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Archive for the ‘Conflict and the conflicts within’ Category

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published in The Telegraph : March 25, 2018

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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.”

 

 

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.

tétevitae

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.

https://www.telegraphindia.com/world/doklam-was-not-about-a-road-it-was-the-chinese-attempt-to-create-a-wedg-194070

 ENDS

Since the chief actors of last July’s terror attack in a posh Dhaka precinct were discovered to be radicalised upper-class kids, university students have come under stern glare. Often, some fear, with counterproductive consequences. Sonia Sarkar reports

  • FACE OF TERROR: (From top) A woman displays a photo of her son who worked at the Holey Artisan Bakery, Dhaka; the site of the attack; a protest rally in a nearby village

Shoriful is barely out of his teens. He likes to wear Pathan suits and skullcaps, sports a well-trimmed goatee, prays five times a day and knows the Islamic sermons by heart. That and the fact that he is currently a student of a reputed private university in Dhaka make him a “person of interest” in the eyes of law enforcement agencies. This is Bangladesh, a year after the terror attack on Dhaka’s Holey Artisan Bakery.

“It’s difficult to convince people that not everyone studying in a private university joins the extremists, and my religious inclination doesn’t make me a radical either,” says Shoriful, who goes to one of the universities at Dhanmondi in Dhaka.

Private universities in Bangladesh are a 1990s phenomenon. The first one was North South University (NSU), which came up in 1992. Today, there are 96 of them, boasting a three lakh-plus student community.

Investigations following last July’s carnage – 22 people were shot dead in a café in an upscale neighbourhood of the Bangladeshi capital – revealed that three of the five terrorists were English-medium schooled, religious-minded, beard-toting rich kids. One of them was from NSU. Police said the university’s former pro vice-chancellor, Gias Uddin Ahsan, had sheltered the attackers in a flat owned by him. Soon after, police arrested many teachers and students of various such universities who had links with the radical group, Hizb ut-Tahrir.

Recruitment of young men by terrorist and Islamic radical organisations is not new. For decades, the Bangladesh Islami Chhatrashibir – the student wing of the country’s biggest Islamist party, Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh – has been wooing and winning over young impoverished madrasa students. Many students of the prestigious Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET) also signed up for the Chhatrashibir. They had been offered scholarships, free coaching and books in exchange.

But what the Dhaka attack showed up was different. This was a class shift. The Hizb ut-Tahrir was tapping into a different demographic altogether. Naturally, the “phenomenon” attracted a lot of media attention.

The Tahrir’s changed tactics led to a reflexive change in attitudes. An administrative crackdown followed. Profiling of students of private universities, previously unheard of, became a routine affair. And life was never the same for the likes of Shoriful.

“One of my students shunned the Pathan suit and started wearing trousers. Earlier, he used to keep a beard but now he is clean-shaven. He did so because he realised that people regard him with suspicion,” says Janina Islam Abir, a lecturer in the Media and Communication department at Independent University. “Also, some of our students have been distancing themselves from their overtly religious friends.”

The general opinion among private university students is that life in Dhaka has suddenly become claustrophobic – it’s the state’s surveillance being streamed upon them.

Police have instructed landlords, particularly those in Dhaka’s posh Uttara, Mirpur and Banani areas, to avoid renting out rooms to bachelors, especially students of private universities. Should they do that, tenant details must be shared with the local police station. That’s not all, random questioning by police has become the new normal.

“Whenever we pass the diplomatic zone in Dhaka, we are stopped by the police. The first thing we are asked is, ‘Where do you study?’,” says Ridoan AGM, a third-year student of Independent University. He adds, “Earlier, we carried our ID cards when we went to university, now we carry it whenever we step out of our homes to ensure we are not harassed by the police.”

The state’s probe has penetrated the campuses too. Once again, one must fall back on the 2016 revelations. According to police investigations, universities were used by a section of radical teachers to indoctrinate students. They would apparently use the prayer rooms to talk to students on conflict and religion, share books on liberating the land of the Muslims, global jihad and Islamic rulings on democracy. One recruiter had told The Telegraph shortly after last year’s attacks that rich college students usually lacked a purpose in life and, therefore, were more prone to buying into the “martyr” dream.

