Archive for the ‘Conflict and the conflicts within’ Category

After 33 coronavirus cases were reported in India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands, a remote crescent of 572 islands in the Bay of Bengal, experts began worrying about the indigenous people who live there. Here is an inter view with Sophie Grig, a senior research and advocacy officer with London-based indigenous rights group Survival International.


By Sonia Sarkar

Q) Do you think aboriginal tribes such as the Great Andamanese and Jarawas  are at risk of contracting Covid-19? If yes, Why? Is it because of their contact with mainstream people?


A. Yes, I am very concerned that both communities might contract the disease and that it will have a devastating impact on them. The Jarawa (more information about them can be found here) still live self sufficiently in their forest, with limited interaction with outsiders. There are 4 main ways they come into contact with people from the mainstream, which are 1) Via the Andaman Trunk Road that cuts illegally through their territory. Usually hundreds of tourists travel through their reserve each day, trying to ogle at the tribe, in what is often described as a ‘human safari’. Fortunately, this form of contact has largely been stopped because all non-essential travel has been banned since the lock-down, and only one convoy a day of government officials and essential goods is allowed to pass through their reserve. 


The 2nd contact is with staff from the tribal welfare department and the Andaman Adim Janjati Vikas Samity (AAJVS), welfare workers who support the tribe. It’s been reported that they have advised the Jarawa to go deep into the forest and avoid the road and contact with settlers and others. However, there is danger the AAJVS staff may risk bringing the disease to the tribe themselves. It’s reported that they have been instructed that if they have symptoms they should stay away, but as is well known that the disease can be asymptomatic and contagious before symptoms appear, so any contact can be dangerous. 

The 3rd form of contact is with settlers who live around the edges of the Jarawa’s reserve. The Jarawa interact with people in these villages, sometimes exchanging things with them and sometimes when the villagers come into their forests to poach the game the Jarawa rely on to survive. If the virus gets into these villages then there is a real danger that it will get passed on to the Jarawa. The lock down may make the villagers more likely to go into the forest to hunt, putting the Jarawa at greater risk. It’s vital that all efforts are made to ensure that no one enters the Jarawa’s territory and the Jarawa are warned, in their own language so they fully understand, of the risks they face from interacting with villagers at this time. However, of course the Jarawa must be able to continue to move around their forest in order to be able to hunt and gather all they need. If they were to be confined to their settlements they wouldn’t be able to feed themselves. 
Finally, there are poachers that come from the coast to fish and hunt for turtles etc in the waters close to the Jarawa reserve. These are sometimes local fishermen but they also travel from Burma. They often hide out in the Jarawa’s creeks, so there is a danger that the disease could enter the Jarawa community this way. 
The Great Andamanese live mainly on Strait Island, although they often visit Port Blair too. I think that they are mostly in Strait Island now, where they are also at risk from contact with AAJVS staff. Obviously if they visit Port Blair they will also be at risk, but this is unlikely to happen in the lock down. 

Q) Do they have the immunity to fight Covid-19?


No one has immunity to fight Covid-19, but the Great Andamanese have suffered many epidemics and there is a big problem of both TB and alcoholism within the community (as is not uncommon with peoples who have lost their land and have had devastating population declines (down from 5000+ in 1858 to around 50 today) and so have many underlying health conditions, which would make them very vulnerable to the disease. You can read more about them here

The Jarawa have also suffered two measles epidemics, first in 1999 and then in 2006. Complications of the disease left many facing respiratory problems, including pneumonia, possibly making them even more vulnerable if they contract Covid-19.
Q) How many Jarawas and Great Andamanese in the Andamands now? Do you think if one person in the tribe gets infected, the chances are everyone else in the tribe gets infected?

The latest census, in 2019 said there were 514 Jarawa. There are approximately 50 Great Andamanese. During the 1999 measles epidemic it’s thought that about 108 Jarawa were infected, which was more than a third of the tribe at the time. We know that Covid-19 is extremely contagious so there would be a huge risk to the survival of the tribe if were to start spreading within the community. The number of Great Andamanese is also very low, meaning that they too could risk extinction if the disease affects them. 

Q) What steps the government should take now to ensure that these aboriginals do not become more vulnerable to new infections anymore?

The important thing is to protect the land of the tribal people from intrusion from outsiders. It’s vital that, despite the lockdown, the waters around North Sentinel are properly policed and the island is protected from all intrusions.
The same goes for the land of the Jarawa and the other tribes in the islands. Now, more than ever, it is essential to ensure that no outsiders enter the territories of these tribes without their consent and that their lands are protected from poachers that steal the resources they need to survive. It is vital that any government officials or welfare workers interacting with the tribes (interactions should be at a minimum), or patrolling the borders of their territories, are properly quarantined and trained in order to reduce the risk of passing on the virus. Despite these precautions, it’s also necessary for emergency plans and actions to be put in place to provide effective and appropriate health care if the worst happens and the virus gets into any of the tribal communities. The Andaman Trunk Road should be closed through the Jarawa’s territory, necessary government supplies etc should go by ship and local communities must be informed of the dangers to the tribes and vigilance against poaching, by local settlers, must be stepped up.
Q) How do we make them go back to their original lifestyle or is it too late?

The tribal communities in the Andamans are continuing to go about their daily lives, despite the lock down. The Jarawa and Sentinelese are self sufficient and remain dependent on their forest for their daily needs. Obviously no one should be made to have a particular way of life, it’s up to them to choose how they live their lives. The Jarawa and Sentinelese still hunt, gather and fish because they have their forests, which enables them to do this and because they choose to. Unfortunately, the Great Andamanese lost their land, and most of the community, a long time ago and so are no longer self sufficient.

