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Archive for the ‘Perspective’ Category

Since the chief actors of last July’s terror attack in a posh Dhaka precinct were discovered to be radicalised upper-class kids, university students have come under stern glare. Often, some fear, with counterproductive consequences. Sonia Sarkar reports

  • FACE OF TERROR: (From top) A woman displays a photo of her son who worked at the Holey Artisan Bakery, Dhaka; the site of the attack; a protest rally in a nearby village

Shoriful is barely out of his teens. He likes to wear Pathan suits and skullcaps, sports a well-trimmed goatee, prays five times a day and knows the Islamic sermons by heart. That and the fact that he is currently a student of a reputed private university in Dhaka make him a “person of interest” in the eyes of law enforcement agencies. This is Bangladesh, a year after the terror attack on Dhaka’s Holey Artisan Bakery.

“It’s difficult to convince people that not everyone studying in a private university joins the extremists, and my religious inclination doesn’t make me a radical either,” says Shoriful, who goes to one of the universities at Dhanmondi in Dhaka.

Private universities in Bangladesh are a 1990s phenomenon. The first one was North South University (NSU), which came up in 1992. Today, there are 96 of them, boasting a three lakh-plus student community.

Investigations following last July’s carnage – 22 people were shot dead in a café in an upscale neighbourhood of the Bangladeshi capital – revealed that three of the five terrorists were English-medium schooled, religious-minded, beard-toting rich kids. One of them was from NSU. Police said the university’s former pro vice-chancellor, Gias Uddin Ahsan, had sheltered the attackers in a flat owned by him. Soon after, police arrested many teachers and students of various such universities who had links with the radical group, Hizb ut-Tahrir.

Recruitment of young men by terrorist and Islamic radical organisations is not new. For decades, the Bangladesh Islami Chhatrashibir – the student wing of the country’s biggest Islamist party, Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh – has been wooing and winning over young impoverished madrasa students. Many students of the prestigious Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET) also signed up for the Chhatrashibir. They had been offered scholarships, free coaching and books in exchange.

But what the Dhaka attack showed up was different. This was a class shift. The Hizb ut-Tahrir was tapping into a different demographic altogether. Naturally, the “phenomenon” attracted a lot of media attention.

The Tahrir’s changed tactics led to a reflexive change in attitudes. An administrative crackdown followed. Profiling of students of private universities, previously unheard of, became a routine affair. And life was never the same for the likes of Shoriful.

“One of my students shunned the Pathan suit and started wearing trousers. Earlier, he used to keep a beard but now he is clean-shaven. He did so because he realised that people regard him with suspicion,” says Janina Islam Abir, a lecturer in the Media and Communication department at Independent University. “Also, some of our students have been distancing themselves from their overtly religious friends.”

The general opinion among private university students is that life in Dhaka has suddenly become claustrophobic – it’s the state’s surveillance being streamed upon them.

Police have instructed landlords, particularly those in Dhaka’s posh Uttara, Mirpur and Banani areas, to avoid renting out rooms to bachelors, especially students of private universities. Should they do that, tenant details must be shared with the local police station. That’s not all, random questioning by police has become the new normal.

“Whenever we pass the diplomatic zone in Dhaka, we are stopped by the police. The first thing we are asked is, ‘Where do you study?’,” says Ridoan AGM, a third-year student of Independent University. He adds, “Earlier, we carried our ID cards when we went to university, now we carry it whenever we step out of our homes to ensure we are not harassed by the police.”

The state’s probe has penetrated the campuses too. Once again, one must fall back on the 2016 revelations. According to police investigations, universities were used by a section of radical teachers to indoctrinate students. They would apparently use the prayer rooms to talk to students on conflict and religion, share books on liberating the land of the Muslims, global jihad and Islamic rulings on democracy. One recruiter had told The Telegraph shortly after last year’s attacks that rich college students usually lacked a purpose in life and, therefore, were more prone to buying into the “martyr” dream.

Experts – social as well as behavioural – had also remarked how these youngsters did not have very strong family ties and lacked knowledge about the secular and cultural ethos of the country. Also, in the absence of students’ unions and active clubs and committees in these universities, they spent the larger part of their student life online with no “real” outlet for their youthful fervour. In fact, there has been enough evidence to support the view that the young men involved in the café attack were radicalised online.

After the attack, many universities installed closed-circuit television cameras in prayer rooms. Students were asked not to mingle with pupils they “are not sure of”. In NSU, which had earned a reputation for being “a den of extremists”, vigilance was more aggressive. It has since formed an anti-terror committee and asked students to remain alert. Insiders say, it recently suspended a group of students for allegedly forcing women classmates to wear the hijab.

