Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

Vijoo Krishnan, the man behind the stirring Maharashtra farmers’ march, spells out political necessities to Sonia Sarkar


There is no forgetting the image of the resolute foot. Calloused. Caked with earth and awash with blood. The skin torn in one place, flesh exposed – raw and red, screaming. It was one among 50,000, probably many more, pairs that covered 180 kilometres from Nashik to Mumbai for rights – the rights of the farmers of Maharashtra.

The march that culminated a fortnight ago ended with the BJP-led government in Maharashtra acceding to the key demands of farmers. The man behind this massive long march, however, remains steadfast in his refusal to take any credit for it. “I was just present in solidarity with them. Leaders such as Ashok Dhawale, J.P. Gavit, Kishan Gujar and Ajit Nawale made this happen,” says 44-year-old Vijoo Krishnan, joint secretary of the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS), the largest Left-affiliated farmers’ organisation with 1.6 crore members across India.

It has been difficult to catch Vijoo who is based in Delhi but has been on the move continuously. “The biggest thing is, it was the march of the farmers for their survival,” he says, as he leans back in the white plastic chair in his office in central Delhi. His words are forceful, without being aggressive. The pleasant smile never quite leaves his face.

You would not be blamed for thinking this mass protest was really easy to pull off, except that it was not. This long march didn’t become historic overnight. It was the result of a concerted effort of the AIKS for many months to organise farmers against the neo-liberal economic policies of the state and the Centre. “Our leaders have been preparing people to walk in this heat for months. Collecting grain, firewood and essentials for making this a success,” says Vijoo, who is also a member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

He tells us how one of the comrades put out on social media a 40-second video of the rally, which caught the imagination of urban Indians. “Many social media enthusiasts, even those not belonging to our party, shared the video. Some even asked us for images which they shared on Twitter and Facebook – this forced mainstream media to cover it.”

Vijoo’s engagement with farmers’ woes is no one-off. For the last one decade, he has been proactive in raising agrarian issues related to minimum support price for crops, waiver of loans, land rights and land acquisition. And since the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power in 2014, he has been more busy than usual.

“Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s promise to bring ‘acchhe din’ or good times for farmers during the 2014 general elections campaign has fallen flat. He had promised cheaper loans, pension and insurance for farmers, fair and remunerative prices for crops as stated by the National Commission on Farmers but nothing happened. Instead, there has been a drastic cut in the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Yojna, public investment in agriculture has been reduced, and cattle farmers have been lynched in the name of cow protection,” he says.

Speaking of lynching, didn’t the AIKS recently organise a two-day meeting under the umbrella of Bhumi Adhikar Andolan, a conglomerate of 300 grassroots organisations, to address the issue? He nods. “Attacks by cow vigilantes are not just attacks on minorities and Dalits but also attacks on agriculture and the economy of the farmers.”

Has the AIKS been able to garner support of the farmers of Bengal who moved away from the Left parties following the Singur and Nandigram land acquisition controversies? “Attacks on cadres by the Trinamool Congress workers have led to a considerable fall in our membership,” says Vijoo.

The AIKS apparently had one crore members across Bengal until 2011 but the numbers dropped to 60 lakh in 2013. “It has gone up to 80 lakh now,” he points out. According to him, the farmers of Bengal are in distress under the leadership of Mamata Banerjee. His Bengal-based colleague, Amal Haldar, also told The Telegraph that reeling under huge debt since 2011, 208 potato and paddy farmers across the state have committed suicide.

Vijoo continues, “Plus, the minimum support price announced by the central government is Rs 1,550 per quintal for paddy. In Bengal, the farmers get around Rs 800-1,200 per quintal because there is no government procurement. The traders procure it, so they eat up the money.”

In one corner of Vijoo’s spartan office room is a red martyr’s column – meant to commemorate comrades who have died. It is a mobile structure and scribbled on it is the red salute – ” Amar Shaheedon ko Lal Salam“. It brings to mind the recent bloodbath between the Left and RSS workers in Kerala. According to one estimate, 85 CPI(M) workers and 65 RSS workers have been killed between 2007 and 2017. “RSS has opened shakhas even in Kannur, where the Left has the strongest base. But they have not been able to gain prominence,” says Vijoo, who originally belongs to Karivellur village in Kerala’s Kannur district.

He talks about the RSS’ violence in Tripura, how its workers have been torching CPI(M) offices there. “They started by demolishing Lenin’s statue, then they demolished statues of B.R. Ambedkar and the Dravidian icon Periyar – their intolerance makes them want all those ideologies opposing theirs to perish.”

But he doesn’t believe the Left is going to perish anytime soon? The success of the recent farmers’ rally in Maharashtra – wherein the state government agreed to waive their loans, stop forceful acquisition of farm lands and compensate farmers hit by natural calamity – is proof for Vijoo that it isn’t. “These struggles ensure that an atmosphere is created for the defeat of communal forces. We may have had electoral reverses but nobody can write off the Left just yet.”

But given the recent electoral performance of the Left, it doesn’t look like it can defeat “communal forces” by itself. Then again, the top CPI(M) leadership has refused to establish an alliance with BJP’s biggest opposition, Congress. Since the Left withdrew support for the Congress-led UPA-I government in 2008 over the Indo-US nuclear deal, the two haven’t seen eye to eye. “We have to channelise all energies to defeat the BJP in all seats, whether we are directly in the contest or not. We need not have an alliance or understanding with the Congress,” he says. Then adds, “Yet our position against the BJP as the main enemy may indirectly benefit the Congress.”

