Archive for the ‘Human interest’ Category

It isn’t just Muslims who are under attack in Modi’s India. Christians are increasingly facing bombs, thrashings and threats.

It was a calm Friday evening in December, when about a dozen Christian villagers sat to pray in a house in Bilkua village in the eastern Indian state of West Bengal. A few minutes later, a group of Hindu men armed with wooden sticks barged into the house, disrupted the service and left. When 34-year-old pastor Ramu Hala restarted the service, the armed men came back to stop him and asked him to leave right away. It’s been more than a month, but Hala — who is from a nearby village — hasn’t returned to Bilkua.

The country’s Hindu right — led by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the parent organization with several arms, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling BJP — has for decades viewed Christianity and Islam as alien religions. But Modi’s tenure since 2014 has seen the Hindu right largely target Muslims, with the government keen to avoid alienating the West. Now, as the BJP prepares for a political test pivotal to expanding its base, mounting attacks on Christians are sparking worries that the RSS might be replacing the coyness of the past six years with a newfound aggression against the religion’s followers.

West Bengal, with a population larger than Germany’s, is one of a handful of states that the BJP has never ruled. But recent gains — it emerged as the second-largest party in the state behind the ruling Trinamool Congress in the 2019 national elections — have whetted its appetite for power there, where they anticipate more success in next year’s state elections.

The RSS now holds 2,650 daily and weekly meetups — called shakhas — across the state, up from 2,000 in 2017, according to the organization. That increased footprint has coincided with a sharp rise in attacks against the Christian community, from 17 in 2017 and 2018 combined, to 26 in 2019 alone, according to Persecution Relief, a Christian nonprofit.



Last March, a group of Hindu men used knives to attack Anand Hari, 62, the pastor of Full Gospel Evangelical Church, about 150 miles from Bilkua. He was hospitalized for three days. Last month, police arrested three men for allegedly hurling bombs at a church. In many other cases, victims — including Hala, the pastor attacked in Bilkua — are too scared to report cases against their attackers. Returning to Bilkua, Hala says, is out of the question.

“The Christians in the village are scared of the Hindu radical groups,” Hala says. “They would be targeted again if I go there.”

The founders of the RSS questioned the loyalty of Indian followers of Christianity and Islam because their holiest shrines lie outside of India. Their successors have long accused Christian missionaries of converting poor Hindus to Christianity through enticements. In 1999, Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two sons were burned alive in their car by members of the Bajrang Dal, a paramilitary group that’s a part of the RSS umbrella.

But following a series of attacks on churches soon after Modi came to power, the Hindu right has focused its attention on Muslims, driving a spike in hate crimes against the community. The controversial new citizenship law that discriminates against Muslim migrants treats Christians on par with Hindus.

That go-soft approach toward Christians now appears to be cracking, starting with West Bengal, where the BJP is trying to consolidate Hindu votes for next year’s elections against the Trinamool Congress, which it has portrayed as pro-minority communities. How this new strategy plays out could determine the RSS approach to India’s 28 million Christians nationally.

Both Hala and Hari allege that their attackers were members of the RSS. Hari says they had been persuading Christians to convert to Hinduism. “They attacked us because we rejected their offer,” he says.

The RSS concedes that it has attempted to convert people to Hinduism in West Bengal. “After all, culturally, all Christians are Hindus,” says regional RSS spokesperson Biplab Roy, accusing Christian missionary groups of “spreading misinformation about Hinduism, and converting people into Christianity.” He couldn’t offer data to back his claim.

Most instances of attacks or forced conversions to Hinduism are happening outside the state capital of Kolkata, says Shibu Thomas, founder of Persecution Relief. Thomas also represents India at the Federation of Indian American Christian Organizations, a coalition of North American church groups for people of Indian origin.

In July 2019, RSS volunteers in the Sundarbans region forced a Christian nongovernmental organization from Kolkata to change the design of the school building they had built for poor Hindu children in the locality. The building was originally shaped like a church.

708f36a2-e43c-401e-b6c0-29f7fbd70538 (1)

Father Rodney Borneo, principal of the Loyola High School, Kolkata, fears that schools will be targeted.


Father Dominic Gomes, vicar general of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Calcutta, says, “Christians are extremely anguished about these attacks, which have become a common phenomenon now.”

West Bengal minorities commission vice chairman Michael Shane Calvert insists that the “stray” attacks on Christians have been handled well by the administration. But Hari says he had to visit a police station 10 times before his complaint was registered. Ten months after he was stabbed, the police have yet to make an arrest.

