege for opening our eyes to the wonders of the world outside; for introducing material science and philosophy for bringing us out of the narrow shell in which we had confined ourselves.

“Make a European society with India’s religion” – is what he said, former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru writes.

He had no mercy for exploitative trader and the “ruthless bureaucrat who had starved us and impoverished the country and from his philosophic heights he cursed the blood-suckers who one day have to face the Vengeance of History (Source : Vivekananda and Aurobindo  in Swami Vivekananda and Indian Nationalism– by SC Sen Gupta).

How critics misconstrued Vivekananda’s teachings —

As Long says, just like Hindu groups, the anti-Hindu groups have also failed to understand Vivekananda.

Caste system

Vivekananda’s critics say, he was a great defender of caste-system.  It is true that Vivekananda said, castes should not go.  But he also said, “Human society is in turn governed by the four castes, the priests, the soldiers, the traders and the labourers… the first three had their day. Now is the time for the last – they must have it—none can resist it.”Vivekananda, in one of his letters written in 1896, declared himself as a  socialist. “I am a socialist,” said he, “not because I think it is  a perfect system but half a loaf id better than no bread.”


It is quite easy for his critics to call him communal because he spoke against Islam by calling it a religion which “has shed so much blood” and “been cruel to other men.” But it is important to note that he also said,  “Hinduism and Islam — Vedanta brain and Islam body — is the only hope.”

He said :

“For our own motherland a junction of the two great systems, Hinduism and Islam – Vedanta brain and Islam body – is the only hope. …we want to lead mankind to the place where there is neither the Vedas, not the Bible, or the Koran, yet this has to be done by harmonizing the Vedas, the Bible and the Koran. Mankind ought to be taught that religions are but the varied expressions of The Religion which is Oneness, so that each may choose the path that suits him best.”

The moral of the story is neither believe the Hindutva forces who claim to be the real inheritors of Vivekananda’s legacy, nor believe his critics who outrightly reject his writings by labelling him as “communal”. Visit a nearby library to read his teachings instead!


His daughter is 13; her son is 12. When darkness closes in on them, they are uppermost in their mind. Behind a locked cell, former central minister Andimuthu Raja thinks of his daughter. Now out of jail — where son Aditya was always in her thoughts — Rajya Sabha member M.K. Kanimozhi makes sure that he travels with her to Delhi, even though it’s a city he’s not greatly fond of.

Jail is not something that the parliamentarians from the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) party want to talk about. For Kanimozhi, party strongman M. Karunanidhi’s much-loved daughter, the experience is too raw to recount. For Raja, Karunanidhi’s close lieutenant, the ordeal is far from over.

“Loneliness is hard to beat inside the jail,” says the former telecom minister.

His day in jail No. 1 at the Tihar Central Jail starts at five in the morning. He takes a walk on the grounds, watches the news on his 14-inch colour television set — the one source of entertainment that’s been provided to him — and then reads papers and books connected to his case.

In the evenings he often plays a game of badminton with other “celebrity” inmates housed in Tihar. When the clock strikes 11, Raja has to call it a day. The former telecom minister sleeps on the cemented floor, to wake up again before dawn.

When The Telegraph catches up with him, he is at the Central Bureau of Investigation court at Delhi’s Patiala House, where his case is up for a hearing. Dressed in a pristine white starched shirt with long sleeves and a pair of black trousers, he looks relaxed. When the court breaks for 30 minutes, he moves around the visitors’ corner outside the courtroom, attending to party members who have gathered to meet him with a big smile. He offers them coffee and biscuits.

Raja is not eager to talk about his time in jail, but opens up bit by bit. His wife, M.A. Parameswari, is by his side, and he plays with her sleek gold bangles as he speaks. “She is the source of all positive energy,” he says, patting her back.

