Archive for the ‘Religion and Conflict’ Category


The Muslim missionary group Tablighi Jamaat has insisted they are being unfairly blamed after Muhammad Saad Kandhalvi, who heads their New Delhi centre, was on Wednesday charged with culpable homicide for holding a religious event that fuelled a surge in Covid-19 cases in India.
“We are being targeted as if Indians are getting infected only because of us,” said Mohammad Ashraf, a Delhi-based member of the group, who said it was the victim of media “propaganda” and would fight the charges against Khandalvi in court.

Twenty-four people who attended a Tablighi Jamaat gathering in New Delhi from March 13-15 tested positive for the coronavirus on March 31. The city’s authorities on Wednesday said 1,080 of the 1,561 cases in New Delhi were linked to the gathering, while more than 25,500 people connected to it have been quarantined.

India has 13,430 cases of Covid-19 and 448 deaths.

Soon after the cases were reported, the group’s international headquarters in Delhi’s mostly Muslim Nizamuddin area was sealed. Thousands of followers – including some from Indonesia, Malaysia and Bangladesh – were taken into quarantine by police after it emerged they had attended meetings there in mid-March.

Anil Mittal, a spokesman for the Delhi Police, confirmed charges of culpable homicide not amounting to murder would be laid under Section 304 of the Indian Penal Code, saying: “Investigation is on and arrest will happen.”

Another senior Delhi police official, speaking anonymously, said those charges were added to the initial brief after the deaths of some members of Tablighi Jamaat.

Mittal described the allegation that Tablighi Jamaat had been targeted for being a Muslim group as “baseless”.

Authorities have said some of those infected at the gathering had died, although the numbers have not yet been released. They also said people from other parts of the country and abroad kept visiting the five-storey building, and that the group had delivered sermons to large groups of people despite government orders on social distancing.

Tablighi Jamaat member Ashraf, however, said the visits occurred before India imposed restrictions on movement or gathering.

“On a daily basis, hundreds of members who pass by Delhi stop by at the headquarters. There were many such visitors even in March,” he said. “Later, many members were stranded after the curfew was announced on March 22, and thereafter the nationwide lockdown on March 25.”

He insisted that local police were informed of the presence of many members inside the building and that the group’s members cooperated with medical officers who came to inspect the premises.

Once the lockdown was announced, Ashraf said other Tablighi Jamaat gatherings scheduled in India were cancelled. “We are law-abiding citizens, not criminals,” he said.

A gathering in Malaysia organised by the same group in February was attended by 16,000 people and resulted in more than 700 infections there, while attendees also spread the coronavirus to Thailand, Brunei and Singapore. A planned March gathering in Indonesia was cancelled at the last minute.

Legal expert Faizan Mustafa pointed out that charging Delhi chief Khandalvi with culpable homicide was “wrong” because he did not organise the event to cause death. “Khandalvi had put himself at risk too by organising the event,” he said.

Francis Robinson, a University of London professor who is an expert on Muslim politics and Islamic institutions in South Asia, said India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and the Delhi police had a record of “unfair action against Muslims”.

Khandalvi had on March 19 played down the risk of Covid-19 infection by calling the coronavirus azaab – meaning divine punishment – and said it was a falsehood that people gathering in mosques would lead to more infections.

When the content of his speech went viral on social media, many Muslims distanced themselves from the group by calling it “insensitive” and “foolish”.

Delhi Minorities Commission chairman Zafarul-Islam Khan on Friday called Tablighi Jamaat members “callous” for organising an event at a time when the coronavirus had spread widely in Southeast Asia, but he also blamed the government for allowing international delegates to enter India at such a time.

“The government should not have given them visas in the first place. Even if they had come, they should have been screened at the airport, how did they reach the venue?” said Khan, who added that gatherings in several Hindu places of worship had taken place around the same time.

Soon after the incident, a large section of right-wing Hindus ostracised Muslims on social media. Many Muslims were blamed for spreading the virus by not wearing masks amid claims they had attended prayers in the mosque even during the lockdown.

Shivraj Singh Chouhan, chief minister of the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, last week blamed Tablighi Jamaat for a spike in cases in his state, but experts have since disputed his claim. Media reports on Wednesday claimed a government-run hospital in Ahmedabad, in the western Indian state of Gujarat, segregated coronavirus patients based on their religion.

“What is surely upsetting for Indian Muslims is the number of fake stories and images being circulated on social media under the hashtag #CoronaJihad,” said historian Shail Mayaram from the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in Delhi.

Mujibur Rehman of Jamia Millia Islamia’s Centre for Social Exclusion said the government’s move to make the Tablighi Jamaat event look like the primary reason for the spread of Covid-19 in India was “wrong”.

This will eventually lead to more “disenchantment, frustration and anxiety among Muslims and also others who don’t want laws to be selectively used by the government against one community”, Rehman said.

Founded in 1926 in India, Tablighi Jamaat has a presence in nearly 200 countries and wields considerable influence in Islamic communities. The group is a global missionary society or initiative that champions practising Islam as it was during in the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad, from dressing to customs and rituals.

“One of the biggest motivations of Muslims who join the group is to move around in different places and preach Islam. But they travel and live moderately and are self funded,” Rehman said.

Robinson from the University of London said its members came from all classes but the bedrock of its support was “lower-middle-class Muslims”.

Additional reporting by Reuters


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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

The story appeared in Ozy:

The lanes of Bow Barracks (Photo: Sonia Sarkar)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

  • Social change in the kingdom has had a positive economic impact, as more women join the workforce
  • But true gender equality remains a long way off, with concerns including the male guardianship system and treatment of female rights activists

A local goddess has been the unifying force between Hindu and Muslim communities in the mangrove forests of the Sundarbans. In recent times, however, threats to this tradition of syncretism have emerged

It was 9am when Alam Mia, a moule (honey collector in Bengali), went into the forest with six others to collect the reddish-amber padma modhu (lotus honey). He kept an eye on the movement of honey-loaded bees to spot the beehives. He didn’t really notice the tiger that grabbed him by the neck. The blood-soaked loin cloth fell off his body, the knife to cut the hive and the steel vessel to store the honey lay scattered. As his companions rushed to the boat to save themselves, a naked Alam was dragged deep into the forest by the tiger. When he regained consciousness, he was lying under a date-palm tree. He spotted a boat in the distance and crawled towards it. He was admitted to hospital. It took him six months to recover and return to the forest to collect honey.

Eleven years have passed and Alam has had two more close shaves with tigers. “But I am alive only because of Bonbibi,” says the 65-year-old from Kalitala in West Bengal’s 24 North Parganas district, the last village on the Indian side of the border with Bangladesh, adjoining the Sundarbans Tiger Reserve. “Nobody else has the power to save people from tigers except her. She listens to my prayers always,”he adds.

When Alam’s Hindu neighbour and another tiger-attack survivor, 67-year-old Sahadev Mandal, goes into the forest to collect honey and beeswax, he too relies upon Bonbibi. “Before we leave the boat, we remember Bonbibi and tell her that she is the only saviour. There is nobody else in our mind,” Mandal says.

In the Sundarbans, the largest mangrove forest in the world, encompassing an area of 25,500 sq. km and straddling India and Bangladesh, the mythological Bonbibi has traditionally been a unifying force between Hindus and Muslims. People of the two communities who collect honey, beeswax, crabs and fish venerate Bonbibi, who is believed to be the daughter of a Muslim fakir, Ibrahim, from Mecca in Saudi Arabia.

The Hindu majority of the Sundarbans, distributed over the North and South 24 Parganas districts, has set up temples to worship Bonbibi but Muslims too participate in the annual Bonbibi festival, generally held in January. Typically, Brahmin priests are not invited to perform prayers for Bonbibi. Forest dwellers, including Muslims, read out Bonbibijoburanamah—the holy script describing her acts of kindness.

It is Muslim women like Nadira Bibi of Gosaba village in South 24 Parganas who make the kheer-khairaat (rice pudding) offered to the deity during the festival. “My mother-in-law used to make it earlier, now I do it. It’s part of our culture,” says the 35-year-old.

Over the past four years, when communal harmony in West Bengal has been disrupted by a series of riots, the Sundarbans area has remained free of violence. Bonbibi, popularly introduced to the world beyond the Sundarbans by author Amitav Ghosh in his book The Hungry Tide, not only binds these two communities but also ethnic groups like the Santhal, Munda and Oraon. “These communities worship Bonbibi for self-sustenance and mutual existence,” says sociologist Amrita Sen, assistant professor, department of humanities and social sciences, Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur. In a paper titled Traditional Livelihoods And Survival Crisis: The Politics Of Biodiversity Conservation In Sundarban, West Bengal (2017), Sen writes that it is because of this “collective pursuit of protection” that Bonbibi “transcends communal barriers”.

But though the belief remains strong, there are signs of change, and cracks between the two communities. The villagers’ relationship with Bonbibi is seeing a shift as the local economy transforms from a nature-dependent one to a wage-based one. Locals have, uncharacteristically, started worshipping other deities, like goddesses Durga and Kali, and adopting the religious practices of “mainland” Bengal, such as offering coconuts. A small section of people have even renamed Bonobibi “Bonodebi”, given “Bibi” is the Islamic way of addressing Muslim girls, says Gosaba-based historian Dulal Singha. In May, a local Bharatiya Janata Party leader of Gosaba, Paritosh Mandal, even claimed that Muslims had never worshipped Bonbibi.

In most parts of the Sundarbans, however, Bonbibi still remains the glue between Hindus and Muslims. Bonbibi paalagaan, a traditional dramatic performance to invoke the deity’s blessings, has been influenced by both Hindu and Islamic cultures. “There are Muslim characters and iconography. Plus, Islamic terms are used in the narrative. There are many Muslim members in the various troupes,” says Kalitala-based singer Palash Mandal, a popular paalagaan performer.

Legend has it that Bonbibi, along with her brother Shah Jangali, was sent by Allah to protect the islanders from tigers. Bonbibi is said to have once saved a shepherd boy, Dukhe, from the clutches of Dokkhin Rai, a powerful demon king in tiger’s guise. After the defeat, Rai accepted Bonbibi as his mother. Since then, it is believed that Bonbibi can save people from tigers.

Locals have their own reasoning for tiger kills. According to media reports, 11 people were killed by tigers between December last year and July. “In one of the cases, a man locked in the animal’s jaws for about 10 minutes was rescued after the tiger fell into a pit. But the man couldn’t survive for long, he passed away in the hospital,” 65-year-old crab collector Riaqat Ali of Kalitala recalls.

“People who don’t offer prayers to Bonbibi before setting out for the forest face dangers,” says fisherman and honey collector Noor Ali Gazi of Kalitala, who claims to have once fought a tiger solely with the help of a wooden stick. Honey collectors say they maintain a certain discipline while extracting resources from the forest. For example, they always leave behind a considerable part of the hive so that the bees can make a new one within 14-15 days. Plus, they offer honey to Bonbibi after the first chunk of a hive is broken. Locals say only the rich and the greedy are punished by Bonbibi.

“Also, if someone enters the forest between 12-2pm, the time when Bonbibi goes for her Friday prayers, the person is likely to be killed by a tiger,” believes Alam.

Women have their own rituals to ensure the safety of their husbands. “For all the days that their husbands are away in the forest, the wives refrain from putting vermillion on their foreheads, combing their hair, washing utensils and entertaining guests,” says Sen. “This is a tradition followed to ensure that their husbands come back home safely.”

They are even falling back on Bonbibi to cope with new climatic and ecological challenges such as disappearing mangrove forests, rising sea levels, erratic rainfall and cyclones. Recently, cyclone Bulbul caused the maximum damage in the Sundarbans, leading to at least three deaths, according to media reports. A decade ago, Cyclone Aila had killed at least 78 people and destroyed thousands of hectares of mangrove forests. Upasona Ghosh, the co-author of a paper titled Living On The Edge: Climate Change And Uncertainty In The Indian Sundarbans (2018), says these ecological changes have had an increasing impact on the household income of the traditional agro-fishing communities. “The belief in Bonbibi has traditionally given islanders faith in their ability to withstand many changes, including floods and cyclones. It’s their traditional way of coping with tragedies.”

Delhi-based geographer Mehebub Sahana believes it is this deep faith and fear in Bonbibi that could be used to protect the islands from natural hazards and adapt to climate change. Since locals believe Bonbibi to be the custodian of the forests, there is a sense that its overexploitation would enrage her. “It (the belief) could be used to restore the mangrove in the degraded areas, protect river banks, encourage the reduction in the use of plastics and hazardous materials that could indirectly help to cope with the climate change effects in the islands,” says Sahana.

With livelihood patterns changing, nobody is sure how this will play out. Take Alam’s family. He started going into the forest at the age of 12 but his two sons, who are in their early 30s, have never stepped into the forest. Alam says he can earn only about 500-2,000 from each seven-day trip into the forest but his sons, who work as migrant daily wage labourers in cities such as Kolkata, Delhi and Chennai, earn about 5 lakh a year. “Plus, there is no risk to life,” says Alam.

Bonbibi is losing her stronghold in this livelihood transition,” Ghosh observes. Political factors such as the rising influence of Hindutva ideology across Bengal and India, Ghosh says, will also negatively “impact syncretism and indigenous beliefs”.

But Alam believes Bonbibi will save them from all evils.

“For Ma Bonbibi, we are all her children. She knows the colour of our blood is all the same. She would not let us fall prey to tigers or politicians,” he says.


(Published in Mint Lounge on 23 November 2019)

Old Kochi is home to a small community of Kashmiri traders. The weather, the food, the culture, everything is different here. But it has one thing in common with home—the warmth of the people

The half-open grey windows of the white Jewish synagogue, partially visible from the entrance of the by-lane, entice you to explore more. The slanting tiled roofs, the curio shops exhibiting antique and vintage artefacts and the colourful walls, all sport old-world charm in the Jew Town of Mattancherry in Kochi.

Just as you are transported back some centuries, you hear the chants of azadi (freedom). A group of young men are watching a protest video, shot in August in Srinagar, on a mobile phone. A man asks in Kashmiri, “Protest kathaez gov—downtown haez (where did the protest happen—downtown)?” Nodding his head, a young boy replies, “Ahnaez (yes).”

Curio and handicrafts shops in Jew Town.
Curio and handicrafts shops in Jew Town. (Photo: Melton Antony/Mint)

It’s a dull day for business in Jew Town’s Synagogue Lane. The shops in this by-lane, which sell embroidered kurtaspashminas, papier-mâché boxes and hand-knotted silk carpets, are deserted. And the Kashmiri traders who own or work in these shops are catching up on news from home.

“This is the only place in India where we can live the way we want,” says 42-year-old Nasir Hussain, a Kashmiri who hails from Saida Kadal, Srinagar, and runs two shops in Synagogue Lane.

At a time when over eight million people have been through a lockdown in the Kashmir valley, after Article 370 of the Constitution was effectively revoked on 5 August, serene Mattancherry and adjoining Fort Kochi offer the comfort of home to about 500 Kashmiri traders, who own over a hundred shops here.

They first started shifting here when militancy gripped the valley in the late 1980s and early 1990s, following in the footsteps of Gulshan Khatai, the first Kashmiri businessman to open a handicrafts shop in Kochi in 1972. Another trader, Khursheed Geelani opened the first Kashmiri handicrafts shop in Jew Town in 1992. Over the years, many others left strife-torn Kashmir for a peaceful life in this southern port city, about 3,500km away. Everything is different here—the weather, food habits, culture and language. There is, however, one thing in common with Kashmir—the warmth of the people.

Hussain is one of the many Kashmiris who have settled here. As a 17-year-old from Saida Kadal, he says he wanted to escape the daily intimidation by security forces. “They frisked me every time I stepped out of home. They would not even let me put my hands inside the pheran (loose Kashmiri cloak) even in cold winters, as if I was carrying a gun under the pheran,” he recalls.

After he cleared class XII in 1999, Hussain left to work at a handicrafts factory in Madurai, without informing his family. In 2001, he was sent to Kochi when the company opened a unit there. Four years later, he opened his own shop on Princess Street in Fort Kochi. Today, he owns four shops—two each in Fort Kochi and Jew Town.

Hussain is married to a local Malayali, Mouhzeena Nibras. He met her in 2003—she was studying in a school close to his shop. Tasked with an assignment on the Shia Muslims of Kashmir, she sought the help of Kashmiri shop-owners like Hussain. They fell in love and married nearly seven years later, in 2010. Some local Kashmiris objected—Hussain is Shia and Mouhzeena, Sunni. “For us, religion and its complexities were never important. We were in love with each other and it was good enough a reason to get married,” says Mouhzeena.

“This is my home now,” says Hussain.

In August, an IAS officer from the state, Kannan Gopinathan, resigned from the civil service in protest against the lockdown in Kashmir. “People of India have failed Kashmiris, we didn’t stand for them, we never registered our protest against the lockdown. It is shameful that Kashmiris feel safe only in Kerala. The onus is on us, Indians, to build a safe environment across the country,” Gopinathan tells Lounge.

In today’s polarized India, this could sound like wishful thinking but Kerala, a state with 54.73% Hindus, 26.56% Muslims and 18.38% Christians, is a pluralistic society. Mattancherry and Fort Kochi, former Dutch, Portuguese and British colonies, have remained havens of tolerance, pluralism and multiculturalism. Yamini Nair, co-author of One Heart. Two Worlds. (2019), says the 5 sq. km radius of Mattancherry has traditionally been a multicultural space. It is home to at least 39 communities, including Jews, Sindhis, Konkanis, Rajasthanis, Tamil Vannans, Gowda Saraswat Brahmins, Dakhinis (from Hyderabad), Anglo-Indians (from Goa), early settlers from Yemen, and now Kashmiris. “It has always showered its warmth to all; it gave equal space to all,” Nair says.

She adds that historical evidence shows that the earliest Jewish traders, popularly known as Malabari Jews, landed in present-day Kodungallur as early as 970 BC. They dealt in spices, silk, pearls, ivory and animals. Apparently, they later shifted south to Kochi, owing to floods.

Jew Town is named after a later community of primarily European Jewish migrants, also called Paradesi Jews, who arrived from Spain in the 15th century. “The Hindu kings of Kerala warmly welcomed the Jewish settlers over the years and gifted them several pieces of land. The Paradesi synagogue in the Jew Town of Mattancherry is built upon one such piece of land,” Nair says.

You have to cross the Kashimir handicraft shops to enter the Paradesi synagogue.

“Interestingly, the clock tower of the synagogue itself is an example of the multiculturalism of this place: The numbering of the clock is done in four different languages—Hebrew, Arabic, Malayalam and Roman,” says Nair, adding that there are only five Jews left in Mattancherry. The others have left or passed on.

Historian Rajan Gurukkal says, “The contiguous existence of synagogues, churches and the temples and mosques accounts for the mutually complementary coexistence of communities.”

Sajid Khatai at his shop in Jew Town
Sajid Khatai at his shop in Jew Town (Photo: Melton Antony/Mint)

This year, on Eid, when the Kashmiris went for morning prayers to a mosque in Fort Kochi, they prayed for peace in the valley. “This Eid, we were only worried about our families back home. For the first time, we had no celebrations for Eid, there were no guests or special dinner,” says 44-year-old shop owner Sajid Khatai, originally from downtown Srinagar. Usually, festivals in Mattancherry are occasions for communities to celebrate together and savour fusion cuisines such as the coconut milk curries of the Malayalis, the papadams popularized by the Gowda Saraswat Brahmins and the brown gram of the Gujaratis.

“Even though most Kashmiris avoided eating beef in Kashmir to not hurt the sentiments of their Pandit neighbours, they have taken to Malabar parantha and beef curry, the popular cuisine of Malayalis here,” Sajid says.

Kashmiri children go to local schools and speak fluent Malayalam. Hussain’s two children—a nine-year-old daughter and five-year-old son—have picked up Kashmiri during their annual visits to Kashmir. They are fond of Kashmir but often fail to understand the complexities of the conflict.

“This year, while stepping out of Srinagar airport, when my son gave a salute to the tricolour because he has learnt to do so in school, one of my relatives objected to it. My son was confused; he asked me the reason for their objection. I was not sure how to explain the strained relationship between the Indian government and people of Kashmir to a five-year-old,” Hussain says.

The lockdown in Kashmir has impacted business in Mattancherry too.

Hussain says he had ordered items such as carpets, shawls and papier-mâché boxes worth 10 lakh in June—these still haven’t arrived from Kashmir. “The labourers working in shawl factories were mostly from Bihar, and they left Kashmir. The colours required for papier-mâché are not available since the markets are closed. After having been stuck in their homes for about four months, people don’t know where to pick up their scattered lives from,” says Hussain.

About 150 unemployed men from Kashmir have arrived to work in their shops since the lockdown in August.

Parvaiz Ahmed Dar of Srinagar is one of them. Dar, 28, used to earn about 15,000 a month as a salesman at a handicrafts shop in Srinagar—but the lockdown changed that. Now the sole bread-winner for a family of eight, he arrived in Fort Kochi about a month ago. “Safety is the bonus here,” says Dar, who earns 12,000 a month now. “There is no frisking, no questioning and no detention by police.”

Of course, the local police do keep an eye on them. Sajid, who heads the Kashmiri traders welfare association in Kochi, routinely provides them an updated list of all Kashmiri shop-owners and workers. His strong connect with the place, however, remains intact.

“This is a truly cosmopolitan and secular place which welcomes everyone,” Hussain says. “It is India, yet not India.”

The story was published on 13 December 2019 in Mint Lounge :


New Delhi is stepping up arrests of Kashmiri clerics and monitoring mosques, sparking concerns of a religious crackdown, not just a political one.

By Sonia Sarkar

It was a dark Eid for 11-year-old Saeed Mutaiba this August. When she returned home from a brief vacation at her grandfather’s house, she discovered police taking away her father, Mohammed Ameen, a prayer leader at Jamia Masjid in Awantipora, in the strife-torn region of Jammu and Kashmir. She, her mother and her 6-year-old brother have repeatedly visited the police station to appeal for his release — in vain.

“He looked tired. I felt helpless that I couldn’t do anything for him,” says the young girl.

A secular democracy, India has long tried to avoid emphasizing the religious undertones to the conflict in Kashmir, blaming it instead solely on Pakistan-backed militancy there. But in recent months, police have stepped up arrests of Islamic clerics and prayer leaders and clamped down on mosques in what was the country’s only Muslim-majority state. That has coincided with the Indian government’s move on Aug. 5 to strip off the constitutional provisions of autonomy Kashmir enjoyed while placing the region under lockdown. Though there is no official number of arrests, the government’s approach — which it argues is necessary for the region’s security — threatens India’s credibility, say analysts.



Ameen, 39, was arrested on Aug. 6. In June, the police arrested a cleric in north Kashmir’s Kupwara district. In March, two imams in south Kashmir’s Pulwama were arrested. The head of a religious body was denied a passport after he was charged with “anti-India” activities. Since Aug. 5, policemen in plainclothes are also recording the khutbahs (sermons) read out in mosques after Friday prayers, law enforcement officials concede. On Eid, Jamia Masjid and the Hazratbal Shrine — two of Kashmir’s most iconic shrines — were shut.

Donations made to Baitulmal, the charity fund in mosques, are being monitored. Police are asking clerics to divulge details of relatives living in Kashmir and in Pakistan. Their bank accounts are being scrutinized, officials say, arguing that these moves are aimed at preventing the radicalization of youth in mosques.

“We know who is what in the mosques and how anti-India messages are spread by these clerics and religious institutions,” says Dilbag Singh, the police chief of Jammu and Kashmir.

Indeed, religious organizations like the Jamaat-e-Islami Jammu and Kashmir have long espoused the right to self-determination. And Indian officials too have kept the group’s imams under surveillance earlier. Others, like Jamia Masjid imam Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, have been detained multiple times over the past three decades. But earlier Indian governments have tried to avoid the impression that they’re against religious bodies, by only targeting individuals. Farooq has been part of negotiations on Kashmir’s future.

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Friday prayers at Srinagar airport, Jammu and Kashmir.


This February though, India banned the Jamaat. And now, notwithstanding ideological affiliations, all imams and mosques are under vigil. In September, religious processions for Muharram — the day of mourning the tragedy of Karbala — were banned in parts of Kashmir. Officials accuse some mourners last year of holding aloft portraits of slain militant leader Burhan Wani. “We use every occasion to remind ourselves that our fight is for freedom,” says Ubaid, who requested that his last name not be used, in downtown Srinagar’s Soura neighborhood.

But the Indian government is now increasingly blurring the line it maintained between religion and security practices, say many experts. Delhi-based strategic affairs analyst Ajai Sahni calls the clampdown on mosques and religious leaders by the ruling Hindu-nationalist BJP government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi “ideology-driven.”

“The BJP’s strategy is to polarize and demonize Kashmiri Muslims,” he says. “These actions largely express communal prejudice compounded by an electoral calculus for political gains outside Kashmir.” The government’s moves, he says, are “intended to intimidate people of the Kashmir valley and tell them, ’Look, this is what we can do to you.’”

Hafsa Kanjwal, assistant professor of history at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania, says the current Indian government sees the Muslim identity of Kashmiris as a threat. She says the efforts to exert control over religious spaces and leaders “is not surprising.”

India, experts point out, has seen worse threats to its sovereignty over Kashmir, such as in 1989, when local men picked up guns demanding azaadi (freedom). The government at the time mishandled the crisis, say analysts. Sahni recalls how after the Friday prayers in 1990–91, a section of mosques would name Hindu families and threaten them with violence if they didn’t leave Kashmir. “The government made a strategic error by facilitating their exodus, instead of providing them with security where they were,” Sahni says.

Yet there was no crackdown on religious institutions then. Now, a policeman at Awantipora police station has no hesitation in telling me on a Friday afternoon in August that he’s rushing to the Jamia Masjid — to “lead the prayers” — instead of letting the imam do so.

Some clerics point to the fact that especially over the past five years since Modi came to power, many educated Kashmiris, including engineers, research scholars and professors, have joined militancy. “If mosques are the only places of radicalization, then why would a research scholar or engineer join militancy?,” asks Hilal Ahmed, a 29-year-old imam at a Srinagar mosque.

But the government’s strategy could backfire, caution analysts. “Long detentions of religious leaders … [instead] of the narrow targeting of the troublemakers, will be interpreted as a broader communal assault on the Muslims,” Sahni warns.

For the moment though, those suffering the most are families like Ameen’s. Mutaiba’s wait for her father continues.



Now India Clamps Down on Kashmir’s Mosques