And the reverberations of these attacks are beginning to be felt beyond the state’s 658,000-strong Christian population. The Indian constitution allows religious minorities to run their own education institutions free from several government regulations. That, many fear, could be the next target. “We fear that there will be an attempt to cripple the church by attacking the missionary educational institutions,” says Father Rodney Borneo, principal of Loyola High School, Kolkata.

The government did not invite even one of India’s 30,000-odd Christian educational institutions to offer suggestions while drafting a new education policy. In January, a federal BJP minister, Giriraj Singh, said those who study at missionary schools lack “Indian culture.”

The irony of these increased attacks coming amid the debate on the citizenship law — which will help migrant Christians become Indian nationals — isn’t lost on Gomes. “If they cannot make Christians of this country feel safe,” he asks, “how can they keep Christians of other countries safe here?”

The story appeared in Ozy:

When 35-year-old Joanna Soriano Garcia was taking a stroll in the district of St. Pauli at Hamburg in Germany this August, a woman suddenly splashed water on her and asked her to leave. Garcia was perplexed for a while. Later, she discovered, she had entered the street forbidden for women – Herbertstraße.

About six-ft-high metal gate at the entrance of the street declares: “Entry for men under 18 and women prohibited”. “One of the sex workers had thrown water at me,” Filipina traveller Garcia says. “I left immediately but my husband stayed back. He said, the women were far more pleasant to him.” Tour guides tell visitors, the sex workers don’t want women around as they see them as potential “competitors”. Social worker Anna of Sperrgebiet, a St. Pauli-based non-governmental organisation for women, believes that the barrier at Herbertstraße protects the sex workers from becoming a tourist attraction. But women’s rights activists don’t buy such arguments. “Even police told us, it’s to protect the women in prostitution. But the question is – by whom should they be protected?” asks Hellen Langhorst, a member of the women’s rights group, FEMEN Germany.


The gate at the entrance of Herbertstraße (Photo: Joanna Soriano Garcia )

Langhorst and her colleagues in FEMEN Germany, wearing body paint with slogans saying “women are not goods,” broke the gate on March 8, International Women’s Day, last year. “The gate marks gender apartheid. The violence in prostitution came from the pimps and not from other women. In the end, it’s protecting just the men, to use the women for prostitution without any witnesses,” says Langhorst. This gate was originally a wooden screen installed by the Nazis in the 1930s to not let others see the forbidden sex trade. Men, who still wanted to go there, hid themselves behind the gate. In the 1970s, signages were put up to prohibit women to enter Herbertstraße. The dismantling of the gate by the activists went viral on social media last year. But the government repaired it the same day, and it is business as usual at Herbertstraße, which runs parallel to Reeperbahn – Europe’s largest red-light district, and Germany’s most “sinful mile”.

In the evening, Reeperbahn gets a purple glow with the flashing lights, neon signs and huge interactive billboards. Young girls in lingerie and high heels stand at the doorstep of the shops lining the street. Some are spotted enticing men to follow them to some “secret” room. Reeperbahn, however, has changed over the years. It’s no more just brothels here, there are sex-toy shops, pornography theatres and table-dance clubs. In the past half a decade, this place has also given birth to gangs linked with organised crime and drug smuggling. Young migrants, especially from eastern Europe’s Bulgaria and Romania, are sex-trafficked and brought here. “Many social and charitable organisations run advice centres for victims of trafficking here,” says a member of Hamburg-based Coordination Centre against Trafficking in Women (KOOFRA), an NGO for victims of human trafficking and forced prostitution. In 2002, the country legalised prostitution, under which sex workers have employment contracts, health insurance and pension plans. But a 2007 report by Germany’s Federal Ministry for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth said there was no proof that the law had reduced crime. Germany’s legalised prostitution industry is about $16.3 billion, according to Federal Statistics Office.

Out of at least four lakh sex workers in Germany, nearly 5,500 are in Hamburg.

Langhorst argues that the law helped the pimps and the brothel owners more than the prostitutes because it legalised the former’s business and reduced their chance of being raided. “And young boys grow up believing that it is okay to buy women because it is legal,” she says. Women rights activists also question Germany’s Prostitutes Protection Act, introduced in 2017, that obligates all sex workers to register with the government authorities and undergo regular health check-ups. When registering, authorities, ideally, should recognise indications of trafficking and refer the victims to advisory services but that doesn’t happen, say activists. Anna says, “We doubt that human trafficking can be uncovered in a one-time conversation with authorities. Victims of human trafficking mostly reveal themselves when a relationship of trust is built over the time.”

