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Archive for the ‘Conflict and Women’ Category

Sonia Sarkar travels into the depths of Abujmarh, Chattisgarh’s inaccessible and guerilla-run forestland, to find flourishing shoots of commerce and change.

A collage of colours – bright blue, yellow and black – welcomes you to Orchha, a small town in the Maoist stronghold of Abujmarh in Chhattisgarh. Coloured tarpaulin sheets drape tables laden with goods set up along the undulating lane that cuts through the dusty town.

Ramesh Usendi holds his chequered blue-grey lungi, fluttering in the wind, with one hand, and with the other fiddles with an MP3 player. He has bought this digital player of Chinese make for Rs 150.

“The shopkeeper downloaded some Gondi songs for me,” says the 25-year-old from Jatlur, 30 kilometres from Orchha in Narayanpur district. Gondi is the predominant tribal language spoken in Abujmarh.

In this back-of-beyond pocket – a land caught in a time warp – excitement arrives every Wednesday morning. For this is when the haat comes up, week after week and through the year. People walk from their villages in the hills and forests, often trekking all day and more to travel 45 kilometres or so, to buy – or perhaps just look at – the goods on sale.

There are torches on the tables, LED bulbs, emergency lamps and even selfie sticks. From synthetic clothes and plastic slippers to fashion jewellery and from pencil cells to mobile phones, the market tempts villagers with a variety of goods. Most have a Made in China emboss; the prices range from Rs 50 to Rs 1,400.

  • WORLD WINDOW: The Orchha bazaar is a social hub where tribals from far-flung hamlets congregate once a week. Pictures by the author

Dressed in a fitted red blouse with a green gamchha and a strip of printed cloth wrapped around her thin waist, Santi Gota of Handawada has walked with her two little children through broken roads and crossed two streams to reach what the locals call their bazaar.

She has bought clothes for her two-year-old son and four-year-old daughter, and is now looking at artificial silver earrings for herself, a local interpreter explains. “We wear only traditional brass jewellery. But these artificial ones look different,” she says.

The market, a running affair for more than three decades, is the lifeline of people living in the 237 villages of Abujmarh, a terrain that spans across 4,975 square kilometres. The locals also sell their own produce – brooms, tamarind, Indian gooseberries ( amla), etc. – in the market; this is how most earn a little cash and ease living.

But the market has changed character. There was a time it sold only essentials such as rice, sugar, salt, pulses, spices and utensils. For the past five years or so, it has been flooded with cheap Chinese goods.

The shopkeepers are petty merchants from Narayanpur town, who collect Chinese goods from markets in Jagdalpur and Raipur, and sell them in Orchha, 65 kilometres away. Most of the goods enter Chhattisgarh through Hyderabad, administration sources say. According to some estimates, Chinese goods worth about Rs 300 crore are sold in the state every year.

Attempts have been made to put a curb on them. Chief minister Raman Singh had said recently that the government would ban the sale of Chinese goods. There was an outcry against such goods in October, when Chinese-made halogen lamps apparently burst at a cultural programme in Rajnandgaon district and caused eye injuries to many present.

But Abujmarh is not troubled by such threats. The sellers say that halogen lamps and torches are in big demand because electricity is rare; it embraces but a few rural outposts like Orchha, Godadi and Mandali. “Villagers often buy halogen lamps and torches in bulk for the entire village,” says Sunil Singh, who sells the torches for Rs 150 and the lamps for Rs 300 a piece.

The other popular product is the mobile phone. There is no cellular network in the villages, but people like to carry cell phones. “They listen to songs on their phones,” says Suresh Soni, another shopkeeper. “Portable radios are in demand. They want to hear the news,” he adds.

Some shopkeepers believe villagers often buy radios and phones for Maoists living deep in the jungles of Abujmarh. Over 175 villages of Abujmarh fall under the so-called liberated zone ruled by the Jantana Sarkar, or people’s government.

Little is known about this region; it lies cut off from the rest of Chhattisgarh and the country, courtesy an inaccessible geography and the violent politics of Maoist cadres. “The name Abujmarh means nobody knows about anything. It means the area which is unknown, deserted and blank,” says a paper called “Orchha, the market within blank space of Abujmarh” by N.L. Dongre.

The forests are thick with mango, tamarind, mahua and peepal trees. The Indravati river cuts off Abujmarh from Bastar, making it even more isolated. Populated by people belonging to the Gond, Muria, Maria and Halba tribes, most Abujmarh villages can be accessed only by foot.

That is why development is not a word that the villagers know of. Government officials have not stepped into the interiors of Abujmarh. Orchha, its headquarters, is one of the few places that can boast of a healthcare centre. Abujmarh has not been surveyed by the government, and there has been no official mapping yet.

One of the vehicular roads to Orchha leads off from Dhaudai in Narayanpur. I travelled about 30 kilometres down this track to reach the market. The curved and pebbled road passes through dense forests of sal, teak and bamboo thickets. By night, this stretch is inky black. The occasional and passing blur of lights are CRPF camps set up along the route.

After an hour of travelling in the dark, a huge pillar with faded murals of a tribal man and woman welcomes you to Orchha.

Orchha, not to be confused with the more famous tourist destination in Madhya Pradesh, springs to life on Wednesdays – occasionally even Tuesday nights – when the stalls are set up. Sometimes, the police stop vendors from setting up shop at night. When that happens, the market opens the next morning.

On an average, some 400 villagers gather in Orchha for the bazaar. They buy essentials such as vegetables and cereals, and Chinese goods that interest them. The place is also a social hub; this is where tribals from far-flung hamlets convene. “For six days a week, they live in isolation. People wait for this one day,” says Narayanpur district collector Taman Singh Sonwani.