Vijoo stresses that the Congress should be clear about its strategy, especially on the recent violence by the Sangh and affiliated forces. A fact-finding report – titled “Divide and Rule in the Name of Cow”, brought out by Bhumi Adhikar Andolan this month – criticises the Congress for not taking a stand on lynching.

What does he make of Congress president Rahul Gandhi and his temple run? Does he think Congress is adopting a soft-Hindutva approach? “That also is there,” Vijoo says. “This is a hypocritical position – they have to give it up.”

And the Left’s own niggling issues – how does he see the Prakash Karat vs Sitaram Yechury fight resolve itself? “It is media hype,” he says. “Ours is a democratic party. For us, there could be different opinions but we go by what the party congress decides.”

At this point, a buzzing wasp enters the scene making Vijoo nostalgic. He recalls how a wasp stung him during his JNU days. Those days he was campaigning for the Delhi University Students’ Union elections. “I couldn’t recognise myself in the mirror for many days,” laughs the former JNU students’ union president, thus taking the sting out of an otherwise intense discussion.

We get chatting about his student days, JNU then, JNU now. The conversation turns to the current crop of student leaders from the institution – Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid, Shehla Rashid. Vijoo says that individual leaders get a lot of attention these days. “In our times, it was always the organisation that got precedence.” Could it be that this seminal philosophy defines his characteristic reticence, the reluctance he expressed earlier on at being credited with the success of the farmers’ rally? Perhaps.

We are still on JNU. And he says after a minute’s thought, “There should be better linkages between the similar ideologies that have cropped up.” If you ask him, even beyond the campus, the band of young leaders – Jignesh Mevani, Chandrashekhar Azad and Akhil Gogoi – should come together. He says, “They should be part of the issue-based unity against the communal BJP. They should organise into a new, unified force.”

Is it possible in Bengal?

“Given the kind of attacks our workers have been facing in Bengal, the corruption, compromises with communal forces and the kind of policies, Trinamool has adopted, doesn’t give any scope for electoral alliance,” he explains. 

As I get up to leave, I spot a poster with the visual of a blood-soaked trident and the nib of a fountain pen. The message scrawled on it reads: “Choose which side you are on”. That’s for us, not him. His choices couldn’t be clearer.


Little did the Bangladeshi journalist, Abdul Latif Morol, know that writing about a dead goat on Facebook would land him in jail. Last year, Morol, a local journalist from Khulna, over 200 kilometres south of Dhaka, posted, “Goat given by state minister in the morning dies in the evening.” Morol was put behind bars for a day under Section 57 of the Information and Communication Technology Act.

But things can go worse for journalists in this country, which ranks 146 out of 180 countries in the press freedom barometer, Reporters Sans Frontières’ ‘2017 World Press Freedom Index’. If the Digital Security Act, recently approved by the country’s cabinet to tackle cybercrime and protect national security, gets a nod in Parliament, journalists could also be convicted of espionage.

Various sections of this law impinge upon the right to freedom of speech and expression, thereby preventing journalists from gathering information against the government. For example, Section 32 of this proposed law says that secret recording of any information at any government, semi-government or autonomous institution would be considered spying, leading to 14 years in jail or a fine of 25 lakh taka (Rs 19,24,395) or both. These days, reporters collect information in various ways digitally – they take pictures, make videos and record interviews – all on their smartphones. A law like this will create hurdles for objective reporting, local journalists allege.

After journalists came out in large numbers on the streets of Dhaka to protest against this assault on press freedom, ministers of the ruling Awami League government reassured them that Section 32, a non-bailable offence, would not interfere with their work and all stakeholders would be consulted before the law is passed. But journalists are not convinced because they have witnessed the high-handedness of the State earlier. At least, 25 journalists including Morol were booked under Section 57 of the ICT Act last year alone. After a huge uproar by the media, the government proposed to revoke Section 57 but ironically, provisions of this section have now been included in the newly proposed law.

For example, hurting religious sentiments and tarnishing the image of the State are punishable in this proposed law, just as they were considered to be offences in Section 57 of the ICT Act. As per Section 28 of the proposed law, one would face the maximum punishment of 10 years in jail or a fine up to 20 lakh taka (Rs 15,46,936) or both for hurting religious sentiments; and Section 25 of the law prescribes a maximum punishment of five years in jail or a fine of up to 10 lakh taka (Rs 7,70,220) or both for tarnishing the image of the State.


The irony is, such penalties are likely to be imposed on the press, which is already pro-Sheikh Hasina Wajed, the prime minister. The mainstream Bangladeshi media give wide coverage to her press conferences bashing the Khaleda Zia-led Opposition, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, but it seldom asks tough questions on the increasing number of random enforced disappearances of journalists, activists and former diplomats who are critical of the government, and the arbitrary arrests and detention of political opponents.

In spite of enjoying such a pro-government approach of the press, Wajed, the self-proclaimed saviour of Bangladesh’s democracy, has made several attempts to curb its freedom in the past few years. Last year, The Jessore-based journalist and rights activist, Binoy Krishna Mallik, was arrested for holding a press conference to expose the alleged corruption of the local superintendent of police. In 2016, the senior journalist, Shafik Rehman, was arrested for allegedly plotting to abduct and kill Sajeeb Wazed Joy, the prime minister’s son. In 2014, the cabinet approved the national broadcasting policy, which prohibits electronic media from disseminating news, photographs, or videos that could tarnish the image of law enforcement agencies and armed forces or counter the government or impede national security.