Some also believe that the new law does not protect those who need the most support, especially those who do not have the right of residence or whose passports have been taken away by pimps. “Most of them don’t work in brothels, but on the streets or apartments. We know of cases where sex workers were registered under the law but not identified as victims of trafficking,” says the KOOFRA member. FEMEN Germany’s protest was also a fight against legalising prostitution, which sanctions violence against women by men. “Tearing down the wall at Herbertstraße meant denouncing the sanctioned sexual violence against women that happens behind the closed doors of the sex industry,” Langhorst says. “Today, we tear down the wall. Tomorrow, the patriarchy will fall.”

[The story first appeared in The Indian Express:, February 16. 2020:\fbclid=IwAR1bIAU3PhD20s4A0ivobtG30Ts6HHtCD6JG0ZHtTgoV7LLj2_QKWT5gsLs

The lanes of Bow Barracks (Photo: Sonia Sarkar)

The Anglo-Indian community of Kolkata is concerned after their special representation in Parliament is abolished

A set of three-storeyed apartments stand next to each other on the yellow and red by-lanes of Bow Barracks in central Kolkata. Narrow cemented staircases lead to the upper floors. Each floor houses about two-four Anglo-Indian families. The walls outside are plastered with electric meters, their thick black wires entangled. The main doors of these houses are often left open. With Christmas and new year celebrations over, families are busy seeing off their outstation guests. The white paper lanterns and the Christmas trees lining the streets have lost their sheen after a spell of unseasonal rain. There’s an unusual calm in the air. The habitually sanguine Anglo-Indians who reside in the area look worried, as if someone has just broken news of a huge personal loss. “We fear that we would be targeted by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). They would throw us out of the country gradually,” says 66-year-old Michael Chang, a resident of Bow Barracks.

Michael Chang, a resident of the area
Michael Chang, a resident of the area (Photo: Sonia Sarkar)

Chang believes he has reason to worry—Anglo-Indians no longer have any representation in the Lok Sabha and state assemblies. In December, the Lok Sabha passed a Constitution (Amendment) Bill seeking to abolish the community’s representation in the lower house of Parliament and 13 state assemblies, a privilege guaranteed under Article 334(b) of the Constitution. The Bill was passed on 10 December. Nomination of Anglo-Indian members to the Lok Sabha and state legislatures ceased from 25 January. Introducing the Bill, Union minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said the community’s numbers have reduced significantly from 111,637 in 1951 to 296 according to the 2011 Census. According to media reports, Prasad said the doors were not shut on the issue and it could be “considered” later by the Centre.

The community describes the move as “humiliating”. “They are giving us an indication that we are not wanted any more,” Chang says.

Michael Shane Calvert, the nominated Anglo-Indian member in the West Bengal legislative assembly, says there are about 30,000 Anglo-Indians in West Bengal alone, concentrated in Kolkata, while a handful live in Kharagpur, Santragachi, Asansol and Adra.

According to Article 366(2) of the Constitution, “an Anglo-Indian means a person whose father or any of whose other male progenitors in the male line is or was of European descent but who is domiciled within the territory of India and is or was born within such territory of parents habitually resident therein and not established there for temporary purposes only”. When the Constitution was framed in 1950, the community was given representation in Parliament because it had no state of its own. West Bengal remained a home for years as Kolkata, or erstwhile Calcutta, was once the capital of British India.

After independence, over the years, the community began moving to other cities. A large number of Anglo-Indians, however, also migrated to the UK or Europe, unsure of their position after the British left. “Even though they were offered blue-collar jobs in the UK or Australia, they would prefer to go there than work hard in India,” says 54-year-old Jason Pote, a member of the community who runs a travel company in Kolkata.

In India, however, those who stayed back initially had the advantage. “As English was their mother tongue, they had an edge over their peers in the other communities as far as their communication skills were concerned. Post colonization, they were more likely to be hired in a job which didn’t require much technical knowledge because of these skills than anyone else who lacked the knowledge of English,” says Kolkata-based Errol O’ Brien, 80, author of The Anglo-Indian Way: Celebrating The Lives Of The Anglo-Indians Of India.

Errol says that till the 1970s and 1980s, a lot of the educated Anglo-Indian men were employed in the Central Board of Excise & Customs, Indian Railways, airline companies, police, schools and colleges, while the women worked as teachers, operators in telephone exchanges or as personal secretaries in private companies.

But over the years, while other communities focused on education and technical knowledge, a large section of the community “took it easy”, says Pote. “Many Anglo-Indians thought English-speaking skills would be enough for them to grab good opportunities. They never thought to bring themselves on a par with other communities, which were producing academics, doctors and engineers by late 1980s and the 1990s. So we lost our way in the race with the rest of the country,” he says.

The community did produce a mid-level workforce for BPOs, airlines and schools, says Pote. Some also work as domestic help and rickshaw pullers. “What our representatives in Parliament could have done is pushed for jobs—for deserving candidates in any government sector,” he argues.

