Archive for the ‘Perspective’ Category

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.


It’s a truth universally acknowledged that politicians come late for meetings. I am there well in advance, of course, for my appointment with the chief minister of Delhi. And then Sheila Dikshit springs a surprise on me by appearing 20 minutes before the scheduled time. But then, the lady — like that old ad for a ketchup brand — has always been different.

We are sitting in her living room in her official residence in central Delhi on a Sunday morning. “So tell me, what would you like to know,” she asks as she settles down on a cushy sofa.

A lot of things, actually. For one, the criticism that her government has been facing for its tardy work on the 2010 Commonwealth Games. Or why Manu Sharma, convicted of killing Jessica Lal, was out on parole. Or, indeed, how she ducks all the knives that are chucked at her by her own party men.

But all that will come later. To begin with, I ask her how she looks back at her three-term tenure that started in 1998. “Thrilling, exciting and challenging,” she replies succinctly. Not one loose word there. No wonder she’s called a smart politician.

But she wasn’t born with a ballot paper in her mouth in Punjab’s Kapurthala seven decades ago. Her family was apolitical — but she was drawn into politics after she married a bureaucrat called Vinod Dikshit. His father, Uma Shankar Dikshit, was a home minister in Indira Gandhi’s cabinet. Widowed young, Sheila Dikshit started helping her father-in-law in administrative jobs. She also worked as secretary of the New Delhi-based Garment Exporters Association. But it was when Rajiv Gandhi became Prime Minister and launched a search for people he could identify with that she fought her first election.

She stood and won from Kannauj in Uttar Pradesh in 1984, and was appointed Parliamentary affairs minister in 1986. She was later made a minister of state in Rajiv Gandhi’s Prime Minister’s Office — a portfolio created for the first time.

“It was a huge learning experience working with Rajivji. He was extremely progressive and farsighted. Our thought process matched,” Dikshit recalls.

Is it the same working with Sonia Gandhi? “I share a very close, personal and political relationship with her,” says Dikshit. “She is an iconic figure for me,” she adds, looking at an artistic photo frame, kept on the table in front of her, which holds an old photograph featuring the smiling faces of the two.

Dikshit, however, had a falling out with the Gandhis after she lost the 1989 election from Kannauj. The political grapevine has it that the distancing happened because of Uma Shankar Dikshit’s demand that she be made the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh. She was denied a ticket by Gandhi in the 1991 election but was finally rehabilitated by Sonia, who saw her as an ally in her fight against P.V. Narasimha Rao.

But her proximity to 10 Janpath has never stopped her detractors — and there are quite a few in her party — from attacking her. Among her top critics are party leaders Sajjan Kumar and Jagdish Tytler. Her opponents have often described her as an “outsider”.

“I never felt intimidated by such comments. One can call anyone an outsider but it is the people who elect you and decide your fate,” says the suave, English-speaking politician, an alumna of Delhi’s Convent of Jesus and Mary and Miranda House.

Sometimes, though, Dikshit is accused of making political gaffes. After Delhi journalist Soumya Vishwanathan was killed while driving home from work late at night, the chief minister’s reported remark “One should not be adventurous” drew flak from many. She came under attack recently for Manu Sharma’s parole, the request for which had been passed by the Delhi government. It was claimed that Sharma needed parole because his mother was unwell. But the “ailing” mother was seen at a media briefing in Chandigarh, and the son was found partying in Samrat Hotel’s nightclub Lap in Delhi.

Diskhit does not believe the Sharma incident embarrassed her in any way. “Why should it be embarrassing for me? I did nothing that was not to be done legally. I have been framed for being a political figure,” she replies. “But what Manu Sharma did was wrong. He shouldn’t have left Chandigarh,” Dikshit adds.

She speaks in her characteristic voice — soft and well modulated — but it carries conviction. In fact, her persona oozes confidence. The image of the chief minister in her trademark tussar block printed saris, worn in winter, or thin-bordered cotton print saris in the summer, is that of a favourite aunt — who may trip up now and then but is both pleasant and efficient.