As it happens, many innocent students have been caught in the crosshairs. Take the case of the student who approached a counsellor for a bothersome obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). The university administration suspected him of being a radical because he wore kurta-pyjama and sported a beard. “They asked me to question him rigorously about his background and try and find out if he had any connection with radical groups. I refused because I am not trained to deal with issues related to radicalisation. But another colleague grilled him so hard that he did not return for counselling,” says a counsellor of NSU, on condition of anonymity. She still believes the student really had suffered an OCD affliction, no more. Police too, apparently, “randomly” pick up young men and label them radicals. Going by news reports, in the past one year, a dozen “masterminds” have been hunted down.

If we have not heard the liberal thinkers speak up against this and for the rights of the student community at these universities, it is because they haven’t spoken up at all.

In fact, writer and historian Muntasir Mamun told The Telegraph over phone from Dhaka: “There is no such profiling.” So, was he denying all this is going on? Mamun admitted that students might feel “societal pressure” because names of one or two private universities had come up again and again for their involvement in terrorist activities, but added that it was a “temporary phase”. He said, “This will end soon, as the government is making a concerted effort to root out terrorism.”

Rooting out extremism from Bangladesh will, if anything, be a long haul. Radical forces seem to be only expanding their base in the country. But stereotyping is possibly not the best of solutions. “Some of them [students] feel intimidated by this constant vigil and are hiding their real selves in public. They are becoming introverts,” says Shami Suhrid, psycho-social counsellor and lecturer at BRAC University.

Counsellor Tamanna Chowdhury of the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh (ULAB) seconds that. She also throws in a warning. “Youth between 18 and 23 are vulnerable. Eventually, this alienation may push them to join radical forces.” But who’s listening?

In the meantime, in the absence of any kind of support, private university students have decided to take things into their own hands. They have started doing their bit to change the societal notion that they are “rich kids with extremist views”.

In the past one year, they have organised conferences, Sufi concerts and photo shoots to spread the message of peace and tolerance. On March 26, which is the Bangladesh Independence Day, students of the Eastern University painted their palms red and green – the colours of the Bangladeshi national flag – took selfies and posted them on Facebook.

In February, a Belgian mother, whose son went to Syria to join ranks with the terrorists, was invited to address students and parents at ULAB. She spoke on how to read the early signs of radicalisation among young men. Recently, students of five private universities organised a film festival under a project titled, “Film-making and television journalism for peace and tolerance in Bangladesh”. It showcased 12 films shot by students on radicalisation in Bangladesh and ways of containing it. Some universities are trying to engage ” muktijoddhas” or freedom fighters of the 1971 Liberation War to interact with students and talk to them about the history of Bangladesh.

Is it helping? Not all of these efforts can bear fruit overnight, but some are. Students claim that the interactive sessions give them a sense of context, help them engage in debates on politics and Islam. “Earlier, we used to listen to radical views in college canteens or clubs but never reacted because we didn’t know what to say. Now, we can confront them with valid arguments,” says Ridoan. Shoriful adds, “The onus is on us to change the perception about our tribe.”

Listen closely. Or recall Wilfred Owen. Bangladesh is ringing with the Anthem for doomed youth.


Employer-employee relations in Indian homes have seldom not been troubled and troublesome. Sometimes, they’ve turned volatile. In the second week of July, Zohra Bibi, a domestic help, went missing. The 26-year-old was employed in one of the posh housing societies in the National Capital Region’s Noida area. The next day, a mob – from the neighbouring slum where Zohra lived – stormed the residential complex. The agitators’ allegation: Zohra was being held captive by her employers. Eventually, police confirmed that Zohra had been found in the basement of one of the buildings. Her employers had accused her of theft, and taken it upon themselves to punish her. Zohra’s version: they beat her and locked her up in their apartment when she demanded her dues. In time, 13 men were arrested on charges of rioting and vandalising property. The BJP MP from Noida and Union minister of culture, Mahesh Sharma, voiced his support for Zohra’s employers and promised that the offenders would not get bail for “years to come”. The incident itself developed communal overtones – “Bangladeshi” domestics versus Hindu house owners.

Zohra is not from Bangladesh. She belongs to Bengal’s Cooch Behar, as do most of her neighbours in the slum she inhabits. Among them, Ruksana Bibi and her husband, Afsar Ali. The couple arrived in Noida two years ago hoping to earn enough to pay off their debts. Zohra has gone underground since the incident but Ruksana agreed to show around The Telegraph what it is like to be a Muslim domestic help in Noida, Uttar Pradesh, these days.

  • It is barely dawn but Ruksana has been up for a while now. Some rice is on the boil in a pressure cooker. That would be her daughter, eight-year-old Bijli’s breakfast — rice with a slice of lime and salt. Ruksana and Afsar’s 50 sqft tin shack is in a slum less than a kilometre from the housing society where Zohra worked. The couple paid Rs 8,000 for it. Slumdwellers have contributed Rs 500 each to set up a hand pump. Sixty or so families use two makeshift community bathrooms; one of them has not functioned for some time now.