Experts – social as well as behavioural – had also remarked how these youngsters did not have very strong family ties and lacked knowledge about the secular and cultural ethos of the country. Also, in the absence of students’ unions and active clubs and committees in these universities, they spent the larger part of their student life online with no “real” outlet for their youthful fervour. In fact, there has been enough evidence to support the view that the young men involved in the café attack were radicalised online.

After the attack, many universities installed closed-circuit television cameras in prayer rooms. Students were asked not to mingle with pupils they “are not sure of”. In NSU, which had earned a reputation for being “a den of extremists”, vigilance was more aggressive. It has since formed an anti-terror committee and asked students to remain alert. Insiders say, it recently suspended a group of students for allegedly forcing women classmates to wear the hijab.

As it happens, many innocent students have been caught in the crosshairs. Take the case of the student who approached a counsellor for a bothersome obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). The university administration suspected him of being a radical because he wore kurta-pyjama and sported a beard. “They asked me to question him rigorously about his background and try and find out if he had any connection with radical groups. I refused because I am not trained to deal with issues related to radicalisation. But another colleague grilled him so hard that he did not return for counselling,” says a counsellor of NSU, on condition of anonymity. She still believes the student really had suffered an OCD affliction, no more. Police too, apparently, “randomly” pick up young men and label them radicals. Going by news reports, in the past one year, a dozen “masterminds” have been hunted down.

If we have not heard the liberal thinkers speak up against this and for the rights of the student community at these universities, it is because they haven’t spoken up at all.

In fact, writer and historian Muntasir Mamun told The Telegraph over phone from Dhaka: “There is no such profiling.” So, was he denying all this is going on? Mamun admitted that students might feel “societal pressure” because names of one or two private universities had come up again and again for their involvement in terrorist activities, but added that it was a “temporary phase”. He said, “This will end soon, as the government is making a concerted effort to root out terrorism.”

Rooting out extremism from Bangladesh will, if anything, be a long haul. Radical forces seem to be only expanding their base in the country. But stereotyping is possibly not the best of solutions. “Some of them [students] feel intimidated by this constant vigil and are hiding their real selves in public. They are becoming introverts,” says Shami Suhrid, psycho-social counsellor and lecturer at BRAC University.

Counsellor Tamanna Chowdhury of the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh (ULAB) seconds that. She also throws in a warning. “Youth between 18 and 23 are vulnerable. Eventually, this alienation may push them to join radical forces.” But who’s listening?

In the meantime, in the absence of any kind of support, private university students have decided to take things into their own hands. They have started doing their bit to change the societal notion that they are “rich kids with extremist views”.

In the past one year, they have organised conferences, Sufi concerts and photo shoots to spread the message of peace and tolerance. On March 26, which is the Bangladesh Independence Day, students of the Eastern University painted their palms red and green – the colours of the Bangladeshi national flag – took selfies and posted them on Facebook.

In February, a Belgian mother, whose son went to Syria to join ranks with the terrorists, was invited to address students and parents at ULAB. She spoke on how to read the early signs of radicalisation among young men. Recently, students of five private universities organised a film festival under a project titled, “Film-making and television journalism for peace and tolerance in Bangladesh”. It showcased 12 films shot by students on radicalisation in Bangladesh and ways of containing it. Some universities are trying to engage ” muktijoddhas” or freedom fighters of the 1971 Liberation War to interact with students and talk to them about the history of Bangladesh.

Is it helping? Not all of these efforts can bear fruit overnight, but some are. Students claim that the interactive sessions give them a sense of context, help them engage in debates on politics and Islam. “Earlier, we used to listen to radical views in college canteens or clubs but never reacted because we didn’t know what to say. Now, we can confront them with valid arguments,” says Ridoan. Shoriful adds, “The onus is on us to change the perception about our tribe.”

Listen closely. Or recall Wilfred Owen. Bangladesh is ringing with the Anthem for doomed youth.