It isn’t just Muslims who are under attack in Modi’s India. Christians are increasingly facing bombs, thrashings and threats.

It was a calm Friday evening in December, when about a dozen Christian villagers sat to pray in a house in Bilkua village in the eastern Indian state of West Bengal. A few minutes later, a group of Hindu men armed with wooden sticks barged into the house, disrupted the service and left. When 34-year-old pastor Ramu Hala restarted the service, the armed men came back to stop him and asked him to leave right away. It’s been more than a month, but Hala — who is from a nearby village — hasn’t returned to Bilkua.

The country’s Hindu right — led by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the parent organization with several arms, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling BJP — has for decades viewed Christianity and Islam as alien religions. But Modi’s tenure since 2014 has seen the Hindu right largely target Muslims, with the government keen to avoid alienating the West. Now, as the BJP prepares for a political test pivotal to expanding its base, mounting attacks on Christians are sparking worries that the RSS might be replacing the coyness of the past six years with a newfound aggression against the religion’s followers.

West Bengal, with a population larger than Germany’s, is one of a handful of states that the BJP has never ruled. But recent gains — it emerged as the second-largest party in the state behind the ruling Trinamool Congress in the 2019 national elections — have whetted its appetite for power there, where they anticipate more success in next year’s state elections.

The RSS now holds 2,650 daily and weekly meetups — called shakhas — across the state, up from 2,000 in 2017, according to the organization. That increased footprint has coincided with a sharp rise in attacks against the Christian community, from 17 in 2017 and 2018 combined, to 26 in 2019 alone, according to Persecution Relief, a Christian nonprofit.



Last March, a group of Hindu men used knives to attack Anand Hari, 62, the pastor of Full Gospel Evangelical Church, about 150 miles from Bilkua. He was hospitalized for three days. Last month, police arrested three men for allegedly hurling bombs at a church. In many other cases, victims — including Hala, the pastor attacked in Bilkua — are too scared to report cases against their attackers. Returning to Bilkua, Hala says, is out of the question.

“The Christians in the village are scared of the Hindu radical groups,” Hala says. “They would be targeted again if I go there.”

The founders of the RSS questioned the loyalty of Indian followers of Christianity and Islam because their holiest shrines lie outside of India. Their successors have long accused Christian missionaries of converting poor Hindus to Christianity through enticements. In 1999, Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two sons were burned alive in their car by members of the Bajrang Dal, a paramilitary group that’s a part of the RSS umbrella.

But following a series of attacks on churches soon after Modi came to power, the Hindu right has focused its attention on Muslims, driving a spike in hate crimes against the community. The controversial new citizenship law that discriminates against Muslim migrants treats Christians on par with Hindus.

That go-soft approach toward Christians now appears to be cracking, starting with West Bengal, where the BJP is trying to consolidate Hindu votes for next year’s elections against the Trinamool Congress, which it has portrayed as pro-minority communities. How this new strategy plays out could determine the RSS approach to India’s 28 million Christians nationally.

Both Hala and Hari allege that their attackers were members of the RSS. Hari says they had been persuading Christians to convert to Hinduism. “They attacked us because we rejected their offer,” he says.

The RSS concedes that it has attempted to convert people to Hinduism in West Bengal. “After all, culturally, all Christians are Hindus,” says regional RSS spokesperson Biplab Roy, accusing Christian missionary groups of “spreading misinformation about Hinduism, and converting people into Christianity.” He couldn’t offer data to back his claim.

Most instances of attacks or forced conversions to Hinduism are happening outside the state capital of Kolkata, says Shibu Thomas, founder of Persecution Relief. Thomas also represents India at the Federation of Indian American Christian Organizations, a coalition of North American church groups for people of Indian origin.

In July 2019, RSS volunteers in the Sundarbans region forced a Christian nongovernmental organization from Kolkata to change the design of the school building they had built for poor Hindu children in the locality. The building was originally shaped like a church.

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Father Rodney Borneo, principal of the Loyola High School, Kolkata, fears that schools will be targeted.


Father Dominic Gomes, vicar general of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Calcutta, says, “Christians are extremely anguished about these attacks, which have become a common phenomenon now.”

West Bengal minorities commission vice chairman Michael Shane Calvert insists that the “stray” attacks on Christians have been handled well by the administration. But Hari says he had to visit a police station 10 times before his complaint was registered. Ten months after he was stabbed, the police have yet to make an arrest.

And the reverberations of these attacks are beginning to be felt beyond the state’s 658,000-strong Christian population. The Indian constitution allows religious minorities to run their own education institutions free from several government regulations. That, many fear, could be the next target. “We fear that there will be an attempt to cripple the church by attacking the missionary educational institutions,” says Father Rodney Borneo, principal of Loyola High School, Kolkata.

The government did not invite even one of India’s 30,000-odd Christian educational institutions to offer suggestions while drafting a new education policy. In January, a federal BJP minister, Giriraj Singh, said those who study at missionary schools lack “Indian culture.”

The irony of these increased attacks coming amid the debate on the citizenship law — which will help migrant Christians become Indian nationals — isn’t lost on Gomes. “If they cannot make Christians of this country feel safe,” he asks, “how can they keep Christians of other countries safe here?”