  • Ruksana catches up with Zohra’s mother-in-law, Mohsina, and her grandchildren. Zohra and her husband, Abdul Sattar’s house is locked. Mohsina alleges that Zohra’s teenage son, Rahul (not in picture), was picked up by police. He has been released since, but not the others. Mohsina, who worked as a domestic help in another housing complex, has also lost her job. Ruksana and others in the slum have been helping them with food and other necessities.

  • It is 6.10am. Ruksana enters a gated housing complex in Noida. She and other women from her slum work here. Each has an identity card issued by the management of the housing society after routine police verification. Other than this, Ruksana has a voter identity card and an Aadhaar card. After working in the brick kilns for 15 years, first in Cooch Behar and then in Ghaziabad, Ruksana and Afsar moved to Noida. Afsar was hired by the promoters of this very housing society to clean the windows and doors of apartments before they were handed over to the owners.

  • 9pm. After a long day, Ruksana returns home, as do the other women. They check on each other. Mother and daughter hungrily tuck into some rice, lentils and mashed potatoes. By 11pm, they are in bed. “I have not been able to sleep. I keep thinking, what if the police come back to harass me again? What if there are no jobs for us? What if we get thrown out of our homes? I don’t know how long this uncertainty will continue.” The thoughts jostle in her head and keep her awake. But her Bijli — Ruksana pats her gently. The little one must get her sound sleep.

  • Ruksana makes Rs 9,000 a month — she works in seven apartments, where she sweeps and swabs. Afsar’s monthly income is Rs 7,000. After the Zohra episode, there have been WhatsApp campaigns urging flat owners of the neighbourhood to blacklist “Bangladeshi” workers. “One flat owner called me a Bangladeshi and dismissed me,” says Ruksana. She adds,“I remember, it was my husband who cleaned their house and made it ready for them to move in. But now they consider us untouchables.”

  • Ruksana has taken a loan of Rs 15,000 from her employers to pay for the tuition and living expenses of the other two children. But after the allegations levelled at Zohra, she is scared. What if one of her employers slaps a false charge on her? She has stopped accepting gifts or food items from them. “All this while people knew we are Bengalis. Now, they look at us as Muslims and that has changed the whole equation. We are suddenly not trustworthy,” she says. This campaign against Muslims of the area is not new. In March, when there was a crackdown on meat-sellers in Uttar Pradesh, three Muslim boys selling poultry products at a makeshift market nearby were picked up by the police. They are still in jail. “That was the first we realised that things were slowly changing for us,” says Ruksana.

    (https://www.telegraphindia.com/1170730/jsp/7days/story_164519.jsp )


 

 

 

 

 

 

THE FINGERTIPS of the cobbler have turned yellow and pale. He must has been mending and polishing shoes for years, I assume. For me, the smell of polish and glue in his colourful boxes – black, brown and chocolate – brings a sense of identity and a sense of a home; a home which is not there anymore.

Standing on platform No. 1 of Dhanbad station, suddenly, this smell sparks a flurry of childhood memories – memories of several train journeys from Dhanbad to Calcutta, along with my parents and sister.

  • File photograph of a double decker train at Dhanbad

Black Diamond Express is usually on time. Even today, it leaves Dhanbad station at 4.25pm, as scheduled. As its wheels and piston gyrate over the rugged tracks, my mind begins to ooze nostalgia.

I recall how these five-hour-long train journeys led to endless conversations with my father about many things: the class-divide in our society, the need for civil resistance in a democracy, the roots of the Naxalbari movement in Bengal, many more such and similar things.

When we (my sister and I) were much younger, travelling with him would mean brushing up on general knowledge. Every time the train stopped at a station – Asansol, Andal, Durgapur – there was something new to learn about the place or its neighbourhood.

As a child I felt a certain sense of joy when the train arrived at Durgapur. Suddenly the black, dusty roads disappeared, an indication that we were leaving the coal belt and nearing Calcutta. I loved the fact that the next few days would be different – free of coal dust, potholes and incessant power cuts. We couldn’t imagine our life in Dhanbad without any of these evils though. Over a period of time, we even stopped complaining. In fact, we learnt to laugh at our own miseries like many others who lived in what was still Bihar.

  • File photograph of illegal coal loading in Black Diamond Express at Dhanbad Station

One may remember how the former chief minister of Bihar, Lalu Prasad, coined a metaphor for bad roads that later entered the lexicon of political hyperbole. He said, “Bihar ke sadkon ko Hema Malini ke gaal ke tarah chikna bana denge (We will make Bihar’s roads as smooth as Hema Malini’s cheeks).”

Needless to mention, that never happened. Taking potshots at him, there was another joke that did the rounds. ” Sadke Hema Malini ke gaal ke tarah toh bani nahin, Om Puri ke gaal ke tarah ban gayi (The roads never became like Hema Malini’s cheeks but they certainly remind us of Om Puri’s cheeks.)” No offence to the late actor though!

Neither my parents nor I live in Dhanbad anymore but I must admit that the thought of potholes and coal dust makes me nostalgic today.