Kanimozhi, on the other hand, stresses that she is still not ready to talk about her jail days. She is sitting in her sixth floor apartment — part of a residential complex for parliamentarians in Luytens’s Delhi — 20km yet light years away from Tihar jail. Dressed in an off-white embroidered kurta matched with cream pyjamas and dupatta, she sits on a black leather sofa in her living room.

Her son is in an adjoining room. Most of her afternoons are spent with Aditya, who studies at a Chennai school. “He hates Delhi but he will be here for a week with me,” she smiles. Clearly, she is making up for her all the days lost.

Raja and Kanimozhi are the two most high-profile accused in the multi-crore-rupee 2G spectrum scam. They have been charged with criminal conspiracy, cheating and forgery under the Prevention of Corruption Act. Kanimozhi, jailed last May, has been on bail for the past five months. Raja has been in jail since he was arrested in February last year. “This is a learning experience for me,” he says. “I have to overcome this challenge.”

Kanimozhi’s time in jail was filled with “lonely” moments, says an associate. She took long walks on the campus every morning and evening. “By now, she must be aware of every brick in the walls of the jail,” the associate adds.

While Kanimozhi mostly kept to herself, Raja likes to have people around him. “He loves to interact with people,” says a jail source. Occasionally, he even insists that his party members be allowed to meet him when visitors are not allowed. “We also get calls from the office of Mr Karunanidhi asking us to grant him permission to meet his party members at odd hours. But we cannot entertain such requests,” says the source. The ailing Karunanidhi went to visit his 44-year-old daughter thrice when she was in jail. Every time, it was an emotional reunion. But being kept away from her son was what upset her the most.

Raja too shares a strong bond with his daughter. Their birthdays fall on the same day — October 26 — and his wife points out that they have spent every birthday together. “Though he often fails to remember our wedding anniversary in February, he can never forget to be with his daughter on her birthday. Usually, we throw a party or go out for a good dinner to celebrate the two birthdays together,” she says.

Last year was different. There was no celebration with Raja in jail. “Our daughter made a special card for him and gifted it to him in jail. He was overjoyed but was quite emotional,” Parameswari says.

But Raja, a follower of E.V. Ramaswamy — the leader of the Dravidian movement — calls himself a fighter. “I am a born fighter. Injustice has happened to me and I will fight till the end. Only fighting gives me the ultimate strength,” says Raja. Parameswari adds that Raja has always been inspired by Tamil superstar Sivaji Ganesan’s Deiva Magan — a film about a man with a scarred face who fights all odd.

For Kanimozhi, on the other hand, strength came from the epic Mahabharata. “I finished reading the Mahabharata in jail. It gave me a lot of strength,” Kanimozhi says, measuring every word as she speaks.

She also spent many evenings going through parliamentary proceedings. “She would religiously follow every event in Parliament, especially during the Anna Hazare episode last August,” says the jail source.

The problems of women inmates concerned her too. “In most cases, women have been forced by their family members to accept charges of crime they haven’t committed. I want to do something for them but that is possible only after my case gets over,” she says.

Like with Raja, language was a problem for Kanimozhi. Both speak English and Tamil but are not fluent in Hindi, which made it difficult for her — and continues to pose problems for him — during interactions with Hindi-speaking inmates. “But Kanimozhi’s Hindi improved in those six months. From five words, her vocabulary went up to 20,” one of her associates says.

Since both are from Tamil Nadu, they are accustomed to their regional cuisine and found it difficult to get used to north Indian food. Raja has been given permission to get food from home on health grounds. His wife provides him with home-cooked sambarsabziroti and curd rice thrice a day. “He loves pepper mutton but he is not allowed to eat non-vegetarian food in jail,” his wife rues.

Kanimozhi was served home-cooked food — usually sambar rice and curd rice — twice a week. “She is not a fussy eater. She managed with whatever was served inside the jail. If she wanted anything else, she bought it from the jail canteen,” says the jail source.

Kanimozhi seldom drew attention to herself. Even now, when she is in court where her case is being heard, she sits quietly in the back, leaving her lawyers to fight out the legal battle for her.