The story appeared in Ozy:

The lanes of Bow Barracks (Photo: Sonia Sarkar)

The Anglo-Indian community of Kolkata is concerned after their special representation in Parliament is abolished

A set of three-storeyed apartments stand next to each other on the yellow and red by-lanes of Bow Barracks in central Kolkata. Narrow cemented staircases lead to the upper floors. Each floor houses about two-four Anglo-Indian families. The walls outside are plastered with electric meters, their thick black wires entangled. The main doors of these houses are often left open. With Christmas and new year celebrations over, families are busy seeing off their outstation guests. The white paper lanterns and the Christmas trees lining the streets have lost their sheen after a spell of unseasonal rain. There’s an unusual calm in the air. The habitually sanguine Anglo-Indians who reside in the area look worried, as if someone has just broken news of a huge personal loss. “We fear that we would be targeted by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). They would throw us out of the country gradually,” says 66-year-old Michael Chang, a resident of Bow Barracks.

Michael Chang, a resident of the area
Michael Chang, a resident of the area (Photo: Sonia Sarkar)

Chang believes he has reason to worry—Anglo-Indians no longer have any representation in the Lok Sabha and state assemblies. In December, the Lok Sabha passed a Constitution (Amendment) Bill seeking to abolish the community’s representation in the lower house of Parliament and 13 state assemblies, a privilege guaranteed under Article 334(b) of the Constitution. The Bill was passed on 10 December. Nomination of Anglo-Indian members to the Lok Sabha and state legislatures ceased from 25 January. Introducing the Bill, Union minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said the community’s numbers have reduced significantly from 111,637 in 1951 to 296 according to the 2011 Census. According to media reports, Prasad said the doors were not shut on the issue and it could be “considered” later by the Centre.

The community describes the move as “humiliating”. “They are giving us an indication that we are not wanted any more,” Chang says.

Michael Shane Calvert, the nominated Anglo-Indian member in the West Bengal legislative assembly, says there are about 30,000 Anglo-Indians in West Bengal alone, concentrated in Kolkata, while a handful live in Kharagpur, Santragachi, Asansol and Adra.

According to Article 366(2) of the Constitution, “an Anglo-Indian means a person whose father or any of whose other male progenitors in the male line is or was of European descent but who is domiciled within the territory of India and is or was born within such territory of parents habitually resident therein and not established there for temporary purposes only”. When the Constitution was framed in 1950, the community was given representation in Parliament because it had no state of its own. West Bengal remained a home for years as Kolkata, or erstwhile Calcutta, was once the capital of British India.

After independence, over the years, the community began moving to other cities. A large number of Anglo-Indians, however, also migrated to the UK or Europe, unsure of their position after the British left. “Even though they were offered blue-collar jobs in the UK or Australia, they would prefer to go there than work hard in India,” says 54-year-old Jason Pote, a member of the community who runs a travel company in Kolkata.

In India, however, those who stayed back initially had the advantage. “As English was their mother tongue, they had an edge over their peers in the other communities as far as their communication skills were concerned. Post colonization, they were more likely to be hired in a job which didn’t require much technical knowledge because of these skills than anyone else who lacked the knowledge of English,” says Kolkata-based Errol O’ Brien, 80, author of The Anglo-Indian Way: Celebrating The Lives Of The Anglo-Indians Of India.

Errol says that till the 1970s and 1980s, a lot of the educated Anglo-Indian men were employed in the Central Board of Excise & Customs, Indian Railways, airline companies, police, schools and colleges, while the women worked as teachers, operators in telephone exchanges or as personal secretaries in private companies.

But over the years, while other communities focused on education and technical knowledge, a large section of the community “took it easy”, says Pote. “Many Anglo-Indians thought English-speaking skills would be enough for them to grab good opportunities. They never thought to bring themselves on a par with other communities, which were producing academics, doctors and engineers by late 1980s and the 1990s. So we lost our way in the race with the rest of the country,” he says.

The community did produce a mid-level workforce for BPOs, airlines and schools, says Pote. Some also work as domestic help and rickshaw pullers. “What our representatives in Parliament could have done is pushed for jobs—for deserving candidates in any government sector,” he argues.

Barring parliamentarians such as Frank Anthony, Neil O’ Brien and Beatrix D’ Souza, not many who occupied the reserved seats did much to uplift the community, says Chang. But some believe the presence of one of their own in Parliament at least gave their community a voice.

Angela Govindraj, the 56-year-old general secretary of the Bow Barracks residents’ welfare association, says the loss of this privilege is worrisome: “It is like making our community invisible in one stroke”. The fact that there is no official data on their numbers add to the community’s concerns.

A section of the community claims there are about 350,000-500,000 Anglo- Indians in India. All the organizations representing the community across the country now plan to collect the data and consolidate the numbers. “We are certainly not 296, as stated by law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad in Parliament—several lakhs is more correct,” says 56-year-old Barry O’Brien, president-in-chief of the All-India Anglo-Indian Association.

George Baker, a former Anglo-Indian member of Parliament of BJP, terms this figure “ridiculous”. Baker, 74, claims that he wrote to President Ram Nath Kovind in May to renew the quota for Anglo-Indians in the Lok Sabha and the 13 assemblies for another 30 years (so far, the quota was renewed every 10 years). A month later, he even handed over a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi asking for an amendment to extend the reservation of these seats for the next 30 years. In return, Modi asked Baker to send five names he could consider for the 17th Lok Sabha, Baker says. “I did so and I was hopeful that the seats will be renewed for at least 10 years if not 30, following the usual practice. But I was shocked to see they did away with the seats,” says Baker.