Barring parliamentarians such as Frank Anthony, Neil O’ Brien and Beatrix D’ Souza, not many who occupied the reserved seats did much to uplift the community, says Chang. But some believe the presence of one of their own in Parliament at least gave their community a voice.

Angela Govindraj, the 56-year-old general secretary of the Bow Barracks residents’ welfare association, says the loss of this privilege is worrisome: “It is like making our community invisible in one stroke”. The fact that there is no official data on their numbers add to the community’s concerns.

A section of the community claims there are about 350,000-500,000 Anglo- Indians in India. All the organizations representing the community across the country now plan to collect the data and consolidate the numbers. “We are certainly not 296, as stated by law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad in Parliament—several lakhs is more correct,” says 56-year-old Barry O’Brien, president-in-chief of the All-India Anglo-Indian Association.

George Baker, a former Anglo-Indian member of Parliament of BJP, terms this figure “ridiculous”. Baker, 74, claims that he wrote to President Ram Nath Kovind in May to renew the quota for Anglo-Indians in the Lok Sabha and the 13 assemblies for another 30 years (so far, the quota was renewed every 10 years). A month later, he even handed over a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi asking for an amendment to extend the reservation of these seats for the next 30 years. In return, Modi asked Baker to send five names he could consider for the 17th Lok Sabha, Baker says. “I did so and I was hopeful that the seats will be renewed for at least 10 years if not 30, following the usual practice. But I was shocked to see they did away with the seats,” says Baker.

When Baker sent an email to the Prime Minister’s office again in December, he was directed to Union home minister Amit Shah, who hasn’t responded to his emails. “Clearly, the government is not in a mood to listen to the concerns of the community,” Baker laments.

Patrick Walsh, a member of the executive committee of the Calcutta Anglo Indian Service Society (CAISS), wants the government to explain the decision.

On 6 January, over 150 politicians, heads of educational institutions, retired officers of the Armed Forces and youth leaders of the Anglo-Indian community met in Kolkata. Prominent members of the community, including ex-MPs and ex-MLAs, hope to meet Modi to appeal for a reconsideration of the decision. On 28 January, a delegation led by Barry met law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad to request an extension of seat reservation for another 10 years.

“A constitutional advisory team has also been formed to look into all matters regarding our rights and assurances given to us in the constitution,” Barry says.

In the Kolkata meeting, Baker says he had to confront angry members of the community who asked if he was afraid of the current situation in the country. “I admitted, yes, I am,” Baker says.

Anglo-Indian schools are apprehensive that the government may force its representatives on to their governing bodies or make the Council for the Indian School Certificate Examinations (Cisce), the board with which most Anglo-Indian schools are affiliated, redundant. A team of representatives of Anglo-Indian educational institutions has been formed to safeguard the autonomy of schools and colleges.

Errol fears that the BJP may like to “radically Hinduize” the Ango-Indian education system. “The saffron forces always had a disdain for the English-speaking Anglo-Indian community,” Errol says, sitting in his living room, adorned with photographs of family weddings, birthday celebrations and foreign trips.

What is feeding their fears is the stereotypes about their community. They are often labelled beef and pork eaters and drug addicts with low moral character who love to party, he says. Their patriotism is always questioned, he adds. Recently, Union minister Giriraj Singh said children who go to missionary schools lack “sanksar (values)”. Thirty-seven-year-old D.F., who works with an IT company in Kolkata and does not want to be identified, recalls that when non-Anglo-Indian friends come home for cake and wine, they make him out to be not Indian enough.

In the letter Calvert wrote to Modi, asking him to reconsider the decision, he stressed that Anglo-Indians are “proud Indians”, that India is “their motherland” and that the community “will continue to work towards the progress” of their “beloved” country.

The community can certainly boast of achievers such as former vice-chief of air staff Air Marshal Michael McMahon, hockey player Leslie Claudius, educationist Frank Anthony andNeil O’ Brien, who is considered India’s first quizmaster, among others.

Over the years, they have also been trying to integrate into society and have picked up regional languages. Like the rest of the country, yellow rice and mince ball curry and pork vindaloo have made way for pizzas and pastas on their dinner tables.

To blend into a polarized India, there is a constant effort to “Indianize” Anglo-Indians, says an Anglo-Indian teacher in a prominent boys’ school in Kolkata. For example, most Anglo-Indian schools in the city have directed young women teachers not to wear dresses, as was the practice till a few years ago, and take to salwar kameez with dupatta.

Pork or beef are no longer packed for school lunches. “My daughters even dress up in saris during Saraswati Puja and perform to Rabindra Sangeet,” D.F. says.