Besides national security, Wajed is also trying to control freedom of speech in the name of nationalism. For example, Section 21 of the proposed Digital Security Act carries a life sentence or fine of up to three crore taka (Rs 23,568,607) or both for anyone spreading negative propaganda against the 1971 Liberation War or the Father of the Nation, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, digitally, for a second time. Criticizing this provision, the United Nations treaty, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Bangladesh is a party, stated that the laws that penalize the expression of opinions about historical facts are “incompatible” with the country’s obligations to respect the “freedom of opinion and expression”.

With the parliamentary elections scheduled in December this year, Wajed is leaving no stone unturned to remain in power for the third consecutive term. Her main Opposition, the BNP chairperson, Khaleda Zia, has been sentenced to five years in jail for graft. There are additional charges of arson and violence against her, which could mean more years in jail and no elections for her. Scores of BNP workers have been arbitrarily arrested by the police for demanding Zia’s release. If Wajed manages to bully the press too, it is certainly a clear victory for her. But this year’s elections could be a repeat of 2014 polls, which were widely condemned by the international community for not being “free and fair”.

A question which many liberal thinkers are asking now is, in this desperation to remain in power, has Wajed forgotten, Bangladesh was built upon the ‘liberal ethos’ by none other than her own father?

His daughter is 13; her son is 12. When darkness closes in on them, they are uppermost in their mind. Behind a locked cell, former central minister Andimuthu Raja thinks of his daughter. Now out of jail — where son Aditya was always in her thoughts — Rajya Sabha member M.K. Kanimozhi makes sure that he travels with her to Delhi, even though it’s a city he’s not greatly fond of.

Jail is not something that the parliamentarians from the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) party want to talk about. For Kanimozhi, party strongman M. Karunanidhi’s much-loved daughter, the experience is too raw to recount. For Raja, Karunanidhi’s close lieutenant, the ordeal is far from over.

“Loneliness is hard to beat inside the jail,” says the former telecom minister.

His day in jail No. 1 at the Tihar Central Jail starts at five in the morning. He takes a walk on the grounds, watches the news on his 14-inch colour television set — the one source of entertainment that’s been provided to him — and then reads papers and books connected to his case.

In the evenings he often plays a game of badminton with other “celebrity” inmates housed in Tihar. When the clock strikes 11, Raja has to call it a day. The former telecom minister sleeps on the cemented floor, to wake up again before dawn.

When The Telegraph catches up with him, he is at the Central Bureau of Investigation court at Delhi’s Patiala House, where his case is up for a hearing. Dressed in a pristine white starched shirt with long sleeves and a pair of black trousers, he looks relaxed. When the court breaks for 30 minutes, he moves around the visitors’ corner outside the courtroom, attending to party members who have gathered to meet him with a big smile. He offers them coffee and biscuits.

Raja is not eager to talk about his time in jail, but opens up bit by bit. His wife, M.A. Parameswari, is by his side, and he plays with her sleek gold bangles as he speaks. “She is the source of all positive energy,” he says, patting her back.

Kanimozhi, on the other hand, stresses that she is still not ready to talk about her jail days. She is sitting in her sixth floor apartment — part of a residential complex for parliamentarians in Luytens’s Delhi — 20km yet light years away from Tihar jail. Dressed in an off-white embroidered kurta matched with cream pyjamas and dupatta, she sits on a black leather sofa in her living room.

Her son is in an adjoining room. Most of her afternoons are spent with Aditya, who studies at a Chennai school. “He hates Delhi but he will be here for a week with me,” she smiles. Clearly, she is making up for her all the days lost.

Raja and Kanimozhi are the two most high-profile accused in the multi-crore-rupee 2G spectrum scam. They have been charged with criminal conspiracy, cheating and forgery under the Prevention of Corruption Act. Kanimozhi, jailed last May, has been on bail for the past five months. Raja has been in jail since he was arrested in February last year. “This is a learning experience for me,” he says. “I have to overcome this challenge.”

Kanimozhi’s time in jail was filled with “lonely” moments, says an associate. She took long walks on the campus every morning and evening. “By now, she must be aware of every brick in the walls of the jail,” the associate adds.

While Kanimozhi mostly kept to herself, Raja likes to have people around him. “He loves to interact with people,” says a jail source. Occasionally, he even insists that his party members be allowed to meet him when visitors are not allowed. “We also get calls from the office of Mr Karunanidhi asking us to grant him permission to meet his party members at odd hours. But we cannot entertain such requests,” says the source. The ailing Karunanidhi went to visit his 44-year-old daughter thrice when she was in jail. Every time, it was an emotional reunion. But being kept away from her son was what upset her the most.

Raja too shares a strong bond with his daughter. Their birthdays fall on the same day — October 26 — and his wife points out that they have spent every birthday together. “Though he often fails to remember our wedding anniversary in February, he can never forget to be with his daughter on her birthday. Usually, we throw a party or go out for a good dinner to celebrate the two birthdays together,” she says.

Last year was different. There was no celebration with Raja in jail. “Our daughter made a special card for him and gifted it to him in jail. He was overjoyed but was quite emotional,” Parameswari says.

But Raja, a follower of E.V. Ramaswamy — the leader of the Dravidian movement — calls himself a fighter. “I am a born fighter. Injustice has happened to me and I will fight till the end. Only fighting gives me the ultimate strength,” says Raja. Parameswari adds that Raja has always been inspired by Tamil superstar Sivaji Ganesan’s Deiva Magan — a film about a man with a scarred face who fights all odd.