When Baker sent an email to the Prime Minister’s office again in December, he was directed to Union home minister Amit Shah, who hasn’t responded to his emails. “Clearly, the government is not in a mood to listen to the concerns of the community,” Baker laments.

Patrick Walsh, a member of the executive committee of the Calcutta Anglo Indian Service Society (CAISS), wants the government to explain the decision.

On 6 January, over 150 politicians, heads of educational institutions, retired officers of the Armed Forces and youth leaders of the Anglo-Indian community met in Kolkata. Prominent members of the community, including ex-MPs and ex-MLAs, hope to meet Modi to appeal for a reconsideration of the decision. On 28 January, a delegation led by Barry met law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad to request an extension of seat reservation for another 10 years.

“A constitutional advisory team has also been formed to look into all matters regarding our rights and assurances given to us in the constitution,” Barry says.

In the Kolkata meeting, Baker says he had to confront angry members of the community who asked if he was afraid of the current situation in the country. “I admitted, yes, I am,” Baker says.

Anglo-Indian schools are apprehensive that the government may force its representatives on to their governing bodies or make the Council for the Indian School Certificate Examinations (Cisce), the board with which most Anglo-Indian schools are affiliated, redundant. A team of representatives of Anglo-Indian educational institutions has been formed to safeguard the autonomy of schools and colleges.

Errol fears that the BJP may like to “radically Hinduize” the Ango-Indian education system. “The saffron forces always had a disdain for the English-speaking Anglo-Indian community,” Errol says, sitting in his living room, adorned with photographs of family weddings, birthday celebrations and foreign trips.

What is feeding their fears is the stereotypes about their community. They are often labelled beef and pork eaters and drug addicts with low moral character who love to party, he says. Their patriotism is always questioned, he adds. Recently, Union minister Giriraj Singh said children who go to missionary schools lack “sanksar (values)”. Thirty-seven-year-old D.F., who works with an IT company in Kolkata and does not want to be identified, recalls that when non-Anglo-Indian friends come home for cake and wine, they make him out to be not Indian enough.

In the letter Calvert wrote to Modi, asking him to reconsider the decision, he stressed that Anglo-Indians are “proud Indians”, that India is “their motherland” and that the community “will continue to work towards the progress” of their “beloved” country.

The community can certainly boast of achievers such as former vice-chief of air staff Air Marshal Michael McMahon, hockey player Leslie Claudius, educationist Frank Anthony andNeil O’ Brien, who is considered India’s first quizmaster, among others.

Over the years, they have also been trying to integrate into society and have picked up regional languages. Like the rest of the country, yellow rice and mince ball curry and pork vindaloo have made way for pizzas and pastas on their dinner tables.

To blend into a polarized India, there is a constant effort to “Indianize” Anglo-Indians, says an Anglo-Indian teacher in a prominent boys’ school in Kolkata. For example, most Anglo-Indian schools in the city have directed young women teachers not to wear dresses, as was the practice till a few years ago, and take to salwar kameez with dupatta.

Pork or beef are no longer packed for school lunches. “My daughters even dress up in saris during Saraswati Puja and perform to Rabindra Sangeet,” D.F. says.

But D.F. is still not sure if all this makes his children “secure” in India. Errol O’Brien believes such fears may prompt more members of the community to leave the country. “A whole new generation would migrate out of India to feel safe, something we witnessed soon after independence,” he says.


[The story was commissioned by Mint Lounge and it appeared in Mint Lounge on 8 February 2020:

A local goddess has been the unifying force between Hindu and Muslim communities in the mangrove forests of the Sundarbans. In recent times, however, threats to this tradition of syncretism have emerged

It was 9am when Alam Mia, a moule (honey collector in Bengali), went into the forest with six others to collect the reddish-amber padma modhu (lotus honey). He kept an eye on the movement of honey-loaded bees to spot the beehives. He didn’t really notice the tiger that grabbed him by the neck. The blood-soaked loin cloth fell off his body, the knife to cut the hive and the steel vessel to store the honey lay scattered. As his companions rushed to the boat to save themselves, a naked Alam was dragged deep into the forest by the tiger. When he regained consciousness, he was lying under a date-palm tree. He spotted a boat in the distance and crawled towards it. He was admitted to hospital. It took him six months to recover and return to the forest to collect honey.

Eleven years have passed and Alam has had two more close shaves with tigers. “But I am alive only because of Bonbibi,” says the 65-year-old from Kalitala in West Bengal’s 24 North Parganas district, the last village on the Indian side of the border with Bangladesh, adjoining the Sundarbans Tiger Reserve. “Nobody else has the power to save people from tigers except her. She listens to my prayers always,”he adds.

When Alam’s Hindu neighbour and another tiger-attack survivor, 67-year-old Sahadev Mandal, goes into the forest to collect honey and beeswax, he too relies upon Bonbibi. “Before we leave the boat, we remember Bonbibi and tell her that she is the only saviour. There is nobody else in our mind,” Mandal says.

In the Sundarbans, the largest mangrove forest in the world, encompassing an area of 25,500 sq. km and straddling India and Bangladesh, the mythological Bonbibi has traditionally been a unifying force between Hindus and Muslims. People of the two communities who collect honey, beeswax, crabs and fish venerate Bonbibi, who is believed to be the daughter of a Muslim fakir, Ibrahim, from Mecca in Saudi Arabia.