But D.F. is still not sure if all this makes his children “secure” in India. Errol O’Brien believes such fears may prompt more members of the community to leave the country. “A whole new generation would migrate out of India to feel safe, something we witnessed soon after independence,” he says.


[The story was commissioned by Mint Lounge and it appeared in Mint Lounge on 8 February 2020:

  • At a time when the students’ protests have been politicised by the government, volunteers of Khalsa Aid India strive to work for humankind, ‘irrespective of the tags’
  • The charitable trust’s recent act reiterated their aim to provide selfless service that transcends the realms of faith, religion and community
BY Sonia Sarkar for Mint Lounge

When Amarpreet Singh watched the videos of police attacks on students of Jamia Millia Islamia on social media on 15 December, he couldn’t stop himself. The next morning, he went to the campus to understand the ground reality. As he entered the campus, he spotted three students, who had suffered hand and leg injuries, sitting on the road in front of the university’s Gate No.7. Moved, Singh got out of his car to check if they had had some tea or breakfast. When he learnt they had no food or water, he decided to offer help. He bought water bottles and cups of tea. Gradually, students started gathering in large numbers to protest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. By afternoon, Singh had served tea to at least 2,000 students.

It didn’t end there. Singh and four volunteers—Gurpreet Singh, Nazia Kamboj, Inderjeet Singh and Kulbeer Singh—have been serving tea to the protesters at Jamia Millia Islamia and India Gate this entire week.

“Tea is the basic comfort drink of Indians, especially in extreme cold conditions. It is only an effort to give people the comfort of 2 minutes, since they are out on the streets all day for the protests,” says 29-year-old Amarpreet, the director of charitable trust Khalsa Aid India.

It is the same sentiment that prompted them to help the students of Jamia Millia Islamia. At a time when student protests are being politicized, volunteers of Khalsa Aid India are striving to help humankind, “irrespective of the tags”.

But Amarpreet admits that during such times, it is very difficult to deliver aid without being labelled.

“When we were serving the Rohingya refugees, we were called anti-nationals and Muslim appeasers on social media, but when we told them there were Hindu Rohingya refugees and Muslims alike, then everyone kept quiet,” Amarpreet says. “Our aim is to do selfless service that goes beyond the realms of faith or community, a service for the weak and marginalized.”

Amarpreet is based in Patiala, Punjab, but he moves around the country with his team—a total of about 23,000 volunteers and 15 employees.

They served water to protesting farmers during the long march in Maharashtra last year. They sent essential packs such as tarpaulin sheets, mosquito nets, medical kits and clothing during the Kerala floods, and renovated three schools there.

When Kashmiri students were attacked on various campuses after 40 paramilitary personnel were killed in Pulwama, Kashmir, in February, Amarpreet received frantic calls from students in Delhi, Uttarakhand and Haryana. “We arranged buses and vans to get 600 Kashmiri students to Punjab first, and then sent them to Kashmir under the protection of Punjab police. Students were so happy to be back home. We could never forget the smile on their faces and the trust they bestowed upon us,” Amarpreet says.

Apart from extending help for basic emergency needs, Khalsa Aid India also takes up long-term rehabilitation projects that require heavy investment, especially in places affected by floods or earthquakes. Their credibility is so strong that they have never faced a fund crunch, says Amarpreet. For example, Khalsa Aid India’s budget for the Punjab floods this year was 1.5 crore but they received 18 crore.

Amarpreet belongs to a family that has been involved in social work. After flying at least 100 hours as a trainee commercial pilot at the Patiala Aviation Club, at age 23, he decided to listen to his inner calling.

A graduate in psychology from Punjabi University in Patiala, he got in touch with UK-based Khalsa Aid International to understand the modalities of opening a chapter in India. In 2013, he registered Khalsa Aid India separately as a charitable trust—he does, however, execute some projects, such as building 1,100 houses in Nepal after the 2015 earthquake, with funds from Khalsa Aid International.

Amarpreet remains hopeful. “Our principle of Sikhism that is welfare of all and selfless service is a big concept that was never taken out of the gurdwaras but we are spreading this message worldwide, and along with it, we are spreading love and harmony which would bring positive change one day,” he says.

India has a more humanitarian approach towards drug offenders than its neighbours Bangladesh and Sri Lanka

By Sonia Sarkar

After a moratorium of 43 years, the gallows were getting ready in Sri Lanka. Two executioners with ‘excellent moral character’ and ‘mental strength’ were appointed. A list of four convicts — involved in drug offences — to be hanged was prepared. On June 26 — the International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking — the Sri Lankan president, Maithripala Sirisena, announced that he had signed the requisite documents for the imposition of the death penalty for drug-related offences.