For Kanimozhi, on the other hand, strength came from the epic Mahabharata. “I finished reading the Mahabharata in jail. It gave me a lot of strength,” Kanimozhi says, measuring every word as she speaks.

She also spent many evenings going through parliamentary proceedings. “She would religiously follow every event in Parliament, especially during the Anna Hazare episode last August,” says the jail source.

The problems of women inmates concerned her too. “In most cases, women have been forced by their family members to accept charges of crime they haven’t committed. I want to do something for them but that is possible only after my case gets over,” she says.

Like with Raja, language was a problem for Kanimozhi. Both speak English and Tamil but are not fluent in Hindi, which made it difficult for her — and continues to pose problems for him — during interactions with Hindi-speaking inmates. “But Kanimozhi’s Hindi improved in those six months. From five words, her vocabulary went up to 20,” one of her associates says.

Since both are from Tamil Nadu, they are accustomed to their regional cuisine and found it difficult to get used to north Indian food. Raja has been given permission to get food from home on health grounds. His wife provides him with home-cooked sambarsabziroti and curd rice thrice a day. “He loves pepper mutton but he is not allowed to eat non-vegetarian food in jail,” his wife rues.

Kanimozhi was served home-cooked food — usually sambar rice and curd rice — twice a week. “She is not a fussy eater. She managed with whatever was served inside the jail. If she wanted anything else, she bought it from the jail canteen,” says the jail source.

Kanimozhi seldom drew attention to herself. Even now, when she is in court where her case is being heard, she sits quietly in the back, leaving her lawyers to fight out the legal battle for her.

Raja, on the other hand, is in the thick of the proceedings. He is also fighting his own case — along with his lawyers — and intervenes every now and then. “It is my case and I have to follow every bit of it,” says Raja, a qualified lawyer.

Raja may file for bail once former telecom secretary Siddarth Behura, also in jail, gets bail. We have to get rid of the case,” Parmeswari says with grim determination. “I religiously visit the Sai Baba and Shani temples twice a week.”

The family is not planning anything to mark his homecoming though. “Our last holiday was in Russia two years ago. Maybe we will plan a holiday after he is out. But now we are just keeping our fingers crossed,” she says.

This story was published in The Telegraph, April 22, 2012



– Lawyer-activist Prashant Bhushan tells Sonia Sarkar that the BJP-Sangh establishment poses a threat to Constitution and country
Illustration: Suman Choudhury

Supreme Court advocate Prashant Bhushan is not known to mince his words. Today is no exception. “The biggest issue in the country today is the communal fascist agenda of the government,” he says.

We are in his cramped office in Lutyens’ Delhi, on the third floor of the New Lawyers’ Chambers, looking onto the facade of the Supreme Court across the street. Bhushan, who is known for his untiring judicial jousting, has just wrapped up a discussion with some activists from Chhattisgarh. It’s a case of a mining company ignoring the rights of forest dwellers in the northern parts of the state.

A question about the current goings-on in the country – mob lynchings, the killing (or silencing) of journalists and rationalists – has triggered this outpour. He continues, “It is a criminal gang that is running this country today… They are openly doing things that are serious offences under the Indian Penal Code, such as abusing and threatening people with violence and rape on social media. They want to intimidate people who are questioning them.” All the while his expression is of utmost calm, his voice soft, his tone even. If there is anything at all that betrays the intensity of his outrage, it would be his eyes. He narrows them while he speaks.

Bhushan himself has had a taste of intimidation, often backed by the powers. A few months ago, when he tweeted that Lord Krishna was a “legendary eve-teaser” – he was actually cheekily critiquing UP chief minister Adityanath’s decision to employ anti-Romeo squads to ensure safety of women in the state – he faced an avalanche of criticism. His exact comment, “Romeo loved just one lady, while Krishna was a legendary eve-teaser. Would Adityanath have the guts to call his vigilantes Anti-Krishna squads?”

Bhushan was called “anti-Hindu” and “anti-national”. Protesters belonging to the Hindu group, Sudarshan Vahini, defaced his Noida house with ink. An FIR was lodged at Lucknow’s Hazratganj police station against him for hurting religious sentiments. Eventually, he apologised.

“That was also an instance of the fascist atmosphere that has been created,” says Bhushan. “You cannot say anything even mildly critical about gods or those considered gods. Many people are saying [Narendra] Modi is our God, and if you say anything against him, I will kill you.”

He insists all such threats are supported by the central government, which in his view does not subscribe to the constitutional values of secularism and the fundamental right to freedom of speech. “If they [the BJP] get two-thirds majority in 2019, then they might remove secularism and socialism from the Constitution,” he warns.

Two years ago, on Republic Day, the BJP government had issued an advertisement that quoted the Preamble of the Constitution thus: “We, the people of India, having solemnly resolved to constitute India into a sovereign democratic republic…” The words “socialist” and “secular” had been omitted. That led to a bit of a furore. Later, the information and broadcasting ministry tweeted saying it was done deliberately to “honour” the founding fathers of the Constitution. The words “socialist” and “secular” had been added to the original Preamble in 1976.

Bhushan says all these instances of fascism are orchestrated by the larger saffron family or the Sangh Parivar. He alleges that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the parent body of the BJP, has been enabled a grip on cultural and research institutions of the country and is now making inroads into the judiciary. Without naming anyone he adds, “They have appointed as judges in high courts and the Supreme Court those who were earlier members of the RSS.”