The stalls also tell the villagers about new technology, or of changing trends. For instance, people for generations in these regions have cooked food in utensils made of clay or bottle gourd skin. Now they buy aluminium pots. If they ate mostly boiled kodo kutki (millets) and pikhur (a tuber), they are now buying vegetables, oil and turmeric. Stalls selling samosas and jalebis do brisk business.

Though many tribal people still wear traditional clothes, an increasing number of men sport shirts or T-shirts and cargo shorts, which they pick up from the market. Once they walked barefoot; now they move around in plastic slippers. Women, who earlier wore just a piece of cloth or a lungi wrapped around their waists, are often seen in saris and blouses.

“We have taught them how to wear clothes,” says samosa-seller Nibha Banerjee, who has been setting up a shop in the market for 30 years. Someone called Banerjee? Here? But of course; after the creation of Bangladesh in 1971, a lot many refugees were re-settled in these parts and have since made it their home.

This is also where the tribal people – who usually speak Gondi, Maria and Halba – pick up a smattering of Hindi and English. Some of their children study in schools run by the Ramakrishna Mission or the government. Last year, for the first time, three boys from a village in Abujmarh joined Delhi University.

Muru Ram, a 19-year-old boy who has come to Orchha to buy a chain saw for his father, has studied in a Mission school, and now wants to go to Jagdalpur for further studies. The chain saw is not available, and he is asked to come back after a few weeks.

There are rumours that local Maoists have asked hawkers not to sell Chinese goods. The news is unconfirmed and unexplained, but the shopkeepers are worried. “We will clear the stock and not pick up fresh ones. But we will run into losses if we don’t sell Chinese goods,” Soni says.

Ironically, the sale of Chinese goods is the only issue on which the Maoists and the Centre are on the same page.

For the villagers of Abujmarh, China perhaps is no longer a symbol of guerilla warfare with the promise of revolution. It now stands for lights, phones, batteries and music, for profitable commerce and ease of life, no more.

ABUJMARH: LOST IN TRANSITION

• Area: 4,975 square kilometres, mostly unmapped and inaccessible.
• Stretch of metal road: 54 kilometres
• Population: 34,950
• Maoists (rough estimate): 500
• Security forces: 800 across six camps (Orchha, Dhanora, Basingbahar, Kurusnar, Akabeda and Kukdajhor)
• Security personnel killed between 2012 and 2016: 11
• Maoists killed: 36
• Government schools: 135 across only 30 villages
• Schools destroyed in 10 years: 50*
• Healthcare centres: 6 across 5 villages; 42 had been sanctioned
• Healthcare centres destroyed in  10 years: 12*

*No damage to schools and healthcare centres in the last 5 years
Source: Government and police in Narayanpur and Orchha.

 

Published in The Telegraph, December 26, 2016.

(https://www.telegraphindia.com/1161225/jsp/7days/story_126631.jsp)

Skinny jeans and dead bodies, billiard tables and teen soldiers — Karbala
is a story of conflicting images. Sonia Sarkar visits the holy city in Iraq and
finds that another war is being waged

  • AND LIFE GOES ON:  A garment shop in Karbala

Friday evenings at the Al Kawthar shopping complex on Al-Jumhuriya Street in Karbala are busy. Less than 100 metres from the shrine of Imam Hussein Ibn Ali, burqa clad women shop for leather bags, skinny jeans and heart-shaped soft toys. A few yards away, cheerful young men play billiards inside a noisy cafeteria. By the Nahr-al-Furat – the Euphrates – families unwind.

But it doesn’t take much to change the mood in Karbala. A group of young men in uniform, carrying three dead bodies, marches towards the Karbala shrine. The dead are men killed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), or Daesh, in war-ravaged Fallujah, 120km from Karbala, home to 1.86 million Iraqis.

Just 100km from the Iraqi capital of Baghdad, Karbala is a picture of contrasting images. On the one hand, there are five-star hotels, shopping malls, theme parks, 5D theatres and apartments. On the other hand, huge billboards with photographs of young men killed by the ISIS, cavalcades of armoured vehicles and video clips from the warfront on television remind visitors that the country is still at war.

  • An 8-year-old boy, whose father was killed by the ISIS, celebrates his birthday at a camp

“The two images of Karbala could be contrasting but they are a part of each other. Both represent today’s reality of Iraq,” Muhammad Alawadi Al Musawi, lecturer, department of history, University of Karbala, points out.

Karbala is where Hussein Ibn Ali, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad, was believed to have been killed by the ruler of the Umayyad dynasty, Yazid, in 680 AD. Some 50 million tourists visit it every year.

Efforts are on to erase the picture of violence that is today associated with Iraq. And the movement is being spearheaded by the shrine, whose coffers are rich.

“We want to make Karbala a world class city and change the face of Iraq. The world believes Iraq is all about war but we want to change the image of Iraq through Karbala,” says Fawzy Al-Shaher, general manager, Khayrat Al-Sobtayn, an investment company floated by the shrine. “We want to make Karbala the next developed city after Baghdad in Iraq.”

With a two-year budget of US $500 million, it has started several projects. One of the biggest is the construction of the Imam Hussein International Airport with help from China. Currently, all major airlines operate from the Najaf airport, 76km from Karbala.

Old-timers point out that Karbala, which witnessed Shia unrest against former President Saddam Hussein in 1979, was a neglected city during his regime. But now it is unrecognisable. With construction galore, land rates are shooting up as malls, restaurants and auditoriums come up.