But these executions had to be stalled. The country’s Supreme Court, on July 5, issued a temporary injunction against the execution of the four convicts until October.

It is only an interim relief for the convicts, as Sirisena, who is likely to fight a re-election in December, looks adamant upon imposing the death penalty. A week after the parliamentarian, Bandula Lal Bandarigoda, submitted a private member’s motion seeking to block the return of capital punishment, Sirisena, on July 14, said he will declare a national day of mourning if the Sri Lankan Parliament blocks his proposal to reinstate the death penalty. Sirisena, it seems, wants to rely on the populist rhetoric against the threat of drug use and convince people about his ‘social commitment’ to eradicating the menace before the elections. He wants the hangings to be a ‘powerful’ message to the illegal drug trade.

According to government data, 60 per cent of the 24,000 prisoners in Sri Lanka are drug offenders. Currently, 48 people have been convicted of drug offences. All death penalties for drug convicts in Sri Lanka were commuted to life imprisonment for the past 43 years. The death penalty for drug-related offences is a violation of Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Sri Lanka is a party. Ironically, last year, Sri Lanka was among the 121 countries that endorsed a United Nations general assembly resolution calling for a moratorium on the death penalty.

Human rights bodies argue that punitive drug policy has not acted as a deterrent anywhere. Over 170 countries are said to have either abolished the death penalty or taken a position in favour of ending executions. But Sirisena is in no mood to listen. He even rejected an appeal by the UN secretary-general, António Guterres, to reconsider his decision. He has also demanded the death penalty for the perpetrators of the Easter Sunday attacks in April that killed over 258 people by calling the attack the handiwork of “international drug dealers” who wanted to “discourage [his] anti-narcotics drive”.

Besides Sri Lanka, Bangladesh is another south Asian country which imposes the death penalty for drug offences. Last year, its Parliament passed the narcotics control bill, 2018 which, alongside the life sentence, also has a death row provision for producing, trading and using 200 grams or more of yaba, or more than 25 grams of heroin and cocaine. Human rights bodies demanded a revocation of the law but their voices remained unheard. Two death sentences for drug trafficking were pronounced last year. Ahead of the general elections in December 2018, the prime minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina Wajed, adopted a populist anti-drug stance by launching a campaign to toughen punishments for drug crimes. More than 250 people were killed in anti-drug operations between May and December in 2018. The Philippines-style ‘war on drugs’ campaign has targeted the poor and underprivileged. In some cases, human rights activists alleged, the killings may have been ‘politically motivated’.

In contrast, India has a more humanitarian approach towards drug offenders. In 2011, the Bombay High Court declared Section 31A of the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, 1985, that imposed a mandatory death sentence for a subsequent conviction for drug trafficking, ‘unconstitutional’. Later, it made the imposition of capital punishment on a person convicted only for a subsequent offence involving possession, production or transportation of specified drugs and quantities optional and not obligatory.

The Death Penalty for Drug Offences: Global Overview 2018, published by Harm Reduction International — a London-based NGO working on social and legal impacts of drug use and drug policy — stated that only six of 915 death sentences pronounced in India from 2011 onwards were for drug offences. Last year, the Punjab government called for expanding the death penalty that is currently applicable for child rape convicts to first-time drug offenders. But the Central government rejected it, arguing that the UN office on drugs and crime opposes the imposition of the death penalty for drug offences. Moreover, last year, the Congress parliamentarian, Shashi Tharoor, introduced a private member’s bill in Parliament seeking a total abolition of the death penalty.

But the Indian Parliament, last week, passed the protection of children from sexual offences (amendment) bill, 2019, seeking to impose the death penalty for aggravated sexual assault against children. This bill has been passed at a time when a girl, allegedly raped by a former leader of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party when she was a minor in 2017, is battling for life in hospital. Ironically, the BJP, which supports the death penalty and proclaims its love for the ‘betis’ of India, expelled the rape accused from the party only last week, more than a year after his arrest.

By Sonia Sarkar


All of 5ft, 6 inches, Ramaswamy Madhavan looks unassuming. But as he begins to recite his poem, Empty World, one is drawn to his rich and resonant voice, eagerly telling his story—a story of struggle and existence in Singapore.

Madhavan, 28, originally from Tamil Nadu’s Karaikudi, is a site engineer at a construction firm in Singapore. Every day, after working for more than 10 hours, he returns to the room he shares with five others and sits down to write in Tamil. It is poetry that gives him solace, away from home and family—his farmer parents, three sisters and fiancée.

Like him, many migrant workers in Singapore have taken refuge in the written word. They highlight their daily lives of drudgery and the wrenching heartache of being away from home through their poetry. They publish memoirs, participate in literary workshops, win competitions and make short films inspired by their life experiences.

