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Archive for the ‘Human interest’ Category

 

Far away from home in the United States, the former Chief Justice of Bangladesh, Surendra Kumar Sinha, stays abreast of all news related to the home elections scheduled for December 30. He reads Bangla dailies online, meets Bangladeshis from the neighbourhood and holds political discussions fearlessly. In a tiny apartment in New Jersey’s Paterson, Sinha has found his lost freedom.

In October 2017, the 67-year-old was ousted by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed for not toeing the government line. Over phone from Paterson, he says, “Here, I am able to speak freely. Nobody is recording my conversation with you.” Indeed, in the US, there is no Directorate General of Forces Intelligence, the military intelligence agency of Bangladesh, tapping phone calls or sniffing around one’s inbox.

In his autobiography, A Broken Dream: Rule of Law, Human Rights and Democracy, Sinha has written in detail about the intimidation and threats he faced in Bangladesh from the Awami League government led by Hasina. In the book, which he self-published this year, he shares how he was forced to go on leave first and then resign at the Singapore airport en route Canada.

After staying with his daughter in Canada for a while, he sought political asylum in the US and shifted to his brother’s house in Paterson.

Sinha’s political persecution intensified in 2017, after he upheld a high court verdict that declared the 16th Amendment to the Constitution of Bangladesh “illegal”. The amendment, introduced in 2014, had granted the Parliament sweeping powers to remove Supreme Court judges for misbehaviour and incapacity. The high court verdict came in May 2016. In January 2017, the government challenged the verdict by filing an appeal with the appellate division, and in July a Supreme Court bench headed by Sinha unanimously rejected the appeal.

Sinha had allegedly been pressurised by Hasina to pass the order in her government’s favour. Recalling the meeting organised at Bangabhaban, the official residence of the President of Bangladesh, a day before the judgment, he tells The Telegraph, “On July 1, 2017, I got a call from a person who identified himself as the military secretary to the President. He requested me to attend a meeting with the President on the same day at 7.30 pm. When I reached there, I was stunned to see the Prime Minister, law minister Anisul Huque and attorney-general Mahbubey Alam, alongside President Abdul Hamid.”

Sinha told Hasina that the amended Article 116 — it allows the President control over postings and promotions of district magistrates and judges in the lower courts — had already led to political interference in the judiciary. He made the point that the Supreme Court should be spared. He also urged her to restore Article 116 to its original form, wherein the control of the lower judiciary rested with the Supreme Court.

Says Sinha, “But she told me Article 116 cannot be touched because her father changed it through the Fourth Amendment. And she requested me to give the verdict on the 16th Amendment in favour of her government.”

That, of course, did not happen. Sinha scrapped the 16th Amendment, but even that was not the only reason why Hasina was irked. It seems Sinha made a reference to the contribution of the “founding fathers” while delivering his 16th Amendment judgment. And this, Hasina considered unpardonable. Why? Because she apparently doesn’t encourage talk of the sacrifices of other leaders during the 1971 War (referred to in Bangladesh as the Liberation War), other than her own father, the first President of Bangladesh, Mujibur Rahman. Points out Sinha, “Mujibur Rahman is known as the Father of the Nation. But there are many founding fathers — Kamal Hossain, Barrister M. Amir-ul Islam…”

Sinha is not a great fan of Mujibur Rahman, who is commonly referred to as Bangabandu or Mujib. According to him, the seeds of autocracy in Bangladesh were sown by him in the form of the Fourth Amendment. He also tells me how Mujib, besides diluting Article 116, also altered Article 11. “In its original form, it stated that Bangladesh as a republic would ensure democratic values, freedom and dignity of human person, and elections at all state affairs. But the Fourth Amendment removed the election system from this guideline, thus abolishing democratic philosophy from the Constitution.”

Sinha believes Mujib, who served as both President and Prime Minister, was power hungry. “He never tried to strengthen democracy or minimise racial differences and establish peace in the country as stalwarts elsewhere in the world such as Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela did.”

In 1974, Mujib allowed only a select few national dailies to operate. Arrest warrants were issued against journalists of newspapers critical of him. Sinha says Hasina’s way of functioning is not entirely dissimilar to her father’s. He talks about how she too tries to control the press and enumerates the cases of enforced disappearances of journalists, arbitrary arrests and so on.

The most recent case is that of photographer and artist Shahidul Alam. Alam, who openly opposes Hasina’s autocratic ways, was arrested this August. He got bail only last month. Says Sinha, “Hasina is a megalomaniac. She doesn’t want anyone to criticise her. Her idea is, praise (me) or perish.”

