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Archive for the ‘Human interest’ Category

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enough said.


Kashmiri indignation remains well-fed, generation to generation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Telegraph, April 2, 2017

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

So what’s countering the climate of hate and intolerance best? Laughter, reports Sonia Sarkar

The fight is between puja and namaaz.

Bhai, a Hindu boy, says, “Our God is the real God.”

“No, it’s not,” Bhaijaan, the Muslim boy, retorts.  “You will know the truth when you die, brother.”

“And you will know after your death,” Bhai fumes.

“What if I kill you and you find out yourself?” Bhaijaan shouts back as he aims a sickle at Bhai.

To this, Bhai brandishes a knife and screams. For the next 10 seconds both make faces at each other, but comically.

  • FUN-DAMENTALISTS: (From top) A scene from BBC Two’s The Real Housewives of ISIS; comic actor Yugvijay Tiwari; Akash Banerjee of Newslaundry

The depiction might be funny but the message in this satirical sketch by 15-year-old comic act Yugvijay Tiwari is strong and unmistakable — the banality of communal fights. Yugvijay, who calls himself the “racist Indian” and has several videos on YouTube, believes comedy is the only tool to fight radical views. “In real life I have seen people fighting like this. They don’t realise what they are doing is wrong. So I decided to draw attention to some serious issues through humour,” says the Class 10 student from Madhya Pradesh’s Sagar.

The teenager is not the only one using humour to hit out at bigotry on social media. Sporting a red ‘tilak’ on his forehead, quite like a member of the right-wing Sangh Parivar, satirist Akash Banerjee too rips apart religious extremists through his spoofs on Newslaundry, a Delhi-based media -watch platform.

Aakash’s show, ‘Why So Serious?’ has been particularly stinging on the Indian Hindu-religious Right, from the ultra nationalists of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) to self-styled cow-vigilantes.

In one of his shticks, or lampoon acts, he even takes potshots at the union defence minister Manohar Parrikar for crediting the teachings of the RSS to the much-hyped ‘success’ of the surgical strikes against Pakistan last year.

In the opening scene, Akash is seen trying to put his foot into his mouth. He invariably fails and then reasons: “I didn’t go to RSS shakha for physical and ethical dexterity…It prepares you to be supple, so that the most awkward positions become the most comfortable ones like the foot-in-mouth, which is why Parrikar is found in such a pose always.” Banerjee then scans through the RSS supremo M.S. Golwalkar’s anti-Muslim teachings and asks the audience to decide if this parallel drawn by Parrikar is fair.

“In the post-truth world, radical views will keep pouring in and one has to counter them. The best way to do that is through satire,” says Akash, whose videos attract 25,000-plus views on an average.

Graphic artist Orijit Sen says humour strikes a chord with a wider audience. “Often, people don’t understand the long-term effects of extremist views. But when the same has been told with humour laced with irony, it appeals to people. It makes people think about the issue.”

There must be some thrush to it because suddenly satirists across the globe are using humour as a tool to combat extremism. Humorists in the West are fighting Islamic extremism, largely the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Take the case of London-based comedian of Pakistani descent Humza Arshad. He has become a YouTube sensation with his ‘Diary of a Bad Man’ series where he mocks the young boys who joined  ISIS. Birmingham-based British Asian comedian Shazia Mirza is receiving rave reviews for her latest spoof ‘The Kardashians Made Me Do It’ inspired by the jihadi schoolgirls who joined ISIS. Shazia spells out ISIS as Illusion and Seduction in Iraq and Syria.

Recently, BBC Two released a sketch ‘The Real Housewives of ISIS’, yet another satire on the growing trend of women in the West joining ISIS. One of the scenes in the sketch goes like this. A hijab-wearing woman who met her husband online says, “It’s only three days to the beheading and I’ve got no idea what to wear.” Another woman wears a suicide vest and asks her friends, “What do you think? Ahmed surprised me with it yesterday.” The third radicalised wife turns up wearing a similar explosive device and adds, “What a complete b****. She knew I had that jacket.”

Heydon Prowse, the co-writer of ‘The Real Housewives of the ISIS’ tells The Telegraph, “We have spent the last five years taking the p**s out of every major political party, corporate fat cat and inane celebrity. It would have been a bit odd if we hadn’t done a sketch on the genocidal death cult currently spreading fear and misery across the Middle East.”

The two-minute skit was viewed more than 21 million times and elicited nearly 90,000 comments on the BBC Two television channel’s Facebook page within three days of its release.  Of course, it also incurred the wrath of a section of viewers.