Employer-employee relations in Indian homes have seldom not been troubled and troublesome. Sometimes, they’ve turned volatile. In the second week of July, Zohra Bibi, a domestic help, went missing. The 26-year-old was employed in one of the posh housing societies in the National Capital Region’s Noida area. The next day, a mob – from the neighbouring slum where Zohra lived – stormed the residential complex. The agitators’ allegation: Zohra was being held captive by her employers. Eventually, police confirmed that Zohra had been found in the basement of one of the buildings. Her employers had accused her of theft, and taken it upon themselves to punish her. Zohra’s version: they beat her and locked her up in their apartment when she demanded her dues. In time, 13 men were arrested on charges of rioting and vandalising property. The BJP MP from Noida and Union minister of culture, Mahesh Sharma, voiced his support for Zohra’s employers and promised that the offenders would not get bail for “years to come”. The incident itself developed communal overtones – “Bangladeshi” domestics versus Hindu house owners.Zohra is not from Bangladesh. She belongs to Bengal’s Cooch Behar, as do most of her neighbours in the slum she inhabits. Among them, Ruksana Bibi and her husband, Afsar Ali. The couple arrived in Noida two years ago hoping to earn enough to pay off their debts. Zohra has gone underground since the incident but Ruksana agreed to show around The Telegraph what it is like to be a Muslim domestic help in Noida, Uttar Pradesh, these days.

  • It is barely dawn but Ruksana has been up for a while now. Some rice is on the boil in a pressure cooker. That would be her daughter, eight-year-old Bijli’s breakfast — rice with a slice of lime and salt. Ruksana and Afsar’s 50 sqft tin shack is in a slum less than a kilometre from the housing society where Zohra worked. The couple paid Rs 8,000 for it. Slumdwellers have contributed Rs 500 each to set up a hand pump. Sixty or so families use two makeshift community bathrooms; one of them has not functioned for some time now.

  • Ruksana catches up with Zohra’s mother-in-law, Mohsina, and her grandchildren. Zohra and her husband, Abdul Sattar’s house is locked. Mohsina alleges that Zohra’s teenage son, Rahul (not in picture), was picked up by police. He has been released since, but not the others. Mohsina, who worked as a domestic help in another housing complex, has also lost her job. Ruksana and others in the slum have been helping them with food and other necessities.

  • It is 6.10am. Ruksana enters a gated housing complex in Noida. She and other women from her slum work here. Each has an identity card issued by the management of the housing society after routine police verification. Other than this, Ruksana has a voter identity card and an Aadhaar card. After working in the brick kilns for 15 years, first in Cooch Behar and then in Ghaziabad, Ruksana and Afsar moved to Noida. Afsar was hired by the promoters of this very housing society to clean the windows and doors of apartments before they were handed over to the owners.

  • 9pm. After a long day, Ruksana returns home, as do the other women. They check on each other. Mother and daughter hungrily tuck into some rice, lentils and mashed potatoes. By 11pm, they are in bed. “I have not been able to sleep. I keep thinking, what if the police come back to harass me again? What if there are no jobs for us? What if we get thrown out of our homes? I don’t know how long this uncertainty will continue.” The thoughts jostle in her head and keep her awake. But her Bijli — Ruksana pats her gently. The little one must get her sound sleep.

  • Ruksana makes Rs 9,000 a month — she works in seven apartments, where she sweeps and swabs. Afsar’s monthly income is Rs 7,000. After the Zohra episode, there have been WhatsApp campaigns urging flat owners of the neighbourhood to blacklist “Bangladeshi” workers. “One flat owner called me a Bangladeshi and dismissed me,” says Ruksana. She adds,“I remember, it was my husband who cleaned their house and made it ready for them to move in. But now they consider us untouchables.”

  • Ruksana has taken a loan of Rs 15,000 from her employers to pay for the tuition and living expenses of the other two children. But after the allegations levelled at Zohra, she is scared. What if one of her employers slaps a false charge on her? She has stopped accepting gifts or food items from them. “All this while people knew we are Bengalis. Now, they look at us as Muslims and that has changed the whole equation. We are suddenly not trustworthy,” she says. This campaign against Muslims of the area is not new. In March, when there was a crackdown on meat-sellers in Uttar Pradesh, three Muslim boys selling poultry products at a makeshift market nearby were picked up by the police. They are still in jail. “That was the first we realised that things were slowly changing for us,” says Ruksana.