We move on to the topic of saris. Dikshit is known to frequent handloom melas in the capital in search of good saris. She’s also picked up cotton saris from her earlier visits to Calcutta. “I used to frequent Calcutta when my father-in-law was the Governor of West Bengal in 1976-77. I have always been fascinated by Bengal’s art and culture but sadly the flavour has got lost in the past two decades,” says Dikshit, taking a quick potshot at the Left Front government in Bengal, while not naming it.

But despite her party’s differences with the Left, she says she has high regard for her Bengal counterpart — chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee. “I find him very accommodating and understanding. He has modern and progressive thinking,” says Dikshit, who worked with Bhattacharjee in the Central Advisory Board of Education during Arjun Singh’s tenure as the human resources development minister. Even as she talks about her “rapport” with the Left leader, she strives to point out that her appreciation for his rival Mamata Banerjee’s “hard work” is no less.

“I am thankful to her that she has upgraded a couple of stations in Delhi that needed urgent renovation. Things have moved pretty fast after she took over as railway minister,” feels Dikshit.

Not only that, Banerjee has also agreed to meet the Indian Olympic Association’s demand for a special train to popularise the Commonwealth Games of 2010, an event surrounding which Dikshit’s government has been roundly lammed for not completing the scheduled work — stadia, roads, hotels and so on — within the stipulated time. “I am nervously excited about the event,” she confesses. But “the stage will be set for action on time”.

And once the mega event gets over, she plans to go on a long vacation. As she talks about her travel plans, Dikshit suddenly recalls one of her “adventure trips” in Europe with her husband way back in the late 1960s.

“It was winter, freezing cold, and we were driving from Italy through the Alps to Britain. Neither of us realised that there was a car heater, which had to be turned on. A friend later told us how we could have avoided the bone-chilling cold in Switzerland. But by then, we had already driven for more than 12 days without the car heater. Whenever my husband and I recalled the incident, we had a good laugh at our foolishness,” she says and laughs again.

But it was not easy for this daughter of Sikh and Hindu Punjabi parents to marry a Hindu Brahmin. When her husband, a graduate of St Stephen’s College in Delhi, first told her that his parents would not accept her because she was from a different caste, her reaction was — “Oh my God! Is caste so important?”

But eventually the caste difference was overshadowed by love, and in 1961, a year after Dikshit got inducted into the IAS, she tied the knot with him at the age of 23.

“Though I am not a religious person I did perform a couple of pujas to keep my mother-in-law happy,” recalls Dikshit who, in her early days in marriage, had to cover her head with the traditional ghoonghat in front of her in laws.

Now, at 71, Dikshit is a bit of a loner. She stays alone in her sprawling government bungalow in Lutyens’s Delhi. After a long day at the secretariat, she likes to bury herself in a book. And her favourite book, till date, is Alice in Wonderland.

She likes doing up her house — and the drawing room is tastefully adorned with mirrors, vases, picture frames and pots, all placed in strategic corners. “If I were not a politician, I would have been an interior designer,” she says.

A movie buff, she also drops by at the nearest theatre for late-night shows. Her all-time favourite is Yash Chopra’s romantic flick Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (DDLJ) — a film that she has watched 15 times.

But it is not Shah Rukh Khan of DDLJ who has caught her fancy. “My latest crush is Shahid Kapoor,” she says skittishly.

You can’t accuse her of not moving with the times. We did say she was different!


You can’t accuse her of not moving with the times. We did say she was different!

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]

He has stressed upon development and democracy, but it remains to be seen whether he will he abjure faith-based politics.


Sitting in his limousine, the Indonesian president, Joko Widodo or Jokowi, as he is popularly known as, rolled out a 32-second-long video message on Twitter on June 10. He said in Bahasa, “Let’s join hands, unite, and put our mind and energy to build a developed Indonesia.”

Ever since Widodo got re-elected for a second term last month, his focus has been on development. But soon after his re-election, he faced disruptions. As the final election results were declared, riots broke out in the capital city of Jakarta for over two days, killing eight people and injuring seven hundred others. Early reports suggest that apart from a group of paid thugs, members of the militant Islamist group, Front Pemuda Islam, attacked the police with rocks and petrol bombs.