Sinha enjoyed Hasina’s confidence so long as his judgments made her happy. For instance, his judgment on the assassination of Mujib. In 2015, she appointed him the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court — in fact, he is the first Hindu to hold this post. But after the verdict on the 16th Amendment, the benefactor turned chief detractor. Sinha accuses Hasina of using military intelligence to harass him and finally forcing him to leave the country.

Many allege that Hasina is using the judiciary to settle scores with Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). There are two graft cases against Zia. The BNP-led 20-party alliance has demanded their leader be released before the polls — she has been charged with corruption and has been in prison since February this year — but that hasn’t happened yet.

There are allegations that the Election Commission (EC) is also under Hasina’s control. Despite repeated appeals by opposition political parties to delay polls for another three months, the EC set the December 30 date. Many say this will be a farcical election just like the one in 2014. Sinha agrees: “Elections can never be free and fair in the current circumstances.”

During our conversation, Sinha often refers to constitutions of different countries, especially of the US, and famous judgments — to explain how a democracy should function. He also tells me how he wrote his autobiography after being inspired by the Glimpses of World History by Jawaharlal Nehru, My Life: Law and Other Things by M.C. Setalvad and The Idea of Justice by Amartya Sen.

Pirated copies of his self-published book are available in Bangladesh but nobody can sell his book openly there. The government has levelled against him 11 allegations related to money laundering and financial irregularities. “Corruption is the tool she [Hasina] is using to harass me,” Sinha says. He talks about the rampant corruption in the Bangladeshi government. And adds, “But anyone who questions her government is an anti-national.”

I tell him that we in India are familiar with such things, but Sinha says that Indian public offices are not as compromised as their Bangladeshi counterparts. “I feel Bangladesh is the mirror image of Pakistan. No matter how much Hasina hates Pakistan, she is actually turning Bangladesh into a Pakistan in every possible way — by stifling free speech, giving unnecessary powers to the army and making it a police state.”

According to him, the Prime Minister’s recent appeasement of the radical Islamist group, Hefajote Islam, is another indication of how Bangladesh is slowly transforming into a “fundamentalist” state like Pakistan.

Hasina loyalists, however, allege that it is Sinha who has strong links with Jamaat-e-Islami, the other radical group. “This is cooked up by Hasina’s sycophants to erode my image,” retorts Sinha.

We are far from done but it’s 1pm in Paterson, time for Sinha’s lunch — his favourite dish is shorshey ilish or hilsa cooked in mustard. Finding ilish in the US is not a problem, he tells me, what is elusive is the Bangaliana or Bengaliness typical to Dhaka and Calcutta.

Going back to Dhaka seems impossible for now, but Sinha wants to get political asylum in Calcutta. He had intimated the Indian ambassador to Bangladesh, Harsh V. Shringla, expressing his wish, but hasn’t heard from him yet.

Sinha says, “Calcutta is my dream city. I enjoy everything there — the shingara, the long walks on the grounds of the Victoria Memorial, shopping for books in College Street.” Then adds, “It’s a liberal space.”

 

https://www.telegraphindia.com/culture/why-bangladesh-is-the-mirror-image-of-pakistan/cid/1679626?fbclid=IwAR1yqiMhsBcf8e9Q7gXSF7kk8i-LvwVNC6RyuAdkQljQOK6wOSH9MW3IMzc

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Pic — Kamalasagar

His dark skinny fingers clutch the barbed wires. The tips of his fingers move up and down, as if to some inaudible melody. His body swings left, and then right, and left again, but his eyes remain fixed on me. In his accented Bengali, Mohammed Joy tries to convince me that he has mastered some lessons in astrology from his kabiraj (ayurvedic practitioner) father.

He tells me, “You are an Aquarian. You are very close to getting a new opportunity but there are hurdles. To clear the hurdles, stop eating eggs. To know more, you must call up my father.” He insists I take his father’s phone number, accept his visiting card. But our man in uniform stops me. “Nahin, Madam, yeh allowed nahin hai… This is not allowed, Madam.”

We are on the zero line in Kamalasagar, 28 kilometres from Agartala town. The BSF jawan with the prominent Adam’s apple keeps a firm gaze on me to ensure I don’t walk up to Joy. But Joy, who is from Brahmanbaria in Bangladesh, is not ready to give up. “My father solves problems of many Indians. He can help you too,” he boasts. Joy’s words make me laugh out loud. In India, the government would have us believe that Bangladeshis are the real problem today.