Raja, on the other hand, is in the thick of the proceedings. He is also fighting his own case — along with his lawyers — and intervenes every now and then. “It is my case and I have to follow every bit of it,” says Raja, a qualified lawyer.

Raja may file for bail once former telecom secretary Siddarth Behura, also in jail, gets bail. We have to get rid of the case,” Parmeswari says with grim determination. “I religiously visit the Sai Baba and Shani temples twice a week.”

The family is not planning anything to mark his homecoming though. “Our last holiday was in Russia two years ago. Maybe we will plan a holiday after he is out. But now we are just keeping our fingers crossed,” she says.

This story was published in The Telegraph, April 22, 2012


Illustration: Suman Choudhury

Swedish author and Sino-India specialist, Bertil Lintner, chats with Sonia Sarkar about hawks and doves

Last week, at the New Delhi launch of Bertil Lintner’s book, China’s India War, one of the panelists joked that India feels gratified whenever the West takes a pro-India stance in the ongoing India-China rift, because international opinion is still shaped by writers from that part of the world. Sitting on the dais, the Swedish journalist and author laughed.

Lintner’s narrative on the Sino-Indian war of 1962 is the antithesis of British journalist Neville Maxwell’s 1970 book, India’s China War. Maxwell had argued that it was India that provoked China in 1962 and China had fallen prey to Jawaharlal Nehru’s hostile policies.

Later that week, when Lintner and I meet in a noisy café at the India International Centre, he tells me, “I think, he [Nehru] had too much faith in China; he didn’t realise that the Chinese were not of the same wavelength.”

Dressed in a deep brown pullover and a pair of jeans, Lintner speaks softly. He tends to explain things in great detail too. The pair of thick, square-shaped glasses he has on adds to the general impression of gravitas. But what is most startling perhaps, off-dais, is the impassive expression on his face.

Inevitably, Doklam comes up. Recent media reports claim that over 1,600 Chinese troops are still present in this region of Bhutan. Most other years, they leave by November. Says the 64-year-old, “Doklam was not about a road. It was the Chinese attempt to create a wedge between Bhutan and India. Bhutan also wanted to show that they are independent of India; they thought India should not get involved as it is about Bhutan and China.”

But there is a view among a section of Indian security experts that New Delhi has irked China several times ever since Narendra Modi assumed power. The invitation extended to the “Prime Minister” of the Tibetan government-in-exile, Lobsang Sangay, for Modi’s swearing-in ceremony in 2014 did not go down well. Then again, this year, India allowed the Dalai Lama to visit Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh, a territory China claims.

Lintner starts to say something and then stops midway. The words that finally emanate from his mouth, “That’s not my subject.” I find it strangely cautious, if not surprising, coming from one who is known to be vocal about issues such as human rights violations by the Myanmar Army, has questioned disappearances and imprisonment of politicians and civilians alike in Myanmar and has written extensively on organised crime in the Asia Pacific. He is known to be a champion of Press freedom, too.

And while Lintner makes it abundantly clear that he is not interested in antagonising the Modi government, he does remember to warn India about China’s intrusion into the Indian Ocean. He says, “Most of China’s oil supplies come through the Indian Ocean, most of its minerals sourced from Africa pass through it and most of its exports, which go through Europe, to Africa pass through this ocean, which India considers as its own lake. When China enters this area in a big way, there is concern – what is China up to?”

Lintner also talks about how China’s presence in South Asia – it is building ports in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh – is a cause for concern. “It’s part of China’s global strategy and India happens to be in the way,” he adds.

China’s influence on the Northeast is also huge. In his book, Lintner writes that China has not ceased to support the rebels. “These groups buy weapons on what is euphemistically called ‘the black market’ in China.”

He even claims that The United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) chief Paresh Barua, who still evades arrest, stays in Chinese towns and travels freely across the country.  Lintner has met Barua thrice – Myanmar (1985), Bangkok (1992) and Dhaka (2010).