  • A jewellery shop

“The effort is to tell the world that Iraq is beyond sectarian divide between the Shias and Sunnis,” says Sheikh Mahdi Al Karbalai, the chief cleric of the Holy Shrine of Imam Hussain.

Ironically, war cannot be taken out of the lives of the people of Karbala – or of Iraq. Iraq has been ravaged by war several times in the past 35 years. In 1980, the protracted Iran-Iraq war began as Saddam attacked Iran. In 1991, he invaded Kuwait in what was to be known as the Gulf War. Iraq was forced to retreat and economic sanctions were imposed on it. In 2003, US forces invaded Iraq, supposedly to destroy weapons of mass destruction. Saddam was captured and executed in 2006.

In 2014, a new war began, as the ISIS seized huge swathes of areas in northern and western Iraq, including the cities of Mosul, Fallujah and Tikrit. The town of Jurf al-Sakhar, 60km from Karbala, was captured by the ISIS but recaptured by Iraqi forces in 2014.

Karbala has been relatively safe, but there was an incident in 2007 when 12 men from Qods Force, a branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, disguised as US soldiers, entered the Provincial Joint Coordination Center in Karbala and killed five US army men.

But the shadow of the war continues to loom over Karbala. Even toy shops are not spared.

“Every child wants to buy a toy gun or a military tank,” says Sala Al Hashmi, owner of a toy shop in Karbala. “Children see visuals of men in uniform brandishing guns and want to be like them.”

Children, as young as eight, speak of defeating the ISIS. “I want to fight Daesh,” says eight-year-old Murtaba Rahim, who is celebrating his birthday in a military camp in Karbala. His father was killed by the ISIS four years ago while he was protecting the Sayyidah Zaynab mosque in Syria, the centre of religious studies for Shias.

Teenagers have been making a beeline for the mobilisation force, al-Hashd al-Shaabi, which was formed in 2014 after the Shiite cleric, the grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, gave out a call to civilians to fight the ISIS. Civilians are now trained in using weapons such as Kalashnikovs, Tabuk sniper rifles and M2 Browning machine guns by the Iraqi army under the supervision of military advisers from the US, Canada and Iran.

Sixteen-year-old Ali Fadal Abbas is among the 1.2 lakh civilians to have joined the force. Son of a daily wage earner, Abbas has been promised a monthly salary of Rs 40,106 (US$600) but has not received any wages for the past three months because of a fund crunch.

“But that doesn’t stop us from fighting. The ISIS has attacked our homes; we have to save our homes,” he says.

  • Men playing billards

But Iraq is not just about battling enemies. Azhar Talafar owns a garment shop in Karbala and likes to play billiards in the evenings. For him, life is “normal”, he says.

“I will also go [join the forces] when there is need. Till then, I can relax,” he says.

Muhammad Youssif is not overly worried about the ISIS either. He is celebrating the grand wedding of a cousin in a five-star hotel, where the room tariff for a night is around Rs 11,695. “We can afford this. And a wedding is special,” Youssif says.

Life in parts of Iraq is changing rapidly, and there are some concerns, too.

Elders are worried about drug addiction among the youth. In 2012, the city police had shut down the cafés and billiard halls in the city, holding that they were being used by drug dealers. The other emerging problem is of the use of alcohol – outlawed by Islamic law. Reports of trucks loaded with alcohol being seized by the administration often appear in local newspapers. Rehabilitation centres have come up in the city, too, to deal with drug and alcohol abuse.

“These are the new challenges besides the war. We have to deal with them firmly,” Al Musawi says.

War, clearly, is an unending metaphor.

The reporter visited Karbala at the invitation of the administrators of the Holy Shrine of Imam Hussain

By day, 55-year-old Paul Burgess is a busy academic in University College Cork.But once he is back home, guitar and drums take over. Burgess is a drummer and lyricist with the punk band Ruefrex and is busy composing new songs.

“We are planning to bring out a new album. It’s important for us to be alive and kicking because there is a genuine passion and appetite for punk music once again in Northern Ireland,” he said.

Burgess, who is often seen in the clubs in Belfast with fellow band members, added: “It’s an amazing feeling that people want to hear us again.”

Ruefrex was formed in 1977 at the height of the Troubles in Northern Ireland and played for around eight years until members, Allan Clarke, Tom Coulter, Jackie Forgie and Paul Burgess, went their separate ways in 1985.

Those members performed at informal events a few times afterwards, but the band came together to play once again formally in a concert in June 2014.

“The reunion happened by chance. Tom’s brother, Colin, an academic, invited me to speak in a conference in National University of Ireland Maynooth, in June last year. He proposed, why don’t we perform once again?” said Burgess.

“It looked difficult then but ultimately, we did perform at a fundraising programme in Belfast. That was our second gig in the past 20 years.”

Other old Northern Ireland punk bands such as The Defects, The Outcasts and Stiff Little Fingers, are active. They are either releasing their unreleased old songs or cutting new albums.

“There is a growing nostalgia for punk music in Northern Ireland,” said Gary Fahy, who runs Punkerama Records, a DIY label in Belfast.

‘Angry’

He said punk music had been a lifeline for many young people when Northern Ireland was convulsed by conflict.
“There was a bunch of youth, frustrated and angry, who didn’t know what to do during the turmoil. They chose music to be the best medium for expressing their views and opinions on the current scenario,” he said.
The punk scene faded in the mid-80s.

Ian ‘Buck’ Murdock, the vocalist of punk band, The Defects, said: “But then, we reached at a point in life, when we were settled and wanted to go back to our old passion, the punk music.”