The Hindu majority of the Sundarbans, distributed over the North and South 24 Parganas districts, has set up temples to worship Bonbibi but Muslims too participate in the annual Bonbibi festival, generally held in January. Typically, Brahmin priests are not invited to perform prayers for Bonbibi. Forest dwellers, including Muslims, read out Bonbibijoburanamah—the holy script describing her acts of kindness.

It is Muslim women like Nadira Bibi of Gosaba village in South 24 Parganas who make the kheer-khairaat (rice pudding) offered to the deity during the festival. “My mother-in-law used to make it earlier, now I do it. It’s part of our culture,” says the 35-year-old.

Over the past four years, when communal harmony in West Bengal has been disrupted by a series of riots, the Sundarbans area has remained free of violence. Bonbibi, popularly introduced to the world beyond the Sundarbans by author Amitav Ghosh in his book The Hungry Tide, not only binds these two communities but also ethnic groups like the Santhal, Munda and Oraon. “These communities worship Bonbibi for self-sustenance and mutual existence,” says sociologist Amrita Sen, assistant professor, department of humanities and social sciences, Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur. In a paper titled Traditional Livelihoods And Survival Crisis: The Politics Of Biodiversity Conservation In Sundarban, West Bengal (2017), Sen writes that it is because of this “collective pursuit of protection” that Bonbibi “transcends communal barriers”.

But though the belief remains strong, there are signs of change, and cracks between the two communities. The villagers’ relationship with Bonbibi is seeing a shift as the local economy transforms from a nature-dependent one to a wage-based one. Locals have, uncharacteristically, started worshipping other deities, like goddesses Durga and Kali, and adopting the religious practices of “mainland” Bengal, such as offering coconuts. A small section of people have even renamed Bonobibi “Bonodebi”, given “Bibi” is the Islamic way of addressing Muslim girls, says Gosaba-based historian Dulal Singha. In May, a local Bharatiya Janata Party leader of Gosaba, Paritosh Mandal, even claimed that Muslims had never worshipped Bonbibi.

In most parts of the Sundarbans, however, Bonbibi still remains the glue between Hindus and Muslims. Bonbibi paalagaan, a traditional dramatic performance to invoke the deity’s blessings, has been influenced by both Hindu and Islamic cultures. “There are Muslim characters and iconography. Plus, Islamic terms are used in the narrative. There are many Muslim members in the various troupes,” says Kalitala-based singer Palash Mandal, a popular paalagaan performer.

Legend has it that Bonbibi, along with her brother Shah Jangali, was sent by Allah to protect the islanders from tigers. Bonbibi is said to have once saved a shepherd boy, Dukhe, from the clutches of Dokkhin Rai, a powerful demon king in tiger’s guise. After the defeat, Rai accepted Bonbibi as his mother. Since then, it is believed that Bonbibi can save people from tigers.

Locals have their own reasoning for tiger kills. According to media reports, 11 people were killed by tigers between December last year and July. “In one of the cases, a man locked in the animal’s jaws for about 10 minutes was rescued after the tiger fell into a pit. But the man couldn’t survive for long, he passed away in the hospital,” 65-year-old crab collector Riaqat Ali of Kalitala recalls.

“People who don’t offer prayers to Bonbibi before setting out for the forest face dangers,” says fisherman and honey collector Noor Ali Gazi of Kalitala, who claims to have once fought a tiger solely with the help of a wooden stick. Honey collectors say they maintain a certain discipline while extracting resources from the forest. For example, they always leave behind a considerable part of the hive so that the bees can make a new one within 14-15 days. Plus, they offer honey to Bonbibi after the first chunk of a hive is broken. Locals say only the rich and the greedy are punished by Bonbibi.

“Also, if someone enters the forest between 12-2pm, the time when Bonbibi goes for her Friday prayers, the person is likely to be killed by a tiger,” believes Alam.

Women have their own rituals to ensure the safety of their husbands. “For all the days that their husbands are away in the forest, the wives refrain from putting vermillion on their foreheads, combing their hair, washing utensils and entertaining guests,” says Sen. “This is a tradition followed to ensure that their husbands come back home safely.”

They are even falling back on Bonbibi to cope with new climatic and ecological challenges such as disappearing mangrove forests, rising sea levels, erratic rainfall and cyclones. Recently, cyclone Bulbul caused the maximum damage in the Sundarbans, leading to at least three deaths, according to media reports. A decade ago, Cyclone Aila had killed at least 78 people and destroyed thousands of hectares of mangrove forests. Upasona Ghosh, the co-author of a paper titled Living On The Edge: Climate Change And Uncertainty In The Indian Sundarbans (2018), says these ecological changes have had an increasing impact on the household income of the traditional agro-fishing communities. “The belief in Bonbibi has traditionally given islanders faith in their ability to withstand many changes, including floods and cyclones. It’s their traditional way of coping with tragedies.”

Delhi-based geographer Mehebub Sahana believes it is this deep faith and fear in Bonbibi that could be used to protect the islands from natural hazards and adapt to climate change. Since locals believe Bonbibi to be the custodian of the forests, there is a sense that its overexploitation would enrage her. “It (the belief) could be used to restore the mangrove in the degraded areas, protect river banks, encourage the reduction in the use of plastics and hazardous materials that could indirectly help to cope with the climate change effects in the islands,” says Sahana.

With livelihood patterns changing, nobody is sure how this will play out. Take Alam’s family. He started going into the forest at the age of 12 but his two sons, who are in their early 30s, have never stepped into the forest. Alam says he can earn only about 500-2,000 from each seven-day trip into the forest but his sons, who work as migrant daily wage labourers in cities such as Kolkata, Delhi and Chennai, earn about 5 lakh a year. “Plus, there is no risk to life,” says Alam.

