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Archive for the ‘Conflict and the conflicts within’ Category

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.


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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.


India is home to 4.5 lakh refugees from 12 different countries. Why then is the home ministry being particularly tough on Myanmar’s Rohingyas? Sonia Sarkar finds out

  • NOBODY’S PEOPLE: (Above) Raheema Khatoon with her children; the Delhi slum (below), home to Rohingyas refugees; (last) Mohammed Haroon in his shop. Pictures by Sonia Sarkar

They don’t speak their mother tongue – Rohingya – anymore, but Hindi. The men have exchanged their longyis for trousers and the women their thains for the salwar-kameez. What is more, these traditional rice-eaters are now learning to enjoy their rotis.

“We have learnt many new things here because we want to be one of the locals,” says Fayaz Ahmed, a daily wager. Ahmed is one of the 220 Rohingyas who set up home in south Delhi’s Madanpur Khadar slum five years ago, after fleeing their homeland fearing persecution by the Myanmarese Army and radical Buddhists.

Since 1992, Rohingyas – Muslims in Buddhist-majority Myanmar – have been routinely ostracised by Myanmarese forces. The attacks intensified in 2012, and even after Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy came to power in 2015, not much changed. Fearing persecution, Rohingyas continue to migrate to India, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Indonesia.

All very well, except that the Indian government has suddenly decided to wind back the hospitable neighbour act. And that notwithstanding the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants it swore by last September, the same that vowed commitment to “combating xenophobia, racism and discrimination” against refugees and migrants.

Apart from those living in Delhi, there is a sizeable Rohingya population – around 6,000 – in Jammu. According to an estimate, there are over 40,000 Rohingyas living across the country.

Rohingyas have always been regarded with a little suspicion. Intelligence agencies claim they are involved in drug trafficking in the Northeast and also raise funds for terror activities. Lashkar-e-Toiba chief Hafiz Saeed’s exhibition of empathy and offer to radicalise more people from the community hasn’t helped their case.

Lately, hate campaigns and demonstrations against the Jammu Rohingyas have intensified. The Jammu Chamber of Commerce and Industry, in fact, declared that they would be “identified and killed”. There was not a word from the government against such a diktat. In fact, a fortnight ago, the union home ministry said Rohingyas in India would be identified and deported, an exercise that will begin with Jammu and cover the rest of India eventually.

Taslima Khatoon is one of those facing the wrath of the locals in Jammu. She sounds distraught while speaking to The Telegraph over phone. “Unknown people come and threaten us, ask us to leave. I don’t know where to go,” she says.

Her sister, Raheema, who lives in Delhi, is in similar panic. Both sisters have their respective refugee cards issued to 14,000 Rohingyas in India by the UN refugee agency, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and stay visas issued by the home ministry’s Bureau of Immigration. But these won’t be of any help, it seems. “We don’t recognise the refugee cards issued by UNHCR,” says a senior home ministry official who does not want to be identified. “We will not issue or renew stay visas to the Rohingyas anymore.”

But why this sudden anti-Rohingya sentiment? There is a theory that they are mistaken for Bangladeshi Muslims – both speak similar sounding Bengali dialects. “In India, there is a great fear of mass Bangladeshi Muslim immigration and this appears to have become linked with Rohingya refugees in a problematic way,” says Kirsten McConnachie, who is a Rohingya specialist and an assistant professor at the University of Warwick’s School of Law.

Rohingyas understand this. “We do not speak in our language because locals think we are Bangladeshis. We don’t want to do anything that will make us look like them,” says Mohammed Haroon, a shopkeeper.

They are doing their best to integrate with their adoptive country. A group of boys in Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh have started their own football team, Rohingya Shining Stars. Over 65 Rohingya children of Madanpur Khadar are going to a nearby private English medium school. “We want to be one of you. We want to be equal,” says Ameena Khatoon, whose children started going to school only after they came to India.

But their problems might yet remain; the status of refugees is governed by political discretion and not by any codified model of conduct. So you have acres of agricultural land earmarked for Tibetans in Himachal Pradesh’s Dharamshala; designated camps set up in Tamil Nadu for Sri Lankan refugees; and even Bhutanese and Nepalese immigrants live in India under friendship treaties with valid work permits. Not just that, for the past three decades, India has been welcoming Buddhist refugees from Myanmar. But suddenly there is no space for the Rohingyas.

Experts attribute this hardening of stance to the ruling BJP’s anti-Muslim sentiment. “It seems, the Indian government is not so concerned about the influx of refugees; it is more against the religion of these refugees,” says Harsh Mander, general secretary of the Delhi-based Centre for Equity Studies.