The Defects, formed in 1978, have recorded songs such as Dance (Until you Drop), Revelator and Survival.

They reunited in 2010 and found new audiences.
In 2012, they went to perform in Australia and in 2013, they played at the Rebellion Punk Festival in Blackpool, Lancashire.

“We didn’t see this level of success back in the 1970s or the 80s,” Murdock said.

The Outcasts too have played in various parts of Europe this year.New punk bands, such as Aggressors BC, Cadaver Club, Fubar, Fresh Meat, Empty Lungs, Empires, Divisions, Hard Case and Assailants, have also emerged.

“Our society is grappling with various problems such as austerity, unemployment and lack of housing facilities. The punk music of today revolves around these grim realities of urban life,” Gary Fahy said.

‘Uncomplicated’

Marty Riot, the lyricist of the five-member band Aggressors BC, said: “Our songs are very pro-people. We are anti-fascist and left-wing.

“We react to what we see around us. We chose music as the medium to tell people how the world around us makes us feel,” he added.

For many, the appeal of punk music songs is that they are short and uncomplicated.

“People find it very easy to connect with it,” said Guy Trelford, co-author of It Makes You Want to Spit: The Definitive Guide to Punk in Northern Ireland.

Terri Hooley, known as the godfather of punk in Northern Ireland, said: “The idea is to provoke people to think about what’s happening around.”

( BBC Northern Ireland published the story on April 29. I visited the BBC, Northern Ireland in April, 2015) Here is the link: http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-northern-ireland-32431572)

The children of women prisoners who stay in jail with their mothers live under terrible conditions — despite a Supreme Court guideline to provide them with proper care. But some states are making an effort to improve their lot.

One of the most tragic fallouts of incarcerating women who are mothers is that their young children stay with them in jail. Today, questions are being raised about the living conditions of these children below six years of age, which, more often than not, are deplorable, to say the least.

According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), 344 women convicts with their 382 children and 1,226 women undertrials with their 1,397 children were lodged in prisons around the country in 2012.

Experts point out that the Supreme Court guidelines passed in 2006 relating to the education, living conditions, food, hygiene and psycho-social well-being of these children are being blatantly flouted.

As per the Supreme Court guidelines, children in prisons are to have separate accommodation and should not share cells with female inmates who are not their mothers. They should also not be exposed to women who use abusive language, behave violently, or might be dangerous. The guidelines also mandate that a permanent arrangement be made in all jails to provide separate food to these children to take care of their nutritional needs. Unfortunately, none of these guidelines is properly followed.

“In India, children of incarcerated parents are collateral convicts. In jails, a child is treated just like an undertrial or a convict,” says Delhi-based independent child rights lawyer Anant Kumar Asthana. “At present, the children of prisoners are not covered by any law. The Supreme Court order too is not followed strictly,” he adds.

Experts who monitor the functioning of jails say that children of convicts live under terrible conditions. “Most Indian prisons do not have a separate unit for mothers and their children; so they are often housed with other adult offenders, including women convicted of having committed violent crimes. This obviously raises child protection issues,” says Nikhil Roy, programme director for Penal Reform International, a London-based, non-government organisation which works on criminal justice.

Lawmakers say that these children should have the liberty to live in an open environment as that is their fundamental right under Article 21 of the Constitution. “First and foremost, there has to be a provision wherein children don’t need to stay with their mothers in the lock-ups. State governments should build hostels and playgrounds for these children. Arrangements should also be made for them to go to local schools,” senior advocate K.T.S. Tulsi says.

He adds, “In a 1980 Supreme Court judgment, Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer observed that prisons are built with bricks of punitive law. This means that these children should be liberated. Since they have no role to play in the crime of their parents, their lives shouldn’t be ruined.”

A 2011 report by Haq, Centre for Child Rights, a non-government organisation, said that many jails house children above six years, and they lack the diet, medical care, recreational and educational facilities that they should have by law.

The same report also pointed out that there were instances of sexual abuse of children who live with their mothers in prison. Other kinds of torture too abound. In one jail, a mother and her two-year-old daughter were forced by other inmates to sleep on the bathroom floor for a month while she “earned her place” in the overcrowded cell.

Even as legal experts and social activists demand better living conditions for children inside prisons, government officials argue that prisons are too overburdened to put things in order.

“All our jails are overcrowded. It is difficult to provide good living conditions to prisoners. Arranging special benefits for their children is not an easy task,” a ministry of home affairs official says. “But the effort is on.”

Many child rights activists would like these children to be governed by the Juvenile Justice Act. “Under the JJ Act, these children would be entitled to basic rights and also proper counselling which would prepare them to fight the stigma of being the children of undertrials or convicts,” Asthana says.

Activists also point out that the condition of children who live in prisons of conflict-ridden states such as Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand is much worse. “As per the NCRB, at 252.6 per cent, Chhattisgarh reported the highest overcrowding in prisons. Living conditions are terrible in most jails in the state except the central jail in Jagdalpur,” Chhattisgarh lawyer Shalini Gera says. “Also, since most of these prisoners are accused of helping the Maoists or for waging war against the state, their children are never treated with compassion.”

But some states in the country are taking some positive steps for the children of prisoners. For example, jails of erstwhile Andhra Pradesh send these children to local schools. Some also have crèches for them.

The Delhi government too has recently notified a law on the financial sustenance, education and welfare of such children.