Does that mean the judiciary is going to kowtow to the state? It is already doing so, says Bhushan. He cites the Birla-Sahara case, wherein the Supreme Court dismissed a petition filed by him to probe two business houses in a pay-off scandal. It had been alleged that politicians belonging to Congress and BJP had been bribed by the Aditya Birla Group and the Sahara Group. “It was an utterly absurd judgement where it refused to investigate the case, thus going against all past laws laid down by the same Supreme Court,” says Bhushan, who runs a Delhi-based NGO, Centre for Public Interest Litigation.

Bhushan is the insider outsider. He has always been critical of the judiciary like his father, former law minister and Supreme Court lawyer Shanti Bhushan. Bhushan Senior had once moved an application in the apex court, accusing eight former chief justices of India of “corruption”. Prashant Bhushan has filed many public interest litigations (PILs) against India’s top industrialists. Last year, he took on Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries Limited over 4G spectrum allocation. This year, he filed a lawsuit against the Adani group and other mining companies for allegedly inflating coal and equipment prices to siphon money from India.

In 2016, a Supreme Court bench questioned the credentials and authenticity of the PILs Bhushan has been filing at regular intervals. Not that it deterred him in any way.

Currently, Bhushan is taking special interest in the case involving BJP president Amit Shah’s son Jay, whose business has reportedly recorded a 16,000-fold increase in turnover in a year’s time. Amit Shah has filed a Rs 100-crore defamation suit against the journalist who wrote the exposé and the news portal – The Wire – that published it. “This defamation suit is a way to intimidate the media and those questioning the dubious transactions,” says Bhushan.

Threats, intimidation and attacks on freedom of speech are some of the things that define this government, he says. Others would be job losses, price rise and farmers’ suicides.

Why then is there no public outcry? How does the BJP keep winning election after election? Bhushan seems to think the ruling party’s denouement has begun. “They have been inept in managing the economy, have made huge blunders – demonetisation and implementation of GST. They are rapidly losing support.” He cites the recent students’ union elections in Delhi University and Jawaharlal Nehru University; in both places the BJP-affiliated students’ outfit, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, was defeated. “The youth are disenchanted with the BJP.”

The other indicator, according to him, is social media. “Ten per cent of the country’s population is on social media – even if you say that it’s the upper crust of the society, it is quite clear that public opinion has shifted quite substantially.”

And the alternative to the BJP would be? Pause. Bhushan agrees there is a problem, but soon turns to praising Rahul Gandhi. “He is more energetic now. He is travelling around. If he is able to put together a team of newer younger leaders, then Congress will hopefully revive…”

But he would say that; after all, his family and the Congress go back a long way. A little bit of steel creeps into his voice. Bhushan says, “My family parted with the Congress in 1969, when the party split. But if I had to choose between the Congress and the BJP, Congress is a lesser evil.”

Talking of alternatives, we cannot help but ask him about his own Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) stint. He, along with Yogendra Yadav, had helped found the party and ran it till they were suspended by AAP boss and Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal for alleged anti-party activities.

Bhushan admits electoral politics is not his cup of tea, but not before he has had a go at Kejriwal. “He is undemocratic; doesn’t have principles, no interest in understanding the issues of the country and he is willing to use unethical means to achieve his ends.”

This year, Bhushan, along with Yadav, co-launched a political party – Swaraj India. “Here, you remain true to your principles and take up issues that are entirely in public interest.”

But can power politics and public interest ever go hand in hand? Perhaps he is right to say politics is not quite his cup of tea.


1977: Bhushan joins IIT Madras, but quits after one semester
Completes his law degree from Allahabad University. In between, goes away to Princeton in the US for a brief while
1983: Starts practicing as a lawyer in the Supreme Court. Known to fight for civil liberties, human rights and environment issues, and expose corruption in high places
1990: Writes a book on the Bofors scandal — BoforsThe Selling of a Nation
Among his most talked about cases are 2G scam, Radia tapes, Coalgate and iron ore mining scams. Has argued 300-plus PILs to date
Known to be against the death penalty and use of violence against Naxals; wants AFSPA revoked in Kashmir
Threw his lot behind the India Against Corruption movement launched in 2010. Was among founders of the Aam Aadmi Party
Following his expulsion from AAP in 2015, co-founded Swaraj Abhiyan with Yogendra Yadav

Firebrand Indian politicians who once hogged the limelight have fallen silent now. I feature five of them here. One passed away earlier this month after suffering from Alzheimer’s for some years while the other four have been suffering from long-term medical ailments. Perhaps, this is also a lesson for the current politicians who think they are God and would always remain so as long as they live. They don’t know that life always has other plans.