    (https://www.telegraphindia.com/1170730/jsp/7days/story_164519.jsp )


 

 

 

 

 

 

Delhi University professor Nandini Sundar has been taken by controversy again. This time a surrendered Bastar “Maoist”, Podiyami Panda, has alleged that he facilitated meetings between her, rights activist Bela Bhatia and top Maoists, a claim she denies. Last year, Sundar, author of The Burning Forest – India’s War in Bastar, was charged with murder of a tribal in Sukma district. Far away from the Maoist hinterland, sitting at her office in Delhi School of Economics, Sundar faults both the government and the Maoists and pleads for peace talks. Where she herself is concerned, she sees a “witch-hunt” by state agencies. Sundar, 49, an awarded academic – recipient of the Ester Boserup Prize (2016) and Infosys Prize ( 2010) – also tells SONIA SARKAR that she suspects directives against her are coming from the very top in the political establishment – the Prime Minister’s Office and national security advisor Ajit Doval.

Excerpts:

Q. What’s your response to Podiyami Panda’s statement that he was the link between you and Maoist leaders in Bastar?

A. I have never met any Maoist leader through Panda. It’s a false statement.

It seems that he has been tortured in police custody. His family members have filed a habeas corpus plea in the Chhattisgarh High Court. In the affidavit, his brother has stated that he met Panda in the presence of police; he was not able to walk properly, and seemed to have injuries on his feet. It is clear that he has been saying whatever the police want him to say. The police have been trying to frame us for a long time; they make us the target whenever they get an opportunity.

Q. Have you ever met Panda?

A. I know him for the past 15 years. He was a member of the Communist Party of India (CPI) and sarpanch of Chintagufa in Sukma. I met him because he was strongly opposing the Salwa Judum (civil militia) movement in 2005. It was in April 2015 that I met him for the last time.

Q. Did you ever meet any Maoist leader?

A. In May 2006, as part of the Independent Citizens’ Initiative, I met Gudsa Usendi – the name taken on by a succession of Maoist spokespersons. I object to this question on principle because it is insulting to researchers. If journalists feel entitled not to reveal their sources and meet all sides, why shouldn’t researchers? For the record, I have written on my chance meeting with lower cadres in my book. I criticised their violence, so they accused me of equating their violence with state violence. For my research, I would have wanted to meet more Maoist leaders but they never offered any guided tour or any interview because I asked them too many difficult questions.

Q. Why do you think Bela Bhatia and you are often drawn into controversies? Why is there so much questioning of your role in Bastar?

A. It is because Bela and I have been consistently insisting on peace talks. The state wants to discredit us. It doesn’t want any middle ground – it wants a black-and-white situation where there is nothing but the presence of military force.

Q. You have been working in Bastar since the 1990s. Is this sort of harassment new to you?

A. The state started harassing me ever since I filed a petition in the Supreme Court opposing Salwa Judum. In 2007, the police photo-shopped my image. I was shown with my arms around Maoist women cadres. They wanted to say that I filed the case on behalf of the Maoists. When I protested, the police replied saying it was one “Ms Jeet”. Nothing has ever been heard of this Ms Jeet before or after. In 2010, when I visited Bastar along with a friend, after being asked by the additional solicitor-general, we were picked up by 50 armed special police officers. They even followed us to the airport to make sure we left. Then last year, there was a murder charge against me but I have got a reprieve from the Supreme Court. But now, there is harassment by the Centre, which is putting pressure on Delhi University. If I apply for leave, I am asked, “What’s happening to your murder case?”

Q. Do you think the former IG (Bastar range) S.R.P. Kalluri made things worse for you? He filed murder charges against you.

A. I don’t think Kalluri was the sole issue. Yes, his language was defamatory. But I was harassed even when Vishwaranjan was the director-general of police (from 2007 to 2011). The main issue is that chief minister Raman Singh is condoning all of this.

Q. Do you think the Centre, too, has a role in all of this?

A. Yes. Either the Prime Minister’s Office or the national security advisor, Ajit Doval – it’s the political establishment that should be held accountable, not just the police.