“Writing is cathartic to me. I write to express my pent-up emotions,” says Madhavan as he fiddles with his phone, which stores about 100 poems he has written in his three years in Singapore.

Madhavan, who earns around $43 (around 3,060) a day, is one of 972,600 lower-skilled and low-wage migrant workers with work permits in Singapore, according to Singapore’s ministry of manpower. Dressed in high-visibility vests, mud-stained trousers, rugged boots and white helmets, migrant workers can be spotted everywhere in this ever-expanding city, but not many Singaporeans and expats interact with them.

Ramaswamy Madhavan and local poet and playwright Nabilah Said with copies of ‘Call And Response’.

Ramaswamy Madhavan and local poet and playwright Nabilah Said with copies of ‘Call And Response’.

Besides India, there are workers from Bangladesh, Malaysia, China, Indonesia, the Philippines and Myanmar, who are employed at Singapore’s construction sites, in the marine sector and at people’s homes. They arrive believing Singapore to be a city of dreams, but soon encounter the harsh reality.

Foreign workers have to grapple with exorbitant recruitment fees to agents, non-payment and underpayment of salary, lack of contracts or employment terms, injury, lack of medical care, forced repatriation and premature termination, says Debbie Fordyce, president of the Singapore-based non-governmental organization Transient Workers Count Too.

The ministry of manpower’s June report, however, claimed foreign workers were satisfied with their working conditions. A spokesperson for the ministry declined to comment on the problems of migrant workers.

But their voices are now finding an outlet. Shivaji Das, a Singaporean writer-photographer of Indian origin, started the Migrant Worker Poetry Competition in 2014 with a few others. “After listening to their poetry, many people, in a condescending tone, have told me, ‘I didn’t know migrant workers have such sophisticated thoughts,’” he says.

Many cases of abuse or negligence have been reported in this city state. In early August, a Singaporean woman was sentenced to 11 years in jail for physically abusing an Indonesian domestic worker, who was hit with a hammer, stone pestle and bamboo pole. In March, a Singaporean couple was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment for caning their foreign domestic helper. In 2017, a Bangladeshi worker died after falling off the edge of a building at a construction site.

Migrant workers generally earn $13-57 for 10-12 hours of work. Sometimes, they work for three months at a stretch. Some workers can afford to visit their homes only once in three-four years. Male workers live in cramped dormitories. Women, most of whom are domestic workers, live with the families they work for. “Many employers of both domestic and construction workers take away mobile phones and confiscate passports too,” says Md Sharif Uddin, an author whose memoir of living as a migrant worker in Singapore won the Best Non-Fiction Title at the Singapore Book Awards last year. Stranger To Myself (2017), which also has a collection of his poems, talks about inhumane working conditions and his longing for home.

Migrant workers taking a break in the central business district.
Migrant workers taking a break in the central business district. (Photo: Reuters)

The stories that don’t make news are narrated by migrant workers themselves. Madhavan, with Zakir Hossain Khokan—a TEDxSingapore speaker who encourages migrant workers to be vocal about their problems through art and literature—has just wrapped up production of their short film, Salary Day. It highlights how a worker’s meagre monthly salary of SGD$450 (around 23,000) finishes on the first day itself after he pays off debts, buys basic necessities and sends some money home.

Another Indian worker, N. Rengarajan, in his poem Life Overseas: Pluses And Minuses (originally written in Tamil), narrates what it is like to live in a foreign land where they can “buy everything that has a price” but not “love and affection”. Thirty women domestic workers have penned down their experiences in a book, Our Homes, Our Stories, released in 2018.

Sherwin Mendoza of De Anza College in California, in his paper Singapore’s Migrant Worker Poetry, Worker Resistance, And International Solidarity, released in July, writes that such poems are part of the “broad continuum of working-class poetry”.

For Rengarajan, the 33-year-old from Tamil Nadu’s Pudukkottai who has been working in Singapore since 2014—first as a construction worker and now as a supervisor—poetry “fills the vacuum” in his life. “I write even in my sleep,” laughs Rengarajan, who won the third prize in the Migrant Worker Poetry Competition in 2014 for Lessons From Circumstances.

For Khokan, 41, winner of the 2014 competition, poetry “soothes and enriches” the soul. Indonesian domestic worker Deni Apriyani, 29, who won the same competition in 2017 for her poem Further Away, says writing gives her “a sense of liberation”.

Yeo Siew Hua, the Singaporean director of A Land Imagined, a film on migrant workers in the city state, says film and literature help create awareness of injustice.

Some Singapore-based independent publishers, such as Math Paper Press, Landmark Books and Ethos Books, have released anthologies and books carrying translated versions of the poems as well as memoirs written by the migrant workers in their mother tongues. Their aim is to nurture these voices in the growing literary community in Singapore.

Locals have started helping migrant workers to get their voices heard. A Bengali paper, Banglar Kantha, has reserved space for Bangladeshi workers-turned-poets to showcase their literary work, while a cultural space called Dibashram has come up in Little India, a migrant-worker dominated area, to showcase their music and poetry. Sing Lit Station, a non-profit literary group, conducts writing workshops for migrant workers.

In this nanny state which keeps a strict vigil on its people, migrant workers often “self-censor” their poetry. “They haven’t written as much on issues such as work-injury related claims and employer apathy. They fear that if they write about these issues, they will be sent back home,” says Das. Starvation, penury and death, however, are often addressed in poems.

Filipina worker-turned-poet Rolinda Onates Espanola, in her poem My Story, which won the 2016 Migrant Worker Poetry Competition, highlights the torture of domestic worker Thelma Oyasan Gawidan by her employers. The employers were eventually convicted and jailed in 2017.

It reads: Not allowed handphone not allowed to bathe every day even brushing teeth too/ Can’t talk to anybody not even to my fellow Filipino/ Worst to my disgrace, noodles and slices of bread is my only sustenance.

Sharif Uddin writes about an Indian construction worker, Velu, who was knocked down by a bus in 2013, in Velu And A HistoryLook, there Velu goes with empty hands/ while Development, Progress, Civilization laughs.

In an untitled poem, Madhavan writes about how migrant workers sell everything to come to work in Singapore.

A migrant workers’ centre in Singapore.
A migrant workers’ centre in Singapore. (Photo: Reuters)

Sold off agricultural land/ Left the farming job/ Stepped on to the aeroplane and landed in another land/ Woke up early morning and hurried to shed the tears/blood.

A graduate in civil engineering from Chennai’s Sree Sastha Institute of Engineering and Technology, Madhavan would have stayed back in India if job prospects had been better. He began penning his thoughts, and months after arriving in Singapore in 2016, submitted a poem on food scarcity, titled Offering To God, to Das’ poetry competition. Shortlisted as among the best 12 entries, it motivated him to write more. His poem Empty World, on his desire to meet his fiancée, featured in an anthology of poems called Call And Response, published by Math Paper Press, in which 30 migrant poets paired with local writers last year.

Select publishers may have provided space to such workers but writer Cyril Wong is doubtful if mainstream publishers would take a chance on the work of migrant workers not writing in English. “It would take forever for any migrant worker to gain enough social and cultural traction in order to penetrate mainstream writing. Which migrant worker has the time to gain such traction?” asks Wong, who helped Bangladeshi migrant-worker poet Md Mukul Hossine “transcreate” his book of poems, Me Migrant, in 2016

Indeed, writing comes to them only after a day’s hard work, when they are travelling back to their residences in the empty MRT, bus or company van.

Singaporean film-maker Upneet Kaur-Nagpal, who made the documentary Poets On Permits (2017), featuring five workers-turned-poets, says the conversation about migrant workers is growing, but it still lacks empathy. They are individuals with “dreams, aspirations, joys and fears, familiar to all of us”, she adds.

It’s a long haul but the poetry competition has given them recognition, says Madhavan. “Because of our literary accomplishments showcased at the competition, we have made a place in the heart of a few locals,” he says. “Sometimes, when we eat our lunch at food courts, locals smile at us and say makan well (meaning “eat well” in Malay).”

One of their biggest dreams is to go back home—but they often feel they have no choice. “My family takes lot of pride that I live in Singapore. It is difficult to explain to them my condition here,” says Sharif Uddin, who has been home only four times in 11 years.

Sometimes, huge debts back home tie them to the jobs forever.

And there is never enough money, as Rengarajan writes in his poem MoneyA peculiar disease/ The world’s deadliest afflictions/ cancer, AIDS, ebola/ even love/kill by their presence./ Money alone kills by absence.

Madhavan, however, is looking forward to going home in November for his wedding and saving enough to bring his wife along. For home is where there is hope—“a hope for a new beginning”.

The story was published in Lounge, the Sunday edition of Live Mint: August 16, 2019.


Drawn to India by a ‘homecoming’ campaign, Pakistani Hindus, having escaped discrimination and poverty, feel betrayed.

Before the 2014 vote, India launched a 'homecoming' campaign aimed at providing protection for persecuted Hindus, but many say they are treated as second-class citizens [Sonia Sarkar/Al Jazeera]
Before the 2014 vote, India launched a ‘homecoming’ campaign aimed at providing protection for persecuted Hindus, but many say they are treated as second-class citizens [Sonia Sarkar/Al Jazeera]