India, which is home to 4.5 lakh refugees from 12 different countries, doesn’t have any refugee law. It is not even signatory to the UN Refugee Convention, 1951, which was later amended to form the 1967 Refugee Protocol. According to the UNHCR, even so, India cannot send the Rohingyas back as the principle of non-refoulement is considered part of customary international law and binding on all states whether they have signed the Refugee Convention or not. Non-refoulement refers to the practice of not forcing refugees or asylum seekers to return to a country in which they are liable to be subjected to persecution.

This looks like an assurance for Shamsheeda Begum, who considers India as her home now. “Throw us into the sea or put us into jail but we will not go back to Myanmar,” she stresses.

She lives in the Delhi slum in a 7ft by 6ft makeshift wooden house – there are 45 of them – supported by bamboo frames and covered with tarpaulin sheets. These houses stand next to each other on a 9,900 square-feet plot provided by the NGO, Zakat Foundation of India, which also sponsors the education of 65 Rohingya children.

“Life is so much better here. Only after coming to India have we understood what it is to live freely. In Myanmar, we always feared for our lives,” says Shamsheeda, who claims images of mutilated bodies and burnt houses from her past Myanmar life still haunt her.

Haroon, too, is taken aback with India’s sudden stepmotherly turn. “I thought India is a peace-loving country. It gives space to all. Why is India being so harsh on us?” he asks.

Perhaps Haroon has not heard one of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popular punchlines – “Mera desh badal raha hai (My country is changing).”

Enough said.


The exiled former President of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed, gets online with Sonia Sarkar to spell out why India is critical to his dream of returning as boss of the archipelago

  • Illustration: Suman Choudhury

He was known as the first rockstar President of the Maldives – Western educated, suave, crisply-turned out, espousing liberal values in an Islamic state, a visage that sometimes reminded some of a likeness to Barack Obama. Mohamed Nasheed caught attention easily. But not always where he wanted it most. He has the ears of the West thousands of miles away but has failed to cast a spell on his immediate neighbour, India. Former British Prime Minister David Cameron calls him “best friend”; Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has so far ignored him. But Nasheed hasn’t given up; he wants Modi to listen to him.

“I would try to tell Prime Minister Modi that the people of the Maldives are suffering under an autocratic government run by President Abdulla Yameen. We would like him to understand the fears of the people of Maldives,” Nasheed, 49, chief of the Maldivian Democratic Party, tells The Telegraph from Colombo over Skype.

So far, his plea has gone unheard in Delhi. Modi seems to be moving closer to Nasheed’s rival, Yameen. Last year, Modi signed a defence pact with the Maldives when Yameen visited Delhi. Indian diplomats say the deal was a bid to stem a growing Chinese influence in the Maldives. A major contract for the construction of Male’s international airport, which was earlier given to Indian infrastructure company, GMR, got revoked and went to a Chinese company.

But Nasheed cautions India. “I don’t think pandering to Yameen would make him averse to signing more contracts with China,” he warns. “Yameen has given around nine islands to China and some of those islands are very crucial for India because of their geopolitical positioning.”

Nasheed is frank enough to admit that these contracts to China will be tough to revoke even if he comes to power. Earlier, India suspected Nasheed of being receptive to China when a Chinese embassy was opened in Male in 2011 during his presidentship. “If we come to power, it’s going to be very difficult to undo any sovereign contract that Yameen will engage in with any other country,” Nasheed says. “We don’t want to bargain between India and China. I don’t want to blackmail a country into a negotiation or an action.”

Nasheed was thrown out of power in a coup in 2012 by the former Vice-President, Mohammed Waheed Hassan. Hassan is known to be a crony of former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who Nasheed defeated in 2008. A year after the 2012 coup, Nasheed had taken refuge for 10 days at the Indian High Commission in Male fearing arrest. That was the only time that an Indian government (the UPA at that time) has responded to his call for help.

Nasheed has been trying to drag India’s attention to alleged cases of corruption, media repression and human rights violations by Yameen but to little avail. India’s diplomatic outlook appears clear: it will not engage with any individual, it would engage with the country’s official representative.

But Nasheed isn’t giving up. He routinely briefs officials of the Indian High Commission in London, where he has been living in political asylum since last year. His party colleagues have been meeting experts at Indian security think tanks in New Delhi too. They are making all possible efforts to pursue the Indian government to create pressure on Yameen to allow Nasheed to fight elections next year.