There is something else that is making me nostalgic now. It’s the smell of the scrumptious singara (samosa) served to a burly co-passenger by a vendor at Burdwan station. The man also asks a teaseller to pour him some tea. “Beshi chini nei toh (Hope there isn’t too much sugar in it),” he asks. The teaseller replies, ” Roj sokale morning walk korun (Go for morning walks every day)!” The man is at a loss of words. He probably never expected repartee like this.

While travelling alone, overhearing conversations of others makes a train journey interesting for sure.

If you are lucky, you may get to hear some interesting monologues too. Say for this one by a man trying to sell “air-conditioned” socks. He says, ” Apni hoyto bhabchhen ami bhaat bokchhi, kintu motei na… shei Black Diamond jakhon double decker chhilo, takhon theke ami jinish bikri korchhi (You may think I am talking gibberish but that’s not the case. I have a reputation of selling things on this train for many years, since when it had double decker coaches).”

Now the mention of double decker coaches reminds me of another eventful journey when I had lost my way to my seat. But of that, another day!

For now, it’s time to get off at Howrah with a fresh sense of longing for Dhanbad.

July 9, 2017. The Telegraph. https://www.telegraphindia.com/1170709/jsp/7days/story_160882.jsp

 

 

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Veil is not regressive anymore. Instead, it’s a fad to flaunt it these days. That’s exactly what young Muslim women in India are doing. They are making a style statement with a wide range of elegant hijabs, chic headscarves, bold turbans and stylish abayas. And a  host of new-age designers and online retailers are offering them a variety in fashionable Islamic clothing.

Chennai-based Mohamed Maaz, founder & CEO of islamicshop.in, an online Islamic shopping store, is one of them. “We encourage women to embrace their modesty without having to compromise in fashion,” 32-year-old Maaz, who started the store two years ago,says.

On Ramadan this year, Maaz’s islamicshop.in has launched a new collection of hijabs and abayas. For example, hijabs are not limited to the traditional black colour anymore; they come in bold and bright yellow, green, magenta and many others. Similarly, abayas come in the most trendy styles – front open, embroidered, maxi style, asymmetrical panelled, gown embellished; some even have pockets.

Like Maaz, there are many young fashion designers in India who are trying to create a niche market for Islamic or modest fashion, as popularly called. In the past three years, number of online shopping stores such as Islamic Design House, Little Black Hijab, Hayaah Hijabs and Mysha have come into the market with an aim to blend style with modesty.

Till two years ago, Mumbai-based Farheen Naqi of Little Black Hijab was a fashion blogger who used to write on Islamic clothing. Her idea was to tell the world that faith and fashion can go hand in hand. On her blog posts, she got queries from young Muslim girls asking her where to buy fashionable hijabs from. “It made me realise that there was a big gap in the market for young hijab-wearing girls. So I took it upon myself to start a brand where girls could find a hijab for every outfit and occasion,” says Naqi, who started her label, Little Black Hijab last year.

Naqi’s hijabs, embellished, laced and floral printed, which come in different fabric such as crepe, viscose, jersey and chiffon are in great demand among young Muslim women.  Naqi is already targeting a turnover of Rs 30 lakh this year. Similarly, Maaz sells at least 250 abayas in the price range of 1500-10000 every month and 70 per cent of his customers are domestic. But he has already expanded his client base to the US, Canada and Australia, among other western countries.

Globally too, the trend of Islamic fashion has been catching up for some time. In the past three years, some of the global brands such as Uniqlo, Dolce & Gabbana, DKNY, H&M and Mango have embraced Islamic fashion. Various online stores in the West such as Hijab Loft, Austere Attire and Hijab Junkie have been launched to cater to the Muslim women looking for trendy hijabs and fashionable abayas. Globally, individual designers too have created a space for themselves in the Islamic fashion industry.

UAE-based Rabia Z is one of the leading hijabi fashionistas in the world. She started her fashion label by her name when she saw a lot of her friends were forced to take off their hijabs soon after 9/11 attacks. “After 9/11 when hate crime was on the rise, it (her brand)started with a personal need for versatile modest clothing which extended to the clothing needs of family, friends and communities in need of modest style solutions,” says Rabia, whose brand Rabia Z sells abayas and signature hijabs via her online store.

For Stockholm-based fashion designer Iman Aldebe, the idea was to re-imagine hijab. So she started an affordable Turban line, ‘Happy Turbans’ in 2013. Women across the world love her creation for her turbans showcase the fusion of two cultures, for example, she mixes African and Middle eastern influences in her designs. “When you mix influences from different countries, the style becomes more interesting, exotic with a twist of modern and edgy type of fashion,” Aldebe tells The Telegraph.