Here, in Kamalasagar, Indians and Bangladeshis meet every Sunday “officially” to buy and sell sarees, cosmetics, vegetables, fruits and more. (For some, this border haat or bazaar is also a place for reunion with relatives from across the border.)

The small restaurants on the Sonamura border serve ilish from Bangladesh Image: Sonia Sarkar

A common grievance of the locals is that the much-raved-about ilish, or hilsa, of Bangladesh is not available in this weekend bazaar. That, however, doesn’t mean you cannot savour the delicately flavoured ilish of Bangladesh elsewhere and anywhere in Tripura. The small restaurants on the Sonamura border claim they get their ilish from Comilla in Bangladesh, only seven kilometers away. The waiter at Hotel Shankar in Agartala, in his accented Bengali reminiscent of Joy’s, says the restaurant sources its ilish from river Padma, the pride of Bangladesh.

The ilish has made me digress. The moot point I am making is this — Tripura’s connect with Bangladesh goes beyond fish.

Apparently, the idol of Tripura Sundari, the presiding deity of the state, has come from Chittagong, also in Bangladesh. During the 2018 Tripura Assembly elections, local BJP leaders appropriated Tripura Sundari to garner Hindu votes. After winning the elections, they attributed their victory to the goddess. (Mind you, Bangladeshi migrants were dubbed termites by party president Amit Shah.) And this Diwali, the state government organised a two-day religious extravaganza at the Tripura Sundari temple, apparently to “restore” the cultural identity of the state.

The new chief minister, Biplab Kumar Deb, too has a Bangladesh connect — his parents belonged to Chandpur in Chittagong, though he was born in Tripura. The newly-built museum at Ujjyanta Palace, one of the former abodes of Tripura’s Manikya kings, has a separate section on the 1971 Liberation War with special emphasis on the contribution of the people of Tripura to the movement.

Food and culture, people and gods, history and heritage, there is more than one thing enforcing the India-Bangladesh connect in general and the Tripura-Bangladesh connect in particular. In fact, so closely connected are we that at the Agartala-Akhaura border, barely six kilometers away from the palace, the filth of our swachh Bharat flows into Bangladesh through a canal.

Agartala–Akhaur border

After a three-day tour of this northeastern state, I am sitting at the departure lounge of the Maharaja Bir Bikram Airport, waiting for my flight. At this point, India’s fastest mobile network has given up and my phone picks up signals of Robi Axiata — the cellular network of Bangladesh. It reminds me how the moment I stepped on the zero line at Kamlasagar, my smartphone had flashed: “Welcome to Bangladesh!”

Once again, I remember Joy’s words — opportunity, obstacles, no eggs. And that’s when it occurs to me that he was bluffing all along. How do I know? Because to begin with I am no Aquarian. The realisation and the subsequent relief sweeps over me. I won’t have to deprive myself of my routine fix of sunny side up, after all.

 

Link — https://www.telegraphindia.com/culture/on-the-zero-line-between-tripura-and-bangladesh/cid/1675620

I am not writing it because I want a battery of followers on Twitter as #Metoo is trending on social media. It is important to start with this disclaimer because I have heard comments such as, “now, every woman will share her ‘story’ to become famous on social media.”

I am writing it because I feel empowered today as a woman journalist when I see my colleagues in the media have come out to narrate their horrific experiences in their professional life.  I feel, there is a need to share these experiences in public to make more women aware of the urban predators around us.

As women journalists, we do come across some “embarrassing” or “weird” or “awkward” or “unpleasant” moments in our professional life.  One such moment still lives with me. It was August 2010, I was doing a story on the Commonwealth Games, desperately trying to interview the CWG Organising Committee (OC) chairman Suresh Kalmadi. Despite sending him a questionnaire on mail followed by multiple reminders, he didn’t answer. Then one day, (most probably, it was August 6, 2010) a press conference was called at the New Delhi Centre at Jai Singh Road, the office of the CWGOC. Suresh Kalmadi made a surprise appearance to deal with allegations of his involvement in financial irregularities related to the Games.  After the conference was over, I ran towards him as he was waiting for the elevator. Near the elevator, in the presence of his officials, I told him, “Sir, I am from The Telegraph, I have mailed you some questions related to a story on Commonwealth Games but you haven’t replied.” He looked at me, extended his arms towards me, patted on my right cheek twice and said, “Come, come to my office upstairs.”