Heydon thinks extremism is a cultural phenomenon best combated in the cultural sphere.

Jihadi studies expert Amarnath Amarasingam agrees; he ventures that sometimes something very spicy is easier to digest with a spoonful of sugar and that’s the kind of the role comedy plays. Toronto-based, and a distance senior research fellow at the UK’s Institute for Strategic Dialogue, Amarasingam told us in an e-mail, “The point of comedy is to allow non-extremists in different communities to see themselves as one and the same and to highlight extremism as something outside the norm.”

Across the globe, humour has established a strong connect with the youth through social media. Ahmed Al-Basheer of Iraq has been likened to American political satirist Jon Stewart for his sharp wit. He believes it’s the youth that is getting lured by extremists through social media and therefore one should use the same medium to counter it. “It’s important to tell the youth that extremism should be made fun of via social media because the medium is uninterrupted and uncensored,” says Ahmed from Amman in Jordan.

Worldwide, humour played a huge role in dealing with the political and religious extremists even in the past. Dadaists were the biggest critics of Hitler in Germany. In the recent past, Charlie Hebdo cartoons were regarded as a satirical answer to the religious extremists though many felt they were “irresponsible” and “provocative”. In India too, it was mostly political satire in the form of cartoons and occasional columns that became popular counter-narratives.

Varun Grover of the Indian satire troupe ‘Aisi taisi Democracy’ has been largely inspired by the Indian tradition of “haasya kavi sammelans”. He thinks humour can make a difference today when the space for public debate is shrinking. “People are not engaging with each other. Humour is the only tool to penetrate people’s minds,” he says.

But there is intolerance of humour too. Varun and his team members — Rahul Ram and Sanjay Rajoura — were not allowed to perform in Allahabad by a group of protestors last year. Akash is regularly trolled on Twitter.

Orijit argues that Indian audiences need to evolve. “They are largely conformist and are not ready to accept the fact that positions of power have been publicly ridiculed.”

Akash, however, is optimistic. He says things are changing slowly : “There is an appetite for more.” And for once he isn’t joking.

 

Published in The Telegraph, March 11,2017.

(https://www.telegraphindia.com/1170312/jsp/7days/story_140268.jsp)

Bastar has contrary reasons to suspect the outsider

Crossings

DARKNESS IS beginning to fall; I am in search of a hotel room in Jagdalpur. Two hotels have turned me away. They don’t give out rooms to single women. The third offers me a room, but with a rider. I am not to tell anyone that I am a journalist.

Why not? Journalists and professors come from Delhi and write “nasty things” about Bastar, is the reply. “We have been asked by the police not to entertain such people.”

There is no room – but there is growing disdain – for journalists, political and social activists, lawyers and academics among sections of the townspeople. Activist Bela Bhatia witnessed that recently, when a group of people threatened her and her landlady, and asked her to leave her ghar and gaon without delay. She had accompanied a human rights team to meet women who had alleged being sexually abused by the police. Delhi academics Nandini Sundar and Archana Prasad have seen this, too. They were booked last year on charges of murdering a tribal.

The threats are real, but the police shrug them off. The Jagdalpur superintendent of police, R.N. Dash, is convinced that local people have their own reasons for wanting to keep journalists and others out.

“Because people from Delhi write bad things about Bastar, nobody wants their daughters to get married to local men. People living outside Bastar think that their daughters will not be safe here,” he says. “Those who refused you a room are most likely fathers who’d failed to get brides for their sons, all because of wrong reporting. It’s very natural for them to be angry at outsiders.”

But it’s not just the outsider who fears the police in Bastar. As I travel into the interiors of Narayanpur, Dantewada, Bijapur and Sukma, villagers complain about being threatened and intimidated by the police. Not surprisingly, they first treat me with suspicion, not convinced that I am a journalist. I may well be a police agent, they say.

“People have come to us posing as journalists and related our complaints about police torture back to the police. Then the police came and beat us up,” says a young Dantewada villager.

Once they are convinced that you are indeed a journalist, the villagers open up – their hearts and their doors. In a quiet village, I am offered a room by a teacher’s wife because the nearest town with a hotel is miles and hours away. She gives me dinner – a small helping of daal and chawal.