Bonbibi is losing her stronghold in this livelihood transition,” Ghosh observes. Political factors such as the rising influence of Hindutva ideology across Bengal and India, Ghosh says, will also negatively “impact syncretism and indigenous beliefs”.

But Alam believes Bonbibi will save them from all evils.

“For Ma Bonbibi, we are all her children. She knows the colour of our blood is all the same. She would not let us fall prey to tigers or politicians,” he says.


(Published in Mint Lounge on 23 November 2019)

A local film and media collective called ChalChitra Abhiyaan is stirring up a quiet cultural movement in rural Uttar Pradesh

  • Published 15.12.19, 1:01 AM
  • Updated 15.12.19, 1:01 AM
  • 3 mins read
Collective step: The documentary ‘Printed Rainbow’ being screened in Kandhla earlier this yearCourtesy: ChalChitra Abhiyaan

The time: six in the evening of December 6, 2019. The venue: the chaupal or open-air space of Khandrawali village in western Uttar Pradesh’s Shamli district. Men, women and children of the village have gathered to watch Anand Patwardhan’s Ram Ke Naam. The 1992 documentary is about Hindu groups gearing up for the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya.

“This film asserts that politicians want us to fight over temple and mosque because when we stop doing so, we would demand education and employment, which the government cannot provide,” says villager Monu Kumar. “Unfortunately, the situation remains the same so many years later,” the 26-year-old Hindu Dalit adds.

The screening of the film has been organised by the local film and media collective called ChalChitra Abhiyaan. The event has special significance because it is the 27th anniversary of the demolition of the Babri Masjid. It has also been a month since the final judgment of the Supreme Court on the issue — a Ram temple is to come up on the site and the government is to give the Sunni Waqf Board five acres someplace else to build a mosque.

The members of the collective — five Hindus and one Muslim each from Shamli and Muzaffarnagar — are stirring up a quiet cultural movement. In 2013, both districts had witnessed communal riots that killed 62 people — Hindus as well as Muslims. Again both places were put on high alert immediately before and after the Supreme Court verdict of November 9.

The ChalChitra Abhiyaan also runs a book club. Among its collection are the Constitution of India, B.R. Ambedkar’s speech titled “Annihilation of Caste”, Munshi Premchand’s Collection of Short Stories and Hanif Madaar’s Band Kamre Ki Roshni.

The collective also organises folk musicals to spread awareness of fundamental rights, caste oppression and communal harmony. “Our aim is to start a conversation with the people, to make them aware of their rights, the politics of the country, the wrongs that happen in society and question them,” says Mohammad Shakib Rangrezz, a member of the collective.

Rangrezz was barely 16 when his house in Shamli’s Lisarh village was burnt down by his Jat neighbours on September 7, 2013. Sensing trouble, the family had left the village the day before. Eight of them took shelter in his uncle’s house in Kandhla, about 10 kilometres away. Eventually, the family shifted to a rented house in Kandhla itself.

Rangrezz’s father, who once owned a cycle repair shop, took up a job as an assistant to a local doctor. Two years ago, they built a house in Loni, 100 kilometres from Lisarh, but could never go back to where they belonged. “It’s a chapter of our life that keeps haunting us,” says Rangrezz, who is studying Hindi at the Janta Vedic Degree College in nearby Baraut.

Two years ago, when Rangrezz joined ChalChitra Abhiyaan, he took it upon himself to do his bit to heal wounds. “When the Ayodhya verdict came out, people of these parts were charged up. There were lots of heated discussions but the onus was on us, as a cultural organisation, to channelise any energy to something positive,” he says. According to him, local Muslims who privately shared their disappointment over the verdict put a check on their reactions. After much discussion, some of them suggested the five-acre land should be used for building hospitals and schools.

Rahul Sherwal, 22, is a resident of Shamli and another member of the collective. He went to schools driven by anti-Muslim sentiment and temper. He says, “But when I became part of the collective, myths about Muslims, such as they keep four wives or they produce multiple children or they will capture this country, were dispelled.”

The collective produces documentaries, interviews and live broadcasts on issues such as farmers’ distress and Dalit oppression, which are uploaded on their website. One such story was on how 28 Muslim houses in Kairana in Shamli district were demolished in an anti-encroachment drive. “We want this space to become a vibrant cultural hub too, wherein people engage in conversations on a host of issues,” says Sherwal. But there are many challenges.

There are logistical problems. “Members of the local units of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh have often disconnected the power supply before our film screenings,” complains Sherwal. But the biggest challenge, according to Rangrezz, is to convince people about the collective’s goal.

At times, ChalChitra Abhiyaan also works with a Left-wing association, the Naujawan Bharat Sabha. Together, they use folk songs to dispel myths about religion and caste. “Our songs talk about issues of farmers’ distress, discrimination against Dalits and unemployment. We keep reminding people that these are the real issues and not religion,”says Pravdendra Kumar of Naujawan Bharat Sabha.

Delhi-based filmmaker Nakul Singh Sawhney, who conceived ChalChitra Abhiyaan, says, “We have made a quiet cultural intervention and a transformation is taking place gradually and organically. But the real impact of such a movement would be understood only in the years to come.”

For now, Monu Kumar, who has witnessed migration of people from riot-affected neighbouring villages to his village, is happy to see Hindus and Muslims come together at the chaupal on the days films are screened. He says, “At least, people are ready to listen to each other, nobody is baying for each other’s blood.”