As a woman, I felt invaded, I felt miserable. I felt like washing my cheek again and again. But suddenly as a reporter, I thought, finally, I could get his interview. After the interview, I called up my senior colleague, I told her about how he behaved. She said, “Don’t think too much about it. He must be treating you as a kid.” I believed her only to forget this incident. I was 29 then but because of my short stature, I looked younger, perhaps, I thought.

I have not been able to forget this incident. As I shared this experience with a few female journalists, I realised, a lot of us want to forget these unpleasant moments because the ultimate aim is to get the story, and we move from one story to the other. But the reality is, we feel miserable for not doing enough at the right time. And often, while moving from one story to the other, we encounter more such unpleasant experiences.

In 2011, I was trying to interview a Congress MP (And let me clarify, I am no BJP stooge who is blaming a Congress man), who claims to understand the plight of Kashmiris like none other. One afternoon, dressed in his trademark white kurta and pyajama, this politician came to attend a programme at the Constitutional Club. I approached him for an interview.  It was my first meeting with him. He gave a smile and suddenly put his right arm around my shoulder, wanting to know, what this interview is all about. I was taken aback by his gesture. But after about two minutes, I expressed my discomfort by shrugging off his hand a bit but I didn’t say anything to him directly. He sensed my discomfort and removed it.

When I narrated this incident to my senior colleagues in the media, I learnt, he is known for being “flirtatious.” The other day, an ex-colleague while commenting over the #Metoo moment, wrote on WhatsApp —“There’s a thin line between sexual harassment and harmless flirting.” What this politician did was harmless flirting or sexual harassment? So he has been “flirting” with women journalists for years, and no one felt the need to speak up?

As my Twitter timeline is getting filled with the horror stories of women journalists being sexually harassed by their male colleagues, I thank my stars that I have never been hugged or groped or kissed by my male colleagues at any workplace or in their cars in my 15 years of journalism career. But I won’t say, there were no attempts by male colleagues to pull me down by making obnoxious sexist remarks.

I remember, back in 2004-06, when I was working in a newspaper owned till recently by a BJP MP, I was often taunted by a senior male colleague with initials RRR after I was asked by my boss to cover beats he covered. In a way, he was punished for not doing justice to his work; clearly, he couldn’t say much to the boss, so his ire was directed at me. I remember him telling me — “Ladki ho, kaam achha karogi…” What a sexist remark! As a newcomer in the profession and a new migrant to the city, I thought it was better to keep quiet; I kept my focus on work, nothing else. I did commit a mistake. I should have confronted him right there. I should have asked him –what exactly did he mean by “ladki ho…kaam achha karogi!”

Another male colleague in the same department who claimed to have great access to Delhi Police but mostly behaved as its spokesperson used to address me as  “eh ladki…” I did respond to it once or twice before telling him firmly, “I have a name.” “Toh, tum ladki nahin ho kya?” — pat came his reply.

He or anyone else never tried to take any chance on me for sure though, perhaps, because our boss was too protective of his younger women colleagues. But then why do we need these protective father figures to guard us in our offices where all of us are adults?

I never look for a father figure to protect me when I travel to the back of the beyond on Manipur-Burma border to interview a militant or to report on the plight of tribals in Abujmarh or to document the lives of Kashmiris in curfew. I wonder, if I can be the voice of the deprived through my stories, why can’t I speak up for myself, every time, someone is trying to make me uncomfortable? I have realised, I often get perplexed when such “awkward” moments come. I have heard, many women get confused about how to react.

But now with so many of us speaking up, I believe, we must help each other to spot the #Urbanpredator and we must also share a tip or two on how to deal with them right then!

Kashmir’s nomadic Bakarwals are looking beyond their traditional wandering lives, reports Sonia Sarkar

UNEVEN GROUND: Bakarwals leave for higher altitudes with the onset of summer  

As a child Shahnawaz Chaudhary had no money to buy notebooks. He memorised lessons by writing them down on rocks with pebbles for chalk. In fact, when he got the news that he had passed his Class X examinations, he was busy grazing sheep in Mandhar of Poonch district in the Pir Panjal range, a good six-hour drive from Srinagar.

“It was the turning point of my life. I realised that even we can have a better life,” says Chaudhary, who is now editor-cum-culture officer at the government of Jammu and Kashmir’s Academy of Art, Culture and Languages.

Chaudhary is one of those rare Bakarwals who dared to dream.