In his book, Linter writes,  China is providing Barua a safe haven because it argues that it is only “reciprocating India’s act of providing sanctuary for the Dalai Lama, allowing the enemy of one country to stay in the other.” India’s decision to give shelter to Dalai Lama in 1959 certainly did establish that “India is China’s enemy,” Lintner, who met Dalai Lama twice, stresses.

Lintner first met Dalai Lama at McLeodganj in Himachal Pradesh  in 1984 when he was touring India as a correspondent for a Danish daily.

Lintner’s India ties date back to 1975. That is also the year he visited Calcutta for the first time. Lintner’s mother is Swedish, his father an Austrian refugee from Nazi Germany. He was a political prisoner before he managed to escape to Sweden and, thereafter, left for Brazil. Lintner was six months old at the time.

“When I was 19, I managed to track him [his father] to a New Zealand address, where he had moved with his new family. It was to meet him that I left Sweden for the first time, in 1975, to travel to New Zealand, overland,” he says.

Lintner explored India by train and bus. He recalls how he stayed in a dormitory at the Salvation Army Red Shield Guest House on Calcutta’s Sudder Street for Rs 8 per night. He also suffered three bouts of dysentery and lost more than 20 kilos.

During that trip he caught another bug. Lintner claims it was Calcutta that inspired his 22-year-old self to become a writer.

“My favourite part of Calcutta is College Street with all its bookstores and the Indian Coffee House,” says the veteran journalist who has travelled the world before choosing for his home, Chiang Mai in Thailand, three decades ago. He is married to Hseng Noung, a Shan or ethnic person from Myanmar.

And that is not the only Myanmar connection he is known for. Globally, Lintner is known for his relentless reporting from Myanmar (erstwhile Burma). The military junta blacklisted him for 23 years, beginning 1989. He started visiting Myanmar again only recently, since 2013.

While it is easy to understand Lintner’s take on the Sino-India face-off, his views on Myanmar and the ousted Rohingyas are more layered, somewhat difficult to grasp and to process, thereafter.

For one, he does not seem outraged at the recent killings and exodus of Rohingyas from the Rakhine state of Myanmar. He does not even blame the National League for Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who runs the Myanmar government, for failing to contain the sectarian violence unleashed against the Muslims by the Buddhists.

“There is a democratically elected government in Myanmar but three most important ministries – defence, home and border affairs – are controlled by the military. Suu Kyi has a very limited role to play,” says Lintner, who is the author of Outrage: Burma’s Struggle for Democracy.

But yes, he concedes, she could have visited the victims of violence, along with other elected representatives, to show the military there is also a civilian space in the country. So far, so good.

But prod him further and you learn that Lintner is not willing to dub the Rohingya situation a “religious” conflict at all.

The real problem is, he says, is that the Rohingyas live close to Bangladesh and they have many similarities with the natives of Chittagong there. “Rohingyas comprise only five per cent of the Muslim population in Myanmar. Most Muslims are in the cities; they are merchants, shopkeepers, professionals- they have Burmese names, they speak Burmese and they are Burmese citizens. Rohingyas are a rural community and they live in an area next to an overpopulated country, (where they have) exactly the same people on the other side of the border. They speak Bengali in Chittagong dialect, they don’t speak Burmese. Other Muslims (in Myanmar) see it like this — we have a small Rakhine state with 3.5 million people whereas next door, there is a country with 180 million people. It is a completely different story,” he explains.

And what, in his opinion, triggered the recent violence that led to the exodus of an estimated seven lakh people from Myanmar to Bangladesh?

Lintner now launches into an elaborate explanation of how on the night the Kofi Annan Commission Report came out this August – the same that asked Myanmar to scrap restrictions on movement and citizenship of the Rohingyas – the armed radical group Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (Arsa) attacked 30 police stations and one army base at Rakhine. “This triggered enormous backlash. Thousands of people have suffered because of this, but nobody is questioning the Arsa,” he says.