Q. What changes have you noticed with BJP coming to power?

A. I think, Salwa Judum has spread all over the country in the form of gau rakshaks and vigilante mobs. The atmosphere now has become vitiated and violent.

Q. Are you a tribal rights activist or has your role changed into that of a mediator between the Maoist and the mainstream?

A. I don’t call myself a rights activist or a mediator. I am a sociologist whose work is to research and teach. In the course of that, I have been drawn into this because it’s an area I have done research on.

Q. What’s your understanding of the Maoists issue? Where are they going wrong?

A. The surrendered Maoists I interviewed have revealed that there is corruption in the ranks. Also, they carry out horrible punishments – like they kill people if they are suspected of being police informers. This is a perversion of their policy. The top leadership should realise that this strategy is going nowhere.

Q. What should be the approach of the government towards Maoists?

A. There should be peace talks. There should be a set of independent people who could be trusted by both sides such as former Supreme Court judges, retired administrators, policemen and others to mediate.

Sonia Sarkar listens in to the rage and disenchantment feeding the violent student upsurge across the Valley

  • NOT BOUGHT OVER: Those who read Kafka and Shaw too feel the need to protest, say students
    Photographs by Abid Bhat

Girls dressed in white salwar-kameez and black cardigans march fearlessly on the streets of Lal Chowk in central Srinagar. Faces covered with white dupattas, colourful bunny bags slung tight on their backs, they chase uniformed men with stones in their hands.

Among these girls is Asma Firdaus, a second-year student of English Literature at Srinagar Women’s College. “I read Franz Kafka and George Bernard Shaw, yet I go out to raise azadi slogans and pelt stones,” she says.

A few kilometres away, a middle school boy, wearing an olive green pullover and a pair of white trousers, takes the lead as hundreds of boys and girls follow him. He chants, ” Hum zulm ke khilaf hain, khilaf hain” and “College-o mein ghusna band karo.” Others join him in chorus – ” band karo, band karo“.

These are the new images emerging from Kashmir – compelling and powerful. In uniforms, these school and college students have been facing water cannons, tear gas and pellets fired by the forces. These protests send a strong message to Delhi, students assert. “It is a stern reply to the narrative promoted by Delhi that only the uneducated youth of Kashmir, who could be bought over by separatists, come out on the streets to protest,” says Aala Fazili, a research student at Kashmir University.

Fazili is referring to former defence minister Manohar Parrikar’s statement that stone pelters could be bought over by separatists for as little as Rs 500. Clearly, his argument has fallen flat as school and college students come out openly to pelt stones at the forces now.

The immediate provocation was the incident that took place at Pulwama Degree College on April 12. On that day, an army vehicle entered the campus to organise a painting exhibition under its ambitious “Sadbhavna Mission”. Students held massive protests and some even pelted stones at the vehicle forcing the men in uniform to leave the premises. Three days later, on April 15, students staged another protest against a checkpost of Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) troopers, barely a few metres outside the college gate. Police came into the scene to control the agitating crowd; 55 students were injured in the subsequent tear-gassing.

Students narrate their tale of ordeal from that day. “Some of us fell unconscious after being tear-gassed,” says a first-year student of the college. “When we were struggling to come out of the campus, police officials told us that if we ask the boys hiding in classrooms to come out they will not touch anyone. We trusted the police and did as they requested. But the moment the boys came out, police started beating them up ruthlessly,” she adds.

The enquiry commission set up by the government too reveals police atrocities against students. “Police trespassed into the campus,” state education minister Altaf Bukhari says. “And they also beat up students – both boys and girls.”

But the police denies such allegations. “We went to evacuate the campus on the request of the college principal. No force was used against the students,” Syed Javaid Mujtaba Gillani, inspector-general of police of Jammu and Kashmir, tells The Telegraph.

However, the student uproar continued. On April 17, the Kashmir University Students Union (Kusu), a banned organisation, called an all-students’ protest across the Valley. Looking at the mass mobilisation of students, the government shut down the higher secondary schools and colleges from April 18 to 21. But sporadic protests continued across districts – Pulwama, Sopore, Anantnag, Bandipora and Srinagar.