 

The term ” bakarwal” is a derivative of the word “bakri” or ” bakar” meaning goat or sheep. Bakarwals are nomadic Muslim tribes. In the summers, the Bakarwals travel from Jammu to Kashmir and sometimes all the way up to Ladakh. In October, they give a slip to the impending harsh winter and return to the plains of Jammu in search of green meadows and favourable climate for their livestock.

The eight-year-old girl who was raped and murdered earlier this year, in the state’s Kathua district also belonged to this community. According to activist Talib Hussain, who belongs to the community and has been fighting for justice for the girl, Bakarwals are now looking for a life beyond shuttling between the hills and the plains. Hussain [he has since been accused of rape and arrested] says, “Living the life of nomads should not remain a compulsion for us. We should be able to look for opportunities to study and be successful professionally.”

In 1991, Bakarwals were recognised as Scheduled Tribes by the state. But, as Hussain points out, they have never enjoyed the benefits or concessions in education or jobs that ought to have come with this. But now, the young of the community are increasingly deciding to take charge of their own destiny.

Hussain has been walking barefoot for over seven months as part of his campaign for implementation of the 2006 Forest Rights Act in Jammu and neighbouring areas to ensure that his own community has a better life.

He says, “Since the Act is not implemented in Jammu, we have no dwelling rights on forest lands which have been our traditional habitat for generations. What’s more, we are barely left with any forest land to travel through; we are facing eviction.”

Bakarwals are often clubbed with Gujjars, another nomadic tribe. Together, the two constitute around 11.9 per cent of Jammu and Kashmir’s population, according to the 2011 census.

The Bakarwals, however, feel that this clubbing together has been detrimental to their case. Says Chaudhary, “A sizeable number of Bakarwals is still landless and without proper shelter. They have no idea of what is happening in the larger world. On the contrary, most Gujjars are studying in schools and also have a secure livelihood.”

Talib Hussain was desperate to study but had little opportunity in his home state. He fled to Delhi, worked at a property dealer’s office and joined a government school. But he had to go back, as he couldn’t sustain himself for long. Later, he got into a state-run hostel for Bakarwals and Gujjars. “But very few Bakarwal students succeed in getting into these,” he claims.

Humera Chowdhary, a 26-year-old dentist, shares her experience. She says, “As children, some of us have had to live away from our parents for the sake of getting an education. Our parents travelled for six months. I could see my parents because they survived the harsh weather conditions and the dangerous hilly terrain, but there were many who didn’t see their parents the next season as they failed to make it. Had there been functional mobile schools in every district, Bakarwal children could at least be with their parents.”

Humera and others who have had enjoyed better fortune are now thinking in terms of payback. Rafaqat Hussain Khatana is studying to be a doctor at Srinagar’s Sher-i-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences. He says, “I would like to run mobile clinics for Bakarwals. They sleep and eat wherever they get space, it is important to see how to make them more aware of hygiene and sanitation. Plus, providing them mobile medical facilities would improve the quality of life.”

No one wants to sacrifice one good thing for another, but sometimes to have both is difficult, if not near impossible. Chaudhary tells us he misses his old wanderer’s life. Occasionally he even takes off from work to spend some days roaming the Pir Panjal range with the people of his kafila.

He says in hushed tones, “I miss the charm of the old life.”

Meat of the matter

– To keep fatigue and forgetfulness away, include enough Vitamin B12 in your diet. Sonia Sarkar tells you why

Do you feel tired even after eight solid hours of sleep? It’s not just because of the long hours you are putting in at work, it could be the sign of a deficiency too. If you also feel depressed without a reason, have a tingling sensation in your hands or feet and have noticed a recent tendency to forget things, you may be lacking in Vitamin B12.

Also known as cobalamin, Vitamin B12 is one of the eight B vitamins and its role in cellular metabolism is closely intertwined with that of folate, another B vitamin.

“Over 50 per cent of Indians have B12 deficiency,” says Sadanand S. Naik, head of the department of clinical biochemistry at Pune’s KEM Hospital.

It can affect anyone and at any age. “The figure is higher among vegetarians, pregnant women (as its requirement goes up during pregnancy) and the elderly (as they do not take adequate nutrition),” says Seema Gulati, head of the nutrition research group at the National Diabetes Obesity and Cholesterol Foundation (NDOC), a Delhi-based NGO.

In all age groups, Vitamin B12 should be in the range of 200 pg/ml to 900 pg/ml of blood, where one pg or picogram is one trillionth of a gram. The early signals of a deficiency are anaemia, lethargy, joint pain, loss of memory and laziness. So if you are being plagued by more than one of these symptoms, see your doctor and get yourself tested.