The insinuation is obvious – the Rohingyas are responsible for their own situation. And if there is any doubt about his stance in this debate, the next statement makes things clear as daylight. To a question about whether there will be a guaranteed safe passage for the Rohingyas to Rakhine state following the pact between Myanmar and Bangladesh, Lintner says, “First of all, they don’t want to come back. Plus, in order to return, they have to prove they are residents of Myanmar and not Bangladeshis. And they cannot prove that.” This last is a reference to the fact that in 2015, in Myanmar’s first census in 30 years, Rohingyas were not considered an ethnic group of the country.

I have heard him the first time and the second, and both arguments seem at variance with his professional persona. I keep talking to hide any apparent disappointment on my part.

Some Rohingyas have also come to India for shelter, but the Indian government doesn’t want them. India regards Rohingya Muslims a national security threat. I am yet to frame the question, but he is already dodging it, laughing. “Well, ask the Indian security agencies…”

This time, I cannot help but say it out aloud – so he is hell-bent on being politically correct when it comes to India? Is that it? “No, no… I am not here to talk about contemporary Indian politics. It is beyond the scope of my coverage… maybe, I will write about it in a book in future…”

Getting answers from journalists isn’t easy at all, but books are fair game.


1953: Lintner is born in Sweden and then in 1975 leaves for Asia

1980: Starts working as a journalist; is the Burma correspondent for the Hong Kong-based weekly, Far Eastern Economic Review

1984: Visits India as a correspondent for a Danish daily; covers the stand-off at the Golden Temple in Amritsar and also interviews Dalai Lama in McLeodganj

1985: Undertakes an 18-month, 2,275-kilometre trek from northeastern India across Burma’s northern rebel-held areas to China. Codifies this expe-rience in the 1996 book, Land of Jade: A journey from India through Northern Burma to China

Has written 17 books to date, including Bloodbrothers: Crime, Business and Politics in Asia and Aung San Suu Syi and Burma’s struggle for Democracy

A shorter version of the story has appeared in The Telegraph. December 17, 2017.


– To counter the current wave of hate and violence, and help fix a society often
out of joint, a new medicine in an old bottle. Sonia Sarkar tracks a global trend
First published on 10-Dec-2017  :
JOYFOOL: Participants at the clown festival in Mumbai

Siane Valini D’ Cruz paints her face pink, then fixes a red plastic ball firmly on the tip of her nose. Her chin is painted white to bring out the scarlet of her lips. Dressed in a purple jacket, yellow trousers and a pair of oversized red and yellow boots, the 17-year-old makes her entry. It is a children’s birthday party. As the music starts to play, she throws her juggling balls up in the air and whoops of joy fill the room.

“When a cranky child laughs, I believe, I have done my job well,” says Siane, a Mass Media student from Mumbai’s St. Xavier’s College. Chris Saldanha is a BSc student from the same college. While Siane stumbled upon clowning, Chris took it up to earn a few bucks during the summer holidays two years ago – if he does five shows in a month, he makes about Rs 10,000. Professionals, we are told, make Rs 50,000 and upwards in a busy month. Both Siane and Chris are undergoing clown training.

Circuses may have disappea-red but clowning hasn’t. Martin D’ Souza, founder-director at the Mumbai-based entertainment company, Light House Entertainment and Mad Hatters, says clowning is gaining popularity across India.

What US-based clown Kenneth R. Ahern says of the West perhaps holds true of India too. His email to The Telegraph reads, “In the last decade there has been a growth of youth circus training camps throughout the US and Europe. This has moved circus artistes who have graduated from these schools to find both traditional and non-traditional performance venues to present their skills.” Ahern runs a clown camp annually at the Fine Arts Center of Viterbo University in Wisconsin.