In Bijapur, a young man offers to take me to a village in the forests – to meet victims of police torture – on a motorcycle. My taxi driver, Chander, takes the wheel as the villager and I squeeze in behind him. He skillfully manoeuvres the bike through long stretches of pebbled road, dirt tracks, fields and underbrush. It even splutters its way through a small stream. And then, after a series of sharp twists and turns, Chander suddenly loses control of the machine. All three of us, along with the bike, plunge into a rice field. Chander, also a local, is more amused than hurt. “Take a picture, Madam, capture the moment,” he tells me in Hindi. “We will remember that we’d had a fall.”

Pictures and selfies taken, we get back onto the bike and the mud track. We are deep in the jungles now. The sound of the wind, the swish of the leaves and the chatter of the birds travel with us. Finally, we reach our destination after an hour.

For the people of Bastar, travelling for hours to cover short distances is nothing new. They are used to walking for miles when they have to catch a bus.

When we return to the highway on our way back, evening is just about to set in. A few villagers are waiting at fancy bus stops that flaunt stainless steel seats and huge photographs of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and chief minister Raman Singh. The wait is often a long one, for buses are rare on this route.

As the sun begins to set, I spot a dark-skinned woman, small and barefoot, carrying wood on her head. Soon I can’t see her anymore – she has vanished into the dark.

Like most people in Bastar, she is now invisible.

Telegraph. February 5,2017

(https://www.telegraphindia.com/1170205/jsp/7days/story_134000.jsp)

fwThe government has made a slogan of the brave Indian jawan to settle political arguments. It has also left the same jawan ill-provided and restive. Sonia Sarkar reports

  • Illustration: Suman Choudhury

“An army marches on its stomach.”
– Napoleon Bonaparte

On paper, it sounds like a feast. Milk and eggs for breakfast. Four days a week, non-vegetarian dishes – chicken, mutton or fish – are to be served.

Border Security Force (BSF) jawan Tej Bahadur Yadav would scoff at that. “We sleep hungry,” he says in a video that has gone viral, pointing to the burnt paranthas and watery daal that he has just been served at a border post.

Jawans or soldiers have never been in the news as much as now. They make the emblazoned mascot for the Narendra Modi government, invoked over issues as wide ranging as demonetisation and student agitations. But a hollow, ill-fed mascot, the ranks of jawans would complain.

The jawan mantra has often been chanted. Tired of standing in ATM queues? Think of the jawans who stand on the borders. Kicking up a fuss over students’ rights? Think of the jawans. Shivering in the cold without power? Think of the jawans. “It’s when you (jawans) guard the border, people sleep without fear,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi extolled them last Diwali.

But Yadav’s video has put the arc lights on how the jawans themselves sleep – on an empty stomach. “Finally, someone had the courage to speak up,” a BSF jawan in Srinagar says. “Does the government want us to fight on an empty stomach?”

The government has taken some steps – the commandant and the second-in-command of the 29th Battalion, where Yadav is posted, have been moved to Tripura pending a probe into his allegations.

But the video has kicked up a cacophony of complaints. Jawans speak of low quality food, inadequate clothing, pay disparities and harassment by seniors. And the grouse is not just from paramilitary forces such as the BSF and the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), they also come from the army.

Last week, CRPF constable Jeet Singh went public demanding parity in pay and other benefits for the central armed police forces with the army. In another social media message, an army jawan alleged harassment by superiors for writing about soldiers’ problems.

Clearly, for the government, which has been holding up the gut-wrenching symbol of the veer jawan, there is trouble afoot.

“It’s unfortunate the way the government is projecting the soldier as a symbol of nationalism. The government should have dealt with their problems first,” says C. Uday Bhaskar, director of the Society for Policy Studies, a Delhi-based think tank.

Jawans have been at the wrong end of supplies and treatment for long. They seldom protested. But now that they are being daily lionised to serve the purposes of the government, they are speaking out. Access to social media sites has made it easier. “The PM has been advertising Digital India. So what’s wrong if soldiers use this platform to express their concerns?” a CRPF sub-inspector asks.

What troubles paramilitary jawans the most is the disparity in pay with counterparts in the army. But while parity seems like a distant dream, they are highlighting more pressing needs such as proper food and attire.

Adequate nutrition is essential to keep the soldier’s morale high, points out a 2008 paper authored by researchers at the Defence Food Research Laboratory (DFRL) and Defence Institute of Physiology and Allied Sciences (DIPAS).

A BSF jawan needs 3,850 calories a day, and a CRPF jawan, 2,900, states the government. In both the forces, mess committees comprising constables, sub-inspectors and fourth-class staffers decide the menu. The monthly ration allowance for the former is Rs 2,905 and for the latter, Rs 2,868.60.