Vitamin B12 deficiency is becoming a growing health concern across the world. An article published this year in the journal Nature Reviews – co-authored by Dr Ralph Green of the US, and a group of 14 international experts – states, “Deficiency of B12 is emerging as a public health concern in many low-income countries. A World Health Organization consultation identified infants, preschool children and pregnant and lactating women as the most vulnerable groups.”

The lack of Vitamin B12 for a sufficiently long period of time can lead to sensory and motor disturbances, ataxia leading to lack of voluntary coordination of muscle movements, and cognitive decline leading to dementia and psychiatric disorders. “Advanced Vitamin B12 deficiency could also lead to delirium and paranoia,” says Bangalore-based biological scientist Sujata Kelkar Shetty.

Low B12 levels could even spark off coronary artery disease, suggests a 2009 report of the US-based National Center for Biotechnology Information. It states that the incidence of coronary artery disease is increasing at an alarming rate, especially in developing countries such as India. “This may be due to deficiency of vitamin B12, a micronutrient, sourced only from animal products,” it adds.

There also seems to be a connection between lack of Vitamin B12 and the health of the thyroid gland. “Vitamin B12 deficiency and hypothyroidism are inter-related among young females,” says KEM’s Naik. “This is partly due to vegetarianism, a sedentary lifestyle and not enough exposure to sunlight.”

Incidentally, sunlight helps us make Vitamin D. So there is always a possibility that you may be deficient in both vitamins B12 and D3. “Prolonged D and B12 deficiency leads to impaired bone mineralisation, anaemia and neuro-cognitive disorders. Notable D and B12 deficiency prevails in epidemic proportions all over the Indian subcontinent,” reveals Naik.

Unlike Vitamin D, our body cannot make Vitamin B12. “So we have to get it from animal-based foods (dairy or meat) or from supplements [for vegetarians]. And we should do that on a regular basis, because our body cannot store vitamin B12 for a long time,” Gulati says. Since this vitamin is water soluble, any excess amount flows out of the body.

Ensuring you take in enough Vitamin B12 is sometimes not enough, especially if your stomach lining has been compromised as that impairs its absorption of the vitamin. This can happen in certain gastric ailments as well as in certain autoimmune diseases such as Crohn’s. Consuming too much alcohol can also increase your risk of Vitamin B12 deficiency as it may lead to severe depletion of bodily stores of the vitamin. Chronic alcoholism also damages the lining of the stomach and intestines, which impairs absorption.

If you are found to have very low levels of B12 then the immediate relief is injectables. After taking a shot every day for five days, you will then be prescribed pills. There are, however, exceptions. “In pernicious anaemia, Vitamin B12 deficiency is persistent, and long-term injectable B12 is warranted,” says Gulati.

Why wait for a shot when a mouthful of deliciousness can give you the same results?

Sources of Vitamin B12

Vegetarian:

  • Milk and milk products (yogurt,buttermilk, cheese)
  • Fortified cereals
  • Nutritional yeast
  • Shitake mushrooms

Non-vegetarian:

  • Eggs  n Meat  n  Fish
  • Shellfish

In closed communities, social boycott is akin to living death. Activists and citizens in different states are rallying for the passage of laws that could change this primeval practice. Sonia Sarkar reports

  • LEGALLY BLIND: A khap panchayat in progress in Hissar, Haryana. Khaps are notorious for their regressive diktats; Pic: Getty images

Umesh Rudrap was boycotted by members of the Telugu Modelvar Parit community, which he belongs to, for marrying a Buddhist woman. That was in 1991. Umesh, who is from Pune and drives a taxi for a living, had to wait for almost three decades before he could give a fitting rebuttal.

This year in July, armed with the newly introduced law against social boycott – the Maharashtra Prohibition of People from Social Boycott (Prevention Prohibition and Redressal) Act – Umesh lodged cases against 17 committee members of the Telugu Modelvar Parit Samaj. The 2016 Act, which got presidential assent this July, forbids social boycott in the name of caste, community, religion, rituals or customs.

The Samaj, which is really a caste panchayat, had for all these years barred Umesh from participating in any social function organised by the community and had even issued a diktat forbidding community members from interacting with him.

“He was treated like a criminal,” says Kutpelli Chandra Ram, secretary of the Public Concern for Governance Trust, a Pune-based organisation that is helping Umesh and 24 others fight for their rights. If proven guilty, the accused will face a three-year jail term and could also be fined Rs 1 lakh.

