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Posts Tagged ‘Kashmir

On Independence Day, the only noise on the street was that of helicopters circling overhead

  • Published 4.09.19, 1:14 AM
  • Updated 4.09.19, 1:14 AM
A Kashmiri man carries a child on his shoulders in a closed market area in SrinagarAP

As the aircraft was about to descend, the flight attendants started pulling down the window shades hurriedly for “security reasons”.

We were landing in Srinagar.

In the course of the next three days in the Valley, I encountered barbed wire, checkpoints, road diversions and metal shutters on my way to meet dozens of people whose voices have been cut off from the mainstream since August 5, the day Parliament abrogated Article 370 and 35A, which gave special status to Kashmir.

Listen in.

August 14, Srinagar.

In a cab, 7:25 am

Taxi driver Hilal, 42: “Everything was running fine, tourists poured in, there was good business. Then they destroyed it completely.”

Hotel Ahdoos, Residency Road, 8:15 am

Receptionist: “There is nothing to eat. No fresh vegetables are available. At best, we could serve you rice and lentils.”

District Commissioner’s Office, Tankipora, 11:30 am

Hundreds are taking the stairs to the first floor, where telephone lines have been set up for people to speak to their families outside the Valley.

“I have been in the queue for the past two hours to call my daughter who is studying in Bangalore. I wanted to inform her that her aunt in Delhi would send her the monthly expenses as banks are closed here,” said 59-year-old Sameer Bhat of Safa Kadal.

Gowhar Mir, 19, a student, requested me to ask the officials for the password of the Wi-Fi connection: “You are an Indian, they won’t refuse you. We can connect with your phone via Bluetooth, and use it for money transfer to my brother studying in Mohali.”

I disappointed him. I couldn’t ask for the password. As I stepped out, I bumped into a huge board showcasing the promises of ‘Digital India’.

Gojwara Chowk, Downtown Srinagar, 1:10 pm

A group of seven paramilitary personnel were screaming at three little boys with stones in hand.

Zafar Mahmood, 14 (student): “The jawans brought in some milk packets to distribute among locals two days back. But nobody took them. They would distribute a few packets and shoot a video and tell the world how humane they are.”

Gousia Colony, Bemina, 4 pm

Mehboob, 41 (businessman): “Indian media is showing that everything is normal. We were not even allowed to go to our mosques on the day of Eid. If everything was normal, why have they caged us?”

Dalgate, 5:30 pm

Zaffer Ahmed Boktoo, 50 (hotel owner): “Big leaders look for solutions, criminals look for ways to create problems. For us, they are only creating problems.”

Residency Road, 7:10 pm

As I stepped out of the police station after making a call from the mobile phone of a cop kept exclusively for reaching out to people outside Kashmir, a man asked, “Could you make a call?” When I nodded, he said, “But they don’t allow us in because we are terrorists.”

August 15, Independence Day.

Lal Chowk, 12 noon

The only noise on the street was that of helicopters circling overhead.

2:30 pm

Ubaid Mehraj, 22 (student): “Independence Day is for a selective few. Interestingly, the pro-government people are under house arrest too. What could Independence Day mean for people of Kashmir whose freedom has been taken away?”

Nowhatta, 4:25 pm

Nasir Ahmed, 49 (shop owner): “Even 10-12 year olds have been picked up randomly from this area before Independence Day. If India considers us its own, let me ask, which country does this to its own children?”

Dalgate, 6:10 pm

Shikarawallah (refused to give his name): “They asked the tourists to leave first. Were we killing them? We ourselves are dead, you have put us in jails. How long this cruelty would go on? ”

August 16.

Tral town, 8:00 am

Muzaffar Wani, father of the slain Hizb-ul Mujahideen militant, Burhan: “I never want the children to pelt stones but they don’t listen to anyone. I never told my child to pick up gun but he did… As adults, we still can bear the torture but children don’t have the strength to bear the torture.”

Eijaz, 35 (pharmacy owner): “My stock of medicines for diabetes and hypertension is over but I cannot go to Srinagar to collect them because I couldn’t get a curfew pass.”

Tariq Dar, 49 (contractor): “This is not democracy. All of this is done with a muscular approach. There is simply no dialogue India wants with us.”

On the highway, near Khanabal, 10: 15 am

Abdul Hamid, 45, (kulcha seller): “The BJP has betrayed us. Yeh kaun sa hukumat hai?”

Dangarpura, Awantipora, 11:15 am

Rasheed, 24 (unemployed): “My uncle, an imam with the local Jamia Masjid, was picked up by the police on August 6 without any charges. We have no clue when he would be released.”

Awantipora Jamia Masjid, 11:45 am

Milkman Nisar Ahmed, 49: “Yahan sirf fauj ka gasht hai, hum nahin chal sakte rasto mein.”

Delhi-bound flight, 5 pm

Fellow passenger: “Would you write what you saw and heard in these three days? Or would you too say, ‘All’s well’?’”

(It was published on September 4, 2019 in The Telegraph, https://www.telegraphindia.com/opinion/excerpts-from-the-kashmir-diary/cid/1702365)

By Sonia Sarkar

World’s largest democracy, India, is electing the representatives for its next Parliament but a large section of people in the Indian–administered Kashmir has chosen to boycott. Amid the unprecedented deployment of security forces and internet shut down, nobody came to vote at 122 polling booths in Kulgam of Anantnag constituency on Monday.  The trend was similar in other two constituencies – Srinagar and Baramulla.  No votes were cast in, at least, 107 polling booths there a fortnight ago.

Srinagar-based Asma Firdous, who had taken to streets against Indian security forces with Franz Kafka in her bag and stone in hand, refused to get her finger inked in the ongoing elections. This 26-year-old postgraduate student, who often chanted slogans of  “Azadi (freedom)” on the streets, says –“We don’t consider ourselves as Indians, nor do the Indians consider us as one of their own, why vote for India, then?

Like her, many Kashmiris allege, India is only concerned about retaining Kashmir as its territory but never considered them as its own people. This disillusionment has been growing among Kashmiris ever since the Hindu-nationalist Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – came to power in 2014. The party articulated its core agenda to abrogate Article 370 and 35 A, which give autonomy to Kashmir and permanent residency to state subjects under Indian Constitution, respectively. Kashmiris allege, BJP is trying to change the demography of Muslim-dominated Kashmir, the strife-torn Valley of India over which at least two wars have been fought with Pakistan.

Poll boycott in Kashmir is a stern message to New Delhi and Narendra Modi that Kashmiris don’t trust them, Srinagar-based political scientist Sheikh Showkat Hussain says. “This is also an indication that the alienation has reached at such a level that people have become indifferent now.”

In 2014, BJP also formed a coalition with Kashmir’s People’s Democratic Party (PDP) to govern the state of Jammu and Kashmir. Thereafter, it intensified Army excess – crackdown, detentions and killings. At least 100 civilians were allegedly killed and hundred more were blinded by pellet guns when they protested against the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander, Burhan Wani, a Kashmir boy. Human rights activists claim, at least, 57 civilians killed in 2017 and 80 in 2018 allegedly by security forces during street protests. In 2017, an Army officer even tied up a Kashmiri to the front of his jeep and used him as a human shield to ward off stone pelters.

Kashmiris argue they have no reason to vote for a country which uses its brutal forces against them.  “India is a land of Nathuram Godse, the man who killed Gandhi, the peacemaker. Why vote for a country run by fascists?” asks human rights defender Khurram Parvez, who was detained for 76 days on charges of being an “instigator “of violence three years ago.

The latest bone of contention of Kashmiris is the gag order from New Delhi banning civilians from travelling on a key highway, which connects Kashmir to its twin city, Jammu, twice a week. The ban came after Pakistan-based terror group Jaish-e-Mohammed’s Kashmiri militant killed 42 Indian soliders in a suicide attack on the same highway. Kashmir doesn’t like this high-handedness by New Delhi. It started an arms movement pressing for the right to self-determination in 1989. After a lull period in the mid and late 2000, youths have started joining militancy again – 191 joined in 2018 and 126 in 2017, as per Army records. But the anti-India sentiment is so strong especially among the educated middle class that they call them “our boys,” not terrorists. A common narrative is – “If there is terrorism in Kashmir, it is in the hands of men in uniform.”

It is this hatred against India that pulls  them  away from the democratic process of polling. Kashmir never witnessed huge turnout in parliamentary elections — it was 50 per cent in 2014 — highest as compared to 40 per cent in 2009 and 35 per cent in 2004. But this year, it looks abysmally low so far. Out of the six parliamentary constituencies in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, three –Srinagar, Baramulla and Anantnag – are in Kashmir Valley, others in Jammu and Ladakh. The voter turnout was 34.1 per cent in north Kashmir’s peaceful Baramulla constituency, still five per cent less as compared to the last general elections in 2014. Barring the Congress bastions of Dooru, Kokernag and Shangus, the turnout was exceptionally low in militancy-hit south Kashmir’s Anantnag constituency, where polling is scheduled in five phases, last one slated for May 6. Anantnag’s Bijbehara, the home turf for PDP head and former chief minister Mehbooba Mufti, recorded only 2.04 per cent voting as opposed to 36 per cent in 2014. No votes were cast in 40 polling booths in Bijbehara. Fearing resentment of people, who feel betrayed by PDP for joining hands with BJP, Mehbooba couldn’t campaign there. It’s a different story that the allies fell out and Kashmir is under President’s rule now.

In an exclusive telephonic interview, Mehbooba Mufti tells me, her party’s “credibility has been tainted.” “People are angry and disillusioned. They feel democracy is limited to elections, there is no democracy after elections,” she says.

People allege, both mainstream politicians –Mehbooba and her rival Omar Abdullah of National Conference – never kept their promises of demilitarization. “People know these leaders can’t do anything in Parliament without orders from New Delhi,” says Parvez of Srinagar, where the voter turnout was 14 per cent as compared to 26 per cent in 2014.

Barring a routine boycott call by Hizbul Mujahideen’s Kashmir chief Riyaz Naikoo on social media and a press note on the same by separatist alliance, All Party Hurriyat Conference, there has been no organised campaign on poll boycott unlike previous years. “At this juncture, people don’t need any leader to decide for them, they boycotted voluntarily,” says Firdaus Ahmad Shah, chairman of Democratic Political Movement, part of the alliance.

It is believed, those who voted are party cadres, relatives of political parties and tribals in the hilly terrain. Political activist Javaid Trali of Tral in south Kashmir, Burhan Wani’s home district, says, he would vote on May 6 because he “believes in exercising his democratic right.”

People who vote are stigmatized as “traitors” by many.  “When people vote, India tells the world, Kashmir is with us, which is not true,” adds 35-year-old pharmacist Nasir Patiguru of Anantnag.

The participation of villagers, who vote for better roads, electricity, water, employment,  and not much influenced by the sentiment of “Azadi.”has been less too this time, “There is no promising candidate; even if we vote, they won’t do anything for us,” alleges 39-year-old Sarir Ahmed Bhat of Srandoo villange in Kulgam, where the voter turnout was 1.7 per cent on Monday.

Former civil servant Shah Faesal, who resigned to protest against “unabated killings” in Kashmir and formed his own political party- Jammu and Kashmir People’s Movement – says, many villagers moved around the polling booths, finished their daily jobs but didn’t go to vote.

There are some who voted to register this dissent. Government clerk Ashiq Hussain Bhat of Srinagar, who voted for NOTA (None of The Above) says, “I voted against poll boycott of separatists. I also voted against ‘mainstream’ politicians who are concerned about capturing state power and resources and don’t want any resolution of Kashmir conflict.”

Meanwhile, Mufti promises to do take up some “confidence-building” measures among people. Is this another poll promise?

(A version of the story with additional inputs has appeared in DW: https://www.dw.com/en/india-elections-why-are-kashmiris-not-voting/a-48547313?fbclid=IwAR0mlTeChBu0D3R0mcemMS3EmzdOyDmog84BvLAUeWo8ox6ZI0UYO4VsQnw)

ENDS

If you think, it is only the Hindu-right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which fans anti-Muslim sentiments, you are wrong. The Communists are no less. The school textbooks in Tripura, a state which was ruled by the Left for over 25 years, would tell you why.

The political science textbook of the state-run schools  labels the “mentality” of Muslims as one of the many causes behind communalism. Plus, it states, the Kashmiris harbour “anti-India” mindset because most of them are Muslims.  This textbook was introduced in February last year by the then CPI(M) government.

As per the chapter titled, “Power division, democracy, gender and caste,” in the English version of the political science textbook of Class X, one of the most important causes of communalism is the mentality of minority communities, “especially the Muslims who could never adjust themselves into the mainstream of the nation.” It further adds, “They have very little interest in involving into the national secular politics. They most of the time try to keep their independent identity. The Muslim intellectuals also have been unable to rouse a feeling of nationalism in the Muslims.”

The same chapter says, “Hindus in India think the Muslims are traitors and fundamentalists. So the Muslims think that they are the second class citizens of this country. And so they are not getting the due respect here. This feeling gives indulgence to communalism.”

Further on, the book listed the “Kashmir issue” as one of the effects of communalism in India. The book states, “As most of the people there (Kashmir) are Muslims, the endeavour to create an anti-India mindset is always there.”

This textbook is written by the former assistant teacher of Calcutta’s Hindu School, Tarak Nath Mallick and published by Calcutta-based Parul Prakashani Private Limited, the leading publisher of textbooks used in all state-run schools in Tripura. The contents of both the English and Bengali versions of the book are the same.

The state education board officials say, they were not aware of these paragraphs in the textbook. “When we had okayed the Bengali version of the book but we didn’t notice this. Now that we have noticed it, we will talk to the publisher and consult our internal expert; we will ensure these portions are removed from the textbook,” Tripura board of secondary education (TBSE) secretary Swapan Kumar Poddar told me on Wednesday.

This book was introduced soon after the new syllabus was framed by the state education board in 2016 keeping NCERT textbooks as a model framework, say officials who served during the Left-regime. Mihir Deb, who was the serving president of TBSE when this textbook was introduced, says, “We didn’t notice this portion but it shouldn’t be there in the textbook. But we always encouraged schools to follow NCERT textbooks.”

Interestingly, the publisher doesn’t think, the content of the book promotes anti-Muslim sentiments. “What is wrong with this? Isn’t it true that terrorist or radical Muslims are not interested into mainstream politics?” asks Gourdas Saha, the director of Parul Prakashani.

According to historian Mridula Mukherjee,  such textbooks would have a negative effect on the minds of the young students. “Such content only promote the stereotypes already existed in the society against the Muslims. Students would start to believe it because it is written in their textbook,” she says.

But interestingly, the same textbook  listed “inter-religious marriages” as one of the methods to prevent communal influences in democracy, an idea highly opposed by the BJP which runs the “love-jihad” campaign to discourage Hindus from marrying Muslims.

Textbooks have created controversies earlier in Tripura too. In 2014, the Left-government had to withdraw the political science textbook of Class XI in which the BJP was tagged as a “communal party.”

Meanwhile, Tripura chief minister Biplab Deb had already announced to replace social science textbooks of Classes IX-XII as he doesn’t want them to study the Russian Revolution, Lenin and Karl Marx.

Here are some of the reactions from people on Twitter when I posted these controversial portions in the textbook on Wednesday.

Calm_Witness Retweeted Sonia Sarkar

Yes, these are simply unpalatable and harmful for the tender minds who would study them and form a dangerous opinion in their formative years.

Calm_Witness added,

  1. Replying to  
  2. Whatever has been written in this book, is right. This is the true fact…. Nobody can deny it. Read your history from 11th century that what you have done with Hindustan, specially with Hindus..

Far removed from political jingoism and posturing, individual efforts are afoot to make whole a splintered Kashmiriness, says Sonia Sarkar

 

 

Only connect: Jaibeer Ahmad (above) and (top) Meanka Handu    

As Facebook pages go, Raabta is fairly basic. A stack of cards in muted colours, the image of a bench emblazoned on each – stark, awaiting its occupants – and jottings upon jottings. In some cases, as the written word spills onto the screen, an audio clip comes alive. Clang, clang, clang, the rabab quivers with emotion, and its soulful notes falling on alien ears seem to emanate from a sad hollow core.

Raabta might mean connection in Urdu, but this page, launched earlier this year, is about lost connections and old yearnings.

The community page for Kashmiris describes itself sans specifics thus – “…a small endeavour to help search and reconnect old friends, neighbours, school mates, colleagues who haven’t heard from each other in three decades.” Gurgaon-based Jaibeer Ahmad, who is from Kashmir, launched it. Ahmad, however, tells The Telegraph, “This page is only to reconnect those who parted ways in 1990 and reconnect them.”

One post is about Chennai-based Samir Pandita who has been looking for his teacher these past 35 years. “My favourite teacher was Mohammed Sayed from Bon-Bhawan Mattan… I am not sure where he is currently.” An S.A. Wahid is looking for classmates Vijay Pandita and Ajay Bhat. He has put out as much detail as he could summon from memory – Vijay lived in a rented house next to Regina cinema, Ajay was from old town Baramulla. More details. Someone is looking for a Vinod Kumar who used to live at Dharkocha near Temple Khankah-i-sokta between Safa Kadal and Nawa Kadal. There is an Anamika from Canada looking for childhood friend Saeba. Someone else looking for a third son “just born in a different house”.

 

When old connections are re-established, those experiences are posted too. A day after Pandita posted his message, his teacher was traced. “We spoke for over 30 minutes on the phone, recalled the school days and caught up with each other’s lives,” says Pandita, who is now a general manager with a chain of hotels. Dubai-based media professional Sameer Bhat connected with neighbour Arun Koul. “Nearly 28 years later when he said ‘hello’ over the phone, I could immediately recognise the voice. He was unmistakably Bunty bya[that’s how Kashmiris pronounce bhaiyya meaning brother].” He adds, “The first thing Bunty bya asked, ‘Do you still wear a watch on your right hand.’ He remembered.” Others recall with fondness, shared feasts, a tumble in the snow, the sheen mohnuv or the snowman.

Meanka Handu, another Kashmiri Pandit who left Srinagar in April 1990, is also trying to reconnect with her homeland, but through humour. The IT professional based in the National Capital Region’s Noida area has started a YouTube channel called “Asvun Koshur”, which means “smiling, happy Kashmiri”. Asvun Koshur contains a series of family-oriented comic video monologues presenting unknown aspects of Kashmiri culture and language. Though Handu keeps switching between Hindi and Kashmiri, the humour eludes translation. But it has traction within the Kashmiri community. The channel to date has 10,000 followers. A lot of elderly people from Kashmir watch her videos. Says Handu, “Language is a common thread that binds us, Kashmiris, regardless of our faith and individual beliefs.”

Raabta and Asvun Koshur are celebrations of a holistic Kashmiriness. Post the outbreak of militancy in the Valley, there was a mass exodus of Kashmiri Pandits. It has almost three decades since, but Pandits continue to ache for the land they had to leave perforce. Kashmiri Muslims stayed on, but life as they knew it changed. While steering clear from all talk of who is to blame for what and who fared the worse, Ahmad and Handu seem to be attempting a social corrective in the interest of Kashmiriyat.

Amit Wanchoo, a Pandit who lives in Srinagar’s Jawahar Nagar, talks about the syncretic culture of the Valley that was. He says, “Pandits ate the halal meat as did Muslims. Before a wedding, a Kashmiri Pandit would seek blessings of the eldest Muslim neighbour and vice versa.” The two communities, apparently, celebrated a series of festivals together. In fact, as a nod to this, Ahmad launched Raabta on Herath or Shiv Ratri.

Some years ago, Wanchoo also started an initiative called Salaam Mahara – that’s how Kashmiri Muslims greet Pandits. It tries to bridge the gap between the two communities. Last year, a programme called Ikwaith or coming together was organised on Eid. This March, another one was organised on Kashmiri new year, Navreh. He organises cultural shows, sponsors trips of Pandit students from Jammu to visit Srinagar and live with locals in camps. “This is how we plan to change the narratives and bridge the gaps between two communities,” says Wanchoo, whose grandfather was killed by militants in 1992.

Bridging the gap is what Delhi-based singer Pragnya Wakhlu is doing too. In one of her songs, titled Henzay – Returning to Peace, she has tried to fuse the Butta and Musalman wanwuns or Hindu and Muslim musical styles. In 2017, she released a Kashmiri-English album, Kahwa Speaks. In the title track, kahwa is the metaphor for Kashmir. She says, “Just as kahwa is made of saffron, cinnamon and cardamom, the fragrance of each coming together to make a wonderful brew, life in Kashmir is beautiful when all the communities come together.”

Raabta founder Ahmad wants to start a campaign next – to reconnect erstwhile neighbours in the Valley, “beyond the virtual world”. He says, “The tagline would be – do you miss your neighbour.”

 

 

 

 

 

https://www.telegraphindia.com/india/bridge-from-lost-to-found-221717?ref=india-new-stry

Sonia Sarkar listens in to the rage and disenchantment feeding the violent student upsurge across the Valley

  • NOT BOUGHT OVER: Those who read Kafka and Shaw too feel the need to protest, say students
    Photographs by Abid Bhat

Girls dressed in white salwar-kameez and black cardigans march fearlessly on the streets of Lal Chowk in central Srinagar. Faces covered with white dupattas, colourful bunny bags slung tight on their backs, they chase uniformed men with stones in their hands.

Among these girls is Asma Firdaus, a second-year student of English Literature at Srinagar Women’s College. “I read Franz Kafka and George Bernard Shaw, yet I go out to raise azadi slogans and pelt stones,” she says.

A few kilometres away, a middle school boy, wearing an olive green pullover and a pair of white trousers, takes the lead as hundreds of boys and girls follow him. He chants, ” Hum zulm ke khilaf hain, khilaf hain” and “College-o mein ghusna band karo.” Others join him in chorus – ” band karo, band karo“.

These are the new images emerging from Kashmir – compelling and powerful. In uniforms, these school and college students have been facing water cannons, tear gas and pellets fired by the forces. These protests send a strong message to Delhi, students assert. “It is a stern reply to the narrative promoted by Delhi that only the uneducated youth of Kashmir, who could be bought over by separatists, come out on the streets to protest,” says Aala Fazili, a research student at Kashmir University.

Fazili is referring to former defence minister Manohar Parrikar’s statement that stone pelters could be bought over by separatists for as little as Rs 500. Clearly, his argument has fallen flat as school and college students come out openly to pelt stones at the forces now.

The immediate provocation was the incident that took place at Pulwama Degree College on April 12. On that day, an army vehicle entered the campus to organise a painting exhibition under its ambitious “Sadbhavna Mission”. Students held massive protests and some even pelted stones at the vehicle forcing the men in uniform to leave the premises. Three days later, on April 15, students staged another protest against a checkpost of Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) troopers, barely a few metres outside the college gate. Police came into the scene to control the agitating crowd; 55 students were injured in the subsequent tear-gassing.

Students narrate their tale of ordeal from that day. “Some of us fell unconscious after being tear-gassed,” says a first-year student of the college. “When we were struggling to come out of the campus, police officials told us that if we ask the boys hiding in classrooms to come out they will not touch anyone. We trusted the police and did as they requested. But the moment the boys came out, police started beating them up ruthlessly,” she adds.

The enquiry commission set up by the government too reveals police atrocities against students. “Police trespassed into the campus,” state education minister Altaf Bukhari says. “And they also beat up students – both boys and girls.”

But the police denies such allegations. “We went to evacuate the campus on the request of the college principal. No force was used against the students,” Syed Javaid Mujtaba Gillani, inspector-general of police of Jammu and Kashmir, tells The Telegraph.

However, the student uproar continued. On April 17, the Kashmir University Students Union (Kusu), a banned organisation, called an all-students’ protest across the Valley. Looking at the mass mobilisation of students, the government shut down the higher secondary schools and colleges from April 18 to 21. But sporadic protests continued across districts – Pulwama, Sopore, Anantnag, Bandipora and Srinagar.

In an Anantnag college, sources tell us, the principal too protested with students. Students from various schools and colleges blocked the arterial Srinagar-Jammu National Highway, crying: ” Awaz do, hum ek hain!

“We cannot allow the forces to damage the sanctity of educational institutions,” says Riddah Qazi, a student of journalism at the Islamic University of Science and Technology in Pulwama’s Awantipora. She wrote her exams before participating in the protest.

Like successive Kashmiri protests, even this one is being seen a result of pent-up anger of the youth against agencies of the state. The current generation of school and college students have grown up witnessing frisking, crackdowns, disappearances, summons to police stations and unprovoked killings, political scientists point out. The recent image of a man tied to an army jeep, used as a human shield, only aggravated the anger of the young Kashmiris. People across the Valley – politicians, separatists and political scientists – call these protests “unprecedented”.

“The biggest significance of this protest is that it’s led by students; it’s not a response to any call by separatists. Yet, the scale of mobilisation is huge,” says Gul Mohammad Wani, professor of Political Science at Kashmir University. He adds, “Plus, the women students are in the forefront. Last but not the least, these students have come out in their uniforms, defying any fear of being identified.”

Even separatists are surprised to see such large-scale protests by students. “Delhi must understand that these students have a mind of their own; their rage is uncontrollable now,” says separatist leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, chairman of the Awami Action Committee.

Students have come out in large numbers in south Kashmir, the stronghold of the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP). Clearly, its ambitious personality development programmes for the youth failed. “There is a sense of defeat and alienation among them,” concedes Waheed-ur-Rehman Para, president of the PDP’s youth wing.

Wani says that the anger of students has spilled out onto the streets because there is no other channel to vent their resentment. In 2010, the Kashmir University banned Kusu and demolished its office; the students’ long-standing demand to conduct a free and fair union election was never addressed.

Mainstream political parties such as the PDP, National Conference and People’s Conference had floated their youth or students’ wings in Kashmir University. The separatist Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front too started a more hardline Islamic Students League in 1985. Prior to this, Islami Jamiat-ul Talba was started in 1977 by the religio-political organisation, Jamaat-e-Islami Kashmir. But only the banned Kusu is popular among the students.

“Only Kusu has the credibility among the masses. It has been able to garner huge support among students only because the state doesn’t want it to function,” says Fazili.

In the past too, students’ movements in Kashmir, primarily led by university students, have played an important role. In the 1920s, Muslims Students and Youngman Association raised its voice against the denial of religious and political freedom by the Dogra rulers. In the 1931 mass uprising too, students came out in large numbers to protest against Maharaja Hari Singh. In 1964, students participated in the Holy Relic ( moe-e-muqaddas) movement. Many students joined the radicalised Al-Fatah in 1965. In 1973, Kashmiri students resisted attempts of authorities to change the name of the Government Women’s College Srinagar to Kamala Nehru College. Again in 1974, students took to the streets when the Indira-Sheikh Accord was signed.

After a lull of nearly a decade, young Kashmiris took to the streets at the peak of militancy in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In the recent past, whenever the Valley was on the boil – 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2016 – youth have been in the forefront of protests but they seldom came out in their school or college uniforms.

“For us this time it’s a uniform (forces) vs uniform (students) fight,” says Zabirah Fazili, an English graduate from Srinagar Women’s College.

These protests have proved another setback to studies as classes resumed only in March after a six-month closure of schools and colleges in 2016 due to protests following the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani.

Some teachers, however, feel that students are using the prolonged conflict as an “excuse” to stay away from classes and exams. “Some students want everything on a platter without any hard work. They have started liking this phase of inertia,” says Syeda Afshana, senior assistant professor at the Media and Education Research Centre in Kashmir University.

The other worry of teachers is the growing Islamisation of the students’ movement. The youth, they say, are increasingly showing readiness to embrace radical forms of Islam. During the latest protests too, students have been shouting “Allaha-o-Akbar” and ” hume kya chahiye – Nizam-e-Mustafa (What do we want? The rule of the Prophet in Kashmir)”.

“Very few students even know the history of Kashmir. They need proper understanding of the issue,” Wani cautions. But the separatist Umar Farooq asserts that the “cat is out of the bag” and nothing can stop the students now.


Kashmiri indignation remains well-fed, generation to generation

I’VE BEEN looking at the renewed powderflash from Kashmir on the television screens, and I’ve been looking at old notes in my diary. Some of it is worth repeating because some things, sadly, never change.

The Bodo jawan, small and fair, stops the small car ahead of us. He leans his head inside and asks the elderly man, in pheran and skull cap, to step out. Taking slow and clumsy steps, the man walks towards the checkpost about 700 metres down the road. His car crawls behind him. We are on a dusty stretch near Padgampora in Pulwama, 35 kilometres south of Srinagar.

It’s our turn now. Curiously, the young soldier allows us through without a question.

“You are spared because you are an Indian,” quips my driver, Mehraj, a burly man in his late 50s. By “Indian” he meant non-Kashmiri.

Random checks, unprovoked summons and unwarranted detentions are common for local Kashmiris. “We are treated as outsiders in our own land” – is a common refrain.

Journalists on assignment from Delhi have it far easier than anyone Kashmiri. While we roam the curfewed streets of Srinagar freely, flaunting the central government’s Press Information Bureau tag, Kashmiri journalists, by contrast, must scout escape routes through Srinagar’s narrow bylanes to reach safety when there’s trouble.

One afternoon, during the 2010 unrest, I was on my way to downtown Srinagar, when I heard a Kashmiri journalist frantically call out. He had been thrashed by CRPF jawans who wouldn’t be convinced that he ran a news agency and actually published “pro-Indian” content.

It’s November 2016. I am back in the Valley. At Bandipora, I am passing by a landscape of burnt tyres, broken spokes and logs of wood. We are manoeuvring through the barricades and gun-toting soldiers. Two militants were killed in a nearby village the previous night.

Kashmir has been on high alert for several months now. A summer full of blooms has been busted by the killing of the young Hizb-ul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani in July. Months of unrest followed. Close to a hundred people died, thousands were injured or permanently disabled, Kashmir recorded its longest time under curfew.

It’s nearing the end of autumn now. In fact, a delayed autumn, Mehraj corrects me. The unusual calm in the fog-ridden air resounds with tales of a wounded summer. The tall chinar trees, bereft of the leaves, stand in a row. The skies are heavy with grey clouds turning darker. We hear thunder in the distance. In a while, thick drops of rain start falling on the windshield. I roll down the window to feel the rain-freshened air.

This sudden downpour is as unpredictable as the unrest in Kashmir, says Basit, a Sopore lawyer, as we munch on crispy lavassas (flat bread made of finely-milled wheat flour), bundhh (salted bun) and chochwour (bread with sesame coating) at his house.

Basit is telling me about the unlawful detention of stone-pelters and how their cases progress in court. As we get engrossed in our conversation, Basit’s little nephew, all of three, sits coyly next to him. He and his elder brother have been confined to home for months now; the schools are shut. His brother is now restless and is keen to go back to school but he isn’t. “Whenever we tell him, he would go to the kindergarten soon, he would say, ‘ Pehle India ko bhagaao, phir school jayenge (Let India leave Kashmir, then I will go to school),” his lawyer uncle says chirpily.

The child looks on with a glassy stare as Basit narrates more stories of his revolt at home. He even ignores his mother’s summons. The boy pulls a kangri (little pot with lighted charcoal) closer to himself for some warmth. I could see the glowing embers of the kangri. These embers, perhaps, resemble the rage of a young Kashmiri.

This rage remained subdued in the autumn and through the winter. But what’s the coming summer, already blistered, to bring? Kashmir is aflame again.

 

Telegraph, April 2, 2017

Link : https://www.telegraphindia.com/1170402/jsp/7days/story_143981.jsp

Sonia Sarkar finds JDU’s Sharad Yadav at his quintessential best – angry, easily affronted, defiant, combative, dismissive

  • Illustration Suman Choudhury

Kashmir’s summer of discontent is writ large on Sharad Yadav’s face. His brows are furrowed and he looks disconcertingly grim. But then the man, who has just returned to Delhi after a futile search for peace in the Valley, has been widely – and perhaps unfairly – pilloried for making an effort to meet separatist leaders.

Some have accused him – and a clutch of other members of Parliament – of overstepping bounds. For Yadav, along with a group of Opposition leaders, had tried to reach out to Kashmiri secessionist leaders. Yadav glowers when I bring this up.

“Kashmir is a 70-year-old issue. How do we solve it in two days,” the 69-year-old leader of the Janata Dal (United) fumes.

Yadav and the 27 other politicians in an all-party delegation of parliamentarians led by home minister Rajnath Singh hadn’t really gone to Kashmir last week to settle the Kashmir conflict. Their attempt was to seek ways to resolve the two-month-long crisis that has brought the Valley to a standstill ever since security forces gunned down the 24-year-old commander of the Hizb-ul Mujahideen, Burhan Wani, on July 8. In an unending cycle of violence, 76 people have been killed by the forces so far. Many hundreds lie injured, some have lost their eyesight.

The JDU leader, along with, among others, Communist Party of India (Marxist) general secretary Sitaram Yechury and Communist Party of India national secretary D. Raja, broke away from the group and knocked at the door of the chairman of the All India Hurriyat Conference, Syed Ali Shah Geelani. Geelani didn’t let them in, and the media was full of images of the stumped parliamentarians standing outside his closed door. Some even labelled him anti-national for breaking ranks with the parliamentary delegation.

“I don’t care who calls me anti-national. Even if Geelani slammed his door on us, we will go again,” Yadav asserts.

Four other separatist leaders – Yasin Malik, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, Shabir Shah and Abdul Gani Bhat – did meet Yadav and his group, but declined to have a dialogue with them on the current crisis. “Their bone of contention was that the central government hadn’t invited them to the talks,” Yadav says. “They promised to meet us in Delhi.”

Yadav holds the state government – an alliance between the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Jammu and Kashmir People’s Democratic Party (PDP) – responsible for the ongoing crisis.

“When they formed the government in the state, the BJP-PDP alliance declared that they would talk to all stakeholders, including the Hurriyat. Before our visit, too, chief minister Mehbooba Mufti had asked separatists to join the talks. Do you really think she invited them without even consulting the Centre? But the home minister said that it (the Centre) had neither said yes, nor said no to it [the MPs’ initiative].”

The confusion, he holds, demonstrates that the BJP is in a bind. “They want to solve the crisis without involving the Hurriyat but the PDP is keen on their participation. There is no co-ordination between the two,” he grumbles.

Yadav blames the Kashmiri youth for the impasse. “The biggest problem in Kashmir is its leaderless youth,” he asserts.

The former minister has just spoken for a few minutes when he waves his hand to indicate that he has had enough of the interview. ” Bas, ho gaya, chalo, chalo (Enough, I am done, you may go now),” he says.

I quickly change the topic, moving to Bihar, thinking that on this issue he may be more forthcoming. This is the state where his party is in power and has introduced Prohibition, which has been roundly opposed by sections of the people. But, no, Yadav is not going to discuss his colleague, JDU president and Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar. “I will not talk about Bihar,” he maintains.

Not even on the alliance in the state between the Congress and the JDU, once known for its anti-Congress stance? ” Main kah raha hoon ki Bihar ke baare mein baat nahin karna chahta (I have told you I don’t want to talk about Bihar),” he replies sternly.

There is speculation in political circles that all is not well between the Bihar CM and Yadav. Nitish Kumar has been calling the shots in the JDU, which was once Yadav’s domain. As the former convenor of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), he had a cordial relationship with senior BJP leaders such as L.K. Advani, Rajnath Singh and Sushma Swaraj. But he had no say when Nitish Kumar severed ties with the BJP and pulled the JDU out of the NDA in 2013, rejecting Narendra Modi as a prime ministerial candidate for the 2014 general elections.

Does Sharad Yadav have no role to play in the JDU anymore? “It’s up to you to analyse,” he says, scratching his grey stubble.

In 2013, the party constitution was amended to enable Yadav to hold a third term as the chief of the party. But earlier this year, Kumar was installed as the JDU president, replacing Yadav. Many thought it was to underline Nitish’s popularity with the electorate – which would help the party in the 2019 general elections.

“It’s natural for people to associate the JDU with Nitish Kumar because he is the chief minister,” Yadav says.

There was a time, though, when the Rajya Sabha MP from Bihar was one of the prominent faces of the Janata Dal and its many avatars. He has had a long political innings, too. Active in student politics, Yadav, who topped his batch in the Jabalpur Engineering College in Madhya Pradesh, was the college students’ union president in 1971.

When he was 27, socialist leader Jayaprakash Narayan asked him to fight a Lok Sabha bypoll from Jabalpur. He won the seat by over one lakh votes. From 1971 to 1974, Yadav, a strong opponent of the ruling Congress, was in and out of jail under the Maintenance of Internal Security Act (Misa).

He has been a familiar political face since then – recognisable in his trademark white dhoti and kurta. He is in his usual attire when we meet in his office at his residence in central Delhi. On the walls are photographs of Mahatma Gandhi, Ram Manohar Lohia and Jayaprakash Narayan.

As a diehard socialist and a follower of Narayan, Yadav surprised many when he joined hands with the BJP as the NDA formed its first coalition government under the leadership of Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

Yadav was known to have enjoyed friendly relations with Vajpayee. How does he get along with Narendra Modi? “I connected with all the prime ministers in the past but never got a chance to have a one-to-one (relationship) with Modi,” Yadav replies. ” Inse koi samvad nahi ban paya abhi tak.”

How would current developments – Dalit men being flogged by self-styled cow protectors in Gujarat, the Patel agitation seeking reservations in jobs and education in Gujarat, a Muslim man being lynched for storing beef in Dadri – affect the 2019 general elections?

“Their (the BJP’s) pre-poll promises included giving jobs to two crore unemployed people, getting black money back, cleaning the Ganges. They have done nothing of this. They are only talking of gau rakshaks (cow protectors), beef ban, ghar wapsi (re-conversion to Hinduism),” he says. “They have to pay a price for that.”

He waves his hand again – indicating that my time is up. But I can’t leave without a question on his position on women. Recently, he came under fire when he said in Parliament that south Indian women were beautiful, as were their bodies – while his hands moved in a circular motion to explain what he wanted to say. ” Woh nritya jaanti hai (They know dance),” he’d said.

“I was not wrong when I said that women from the South have nice figures because they dance regularly,” he now explains.

On another occasion several years ago, while opposing in Parliament a bill that sought to reserve seats for women in elected bodies, he had referred to urban women dismissively as ” par-kati mahilayein“.

“I admit that I shouldn’t have used the word ‘ par-kati‘,” he states.

By now Yadav has had enough of this particular par-kati mahila. He accuses me of raking up an old issue. “Aapka sanskar kharab hai. Itne din baad aap yeh baat pooch rahin hain. Is baat ka koi waasta nahin hai. (Your values are all wrong. You are bringing this up after all these years when it has no connection to the present),” he says.

Now he is not waving his hand anymore – he is on his feet. The interview has to end, he tells me, for he is waiting for a newspaper editor. ” Ab jaaiye (you may go now),” he says.

I now know how the parliamentarians felt when Geelani showed them the door.


tetevitae

1969-71: Gets involved in student politics while studying engineering at Jabalpur in Madhya Pradesh
1974: Spotted by Jayaprakash Narayan as a youngster with promise; contests the Lok Sabha by-election from Jabalpur, wins as an Independent candidate
1977: Enters Parliament as a Janata Party member
Re-elected to Lok Sabha many more times — 1989, 1991, 1996, 1999 and 2009; wins Rajya Sabha terms in 1986, 2004 and 2016
1987: Involved in the founding of the Janata Dal (JD) under V.P. Singh’s leadership; wins from Badaun, UP, joins Cabinet
Becomes JD president replacing Lalu Prasad in 1997. Joins the Vajpayee-led NDA coalition, becomes a Cabinet minister
2003: Merges with the Lokshakti Party and the Samata Party to form Janata Dal (United) or JDU, becomes party president
2013: JDU ends alliance with BJP after Modi is named face of the campaign; is defeated in the LS polls in 2014 by Pappu Yadav
2016: Cedes presidentship of the JDU to Nitish; remains head of the JDU parliamentary party.

This was first published in The Telegraph:

https://www.telegraphindia.com/1160911/jsp/7days/story_107475.jsp


Sonia Sarkar reports from Kashmir on efforts by Valley folk to prevent the violent turmoil from derailing children’s education

  • LESSONS FOR LIFE: A community school in Budgam

Winter is closing in on Kashmir. The skies have turned grey, the air ridden with fog, the tall chinars have shed their leaves and stand shivered, the government has moved to Jammu. Winter is a quiet season in these parts. But this year, an unusual hubbub has come to populate the Valley’s indoors. Shut out of schools since summer, children are keeping up with the help of community volunteers — a unique effort to insulate education from disruption.

Hena Bashir is not worried about the ongoing board examinations. “At least I know I won’t fail,” says the 17-year-old Class XII student of a government school in Kashmir.

Bashir was given special lessons in Shopian in a makeshift arrangement locally referred to as a curfew school.

Classes are held in wedding halls, mosques and homes. The tutors are engineers, lawyers, doctors, teachers and fresh graduates. Among the students are children who sometimes travel eight kilometres to take classes.

Regular schools in Kashmir broke for the summer on July 1. They were to have reopened after 15 days, but never did. On July 8, Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani was killed by security forces, leading to widespread protests. Curfew was in force for 79 days. Among the worst hit were schools.

  • Security forces guard a school in Padgampora

Schools have become a bone of contention in Kashmir. “The separatists are not letting schools open to register their protest. The government is conducting examinations to show normalcy,” says a government education officer. “It is education versus azadi.”

But Kashmiris, who saw thousands of youngsters dropping out of school and college when militancy was at its peak in the 1990s, don’t want another generation to suffer. It is for this that curfew schools have come up.

The first such school was set up in Bandipora in north Kashmir this August. When the unrest showed no signs of abating, more informal schools — they charge no fees — came up.

“We had to support the resistance movement but we also wanted to help our students. The entire community pitched in. Even a former militant opened his house for a curfew school for more than 300 kids,” says Arafat Basheer, a civil engineer from Tral, the south Kashmir home to Burhanuddin Wani and militancy hotbed, who taught in one such school.

  • A game of cricket at the Idgah in Tral
    Photographs by Sonia Sarkar

To begin with, not many parents were enthusiastic about these classes. But with private tuition centres shut, they realised this was the only way out. “Parents took the risk of sending their children to our school because they wanted them to study,” stresses Idrees Fazili, a computer science expert who taught in a school in Budgam, south of Srinagar.

Classes were, on an average, held for four hours every day. Some of the schools opened at 6am to ensure that there was no police interference. Still, it was not easy.

“I was stopped by the police once. They were not convinced that I was going to a school to teach. They let me go only after one of my students, who was passing by, told the police I taught them,” says Engineer Arshad, a civil engineer who taught mathematics in a curfew school in Shopian, also in south Kashmir.

Kashmir’s education minister Naeem Akhtar, however, believes that these schools cannot be a substitute for formal education. “This is only a stop-gap arrangement,” he says. “People must understand that discipline comes only through formal schooling. One cannot miss it for long.”

The curfew schools are shut for now, but are likely to start again. Right now, there is a lull, for the government has announced that all government students from Classes I to IX and XI will be automatically promoted. Most private schools have followed suit.

Board examinations for Class X and XII have also begun. The syllabi have been relaxed to help students clear the exams, a move some youngsters describe as a “super sale”.

  • ANOTHER TEST: File photo of students heading for an exam centre

But the people of Kashmir stress that the classes were not just about helping children cope with studies. Often, the teachers discussed issues that went beyond school syllabi.

“When we were teaching a chapter on Gandhi, some students wanted to know why they were being taught India’s history, why not Kashmir’s history,” says Mohammad Saquib, a curfew school teacher in Anantnag.

The journalism graduate adds that intense political discussions often took place. “Articles on Burhan Wani and a copy of the Instrument of Accession of Jammu and Kashmir were distributed among the students. We also showed them documentaries on identity and colonialism,” Saquib says.

For many of the students, education is important — as is the cause of independence. So, while the informal classes carried on, so did the protests. Some of the curfew school students admit that as soon as the classes got over, they were out on the streets, chucking stones at security forces.

“I used to cover my face with a handkerchief and wear a pair of sunglasses to join the protests,” says a 16-year-old Shopian student.

But some children are also missing regular school. Thirteen-year-old Ikra Jaan, playing cricket at the Tral Idgah with her best friend, Qurat ul Ain, is among them. Jaan has a message for separatists: “Humare liye jaldi se school khol do. Hamara future kharab ho raha hai — please get our schools to open; our future is in danger,” she says.

Some elderly Kashmiris, who have entered the grounds, shut her up. “What would they achieve even after they study? They won’t get a job even if they become toppers. As Kashmiris, their life won’t change, will it?” asks Zafar Mushtaq, 60. As if on cue, a group of small children — all in the 6-8 age group — begin an “Azadi! Azadi!!” chant.

The closure of schools underlines the divide in Kashmir over how long the protests should continue. Burhan Wani’s father, Muzaffar Wani, principal of a government school in Tral, stresses the need for qurbani (sacrifice). “Some children have lost their eyesight after being shot with pellet guns. Some have lost their legs. So some students might lose a year. Qurbani toh deni padhegi Kashmir ke cause ke liye,” he says.

The curfew schools also point to a development that has had the people worried — the burning down of school buildings. In these five months, at least 31 schools in Anantnag, Pulwama, Kulgam and Shopian have been burnt down. Security forces blame supporters of separatists for the arson, holding that they want to ensure the protests carry on. But people in the Valley believe security forces burned the buildings to malign separatists.

More than 25 people have been arrested in this connection. Control rooms have been set up by the government to prevent more cases. Teachers have been assigned to guard schools.

In parts of Kashmir, some people are questioning the impasse between the government and the protestors. “Since the government is not responding to the bloodshed, it’s time separatists revised their strategy. Let’s de-link education from protests and allow students to attend school,” says Hameedah Nayeem, a professor and chairperson of the Kashmir Centre for Social and Development Studies.

Syed Ali Shah Geelani, chairman of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, an alliance of pro-freedom parties, doesn’t agree. “It’s the people’s decision to continue with the strike,” he says. “How else do you register protest? It’s not that we are not worried about the future of our children, but the strike will continue.”

For Kashmir’s students, crisis has always been a way of life. Bashir has faced academic hurdles almost every year. When she was in the sixth standard in 2008, schools closed for months because of an agitation surrounding the Amarnath land row. In 2009, there was an uprising when two women from her district were allegedly raped and killed by security forces. In 2010, more than 110 protesting children were killed by security forces. Two years ago, schools were shut because of floods.

This time, though, a curfew school came to her rescue. Just for the present, Bashir has no worries. And this quiet winter, there’ll be enough time to sit close to hearth fires and burrow into books.

Published in The Telegraph. November 27, 2016.

(http://www.telegraphindia.com/1161127/jsp/7days/story_121498.jsp)

 

Karan Singh is out with a novel — a new version of an old work. But writing is just one of his passions. He tells Sonia Sarkar that he was Shakespeare’s Olivia in a school play, loves the Dire Straits and sings Dogri songs

Karan Singh sits ramrod straight on a sofa. His black labrador, Kaalu, walks up to the senior Congressman, breathing heavily into a plate that holds two cocktail samosas.

The former minister and governor picks one up and delicately bites into it. “I eat light,” he says.

But eating light is just one of the reasons why the octogenarian is so fit. “For two hours every morning I worship all the gods – Surya, Shiva and Ganesha. I also do rajyoga, the breathing exercise. This gives me energy and positivity,” he says, fiddling with a copper bracelet that has the words “Om Namah Shivaya” inscribed on it.

Singh is a Shiva devotee. His novel, Mountain of Shiva, an updated version of a previous work, has just been brought out by a new publishing house, Palimpsest. Ashok, the protagonist, follows a guru to Shiva’s abode in the Himalayas to fulfil his spiritual quest.

“In the previous edition, the quest was unfulfilled. But then I thought I must write what happened thereafter,” he explains.

The need to write the novel (his only novel so far), which he first penned 30 years ago, came from his own search for spiritual understanding. “If I were not born a yuvraj (prince), maybe I would have been Ashok,” says the son of the last ruler of the former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir, Hari Singh.

A conversation with Singh is incomplete without talk of troubled Kashmir. Singh tries to stay away from the subject, ducking questions with his stock reply – “I was mostly abroad when the conflict erupted”. You can, however, take a man out of Kashmir, but not Kashmir out of the man. When he opens up, there is no stopping him.

The recent controversy when Kashmiri and non-Kashmiri students clashed at the National Institute of Technology (NIT) in Srinagar troubles him. The clash – allegedly sparked by some anti-India slogans shouted by a section of students after India lost a cricket match in the World T20 series – led to some non-Kashmiri students leaving the campus.

“If non-Kashmiri students start leaving the campus, Kashmiri students might be targeted in other parts of the country. Kashmiri and non-Kashmiri students mean Muslim and non-Muslim students,” he says. “We must not allow a repeat of the post-Kokrajhar riots,” he says – referring to the exodus of Northeasterners from Bangalore after Bodo-Muslim riots in Assam’s Kokrajhar in 2012.

Singh blames the People’s Democratic Party (PDP)-Bharatiya Janata Party state government and chief minister Mehbooba Mufti for the crisis in NIT. “It’s the responsibility of the state government to give students adequate security. This issue blew up after she took over, which is not a good sign.”

Singh, clearly, doesn’t think very highly of Mehbooba, though he respected her father, the former chief minister of the state, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed. “Mufti Saab was a senior man. He had his own stature. Mehbooba was to Mufti Saab what Amit Shah is to (Narendra) Modi. She used to organise the cadre and meetings. Now tell me, what is Amit Shah without Modi,” he asks.

Does his criticism of the PDP go down well in the family? His son, Vikramaditya, after all is in the PDP.

“No, there is no jhagra over political differences,” he replies.

In fact, there is celebration in the family. Vikramaditya’s daughter, Mriganka, is going to be married to the grandson of former Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh. The engagement has just taken place.

Singh fishes out a glossy magazine which featured his grandchildren, Mriganka and Martand, on its cover. “She looks exactly like my wife,” he says.

Singh was 19 – and the regent in Jammu and Kashmir – when he was married to Yasho Rajya Lakshmi, the granddaughter of the last Rana Prime Minister of Nepal, Mohan Shamsher Jang Bahadur Rana. Marriages in the family have mostly taken place with erstwhile royals. Vikramaditya is married to Chitrangada Raje Scindia, daughter of Madhavrao Scindia, who was the titular Maharaja of Gwalior. Amarinder Singh is the head of the erstwhile royal family of Patiala.

Why do the former rajahs continue to use their title, long after the abolition of princely states, I ask. “I have renounced my title. After my father died, I announced that I would never use the title of Maharaja,” he says.

I point out that when I had called his office for an appointment, a staffer had instructed me to address him as His Highness in my email. (I didn’t.)

Singh looks embarrassed. “Oh, I am going to blast these guys,” he says.The former minister is 85, but his use of words – along with his carriage and looks – makes him appear decades younger. Singh, in his trademark dark grey suit and Nehru cap, puts his palms on his face like a beauty queen just awarded the crown in a pageant. “Can you imagine I turned 85 in March,” he exclaims.

We are sitting in his office in his central Delhi residence. The books lined up in the shelves include a collection of Tagore, some classical poetry and Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay’sKrishna Charitra. These days, he adds, he is reading U.R. Ananthamurthy’s Hindutva or Hind Swaraj.

So I ask him about the debate on Hinduism and nationalism. “The biggest problem is that there aren’t any Hindu intellectuals. The Right wingers say that Left intellectuals have dominated so far, now it’s their turn. But the Right wingers don’t have anyone of the stature of Left scholars such as Romila Thapar or the late Bipan Chandra. The Right wing suffers from an intellectual void,” he says.

Singh’s association with the Congress goes back to the Sixties. He was close to former Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi. He was the health minister when Gandhi imposed Emergency in 1975 and Sanjay Gandhi started his nasbandicampaign, forcibly sterilising people.

“We had our own targets for nasbandi, which we would have achieved in normal circumstances. But Sanjay Gandhi came in and forced it upon the people. I kept writing to the chief ministers of various states, saying that I was getting reports of coercion, please look into it,” he recalls. “But yes,” he admits, “I never objected to what he was doing.”

Singh, however, adds that he once wrote to Indira Gandhi, urging her to resign. “We never thought that the Emergency would go this way,” he rues.

The former governor of Jammu and Kashmir also feels that successive governments have failed Kashmir. “There is always a trust deficit among Kashmiris. I would say that whoever has come to power in Delhi has failed the Kashmiris. To put it mildly, the issue has to be handled with great courage and statesmanship.”

He believes that Prime Minister Narendra Modi – whom he calls Narendra bhai – has done “some healing” with Pakistan by inviting Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to his oath-taking ceremony, visiting Sharif in Lahore and also allowing the Pakistani investigating team to Pathankot to look into the terror attack there. “But he has not done any healing with the Kashmiris,” he says.

While we are on Kashmir, I ask him a question that is often posed by the people of the Valley. Why did Hari Singh sign the instrument of accession of Jammu and Kashmir to India? Generations of Kashmiris have held this act as the cause of the conflict in the region.

For the first time, I see a furrow on Singh’s forehead. The smile, too, has gone.

“My father signed it to save Kashmir. If he had not agreed to it, then Kashmiris would have all been killed by the invaders,” he replies.

Singh has seen the changing face of Kashmir – and of Indian politics. He talks about the increasing role of muscle and money power in today’s politics. “There is a change in the texture of politics,” he holds.

Politics, the Rajya Sabha member adds, is also more broad-based today. “Earlier, it was more about bhadraloks. Now…,” he says, his voice petering off. “I don’t want to put any label to it.”

Singh, who once chaired the ethics committee of the Rajya Sabha, sees more disruptions in Parliament than before. “These weaken the structure of democracy because the idea of Parliament is to debate. Previously, we had such amazing parliamentarians as A.K. Gopalan and Somnath Chatterjee, who used to haul the government over the coals through debates. But what people do now – such as disrupting proceedings and going to the well of the House – is a negation of democracy.”

But his own party members have been stalling Parliament repeatedly, I point out. Doesn’t he tell them to mend their ways? “I,” he asks incredulously, and laughs. Clearly, there is nothing much that he can say any more to party members.

Instead, he would rather focus his energies on music. Singh – who studied in Doon School and earned his doctorate in political science from Delhi University – is a great fan of the band, Dire Straits. And he loves to sing Dogri songs. He has even brought out an album of songs in Dogri, the language of the people of Jammu. Every Friday evening, he does riyaaz – practise music.

He loves the stage, too. “You will be amazed to know that my debut performance was when I played Olivia in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night in school,” he laughs.

On Monday, he was back on the dais, but this time for the launch of a book on Indira Gandhi. And, as always, he sat straight. Clearly, 85 is just a number.

(The story was originally published in http://www.telegraphindia.com/1160529/jsp/7days/story_88194.jsp on May 29, 2016)

IMG_1269IMG_1277Kashmir’s young are no longer just shouting slogans on the streets. Their smartphones are their new battlefield – as well as their ammunition, finds Sonia Sarkar

Like millions of other young teens, Usman Hussain spends considerable time on Facebook and YouTube. But the 13-year-old student of a Srinagar public school surfs for information that is not likely to interest his peers elsewhere in the country. He spends almost seven hours a day on the activities of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and related issues.”I want to know what the world has to say on conflict and Islam. It helps me to understand my identity and role as a Muslim,” Hussain says.Nazir Masood, 22, is glued to the social media, too. But the student of Srinagar’s National Institute of Technology (NIT) doesn’t waste time poking friends or sharing the latest musical hits. He uses the platform to voice his protest against government moves and policies.”This is our platform for resistance. We resist, so we exist. Otherwise nobody would bother to listen to us,” he says.In Srinagar, the stage for resistance has moved from the streets to the Internet. The youth, the police say, is being “radicalised” by the Internet, and expressing their views on sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

Masood’s Facebook page, for instance, is flooded with photographs, videos and articles against the deployment of security forces on the NIT campus after two groups of students – Kashmiris and those from outside Kashmir – got into a fight over a recent cricket match where India was defeated.

“ISIS is the most searched word on the Internet in Kashmir,” a senior police officer says. “The radicalisation of the youth on the social media is a cause for concern in Kashmir,” adds another senior police official. An eight-member cyber team was set up by the police last year to keep a close check on the social media. So far, the team has only been monitoring the sites.

According to a 2015 report of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, over 35 lakh people in Jammu and Kashmir use the Net, and the state has 97 lakh mobile phones. An internal survey by the ruling Jammu and Kashmir Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) reveals that even in villages in Pulwama, Shopian and Anantnag, where electricity is available for only two hours a day on an average, a large number of people own smartphones with 2G connections.

Indeed, almost every young Kashmiri has a smartphone in hand. The phones – once used by the youth to assure their parents that they were safe – help them gather and share information, and voice dissent.

“Our children have been caged for years in Kashmir. Social media sites give them the wings to reach out to the outside world,” says Masood’s father, a Srinagar businessman. “But they shouldn’t do anything that would create trouble for them and us.”

But the police have been sniffing trouble – though they seek to stress that there is little danger of Kashmiri youth moving to outfits such as the ISIS. Some of the popular Facebook pages in Kashmir are Pulwama Live, Islamic Jamiat Talba and Tral – the Land of Martyrs, and Burhan the Fighter. Burhan is a reference to Burhan Muzaffar Wani, the 21-year-old commander of the militant group, Hizb-ul-Mujahideen.

The pages have 3,500 to 12,000 followers, and carry photographs and videos of militants posing with Kalashnikovs, funerals of militants and videos of militants calling for violence.

Among the popular hashtags on Twitter, frequently retweeted by Kashmiris, are GoIndiaGoBack, Indianoppressedkashmir, Kashmirbleeds, IamBurhan and FreeKashmir.

The Kashmir police have blocked 186 pages which portrayed militants as heroes and propagated anti-India sentiments in the last one year. Among them were FB pages such as India ki Mout, Rahii Mir, Mujahideen-e-Islam and Tral Tigers Tigers.

Social scientists fear that young Kashmiris, who have always been on the forefront of the movement for secession, are now looking at Islamic movements across the globe and showing a readiness to embrace radical forms of Islam.

“Kashmir’s youth are looking for a global Islamic identity,” stresses sociologist Farah Qayoom of Kashmir University. “More and more young men and women are turning towards [the ultra conservative] Salafism. And they are using the social media for a selective interpretation of Islam.”

What attracts the young to the social media are parallels that they see across the world – of struggles for nationhood, police and army action against the youth and uprisings. “Social networking for Kashmiris is all about telling their story of alienation in India and also connecting to those who have similar stories to tell,” points out Srinagar-based psychiatrist Mushtaq Margoub.

Indeed, when a 12-year-old Palestinian girl who had been jailed by Israel was released recently, the news was widely shared by Kashmiri youngsters on Facebook. “We relate to it because children have been picked up by the police and kept in custody for months in Kashmir,” Kashmir University student Nadeem Muhammad says.

There are several other reasons why social media sites are becoming more and more popular in Kashmir. For one, Kashmiris tend not to trust mainstream media, especially television, and look at Internet as a source for news.

There was a time when Kashmiris had few channels for expressing their anger. Those days, people would write their grievances in sealed envelopes and leave them at the UN observers’ office in Srinagar, recalls artist Masood Hussain. “While dropping the envelopes, people used to chant, ‘azaadi‘.” The situation changed with the advent of the world press corps. The Kashmiri’s angry voice was carried abroad by representatives of international news groups who reported extensively from Kashmir.

Now social media sites have replaced the world press. “The mainstream media censor our grievances, so we share our stories on social media with the world,” says Zaraq Jahan, an undergraduate student at Kashmir University. “My mother often says, I’ve heard such-and-such thing has happened. Just check it out on the Internet,” adds another student.

Continuing police and army action against Kashmiris has fanned the simmering anger among the young, politicians stress. Waheed Rehman Parra, the youth wing president of the PDP, believes that the killing of children by security forces in 2010, the hanging of Afzal Guru (convicted for the 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament) in 2013 and other such incidents have “exacerbated the simmering anger and hatred” against the Centre. “What we see on social media is the manifestation of this anger and hatred,” he says.

Qayoom adds, “This generation of Kashmiris has grown up witnessing frisking, crackdowns, disappearances, summons to police stations and killings. So resistance on social media seems an obvious way for them to express their anger.”

Attacks on Muslims in other parts of the country, such as the lynching of a Muslim man in Dadri, have also added to the Kashmiri’s sense of alienation, a police officer admits. Kashmiri students have been attacked, too – in Rajasthan, Meerut, Mohali and Greater Noida in recent times.

“Even after witnessing such incidents against Kashmiris, if we don’t become radical now, then when,” asks Mushin Khan, a student of Kashmir University.

It’s not just angry posts that flood the sites. Black humour also crops up often. Mir Suhail, a 26-year-old cartoonist, has been taking potshots at Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In one cartoon, he shows the PM standing behind his wax statue, recently unveiled by Madame Tussauds, watching a man hanging from a tree. “This man represents anyone who is oppressed in India – cattle traders, Dalits or farmers,” Suhail says.

One of Suhail’s cartoons, criticising the hanging of Guru, was pulled down by Facebook in February this year.

The government, too, has on occasion banned Internet in the Valley. When the news of a Handwara girl who had allegedly been molested by security forces spread last month, Internet was disconnected for three days. Last year, too, Internet lines were severed for three days when the Vishwa Hindu Parishad threatened to impose an economic blockade on Kashmir if cows were slaughtered for Eid.

There is concern in political quarters about the trend. “The Kashmir conflict was always political. But now many young Kashmiris are trying to give it a religious colour after being influenced by the conflict in West Asia,” says Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, chairman, Awami Action Committee. “It has influenced them so much that they don’t listen to us when we try to dissuade them from moving towards this ideology.”

The police say they are now planning to use the social media to foil the radicals. “But we have just taken baby steps,” a senior police officer admits. “And whatever we do, the youth will be much ahead of us when it comes to using social media sites.”

The use of the social media has so far hampered the administration only in one way. Word spreads fast about police raids or search operations, and the youth reach the spot almost at once. “Sometimes we’ve had to abandon our operations because of the crowds,” the police official says.

There have been sporadic incidents of masked men waving ISIS flags in the Valley in recent times. A 23-year-old man from Ganderbal in Kashmir, who was in Dubai, was arrested in January this year by the National Investigation Agency for alleged links with the ISIS. But the police stress that they are not worried about radicalism leading to a rise in militancy in Kashmir.

“Not all those who have been radicalised on social media are joining militancy,” says the inspector-general of police, Syed Javaid Mujtaba Gillani. “It is easier to be a Facebook jihadi than to fight on the ground.”

But for young Kashmiris, the arena for the battle is indeed shifting. And people like Suhail are not going to give up their campaign on the social media. The cartoonist says his friends often warn him that the security forces may target him for his “radical” art.

“But the security forces don’t understand that what is radical for them is the reality for us,” he says.

Facebook pages blocked by police

186 pages blocked since 2015. Some of them are:

  • India ki Mout
  • Qaidai Azamm
  • Tral The Land of Martyrs
  • AK Burhan
  • Malik malik [burhan bhai]
  • Mujahideen-e-islam
  • Tral Tigers Tigers
  • Tral The Beauty Land

Popular hashtags on Twitter

#GoIndiaGoBack, #Indianoppressedkashmir,  #Kashmirbleeds,  #IamBurhan, #IamKashmir,  #RagdaRagda,  #AndOccupation,  #FreeKashmir,  #BlackDay  #Illegaloccupation

( Some names have been changed to protect identities)

A longer version of the story is published in The Telegraph on May 8, 2015


It was a birthday party with a difference. The bungalow at 97, Lodhi Estate, in Lutyens’s Delhi, was lit up, and the menu included some of the most delectable dishes of Kashmir. The capital’s Who’s Who was there – except for one. The birthday girl.

Five months after Sunanda Pushkar, 52, was found dead in a hotel room in Delhi, her husband, member of Parliament Shashi Tharoor, had thrown a party in her memory. Many of the guests there that June evening couldn’t believe that the vivacious woman was no more.

They have trouble believing the rumours and reports now doing the rounds of the city. Earlier this week, the Delhi police termed the death on January 17, 2014 – so far widely seen as suspected suicide or accidental death – a possible murder by poisoning. A special investigation team has been formed to probe the death.

The stories about her unresolved death refuse to die down. Senior cops reveal that the autopsy report had shown that she had 15 injury marks on her body, caused in the 12 hours before she died. A puncture mark between the index and middle fingers of her right hand indicated the possible use of a syringe.

Was poison, as the police hint, injected into her body? And could the death have been related to a controversy that broke out during the Indian Premier League (IPL) of 2010? A section of the media had then alleged that Tharoor had used his influence as Union minister to get Pushkar sweat equity worth Rs 700 million in a cricket franchise, Rendezvous Sports World, which had bid for the Kochi team. Questions were raised as to whether Pushkar was acting as a proxy for him, speculation that Tharoor dismissed. But the controversy ultimately resulted in his resignation as a minister in the United Progressive Alliance government.

The city which thrives on salacious whispers came up with a host of theories. Some held that Pushkar, who thought her twice-divorced husband was in a relationship, had threatened to spill the beans about the IPL fracas.

“What she would have revealed about the IPL controversy or something else would have hurt a lot of politicians in India,” claims BJP leader Subramanian Swamy, who has been taking considerable interest in getting the mystery of her death solved. “I suspect that was the major cause of her murder,” says Swamy, who met her for the first and last time three days before her death at a function in Thiruvananthapuram.

The police are checking whether there are any Dubai links to her death. Police sources say that four people – two from Pakistan and two from Dubai – were staying in the same hotel where Pushkar was found dead around the same time on fake passports. The sources say the police are probing the role, if any, of the Dubai underworld, which controls illegal betting and match-fixing in cricket.

But there are enough reasons to back the suicide theory, too. Three of Sunanda’s close aides confirm that she was depressed for the past few months before her death. “Anybody who spoke to her could sense that,” a cousin from Jammu says.

Pushkar, clearly, was troubled about her marriage. “Every marriage has some problem or another. That Sue was not keeping well aggravated her anxiety,” a male friend stresses.

Bollywood actor-producer, and a regular at Delhi parties, Nasser Abdulla, says that Sunanda had revealed to him that she suffered from lupus, an autoimmune disease. He had urged her to go for a 10-day vipassana (meditation) course. “I had told her that meditation helps someone who’s ailing and disturbed,” he says.

Part of her depression could have emanated from her worries about her marriage. There was speculation about Tharoor’s relationship with a Pakistani journalist, Mehr Tarar. Tharoor and Pushkar issued a joint statement saying that they were together and happy. It also said that Pushkar had been hospitalised after an illness and was seeking rest.

A day before she died, however, Pushkar posted a series of personal messages, supposedly sent by Tarar to Tharoor, on his Twitter account.

In an earlier TV interview, she had said that her husband wasted a lot of time on Twitter. “Twitter is my sautan (husband’s second wife),” she had joked.

To most spectators, it seemed that the marriage was unravelling. And that surprised their friends, for theirs was a whirlwind romance. The two had met in July 2009 in Dubai, where Pushkar, who ran a real estate company, was based. Tharoor, a former UN under secretary-general, had by then moved to the Gulf with his then wife.

“They were like teenagers in love. The two were inseparable,” a former Tharoor aide says.

Emotional and spirited, she was intelligent, complex and sensitive. “She had many grey areas to her life too,” a friends says.

Another friend recalls that Pushkar loved Hindi film songs. Her favourite was the old Lata Mangeshkar classic from Guide, Piya tose naina laage re. “She danced to this once at a private party,” the friend recollects.

The two were married in August 2010. In a media interview earlier, Tharoor had admitted that he was in a rush to get married to her because he didn’t want any more controversies regarding their relationship.

Friends of the couple say that Tharoor was completely besotted. Even though he was married at that point of time, he wanted Sunanda’s company, they say.

“She was vivacious and intelligent. One of the other reasons why Tharoor got attracted to her was that she was well connected in Dubai,” a male friend of Sunanda says.

“But She too enjoyed the power and luxury of being the wife of a senior politician and a former union minister,” he adds.

A close friend of Sunanda believes that they complemented each other – though there were differences. For Tharoor, always good with words, romance was all about reciting poetry for her. For Sunanda, romance meant togetherness, the friend says.

Tharoor is soft-spoken in public; Pushkar was known to be vocal and impulsive. She slapped a man who had groped her when she arrived with Tharoor at the Thiruvananthapuram airport to attend a literature festival in October 2012.

“She was not a dainty lily, she knew what to do at the right time and she always did it,” a friend says.

But one of Tharoor’s former aides says while suave and sophisticated, he was also hot-tempered. Media reports quoting their domestic help say that in the last few months the couple often fought – sometimes physically.

A cousin, who fondly called her Pinky, stresses that Pushkar was outgoing. The daughter of an army officer from Kashmir lived a life that seemed to belong to the pages of a fast-paced novel. After graduating from a Srinagar college, she worked as a restaurant hostess in a Srinagar hotel. She married a Kashmiri Pandit, Sanjay Raina, in 1986 but was divorced in 1988. She later married Sujith Menon, a financial consultant, and had a son, Shiv. Menon died in an accident.

“She was a Kashmiri at heart even after being in different parts of the world for so long. She often spoke of her Kashmir days,” a friend says.

She was also a good cook. “She loved feeding her guests. She knew how to connect to them,” says Sanjoy Roy, managing director of the production company, Teamwork Productions, who was one of the guests at her posthumous birthday party. “We badly missed her that day.”

Birthdays, for Tharoor and Pushkar, were special. Four years before he marked June 27 with lights and gushtaba at his Delhi residence, they had another memorable birthday.

“It was on her birthday that I proposed to her in Kasauli,” Tharoor had said in an earlier TV interview.

Schoolteacher Soni Sori is a Lok Sabha candidate from Bastar in Chhattisgarh. The Aam Aadmi Party member’s campaign will be different from that of many other aspirants: she will tell her own story.

Sori has just returned to her ancestral home in Palnar village in Dantewada district after three years in jail. Accused of being a Maoist accomplice and attacking a Congress leader in 2011, she has now been acquitted in five out of seven cases registered against her and granted bail in the remaining ones.

But she has filed a case too — alleging that a senior police officer oversaw her assault while she was in police custody in 2011. The Supreme Court is yet to decide on it.

In her complaint, Sori said the police officer verbally abused her and directed policemen to torture her.

“In a conflict zone like Chhattisgarh, there is no one to hear our plea,” she says.

With armed unrest rampant in parts of the country — from Kashmir to Chhattisgarh and Manipur — human rights activists are raising the issue of sexual violence by security forces against citizens. There are also numerous cases of sexual assault by armed men who have the government’s backing. In Chhattisgarh for instance, members of Salwa Judum, a civil militia group formed in 2005, face 99 charges of rape.

Tribal activists such as Sori often face the brunt of such attacks. In the Jadingi village of Odisha’s Gajapati district, Arati Majhi, 21, was marked as a Naxalite and allegedly raped by the police in 2010.

Not surprisingly, the activists have been urging India to sign a Declaration of Commitment to end Sexual Violence in Conflict. In September 2013, 122 nations endorsed the declaration that was tabled by the UK in the 68th UN General Assembly.

The declaration says that sexual violence in conflict areas must not be viewed as a lesser crime. It also calls for comprehensive, improved and timely medical and psychosocial care for survivors and funding for sexual violence prevention.

“Most victims never see justice for what they have endured nor receive the necessary assistance and support,” it says.

Former cop K.P.S. Gill, who fought terrorism in Punjab, agrees that sexual violence against women and children is common in every conflict zone. “India too has seen it for years. Our government authorities do make investigations about such violence but no comprehensive plan has been worked out to tackle it,” says Gill, president, Institute for Conflict Management, Delhi, a non-profit outfit which analyses internal security in South Asia.

Some experts fear that India will not back the declaration. The government, they believe, shies away from backing such a document as it would put the State under the international scanner, especially in places such as Kashmir where the problem goes beyond its borders.

“Even after alleging that the violence in Kashmir is instigated by neighbouring Pakistan, India doesn’t recognise Kashmir as an international armed conflict because that would mean allowing international investigations into the violence,” says Khurram Parvez, programme co-ordinator, Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society.

“Endorsing it would mean India is open to international scrutiny, and it would never be acceptable to the government,” echoes Colin Gonsalves of Human Rights Law Network, a Delhi-based lawyers’ collective that fought Sori’s case in the Supreme Court.

But as more and more cases get exposed, the demand for steps to protect women is also on the rise. “Majhi and Sori belong to that unarmed population which is caught in the crossfire of Maoists and State forces… Such a declaration is an instrument for the people to take their fight forward,” advocate Shalini Gera, who fought Sori’s case at the Dantewada court, argues.

But far from supporting the declaration, the activists point out that the government has laws such as the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act which give immunity to security forces, even when they commit sexual violence.

The human rights activists stress that steps have to be taken urgently, arguing that sexual violence against women is an old and continuing problem.

In 1991, security forces allegedly raped over 100 women over one night in Kunan-Poshpora in J&K’s Kupwara district. In 1992, soldiers in Shopian in Pulwama district were accused of gang raping at least six women. In Manipur, Thangjam Manorama Devi, 34, was allegedly raped by soldiers of Assam Rifles, a paramilitary force, in 2004.

“During conflict, women are particularly vulnerable to sexual attack by both State and non-State actors,” Human Rights Watch spokesperson Meenakshi Ganguly says.

Not everybody agrees that endorsing such a document is the answer to the problem. Supreme Court advocate K.T.S. Tulsi believes that it undermines India’s democratic process. “Endorsing it could subject us to trial in international tribunals, which is not right for our democracy,” he argues.

Tulsi also believes that India has enough safeguards to tackle such issues. “Our courts have taken suo motu cognisance of many such crimes in conflict areas. Our Constitution has the provision of giving fair trials to everyone,” he says.

But the activists argue that such declarations lead to the forming of effective domestic laws.

“International laws always help in the formation of domestic laws,” People’s Union for Civil Liberties general-secretary Kavita Srivastava maintains. “After India ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women in 1993, we got the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act.”

But there is a feeling that unless the government wants change, joining such global efforts will not yield results. “India signed the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment in 1997 but it has not ratified it. The Prevention of Torture Bill that is related to the convention too is pending before Parliament,” Parvez says. “India signed the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance in 2007 but it has not ratified it. Such half-hearted initiatives serve no purpose,” he adds.

Sori, for one, will be happy if the declaration leads to action. Because, she stresses, it’s not just her case that needs to be redressed. During her time in jail, she met many other women who had been sexually tortured in jail or custody. “It’s the fight of several others like me,” she adds.

With the Amarnath Yatra starting later this month, the issue of the protection and maintenance of the 500-odd Hindu temples and shrines in Jammu and Kashmir is back in the spotlight. Most of these religious places have been lying derelict after the exodus of Kashmiri Hindus from the state began in 1989. In April this year, the long pending J&K Hindu Shrines and Religious Places (Management and Regulation) Bill went to the select committee of the state Assembly. But with its various stakeholders still bitterly divided over it, any chance of a swift passage for the bill continues to look remote.

“There have been conflicting views on the bill; so it was sent to the select committee. Now committee members will discuss amongst themselves and see what amendments can be made to the bill,” says Sheikh Mustafa Kamal, a MLA from the ruling National Conference party.

The bill lays down that an institutional mechanism will be set up to protect and preserve all Kashmiri Hindu shrines, temples, ashrams, mutts, endowments, springs and hillocks, religious places and shrine properties, both movable and immovable.

But Kashmiri Hindus allege that there is no record or inventory of these religious properties. They also allege that government agencies have seized large parts of the areas belonging to many of these temples and shrines.

As Vinod Pandit, chairman of the All Parties Migrant Co-ordination Committee (APMCC), points out, “Government agencies in the Kashmir Valley are forcibly taking over land belonging to Hindu religious places. The big temples are managed by the Dharmarth Trust of MP Karan Singh, but no one maintains the others.”

Kashmiri Pandit activists also point to the issue of land grabbing by the state. Roots in Kashmir, a Delhi-based organisation run by Kashmiri Pandits, alleges that the cremation ground of Sagam in Anantnag district has been taken over by the government to construct a forest check post and a primary health centre. It claims moreover that the state irrigation department has encroached on Baba Dharam Dass temple land in Srinagar. Naranag temple in Kangan, Srinagar, is another Hindu shrine that has been encroached on by locals and the state’s public works department, claims Rashneek Kher, founder-member of Roots in Kashmir.

Activists argue that temples and shrines are among the worst victims of the exile of the Hindu community as they lost their trustees, caretakers, patrons and devotees. They also point out that owing to a lack of upkeep, many of them are in a sad state of disrepair.

“Some of the shrines are historically very important, but little or no effort has been made to preserve them,” says Khera. “The Amarnath shrine is protected by the Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board (SASB) but there is no mechanism to protect the other temples. For example, in March this year, a fire destroyed a portion of the famous Chakreshwar temple complex on Hari Parbat in Srinagar, but nothing was done to restore it.”

In fact, Raman Bhalla, state minister for revenue, relief and rehabilitation, admitted in a written reply in the Assembly recently that at least 170 temples had been damaged during the two decades of militancy in the Valley.

The bill, which has been hanging fire in the Assembly since 2009, could have gone a long way in repairing and maintaining these temples, say its supporters.

The main feature of the bill is that it proposes to set up a Kashmiri Hindu Shrine Board to look after these structures. It also lays down that the members of the Board should be Kashmiri Hindus. Predictably, this clause has become a serious bone of contention. The ruling National Conference wants Kashmiri Muslims to be part of the Board too.

As Kamal argues, “There are hardly any Kashmiri Pandits in Kashmir any more. Also, it’s the Kashmiri Muslims who have been protecting the Hindu religious places in the Valley for the last 20 years. So their involvement would help in the better management and protection of these places, especially in the absence of Kashmiri Hindus from the Valley.”

However, Kashmiri Pandits counter this by pointing out that the Waqf Board, which looks after the properties of Muslims, do not have any Hindu members. “So why should the proposed shrine Board have any non-Kashmiri Hindu member in it,” asks Amit Raina of Roots in Kashmir.

The other issue that the bill proposes to address is the illegal sale of Hindu shrines and temples that has allegedly become rampant in the Valley. Last year, lands belonging to the Vaital Bhairav temple at Motiyar Rainawari in Srinagar were allegedly leased out on a false power of attorney. “Pieces of land were transferred to the names of some people by the revenue authorities,” claims Pandit of APMCC. “We demanded a thorough probe but it was not considered by the government,” he adds.

Naturally, the state government dismisses these allegations. “Our government has been maintaining the temples, shrines and properties of Kashmiri Hindus very well. We have not allowed any encroachments or illegal sale to take place,” insists Kamal.

The source of funding for the maintenance of these religious places is another matter of debate. According to the bill, the Board or the management committee would be free to receive any donation or grant or offerings against proper receipts and this would be deposited in an endowment fund. It may also borrow money or raise loans from banks or financial institutions.

But some legislators argue that the temples may not be in a position to generate the funds needed for their upkeep. “We want the government to provide financial assistance for the protection of Hindu religious places in the Valley. There should be clarity on this before the bill is passed,” says Harsh Dev Singh, an MLA from the National Panther’s Party, which has often spoken for the rehabilitation of Kashmiri Pandits in the Valley.

With so many contentious issues yet to be resolved, the fate of the J&K Hindu Shrines and Religious Places (Management and Regulation) Bill is likely to remain uncertain. And with it, the fate of the temples and shrines of this picturesque Valley.

Image

Asif Dar juggles his drum sticks listlessly. The 19-year-old drummer, confined to his Srinagar house for a week now, is not allowed to play his drums. “My parents are scared that people might just attack us,” Dar says.

Across the city, there is a sense of hidden gloom. A casual conversation with a group of teenagers over coffee comes to a standstill the moment you mention the word music. Young men and women who once strummed the guitar and sang songs of a new generation shy away from being called musicians.

Last week, the head of the Muslim clergy in Kashmir, Grand Mufti Bashiruddin Ahmed, issued a diktat against Kashmir’s sole all-girl Sufi rock band, Pragaash, asking it not to perform in public. After he called their music un-Islamic, the three band members said they would not play again. One has left for Jammu, and the other two are holed up in their houses in Srinagar, refusing now to talk to the media, or even to friends.

The development has created little ripples across Kashmir. The 40 home-grown bands that have been playing in and around the Valley have all hung up their instruments. Some are scared of fundamentalist backlash, others say they want to voice their support to Pragaash.

Kashmir is again in the throes of a conflict. This time, though, it’s not an armed strife that portends trouble, but a cultural one. If a great many youngsters of the previous generation took to the gun to express their angst, Gen X has found its voice through music. And efforts are being made — by some sections of fundamentalists — to stifle that voice.

“It is unfortunate that they have made music the casualty. They are creating an issue out of nothing,” says 22-year-old Adnan Mattoo, guitarist-cum-vocalist of Blood Rockz, Kashmir’s first Sufi rock band.

Mattoo, who runs his own music institute Band Inn in Srinagar, is also the mentor of Pragaash and many other rock bands in Kashmir. “It is sad that our own people are harassing us,” he says.

These youngsters represent a Kashmir that has been gaining ground over the last few years. Men and women roam freely on the streets today, sit in cafes and parks and shop in malls. Young girls are dressed in salwar kameezes and headscarves, and in jeans and T-shirts as well. Women ride a scooty and drive a car with ease. And they also offer their Friday prayers without a miss.

But there is another face of Kashmir — and that’s the one that frowns at all that the youth represents. “The tragedy is that some people are too much into moral policing in Kashmir. They politicise issues for personal publicity,” says Bashir Ahmad Dabla, professor, department of sociology, Kashmir University.

That’s not new in the Valley. Two years ago, a group of fundamentalists stopped Saim Bhat — who once sang for the band Vibrations and is now a Bollywood singer — from performing in Srinagar. Last year, separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani called a fashion show that a private college had organised an “attack on Kashmir’s culture”. A few years ago, Asiya Andrabi, head of the separatist Dukhtaran-e-Millat (Daughters of Faith), said women should not sit in a park with men.

“We want our youth to know Sharia law and behave accordingly. This is ideal for them,” stresses Andrabi, who is among those who supported Bashiruddin’s statement on the rock band.

Culture has always been a bone of contention in troubled Kashmir. During its two decades of insurgency, artistes were often targeted, with radical militants treating cultural activity as violations of Islamic teachings.

Despite the constraints, today’s youth has openly embraced various forms of music, especially Western genres. The growing number of bands is a case in point. In 2005, Kashmir had two known bands — Mattoo’s Blood Rockz and Valley Youth X-pressions, headed by guitarist Ashraf Khan. Over the years, at least 38 other bands have come up — including Valley Boys, Tales of Blood, Dying Breed, Curse and The Sueen.

From punk and hard rock to progressive and metal, these bands experiment with a variety of genres. “Our idea is to do something different, something that Kashmir has not seen before,” says Mattoo, who has performed in several cities in India.

The number of rappers too is growing. MC Kash, MC Youngblood and Haze Kay are some who have made a name for themselves in the Valley. Most of these young musicians sing songs that relate to conflict. Take, for example, MC Kash’s I protest. It talks about violence on Kashmiris by the army. Or take MC Youngblood’s 16 Bars from Resistance — a hit song that speaks of freedom.

“But now I think we should also start writing songs against the fundamentalists in our state,” says Basit Fazli, the 19-year-old vocalist of the band Tales of Blood.

After years of strife, music burst into the Valley with the advent of satellite television, and the popularity of music channels such as Channel V and MTV. The channels were banned by militants in early 2000, but the Internet arrived, bringing with it open and easy access to the music of the world.

“When we got the Internet in 2006, we started watching Western bands on YouTube and slowly picked up their style,” says Abid Ali, a commerce graduate who sports what’s called a Korean hairstyle.

The fads of the youth in the West, clearly, are a part of the young Kashmiri’s life. Guitarist Ashraf Khan pierced his ears soon after he started his band. Members carefully keep their torn jeans — a sign of rebellion — in their wardrobe for their performances.

The Western music trend has been supported by event management companies that have come up in the Valley. “Traditional artistes never had to struggle to make a mark in society because Kashmiris were aware of their form of art,” says Mir Ajaz Ahmad, managing director of Kashmir Movie Tone, an event management company. “But these young men and women are trying something different. It is the responsibility of society to support them,” feels Ahmad, who has been organising shows for companies, giving a platform to young performers. Some of his music shows are also held in parks, shopping malls and college campuses.

The company has been organising contests too. Band Wars and Battle of Bands have been showcasing local talent since 2009. Pragaash, in fact, marked its debut in the Battle of Bands concert last December. And the audience applauded the performance of its three members — Aneeka Khalid, Farah Deeba and Noma Nazir, all Class X students of Srinagar.

“They were rocking that night. It was for the first time that Kashmir saw such promising young women rock singers,” says a music expert associated with the event.

But surviving solely on music is not yet feasible in the Valley. There are no jamming venues, so bands mostly rehearse at members’ homes. With only a few recording studios, most bands have to travel to Jammu or Delhi to record their music. Unlike in other cities, there are not enough performing arenas either.

Bands seldom earn more than Rs 2,000 for a performance. Getting sponsors for music shows is not easy. “The highest that we could collect was a sum of Rs 10,000,” says Khan, who also ran a dance academy for training children in contemporary Bollywood and Salsa moves, which he had to close because of a lack of funds.

But the artistes agree that fighting societal resistance is tougher than battling financial constraints. “People are always up in arms against others. It is not an easy place to live in,” says a young female singer, who refuses to be named.

What upsets the young is that the threat is not from old fundamentalists such as Bashiruddin Ahmed alone — even a section of their contemporaries is attacking them. Three young men were recently arrested for sending obscene messages to Pragaash on Facebook.

Rapper Gazanfar, 22, narrates an incident when fundamentalists hounded him on Facebook for composing the opening lines of one of his English love songs in Kashmiri. “Some Kashmiris ran almost a hate campaign against me. They wanted me to remove the Kashmiri line from my song but I didn’t give in,” says Gazanfar, who has just released an album called Resurrection.

But Kashmiris try not to despair. “These extremists will soon know that there is no place for them in Kashmir,” says Professor Dabla.

And once that happens, music will flow.

(Published in The Telegraph, February 10, 2013)

Song sung blue

Anniversaries are always special. They hold great significance in one’s life. For scribes like us, it is crucial to remember anniversaries but we remember occurrence of events of a different kind. For example, we revisit the anniversary of IC 814 hijack or Gujarat riots or 26/11 attacks in order to ingeminate  stories of the victims and help them get justice.

Of late, a section of the media has added another date to this list, which is November 4.Twelve years back, on this day, Manipur’s Irom Sharmila Chanu sat on an indefinite hunger strike demanding the repeal of the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) – the law in force in the north-east and Kashmir that gives sweeping powers to the Army, including the right to shoot on suspicion. In 2010, Sharmila’s silent protest completed a decade. Curious to know what makes the Iron Lady of Manipur, as she is popularly known, this resilient, I had sought an appointment with her. Permission, however, was not easily granted. The request moved from one sarkari office to the other for nearly two months. Finally, I was allowed to meet her on December 20, 2010. Knowing well that even celebrated writer and activist Mahasweta Devi was denied permission, I considered myself lucky.

Before I met her, I had sketched an image of Sharmila in my mind by reading various newspaper reports that featured her struggle, her pain and her plight. They had made her look gloomy and exhausted. But my perception changed the moment I got the first glimpse of her when I lifted the green curtains of the ward for under-trials needing medical attention at Imphal’s Jawaharlal Nehru Hospital. She looked frail but cheerful and welcomed me with a wide smile as I walked into the room. Her freshly washed hair smelled of a familiar brand of shampoo. The shiny wet curls of her hair were carelessly playing on her forehead. She looked calm and unencumbered, the fairness of her skin heightened by the pink top that she was wearing.

Strange though but of all things, we started talking about food. “As a child, I loved eating. After finishing my own meal, I used to eat off others’ plates. My mother often scolded me for this. It is an irony that my struggle is related to food – though it’s about not eating,” Sharmila had said. She spoke haltingly in English. Her voice was frail.

Born on March 14, 1972 in Kongpal Kongham Leikei in the east of Imphal, Sharmila loved eating freshly plucked raw vegetables – peas, cabbage and red spinach. Her other love was pastries.

In fact, a night before she started her fast, she bought two packets of pastries and cakes from a local bakery. “ I ate all of them to fill my stomach, and vowed that it is my last day of eating. I totally surrendered myself to God,” she recalled. Her fast was triggered by the Malom massacre of November 2, 2000, in which 10 people were killed by security forces on the outskirts of the capital Imphal. She consciously chose to fast because all other forms of protest such as demonstrations or strike would harm others unlike fasting that could harm only her, and not anyone else.

A day after she began fasting, the cops had charged her with the attempt to suicide under section 309 of Indian Penal Code (IPC) and had put her in Imphal’s Sajiwa jail. Two and a half months later, she was shifted to the hospital, where she has been nose-fed thrice every day – at 10am, 2pm and 9 pm- since then.“I don’t feel hungry. The liquid diet keeps my stomach full,” she had said. The plastic tube through which she is fed was hanging close to her neck, but that has become a part of her body in these many years.

In 2004, Human Rights Alert (HRA), a collective of lawyers moved the Supreme Court (SC) to remove the charges against her as her intentions were not commit suicide. The SC had then asked them to file the case in Gauhati High Court in Manipur, which a year later ordered her release. But then the court was silent on whether such charges should be removed or not. Later, in 2006, Irom Sharmila’s supporters brought her to Delhi to pressurise the Centre to repeal AFSPA but it was all in vain. After being moved from one government hospital to another for six months, she was later forced to go back to Imphal.Every year, she is released for a day in March only to be arrested the next day and sent back to the hospital.

The youngest of nine siblings, Sharmila grew up a lonely child. She raised chicken, sold their eggs and donated the money to a local blind school. Never academically inclined, Sharmila joined a vocational course for shorthand, typing and journalism after school. Before she went on a hunger strike, Sharmila also wrote columns in a local newspaper and worked in a non-governmental organisation. She had often joined demonstrations when protests spilled out on the streets, mostly revolving around army actions against civilians.She was close to her brother, Irom Singhajit, nearest to her in age. With their parents busy running their grocery shop when she was a child, it was Singhajit who took care of her. Their mother’s breast milk had dried up when Sharmila was born, so Singhajit would take his little sister to other mothers in the neighbourhood who breastfed her. In exchange, he did their household work.

Even today, Singhajit is by her side. He left his job as an agricultural officer in an NGO to garner support for his sister’s struggle. “He is like a guardian to me,” she told me. Sharmila, who is now seen as a symbol of resistance in India, stressed that she inherited her willpower from her grandmother, Irom Tonsija Devi. Tonsija Devi, who died in 2007, was a part of the 1939 Nupi Lan movementa war women waged against the export of rice by the king, Maharaja Churachand, and the British government. “My grandmother was illiterate but she had great knowledge of politics and economics,” Sharmila had said,sitting on the bed in her hospital room.

Her room was full of gifts– a wind chime, presented by a filmmaker who directed a short film on her, a red and white Assamese gamcha, a gift from a photographer, and a statue of Meera Bai, given to her by another nurse, were a few among them. She said that most of her time was spent in doing yoga and writing poetry. Two years back, Zubaan had published 12 of her poems in a volume called ‘Fragrance of Peace’. Books were lying heaped on an iron cot in the room. I had spotted a Khushwant Singh, a Kahlil Gibran and a Chetan Bhagat in the pile of books. “Most of these books have been gifted to me by my lover,” she said shyly.

This was the first I had heard of a man in her life as before this, I had never heard or read any reference to her love relationship. Initially I hesitated to ask more but Sharmila was clearly keen to talk about him. “His name is Desmond Coutinho,” she  said. A Britisher based in Kerala, he got to know about Sharmila after he read ‘Burning Bright’,  a 2009 book on the Manipuri struggle written by Deepti Priya Mehrotra. “He wrote me a letter after he read the book. We have been exchanging letters since then,” she  said smilingly.

Pointing her long skinny fingers at the plants – Chinese evergreen and ponytail, surrounding her bed, she had told me,“These are my friends. I water them, and tell them about my feelings for him.”

Minutes later, she had asked me if I could call him. I was a bit confused about what to say at the moment but couldn’t refuse her. I rang up a number that she remembered by heart. As I got to talk to Coutinho, Sharmila, like a teenager in love, had asked me to tell him that she loved him.  Coutinho expressed similar emotions for her and said, “Please tell her that I want to come and see her, but I am yet to get the permission.”

In another few minutes, we hung up. And then I  suddenly noticed Sharmila, her smiling face turning pale. She immediately covered her face with a book. I noticed tears in her eyes. “I miss him. I want them to grant him permission soon,” she told me. Two years later, the permission has not yet been granted.  But Coutinho had met her in the court in March last year while Sharmila was being produced before the judiciary – an annual ritual before she gets released for a day. However, Sharmila’s supporters beat him up because they do not approve of the idea of Sharmila having a romantic relationship with a Briton.

Despite such hurdles, their love for each other hasn’t faded away. “I fully intend to return to Manipur to marry Sharmila and I will live and die for her. I do not see any other end for us,” Desmond told me in a recent conversation. He had gifted her a wooden statue of the two legendary lovers, Krishna and Radha.“He says that he’s Lord Krishna, and I am his Radha,” Sharmila said. As a young woman, she used to ride a bike and had never behaved in a “stereotyped” manner in her younger days, her mother told me. But now, she has started talking of desires that any woman of “marriageable” age would do. “I want to get married. I want to be free,” she told me. “But,” she  stressed, “after my demand is met.”

Looking at the apathy of the Indian government towards people of north-east, it is anyone’s guess that her demand will not be met anytime soon.In 2004, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had assured that the central government would consider their demand”sympathetically.” Following which, a five-member committee under the Chairmanship of Justice BP Jeevan Reddy was formed which stated that this draconian Act should be repealed and the same should be replaced by a more humane Act.”

But the strong Army lobby will never let it happen. According to the Army,  replacement of AFSPA or any dilution could hamper its operational capabilities to effectively deal with militancy and insurgency.

But Sharmila’s mother Shakhi Devi has not lost hope yet. Every evening, she religiously holds the radio set closer to her ears only to hear some news on AFSPA and on Sharmila’s release. When I had met Shakhi Devi, she told me that she had heard on radio that the Centre plans to amend the Act but she wanted the government to scrap it. “Only if the law is scrapped, Sharmila will stop fasting. And I will get to see my daughter eating,” the ailing mother had said sitting in the courtyard of her house.

In these 12 years, the mother and daughter have met only once. Shakhi Devi had kept herself away for she feared that she may end up eroding Sharmila’s determination if they meet. Two years ago, when Shakhi Devi was admitted to the same hospital after an asthma attack, Sharmila had visited her at midnight. Shakhi Devi told Sharmila that she would live to see her eat one day – and they hugged each other and cried.

Even as the government cares very little about Sharmila but a section of civil society has recognised her sacrifice by giving her a few awards.But Sharmila said that these awards would merely help people across the world know about her, nothing beyond that. “I accept the respect that I get from people across the world but these awards don’t serve the purpose.How do they help repeal AFSPA?.”

In fact, last month, she refused to accept the “Activist India Nation 2012” award instituted by Kerala-based Kovilan Trust  According to Singhajit, who was invited in Calcutta to receive the award on her behalf, said that Sharmila had said no to any more awards till her demand is met.

A face of strong determination, Sharmila was born on a stormy night. Singhajit says that there will be another storm the day she would be released.“It will be her rebirth that day,” he said.

Till then, we would continue to revisit her and reiterate her demand only to remind the government that the struggle of Irom Sharmila shouldn’t go waste. It is about time that the government should understand that she is representing the people of our own country who live in trauma everyday because of the high-handedness of the armed forces in the name of security.



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