“Even when these children come out of the jail premises, their future remains bleak. Under the Delhi government law, Rs 3,000 will be given to the first child, Rs 2,000 to the second and Rs 1,500 to the third child (if a woman prisoner has three children) a month till he or she attains the age of 18 years,” says Surinder S. Rathi, officer on special duty, Delhi State Legal Services Authority, who drafted the scheme.

Financial help apart, special provisions for the education, medical care and living conditions of children inside prisons are also listed in this policy.

“It is the duty of the state to provide adequate care and protection to children for their full physical, mental and social development in a healthy and congenial environment. This should be kept in mind,” asserts Rathi.

Are jail authorities around the country listening?

Irom Sharmila has again been whisked into custody. Sonia Sarkar met her before that

The small feeding tube attached to her nose is missing. It was through this that Irom Sharmila Chanu was force-fed. “I feel so nice without it,” she says. “I want to be a free bird. I want to freely roam the streets of Imphal.”

She didn’t roam for long. A day after Manipur’s most enduring — though now seemingly reluctant — symbol of resistance was released by court orders, she was picked up again. The authorities said they were concerned about her health, for Sharmila was still on hunger strike — one that she started 13 years ago.

On November 4, 2000, Sharmila vowed that she would not eat till the government repealed the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) of 1958, which gives sweeping powers to the army, including the right to shoot on suspicion. The trigger was the November 2 firing by security forces on civilians in Malom, in which 10 people were killed.

Since then she has been arrested, released and rearrested on charges of attempting suicide. But on Monday, Manipur’s sessions court dismissed the charges against her.

She was 28 when she started her hunger strike. Her niece, Irom Roma Devi, was 16 when her “cool aunt” was picked up by the police. The two had often spent time together — picking up books from the library or watching films. Their last film together was the Shah Rukh Khan- starrer Dil To Pagal Hai in the summer of 2000. In November, Roma’s nene (aunt) was taken into custody.

Now 42, Sharmila finds that life around her has changed.

When she began her dharna, more than 2,000 women sat on relay hunger strike with her. On Thursday morning, in a makeshift shack in Porampot in east Imphal, there are barely six women with her.

Her protest site is one of the busiest roads of Imphal. People pass by, but few stop to greet her. A couple with a small son praises her courage and faith, poses for photographs with her — and leaves.

Sharmila says she detests being hero-worshipped. I am no God, she says. “I don’t want to live like a symbol of resistance. I am no statue. I too have a desire which cannot be hidden,” she says, as tears roll down her cheeks.

Sharmila’s mother, Irom Sakhi Devi, whom she has not met for 13 years
Life took a new turn for her after she fell in love with Desmond Coutinho, a British social worker. She openly spoke of her love for the first time in an interview to The Telegraph in January, 2011.

Coutinho wrote to her in 2010, praising her courage, after reading Burning Bright, a book on Manipur written by Delhi academic Deepti Priya Mehrotra. The two started writing to each other, and were soon exchanging love letters. They have met only once — in a courtroom in 2011.

I show her an email that I’d received from Coutinho that day. He writes, “Tell her, I love her.”

She scrolls down the mail and smiles. “Tell him, I love him,” she replies. “I want him. He should be positive and hopeful for my freedom and success.”

Dressed in a traditional green phanek and a white embroidered kurta, a gift from Coutinho, with a traditional Manipuri shawl, she looks pale. Shiny black tendrils play on her forehead. She doesn’t comb her hair — having vowed she wouldn’t do so till her demands were met. Nurses in the hospital where she was lodged say she used to rinse her hair with water mixed with rice and vegetable peels thrice a week to soften her hair. She used cotton and spirit to clean her mouth instead of water so that water wouldn’t go down her throat.

After the lukewarm response in Porampot, the crowds at Ima market, the biggest all-woman market in Asia, are overwhelming. Thousands have gathered to greet her, and she is welcomed with garland after garland — red, green, yellow. Women kiss her forehead, touch her hands and hug her.

“The market has changed,” she says. “It was a dingy place with tin roofs. Now it is a concrete building.” Imphal, indeed, has changed dramatically in these 13 years — with three-star hotels, super-specialty hospitals, mega markets and IT companies having come up across the Manipur capital.

But what catches Sharmila’s eyes is the use of mobile phones. “Every other person is on a cellphone,” she says.

There have been dramatic changes in her own life, too. Her relationship with her brother, Irom Singhajit, 14 years older, is not the same. Singhajit was her closest sibling, but differences between the two cropped up in 2011 soon after he asked her not to publicly acknowledge her relationship with Coutinho. “People of Manipur will stop supporting her if she gets involved in such relationships,” he says.

In interviews to the media, Sharmila accused her brother of threatening her. Coutinho also alleged that he had been warned not to meet her.

“But now I have asked them not to trouble Coutinho. My life is not under anyone’s control,” she says, as her fingers play with the cover of a book titled Speeches that Changed the World. She is an avid reader — and has read almost everything written by Kahlil Gibran, Orhan Pamuk and Khushwant Singh. A pile of books lies in room No. A-4 in the special ward of Imphal’s Jawaharlal Nehru Hospital — where she was lodged.

On Thursday, though, she refuses to talk about her incarceration. “I want to erase my hospital days from my memory,” Sharmila says. She is more focused on the future — and wants quick action. She hopes to meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi to remind him of a promise made by the state unit of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). It had said that if the BJP came to power at the Centre, the AFSPA would be revoked in Manipur.

“If the AFSPA is revoked in Manipur, I will give up my fast. But I will carry on with the movement to repeal the act,” she says.

If it is revoked in Manipur, she will be able to see her mother — whom she has not met for 13 years. “If I meet her, she will get emotionally weak. So we promised to meet only after her demand was met,” Irom Sakhi Devi, 84, says.