Interestingly, these hardline Islamists supported Jokowi’s opponent, the former army commander, Prabowo Subianto. The grand imam of FPI, Habib Rizieq Shihab, addressed his election rally from Saudi Arabia via video call. Analysts call Prabowo and Shihab ‘bedfellows’, united by a common enemy — Widodo.

Widodo’s win could create trouble for the FPI. Its status as a legally registered social organization expires today, and there are chances that its appeal for re-registration would be rejected. Public pressure is mounting on authorities to do so. A petition called ‘Stop the Permit of FPI’, filed by Ira Bisyir at, has received over 4,81,665 signatures so far.

In this last term, analysts say that Widodo would give a fresh push to his liberal and progressive image, which was largely compromised earlier. In his previous term, the “hard-metal-loving secularist” failed to protect free speech, the rights of religious and ethnic minorities and those of LGBTs. But Indonesians still pinned their hopes on him. They preferred to choose a ‘moderate’ Widodo, representative of ‘pluralist’ Indonesia, over a ‘conservative’ Subianto, representative of a ‘hardline Islamist’ Indonesia. Clearly, this is a positive shift from the faith-based politics, which is thriving elsewhere.

For example, across the Indian Ocean, Australia, a country whose politics has long been secular, recently re-elected the 51-year-old conservative, Scott Morrison, as prime minister. In 2008, while he was delivering his maiden speech in Parliament, he said that he derived the values of loving-kindness, justice and righteousness from his ‘faith’. While quoting the American senator, Joe Lieberman, who had said, “the Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, not from religion,” Morrison asserted at the same event, “I believe the same is true in this country.” In April this year, Morrison, who holds regressive views on immigration and same-sex marriage, invited television cameras to film his Easter Sunday service at a church.

A similar trend is visible in India, which has re-elected the 68-year-old Hindu nationalist, Narendra Modi. Like Morrison, Modi loves to wear his religion on his sleeve. A day before the last phase of the general election, Modi invited television cameras to film him meditating inside a cave near the Kedarnath shrine. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, which rose to power by playing divisive faith-based politics, won 303 seats in Parliament. On the day of his victory, Modi had tweeted, “India wins yet again.” Perhaps he was referring to the India that has lapped up his politics of religious identity and Hindu majoritarianism.

Faith-based politics has played a leading role in the politics of neighbouring Bangladesh too. Bangladesh re-elected Sheikh Hasina Wajed last year. Wajed, a ‘secular’ leader, has been wooing the radical Islamist group, Hefazat-e-Islam, for many years. She introduced religious education in government schools, edited out poems and stories that conservative Islamists deemed atheistic and also recognized the Qawmi Madrasa degrees. In return, the Islamist group’s head, Shah Ahmed Shafi, bestowed the honorific, ‘Qawmi Janani (mother of the qaum)’, upon Wajed. Like Wajed, who hobnobbed with the Islamists to garner the support of the large Qawmi Madrasa populace, Widodo chose the conservative cleric, Ma’ruf Amin, as his running mate to strengthen his candidacy’s Islamic credentials.

Now that Widodo has been re-elected, questions have been raised regarding his present term by his constituents who gave him a second chance. He has stressed upon development and democracy, but will he abjure faith-based politics? Will he revive the vanishing, tolerant Indonesian Islam? How is he going to do all this with Amin — he issued a fatwa opposing religious pluralism, liberalism and secularism — as vice-president?

But what if Widodo adopts the political strategy of the leaders in his neighbourhood? What if he becomes like Morrison, someone who doesn’t like being labelled a ‘fundamentalist’ but has reservations about gay rights? Or like Wajed, who calls herself ‘secular’ but appeases religious extremists? Or, perhaps, like Modi, who talks of ‘inclusive’ India but doesn’t bat an eyelid when minorities get lynched on the streets?

This piece was published in The Telegraph on June 20, 2019.





How Indian kids conquered the English dictionary and became world champions of spelling bees

  • The 1983 Scripps National Spelling Bee had six Indian competitors. This year, they made up nearly a third of all entrants and seven out of eight winners were South Asian

If only Priya Damodharan had given the antihistamine medication loratadine to her 13-year-old son Rohan Raja when he needed it, he may have progressed further in the 2018 Scripps National Spelling Bee competition.