Social boycott is a tool used by “influential” members within communities to punish anyone who does not conform to their rules. It is a rampant practice, not just in Maharashtra but also in states such as Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Assam, Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Rajasthan.

In Chhattisgarh, social activists say, at least 250 such cases have been listed with the Caste Annihilation Movement, a Delhi-based people’s group, over the last three years. The reasons could be anything from marrying outside one’s caste or community, as in Umesh’s case, to not following the diktats of community elders or for raising one’s voice against orthodox beliefs.

Tejram Sahu is an electrician from Beltukri, a village in east Chhattisgarh. In 2010, when his uncle died, he did not shave his head. He also refused to invite the community for the mrityu bhoj or funeral meal. Consequently, Tejram’s entire family was boycotted. Even the local barbers and grocers were told to withhold their services. Says Tejram, “We had approached the state human rights commission, but the officials didn’t do anything.”

In another instance, a woman from Magarlod village of Chhattisgarh’s Dhamtari district committed suicide after her family was socially boycotted for her illness.

Sanjeev Khudshah, national convener of the Caste Annihilation Movement, which fights against caste discrimination in Chhattisgarh too, says, “They [the boycotted] are not allowed to use hand pumps or ponds in villages, they cannot procure rations from local grocery shops, their children cannot go to school, and sometimes, a hefty fine is imposed and when they fail to pay, more punishment awaits them…”

The Chhattisgarh government is in the process of drafting a law to deal with these social evils, but nothing has been finalised so far.

Activists associated with the campaign against social boycott have been garnering support for a similar law in Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, where khap panchayats reign supreme and are known to give orders to rape and kill for not following norms laid down by the community. In 2010, a khap leader of Karoda village in Haryana was awarded life sentence for killing a young couple, Manoj and Babli. The panchayat had opposed their marriage in 2007 because they belonged to the same ” gotra” or clan and therefore the match was considered incestuous and non-permissible.

But rules vary depending on geography and community. In Uttar Pradesh, there have been many cases where khap panchayats have socially boycotted families whose children married into different communities. In 2015, two Dalit women from Baghpat approached the Supreme Court alleging that the khap panchayat had ordered that they be raped and paraded naked in their villages because their brother reportedly eloped with a woman from a higher Jat caste.

In states such as Odisha, Jharkhand and Assam, social boycott assumes another terrible shape in the form of witch-hunting. “Villagers label a woman a witch, blame her for natural calamities, even health hazards, and throw her out of the village or stone her to death. Her family members, especially her children, are targeted too,” says Bhubaneswar-based advocate Sashiprava Bindhani, who co-drafted the Odisha Prevention of Witch-Hunting Act, passed in 2013.

Assam, which has witnessed more than 400 cases of witch-hunting in the last five years, enacted the Assam Witch Hunting (Prohibition, Prevention and Protection) Act in 2015. Both Acts provide for more effective measures to prevent and protect persons from witch-hunts, but witness protection is something both states are still grappling with.

The Maharashtra Act, too, has no provision for witness protection. Neither does it deal with issues related to compensation and rehabilitation of victims. Activists feel even the quantum of punishment is not enough of a deterrent. “We had proposed a jail term of up to seven years and a minimum fine of Rs 5 lakh. On many occasions, caste panchayats impose a fine of Rs 2-3 lakh on victims of social boycott,” says Nashik-based Krishna Chandgude, state secretary of Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti. In fact, it was the Samiti that spearheaded the campaign to declare social boycott a crime.

There is not much awareness about the law among police officials either, says Krishna. When Umesh and others wanted to lodge a complaint, allegedly, there were efforts by police to discourage them from filing it. Instead, police asked them to prove that they had been ostracised.

In Chhattisgarh, activists have been trying shake things up, strong opposition notwithstanding. Yuvraj Sinha, president of the Raipur chapter of Jaiswal Samaj, an OBC community, says, “A law to deal with social boycott will end the age-old traditions. Nobody will follow the rules, nobody will marry within the community or follow the customs of the community related to births and deaths. The younger generation will lose respect for the elders of the community if criminal cases are filed so easily.”

The argument over what is tradition and what’s effete about it goes on.

The young trinket sellers of Cox’s Bazar have learnt to better negotiate life’s troughs and crests; it’s surf-boarding, they tell Sonia Sarkar

  • Pics: Allison Joyce

  • TERRA FIRMA: Rashed Alam (top) teaches these girls to become professional surfers and lifeguards

The waves are choppy as they usually are during the rains, but Rifa Akhtar knows how to ride them. She walks into the water wearing a swimsuit, her surfing board in hand, paddles out into the water for a bit and then slowly clambers onto the board. Within a few seconds, she is surfing atop the waters with élan.