Experts say that such innovative styling of traditional Islamic dresses has led to a larger acceptance of Islamic fashion in the world. “This is a big shift. For decades, it was a well-known secret that super-rich Gulf clients were important to the viability of European couture houses but there was little public acknowledgement of this and high street brands were often aversive to being associated with Muslims. Now being associated with Muslim consumers is being seen as an asset,” says Reina Lewis, author of Muslim Fashion: Contemporary Style Cultures.

Industry experts say that the Islamic fashion industry is only growing by each year globally. According to State of the Global Islamic Economy Report 2016-17, produced by Reuters  in collaboration with DinarStandard, a New York based Growth Strategy Research & Advisory firm, Muslim spending on clothing is expected to reach US$368 billion by 2021, a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 7.2 percent from 2015.  “This is being driven by young, diverse, global modest Muslim women, but is also has a wider appeal to women world-wide who also prefer some form of modest fashion,” says Rafi-uddin Shikoh, CEO of DinarStandard.

The report also stated that of the US$ 110 billion retail clothing and footwear market in India, India’s 172 million Muslims spent an estimated US$11 billion on clothing in 2015 and this is expected to grow at a CAGR of 13 per cent to reach US$20 billion by 2020.

There are sociological factors leading to this expected rise in demand for Islamic fashion. Globally, as more and more young Muslim women have access to education, to careers and to the power to control their own expenditure; they are likely to want to clothing to take them through their lives and their different roles, observes Lewis, who is also the Artscom Centenary Professor of Cultural Studies at London College of Fashion in the University of the Arts.

Interestingly, many non-Muslims too buy the fashionable hijabs and turbans, reveal fashion designers. Rabia, who has a large Indian client base, says, “We have a large clientele of non-Muslims who appreciate the modest aspect of the designs but mostly love the style.”

With the rise of demand for Islamic fashion in India, there has been a revolution led by a few fashion bloggers cum designers who are popularising the trend on social media.They are telling the world that one could be covered, yet confident. Chennai-based designer 21-year-old Shazia Bargatullah flaunts her looks in self-designed trendy hijabs on her Instagram page, the_devil_wears_parda. She also designs long jackets, duster coats, maxi dresses and maxi shirts. “I do anything that can team up with a hijab and look modest,” Bargathullah says.

Fashion designers say that the real objective to promote modest fashion is to give a stern reply to anti-Muslim prejudice and discrimination. In the US, hijab has emerged as a symbol of resistance to the growing Islamophobia soon after  Donald Trump started targeting Muslim immigrants after taking over as President.

Lewis says many young Muslim women use fashion as a way to communicate positive images about Islam and about Muslims.

It’s also about empowering Muslim women to establish their own identity, some observe. “Islamic modest fashion movement does have its core in a need to respond to allegations that Muslim dress—the hijab in particular—is drab, oppressive, and a result of male coercion,” Asma Uddin, founder of US-based altMuslimah, an online magazine featuring compelling commentary on gender-in-Islam, says. “Women behind Muslim fashion line, particularly the chic ones are saying to the world – ‘we wear these clothes of our own free will.’ These clothes are empowering and fashionable.”

Indian fashion designers say this is their way of protesting against all kinds of bans against hijab, for example, in 2015, the Supreme Court of India had upheld a ban on hijabs and long sleeves at the All India Pre-Medical entrance test. This is also a message to those who pity Muslim women in veil. Recently, the union sports minister Vijay Goel tweeted a portrait of a woman wearing hijab next to a woman in a cage saying, “This painting tells a similar story to @zairawasim…. (our daughters are moving forward after breaking the cage). More power to our daughters.” Zaira Wasim is a young actor who came into limelight after her performance in Bollywood blockbuster, Dangal.

Naqi has an answer to such stereotyping. “Muslim girls are wearing it (hijab) happily, they don’t feel the need to be ‘freed’ and they feel unapologetically like themselves in it,” Naqi says.

Yes, “unapologetic” is the word, echo many Muslim women in hijab.

 

How two women took to trolling – their offensives, their defences, rewards and recognition. Sonia Sarkar reports

  • For whom the belles troll: (From top) Priti Gandhi with Smriti Irani; one of Gandhi’s tweets; Vidyut

They live in Mumbai. Both are mommies. They are politically aware and aggressive social media enthusiasts. They are both big-time trolls on Twitter.

That is where all similarities end.

Priti Gandhi tweets @Mrs Gandhi and Vidyut tweets @Vidyut. The former, according to the Twitteratti, is a ” bhakt” and the latter an “anti-national”. “We are very different from each other,” stresses 40-year-old Vidyut, who has over 35,900 followers.

Indeed, Gandhi is a Narendra Modi fan, while Vidyut is quite the fierce Modi critic. Gandhi advocates the ban on cow-slaughter, Vidyut questions it fearlessly. Gandhi is a darling of ultra-nationalists, Vidyut is often called a “libtard” on Twitter by the same lot.