“I kept this medicine out of Rohan and this medicine kept him out of the national bee,” lamented Damodharan, an Indian-American engineer who lives in Dallas, Texas with her family.

Raja was asked to spell “loratadine” but could not because he had never heard the word before.

The annual spelling contest is an American institution that has challenged the best young brains in the country for almost 100 years.

Raja finished 10th.

“He kept telling me: ‘You should have at least shown that medicine bottle to me, I would have remembered the spelling’,” Damodharan said.

Raja did not let the setback get the better of him and studied hard – medical terms and more.

A year later at the 2019 competition in May, held in Fort Washington, Maryland, Raja not only survived 20 gruelling rounds over four days, he was crowned one of the winners in a

historic eight-way tie


Seven of the champions were of South Asian heritage.

“I learned that hard work and patience always pay off,” Raja told South China Morning Post.

Since 2008, Indians have consistently been the top performers in the Scripps event.

In 1985, 13-year-old Balu Natarajan became the first Indian-American to win the competition. Now 47 and a sports doctor based in Chicago, he said there was a “special emphasis” on English in his home because his uncle had been an English professor in India.

But many Indian immigrants in the US have made teaching their children English a priority.

Shruthika Padhy, a 13-year-old from New Jersey who was one of this year’s joint winners, used to mix in words from Odiya, her mother tongue, while speaking English. Over the years, she refined her English vocabulary.

“These children learn their parents’ mother tongue from India. That means two and sometimes three languages are learned at home,” said Sam Rega, director of Breaking The Bee, a documentary about the South Asian domination of the spelling contest. “This often sparks a natural love for languages”

It’s not just the US where Indian children have been winning spelling contests. Earlier this year, Anushree Pathak won the GIIS Tokyo Spelling Bee Competition.

In 2015, Anirudh Kathirvel won the first Great Australian Spelling Bee event when he was just nine years old.

Parents like Sukhatankar and Damodharan “want to find venues for their kids to compete to excel”, according to Pawan Dhingra from the Department of Anthropology and Sociology at Massachusetts-based Amherst College, and spelling contests have become a popular choice.

Natarajan’s win in 1985 was an eye-opener for many Indians.

There were only six Indians in the contest when he first entered in 1983. This year, 30 per cent of the 562 contestants were Indian.

The number has risen steadily since US immigration laws were relaxed in the 1970s, allowing more Indians to got citizenship.

Scripps spokeswoman Valerie Miller said the organisation does not track the ethnicity of the spellers who enter because they are all “Americans”.

While some believe Indian children excel through learning things parrot fashion, Dhingra said “great spellers” know how to “break down words into their roots and language of origin” to come up with the right answers.

Some of the winners appear to be passionate about spelling.

Sohum Sukhatankar said his parents first tried to get him interested in music and table tennis but “his heart was into spelling”.

Typically, spellers spend three to six hours each weekday and up to 10 hours on weekends and holidays learning the roughly 476,000 words – including their roots, definitions and forms – in Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary. Some get professional help.

Occasionally they stumble upon tricky words.

“Moazagotl” gave Padhy, who won the competition on her fourth attempt, a tough time in the 17th round of this year’s contest. Meanwhile, “gedanite” and “Gedinnian” confused Sukhatankar while he was revising the dictionary but diving deeper into their meanings helped him “remember and distinguish them”.

After a few years competing in regional and national competitions, Sukhatankar was confident enough to spell any word without difficulty on live television at this year’s Scripps event.

Now he has conquered the dictionary, he wants to turn his success into a business and is planning to coach future spelling bees.

But in Dallas, Raja has more immediate goals. He has been busy catching up with the Cricket World Cup on television and wants to be outside playing sport.

“I had to sacrifice everything for the bee,” he said.

The story was published in South China Morning Post on June 10, 2019:

By Sonia Sarkar

As election results started indicating the Hindu nationalist BJP’s landslide victory by Thursday afternoon, Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted, “India wins yet again!” It is important to understand which India he is referring to. It is not the secular and liberal India whose Constitution guarantees “freedom” and “equality” for all.