In an Anantnag college, sources tell us, the principal too protested with students. Students from various schools and colleges blocked the arterial Srinagar-Jammu National Highway, crying: ” Awaz do, hum ek hain!

“We cannot allow the forces to damage the sanctity of educational institutions,” says Riddah Qazi, a student of journalism at the Islamic University of Science and Technology in Pulwama’s Awantipora. She wrote her exams before participating in the protest.

Like successive Kashmiri protests, even this one is being seen a result of pent-up anger of the youth against agencies of the state. The current generation of school and college students have grown up witnessing frisking, crackdowns, disappearances, summons to police stations and unprovoked killings, political scientists point out. The recent image of a man tied to an army jeep, used as a human shield, only aggravated the anger of the young Kashmiris. People across the Valley – politicians, separatists and political scientists – call these protests “unprecedented”.

“The biggest significance of this protest is that it’s led by students; it’s not a response to any call by separatists. Yet, the scale of mobilisation is huge,” says Gul Mohammad Wani, professor of Political Science at Kashmir University. He adds, “Plus, the women students are in the forefront. Last but not the least, these students have come out in their uniforms, defying any fear of being identified.”

Even separatists are surprised to see such large-scale protests by students. “Delhi must understand that these students have a mind of their own; their rage is uncontrollable now,” says separatist leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, chairman of the Awami Action Committee.

Students have come out in large numbers in south Kashmir, the stronghold of the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP). Clearly, its ambitious personality development programmes for the youth failed. “There is a sense of defeat and alienation among them,” concedes Waheed-ur-Rehman Para, president of the PDP’s youth wing.

Wani says that the anger of students has spilled out onto the streets because there is no other channel to vent their resentment. In 2010, the Kashmir University banned Kusu and demolished its office; the students’ long-standing demand to conduct a free and fair union election was never addressed.

Mainstream political parties such as the PDP, National Conference and People’s Conference had floated their youth or students’ wings in Kashmir University. The separatist Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front too started a more hardline Islamic Students League in 1985. Prior to this, Islami Jamiat-ul Talba was started in 1977 by the religio-political organisation, Jamaat-e-Islami Kashmir. But only the banned Kusu is popular among the students.

“Only Kusu has the credibility among the masses. It has been able to garner huge support among students only because the state doesn’t want it to function,” says Fazili.

In the past too, students’ movements in Kashmir, primarily led by university students, have played an important role. In the 1920s, Muslims Students and Youngman Association raised its voice against the denial of religious and political freedom by the Dogra rulers. In the 1931 mass uprising too, students came out in large numbers to protest against Maharaja Hari Singh. In 1964, students participated in the Holy Relic ( moe-e-muqaddas) movement. Many students joined the radicalised Al-Fatah in 1965. In 1973, Kashmiri students resisted attempts of authorities to change the name of the Government Women’s College Srinagar to Kamala Nehru College. Again in 1974, students took to the streets when the Indira-Sheikh Accord was signed.

After a lull of nearly a decade, young Kashmiris took to the streets at the peak of militancy in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In the recent past, whenever the Valley was on the boil – 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2016 – youth have been in the forefront of protests but they seldom came out in their school or college uniforms.

“For us this time it’s a uniform (forces) vs uniform (students) fight,” says Zabirah Fazili, an English graduate from Srinagar Women’s College.

These protests have proved another setback to studies as classes resumed only in March after a six-month closure of schools and colleges in 2016 due to protests following the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani.

Some teachers, however, feel that students are using the prolonged conflict as an “excuse” to stay away from classes and exams. “Some students want everything on a platter without any hard work. They have started liking this phase of inertia,” says Syeda Afshana, senior assistant professor at the Media and Education Research Centre in Kashmir University.

The other worry of teachers is the growing Islamisation of the students’ movement. The youth, they say, are increasingly showing readiness to embrace radical forms of Islam. During the latest protests too, students have been shouting “Allaha-o-Akbar” and ” hume kya chahiye – Nizam-e-Mustafa (What do we want? The rule of the Prophet in Kashmir)”.

“Very few students even know the history of Kashmir. They need proper understanding of the issue,” Wani cautions. But the separatist Umar Farooq asserts that the “cat is out of the bag” and nothing can stop the students now.



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