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Sunday, October 25, 2009

Voices from the Northeast.

Northeast came alive on the 13th and 14th of October in the nation’s capital Delhi. In a literary meet titled “Voices from the North East”, some new writers from the region came together to highlight the literature that comes from the region’s oral traditions and myths. The event was organised by Jaipur-based literary consultancy Siyahi at Delhi’s India Habitat Centre.

The two day event comprised of readings by some known writers of the North-eastern region and also a performance by the well-known band East India Company. Mita Kapur, who heads Siyahi, said that their organisation has always stressed on highlighting writers from such remote areas of the country and said that the North East has much more to offer than what seems. She saw this event as an opportunity to bring out these voices in front of mainstream India’s arena.

The first day i.e. 13th October, comprised of a reading session by well-known Khasi writer Mr. Kynpham Sing Nonkynrih and the performance by East India Company. Nongkynrih began by reading passages from his poem “Identification Marks” which talked of the various tactics that Khasis adopted while identifying their own breed. His talk comprised of mostly the elements which influence Khasi writings and culture on a whole. He said that the Khasi poetry is called Kathawar because of the oral tradition that has been followed for its preservation. He also delved into the importance that kwai (areca nut) has in their society. Worth recalling is his account as to how the British used to called the Khasis as “red-mouthed monsters” because of their red-stained mouths from eating kwai. Nonkynrih also talked about the matrilineal society of the Khasis which got the audience especially interested because it mostly comprised of mainland Indians.

After the reading session by Nongkynrih, came the performance of the East India Company headed by Angaraag Mahanta (Papon). The band left the audience spellbound with their music which had a blend of various genres from Assamese folk to Rajasthani folk and classical Sufi music. Angaraag’s father, the great Khagen Mahanta, was also present during the show which performed to a packed auditorium. But the best part of the band’s performance was their electronic rendition of Assam’s Bihu. Many from the audience came to the front and broke into Bihu dances that made the entire auditorium come alive. Truly, it was the perfect ending to a beautiful evening!

The next day i.e. 14th October was marked by a panel discussion titled, “Turning Point: New Writings from the North East.” Taking part in this conversion were writers from the North East such as Ms. Mamang Dai, Ms. Bijoya Sawian and Ms. Temsula Ao. The discussion was moderated by well-known author Ms. Namita Gokhale. The talk was mainly centred on the oral traditions and local myths that are influencing the new writings from the region. Most new writers are going back to their traditional roots that are giving a different picture to the readers of the mainland India who have always held stereotyped assumptions about the North East.

The first reading was done by Ms. Mamang Dai, who is a former IAS officer and is presently a journalist with Hindustan Times. She began by reading poems from her book “Legends of Pensam” and went on to talk about the new focus that the writers from the region are turning to which is finding a flavour with the mainstream readers. Dai, who hails from Arunachal Pradesh, said that one of the biggest inspiration for her book came from the villagers who are abound with myriad folk tales and myths. She said that myths in North East are either held as very sacred or else discarded as total nonsense. But they do help in maintaining the distinct identity and flavour of the community concerned.

The next talk was given by Ms. Bijoya Sawian, who hails from Shillong and is a writer of repute. She began with reading a few passages from her upcoming book “Men in the Shadows” which deals with the wave of intolerance against the non-Khasis in Shillong. She also went on to talk about the matrilineal Khasi society in length. She said that though militancy in Meghalaya is minimal, the cause of problems is more economical than political. It is due to this that an atmosphere of intolerance has emerged against the non-Khasis in Shillong. She also threw light on her religion i.e. the Nyamthrai religion which dwells on the concept of monotheism. She said that it is a religion with very minimal religious rites and rituals and focuses on living a simple and clean life. One more thing that came to front was Shillong’s never-ending obsession with country legend Bob Dylan when Ms. Sawian mentioned that one of her inspirations to write the book was a song by Dylan.

And lastly came Ms. Temsula Ao, who hails from Nagaland and is currently the Dean of the School of Humanities and Education at the North Eastern Hill University at Shillong. Ms. Ao went on to talk about the new way in which old myths and legends are reinterpreted by the new writers to bring out a new flavour in them. This she demonstrated by reading out two poems from her book “Songs of the Other Life.” Her most soulful reading was the poem which dealt with the famous Momola legend of Nagaland. Ms. Ao also spoke on the importance of the English language in writing. She said that writing in English has its advantages of reaching out to a larger audience who understand the language. For her, English has helped in bonding together the various people of the North East. She also said that the reason for writing in this language was because of the Christian religion that the Nagas adopted.

This event definitely was an experience to remember for most people who attended it. For Namita Gokhale, who moderated the second day’s panel talk, it was a usual opportunity to interact with writers from various regions and getting to know intimately the socio-cultural fabric of the North East. For Ms. Bijoya Sawian, it was a great opportunity for writers of the region because it was a platform to reach to the larger Indian audience. She also said that Shillong had become the new launching ground for upcoming writers from the North East because of the presence of the NE Hill University and the various literary meets and discussions that keep happening there. Aruni Kashyap, an upcoming author from Assam and a member of Siyahi, said that such events are a great opportunity to highlight the vast talent that the North East has to offer and break the usual stereotyping of the region.

“Voices from the North East” was surely an event to remember and it is hoped that such meets will continue to happen. The angle of viewing the North East is changing in mainland India and it is hoped that the gap between the region and the mainland will continue to narrow down from such meets.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Batla House Encounter: Unanswered Questions.

The 19th of September this year was special for the people of the Batla House area and the university of Jamia Millia Islamia in New Delhi. It was the first anniversary of the infamous Batla House encounter which took place a year ago in the L-18 building of the area. Delhi Police, in the encounter, shot down two Jamia students, Atif and Sajid in cold blood, claiming they were terrorists. Superintendent of Police (SP) Mr. Mohan Chand Sharma lost his life in the encounter. But this encounter left many unanswered questions which left a deep suspicion in the minds of many people.