Published in The Telegraph :



New Delhi is stepping up arrests of Kashmiri clerics and monitoring mosques, sparking concerns of a religious crackdown, not just a political one.

By Sonia Sarkar

It was a dark Eid for 11-year-old Saeed Mutaiba this August. When she returned home from a brief vacation at her grandfather’s house, she discovered police taking away her father, Mohammed Ameen, a prayer leader at Jamia Masjid in Awantipora, in the strife-torn region of Jammu and Kashmir. She, her mother and her 6-year-old brother have repeatedly visited the police station to appeal for his release — in vain.

“He looked tired. I felt helpless that I couldn’t do anything for him,” says the young girl.

A secular democracy, India has long tried to avoid emphasizing the religious undertones to the conflict in Kashmir, blaming it instead solely on Pakistan-backed militancy there. But in recent months, police have stepped up arrests of Islamic clerics and prayer leaders and clamped down on mosques in what was the country’s only Muslim-majority state. That has coincided with the Indian government’s move on Aug. 5 to strip off the constitutional provisions of autonomy Kashmir enjoyed while placing the region under lockdown. Though there is no official number of arrests, the government’s approach — which it argues is necessary for the region’s security — threatens India’s credibility, say analysts.



Ameen, 39, was arrested on Aug. 6. In June, the police arrested a cleric in north Kashmir’s Kupwara district. In March, two imams in south Kashmir’s Pulwama were arrested. The head of a religious body was denied a passport after he was charged with “anti-India” activities. Since Aug. 5, policemen in plainclothes are also recording the khutbahs (sermons) read out in mosques after Friday prayers, law enforcement officials concede. On Eid, Jamia Masjid and the Hazratbal Shrine — two of Kashmir’s most iconic shrines — were shut.

Donations made to Baitulmal, the charity fund in mosques, are being monitored. Police are asking clerics to divulge details of relatives living in Kashmir and in Pakistan. Their bank accounts are being scrutinized, officials say, arguing that these moves are aimed at preventing the radicalization of youth in mosques.

“We know who is what in the mosques and how anti-India messages are spread by these clerics and religious institutions,” says Dilbag Singh, the police chief of Jammu and Kashmir.

Indeed, religious organizations like the Jamaat-e-Islami Jammu and Kashmir have long espoused the right to self-determination. And Indian officials too have kept the group’s imams under surveillance earlier. Others, like Jamia Masjid imam Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, have been detained multiple times over the past three decades. But earlier Indian governments have tried to avoid the impression that they’re against religious bodies, by only targeting individuals. Farooq has been part of negotiations on Kashmir’s future.

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Friday prayers at Srinagar airport, Jammu and Kashmir.


This February though, India banned the Jamaat. And now, notwithstanding ideological affiliations, all imams and mosques are under vigil. In September, religious processions for Muharram — the day of mourning the tragedy of Karbala — were banned in parts of Kashmir. Officials accuse some mourners last year of holding aloft portraits of slain militant leader Burhan Wani. “We use every occasion to remind ourselves that our fight is for freedom,” says Ubaid, who requested that his last name not be used, in downtown Srinagar’s Soura neighborhood.

But the Indian government is now increasingly blurring the line it maintained between religion and security practices, say many experts. Delhi-based strategic affairs analyst Ajai Sahni calls the clampdown on mosques and religious leaders by the ruling Hindu-nationalist BJP government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi “ideology-driven.”

“The BJP’s strategy is to polarize and demonize Kashmiri Muslims,” he says. “These actions largely express communal prejudice compounded by an electoral calculus for political gains outside Kashmir.” The government’s moves, he says, are “intended to intimidate people of the Kashmir valley and tell them, ’Look, this is what we can do to you.’”

Hafsa Kanjwal, assistant professor of history at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania, says the current Indian government sees the Muslim identity of Kashmiris as a threat. She says the efforts to exert control over religious spaces and leaders “is not surprising.”

India, experts point out, has seen worse threats to its sovereignty over Kashmir, such as in 1989, when local men picked up guns demanding azaadi (freedom). The government at the time mishandled the crisis, say analysts. Sahni recalls how after the Friday prayers in 1990–91, a section of mosques would name Hindu families and threaten them with violence if they didn’t leave Kashmir. “The government made a strategic error by facilitating their exodus, instead of providing them with security where they were,” Sahni says.

Yet there was no crackdown on religious institutions then. Now, a policeman at Awantipora police station has no hesitation in telling me on a Friday afternoon in August that he’s rushing to the Jamia Masjid — to “lead the prayers” — instead of letting the imam do so.

Some clerics point to the fact that especially over the past five years since Modi came to power, many educated Kashmiris, including engineers, research scholars and professors, have joined militancy. “If mosques are the only places of radicalization, then why would a research scholar or engineer join militancy?,” asks Hilal Ahmed, a 29-year-old imam at a Srinagar mosque.

But the government’s strategy could backfire, caution analysts. “Long detentions of religious leaders … [instead] of the narrow targeting of the troublemakers, will be interpreted as a broader communal assault on the Muslims,” Sahni warns.

For the moment though, those suffering the most are families like Ameen’s. Mutaiba’s wait for her father continues.



Now India Clamps Down on Kashmir’s Mosques

Okus-Bokus, by two Kashmiri women, comes as fears grow over loss of identity amid perceived attempts to erase culture.


Srinagar, Indian-administered Kashmir – Granny takes little Billa and Munni for a walk in Srinagar, and stops by the tomb of the mother of Zainul-Abidin, Kashmir’s former king, built around 1430.