Both women got active on Twitter when as new mothers they found themselves confined to their homes. The year was 2010. “Those days, I was reading newspapers a lot and felt it was important to put forth my opinion on certain issues. So I hooked onto Twitter,” says Gandhi, 39, who has over 2,14,920 followers.

Within a year, national politics underwent a transition. Anna Hazare’s fight against corruption started and Arvind Kejriwal emerged as a third force to take on both the BJP and Congress before going on to form the Aam Aadmi Party. Modi was projected as a mass leader soon after he became the Gujarat chief minister for the third time in 2012.

Initially, Gandhi tweeted only about mundane things @pritirules. But even then the message was loud and clear. “Don’t get misled by my last name; I support the BJP,” she roared on Twitter.

Her anti-Congress tweets started getting retweeted by BJP leaders; and then one day, she changed her handle to @MrsGandhi. “One of my friends used to jokingly say, ‘There are two Mrs Gandhis in India – one is Sonia Gandhi and the other is you.’ I realised, this name has a lot of potential, as there would be one Gandhi questioning the other. So I changed my handle,” she says.

Vidyut invited the ire of the saffron brigade on Twitter because she was supporting AAP and criticising BJP. She was trolled relentlessly. But she knows that verbally abusing women who go against the tide is a norm on social media. She doesn’t get flustered because every time people troll her, her followers multiply. Says Vidyut, who is incidentally no longer a Kejriwal supporter, “Women have to roll up their sleeves and defend themselves. Ignoring or blocking the abusive handle isn’t really the solution.”

For once the two agree. “If you can-not bear the heat, get out of the kitchen. Playing the victim card doesn’t help,” says Gandhi.

Just because they have learnt the art of negotiating insults doesn’t mean they don’t troll anyone. “But I am not abusive,” explains Vidyut. “I am sarcastic and yes, my sarcasm is far more brutal than any abuse.”

Gandhi does not like to call herself a “troll”. “I put forth my opinion aggressively,” she says. It was her aggression that caught the attention of Narendra Modi, who started following her on Twitter in 2012. “He was one of my first 75 followers,” says Gandhi. Thereafter, her followers increased manifold.

That very year, she was invited to Gandhinagar. “He [Modi] liked that I, as an independent person, defend him on social media,” says Gandhi, whose Twitter page has three different shots of her with the Prime Minister. ” Bhakts” do get their due. Gandhi too was inducted into the communication cell first, and later into the BJP’s women’s wing.

In fact, such was Gandhi’s devotion that she once tweeted a fake endorsement of Modi by editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks Julian Assange without checking – only because it seemed to compliment Modi. This was before the 2014 general elections. The link had an image of Assange and a quote that read – “America fears Narendra Modi because they know he is incorruptible”. “Somebody had sent it to me. I tweeted it. It was a non-issue that was blown out of proportion by the media,” she explains.

But Vidyut is not going to let this Gandhi gaffe slip into oblivion anytime soon. “Whenever Gandhi trolls people by pointing at concocted facts and figures, I troll her back to remind her how she propagated a false endorsement of Modi by Assange,” she says. Then adds, “But she is a paid troll of BJP, I can never compete with her.”

For the rest of the catfight, please log in to Twitter.

A marriage bureau in Gujarat is facilitating gay marriages. What does this trend say about the future lives of homosexuals in India? Sonia Sarkar reports

  •  PIC: THINKSTOCK

  • AN EQUAL MUSIC: (Top)The Ahmedabad bureau has gay prince Manvendra Singh Gohil (below) as a counsellor

After years of dilly-dallying, Vishal, a marketing manager with a pharmaceutical company, decided to get married. The news far from pleased his parents. First, they threw a fit, then dragged him to a tantric. Next, his father brought home a female prostitute – for him.

“All this because I said I wanted to get married to a man,” says Vishal, who is from Mumbai but is currently settled in Ahmedabad.

When he couldn’t convince his parents, Vishal approached Arranged Gay Marriage (AGM), India’s first gay marriage bureau. A couple of interactions later the matchmakers there managed to get through to his parents. “They saw several videos on gay relationships on the Internet; they read about gay marriage on various websites; they sat through several counselling sessions to know how gay relationships work,” says Vishal. Once they were convinced, they started looking for a partner for him.

The search ended with Kartikey, a professor in a Mumbai college. “We are getting married in December,” says Vishal. Maitree Basu, who works for an IT firm in Bangalore, also met her partner Tanushree through the bureau. The two tied the knot last year.

Like Vishal and Maitree, over 23 other homosexuals – gays and lesbians – have found their partners through this Ahmedabad-based marriage bureau since it was founded a little over a year ago. To date, the bureau has facilitated four such marriages in India and 20 abroad. And its Facebook page is perennially flooded with queries.

Unlike Australia, Belgium, Norway, Spain, Canada, South Africa, the Netherlands and some states in the US, gay marriage is not legally recognised in India. In fact, Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code prohibits it.