As one year has passed by, we got to see that people gave mixed reactions to this incident. In Batla House, people were angry and cried foul over the actions of the police and the government. While many others mourned the day for the martyrdom of Mr. Mohan Chand Sharma. Posters praising the bravery of the late SP and the importance of the encounter could be seen in many areas of the city. The Jamia Teachers’ Solidarity Association and the All India Students Association (AISA) came out with a torchlight rally in Batla House on 18th September to mark the eve of the encounter.

The most noticeable thing about the encounter was the trail of unanswered questions it has left behind. The clean chit given to the Delhi Police by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has further left people fuming. And even the court has not given any definitive judgement to the case. In this scenario, are worth to be noted two RTIs (Right to Information) appeals which were filed last month. Afroz Alam Sahil, an RTI activist, filed two RTIs on the 12th of August seeking information from the NHRC and the authority of Jamia. But the replies to these two RTIs have not been given till date. And it is to be noted here that it is mandatory to give a reply to an RTI in a period of one month even if the reply is no.

One RTI had been directed to the Jamia authority about their stand on the matter of the students who had been arrested in this case. Last year, the ex-Vice-Chancellor of Jamia, Prof. Mushirul Hassan had talked of giving legal aid to the ones who had been arrested in this case. For this purpose a sum of money was collected by the students. But till date there has been no report of any legal aid given by the university. The RTI had questions relating to the number of students arrested in connection to this case and also if Jamia had taken any action against them. It also asked questions relating to the current status of the legal aid that Prof. Hassan had talked of giving. It asked questions like how much money had been spent on it and if not, then what was delaying it?

The second RTI was directed towards the NHRC. Ever since the NHRC had given the clean chit to Delhi Police in the case, its style and methods of workings have been questioned by people. This RTI asked questions which ranged from the Commission’s working patterns in investigating this case to the loopholes that had crept out in the results of their investigations. It had questions as whether the NHRC met witnesses and families of the victims and also whether they examine they examined the place of encounter. It seeked names of the witnesses that were talked to and also the names and designations of those who were members of the team investigating the case. Here again, two very important questions were raised. Firstly, there was no magistrate enquiry in the Batla House Encounter case even though this is mentioned in the NHRC guidelines. Secondly, Mr. Mohan Chand Sharma had reportedly got medical aid in five minutes after he was shot. Then how did he die of excessive bleeding?

Questions like these raise serious doubts about the authenticity of the encounter. Residents of Batla House and the Jamia fraternity swear by the fact that Atif and Sajid were innocent students who became victims of the conspiracy of the police and the government. But what really was the scene can only be speculated till some new findings come out. The questions that are asked are not just relevant in the matter of a cover-up by the police. It is more about the way the minorities in India are treated by the establishment to hide its own failures. It is also about the trust that the students of a university expect from the authorities once they are promised.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Post-Poll Iran: Chaos and Confusion

Ever since the results of the Iranian Presidential elections have been out, there has been total mayhem in Iran. The re-election of Hardliner President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has literally brought the entire Iran on a violent standstill where the supporters of Ahmadinejad’s defeated rival Mirhossein Mousavi took to the street and clashed with police as well as with the supporters of Ahmadinejad. The capital city Tehran and several other cities have turned into battlegrounds between the protestors and the police.

Moderate ex-premier Mousavi cried foul over election irregularities after Ahmadinejad won by almost 63% of the vote. He warned of the “dangerous scenario” the vote had created, as some of his protesting supporters were beaten up by the police.

On Sunday, Ahmadinejad gave a victory speech to tens of thousands of his supporters who gathered at the capital’s Vali-e-Asr square. Ahmadinejad described the elections as clean and fair, and dismissed complaints by defeated candidates as “sour grapes.” He also mentioned that there would be no change in Iran’s nuclear policy and warned any country that attacked Iran with dire consequences.

Ever since the election results have been declared, the situation in Iran is getting worse day by day. The situation only got more complicated when the all-powerful supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei hailed Ahmadinejad’s victory as a “feast.” This single remark dashed the hopes of the moderates to the ground and clearly showed who the high command of the nation was in support of.

What is most noteworthy is the way the government has reacted to these protests. The police went out of its way to detain the protestors. In the various clash between the police and the pro-Mousavi protestors, many people including women and children have been injured. Journalists who were filming the incidents were briefly detained by the police. And mobile phone messaging was blocked in an apparent attempt to stifle one of the main communication tools of the Mousavi supporters. Till now it is reported that the police have detained more than 100 reformers, including the brother of former President Mohammad Khatami.

Ahmadinejad’s victory has left the Western powers in a not-so-happy state of mind. Among all the Western major powers, France has come out with the strongest statement where it mentioned that the shaping of events in Iran is “not good news for anyone.” French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner said that the repression of opponents was closing off dialogue.

But the worst affected among all the Western powers was the United States. Ahmadinejad’s victory has complicated matters for the Obama administration’s engagement plans with Iran. But experts also hinted out that there could be no reversal of the new US policy towards Tehran. It was hoped that a moderate President in Tehran might have helped cement better ties with the US. But now that Ahmadinejad is back in power, the US plans to engage the Iranian government “whether it is led by one faction or the other.” For this, the US will have to keep their fingers crossed!

Today Iran’s condition has huge global implications. Apart from the jinxed nuclear policy controversy, the question of oil is also a big matter. One over which Washington has allegedly its eyes on for a long time. The return of the hardliners is an implication that radical liberal reforms might still elude Iran for some time now. But we surely hope that Iran’s conditions change for the better as soon as possible. If not for the world, then at least for its people.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

AFSPA: The Tale Continues

It cannot get more appalling than this. Even after so many years of struggle and incidents, the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) has not been removed from Manipur.

And we were suddenly reminded of the plight of the general public of Manipur when on May 7 the security forces claimed another life under the aegis of this Act.

A team of Manipur police shot dead a suspected militant in an “encounter” at Leikai, Imphal West, during the wee hours. Police said the suspected militant, identified as Ng Nanao of Uripok Polem, was shot dead in an encounter. However, local residents allege that he was shot dead in front of his family members by the police team. They called him out from his house and opened fire at him. They also alleged that police resorted to indiscriminate firing in the area.

This incident is just another instance where the armed forces will get off without any matter of questioning. The immunity provided to the security forces by the Act has given them enough scope to commit crimes like harassment and rape among the civilians. One example in this regard can be the infamous Manorama Devi case that created a huge uproar throughout the state against the Indian establishment there.

Under Section 6 of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, “No prosecution, suit or other legal proceedings shall be instituted, except with the previous sanction of the Central Government against any person in respect of anything done or purported to be done in exercise of powers conferred by this Act.”

While examining the third periodic report of the government of India, an expert of the United Nations Human Rights Committee stated “Article 6 of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which prevented all legal proceedings against members of the armed forces, was extremely worrying; if the Government’s fear was that citizens would bring vexatious or frivolous actions, that was a matter better left to the courts to resolve. It was inadmissible for citizens to be deprived of a remedy as was at present the case.”

Manipur was declared a “disturbed area” on 8 September 1980. According to Manipur Chief Minister Ibobi Singh over 8,000 innocent persons and over 12,000 members of insurgent groups and security forces have lost their lives since then.

In practice, there are hundreds of armed encounters each year. Not every armed encounter is questioned. However, when people, whether innocent civilians, suspects or members of armed oppositions groups are captured from their houses or villages and routinely killed in fake encounters, allegations of extrajudicial killings surface. Yet, there has been little or no evidence to prove that the victims were indeed arrested as no arrest memo is issued, not to mention about evidence to prove subsequent extrajudicial executions.

But if we look at the other side of the story then the armed insurgent groups of Manipur have also created havoc with the life of the state. If the security forces harass the people, then from the other side the insurgents add more pain to the wound.

The armed insurgent groups have been responsible for torture, extrajudicial executions, hostage taking, extortions and blatant violations of various Human Rights Laws. The victims include innocent civilians, alleged police informers and corrupt officials or simply inability to pay extortion money.The people of Manipur are caught in a vicious cycle. The nexus between the political leaders and armed insurgent groups is a public knowledge in Manipur. The extortion, otherwise called as taxes by the insurgents, is also public knowledge and often collected under the noses of the administration. Across the highways both the security forces and armed opposition groups extort money from innocent people as well as businessmen. All government officials including the senior most officials allegedly pay taxes.

In such a scenario, it is but certain that the Indian Government as well as the local politicians want the confusion to continue. And this trend is something which is prevalent in the other states of the North-East as well. The existence of this Act is a slap on the faces of the people of Manipur. On the one hand, due to this Act, the security forces harass them and on the other hand, it has failed to contain insurgency at all. And what is most angering is that the Manipuri politicians don’t take much or any initiative to remove this Act.

All in all, this Act reminds us that our country’s democratic principles and ethos are sidelined and crushed in the name of maintaining the security and integrity of our country.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

A play with a difference!

On the evening of 15th April, the Friends group of Jamia Millia Islamia performed a street play at the Delhi Haat. The play titled “Pyaar Kiya To Darna Kya?” was based on the concept of homosexuality and gay rights. The group consisted of students of AJK Mass Communication Research Centre of Jamia Millia Islamia.

Watching the play was a welcome experience as it touched on a topic which is talked about behind closed doors. Homosexuality, though coming to the focus of various talks, is still a subject of great hush-hush. In this season of elections and IPL, watching a play on a different topic was surely refreshing. And it is solely to those students' credit that a controversial topic like homosexuality was shown to a whole public.

The play was all about showing the angst and isolation that the people of the gay community face. The play was presented on different levels which showed ostracisation from family and society and how it drives the victims to be driven to the point of extreme acts. Also worth mentioning were some sequences in the play where some really serious aspects of gay discrimination were shown. Be it the plight of a gay AIDS patient or the harassment of gay couples by the police, the ridicule society gives out to homosexuals or suicides committed by such people; every aspect was shown in a stark reality. And each time a question was raised. Why do they have to face this?

Afroz Alam Sahil, who was a part of the play, said that the message of the play is to make the voices of these people get heard. He further says that the play does not pass any judgement. It is more of a case study of actual incidents and shows the tribulations that the homosexuals have to undergo in our country.

At a time when gay pride parades are coming out and people are talking of scraping Article 377 which criminalises homosexuality in India, this play reminded us that there are issues which we simply cannot ignore. However gross people might find them, we have to sit back and notice them because they exist among us. And homosexuals are one such reality.

As far as reactions are concerned, the play did succeed in shocking the spectators with its bold theme. As the play progressed on, I could notice that people had shocked expressions on their faces. And there was pin drop silence throughout the play. But one thing was for sure. The play succeeded in conveying its message. And again talking of reactions, the play has evoked some reactions from the moral police as well. Activists of the Republican Party of India (RPI) staged a demonstration in front of AJK MCRC in Jamia on 16th April protesting against the staging of this play. This is just another instance when the so called moral police leaves no stone unturned in silencing those voices which raise such issues that are deemed unfit for a ‘sane’ society. On top of that, the Urdu daily, Humara Samaj, went on to publish an editorial condemning the staging of this play. They even criticised Jamia Millia Islamia for giving permission to go ahead with this play and also accused the university of damaging the image of the Islamic culture.

But the performers of the play are unfazed because they believe they have touched a legitimate topic. And it is this attitude that reminds us of the fact that democracy is all about expressing oneself inspite of all oppositions. Homosexuality is a tabooed topic in our country. And the staging of this play only signals that we are free to express ourselves in a democratic setup. And people will have to look up to such issues one day. Because it is a human issue after all.