Anyway, for those who want to know what happened to those politicians of yesteryear, here is an update:


  • THE WAY THEY WERE: (From top) Santosh Mohan Dev at a party meeting in 1988, (inset) with his wife, Bithika, on Holi last year; George Fernandes taking oath as minister in 1977, (inset) in 2011 when the Dalai Lama visited him; Priya Ranjan Das Munshi filing his nomination for the Howrah Sadar Lok Sabha constituency in 1991, (inset) in Apollo Hospitals, New Delhi, in 2016; Jaswant Singh in Darjeeling in 2009, (inset) at a press conference in New Delhi in 2014, shortly before his accident; Atal Bihari Vajpayee addressing a rally at Shahid Minar, Calcutta, in 1971, (inset) receiving the Bharat Ratna in 2015

India turns 70 in a little more than a week’s time. The five men featured here are all older – one of them passed away just this week. All of these men, in their time, were people of significance; they either dominated the political discourse of the day or made significant interventions. But for a while now, they have lain claimed by the slipstream of sub-consciousness, barely cognizant of the radical political and social changes around them. For the first time since Independence, all of the nation’s top jobs are held by RSS apparatchiks – the president, prime minister and vice-president. The country itself has been taken by bursts of violent social discord, fed by a surging sectarian, ultra-nationalist sentiment. India’s iconography is under active alteration at the bidding of the powers – Nehru’s legacy is being dismantled, Deendayal Upadhyay’s is being installed; history is being re-written, often with shocking brazenness. India is undergoing fundamental transformations, all of which these men would have had things to say and do about. The Telegraph brings you snapshots of the little-known current personal lives of these erstwhile public personas.

Santosh Mohan Dev

Late Congress leader. Was the party’s Northeast pointsman, Minister of Steel in the 1990s and Minister of Heavy Industries and Public Enterprises in UPA-I

When Sonia Gandhi went to meet Santosh Mohan Dev at his south Delhi residence in 2015, he was already quite ill. Dev, a third generation Congressman, had been a seven-time MP – he represented Silchar in Assam five times and Tripura twice. But a diabetic for 35 years, his health had started deteriorating beginning 2011, after a prolonged urinary infection. Around the same time, he showed signs of Alzheimer’s. His daughter, Sushmita, who is a Congress MP, says, “If we had to go for a meeting at 10am, he would get ready at 5am. If we asked him something, he would give us a vague reply. We couldn’t understand why he was behaving like that till we were told by the doctor that he had Alzheimer’s.”

During the last few years of his life, he didn’t speak much but he did recognise people. That day when Sonia Gandhi asked him, “Do you know who am I?” He replied, “Boss.” She laughed and said, “Now, Sushmita’s boss is Rajiv ji‘s (Rajiv Gandhi) son. Dev asked, “The man with the beard?”

Says Sushmita, “He obviously understood everything he saw on television.”

In 2016, Dev moved to his hometown, Silchar. He was confined to his home, where he spent time watching Bengali classics. Sushmita’s biggest regret is that her father could never see her in Parliament. “Every time we protest in Parliament, I think of him; he would have taken the bull by the horns. Sometimes, I wish he was with me in the Central Hall.”

Even before he fell ill this time, rumours about his death would float up from time to time. Sushmita tells us that her mother – Bithika – would often joke and say these rumours were only adding more years to his life.

The 83-year-old passed away last Wednesday. Sushmita adds, “We admitted him to hospital. The doctor said he would not be able to survive the day. But my father was a fighter. He waited till each and every member of the family – my sisters and nieces – had arrived from different parts of the world. Only then he breathed his last.”

Atal Bihari Vajpayee

The first non-Congress person to serve as Prime Minister for a full term. The BJP leader, who idolised Nehru, was PM in 1996, 1998 and from 1999-2004. Pokhran-II, Lahore Summit, Kargil, Gujarat riots – it all happened during his tenure

The last public appearance of the unyielding Atal ji dates back to March 27, 2015. The only available photographs show President Pranab Mukherjee about to garland the former PM with the peepal leaf-shaped Bharat Ratna medallion. The tasselled tray in the hands of the President’s aide, on which rests the sanad, or certificate, covers most of the face of the man who was known as BJP’s ” vikas purush“. A cream shawl draped over his left shoulder covers his left arm.

At his residence on Krishna Menon Marg in Lutyens’ Delhi, Vajpayee spends a quiet life. He is often visited by old colleagues like L.K. Advani, and occasionally, Prime Minister Narendra Modi. But nothing ever emerges of what transpires in those meetings; perhaps they are no more than social calls. He reads newspapers and watches news and sports on television. The master orator whose speeches in Parliament sparkled with wit, erudition and political savvy, lost his speech after a stroke in 2009. “He is aware of what’s happening around. But he doesn’t speak,” says Vajpayee’s old friend and senior advocate, N.M. Ghatate, who visits him every week.

At 92, his mobility is restricted but he can walk with assistance. The three-time Prime Minister can recognise people too. “I feel he doesn’t want to meet many people, especially new visitors. He is comfortable meeting his old associates,” says Ghatate. “He is resigned to his fate and he looks peaceful.”

George Fernandes

One-time socialist rebel, feisty labour leader, Samata Party founder. Was minister in the post-Emergency Janata and, later, NDA governments

Dressed in a mustard shirt and white pyjamas, George Fernandes is lying in bed. His emaciated face has turned him beyond recognition – gaunt in the extreme. He is 87. His mouth is half-open and his eyes are fixed on the ceiling. His wife, Leila, leans in and says, “The country is in crisis. People are remembering you.” Fernandes coughs.

“This is the way he responds when I speak to him,” says Leila, who came back to him in 2009 after a two-decade-long separation.

Fernandes has Alzheimer’s, last stage. The firebrand socialist leader, who emerged during the dark days of Emergency, has been immobile the past seven years. His speech is impaired too. The greater part of his day is spent in bed but every morning he is wheeled out into the lawns of his Panchsheel Park residence, where he spends some time.

Barring some visitors such as long-term associate Jaya Jaitly, Leila doesn’t encourage many people to see him these days as he is prone to infections. PM Modi visited him in 2015. The Dalai Lama also visited Fernandes, once this February and previously in 2011.