“Look at Kashmir’s history, you see how tough the people are,” she tells her grandchildren. “They have been ruled by foreigners for long – 700 years of occupation.”

Granny, or Naen, Billa and Munni are fictional characters in a new children’s book, Okus-Bokus, written and illustrated by two Kashmiri women, 29-year-old Onaiza Drabu, and Ghazal, 24, respectively.

The story has resonated in Indian-administered Kashmir, which has been under lockdown since August 5, the day India stripped the region of some of its autonomy.

The title of the book is derived from the Kashmiri phrase hukus–bukus, which broadly translates to: “Who is s/he?, who am I?”

In the tale, granny teaches Kashmiri words from A to Z to the children while identifying traditions, culture and food habits.

This book comes against the backdrop of rising concerns that Kashmir’s demography and unique culture will change, with fears that India’s ruling Hindu nationalist BJP party will attempt to “Indianise” the region.

“Traditional ways of being Kashmiri are slowly losing relevance, and this book can tie Kashmiris to their roots,” co-author Drabu told Al Jazeera. “This book could help children of this generation [learn] all that we have in our history and culture, and hopefully set them on a quest for their Kashmiri identity.”

The author of the book [Sonia Sarkar/Al Jazeera]
Okus-Bokus co-author Onaiza Drabu, 29, said her book aims to educate children about Kashmir’s unique culture, which is neither Indian nor Pakistani [Courtesy: Onaiza Drabu]

Drabu said the book was written as an apolitical text, but acknowledged that it is not above political interpretation.

“Even though the book was not written consciously to refer to the pain of a Kashmiri, the language in use is alive, sub-consciously in my head too,” said Drabu.

Young Kashmiris related to the “language” Drabu referred to.

For instance, Javed, a 17-year-old from Srinagar, read “E” for “Enz” (goose) who “don’t fly like other birds,” as a metaphor.

“Like Enz, we too cannot fly. Indian forces have caged us,” he said.

In another entry that could be read as having a double meaning, the book refers to “al-hachi”, a dry Kashmiri pumpkin which is prepared in the summer and saved for the winter when it is unavailable.

The book says this helps when supplies are low, when the “roads become difficult to navigate”. 

Kashmiris preserve a range of vegetables, also including turnips, eggplants and tomatoes, so there is enough to eat during sudden curfews.

“At the peak of militancy in the 90s, curfews brought the valley to a standstill for days. In 2016, Kashmir was under curfew for about 99 days. Currently, despite government’s claim of ‘normalcy’ in the valley, shops are shut.

“Over the years, we have learnt innovative ways of coping with the crisis and to not die hungry,” Asiya Mushtaque, a 45-year-old teacher from Awantipora, told Al Jazeera.

Our history textbooks started with Partition of India followed by attacks by Pakistani rebels in Kashmir and glorifying Sheikh Abdullah’s role in acceding to India. There was nothing about people’s anger against militancy and military occupation.


US-based anthropologist Ather Zia recently wrote a series of children’s stories titled Gula of Kashmir, about Gula, a young fish who lives in the Verinag spring, that touches on Kashmir’s history and ethos.

She believes short stories can teach children about cultural and political resistance.

Nyla Ali Khan, a US-based author, academic and the granddaughter of Sheikh Abdullah, the first Muslim prime minister of Kashmir, said the narrative around Kashmiri identity tends to centre around “militancy”.

“Kashmir has a distinct identity and any attempt to homogenise it and make it part of the ultra right-wing monolithic identity should be thwarted. It is important for people to be educated about one’s culture first,” she told Al Jazeera.

Young Kashmiris allege that the Indian government has long tried to “Indianise” Kashmiri history through textbooks.

“Our history textbooks started with Partition of India followed by attacks by Pakistani rebels in Kashmir and glorifying Sheikh Abdullah’s role in acceding to India,” 30-year-oldSouzeina Mushtaq, who grew up in Bemina, Srinagar, told Al Jazeera.

“There was nothing about people’s anger against militancy and military occupation.”

Social scientist Mohamad Junaid, of Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, believes that attempts to wipe out Kashmiri culture will intensify under the BJP.

In December, in a move that angered linguists, the Indian government withdrew the Kashmiri language from Bhasha Sangam, an online portal it had set up to celebrate the “unique symphony of languages of our country”.

Some Kashmiri Pandits had complained that the version of the language on the website was widely used by Muslims, and therefore ignored Hindus, who according to them, speak Kashmiri differently.

“Some Kashmiri Pandits want to assert themselves politically in all matters related to Kashmir in order to settle the tragedy of their exodus,” M K Raina, a Delhi-based theatre director who has worked with Kashmiri artists for decades, told Al Jazeera.

Several Kashmiri Pandits support India’s move to revoke Article 370, the part of the constitution which had given some autonomy to Kashmir for seven decades.

“There could be a cultural aggression by BJP through imposition of Hindi in Kashmir like everywhere else in India,” feared a former director of education in Kashmir, who requested anonymity.

For now, though, Okus-Bokus is making its way to Kashmir’s children.

On the last leg of their journey, granny reaches the final letters of the alphabet.

“Y” is for “yaemberzal”, the fragrant narcissus flower which signals the arrival of spring.

“Will there ever be another spring in Kashmir?” said Faraz Khan, a 19-year-old from Srinagar, as he flipped through the children’s book. “India is the current occupier of Kashmir. It has paralysed us for 70 years.”


[The story appeared in Al Jazeera on 16th September 2019: