The Window Seat

India Election 2014

This collection © Supriya Sharma 2014. The individual articles included herein were first published on, and the copyright for the articles rests with Scroll Media, Inc.  

Photo credit: Soumya Bose, Arkadripta Chakraborty, Shiv Kiran, Ravi Mishra, Raju Panduranga, Atish Patel, Sonia Paul, Ravi Sahani, Javeed Shah, Supriya Sharma, Ritesh Uttamchandani, Harsha Vadlamani & Prashanth Vishwanathan.

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This is not a book about India’s new prime minister, Narendra Modi. It is a book about the invisible people who votedor did not votefor his government. Like the man on the cover of this book, they remain hidden from view in the daily swirl of news, until elections come around and both politicians and journalists are forced to seek them out. The politicians come to ask for their votes and the reporters to ask who they are voting for. The conversations centre around the act of voting as if it were an esoteric ritual divorced from everyday life. But it isn't. It is an act embedded in everyday life. People vote because of the way they live. While reporting on the elections, instead of narrowly focusing on people as voters, what if journalists were to see them as people first? Would we come back with richer insights into India? 

In the last week of March 2014, as the country readied for a six-week-long election, I boarded a train in Assam, setting out on a 2,500-km rail journey that traced a Himalaya-like curve through northern India, ending a month later in Kashmir. This book is a collection of the dispatches filed in the course of that journey. Written on the run, they are neither comprehensive accounts nor measured election analyses. They tell the stories of the people I met on the wayrefugees, sex workers, migrants, pilgrims, nomads, IT engineers and, of course, a few politicians. In the stories, there are glimpses of the sweeping electoral victory that would finally be delivered in May, and the reasons why it still remains impossible to make broad claims about a country as diverse as India. 

Supriya Sharma
May 2014

1. The Red River

Guwahati, Assam
March 25, 2014

Busy fisherfolk at the banks, snuggling couples in the garden, vegetable vendors on the steps. There was enough riverside activity at Uzaan Bazaar ghat, and yet the Brahmaputra looked weary and melancholic under the grey morning sky.

Bhupen Hazarika, the bard of Assam, wrote a song about the river Luit, or Lohit, as the Brahmaputra is called in Assamese. Lohit means ‘red’.

Unlike other river songs,”Bistirno Parore” talks not of beauty but of inhumanity, mocking the river for being a silent witness to it.

A mob by the side; the banks far and wide

Yelled and cried,”Speechless ever, old man river, o thou…

Why do you flow?

Moral ethics got diminished, Human values got perished…

Shameless forever, why do you flow?

(Translation by Kamaljyoti Borah)


The roads in central Guwahati had turned muddy after a spell of overnight rain.

I made my way up to the settlement of thatched huts clinging to a hillside, to look for Naren Tumung, a young auto-rickshaw driver who had been paralysed by the 2008 Guwahati bombings.

A month before 10 gunmen held Mumbai to siege, a series of explosions had ripped through Guwahati and western Assam. A hundred people were killed and more than twice the number injured.

In Mumbai, the lone surviving gunman, Ajmal Kasab, was swiftly tried by the courts and sentenced to death.

In Assam, the man suspected of planning the terror attacks, Ranjan Daimary, was arrested but swiftly released on bail.

Daimary is the leader of a faction of the insurgent Bodo group, the National Democratic Front of Bodoland. Bodos are indigenous tribal people who live in western Assam. Since the mid-eighties, armed Bodo groups have been fighting for demands ranging from statehood to secession. So have other indigenous groups like the Karbis and the Dimasas, who live in eastern Assam, as well as the United Liberation Front of Assam, which has long waged a secessionist movement on behalf of Assamese-speaking people.

Several of these groups are currently in ceasefire mode. The levels of violence have come down. Keen to savour the relative peace, most people in Assam avoid talking about bloodshed. Most have moved on, except those like Tumung, who I found sitting outside his thatched hut.

“The left side of my body was fully paralysed,” he said.”While some movement has returned to my arm, I still can't feel my leg.”

The 28-year-old is dependent on his old mother. Belonging to the indigenous Karbi community, Tumung’s family does not have much to fall back on. The government compensation of Rs 1.5 lakhs has long run out. (One lakh is equivalent to 100,000). The promises that politicians made—treatment in a hospital outside Assam, a government job—are yet to be fulfilled.

“I had saved money to build a house. What house, now we cannot even afford to eat,” said Tumung’s mother, Gulabi, in a manner both direct and eloquent.”My health is not good. I have been trying to get the government to employ him as an office peon, or anything. I don't need the money. I just want a future for him.”

They met a minister, Akon Bora, several times but no progress was made.

“What's the point in voting for these people in elections?” Gulabi asked.”They released Ranjan Daimary. Our people are so angry they want to chop him off.”


Not just poets, but even the Indian Railways has paid tributes to the river.

The Lohit Express runs from Guwahati to Jammu on Mondays.

The Brahmaputra Mail runs from Dibrugarh to Delhi every day. It is notorious for delays, but that day it was on schedule.

The man seated next to me turned out to be a Central Reserve Police Force soldier in civilian clothes. He had boarded the train in Dimapur, Nagaland, with his wife and two kids.”I’m going to drop them home for the holidays,” he said. Home was Ghazipur, Uttar Pradesh.

“What about you?” he asked me.

“I’m going to Kokrajhar, Bodoland.”

“Oh, that’s a disturbed area. Some companies of our battalion were posted there.”

“What about Dimapur?”

“There is trouble in the villages, but the city is fine. I have been posted outside a bank to keep it protected. There is a lot of money there. Big Marwari businessmen. The Centre is flooding the state with funds.”

As the train pulled out of the station I pulled out the newspaper.”2 cops hurt in NDFB(S) ambush,” a headline read. NDFB(S) is the acronym for the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (Songbijit). I jotted down the headline in my notebook.

“Look at aunty, she writes such good English,” the CRPF man turned to tell his six-year old daughter.

Turning back to me, he said,”I’ve got her admitted to an English-medium school. Of course, the teachers lapse into Naga while teaching—they are Nagas, you see—but they also speak with the kids in English.”

“She must have also picked up Naga.”

“Yes, a little bit.”

“Have you?”

“No, why do I need to?” he shot back, looking slightly annoyed.”We have nothing to do with local people.”

They may be doting fathers and decent people at home. But trained to see local people as potential enemies, government soldiers often end up deepening the insurgency that they have been sent to defuse.


The train crossed Baksa, one of the four districts administered by an autonomous Bodoland Territorial Council. A youthful-looking short man entered the compartment, carrying a camouflage-print rucksack with Indian Army etched on it. He had tribal features.

“Are you in the army?”

“No,” he smiled. He was in the Central Industrial Security Force. A Bodo boy, he had come home for a holiday, and was returning to Delhi, where he was posted at Rajghat.

“You must have seen all big leaders. Sonia Gandhi and all,” the CRPF jawan asked his counterpart in the CISF.

“Not yet. It's only been two months in this posting.”

The conversation soon turned towards the pressing local issues.

“What do you think of the demand for a separate Bodoland?”