There is a photograph from the earlier visit but not from the recent one. Leila, however, doesn’t like her husband to be photographed in his present condition. She is now planning a peaceful life for Fernandes at Ranikhet in Uttarakhand. “I told him, ‘George, we are going to the mountains.’ He flickered his eyes. I know, he also wants to go,” she says. “We want to watch the sunset together in the mountains.”

Jaswant Singh

Former BJP leader. Served as Finance Minister in Vajpayee’s short-lived government in 1996. He was Minister for External Affairs from 1998 to 2002

Like his former mates in government, Vajpayee and Fernandes, Jaswant Singh’s public life ended rather abruptly. He suffered a head injury after he had a fall in his house in 2014 and, thereafter, slipped into coma. After four months of hospitalisation, he was brought home in a minimally conscious state but he had to be hospitalised again. There was a slight improvement but for the past one year, the 79-year-old, who had represented Darjeeling in the Lok Sabha, has been static, says his son, Manvendra, an MLA from Sheo in Rajasthan. Singh, who controversially conducted the Kandahar terror swap during the Vajpayee premiership, is the author of a widely-acclaimed political memoir; alas, he cannot express himself anymore. “He is not responsive; he is under home care. We hope he recovers,” says Manvendra.

Priya Ranjan Das Munshi

Congress leader, football enthusiast. Was Minister of Parliamentary Affairs and Information and Broadcasting during the first term of the Manmohan Singh government

In 2008, Priya Ranjan Das Munshi suffered a stroke and slipped into coma. “Part of his brain is not responding,” says his wife and former MP, Deepa. “He cannot talk or recognise anyone.” He is 71.

He had all but faded from public memory when his name was included in the 90-member campaign committee of the Congress for the West Bengal Assembly polls in 2016. The move led to a huge uproar within the party.

Over the years, doctors have reportedly said he is not conscious of his surroundings but Deepa hasn’t given up. She says she keeps him informed about current politics. “He winks, he moves his head, he coughs. I feel he is responding but I am not sure if medically this can be considered a response.”

There have been reports that the hospital authorities want his family members to take him home but that hasn’t happened yet. “I believe that miracles do happen. They can happen at any time,” says Deepa.



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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.

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The exiled former President of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed, gets online with Sonia Sarkar to spell out why India is critical to his dream of returning as boss of the archipelago

  • Illustration: Suman Choudhury

He was known as the first rockstar President of the Maldives – Western educated, suave, crisply-turned out, espousing liberal values in an Islamic state, a visage that sometimes reminded some of a likeness to Barack Obama. Mohamed Nasheed caught attention easily. But not always where he wanted it most. He has the ears of the West thousands of miles away but has failed to cast a spell on his immediate neighbour, India. Former British Prime Minister David Cameron calls him “best friend”; Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has so far ignored him. But Nasheed hasn’t given up; he wants Modi to listen to him.

“I would try to tell Prime Minister Modi that the people of the Maldives are suffering under an autocratic government run by President Abdulla Yameen. We would like him to understand the fears of the people of Maldives,” Nasheed, 49, chief of the Maldivian Democratic Party, tells The Telegraph from Colombo over Skype.

So far, his plea has gone unheard in Delhi. Modi seems to be moving closer to Nasheed’s rival, Yameen. Last year, Modi signed a defence pact with the Maldives when Yameen visited Delhi. Indian diplomats say the deal was a bid to stem a growing Chinese influence in the Maldives. A major contract for the construction of Male’s international airport, which was earlier given to Indian infrastructure company, GMR, got revoked and went to a Chinese company.

But Nasheed cautions India. “I don’t think pandering to Yameen would make him averse to signing more contracts with China,” he warns. “Yameen has given around nine islands to China and some of those islands are very crucial for India because of their geopolitical positioning.”

Nasheed is frank enough to admit that these contracts to China will be tough to revoke even if he comes to power. Earlier, India suspected Nasheed of being receptive to China when a Chinese embassy was opened in Male in 2011 during his presidentship. “If we come to power, it’s going to be very difficult to undo any sovereign contract that Yameen will engage in with any other country,” Nasheed says. “We don’t want to bargain between India and China. I don’t want to blackmail a country into a negotiation or an action.”

Nasheed was thrown out of power in a coup in 2012 by the former Vice-President, Mohammed Waheed Hassan. Hassan is known to be a crony of former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who Nasheed defeated in 2008. A year after the 2012 coup, Nasheed had taken refuge for 10 days at the Indian High Commission in Male fearing arrest. That was the only time that an Indian government (the UPA at that time) has responded to his call for help.

Nasheed has been trying to drag India’s attention to alleged cases of corruption, media repression and human rights violations by Yameen but to little avail. India’s diplomatic outlook appears clear: it will not engage with any individual, it would engage with the country’s official representative.

But Nasheed isn’t giving up. He routinely briefs officials of the Indian High Commission in London, where he has been living in political asylum since last year. His party colleagues have been meeting experts at Indian security think tanks in New Delhi too. They are making all possible efforts to pursue the Indian government to create pressure on Yameen to allow Nasheed to fight elections next year.

Nasheed fears being arrested the moment he lands in Male because he has been sentenced to 13 years’ imprisonment on charges of terrorism in 2015. Of the 13 years, he has spent only a few months in jail. Also, he is barred from fighting the polls on grounds of criminal conviction.