With the change of setting, from circuses to malls, private parties, carnivals, family gatherings, we in India have a new set of clowns – educated middle-class youth such as Siane and Chris. The change in demographics, those in this business will tell you, has not taken away from the art, only imbued it with greater power, purpose and responsibility.

Pam Moody, president of the World Clown Association (WCA), talks about clowning as a teaching tool. She says, “Clown shows capitalise on emotions. It is proven that regardless of age, retention of messages is higher whenever an emotion is involved.” Moody herself began by presenting faith-based lessons through comedy. Her clown name is Sparky.

D’Souza, who runs training camps across India, talks about the large number of clowns involved in what is called “caring clowning”. They visit ailing children in hospitals, veterans in medical care facilities, hospice and rehabilitation center inmates.

The concept exists in other parts of the globe too. Edmund Khong, the first Singaporean to win the World Clown Association’s Best All-Round Clown this year, says, “I am exploring various avenues to teach Singaporeans caring clowning to serve the community. When the public recognises the positive impact clowning can create, it will slowly grow to be more widely accepted and welcomed.”

Moody remembers one time when she was performing in Chennai and a pregnant woman came up to her, took her hand and placed it on her belly and said, “Because of you, I laughed. My baby will be born more healthy now.”

D’ Souza’s clown persona is called Flubber, a master of all trades. Flubber can perform magic, do acrobatics, juggle, do balloon sculpting…

Since this brand of clowning is still nascent in India, D’Souza has been organising countrywide clown fests since 2010. At these fests, clowns of international renown perform. D’Souza, who has been clowning for the past 26 years, says, “What Indians are usually exposed to is slapstick, wherein two clowns slap each other or pat each other with a small bat – something we used to see in circuses. But this festival gets clowns from different parts of the world. Now, people here know that clowning is a serious act where clowns follow a script – perform a skit – engage with people.”

The idea of clowning, he says, is to get into funny difficult situations in the act and then come out of them – it’s this disentanglement process that makes people laugh.

Though D’Souza has been running Mad Hatter these past 27 years, he got himself a clown certificate in Clownology from the University of Wisconsin in the US in 2004.

But if being a good clown is all about having the right attitude, why this sudden urgency for structured training? Ahern says, “If a clown has done his or her job well, a wonderful memory is created. But this is not achieved by simply wearing a silly costume, clown make-up and a red nose. Creating this joy is best done through proper education.”

There is an entire genre of supernatural horror flicks that project the clown as an evil, deviant figure – Stephen King’s It and the new season of American Horror Story. But organisations such as the Sweden-based group Clowns Without Borders (CWB) and WCA are rallying against this portrayal.

Rupesh Tillu or Popo, as he is known in clowning circles, is younger than D’Souza, has an Master of Fine Arts in Physical Comedy from the National School of Dramatic Arts, Sweden. You might recognise him from the Ship of Theseus (2013) – he played Ajay, friend of Navin, one of the protagonists. He has travelled widely with CWB for performances. Palestine, Israel, Egypt, Moldova, Jordan, he rattles off names.

Tillu recounts the time he performed in a refugee camp at Zaatari in Jordan. It was the day after thousands of refugees arrived from Syria. Says Tillu, “It’s not easy to make anyone laugh and these were people who had fled their homes to escape war and walked miles for survival.”

Tillu’s Popo is a persona who is continuously in search of a home. Vulnerable and naive in a highly complicated world, he makes all efforts to fit in, but always ends up failing. Something touched a chord, resonated, because at the end of the act the children in the au-dience started jumping and shouting for joy. “It evoked so many emotions in them at one time,” he adds.

Back in India, Tillu is part of a CWB project in Mumbai’s redlight areas. He also trains children in clowning – recently, one such group toured with international artistes and performed in correctional homes and hospitals.

What do such acts mean to people, children especially, living in sub-normal conditions? Responds D’Souza, “A comedian makes you laugh at the expense of others. Clowns involve the audience and take them along in their journey of laughter. It’s a heart-to-heart connection which remains with you for a longer time.”