“It doesn’t matter to me. But people in the village want it. They think more government jobs would be created. And there might be better chances of getting a job in the army, once there is a separate Bodo Regiment, on the lines of Assam Regiment.”

In the unmistakable irony common to most of India’s insurgency-hit regions, some young Bodos fight the Indian Army, while others want to join it.


In the next coach, I walked past an old man who was immersed in a palm-sized book: Naya Niyam or New Testament, printed by the New Bible Society.

The man, Ram Ugra, turned out to be a soldier of the India Reserve Battalion. Posted in Manipur for more than three decades, he was three years short of retirement. “I am going home to my village in Aurangabad, Bihar,” he said, in a gentle and mellow voice.

“Are you a believer in Christ?”

“Well, I have been living in Manipur for so long, and the place has so many churches…”

“Is it true that the armed forces enter villages and kill innocents?”

“Yes, they do, and they even take money from people. They are so shameless that they don’t even spare their own people.”

He had misunderstood my question.

“I am not asking about the insurgent groups. I am asking about the Indian government's army and police forces. Do they make mistakes?”

“Oh yes,” he said, nodding his head. “And then, later in life, you look for salvation.”

2. Doubtful Voters

Guwahati, Assam
March 25, 2014

With nearly a dozen ethnic groups and languages, Assam’s identity politics can be fairly confusing for an outsider, as Rahul Gandhi may have discovered when he came on a campaign visit in February. Several groups had called for an Assam bandh (shutdown) during his visit—all for different reasons.

As The Assam Tribune reported, “While the Bengali Yuva Chatra Parishad (BYCP) called the Assam bandh to raise the D-voter issue, the Adivasi National Convention (ANC), a combined forum of more than 20 Adivasi organisations, called a 48-hour bandh…in protest against the failure of the Congress-led government to fulfil the demands of the Adivasis in Assam. The Tai Ahom Yuva Parishad (TAYP) and the All Koch Rajbongshi Students Union (AKRSU) called the bandh in protest against alleged exploitation and negligence towards the indigenous people of the State by the Congress.”

In this set of grievances, the D-voter issue stands out, for it represents the link between Assam’s politics of identity and its other source of ferment—the politics of immigration.

D-voter is a category of voters who have been declared “doubtful” by the Election Commission, because they have failed to produce legal documents of citizenship.

For a state which has 1.9 crore (19 million) eligible voters, D-voters are numerically insignificant. They number just 1.4 lakhs (140,000).

And yet, D-voters are at the centre of the state's electoral politics.

To understand why, one needs to know a bit of Assam’s recent history. At the intersection of many civilisations, Assam has forever been a shifting landscape of peoples. A century and a half ago, prompted in part by the needs of the British colonial economy, Assam saw large-scale migrations from Bihar, Orissa and Bengal. The anxiety over immigration built up after Independence, and heightened in the years after the Bangladesh War, becoming intense enough in the early 1980s to draw in a large section of Assamese society into agitations and protests led by a students’ movement. The unrest let up a little in 1985, when the Centre and the student leaders signed the Assam Accord, which aimed to stem the tide of immigrants from Bangladesh by setting up foreigners’ tribunals that would hold trials of people suspected of sneaking in without papers, and to deport them, if found guilty. This would apply to immigrants who entered the state from March 24, 1971 onwards. The same year the Assam Accord was signed, the students’ movement, which consolidated itself into a political party, the Assam Gana Parishad, swept the polls, and formed the government. It was Assam’s Aam Aadmi Party moment.

But it soon began to fray. In 1986, a young correspondent named Shekhar Gupta reported for India Today that the agitators-turned-administrators were overwhelmed by the practical difficulties of identifying illegal immigrants and bringing them to trial. “Ours is a situation of walking the tightrope over a swollen Brahmaputra,” an AGP minister told him.

By the mid-nineties, the focus of the anti-immigrant efforts came to rest on the electoral rolls. In 1997, the Election Commission undertook a verification exercise in which voters were asked to produce documents that would establish that they had come to Assam before 1971. Those who could not produce documents were marked as D-voters.

The denial of voting rights might not be the worse fallout of being labelled a D-voter, however. A D-voter lives in fear of being dragged to a tribunal, where, if declared an illegal Bangladeshi immigrant, they could be picked up by the police, sent to a detention camp and one day “pushed back” over the border, the rough-and-ready method of deportation that authorities favour.

Of 29,237 people declared foreigners by the tribunals since 1985, 2,442 have been pushed back. The number is small for anti-immigration groups, but significant for the state’s Bengali-speakers.

Such is the anxiety over immigration that even the crime briefs in the newspapers tap into it. Here is one from December 2013: “One Bangladeshi illegal immigrant caught under Guwahati Railway police net today. Identified as Rahul Misra, 28 years, reportedly haired a seat in Dibrugarh-New Delhi North-East Express rail from where he was taken under custody, police said.”

Contrary to the belief held by a large number of mainland Indians, not all Bangladeshi immigrants are Muslim.

Narendra Modi, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate, underlined this distinction sharply, when he addressed a rally in the state in February, and argued for clemency for Bangladeshi Hindu immigrants. As reported in The Hindu, “Addressing a BJP rally in southern Assam town Silchar, [Modi] said that all the states of the country and not just Assam should share the burden of providing shelter to the Bangladeshi Hindus, who, he alleged, had been forced to come to India seeking shelter due to “persecution” in the neighbouring country. He, however, said that all ‘Bangladeshi infiltrators, who have infiltrated with a nefarious political design’ should be detected and sent back to where they belong.”

This is where the D-voter issue meets Assam's politics of identity. There are Muslim D-voters, and there are Hindu D-voters. For the AGP, both are equally undesirable. Born out of the anti-immigrant politics of the eighties, the party has been on a declining graph, after two unremarkable stints in government, marked by, among other things, its failure to control immigration.

The BJP had allied with AGP in the 2009 national elections, but this time the party is going alone. Buoyed by Modi, the party is keenly anticipating major electoral dividends to flow from its support for Bengali-speaking Hindus. But observers say it remains hobbled by a lack of state-level leadership.

The Congress, like it does in many other parts of India, is speaking in multiple voices. It is worried about the steady loss of its support base among Bengali speaking-Muslims, who are believed to be leaning heavily towards the eight-year-old Muslim-centric All India United Democratic Front. To compensate, it wants to cultivate the Bengali-speaking Hindus, but is wary of alienating its Assamese-speaking voters, who are against immigration.

While D-voters cannot vote, I wondered who they would vote for, had they not been disenfranchised. I went around looking for them, helped by Kamal Choudhary, the general secretary of the All Assam Bengali Youth Students’ Federation.

Like most Indian cities, the urban sprawl of Guwahati throws up some community-specific neighbourhoods.

Lal Ganesh is known for its large number of Bengali-speaking Hindu residents. There I met Nitai Das, a man in his forties who worked as a goldsmith for 25 years until his eyes wore out from the strain, and he turned to the relatively less difficult task of frying and selling pokuris, the Assamese equivalent of pakoras, from a roadside cart.

Ever since they were declared D-voters, Das and his wife have been holding on to a stack of documents—certificates stating their respective fathers featured in the 1966 voter list, a bank passbook from 1971, the year the family moved to Guwahati, Das’s certificate of apprenticeship as a goldsmith from 1984.

“My father voted in Kolkata in 1966,” Das said. “But I cannot vote in Assam in 2014.”

“The police came to our house in December,” said his wife, Arpana Das. “We were given a notice and asked to appear in the tribunal. We went twice for the hearings. We took all our documents. Each time, we paid the lawyer Rs 1,000. But on both occasions, we came back without getting a chance to meet the magistrate.”

The Das family is poor and the couple has two children to see through college. But the financial strain is not Arpana Das’s greatest worry. “Our advocate told us about a family that could not defend itself in court and was taken away to a detention camp by the police,” she said.

Even policemen in Assam are not immune to the D-voter labels.

In Hathigaon, known as a “minority” neighbourhood, I met a former police sub-inspector, a man in his sixties, Giasuddin Khan, who discovered he was a D-voter in his second decade of government service.

“My job kept me so busy that I couldn’t do much about it until I retired in 2011,” he said. Within months of retirement, Khan filed a case in the foreigners’ tribunal to get the D-mark removed from his name. It wasn’t hard for him to win. Born in Assam’s Barpeta district in 1951, Khan had school-leaving certificates from the sixties, job appointment letters from the seventies and voter lists featuring the names of his entire family, except his own and his wife’s. “Even our sons have voter ID cards,” he said, “but we are still D-voters.” Despite the tribunal’s order upholding his citizenship, and Right to Information queries, Khan is still not sure whether his name has been transferred from the list of D-voters to that of legitimate ones.

These are not isolated cases. In 2012, the government tabled a White Paper on the foreigners issue, which contained startling statistics—of the 88,192 cases of D-voters that had been disposed by the tribunals, only 6,590 were found to be foreigners.

“I am educated. I could fight my case and win. But every time I went to the court, I would see many poor and illiterate people. I wondered how long, hard and exhausting a battle it would be for them,” Giasuddin Khan said.

If he were allowed to vote in 2014, who would he opt for, I asked him.

He paused, hesitated, and then clearing his throat, he said he admired the AIUDF, the Muslim-centric party, for “taking up our cause.”

In Lal Ganesh, I asked Nitai Das the same question. He took even lesser time to reveal his political preference. “The BJP,” he said. “It speaks for us.”

Given Assam's diversity, and the influence of alliances, candidates and other voting factors, there might not be a polarised electoral outcome. But there’s little doubt that the D-voter issue continues to keep polarisation alive on the ground.

Post-script: The BJP won seven of the 14 seats in Assam in the election—its best ever performance in the state. In 2009, the party won only four, and in 2004, just two.

3. In Search of a Brother

Kokrajhar, Assam
March 26, 2014

At an eatery in Bhawaragiri town in Assam's Kokrajhar district, over tea in mini-sized glasses, Abdul Ahmed and his friends sat reading the Assamese paper Agradoot. The paper led with the provocative speech made by Narendra Modi in Jammu in which he claimed he would vanquish the three AKs that were the enemies of India—AK47, the assault weapon used by militants in Kashmir, defence minister AK Antony and Aam Aadmi Party leader Arvind Kejriwal.

“There is a Modi wave in the country,” pronounced Ahmed, when I asked him about the headline. “But it won't affect elections here. Here, the violence of 2012 is still in the air.”

Two years ago, entire villages in Kokrajhar had emptied out, after clashes broke out between the local indigenous people, the Bodos, and Bengali-speaking Muslims, who form the largest migrant community of the region. Homes were burnt. Nearly 100 people were killed. Four lakh people were displaced. It was one of the worst displacements in post-Independence India. Since then, both Bodos and Muslims have returned to their villages and slowly rebuilt their homes. But they have not been able to mend the bridges.

In the village of Lakhigaon, Rotima Musahary sat under a tree weaving a dokhna, the traditional Bodo wrap-around dress. “We lost all our clothes,” she said, looking up from the loom. “I'm trying to make them again.”

As they fled the violence in 2012, Rotima's husband had been caught and beaten up by Muslims from a nearby village. He survived. But their house did not. When they came back to the village six months later, they found it had been completely rased to the ground.

They now live in a makeshift house, with plastic sheets for walls, and a tin sheet as roof. Tin sheets were part of the government's compensation package, as were food rations and Rs 52,700.

“That's not enough to build a proper house,” said Rotima. “If we had money,” said her husband, Biro, “we would build a new one even though some Muslims in the area have asked us not to. ‘It could come down again,’ they say.”

Not too far away in Tulsibil village, Prabhawati Musahary, a Bodo woman who spoke a mix of Bengali and Hindi, was asked to speak on behalf of the village. She recounted a recent episode of tensions. “A few weeks ago, a Muslim boy from a neighbouring village went missing. He ran away after his mother beat him up for not taking out the animals to graze. But the Muslims went to the police and complained that the Bodos had killed him. The police came and searched all our homes.”  

“They are so tall…lamba lamba aadmi,” she said, referring to the Bengali-speaking Muslims who live in the nearby villages. Ordinarily, Bangladesh would come up in such a conversation, but instead there was a reference to Afghanistan. “Don’t know where they have come from, these men in Kabul dress.”

Dress is a marker of identity in Bodoland, and it starts early, as I found on the drive in the morning. Villages were waking up and children were walking to school. The younger ones wore standard uniforms: shirts and shorts for the boys, shirts and skirts for the girls. But the older girls wore more distinct uniforms: wraparounds of different kinds.

“The Bodo girls are wearing dokhnas,” said Mijink, a young woman who works with North East Research and Social Work for Networking, a non-profit working in the area, and who had been kind enough to accompany me on the drive. “And girls from other communities are wearing mekhalas and saris.” The dokhna is wrapped chest-down, unlike the mekhala and sari, both of which are tied around the waist.

Not only were they wearing different clothes, the girls were heading for different schools. Bodo children study in Bodo-medium schools. The others – Bengali-speaking Hindus and Muslims, Adivasis, Santhals, Rajbanshis, and other communities – enroll in Assamese-language schools. Only a small fraction of students who go to English-medium schools have the chance to squabble over a tiffin box with a child from another community and then make up. Since most villages are segregated by community, it isn't as if they can go home and roll in the mud together after class.

If you read Hindi and were to step inside Bodo-medium school, you might feel disoriented for a moment. The alphabets on the blackboard are comprehensible, but the language is not. Bodo leaders chose Devanagari, the script in which Hindi is written, as the script for the Bodo language. This was part of their attempt to distance themselves from the Assamese people and to assert their separate identity.

For the Bodos, their cultural identity is tied to the issue of land. Repeated waves of migration during the colonial years—with an influx of Santhal workers and Muslim farmers—marginalised Bodos, writes Udayon Misra in an article in Economic and Political Weekly. As shifting cultivators, Bodos did not pay land revenue, which “made them appear as encroachers on government forest land and helped the immigrant non-tribal peasant to permanently acquire the land that was the preserve of the tribal farmer.”

In 1947, the Assam government legislated to bar outsiders from buying land in tribal belts and blocks. But the law was not implemented properly, writes Misra, and tribal land alienation continued in the post-Independence years. 

In the eighties, the Bodo’s struggle for greater autonomy started with a peaceful movement but soon gave rise to armed militant groups. By 1993, when the Centre offered an olive branch in the form of an autonomous council for Bodos, the demographic changes in the region were several decades old and migrant families were into their second and third generations, if not more. And yet, the Centre decided to fall back on demography in deciding the boundaries of the autonomous district. It declared that only those areas where Bodos formed one-half of the population would be included in the district.

Many believe this sowed the seed of the idea among Bodos that their political autonomy would rest on improving their demographic strength. This led to a wave of ethnic violence through the 1990s, in which nearly 500 people were killed. More than 200 were Adivasis whose forefathers had come from present-day Jharkhand.

That morning on the drive, I stopped at a bridge to take pictures and ended up striking up a conversation with a man on a bicycle. His name was Kishun Mardi. He was Adivasi and he lived in Kusimari village. Had life returned to normal after the gandagal, I asked him. I was referring to the 2012 ethnic riots between Bodos and Muslims. But he referred to the 1996 riots between Bodos and Adivasis when he replied, “Yes, things are normal. We are back home.” The people of his village had spent 12 years in a refugee camp before they had managed to return home.

In 2012, the violence of Bodo groups was directed at Muslims. Musalmanpara is where the first incidents of violence had taken place. Ajimuddin Mondal was in Delhi when he got a call from his old mother. “I took the first train home,” he recalled. “If we have to die, we should all die together, I thought. What would I do living alone?”

They stayed in a relief camp for seven months. They came back to find that their house had been burnt down—the house they had built using the money Mondal had made working at construction sites in Gurgaon and Saharanpur.

“It won't be easy to rebuild it again,” he said. “It had cost us Rs 2.5 lakhs [Rs 250,000].”

Deciding to stay back, Mondal used up the money in his savings account to buy an auto rickshaw instead.

“How are things?” I asked him.

“While driving around I hear about bad things,” he said, “but I haven't seen anything with my own eyes.”

“Who would you vote for?”

“For whoever makes me feel like a brother.”

Traditionally, the ruling Bodoland People's Front, which is an ally of the Congress, has enjoyed the support of a large section of Muslims, which gave it an edge over the other Bodo party, the Bodo People's Progressive Front. But the 2012 violence seems to have changed that.

“It is a tight contest this time,” explained the editor of a local newspaper, who did not wish to be named. “Bodo votes will be split between Chandan Brahma of BPF, UG Brahma of BPPF, which has the support of the All Bodo Students’ Union. Some might even go to the candidate of the Trinamool [Trinamool Congress], Ranjit Shekhar Mooshahary, a former National Security Guards chief and the governor of Meghalaya. But it is the non-Bodo vote that is crucial.”

Twenty-one non-Bodo organisations have extended their support to Hira Sarania, a commander of the armed insurgent group, the United Liberation Front of Assam. Sarania is contesting as an independent.

In the teashop at Bhawaraguri, Ahmed, who had identified himself as a businessman, said there was little doubt that the ruling BPF had “failed to give security to people”.

It wasn't just the clashes of the violence of 2012, he said. “There are murders, kidnappings, extortion demands. When you step out from home, you don't know if you would return.”

“So much money has come in, but there has been no development under BPF,” he went on.

This struck a false note. Even in the villages where Muslim homes had been burnt down, I was told that development works had picked up after the creation of Bodoland Territorial Council. Near Musalmanpara, a bridge was under construction. Ajimuddin Mondal had pointed in its direction, and said, “The government is developing the area, but they are also pushing us out.”

“Are you from a political party?” I asked Ahmed.

The men sitting at the table, Ahmed’s friends, laughed. He smiled.

“Yes, I am from BPPF. But I'm not going to vote for it this time.”

Ahmed claimed that all Bodo parties were now equally disliked by the Muslims in particular and the non-Bodos in general.

“When the Bodos burnt out houses, they did not see who was from BPF, who was from BPPF… They burnt down all, “he said. “If you have burnt your mouth with limestone, you are careful even with curd. After all, limestone and curd are both white and look the same.”

But would a ULFA commander be any better for the non-Bodo communities given ULFA’s history of intolerance for non-Assamese speaking people and its violent methods?

Loha hi lohe ko katata hai, “he said. “Iron beats iron.”

“People want nutan sarkar, a new government.” And he wasn't talking about Narendra Modi.

Post-script: For the first time ever, a non-Bodo candidate won the election in Kokrajhar. Hira Sarania, who contested as an independent, won by a margin of 355,779 votes over UG Brahma. The candidate of the ruling BPF came third. Even before the election results came out, violence broke out in the Bodoland Territorial Area Districts. Forty-six Muslims were killed by armed Bodos. Of those, seven were killed in Kokrajhar district. The violence was partly attributed to the post-election speeches by Bodo leaders decrying non-Bodos for not supporting the Bodo candidates.

4. The Mythical Land

Kokrajhar, Assam
March 27, 2014

In the summer of 2012, something unusual happened. Ethnic violence erupted in the North East and made it to primetime TV and front pages across India. Clashes had broken out between indigenous Bodo people and Bengali-speaking Muslims in the eastern part of Assam. More than four lakh people fled their homes to the safety and squalor of refugee camps.

But what made the violence newsworthy for the national media was not simply the humanitarian crisis that followed. It was the reverberations felt in places as distant as Mumbai and Bangalore. Seen as a conflict between Bodos and Muslims, and not indigenous people versus migrants, the violence had provoked Muslim organisations in other states and cities to hold protests and demonstrations. In some places, students from the North East, even those who were not Bodos, felt threatened enough to pack up and leave.

The violence brought the Bodoland People's Front, the party that runs the government in the Bodoland Territorial Area Districts, under intense scrutiny. The BPF emerged out of the Bodo Liberation Tigers, an armed group fighting for a separate state for Bodos, which laid down its arms in 2003, signing an agreement with the Centre for an autonomous area. Long used to sympathy in the national media during the years of its armed insurgency, the Bodo leadership found itself getting bad press in 2012 for its alleged partisan role in the ethnic violence. The BPF stood accused of aiding Bodo rioters in their attacks on Muslims. A minister was arrested for keeping arms at his home.

Two years later, the national elections are imminent, and the national media is too busy to take note of what the BPF is up to. Even The Telegraph, the leading English daily of eastern India, tucked inside the Metro supplement of its Guwahati edition the astonishing news that in its election manifesto, the BPF had “extended its support to the creation of Kamtapur and Miyaland in an apparent bid to reach out to the Koch Rajbongshi and Muslim population”.

Kamtapur is a statehood demand that has existed for some years now. There is even an armed group called Kamtapur Liberation Organisation.

But what is Miyaland, who is asking for it, and why is a Bodo political party supporting it?

I called up Hagrama Mohilary, the leader of the BPF, but I received no response to my calls and text messages.

The next morning, I went to the BPF’s office in Kokrajhar. An unremarkable squat building with long vacant halls, it had a courtyard outside, where a group of party workers sat on rickety chairs, reading the morning papers.

“Your party has declared support for Miyaland. What is Miyaland?” I asked them.

“We don’t know,” said one of the men. “Our leaders know.”

Sensing it was not a satisfactory answer, another intervened, “Miyaland is for Muslims.”

“Who is asking for it?”

“Assam's original Muslims. They are called Miyas. They are asking for it.”

“But where do they want it?”

“Don't know. No one has spelt out the boundaries.”

Travelling through the villages of Kokrajhar district, I stopped to ask Muslims what they knew about Miyaland. But most of the villagers had not even heard about it. In Bhawaraguri town, I finally ran into a group of Muslim businessmen who had some insight to offer: they claimed that the concept had originated in Dhubri district, and was associated with a former Member of Legislative Assembly named Rasul Haque, who was until recently a member of the All India United Democratic Front. Founded in 2006 by a perfume baron, Badruddin Ajmal, the AIUDF has very rapidly built a base among Bengali-speaking Muslims, once considered supporters of the Congress. In its short history, like other political parties in India, it has seen many defections.

The Telegraph had reported on April 25, 2013: “Former AIUDF legislator Rasul Haque announced the formation of a new political party, Assam Muslim League, here today and said it would strive to secure an autonomous council for the Muslims of the state.” By an autonomous council, Haque said he meant “a satellite council whose jurisdiction will not be confined to any particular area.”

According to the report, “Haque argued that Muslims in the state had the right to demand an autonomous council. “If other communities like the Bodos, Rabhas and Misings can be given autonomous councils, why can’t we get it?’’ In Haque’s defection and demand, the AIUDF smelt a conspiracy by “a ‘scared’ Congress to ‘damage’ the AIUDF’s prospects.”

According to the 2001 census, Muslims constitute 30.9% of Assam’s population. While Bengali-speaking Muslims are more numerous, and hence politically more significant, there is a small section of Assamese-speaking Muslims in the state, with diverse histories and ethnicities. Some of them are indigenous tribal people who converted to Islam.

Sahiruddin Ali Ahmed, the president of an organisation called Sadou Asom Goria Moria Deshi Jatiya Parishad that claims to represent indigenous Assamese Muslims, told The Telegraph, “We belong to the Goria, Moria and Deshi ethnic groups of the Assamese Muslims. We want to be identified and referred to by our ethnic identities and not by religion.” Responding to Haque, the Parishad had “slammed the demand for a Muslim autonomous council in the state, saying it is the indigenous people who need a council to safeguard their identity.”

But, as it turned out, the demand for a Miyaland is not the same as the demand for a Muslim council.

Speaking with on the phone, Haque said, “We have asked for a satellite council, not a Miyaland with fixed boundaries.”

So who has asked for Miyaland?

“A man called Hazarika of the Asomiya Parishad,” he said. tried contacting Hazarika but his phone could not be reached.

In the aftermath of the clashes that had taken place between Bodos and Muslims in 2012, The Telegraph had spoken with Hazarika, who had said, “There is constant pressure on the non-Bodo people living in the BTC [Bodoland Territorial Council]. We want the territorial boundary of BTC to be abolished so that the non-Bodo people can live in peace.”

If indeed it is Hazarika’s group that has asked for Miyaland, why were Bodo leaders supporting a group that was seeking the end of Bodoland?

In Gossaigaon, a division town of Kokrajhar district, at the BPF office, I ran into a man circled by armed gunmen. He was Reo Reoa Narzihary, BPF leader and health minister of BTC.

I asked him about Miyaland.

“There's a Muslim organisation—I can’t recall its name. They are demanding it,” he said.

By now, it was evident that Miyaland was a nebulous demand that had emerged from obscure sources and did not merit any serious attention. As for why the BPF had decided to grant it legitimacy, that soon became clear as the conversation with the minister turned to the violence of 2012. Responding to my questions with a mix of annoyance and defensiveness, Narzihary claimed the violence was the work of outside elements, that the Bodo leadership had been unfairly tarnished in the media, that his party was not partisan but secular. Then, pausing briefly to find the right words, he added, “Humanist... Yes... Our support for Miyaland shows we are a humanist organisation.”

5. Compulsions

Kokrajhar, Assam
March 28, 2014

Kokrajhar railway station has two platforms. Number one for trains headed west. Number two for trains headed east. But I still managed to get things mixed up on Thursday evening, missing the Brahmaputra Mail, which would have taken me to the foothills of West Bengal.

I was back at the station Friday morning at 7:30 am to take the Dekargaon-New Jalpaiguri Passenger train, a daily unreserved train that starts in Sonitpur district in eastern Assam, passes through Bodoland, and ends in Siliguri.

But the train was late.

In the sea of impatient faces at the station, one caught my eye. It was creased with age, bore sunken cheeks and deep set eyes, which were focused somewhere in the distance. The man was old, short and reed thin. His clothes were plain but neat. His shoes were enormous in size, black and bulging, and it was only when he came and sat down next to me that I noticed the round patch of leather that had been neatly stitched on the right shoe-top to cover what might have been a hole.

He looked every bit of the indigent Bhadralok, and I wanted to talk to him about life under Mamata. But it did not seem right to break his reverie. Until, abruptly, a child's shrieking laughter pierced the air. It was his phone ringing. “The train is late,” he told someone in Bengali. “I don't know how long it will take.”

As he hung up, I took the plunge.

“I am going to Alipurduar. What about you?” I asked him. A town in Jalpaiguri district, Alipurduar lies in the Dooars, the plains in the shadow of the eastern Himalayas, near the border of Bhutan.

“Two stations short of Alipurduar town. My family lives there. In Mahakalpuri.”

“And you work in Kokrajhar?”

“I work in the tea gardens at Dalabari.”

“Oh, what do you do?”

“I am on the technical side. I fix the machinery in the factory. I have been doing it since I was very young.”

“May I ask: what’s your name and how old are you?”

“Sushil Das. I am seventy. I retired 10 years ago. But I'm still working.” He smiled.

“Wouldn’t you like to rest now?”

“The heart wants to. So does the body. But there are some compulsions…”

His face darkened. I changed tracks, bringing up the operations of the tea gardens.

“Dalabari estate is owned by the Nahatas. They are niraamish [vegetarian]. Marwaris. The technical staff is Bengali, Bihari, Punjabi,” he said. “And the workers are from Ranchi district.” A district had become shorthand for an entire state—Jharkhand.

By bringing in Adivasis from Jharkhand and Orissa to work on their tea estates in the mid-nineteenth century, the British capitalists created a pool of migrant indentured labour that could be held captive and made to work under exploitative conditions and wages. The ownership of the tea gardens may have partially changed hands, with Indians taking over many estates, but the system has survived. In an irony of history, this month, there has been much outrage in the UK over labour conditions in Assam’s tea gardens owned by a consortium that includes the Tata group. An investigation by The Observer and The Guardian found girls being trafficked from the gardens into domestic work in the cities, and even into prostitution, by “slave traders”. The Ethical Tea Partnership, which certifies tea estates for ethical practices, as well as the World Bank, which has invested in the gardens for “promoting competitiveness in an industry that is vital to the Indian economy”, have both expressed concern. The report pointed out that workers are paid barely half the legal minimum wage in Assam.

“How much is the labour paid?” I asked the old man.

“Rs 90 a day. But they get facilities. Quarters to live in, three kilos of food grain every week for Rs 2 a kilo, firewood, medicines. Aisa chalta hai ki bhookhe pet bhi nahi rehte aur pet bhar ke bhi rehte. Their stomachs are neither empty nor full.”

If workers of functional tea gardens live on the edge, it is not surprising that starvation deaths have been reported from the tea gardens that have closed down in West Bengal. I had plans to visit the defunct tea gardens near Birpara in Jalpaiguri district.

“Why are gardens in Bengal closing down?”

“Because workers there make too many demands. Owners are not able to meet them,” he said.

The middle class swings between sympathy for the poor, and its own instinct for self-preservation. It needs to keep the system that gives it jobs, even if the system is exploitative. Not that the middle class—of small towns, and small incomes—has much social security either.

“I have three sons. One is a teacher, one runs a business of supplying sound system, one owns and hires out a tractor. They have told me that I should stop working. But if I do so, I would lose all freedom. Both my wife and I are old. Both of us need medicines. If I ask my son for Rs 500 and he says take Rs 400, I would feel bad… So it is best to work as long as you can,” said Das, adding that he made about Rs 10,000 a month.

The conversation finally moved to the elections.

“Who do you support?”

“CPM [Communist Party of India (Marxist)]. I like its ideology. Adarsh niti. It is the best.”

“But apparently the party is not doing well. Trinamool [Trinamool Congress] is in the government…”

“Trinamool is creating all this violence…” he said, in an unusually animated voice.

“In your area?”

“No, no, our area is fine. I meant Medinipur.”

Medinipur was located at the other end of West Bengal, but the old man spoke about it with the conviction of a first-hand observer. Such is the power of television—his main source of information, he said.

“But journalists say that Mamata Banerjee is getting a lot of support from people and that the TMC would improve its tally in the coming elections…”

“Maybe. But remember, it is CPM people who are going and joining Trinamool. Even in Alipurduar, Dasrath Tirkey, the Trinamool candidate was a CPM man till recently. You can change the shirt. But you cannot change the man.”

I would have liked him to decode this cryptic comment. Did he, for instance, mean that the violence he was accusing the TMC of, was not specific to the party, but was part of the political culture of Bengal?

But such questions were drowned in the siren of the incoming train.

It wasn’t the passenger train. It was the Dibrugarh-Delhi Rajdhani. Along the length of the platform, people who had risen from their benches slumped back into them. The old man looked confused. It took him longer than others to understand that this was a train with only air-conditioned coaches. His Rs 40 ticket was not good enough for it.

But I was in a hurry. I could not afford to miss another train. I said a quick goodbye and ran to get on, and to get to the tea gardens near Alipurduar.

Post-script: The TMC won 34 of the 42 seats in West Bengal and the CPM was reduced to its lowest ever tally of two seats.

6. Prolonged Illness

Siliguri, West Bengal
March 29, 2014

The corrugated metal that was once the factory of Dheklapara tea estate neither stands upright nor has it collapsed. It looks suspended between life and death.

The workers of Dheklapara say their lives are no different.

The tea estate closed down in 2002 after the owner quit the business. But the workers, some 600 men and women, almost all of them Adivasis, did not leave. They clung on in the hope of a revival.

Organising themselves into committees, they started plucking leaves to sell to outside buyers. But the economics of tea do not support direct sales. At best, what the workers sell is good enough to fetch them Rs 35 a day, a third of the regular wage.

One afternoon last week, while workers in the other estates were still out on their shifts, the Adivasis of Dheklapara brought back a meagre half-day's harvest, emptying it out in the loading station near the factory gates. The green of the tea leaves matched the colour of the graffiti on the wall.

Dheklapara falls in Alipurduar, one of the two constituencies reserved for scheduled tribes in the state of West Bengal, held since 1977 by the Revolutionary Socialist Party, an ally of the Communist Party of India. The Trinamool Congress has made significant political inroads in recent years, followed by the Bharatiya Janata Party.

But the ongoing electoral contest is leaving the Adivasis bitter and confused.


“What are your problems?”

“There are many problems. Not worth telling. What should I tell you?”

“Tell anything you wish.”

“There is no work in the garden. There are too many family members in my house. I am the only one who works. My husband is ill with TB. He cannot work. I have four children of my own. I also take care for the child of my brother-in-law who died.”

Malati Mal Paharia is a petite woman with a soft voice and eyes that speak. I met her at the Dheklapara collection centre and asked her if I could accompany her home.

“Living in the middle of nowhere with no work other than that available in the tea plantations, workers and their families have been suffering from malnutrition, anaemia and other nutrition-related problems. Combined with the lack of medical treatment, the results have been drastic. Workers and members of their families have been dying like flies,” said a report of a study team led by the Advisor to the Supreme Court on the Right to Food. The report came out in 2004. Things have not changed since then.

Over the last decade, both activists and journalists have documented stories of workers living and dying in hunger. Called “starvation deaths” by the activists and “prolonged illness” by the government, the last time the issue made it to the headlines was in December 2011, when nine such deaths took place within a month at Dheklapara. The leaders of the TMC, which used to attack the Left government for such deaths in the past, were found issuing denials.


The quality of tea may change between the Dooars, the foothills where Dheklapara is located, and the hills of Darjeeling, but the life conditions of tea estate workers remain uniformly harsh. The wage rate of Rs 95 a day is the same, lower than the minimum wage. But instead of forging unity to negotiate jointly with the owners, the workers in both the places have been caught in their own battle.

Gorkha workers in Darjeeling are part of unions affiliated with the Gorkhaland Janmukti Morcha, the party that's been leading the movement for a separate state. While drawing up a map for its proposed state, GJMM staked claim to both Dooars, the foothills, and Terai, the floodplains where tea estate workers are largely Adivasi.

This provoked a sharp reaction from the Adivasis, who staged blockades and protests, led by a social organisation called Akhil Bharatiya Adivasi Vikas Parishad, which rose to sudden political prominence.

Journalists in Siliguri believe the ABAVP was tacitly supported by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) government, which wanted to dilute the Gorkha movement.

But in this election, the leader of ABAVP, Birsa Tirkey, has announced support for the TMC, prompting the media to bracket the battle in the north of the state as a multi-cornered contest between the GJMM-BJP, the TMC-ABAVP, the Congress and the Left.

On the ground, however, the picture is more complex.

“Birsa Tirkey lives in Kolkata,” said Sohan Lakra, a leader of the Progressive Tea Workers’ Union, the union started by ABAVP. “You cannot be enemies with the crocodile if you live in the pond. And so, in the last election, he issued a letter asking us to vote for CPM, and this time he has issued a letter in favour of TMC. But Birsa Tirkey is alone. The rest of us are with the BJP.”

Sohan Lakra, as it turned out, is a member of the John Barla faction of the ABAVP.

John Barla, a firebrand Adivasi leader, broke away from the ABAVP in 2011 and went and joined the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, forming its northern Bengal unit. The JMM might have allied with the Congress in Jharkhand, but in the north of the state, Barla's people are supporting the BJP. Narendra Modi's posters have come up in several tea estates.