Does she believe the government will listen to her? “I believe in miracles. A miracle will happen.” The onus to carry on, however, is on the people of Manipur, she says. At a press conference, she says: “I have not had a drop of water for the last 14 years. Please help me, I am yearning to have my first meal.”

But Sharmila is back in room A-4. On Friday, barely 40 hours after her release, she was forcibly picked up, put in a Maruti Gypsy, and whisked away. She will be in judicial custody for 15 days.

She is now being fed intravenously. But the feeding tube may soon be back.

Has the jholawallah, the social activist whose hallmark often was a beard — or a handloom sari — and a bag, faded out? Sonia Sarkar and Moumita Chaudhurilooked for him and her here and there — and found it tough to catch a glimpse of that once iconic individual

  • PIC: Rashbehari Das

    Model: SHAMAUN AHMED

Giridhar Poddar has seen it all. The waiter at the Indian Coffee House in Calcutta remembers the time when an adda meant a revolution. Men and women would gather around their cups of tea — mostly black, with a squeeze of lime — and change the world. “They do have addas now, but they are just pure addas — only conversation,” he says.

A large whiteboard at the reception underlines all that Poddar misses. The board — titled Voice of Kolkata — is almost blank, but for a reference to an exhibition in the city and a few lines scribbled by an obscure poet. “People no longer raise a storm in their teacups. Nobody has the time anymore,” manager Jahid Hussain points out.

There was a time when a place like a coffee house was the watering hole for radicals, liberals, activists and armchair revolutionists. But the jholawallah is hard to find these days. The term, used generically and somewhat derogatorily for the activist in the Eighties, referred to a class that was easily identifiable — the men wore scraggly beards and khadi kurtas; the women had unkempt hair and wore cotton saris. And they all carried jholas — cloth bags that somehow symbolised their missions.

But the times have changed. A new National Democratic Alliance government has been installed at the Centre which has little in common with the activists. The old United Progressive Alliance government — which had given a platform to a wide spectrum of activists in its National Advisory Council (NAC) — has been deposed. And the NAC has downed its shutters.

The arc lights are on the activist as well. A report by the Intelligence Bureau (IB) has listed non-government organisations (NGOs) and social activists associated with various peoples’ movements as those stalling developmental work in the country.

“This is not a conducive environment for social activists to function,” says Anil Chaudhary, a peace and NGO activist associated with the Indian Social Action Forum (INSAF), a platform for some 700 movements and NGOs.

Many believe that the jholawallah — already marginalised by a host of global and domestic developments — is on his way out.

But who is the jholawallah in the first place? Academics agree that the term refers to a large section of Left liberals who are usually not part of a political party. You see them at rallies, at seminars and conferences, at world fora and in villages. Their causes differ — and some jump from cause to cause. But the issues are varied — from protecting villagers against big dams and spreading literacy to people’s right to information and against nuclear projects.

“Of course, the word jholawallah is now obsolete. Nowadays hardly anybody walks around with a beard and a jhola,” says theatre personality Bibhas Chakraborty. “But generally, jholawallahs are educated and erudite people giving unsolicited advice.”

Most agree that the presence of jholawallahs is felt most during times of crisis. The end of the Naxalite movement in Calcutta, the growth of the JP movement and the start of the Emergency were some such flashpoints. Small groups formed over the years, taking up issues such as the rights of women and of tribals and Dalits, and for the environment. In recent times, the activists have been rallying together under an anti-nuclear banner. Not surprisingly, many of the groups mentioned in the IB report are against nuclear energy.

“If communities feel threatened, they will give birth to activists who will give voice to their concerns,” reasons former NAC member and Right to Information activist Aruna Roy. “As a society we need to listen to those voices.”

But the movements have also lost steam over the years, and jholawallahs their place in the sun. Observers say that a host of developments across the world has together pushed the activist to the margins. The Vietnam War gave birth to a whole new generation of Left-winged activists. But subsequent events such as the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the firing on students in Tiananmen Square in China — shrunk the radical’s world.

“The role of an activist is a very difficult one in a globalised, liberalised economy and in the age of sponsorships,” says Mohammed Selim, a Communist Party of India (Marxist) member of Parliament. “But though they may be invisible at the moment, they have not been vanquished.”

Calcutta, of course, has seen the rise of a “civil society” movement — the participation of artistes, academics and others in rallies that started with the firing at Nandigarm and more or less ended with the fall of the Left Front government in 2011. “But it is true that jholawallahs are a rare sight these days,” agrees actor Badshah Moitra. “They are not as ubiquitous as they were 15 years ago in coffee houses and tea stalls.”

Indeed, you can hardly see the jholawallah in many parts of the country today. Take Bangalore’s Koshy’s, where, the locals joke, many court cases were argued and newspaper articles written over steaming coffee and chilled beer. Started during the days of the Raj and located just off M.G. Road, Koshy’s for decades served the city’s intelligentsia.

“While some people discussed glasnost and perestroika on one table, you’d find another table occupied by a writer penning a novel,” a spokesman for the restaurant says. “But the city’s young don’t hang around at Koshy’s as much as they did a decade ago,” he says.

In fact, that, many hold, is the crux of the problem — the fact that the young are not as enamoured of the jhola as their parents were. The trendy Caf� Coffee Day (CCD), Barista and Starbucks outlets are where the young would rather be. If there is one Koshy’s in Bangalore, CCD has 250 outlets. When Tata Starbucks opened its outlet in Bangalore last year, youngsters waited for an hour to get a table.