Nasheed fears being arrested the moment he lands in Male because he has been sentenced to 13 years’ imprisonment on charges of terrorism in 2015. Of the 13 years, he has spent only a few months in jail. Also, he is barred from fighting the polls on grounds of criminal conviction.

So he has joined hands with all opposition parties, including his long-time foe, Gayoom, the leader of the Progressive Party of Maldives and half-brother of President Yameen, to come back to power. When Gayoom ruled the Maldives with an iron fist for 30 years, he had had Nasheed arrested more than 20 times for his demand for democratic elections in the country. But now Nasheed appears to have dissolved his difference with Gayoom.

Together, with two other parties, Nasheed and Gayoom have created the United Opposition, which enjoys a majority in the Maldivian Parliament. They plan to move legislation for “free and fair” elections in which Nasheed can also participate.

Many believe Nasheed’s alliance with Gayoom shows his desperation to come to power. But Nasheed, who signed the deal with the opposition parties in Colombo, begs to differ. “It’s not my desperation. People are desperate to find solutions to problems of the Maldives and the onus is on us,” he stresses.

But Nasheed has a problem: he isn’t known as someone who can take everyone on board. In the past, when he was in power, he was accused of alienating the judiciary, the police, even parliamentarians. Key members of his government also resigned in sheer frustration.

Nasheed admits to learning lessons from the past. “This time, we cannot consolidate power within our own party. We must be ready to share powers with our allies,” he asserts. During the two-and-a-half years he was in power, Nasheed’s notion of “liberalising” the outlook of the country didn’t go down well with his newfound allies; at the time, many saw him as a threat to “traditional Islamic values” in the Maldives.

Over the past five years, Islamic extremism has risen across the thousand-island nation 1,350 miles southwest of India with a population of 3,50,000. Some reports suggest the Maldives is the biggest per capita contributor to terror outfit ISIS. But if he comes back as president, Nasheed says he is determined to tackle extremism: “I must continue to show leadership in liberal acceptance.”

Nasheed’s concept of liberalism is largely borrowed from the West, where he grew up. He read at the UK’s Dauntsey’s School in posh Wiltshire, and later enrolled for maritime studies at Liverpool’s John Moores University. His connections with the UK are deep. He has met Queen Elizabeth II and stayed at the Windsor Castle. But his Western ties don’t stop at Britain’s royals. Amal Clooney, celebrity international lawyer and wife to George Clooney, carries his brief. Nasheed’s fight for democracy in Maldives also finds itself gloried in a documentary titled The Island President; it was made by Hollywood’s Jon Shenk, one of the directors on the iconic Star Wars space saga.

As president, Nasheed’s policies were largely influenced by the West. His economic policies were based on the International Monetary Fund model of capitalism. He was also hailed by the West when he conducted an underwater Cabinet in 2009 to highlight the threat of global warming to the low-lying Indian Ocean nation.

Despite receiving accolades from the West, his love for India hasn’t diminished. His fascination for Indian cinema is deep. “I have been a fan of all the stars of the 80s – Amitabh Bachchan, the Kapoors and Mithun. I seem to keep going back to Abhimaan, Silsila and Kabhie Kabhie over and over again,” he laughs, adding, “I can never forget Zeenat Aman and Poonam Dhillon.” His exposure to Bollywood happened during his various trips to India as a teenager. On his first visit as a teenager, he travelled across India by train for four months. Later, as a politician too, he travelled to New Delhi and Bangalore several times; his last trip to India was in 2015. “I like living in India,” he says.

A history enthusiast, Nasheed has authored three books on Maldivian history. A former journalist and an avid reader, Nasheed is currently reading Shashi Tharoor’s An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India.

Nasheed is a fitness freak too. He wakes up early and his 40-minute run is regimented. He is extremely careful about his lunch and dinner timings. A family man, Nasheed loves spending time with his wife, Laila, and two daughters, Mira and Zaaya, who study in a boarding school in England.

But then his life in UK is only transitory. He aims to be back home. “Soon,” he insists. He compares his state of homelessness to what Salman Rushdie has mentioned in his book, Imaginary Homelands. “I am always imagining home and the condition itself is not easy. And I don’t want to remain like this.” For things to change faster for him, he has been trying to shore up support back home through social media, especially Twitter. He claims a large number of his 85.1K followers on Twitter are young men and women in their early 20s: “Successful politics in the 21st century is instant – on Twitter.”

That’s where he “met” Modi too. “Recently, Modi retweeted one of my tweets on democracy. I would consider that as our meeting,” he says.