But legalities don’t seem to deter Urvi Shah, the 23-year-old owner of the bureau. “Gays and lesbians also have the right to live a normal life just as any heterosexual,” she says. “Everyone needs a life partner. Moreover, marriage reflects traditional Indian values.” Having said that, she is well aware that in India “coming out” is no easy task, forget deciding to get married. She feels strongly about the social exclusion and psychological distress homosexuals are subjected to and through the bureau offers counselling support to those who want to come out of the closet.

For homosexuals opting or wanting to get married, the idea is to publicly claim their societal space as a married person just as any married heterosexual person. Only last month, Manjit Kaur, a 30-year-old Punjab Police woman sub-inspector married another woman at Pucca Baugh, in Jalandhar, complete with Hindu rituals. Mumbai-based Gaurav Salve, a chartered accountant, married Jake, an American, last year. He says, “I am a religious person and I wanted to get married. For a man in India, getting married to a man was impossible.”

Manvendra Singh Gohil, the celebrity gay prince of Rajpipla in Gujarat, often counsels the clients of AGM. He asks, “When heterosexuals have the liberty to marry, why should gays be deprived of the same right?”

No reason, except that among other things it isn’t easy for homosexuals to find partners keen on a long-term relationship and commitment.

“Homosexual men do have a tendency to have multi-partner sex as their stable relationships are not recognised by society,” says gay rights activist Ashok Row Kavi. “Our first baseline survey in Mumbai in 2000 showed that gay men had an average of 11 casual partners in a month. This figure has now come down to four and even this is reducing,” says Ashok who is chairman of the gay rights organisation, Humsafar Trust. He stresses that as society is getting used to same-sex couples, the chances of stable gay relationships are increasing.

In the meantime, however, the going continues to be tough for Urvi who runs the bureau out of Gujarat, the BJP-run state that supports criminalisation of gay sex. She will tell you it is considered “unethical for a Hindu girl to support homosexuals” and she is used to receiving random threats. Recently, an anonymous caller threatened her with acid attack.

On the home front, too, niggling worries abound. Her parents seem to have got past the initial worry about what people will make of such an initiative. But they cannot stop worrying about how it will impact Urvi’s own marital prospects. Perhaps they worry that no one will believe that she is herself of heterosexual orientation.

Urvi, however, is unbudging. Her steadfastness holds out hope to the homosexual community. Gaurav is thinking of adopting a child.

From counselling and facilitating same-sex marriages will AGM diversify into helping homosexual couples raise a family? It well might, once the trend they’ve floated settles in.

 

 

 

https://www.telegraphindia.com/1170604/jsp/7days/story_154978.jsp

It was meant to celebrate diversity, create a blueprint for a more unified South Asia. Instead, Delhi’s South Asian University has turned into a miniature Saarc summit with Indo-Pak rivalry occupying centrestage and every other country jostling for attention. Sonia Sarkar has the story

  • INTERNATIONAL DIS-COURSE: A bulletin of events at SAU. Picture credit: Sonia Sarkar

Bharat Kumar Kolhi was looking forward to his two-year stay in Delhi when he signed up for the Sociology programme at the South Asian University (SAU). The resident of Pakistan’s Umarkot imagined that in India, he would finally get to be Bharat – the name given to him at birth – instead of Bhrat, the tweaked moniker he had had to acquire to suit the political climate of his birthplace.

It was not very long before Bharat realised his mistake.

Just as the mere whiff of India in his name would set the Pakistanis bristling, here too everyone kept thrusting his Pakistani nationality in his face. Nothing else seemed to matter – neither his name nor his Hindu identity.

“The first thing some Indian students at SAU asked me was – ‘Pakistani ho, haath mein bomb leke aaye ho?’ (You are a Pakistani; have you brought along a bomb?) I realised I would have to live with this kind of stereotyping the next two years,” says Bharat, now in the final year of his postgraduate programme.

SAU was set up in 2010 with the aim to bring together students from the Saarc (South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation) nations – Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, the Maldives, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and, of course, India. While the physical bringing together has happened, it will take some doing before one gets to the “unity in diversity” part, at least going by what students have to say.

In recent times, the SAU campus, like many others across the country, has come under the grip of ultra-nationalism. Pakistani students claim they find themselves at the receiving end of slurs such as “terrorists” and “ISI agents” here, whenever there is tension brewing along the Line of Control.

Hira Hashmi, who is from Karachi, is studying International Relations at SAU. She talks about how last year, when 18 Indian soldiers were killed by militants allegedly “harboured” by Pakistan, a group of Indian students abused the Pakistanis on campus openly. “They put up posters saying ‘dushmano ki buzdili‘ and ‘Pakistanis are cowards’. When we protested, they removed them,” says Hira. “The campus was divided into two groups. It became an Us vs Them debate. We thought we may have to go back to our country halfway through the course.”

Students claim a warning was issued to the mischief-makers after a complaint was lodged with the university disciplinary committee. University officials, however, deny this. “These things happen between students and get resolved by them. We don’t get involved,” says SAU president Kavita A. Sharma.