But jawans complain of corruption that deprives them of their share of food. A retired CRPF jawan states that constables are often “forced” by their seniors to buy rations from designated shops, which offer 5-7 per cent of their profits to the seniors. “Even if these shops sell low quality daal or rice or artificially coloured spices, jawans have to buy from them,” he grumbles.

A senior BSF officer admits that there are cases of food being siphoned off canteens and sold to locals for money. “In Kashmir, some personnel may exchange a sack of rice with the bakarwals (cattle-rearing nomads) for a sheep,” he says.

The BSF sends tinned food to its jawans in places too remote for fresh supplies. The watery daal in Yadav’s video was part of tinned rations, supplied by the army because Yadav is posted on the Line of Control.

Satwant Atwal, IG, BSF headquarters, states that an enquiry will look at “any systemic aberrations” and suggest corrective intervention. “The welfare of the troops is of the highest priority,” she says. The forces do have redress mechanisms for jawans – such as complaining to their seniors.

But this is not the first time that food supplied to jawans is being questioned. In 2011, Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee said dry rations were consumed by army troops well past their expiry date. Over 74 per cent of fresh fruits and vegetables issued to units by supply depots also failed prescribed norms, it said. In 2007, high-calorie food items meant for soldiers in Siachen were seized from shops in Leh; irregularities were found in the procurement of meat in Ladakh.

The DFRL-DIPAS team writes that in the camps they visited, they found most jawans were dissatisfied with the quality and quantity of food. This was highlighted during the Kargil battle, too. “…they sent us puris and sabzi. At those heights puris and sabzi freeze to stone, you can’t eat any of it,” The Telegraph had quoted a young army officer at Drass as saying during the 1999 conflict.

Moreover, jawans are at times not adequately geared for harsh weather conditions. “When they move from moderate weather conditions to severe cold conditions, arranging special clothing such as snow boots, woollen socks and jackets is a problem. But we somehow manage,” says a BSF assistant commandant.

 

Security experts say that there is very little sense of ownership among the chiefs of the paramilitary forces because they are not the direct recruits. These officers come from the Indian Police Service, even if they have never been into any operational role before. Jawans feel that their chiefs never understand the real problems because they don’t know what it is to serve at the front.

Questions sent by The Telegraph to Kiren Rijiju, minister for home affairs, went unanswered. The army headquarters did respond. “The method chosen by the jawan to air perceived grievance was in violation of laid down rules and regulations and military discipline. A very effective and responsive grievance redress mechanism exists in the army, which, it is evident, the concerned jawan ignored to invoke. Specific complaints made by him are however being investigated,” said the army PRO, Col Rohan Anand.

 

 

But the issues are, of course, known. In a 2008 report, the Comptroller and the Auditor General had referred to problems relating to procurement of special clothing, mentioning the use of partly torn and recycled special clothing for winter. In 2007, high quality trousers, jackets and parachutes meant for the army at Siachen were found in Leh shops. The Telegraph had reported that soldiers deployed on the Kargil front were seen arriving at the frosty wind-blown heights in “canvas shoes and cotton jackets”.

Inadequate arrangements often lead to tragedy. In 2014, eight BSF personnel were found unconscious in the Paloura base camp because they had inhaled carbon monoxide caused by lighting a kangri in a closed room to keep warm.

Harassment by seniors is another common grievance. An army jawan is on a hunger strike in Madhya Pradesh in protest against the “menial jobs” he is forced to do for his seniors. An Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) constable has similar complaints. “I have even washed officers’ undergarments. Those who refuse to do such jobs are denied leave by the seniors,” he says.

Leave is a problem because most paramilitary forces are understaffed. “The CRPF, which is now filling 24,000 vacancies, is a reserved force, which should be deployed only when there is an exigency. But 80 per cent of our jawans are always deployed,” a CRPF officer points out.

Long working hours, living in harsh conditions and harassment by seniors can lead to fragging – killing of seniors or colleagues – or suicides. “Most jawans have rural backgrounds and join the force because of the social respect attached to the uniform. Their morale is affected on a daily basis when they are deprived of their basic rights,” says retired ITBP inspector Rajender Yadav. “Those who cannot cope commit suicide.”

Despite the rising discontent, the foot soldiers carry on. “When my jawan complains that he is doing everything for the country but the government doesn’t care for him, I tell him: ‘Desh ke liye kar rahe ho ‘,” a BSF officer says. Ask what you can do for the country, but not what the country can do for you.

A shorter version of the story appeared in The Telegraph | Sunday, January 22, 2017 |

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)