It is a new India which Modi started building little before the previous parliamentary elections in 2014. When he proposed to build this new India, he projected, “development” as its core agenda. But during his tenure in the last five years, this new India is being built upon polarization and chest-thumping muscular nationalism.

This India is not shaken by huge job losses because of demonetization and the introduction of the Goods and Services Tax (GST). According to the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO), a government agency, the unemployment rate was at 6.1 per cent in the period of July 2017-June 2018, the highest since 1972–73.

This India could be easily taken into fold with grand advertising campaigns on flawed government schemes such as Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana, Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana and Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, launched in haste. This India doen’t question why only 60 lakh houses have been built so far against the target of constructing one crore rural dwellings by March 31, 2019, since the scheme was launched on November 20, 2016. This India doesn’t question, how do the rural poor sustain to cook using LPG with the rising prices of gas cylinders, even if they got free cylinders under the Ujjwala Yojana.

This India is not bothered that Modi had promised to double the farmers’ income but owing to huge debts, over 12,602 farmers and agricultural laborers committed suicide in 2015, as per the last available official data.

This India believes only in alienation.

This is a divisive India which believes in “othering” the minorities in the country, especially the Muslims, who needs to be shown their place.

This India doesn’t blink an eye when hundreds of Dalits and Muslims get lynched by state-backed self-styled cow vigilantes for trading cattle or for allegedly storing beef at homes.

This India celebrates when a Kashmiri is tied to the jeep of an Indian soldier who uses him as a “human shield.”

This India loves the barrel-chested Modi who has the guts to say, “Ghar pe ghuskar marenge( Will enter their home and kill them)” while referring to Pakistan. This India laps up BJP’s narrative of being the savior of the nation. This India, which voted for the “interest of the nation, “ is convinced by Modi’s claims that Indian Air Force carried out surgical strikes at the “terrorist nation” Pakistan, weeks before the elections, in retaliation to Pulwama attacks by Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammad.

But ironically, this India also elects a terror accused, Pragya Singh Thakur, BJP’s candidate from Bhopal, to the Parliament, with a huge margin of over three lakh votes. The fact that she carried out a blast at Malegaon, a Muslim-dominated area in Maharashtra, perhaps, was the motivating factor behind electing her. There could be counter arguments that Bhopal has been the traditional bastion of BJP, and therefore, Thakur’s win was inevitable. A question which some liberals are asking is, even if it is BJP’s traditional seat, how could people vote for someone who hailed Nathuram Godse, the assassin of Mahatma Gandhi? But that’s the real essence of Modi’s new India, nobody is encouraged to think. It’s the herd mentality which rules supreme, be it when a Muslim is lynched on the street or a terror accused is elected to Parliament.

This India has also elected 28-year-old lawyer Tejasvi Surya from south Bangalore, who too won by almost three lakh votes. The face of educated urban and elite India, Surya, once tweeted, “BJP should unapologetically be a party for Hindus.”

Pundits have already dubbed Modi’s victory as the rise of Hindutva 2.0. Indeed, it is. This new India believes in the ideology of the BJP’s fount, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which advocates for a “Hindu Rashtra (an exclusive land for Hindus).”

Now speculations loom large over the next five years of Modi’s second term. A section of Indians who were always worried about this new India, being built over hate and bigotry, are asking some pertinent questions — Will there be jobs now? Will farmers get their debts waived off? Will there be normalcy in Kashmir? Will it be easier for Muslims to live in this country?

Modi has made an attempt to answer such questions by tweeting — “Together we will build a strong and inclusive India.” But these words have found no resonance with his new India. His cheerleaders have already started stressing democracy is all about majoritarianism, no space for dissenters, who are a minority now in new India. The sentiment is well-articulated in this tweet by a Modi supporter — “Take it or leave it, this is New India ready to take on the world… India is in good hands.”

Clearly, hatred and intolerance would continue to remain the lifeline of Modi supporters, even in the next five years.

The onus is on Modi now to prove that he understands the meaning of the term “inclusive” in its true sense. His words, spoken at the Parliament’s Central Hall — “sabka vishwas” should not turn out to be another “jumla.”