While the Pakistani students claim they could do with less attention of a certain kind, students of other Saarc countries say they feel left out and their ethnic sensibilities ignored. Sounds familiar? Think Saarc meetings.

Even celebrations are centred around India and Pakistan, students of other nationalities complain. For instance, initially, Indian and Pakistani students celebrated their Independence Day on the midnight of August 14-15. Mahamadul Hasan Rana, a Bangladeshi PhD student at SAU says, “Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was killed on August 15. No one bothered to understand our sentiments.” He adds, “The event has been mellowed down the past two years after we complained.”

 

 


SAU Facts

Established in 2010
Programmes offered: PG, MPhil and PhD
Number of students by country*
♦ India: 350**  ♦ Pakistan: 19
♦ Bangladesh: 67  ♦ Sri Lanka: 8
♦ Nepal: 52  ♦ Afghanistan: 55
♦ Bhutan: 9  ♦ Maldives: 1

US $300 million (Rs 1,996 crore)
is the estimated capital cost
The operational budget for 2016 is
US $10.71 million (Rs 71 crore)
Capital budget for 2016 is
US $36.37 million (Rs 242 crore)

*Number currently enrolled at SAU
**50 per cent seats reserved for Indians


Some others allege that India’s “big brother” attitude in the Saarc region is reflected in the conduct of the Indian students. “Indians try to emphasise that Bangladesh exists only because Indians helped us in our Liberation War,” says Sariful Islam, a Bangladeshi student, who is doing his postgraduate in International Relations.

The imbalance, apparently, is also reflected in the curriculum. Afghanistan is under-represented in courses such as International Relations and Sociology, points out Omar Sadr, a PhD student from Afghanistan. “The multi-cultural and multi-national theme of the university is defeated because there is an overdose of India and Pakistan in the curriculum.” And yet, the SAU is overflowing with applications from Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Nepal.

In fact, it is the number of Pakistani students that has been dwindling – their 10 per cent quota remains underutilised in most courses. And while the ongoing political tension has most definitely contributed to the reduced numbers, there are quite a few niggling issues that they face.

Hira talks about how Pakistanis have to literally go to lengths just to be able to pay the fee for the aptitude test. Payment via debit card, credit card and netbanking from Pakistan is not possible. “One of my cousins who lives in India made the payment on my behalf,” she says.

It is the same story when Pakistani students have to block seats by making an advance payment after they have cleared the test. A senior university official who does not want to be identified confirms that Pakistani students have indeed been complaining about payment-related problems.

The other stumbling block is visa. According to SAU rules, students along with faculty members and university staffers from other countries were supposed to get the SAU visa. It is valid for the course duration and allows visa holders to move freely across India. But the reality is different for some, especially if they are from Pakistan. “We need to renew our visa every year. Besides, only six entries are allowed and the movement is restricted to four places – Delhi, Agra, Gurgaon and Amritsar,” Hira complains.

But a lot hinges on the political dynamics between the two countries. Last year, an additional visa granted to Hira for travelling to Patna was withdrawn, and apparently no valid reason was cited.

Then again, every time Pakistani students re-enter India, they have to report to the foreigners regional registration officer within 24 hours of arrival. Students of other Saarc countries have to do so within 14 days of arrival.

  •    The first thing that some Indian students at the university asked me was — ‘Pakistani ho, haath mein bomb leke aaye ho?’
    Bharat Kumar Kolhi
    Sociology

  •     We need to renew our visa every year… Only six entries are allowed and movement is restricted to Delhi, Agra, Gurgaon and Amritsar
    Hira Hashmi
    International Relations
    Picture credit: Sonia Sarkar

University officials are inundated with complaints. “We have written to the ministry of external affairs (MEA) several times about these issues,” says president Sharma. “That’s all we can do.” The Telegraph tried to contact the MEA spokesperson to understand the visa issues but did not get any response.

All said and done, two years is a decent period. Despite irritants, one picks up survival tips, makes friends, learns to laugh at the situation. Hira points out that a lot of the campus humour also revolves around Indo-Pakistan relations. “One of my Indian friends taught me this dialogue from a Sunny Deol blockbuster where he apparently tells Pakistanis – ‘Doodh mangoge toh kheer denge, Kashmir mangoge toh cheer denge (If you want milk, we’ll give you kheer. But if you seek Kashmir, we will rip you apart),” she says with a laugh.

Hira has learnt to cope with the biases too. Tips from her Indian cousins have helped. “They told me that whenever someone asks where I am from, I should say Ranchi since it sounds like Karachi.” She also takes care not to speak in Urdu in public places.

Both Hira and Bharat are scheduled to leave India next month after the convocation. They leave with bittersweet memories. “Perhaps, I will come back when the ties between the two countries are better,” says Bharat.

But with ultra-nationalism taking centrestage here, this might take a while.




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