“I love the rhythm of the waves,” says the 13-year-old, a surfer at Cox’s Bazar, a coastal town in Bangladesh. The fishing port is famed for its sandy stretch of over 100 kilometres, said to be the longest natural beach in world.

Until a few years ago, Rifa and her sister, Aisha, used to sell artificial jewellery and crisps on the beach. They made around 800 BDT (Rs 650) a day, while their father worked as a cook at a local shack. Life took a dramatic turn in 2013 when Rashed Alam – a surfer and lifeguard at Bangladesh Surf Girls and Boys, the sole surfing club for girls at Cox’s Bazar – offered to teach them the sport.

“Rifa would look at us in awe,” says Alam. “So one day, I asked her if she would like to learn to surf. Initially, she was shy, also intimidated by the waves. And she refused.”

But Alam persisted, fanning the fire in her and helping build her confidence. In due time, their journey took off.

“A lot of time was spent paddling around and falling into the water. We were also asked to watch other surfers. There were days when I simply wanted to give up and leave,” says Rifa, who won two surfing competitions at Cox’s Bazar, in 2015 and 2016.

Rifa was among eight girls who joined Alam’s club in 2013; now the number has risen to 14. Most of them hail from families of daily wage earners and hawkers in nearby villages, and were contributors to the family income.

Naturally, their path hasn’t been an easy one. When they began surfing, Alam stopped them from working. Moreover, they did not tell their parents about their new activity, and when they came to know about it, all hell broke loose.

“The day Rifa’s mother discovered her daughter had taken to surfing instead of selling trinkets, she beat her up with an umbrella in front of us all and dragged her away,” Alam recalls. “Later, I went to her parents and explained that surfing is a popular sport and that there’s no harm doing it.”

Their question was – who will pay for the household expenses if she doesn’t work?

Alam had no answer. For over a year, he paid a small amount of money to Rifa and the other girls for tea and snacks out of his own pocket. A year later, he started crowd-funding for them on the club’s website. In this he was helped by his American wife, Venessa Rude, and a photojournalist friend, Allison Joyce. From the money that comes in, the club spends 5,000 BDT (Rs 3,950) on each girl.

“We provide the monthly grocery to each one’s family. We’ve also enrolled them in school, while we help them with their English and communication skills privately. The girls are trained in rescue operations and first aid too. We hope this will help them become professional surfers and lifeguards,” Alam says.

There were problems of another kind also. Many of Alam’s close friends turned against him as they felt that by teaching the girls to surf, he was going against Islam. Also, when the male surfers in Cox’s Bazar saw that the girls were doing very well, they began to threaten them and make their day difficult. Rifa and her friends were called “indecent” for moving around in swimsuits and taking up a sport which was hitherto an all-male domain.

“Initially, we took to the water in a salwar-kameez and orna (scarf). Later, Rashed bhai brought us swimsuits. The local people, however, objected to it,” says Mayesha, 13, the daughter of a fish seller. Neighbours also taunted her parents for allowing her to surf along with the men. This forced them to start looking for a groom for her. “But I told them that I don’t want to get married,” says the determined girl.

Surfing has, in fact, helped Mayesha deal with difficult life situations. “Waves come in clusters or sets. Sometimes, the sea is still for a while and then suddenly a series of waves appears, rolling out one after the other. This has taught me to negotiate uncertainties,” she smiles.

Mayesha’s friend, Nargis Akhtar, too, refuses to be tied down with marriage right now. For this 14-year-old, the sea is her escape from all woes. “All my worries seem to get absorbed by this vast expanse. It also made me strong enough to take the tide in my stride; I can now fight against all odds,” Nargis says happily.

Rifa, Mayesha, Nargis and the others have been taming the waves for about four years. Now they want to participate in an international surfing competition. A few months ago, they were ready to take on the Indian Open of Surfing at Sasihithlu Beach in Mangalore, but couldn’t as their passports hadn’t come in.

The chorus is clear – the girls want to see the world and surf the oceans. “I want to go to ‘Caliponia’ [California],” says Rifa, who now trains kid surfers at Cox’s Bazar.

And Mayesha, who once dreamt that she was surfing in Indonesia, says, “I want to win global surfing competitions and make my country famous. And then everyone who created hurdles for us would shout out in cheer.”

 

https://www.telegraphindia.com/1170820/jsp/7days/story_168126.jsp



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