“The youth of today believes more in aspirational politics than confrontation,” points out Anirban Ganguly, director of the BJP-affiliated think tank Shyama Prasad Mookherjee Research Foundation in Delhi. “They believe in a different lexicon.”

But some believe the young do have a role to play in movements. “Our work will not be stalled. We are committed to the cause,” says Medha Patkar, whose anti-big dam movement attracted the young in large numbers. “All pro-people agencies, from civil rights activists to journalists to the judiciary, should come forth to fight against the government. The challenge is to stay together,” adds Teesta Setalvad, who runs the NGO, Citizens for Justice and Peace.

Some argue that the jholawallah is not extinct but has taken on different forms. The BJP, for instance, has its share of supporters who may carry laptop backpacks instead of jholas, but have a mission as well. “Modi would not have become Prime Minister without the support of an army of Right-wing activists in the corporate sector, the media, the economics profession, the Hindutva movement and the public at large,” social activist Jean Dr�ze, a former NAC member, stresses.

Political and social observers also point out that the platform for the jholawallah has changed. Anil Chaudhary recalls that there was a time when demonstrators gathered at Delhi’s Boat Club — or India Gate — for all kinds of protests. The protestors have now been shoved to a corner near Jantar Mantar, so as not to obstruct traffic.

But many contend today’s platform for protest is neither Calcutta’s Maidan nor Jantar Mantar. It’s the Internet.

“Now dissent has become digital. Protests have taken a cyber form,” points out sociologist G.K. Karanth.

Indeed, many small movements have spread their message through and congregated on the Internet — from stone-throwing schoolboys in Kashmir to the thousands that came together to protest against the gang rape and death of a young woman in Delhi in 2012. Many of the gay parades across India have been put into motion on the Internet. The Pink Chaddi campaign — against conservatives who frowned at women going to pubs — found supporters on social networking sites. In other parts of the world, too, urban movements — such as the Occupy Wall Street Movement — have been garnering support, thanks to the Internet.

There are movements on the ground, too, but, as Karanth points out, they have to be sufficiently large or grand to attract people. Anna Hazare, for instance, brought the jholawallahs and the Prada-wallahs together. But the latter outnumber the former.

So is the score, for the present, Jholas 0 and Pradas 1? The supporters of the jhola are livid. “I have strong reservations about the very word jholawallah and such labelling of people. They have contributed to our society and stood by the interests of the poor and faced stiff opposition and even physical resistance from governments in their crusades,” says theatre director and actor Kaushik Sen, who was part of the “Paribartan” wave in favour of Mamata Banerjee three years ago. “But that has not eroded their resolve and grit.”

As for the detractors, they are busy coining jhola jokes. So what is the jholawallah song? I’m a jholi good fellow.

Severe six

Aruna Roy

Heads the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan and led the Right to Information movement

Medha Patkar

Founder member of the Narmada Bachao Andolan

Jean Drèze

Works on hunger, famine, child health and education. He drafted the first version of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme of the UPA government

Vandana Shiva

Environmental activist. Founded Navadanya, a national green movement on organic farming and fair trade

Teesta Setalvad

Secretary of Citizens for Justice and Peace which fights against communalism

Arundhati Roy

Essay writer and human rights activist. A member of the anti-globalisation movement

 

Tete a TeteTete a Tete

Yogendra Yadav is gearing up for the Haryana Assembly elections. As he criss-crosses the state, the AAP leader tells Sonia Sarkar that the Bharatiya Janata Party’s electoral campaign was brilliant and that he wants to learn from it

Some say the bubble’s burst, but Yogendra Yadav will have none of that. He has hit the road and is travelling across Haryana to talk to workers of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which emerged with a bang last year and now appears to have dwindled into a whimper. Yadav, the soft-spoken face of the party, is gearing up for the polls in Haryana, slated to be held later this year.

Clearly, AAP — Arvind Kejriwal’s political alternative — is putting its house in order. “We have to focus on our sangathan (organisation), sampark (connect with people) and sambad (communication) before the Assembly elections,” Yadav says, talking about the party’s new programme, Mission Vistaar. “We are discussing the lessons that we have learnt from the Lok Sabha elections.”

AAP’s rise and fall took place almost at the same velocity. It rose to its peak by winning 28 of the 70 seats in the Delhi elections in 2013, and almost turned to dust a few months later, winning only four of the 400 seats it contested in the Lok Sabha elections held this summer.

Among those who lost — a grand list that also includes party leader Arvind Kejriwal — was Yadav, whose 80,000 votes from Gurgaon put him in the fourth place.

“In the course of campaign, I knew I was No. 3. I didn’t know I would come down to No. 4. That was a disappointment,” he says.

Yadav, occasionally wearing the party’s trademark boat-shaped cap and otherwise fiddling with it, is on his way from Panipat to Ambala, where he has a meeting with party leaders. Our conversation continues as he stops at a roadside dhaba for a cup of tea, which he has with the paranthas and aloo sabzi that his sister has packed for him.

He plans to travel to all 21 districts of Haryana to understand how to make a fresh start before the state polls. “We are trying to reach the last person in every district,” he says.

The Lok Sabha poll results came as a shock to AAP leaders, who had thought they’d perform a lot better than they did. Party chief Kejriwal, in fact, had claimed that it would win 100 seats. “That was his political judgement. Before the Delhi elections, he’d said we’d get 47 seats, but we got 28,” Yadav says.

“Getting 100 seats or so was an unrealistic hope. I have a technical background. I didn’t say a word on the number of seats because I knew we were going for a single digit win,” the psephologist adds.