But perhaps he’d like to take a break from that virtual meeting and make it real.


tetevitae

Son of a businessman, the 1967-born Nasheed is educated in his own country, as well as Sri Lanka and Britain

He is in his 20s when he comes to be known as an outspoken critic of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s regime

1991: Arrested for the first time for writing a magazine piece alleging that the government had rigged the 1989 general elections. Named Amnesty International prisoner of conscience thereafter

It is said that in the next 17 years, Anni – as he is popularly known – was arrested 20 times

2001: Tries to register the Maldivian Democratic Party but fails. Finally, he succeeds in 2005

2008: Elected president in the Maldives’ first free polls, thus ending the 30-year rule of Gayoom

His presidency is not entirely smooth. And in 2012, he resigns

In 2015, he is awarded a 13-year prison sentence on terrorism charges. Shortly after, he asks to be allowed to travel to the UK for medical treatment. The UK has been his home since.

 

April 16, 2017

Kashmiri indignation remains well-fed, generation to generation

I’VE BEEN looking at the renewed powderflash from Kashmir on the television screens, and I’ve been looking at old notes in my diary. Some of it is worth repeating because some things, sadly, never change.

The Bodo jawan, small and fair, stops the small car ahead of us. He leans his head inside and asks the elderly man, in pheran and skull cap, to step out. Taking slow and clumsy steps, the man walks towards the checkpost about 700 metres down the road. His car crawls behind him. We are on a dusty stretch near Padgampora in Pulwama, 35 kilometres south of Srinagar.

It’s our turn now. Curiously, the young soldier allows us through without a question.

“You are spared because you are an Indian,” quips my driver, Mehraj, a burly man in his late 50s. By “Indian” he meant non-Kashmiri.

Random checks, unprovoked summons and unwarranted detentions are common for local Kashmiris. “We are treated as outsiders in our own land” – is a common refrain.

Journalists on assignment from Delhi have it far easier than anyone Kashmiri. While we roam the curfewed streets of Srinagar freely, flaunting the central government’s Press Information Bureau tag, Kashmiri journalists, by contrast, must scout escape routes through Srinagar’s narrow bylanes to reach safety when there’s trouble.

One afternoon, during the 2010 unrest, I was on my way to downtown Srinagar, when I heard a Kashmiri journalist frantically call out. He had been thrashed by CRPF jawans who wouldn’t be convinced that he ran a news agency and actually published “pro-Indian” content.

It’s November 2016. I am back in the Valley. At Bandipora, I am passing by a landscape of burnt tyres, broken spokes and logs of wood. We are manoeuvring through the barricades and gun-toting soldiers. Two militants were killed in a nearby village the previous night.

Kashmir has been on high alert for several months now. A summer full of blooms has been busted by the killing of the young Hizb-ul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani in July. Months of unrest followed. Close to a hundred people died, thousands were injured or permanently disabled, Kashmir recorded its longest time under curfew.

It’s nearing the end of autumn now. In fact, a delayed autumn, Mehraj corrects me. The unusual calm in the fog-ridden air resounds with tales of a wounded summer. The tall chinar trees, bereft of the leaves, stand in a row. The skies are heavy with grey clouds turning darker. We hear thunder in the distance. In a while, thick drops of rain start falling on the windshield. I roll down the window to feel the rain-freshened air.

This sudden downpour is as unpredictable as the unrest in Kashmir, says Basit, a Sopore lawyer, as we munch on crispy lavassas (flat bread made of finely-milled wheat flour), bundhh (salted bun) and chochwour (bread with sesame coating) at his house.

Basit is telling me about the unlawful detention of stone-pelters and how their cases progress in court. As we get engrossed in our conversation, Basit’s little nephew, all of three, sits coyly next to him. He and his elder brother have been confined to home for months now; the schools are shut. His brother is now restless and is keen to go back to school but he isn’t. “Whenever we tell him, he would go to the kindergarten soon, he would say, ‘ Pehle India ko bhagaao, phir school jayenge (Let India leave Kashmir, then I will go to school),” his lawyer uncle says chirpily.

The child looks on with a glassy stare as Basit narrates more stories of his revolt at home. He even ignores his mother’s summons. The boy pulls a kangri (little pot with lighted charcoal) closer to himself for some warmth. I could see the glowing embers of the kangri. These embers, perhaps, resemble the rage of a young Kashmiri.

This rage remained subdued in the autumn and through the winter. But what’s the coming summer, already blistered, to bring? Kashmir is aflame again.

 

Telegraph, April 2, 2017

Link : https://www.telegraphindia.com/1170402/jsp/7days/story_143981.jsp