In Bandapani, the only election graffiti you can find are hand-written posters announcing a poll boycott. The tea estate closed down in the summer of 2013.

“We have 1,200 workers, which means 6,000 voters, if you include their families,” said Bablu Minz, a Bandapani worker and trade unionist. “We want to put pressure on the government to force it to work towards opening our garden.”

He said he was also affiliated with the John Barla faction, but in this election, he was not going to work for anybody.

Humara budhijeevi varg bahut zyaada budhijeevi ho gaya hai. Our intellectual class has become too intellectual,” he said. “They have stopped coming and meeting us. They are all working for their self-interest… There has never been unity among the Adivasis and there never would be.” Since Adivasis are not a homogeneous group, it has been difficult to create an Adivasi political identity, and the situation in North Bengal is no different.

Sanjeevan, a member of the ABAVP, holds the Adivasi leadership in equal contempt. “Our leaders are easily bought out,” he said. “John Barla came into prominence for the way he fought tooth and nail against the Gorkhaland people, but today, he has joined hands with them.”

The GJMM-BJP-JMM alliance in North Bengal is indeed peculiar. I asked Sohan Lakra, Barla's supporter, whether the prospect of a BJP government at the Centre, favourably inclined to Gorkhaland, was acceptable to the Adivasis. “Well, the BJP has not promised Gorkhaland in its manifesto,” he said. “And we are okay with the formation of a new state, as long as it is not called Gorkhaland.”

Yet, such a state would have to contend with an ethnic divide that runs deep. Sanjeevan used the term “white tribals” while explaining to me why he was opposed to Gorkhaland. “If our areas become part of Gorkhaland, they will dominate us. Already the white tribals are taking away our jobs,” he said. By white tribals, he did not mean Gorkhas, but the small ethnic groups of Mongoloid stock that have been given scheduled tribe status, who remain in the eyes of the Adivasis from Jharkhand closer to other Gorkhas than to them.


At Malati's rundown home in the worker quarters, which is neither a brick house nor a thatched hut, her husband is all praise for the TMC. Their son, Rajib, who has taken his 12th board exams recently, was unwell two years ago. The TMC leaders helped arrange for his treatment. Her husband is grateful for the help, but Malati is quick to point out that the family bore expenses amounting to Rs 13,000.

“I saved my son's life with such trouble,” she said. “How much work can I do? I go to the garden for just Rs 35. How much in a week? Just Rs 200. I have to give my son money to travel to the town for his studies. Will anyone let him on board without the fare?”

The activists have managed to wrest from the government an assistance of Rs 1,500 a month and a free meal for every worker, apart from 1.25 kg rice, 750 gm of wheat and 200 ml of oil every week. But that is neither enough, nor sustainable.

The longer the garden remains closed, the harder it gets to find a buyer. A tea industry executive told me that the crisis is rooted in the way tea gardens came to be acquired by dubious companies with no long-term vision and with the sole aim of scrubbing illegal investments. Before it closed down, Dheklapara had changed hands four times in a decade and half.

Have they considered leaving the gardens and starting life afresh somewhere else, I asked Malati.

“We have no other country and land. Where would we go?” said her husband.

“We can't go to Delhi or Bombay,” said Malati. “We have children to bring up…”

But they hope their children will manage to escape. And so, despite the hardships, Malati is sending all her children to school, breaking stones at the riverbed for Rs 75 – Rs 100 a day, whenever she can.

“Since the gardens closed down, people have been coming here and taking back pictures. But what do we get out of it? We think they are taking back pictures, we will get some assistance to rebuild the house. But nothing happens. Others get something, but the poor do not,” she said, her soft voice finally hardening.


If the future of the workers of the closed tea gardens looks bleak, that of the workers of functioning gardens is held hostage by politics. The battles between Gorkhas and Adivasis, and among the Adivasis themselves, have weakened the ability of the workers to negotiate better wages with the tea estate owners. In December 2013, a Kolkata-based activist, Anuradha Talwar, managed to bring major unions together under the United Tea Workers Front. The UTWF held two meetings with the owners in February and March, but the district administration, which oversees the negotiations, said it was busy with elections, and the wage increase would have to wait until the next government is formed.

Post-script: It was a closely contested election in Alipurduar. The TMC won the election with 362,453 votes, the RSP came second with 341,056 votes and the BJP came third with 335,857 votes.

7. Unquiet in the Hills

Siliguri, West Bengal
March 29, 2014

The rattle of the train did little to disturb the baby who slept peacefully in the lap of her young mother. An old woman, her grandmother perhaps, sat next to them.

We were aboard the Capital Express, which, unlike the Rajdhanis—the special super-fast trains that connect Delhi with state capitals—has nothing to do with the national capital. It starts in the Kamrup district of Assam and ends at Danapur, a station near Patna, the capital of Bihar.

If it had any connection with a railway minister from Bihar, it was hard to ascertain.

More than the people of Bihar, the train is important for the people of the North Bengal hills and plains. From Siliguri, where the train stops, people bundle into shared taxis, overloaded jeeps, and buses to travel further to the hills of Darjeeling, where the demand for Gorkhaland has reportedly again picked up steam, after the creation of Telangana, and on the eve of the national elections.

That's where I imagined the baby was headed—until I asked her mum.

“We are not going to Darjeeling,” she said. “We are going to Dehradun, my home town.”

Her name was Ritu Chhetri, she was 23 years old, and married to a soldier of the Gorkha Regiment. Her husband was posted in Binnaguri, a place in North Bengal, very close to both Assam, and the border with Bhutan. “But we are very much from Uttarakhand,” she said.” Waise to hum Nepali hai, lekin hum India ke hai. Although we are Nepalese, we are Indians.”

She meant they were Nepalese-speaking Indians, or Indians of Nepalese origin, the term preferred by academic writers.

As the introduction to a collection of essays called Indian Nepalis: Issues and Perspectives explains:

“The emergence of nation-states called India and Nepal has created this anomalous status of the INOs, or Nepamul Bharatiya, who are also known as ‘Gorkhas’ or ‘Nepalis’. The Nepalese and the Indian Nepalis have been travelling and residing in various parts of India since time immemorial in pursuit of trade, pilgrimage and other vocations. In the past, concepts of state boundary and nationality were flexible enough to overlook the migrants. However, the British colonialists, who adopted a deliberate policy of large-scale recruitment of the Nepalese in the armed forces and constabulary, coolie corps, plantation and forest labour force, also gave birth to the crisis of the INOs. From the second quarter of the nineteenth century, the British opened up Darjeeling, Sikkim, Duars, Bhutan and Assam for the Nepalese settlement. And that was the beginning of an organised colonisation and extensive presence of the Nepalese in certain pockets of Northeast India.”

But it was not the eastern India that gave birth to the Gorkhaland movement. The All India Gorkha League, the oldest forum for Indian Nepalis, was established in Dehradun in 1923—Ritu Chhetri's hometown.

Eventually, the league came to be concentrated in Darjeeling and the Dooars. In 1947, the league submitted a memorandum to the Indian National Congress, which said, “The Bengalis, the Madrasis, the Punjabis saw their own freedom in India's Independence. The Indian Gorkhas without a province of their own were apprehensive of the protection of their culture and identity.” The name that was proposed for the province by one of the Gorkha leaders, Randhir Subba, is ironically now the name of the state that Chhetri considers home: Uttarakhand.