But he also believes that if the euphoria that was created after the Delhi victory had continued till the end of the general elections, the party could have ended up with 100 seats. “Dilli chunaao ke baad hamari aadat kharab ho gayi thi (we got spoiled after the Delhi elections). That time, our feet were not on the ground. That sort of quick success brings you to power sooner than you deserve. But the people punished us for quitting Delhi,” he admits, referring to AAP’s decision to exit power after ruling for 49 days. The excuse was the failure to pass the Jan Lokpal Bill — an anti-graft platform that the AAP rode to power on.

The buzz in political circles is that it was Yadav who advised Kejriwal to step down.

“I shared the view that if we could not pass the Jan Lokpal Bill in Delhi we had no moral right to remain in the government. But I wanted this decision to be taken in consultation with the people, which did not happen,” Yadav rues.

The differences of opinion within the AAP are out in the open. People have been walking out of the party ever since the poll debacle. Yadav, too, resigned from the political affairs committee last month. In a letter to his colleagues, he referred to the lack of organisational building, absence of mechanism for consulting volunteers and policy deficit as among the many drawbacks in the party.

“This is not the first time that I have raised these questions. This time the public got to know about my concerns because the letter was leaked. Though it is a cause of embarrassment that it is out in the public, I am not ashamed of what I said,” adds Yadav, whose resignation was not accepted by Kejriwal.

In his letter, he said Kejriwal behaved like a party “supremo” and not a leader. It’s not a subject that he wants to elaborate on, but says, “I write more carefully than I speak, so I would rather that my written words be trusted.”

But Kejriwal, he adds, has an “extraordinary ability” to pick a single relevant fact from a heap of irrelevancies. “He has a superhuman capacity to remain focused. He has the gift of bringing people together.”

Yadav and Kejriwal have known each other from the time Kerjiwal ran a non- government organisation called Parivartan to press for the implementation of the Right to Information Act. Yadav had held public hearings on the then newly-appointed Central Information Commission on behalf of Parivartan.

But it was Anna Hazare’s drive against corruption in 2011 that brought the two together, though Yadav had his doubts about the movement.

“I thought it was a very positive movement but didn’t like it the way they were carrying it forward. I told Kejriwal that if he wanted to do satyagraha, he had to read Gandhi. I thought he would never get back to me because not many people like criticism. But he did, and asked me to be a part of the movement. And I joined them.”

Yadav — with his well-modulated voice and felicity with words — was soon one of the leaders of the party that was formed in late 2012. It helped that he spoke both Hindi and English fluently. “I learnt my Hindi from textbooks and Doordarshan. So my Hindi does not bear any regional influences,” says Yadav, dressed in a blue cotton kurta with white pyjamas.

Originally from Saharanwas, near Rewari in Haryana, Yadav, now 50, grew up in Rajasthan’s Sri Ganganagar, where his father was a lecturer in economics.

Yadav says that his father was seven when he saw his own father, a hostel warden in a Haryana school, being killed in a communal riot in Hissar in 1936. “The rioters wanted the Muslim children in the hostel,” he says. “My grandfather told the rioters he would rather have his head chopped. So they chopped off his head. My father saw it all happening,” Yadav narrates.

It was this incident — and the Hindu-Muslim killings during Partition — that made his secular father name him Salim. AAP workers brought the name up during Yadav’s electoral campaign in Haryana, leading to a barrage of scornful tweets and comments on social media sites, describing it as a gimmick aimed at the Muslim vote.

But though the name is used by some friends and family, most people know him as Yogendra. Yadav explains that he asked his parents to change his name because his Muslim name led to taunts in school when he was a small boy. “So I was rechristened Yogendra,” he says.

Unfortunately, he adds, the communal divide that his father witnessed as a child continues to haunt India. “The new generation of India wants to move forward. They don’t want to be in the shadow of 1984 or 2002 but politics will not allow them to do so. It wants to drag them back,” he says.

His own political leanings were given shape when he was studying in Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University by socialist leader Kishan Patnaik, who headed a political body called Samata Sangathan.

“My initiation into public life, in fact my understanding of politics, dates back to that period. But party politics of the visible kind is a new thing in my life,” he says.

Yadav, who taught politics at Punjab University for eight years, joined the New Delhi-based think tank Centre for the Study of Developing Studies in 1993. Under the United Progressive Alliance government, he was a member of the National Advisory Council, from which he resigned, and the University Grants Commission, from which he was removed last year.

A political observer for many years and an able number cruncher, the Phanishwar Nath Renu fan now finds himself knee-deep in politics, leaving him with little time for reading or writing (“that’s a deep regret”), or for his family — wife Madhulika Banerjee, who teaches political science in Delhi University, daughter Sufi, 15, and son, Sahej, 10.

“The first thing I do every morning is check the newspapers to see if there is a stupid story about AAP,” he says.

He also wants to learn some lessons from the Bharatiya Janata Party’s electoral triumph. “It was a brilliant campaign executed to near perfection. If you get two seats in Parliament, you should not lose hope, you should continue to work,” he says, referring to the BJP’s 1984 electoral defeat which left it with just two members of Parliament. “One needs to be consistent for a long time to be able to achieve anything,” he says.

Yadav is doing that, as AAP gets ready to rewrite its own story.

 



  • mamun ibne hussain: dont take it negatively but we are indian and our daughters should not follow the filthiest dirtiest horrible european and american womens the w
  • Susmita Saha: Memories truly have a special place in the treasure trove called life. And your memories shine like jewels in this piece.
  • saimi: That is a lovely one Sonia.. and I can relate to so many things that you mention ...