Elections Vs IPL

As India prepares to welcome the summers this year, two events of epic proportions collide with each other. The 15th General Elections and the 2nd edition of the Indian Premiere League (IPL) are taking place together this month. And already preparations are underway for the coverage of these two events. Now the only thing remaining to be seen is which one scores over the other in terms of coverage.

The importance of IPL over elections is something which has divided opinions among various circles. As we look into them, we find that the story is splitting into two halves. It is one section which thinks that the elections will not be affected by the IPL. While the other section thinks that the elections will be affected by the IPL.

Qamar Agha, who is a political analyst and hosts a few TV shows, says that the elections will not be affected by the IPL. He says that the people will always give more importance to their right to vote under any circumstances. He feels that in a democratic setup like India, people will come out to vote because they know the importance it holds for them over a game of cricket.

Echoing his thoughts, students from Delhi University, who are ever conscious of their rights, give out full support to the elections. For them, it is a celebration of their existence in democracy and they are very vocal about their support to the elections. Ashutosh, a law student, says that he feels it is his moral duty as a citizen of this country to vote. He gives more important to following election coverage than following the IPL as he thinks it will him along with other citizens. Pranshu, a history student, says that it is the moral responsibility of all sane minded citizens to follow election developments. He says that cricket can never gain such a prominence that people might forget their democratic responsibilities.

Now as far as those people are concerned who feel that the IPL will affect the turnout of voters in the elections, we find that there is a section who believes that the political machinery of the state has rotten beyond doubt. It is a reflection of those Indians who are frustrated from the existing corruption in politics of this country. It is a sign of the unrest that is brewing within from quite some time.

Subrata Mukherjee, who is the convener of the Asian Political Science Association and a former professor of Delhi University, feels that the way people view the elections will remain the same whether there be any IPL or not. He is among those people who feel that the state machinery has rotten down and the corrupt politics has totally disinterested the people in events like the elections. For him elections are just another process where we choose such people who suck our blood in the end. And the people have got fed up of politicians who continuously cheat them.

Even a large chunk of the common people has lost trust in the politicians of the country because it’s always about the power that the politicians go for in the end. And this is affecting the way the elections are viewed in this country. A layperson’s views on the elections confirm this very clearly when he says that he would prefer to watch the IPL than go and cast his vote. Harpreet Singh, who is a staffer in Delhi University, says that he would rather watch the IPL than give any special interest to the election proceedings. For him, again, it is just another round of ceremony where we choose leaders who cheat us and suck our blood in the end.

But some people wouldn’t still go out of their way to take any side. They still want to view it as a platform where these two events will go off without affecting each other much. Chetan Chauhan, a former cricketer turned politician, feels so. For him the IPL doesn’t pose much of a threat in seeking out voters. Since he has himself been a well-known cricketer, he feels that the public will figure out some way to take required information out of the two events.

Now it remains to be seen how the media gains from all this hype. As the media today is profit-driven, it will be all about striking the correct balance between the elections and the IPL. Qamar Agha feels that the media is smart enough to do this. He says that as the media today is a profit making organisation, it is imperative that they will ultimately find that they will figure a way to give coverage to both the events to make the most of it. And we can see it because now the media is totally into election coverage. But news of the impending IPL are now making headway on the airwaves.

So in this age of publicity and hype, the war for coverage between the elections and the IPL is more about the prominence of democratic ideals and the entertainment quotient of cricket. As there is a division in thoughts, we find that people are divided in their opinion regarding the importance to be given to the General Elections or the IPL.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Elections: A Saga of Violence and Violations

The 15th General Elections are knocking on our doors. And again the world’s largest democracy is gearing up to witness this political spectacle. Numerous campaigns are being carried out to urge the people to vote. And what is more interesting is that this time a huge chunk of the voters will be youngsters. And already our politicians have started to give us a good time with their political circus of myriad coalitions for the polls. But what is most noticeable is the trend where political parties openly violate election commission rules and give us rounds of violence in every election.

We have noticed it in earlier elections, and it has already started in these elections as well. The first reports of violence have appeared in the newspapers. This is a stark reminder of the fact that muscle power still dominates our electoral process. With the first phase of polling starting from 15th April, the show of violence has finally come out with the cases of two murders and one incident of violence.

On 13th April, Bahadur Sahab Sonkar, who was contesting the Jaunpur Assembly seat from the Indian Justice Party (IJP), was found dead with his body hanging from a tree. His supporters have raised a hue and cry calling it a murder, while the post-mortem report states it as a case of suicide. But inspite of it, the Election Commission has still decided to go ahead with the pollings. On the same day, Congress MLA Makhanlal Jatav was murdered in cold blood while returning from campaign in his Bhind constituency. Both these incidents took place in Uttar Pradesh, which once again highlights the high level of lawlessness prevalent there. Again on the same day, in the Godda seat of Jharkhand, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidate Nishikant Dubey was attacked by supporters of the opposition party.

These incidents are such which are not something new during elections in our country. Incidents of violence and breaking of Election Commission rules are something which political parties commit with great vigour. If we look incidents in the past, then we find out that the Election Commission has been totally inept in handling political parties for violation of rules.

If we look in the last Assembly Elections held in 2007, we find that one of the most infamous scandals was the CD scandal committed by the BJP in Uttar Pradesh. And a reply to an RTI has brought in more discredit to the Election Commission in handling discipline among political parties. Afroz Alam Sahil, an RTI activist, had filed an RTI seeking information on the CD scandal from the Election Commission. The reply stated that the Commission had received 19 complaints against the Party. The nature and the gravity of the offence committed by the BJP have also been mentioned very clearly as per the Indian Constitution. The Commission had directed the CEO of Uttar Pradesh to file the same number of FIRs against the State BJP President Mr. Lalji Tandon and his associates for the production of the CDs. But even today the information on the Police enquiry is awaited by the Commission. This clearly shows the real level of importance given to the Election Commission by government institution like the Police Force.

This single incident shows the inability of the Election Commission in handling serious cases of indiscipline during elections. Glorifying the gory acts of the Godhra carnage and using them as acts of rhetoric is a serious offence as it spreads communalism among the general masses. The use of communalistic propaganda is something which has been used particularly by communal parties like the BJP. Even in the recent case of Varun Gandhi’s hate speech, we see how a communal feeling has been stirred to gain on the Hindu vote bank. And here again, the inability of the Election Commission to handle the situation properly has come out. And Varun Gandhi has now emerged as the new hero of Hindutva.

So, violation of rules and incidents of violence are something which have become synonymous with elections. And we can only speculate how many more incidents of violations and violence we have to see in this General Election. And all this because our Election Commission has turned out to be a toothless organisation in dealing with these offending parties.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

The Vanishing Minorities of our Neighbourhoods

If we want to look into examples of genocides or ethnic cleansing, then we really need not look into distant countries with some troubled history. Our two neighbours, Pakistan and Bangladesh, carved out of our own India, give us great examples in this respect. While our seculars shout out hoarse over the protection of minorities in our country, our neighbours have set milestones in giving silent deaths to their minorities.

Ever since their respective formations, Pakistan and Bangladesh, have left no stone unturned in harassing their minorities, especially Hindus. A large chunk of these incidents go unreported and what is more infuriating is that the human rights people and the media of these countries don’t give much hoot to these incidents. They can shout out their lungs for the Muslims of Palestine and Kashmir, but not for the suffering minorities of their own countries.

In March 2005, in the province of Baluchistan in Pakistan, government troops killed 33 Hindus. Most of them were women and children and many more were injured. Hundreds more fled from their homes. But what is surprising is that such headlines never managed to make it to the Indian media. An independent account of those killings emerged after teams from the Pakistan Human Rights Commission (PHRC) led by human rights activist and famous lawyer Asma Jahangir visited Dera Bugti town in Baluchistan province, in January 2006, nine months after the killings there. The human rights commission published its report later in 2007 mentioning that there was rampant discrimination against all religious minorities. Asma Jahangir noted that the Hindus faced the worst form of discriminations especially from the intelligence agencies.

Among the pieces of evidence presented to the human rights team was a video that a resident had managed to take of some of the violence- and of the dead. As the Pakistani authorities were silent, Baluchi political leaders smuggled the video out of the country. This video was then circulated among political and human rights groups as an indication of the brutal face of the Pakistani military authorities. The video tape and the circumstances around its late circulation, and the sparse and delayed reporting of the killings, are a sign of the cloak of silence laid over several areas of Pakistan. This silence is shrouding the abuses and the insurgency that are leading to attacks on government targets almost every day. The killing of Hindus, and the hush-hush around, raises the issue of their wretched status in Pakistan.

Now when we turn over to Bangladesh, we find that compared to Pakistan, Bangladesh has stable regular reports of depredations on the minorities. The presence of a somewhat alert media there has still let incidents of violence against the minorities come out. But the growing number of incidents only points out that the growing Islamic radicalism in Bangladesh has created the situation highly insecure for the minorities there. Bangladesh was created as a secular nation. But these growing incidents of fundamentalist violence are only showing that secularism has turned into an ugly joke there.
Ethnic cleansing of minorities in Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan) started in 1947. Over half-a-century has passed with no end in sight. Minorities in Bangladesh, including women and children, were subjected to extreme brutality and torture. Hindus comprised nearly 30% of the total population in Bangladesh in 1947. After the exodus of minorities following the partition of India in 1947, the Hindu population went down to about 22% by 1951. Due to unabated persecution, intimidation, and forcible conversion to Islam, the Hindu minority population kept on dwindling and now stands at a meager 10.5% of the total population in Bangladesh (1991 census). After the National Elections in Bangladesh of October 2001, which brought the anti-Indian and highly fundamentalist Khaleda Zia regime into power, many more minority Hindu families were forced to migrate out of their "Homeland of generations" for safety sake.

In the recent past, there have been several cases of brutal killings of prominent members of minority communities in the strategic Chittagong Hill Tracts, by armed gangs of Islamic fanatics. Significantly, these tragic incidents started in the wake of Santu Larma-Khaleda Zia high-level talks at Dhaka, for establishing permanent peace in the said region. The very day the talks started, in Rangamati (CHT), an armed gang of BNP-JeI backed ‘United People’s Democratic Front’ (UPDF) attacked pro-Larma Chakma tribals resulting in the death of four Chakma Buddhists. Next day at village Hingla in Rouzan locality of Chittagong, Gyanjyoti Borooah (55), a locally popular Buddhist Monk, running an Orphanage/ Monastery was brutally killed. In the next few days, more attacks were made on the Chakma Buddhists and more monks were killed. Madan Gopal Goswami, a Hindu priest, was also gunned down in Gachhabil area of Manikchhari in Chittagong. These cases of utmost brutality generated strong resentment among local Chakmas and Hindus.

At Niamatpur under Naugaou, terrorists armed with lethal country made weapon burst into the house of one Mr. Gajendra Nath Sarkar at mid night. The miscreants went on rampage at the house kicking and punching family members first and then forcefully kidnapped Ms. Babita Rani Sarkar, holding the family at gunpoint. Next morning, the miscreants dropped off the highly tormented body of Ms. Babita who was seriously wounded but alive. Terrorist warned the local minorities with stern punishment if the incident is reported to police. This incident further instigated fear among minorities there. To escape humiliation and save their females, minorities started sending out all the young girls and women to relatives in towns. Ignoring all the warnings, oppression and torture of miscreants, Ms. Babita, a student of class ten in a local school and her family decided to file case in the local police station. The brave girl identified one Shariful among eight evildoers. Police arrested Shariful and Ahidur Rahman while writing this report. Ms. Babita took refuge at the residence of her maternal uncle at another village. Later Police Superintendent Mr. Mustafijur Rahman visited the village assuring the safety of minorities there but locals said minorities have never been safe since the 2001 Elections. Some also stated that Babita's distant sister was also gang raped earlier but administration has not done enough to endow justice.

There are numerous more cases of atrocities against the minorities in Bangladesh. And a little known fact is also that during the 1972 war, the West Pakistani army carried a massive genocide in Bangladesh to exterminate the Hindu minorities. The information on them can be obtained from websites like The presence of a somewhat alert media and the holding of some important positions in the politico-economic hierarchy by some Hindus can still retain some assurance for the Hindus and other minorities in Bangladesh. And now with the coming of Sheikh Hasina’s party to power in the last Elections, we can hope for the situation to improve some bit.

But what about Pakistan? A state which is almost on the verge of collapsing. The deteriorating situation there only reminds us of the fact that the Hindus and other minorities must be subjected to unimaginable humiliations. Also, with the rise of the Taliban there, it is only to be seen when an open massacre of minorities happens there under full government scanner.

So the next time some Human Rights chap shouts out hoarse over the protection of minorities in India, I would advise him to compare the situation with our neighbours. And then India would definitely have the upper hand in treating minorities properly.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

The Danger Rising Within

On March 29, the former governor of Assam and Jammu &Kashmir, Lt Gen (Retd) S K Sinha said that Assam should get more attention than Jammu & Kashmir from the Centre. Sinha, who was on a three day visit to the North-East, said this to the Guwahati based newspaper Assam Tribune. Sinha stated that since Assam is rich in natural resources, it is vital for the Centre to retain it at any cost from the greedy eyes of Bangladesh. What is more horrifying is his statement that after five years, the next Chief Minister of Assam will be a Bangladeshi.

Sinha’s comments are significant at a time when the question of illegal Bangladeshi migrants is a burning issue in Assam. It is known that Bangladesh, facing the burden of population, needs more space and as the North-Eastern region is connected to the rest of India by only a small 2 km corridor, anti-India forces can manage to cut that off. If that happens, then the entire region would be snapped off from the rest of the country.
The trouble also intensifies with the presence of the top ULFA leadership in Bangladesh, who are now forwarding the interests of the Bangladeshi nationals by going against the interests of the indigenous people. The presence of the huge number of Illegal Bangladeshis in the state has triggered an identity crisis for the indigenous people which can result in big trouble as it did with riots in the areas of Udalguri and Kokrajhar last year. Also, the presence of these illegal immigrants has also given spurt to the activities of Jehadist elements like the HuJi in the region.

The presence of dirty vote bank politics has ensured the survival for these illegal immigrants in Assam. And on top of that, the ever increasing feelings of communal hatred that are being augmented by these Bangladeshis are creating havoc with the communal harmony of the state. Though the situation is deteriorating, it can still be saved if proper action is taken by the Centre as soon as possible. Or else we can only wait for another calamity that will take down the entire North-East along with Assam.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

A Hairy Story!

Haircutting is one of the oldest surviving professions. India, which is now known for it’s IT and Outsourcing sectors, still has the old style barber shops. What is interesting is that even today, roadside barber stalls are still prevalent here along with the ones with proper salons.

Some of these barbers have newly started their own businesses with their own salons. While some have carried it on as family tradition and take pride in it.

Some of these barbers have migrated to big cities like Delhi from smaller towns. Most of them run their haircutting stalls by the roadside. And it is always a struggle for them to make both ends meet.

As far as haircutting is concerned, it is an art for the barbers. It is something which is achieved after a lot of practice and requires a lot of concentration. If we keep this thing in mind, then they are no less than any big shot hair designer.

All photos taken by Joydeep Hazarika and Tilak Jha. Thanks a ton Tilu!!!

Saturday, March 28, 2009

An Ode for a Paradise

Book: Writing on the Wall: Reflections on the North-East
Writer: Sanjoy Hazarika
Type: Non-fiction
Pages: 161
Price: Rs 225
Publisher: Penguin Books India

“At the end of every dark night, there is a dawn, however delayed. And for every day, there is a dawn, whether we see it or not.”

These words by Sanjoy Hazarika seem so true once we are done with this book. “Writing on the Wall” is the latest offering by Sanjoy Hazarika in his writings on the North-East of India. Hazarika, who is hailed by some as the greatest journalist from Assam, touches some topics which dearly concern the region but are seldom given any attention. Hazarika, who has earlier given us classics like “Strangers in the Mist,” once again shows the unabashed beauty of the North-East which is under threat from the various problems it faces today.

This book is a collection of 15 essays by the author which provide an insider’s take on the wide-ranging issues affecting the region. These issues range from the Brahmaputra and the use of natural resources to the peace talks in Nagaland, from the centre’s failure to repeal the much hated Armed Forces Special Powers Act, threats to the environment, corruption in government and extortion by armed groups to New Delhi’s policies which treat the region on a subservient level than the rest of India.

Yet, as one reads these essays, one thing gets clear in the mind. It is that hope, though distant, is not lost. Restoring governance through people-driven development programmes, peace-building through civil society initiatives, assuring the pre-eminence of local communities and most importantly, the simple economic interventions through appropriate technologies hold the solution to the web of violence, poverty and marginalisation. Thus we have references to innovative health clinics like Akha, community mobilization in the form of organisations like the North-Eastern Region Community Resource Management Project (NERCORMP) and various micro-credit initiatives in the region. The author also talks of environmental issues like the preservation of the river dolphin and geopolitical issues like the sharing of the waters of the Brahmaputra among the states.

“Writing on the Wall” is a passionate call to all the stakeholders in the North-East to embrace dialogue and use the platforms for peace, to go beyond the politics of intolerance to that of mutual respect. The spirit of this book can be best summed up in the lyrics of this song by the great Bhupen Hazarika, which find special mention in this book.

If man wouldn’t think for man
With a little sympathy
Tell me who will- comrade?
If we repeat history
If we try to buy
Or sell humanity
Won’t we be wrong- comrade?

For the Violence Within

Book: Beyond Violence
Author: J. Krishnamurti
Publisher: Krishnamurti Foundation India
Price: Rs 20
Genre: Philosophy/ Religion
“If violence is like a stone dropped in a lake; the waves spread and spread, at the centre is ‘me.’ As long as the ‘me’ survives in any form, very subtly or grossly, there must be violence.”
These words by the great 20th philosopher J. Krishnamurti rings in one’s ears long after one has been done with this book. J. Krishnamurti’s take on violence is something which everyone, especially young minds, can relate to easily in today’s world of total mayhem and chaos. The content and theme of the book is taken from the talks of the book is taken from the talks that Krishnamurti held in the USA, London and Rome respectively. Most of the book is in the format of discourses while some are in the question-answer format a la an interview. The best part of this book is that it gets on in an interactive mood with the reader, with Krishnamurti’s discourses in the lead working as a soothing effect.
The theme of violence and Krishnamurti’s approach to it are as relevant today as they were when he spoke in 1970s to vast audiences. In discussing the nature of violence, Krishnamurti also unravels the other psychological factors such as hurt, competition, insecurity and fear, which are closely related to violence. He shows us a way of looking at the fact of violence directly, without condemning, suppressing, or analysing it, and thus going beyond it. In doing so, he calls for a fundamental change in the human psyche, which is the mark of a truly religious mind.
In today’s world, where we deal with violence on a daily basis, this book comes as a sort of comfort for the troubled mind with its practical approach and solutions. Reading this book only further affirms our faith in the fact that J. Krishnamurti was undoubtedly one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century, whose thoughts will influence more generations to come.
It will be best to conclude in the words of Krishnamurti himself: “Truth is not ‘what is,’ but the understanding of ‘what is’ opens the door to the truth.”

Friday, March 13, 2009

Politics of Violation

Elections in India are becoming a joke with each passing phase. With every election, more and more incidents of lawlessness and rigging are being reported. And along with this is also the unabated continuation of the violation of the Election Commission rules by the political parties. This thing is clearly reflected in the reply to a Right to Information (RTI) concerning the violation of election rules by the political parties.

Afroz Alam Sahil, an RTI activist, had filed an RTI petition asking the number of cases that were registered against various political parties during the last Lok Sabha elections in 2004 for violating election commission rules. The petitioner had filed the application on 27th January this year and the reply came in a month later on 27th February. The reply contained a list of all the political parties who had been booked under committing violation of election rules along with the number of complaints received in the Commission against each party. The list also contained the actions that were taken on account of the Commission against the offending parties.

In this list, the Indian National Congress came on top with a total of seven cases filed against them. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came in second with six cases against them. And the Telegu Desam Party came in third with four cases against them. The other parties in the list included parties like the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist), the Samajwadi Party, the Bahujan Samaj Party, etc. each of whom had one or two cases filed against them.

The actions that have been taken in this regard by the Election Commission are something which falls short of expectations. In the RTI, most of the actions mentioned that were taken by the Commission are of the nature of forwarding the complaints to the Chief Election Officer (CEO) of the region. And after that, there is no answer as to the present status of the cases. There is no mention of the nature of actions taken by the CEO against the offending parties. And in some cases, it is mentioned that action were not necessary at all. But here again, the reason for this is not given in the RTI reply.

The RTI reply also contained information on the BJP’s infamous CD scandal which they committed in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections. The reply stated that the Commission had received 19 complaints against the Party. The Commission had directed the CEO of Uttar Pradesh to file the same number of FIRs against the State BJP President Mr. Lalji Tandon and his associates for the production of the CDs. But even today the information on the Police enquiry is awaited by the Commission. This clearly shows the real level of importance given to the Election Commission by government institution like the Police Force.

The petitioner, Afroz Alam Sahil says that this thing clearly reflects the lack of a strong hold on the election procedures by the Commission. He further says that most of the incidents where political parties openly violate election rules by distributing liquor and rigging votes go unreported. And it is due to this that the political parties get more emboldened to break rules in each poll without any fear of repercussions.

Now with the General Elections next month, flouting of rules will again become rampant. This will be a test for the Election Commission to prove that it is not some toothless organisation which can’t punish the offending parties when it is needed. The reply to the RTI has pointed out some serious defects in the functioning of the Commission. The offending political parties have not received any stern punishments due to which a mockery of democracy has been made. It is about time that the Election Commission mended its loopholes so that the political parties can be brought under its proper scanner for the upcoming Lok Sabha election.

Monday, February 2, 2009

A Tribute to Laxman.

As I’m preparing to write this piece, I am feeling nervous. I know it is a feeble attempt to pay tribute to the greatest cartoonist of our country. This very man’s cartoons inspired me to become a cartoonist. And today I want to go through the life and times of Laxman with you. It was as a school boy that I first chanced to look upon an old edition of The Times of India at my house in Assam which my father had got from one of his trips to Delhi. There was a pocket cartoon in the front page with the heading of “You Said It” by R.K. Laxman. Looking at the cartoon brought a mischievous smile on my face. It was definitely a comment on a serious topic but the humour in it had brought a whole new meaning into it. I immediately knew that I had to find out more about this man and his works. And in the process, I myself became a cartoonist, forever taking inspiration from Laxman’s style and ideas.

Rasipuram Krishnaswami Laxman, better known as R.K. Laxman, is perhaps India’s most celebrated cartoonist. He is the creator of the Common Man which has achieved a cult status among cartoon strips in India. R. K. Laxman was born in 1924 in Mysore in a Tamil family, in the state of Karnataka. His father was a headmaster and Laxman is the youngest of six boys. One of his elder brothers, R.K. Narayan, went on to become one of India's best known English language novelists.