So he has joined hands with all opposition parties, including his long-time foe, Gayoom, the leader of the Progressive Party of Maldives and half-brother of President Yameen, to come back to power. When Gayoom ruled the Maldives with an iron fist for 30 years, he had had Nasheed arrested more than 20 times for his demand for democratic elections in the country. But now Nasheed appears to have dissolved his difference with Gayoom.

Together, with two other parties, Nasheed and Gayoom have created the United Opposition, which enjoys a majority in the Maldivian Parliament. They plan to move legislation for “free and fair” elections in which Nasheed can also participate.

Many believe Nasheed’s alliance with Gayoom shows his desperation to come to power. But Nasheed, who signed the deal with the opposition parties in Colombo, begs to differ. “It’s not my desperation. People are desperate to find solutions to problems of the Maldives and the onus is on us,” he stresses.

But Nasheed has a problem: he isn’t known as someone who can take everyone on board. In the past, when he was in power, he was accused of alienating the judiciary, the police, even parliamentarians. Key members of his government also resigned in sheer frustration.

Nasheed admits to learning lessons from the past. “This time, we cannot consolidate power within our own party. We must be ready to share powers with our allies,” he asserts. During the two-and-a-half years he was in power, Nasheed’s notion of “liberalising” the outlook of the country didn’t go down well with his newfound allies; at the time, many saw him as a threat to “traditional Islamic values” in the Maldives.

Over the past five years, Islamic extremism has risen across the thousand-island nation 1,350 miles southwest of India with a population of 3,50,000. Some reports suggest the Maldives is the biggest per capita contributor to terror outfit ISIS. But if he comes back as president, Nasheed says he is determined to tackle extremism: “I must continue to show leadership in liberal acceptance.”

Nasheed’s concept of liberalism is largely borrowed from the West, where he grew up. He read at the UK’s Dauntsey’s School in posh Wiltshire, and later enrolled for maritime studies at Liverpool’s John Moores University. His connections with the UK are deep. He has met Queen Elizabeth II and stayed at the Windsor Castle. But his Western ties don’t stop at Britain’s royals. Amal Clooney, celebrity international lawyer and wife to George Clooney, carries his brief. Nasheed’s fight for democracy in Maldives also finds itself gloried in a documentary titled The Island President; it was made by Hollywood’s Jon Shenk, one of the directors on the iconic Star Wars space saga.

As president, Nasheed’s policies were largely influenced by the West. His economic policies were based on the International Monetary Fund model of capitalism. He was also hailed by the West when he conducted an underwater Cabinet in 2009 to highlight the threat of global warming to the low-lying Indian Ocean nation.

Despite receiving accolades from the West, his love for India hasn’t diminished. His fascination for Indian cinema is deep. “I have been a fan of all the stars of the 80s – Amitabh Bachchan, the Kapoors and Mithun. I seem to keep going back to Abhimaan, Silsila and Kabhie Kabhie over and over again,” he laughs, adding, “I can never forget Zeenat Aman and Poonam Dhillon.” His exposure to Bollywood happened during his various trips to India as a teenager. On his first visit as a teenager, he travelled across India by train for four months. Later, as a politician too, he travelled to New Delhi and Bangalore several times; his last trip to India was in 2015. “I like living in India,” he says.

A history enthusiast, Nasheed has authored three books on Maldivian history. A former journalist and an avid reader, Nasheed is currently reading Shashi Tharoor’s An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India.

Nasheed is a fitness freak too. He wakes up early and his 40-minute run is regimented. He is extremely careful about his lunch and dinner timings. A family man, Nasheed loves spending time with his wife, Laila, and two daughters, Mira and Zaaya, who study in a boarding school in England.

But then his life in UK is only transitory. He aims to be back home. “Soon,” he insists. He compares his state of homelessness to what Salman Rushdie has mentioned in his book, Imaginary Homelands. “I am always imagining home and the condition itself is not easy. And I don’t want to remain like this.” For things to change faster for him, he has been trying to shore up support back home through social media, especially Twitter. He claims a large number of his 85.1K followers on Twitter are young men and women in their early 20s: “Successful politics in the 21st century is instant – on Twitter.”

That’s where he “met” Modi too. “Recently, Modi retweeted one of my tweets on democracy. I would consider that as our meeting,” he says.

But perhaps he’d like to take a break from that virtual meeting and make it real.


Son of a businessman, the 1967-born Nasheed is educated in his own country, as well as Sri Lanka and Britain

He is in his 20s when he comes to be known as an outspoken critic of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s regime

1991: Arrested for the first time for writing a magazine piece alleging that the government had rigged the 1989 general elections. Named Amnesty International prisoner of conscience thereafter

It is said that in the next 17 years, Anni – as he is popularly known – was arrested 20 times

2001: Tries to register the Maldivian Democratic Party but fails. Finally, he succeeds in 2005

2008: Elected president in the Maldives’ first free polls, thus ending the 30-year rule of Gayoom

His presidency is not entirely smooth. And in 2012, he resigns

In 2015, he is awarded a 13-year prison sentence on terrorism charges. Shortly after, he asks to be allowed to travel to the UK for medical treatment. The UK has been his home since.


April 16, 2017


  • ranginee09: It is clear, justice eludes many but to imprison a man for his humanitarian deeds in a civilised society leaves an permanent blotch in our criminal ju
  • ranginee09: The article points-out a very pertinent social ill. Social ostracisation in childhood may have unwanted results later in life. A child victim is not a
  • Seeker and her search: Thanks for reading, Anne. Yes, I know what you are saying.