Laxman was engrossed by the illustrations in magazines such as Strand Magazine, Punch, Bystander, Wide World and Tit-Bits, even before he could read. Soon he was drawing on his own, on the floors, walls and doors of his house and doodling caricatures of his teachers at school; praised by a teacher for his drawing of a peepal leaf, he began to think of himself as an artist in the making. Another early influence on Laxman were the cartoons of the world-renowned British cartoonist, Sir David Low (whose signature he misread as "cow" for a long time) that appeared now and then in The Hindu. Laxman notes in his autobiography, The Tunnel of Time: "I drew objects that caught my eye outside the window of my room - the dry twigs, leaves and lizard-like creatures crawling about, the servant chopping firewood and, of course, and number of crows in various postures on the rooftops of the buildings opposite."
Making sketches of the common crow has been a great favourite of Laxman. Laxman has to his credit hundreds of sketches that he has made of crows. He recounts an incident when he gifted one of his crow sketches to a friend. A child threw a stone at it and broke the glass frame. Laxman considers it as the best tribute ever paid to his art where one of his sketches had seemed so life-like to somebody.

Laxman was the captain of his local "Rough and Tough and Jolly" cricket team and his antics inspired the stories "Dodu the money maker" and "The Regal Cricket Club" written by his brother, Narayan. Laxman's idyllic childhood was shaken for a while when his father suffered a paralytic stroke and died around a year later, but the elders at home bore most of the increased responsibility, while Laxman continued with his schooling.

After high school, Laxman applied to the JJ School of Arts, Bombay, hoping to concentrate on his lifelong interests of drawing and painting, but the dean of the school wrote to him that his drawings lacked, "the kind of talent to qualify for enrollment in our institution as a student", and refused admission. He finally graduated with a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Mysore. In the meantime he continued his freelance artistic activities and contributed cartoons to Swarajya and an animated film based on the mythological character, Narada.

Laxman's earliest work was for newspapers & magazines such as Swarajya and Blitz. Whilst still at the Maharaja's College, Mysore, he began to illustrate his elder brother R K Narayan's stories in The Hindu, and he drew political cartoons for the local newspapers and for the Swatantra. Laxman also drew cartoons, for the Kannada humour magazine, Koravanji. He held a summer job at the Gemini Studios, Madras. His first full-time job was as a political cartoonist for the Free Press Journal. Laxman later joined The Times of India, beginning a career that has spanned for over fifty years. Among his other works, Laxman is known for his distinctive illustrations in several books, most notably for the Malgudi stories written by his elder brother R.K. Narayan. He also created a popular mascot for the Asian Paints group called Gattu. Laxman has also penned a few novels. His cartoons have appeared in Hindi films such as Mr. and Mrs. 55.

It was as a cartoonist in The Times of India, that Laxman grew on to become India’s leading cartoonist. Laxman’s grasp on the nature of politics in India helped him to evolve as a great political cartoonist. Marrying humor with art, Laxman has created a benchmark in political cartooning in the country. Whether it was caricaturing the prominent politicians like Jawaharlal Nehru or Indira Gandhi, or satirizing the biggest political turmoils of free India through his cartoons. Laxman has been simply a genius. It is said that Nehru had once requested him not to portray him in such sharp satire as he feared it might make a joke out of him among the public. Such was the power of Laxman’s political cartoons! Even during critical periods such as the emergency, Laxman’s cartoons never lost their souls. And they continued to bring out the common man’s feelings in their own humorous ways. Besides the B.D. Goenka Award awarded by the Indian Express, the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Journalism, Literature and Creative Communication Arts, he has awarded the Padma Bhushan and the Padma Vibhusan by the Union Government.
Caricaturing some of the biggest leaders of India has been Laxman’s forte. Whether it was Mahatma Gandhi’s large earlobes, or be it Indira Gandhi’s sharp nose, his cartoons were such that it was not difficult to recognise these personalities without a smirk from the onlooker. Laxman particularly recalls the difficulty he faced in caricaturing Rajiv Gandhi. He said, “Here was a man who was very handsome and very dignified in his manners. I was scared that not being able to portray him in humour might put an end to my career. But with time and his political activities, he too ended up as one of my most memorable cartoon subjects.”
The Emergency too put Laxman through an uneasy phase as it did to other creative minds at that time. Many times his cartoons were censored due to the seriousness in their humour. There were many uneasy moments between Laxman and the Censor during the Emergency. One incident which Laxman holds memorable is when during the Emergency; one of his cartoons on the then current economic situation escaped the notice of the Censor and got published. As soon as it caught the notice of the Censor, he was thoroughly reprimanded and threatened with punishment if such a thing happened again. A few days later he received a letter from the Ministry of Commerce which stated “that being in a position to appreciate the humour in the cartoon, we would like you to send in a copy of the cartoon which we want to frame and hang up in our office.” So much for the stupidity of the Censor!

The best thing about Laxman’s cartoons is that they can never fail to bring a smile on the faces of their onlookers. His style is such that he brings the feel of the place and the people with the minimum of strokes. You can literally feel the ambience of the setting depicted in his cartoons. His style also shows that cartooning is all about fearlessness where you have to poke fun at anyone without the fear of repercussion. Laxman had to face lots of problems due to this. But he never gave in at any cost. It is this very thing which inspires me to boldly poke fun at anyone through my cartoons. Never had humour felt like such a powerful weapon!

R.K. Laxman is married to author Kamala Laxman and lives in both Mumbai and Pune. In September 2003, Laxman was affected by a stroke, which left him paralysed on his left side. He has partly recovered from its effects. His cartoons have again begun to appear in The Times of India which shows that he is still raring to wow people with his cartoons.

I would like to conclude with a prayer for the long life and full recovery of Laxman and that he continues to charm people with his cartoons like always. Three cheers for R.K. Laxman!!!