History clearly loves ironies. It was the Darjeeling committee of the Communist Party of India, which had been working with Indian Nepali tea estate workers since the 1940s, that coined the slogan “Free Gorkhasthan in a Free India”. Gorakhasthan became Gorkhaland and came back to haunt the communist government in the mid-1980s when the Gorkhaland National Liberation Front led by Subhash Ghising launched violent demonstrations for a separate state.

As Kamlajeet Rattan reported in India Today in 1988, “The CPI(M)’s [Communist Party of India (Marxist)] aggressive attitude is only infuriating the GNLF further. After almost two years, the Marxists are not only organising public meetings but also matching their violence to that of the GNLF. The district administration's support to the Marxists—their bases have full paramilitary protection—is also angering the agitationists… Ghising, who doesn’t condemn violence committed by his supporters, says that victims of police atrocities are more interested in revenge than in his movement. Says he: ‘They ask me for sten guns and light machine-guns. I tell them the GNLF office is not the Golden Temple and I can’t give them arms. But nothing can stop them.’”

The violence consumed the lives of more than 200 people, before the Centre brokered peace. The Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council was formed in 1988 and Ghising became its chairman.

But turbulence returned in the mid-2000s. The council was disbanded after Ghising asked for constitutional status for the council under the sixth schedule. His protégé, Bimal Gurung, rejected the idea, going a step further and reviving the statehood movement. He formed the Gorkhaland Janmukti Morcha in October 2007, and the hills were plunged in another round of unrest.

The United Progressive Alliance government scrabbled for a solution, and by the end of November, it hastily approved the creation of the council under the sixth schedule of the constitution and moved a bill to that effect in Rajya Sabha.

But Gurung went and met the leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party. A parliamentary committee headed by BJP’s Sushma Swaraj advised the government to “make a fresh assessment of the ground realities all over again before proceeding with the Bills in the two Houses of Parliament”.

In 2009, Gurung paid back the BJP for its support by getting Jaswant Singh elected from Darjeeling. This year, the BJP’s SS Ahluwalia is hoping to ride to Parliament on GJMM’s backing.

To counter the BJP, the Trinamool Congress has fielded football star Baichung Bhutia, who is from Sikkim and not Darjeeling. Opposed to Gorkhaland, the TMC had tried to win Gorkha support by creating the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration soon after coming to power in 2011. But it has not helped.

The dark horse in the race is a former Jawaharlal Nehru University professor Mahendra P Lama, who, according to a report in the Times of India, “calls himself the ‘bhumi putra’ among ‘aliens’”.

While Lama might be basing his appeal on the work done by his social organisation, Darjeeling Dooars United Development Federation, the bhumi putra slogan, and the appeal to roots, is often utilised in Indian politics as a divisive tool. Never mind that roots in India remain hard to trace.

On the train, I asked Ritu Chhetri if she knew when her ancestors had migrated to India and from which part of Nepal. She turned to the old woman seated next to her, her grandmother, for a quick discussion in Nepali, and turned back to me to say, “She’s saying even her grandmother did not know.” Popular Gorkha histories claim that Kumaun and Garhwal of present-day Uttarkhand fell under the Gorkha kingdom between 1790 and 1815.

A powerful social group in Nepal, the name Chhetri is derived from the word “Kshatriya”, and in what is perhaps a sign of a cultural continuum, many men in Ritu Chhetri’s family are employed in the army. It is the army that gives them a greater sense of connection with the Gorkhas of eastern India more than any social institution.

“Do you intermarry with the Gorkhas of Darjeeling?” I asked her.

“No, it is too far to come here to look for proposals,” she said. “But love marriages happen. My cousin brother came here on an army posting and met someone he liked.”

“Has she assimilated well in the family?”

“It’s needed some adjustment.”

“In food, you mean?”

“Well, no… You see women here are used to more freedom. You cannot make out the difference between a married woman and an unmarried woman,” she said, as we both looked at a girl sitting on the side berth of the next compartment. She was dressed in a sleeveless top and capris. A marked contrast from Chhetri, who, dressed in shalwar kameez, with sindoor in her hair and a bindi on her forehead, was cast in the traditional image of a married woman in north India.

The Gorkhaland movement may have restricted its claims to Darjeeling and Dooars, locating the statehood demand in the area's deprivation, and not on the basis of identity alone, but if personal accounts of people available online are anything to go by, the revival of the movement has created identity confusion among Nepalese-speaking people elsewhere in India and in the way they are perceived by others.

Ritu Chhetri, however, is very clear where her moorings lie. It doesn’t matter to her that the BJP is supporting the Gorkhaland movement. What’s more important to her is what the party would do for her state. “To be honest, I can’t see a difference between the Congress and the BJP in Uttarkhand,” she said. “Both are equally faction-ridden.”

Has the creation of Uttarakhand made any difference?

“Well, yes, to some extent, there’s been an improvement… New companies have opened, more jobs are available. But the prices of land have gone up. Don’t even ask by how much. Main to wahin hai…That’s the main thing.”

As the train headed to Siliguri, I wondered if the Gorkhas of Darjeeling had reckoned with this irony: if statehood demands pivot around land, often land in the new state slips out of people’s hands.

8. The Skeptic

Siliguri, West Bengal
March 30, 2014

He was coming from Gangtok, Sikkim, where he had visited his sister. Her family runs a hardware shop that sells cement and fittings.

He was headed to Kolkata to meet the family of his late brother. They run a transport business.

His brother in Guwahati owns a factory that manufactures iron rods.

Born in Rajasthan, he has grown up in Nepal, where his father traded rice and jute.

He’s lived in several places, and now, for around two decades, 63-year-old Satya Narayan Agarwal has been based in Surat, Gujarat.

“The businessman goes where he finds opportunities to make wealth,” he said, adding quickly,”and where there is peace.”

While there was no dearth of opportunities in Guwahati, where his family ran several businesses—transport, rolling mills, mattress manufacture—there was a lot of unrest.

“All this trouble… AASU phaasu,” he said. AASU stands for All Assam Student's Union, which had spearheaded the Assam agitation in those years.”I told my brothers, you stay if you want to, but I won't.”

We were talking on board the Teesta Torsa Express, the train named after the rivers of the eastern Himalayas. The Teesta River flows through Sikkim, Torsa through Bhutan. Teesta Torsa, the train, starts from Jalpaiguri in Bengal and briefly skirts Bihar before re-entering Bengal and terminating at Kolkata.

Dressed in a striped bush shirt, bespectacled, with a hint of paan-stained teeth, Agarwal looked every bit of the older generation Marwari trader, who takes the train even though he could easily afford to fly.

Agarwal moved to Gujarat in the early 1990s. Within no time, he had set up a business in printing and selling saris.

“There's peace in Gujarat. There is no tension. Not like Assam and Bengal,” he said.

“But there have been riots in Gujarat?”

“Riots happen everywhere in India. There is Hindu-Muslim tension wherever you go. Rajasthan, Delhi, UP [Uttar Pradesh], Bihar…”

“But you said you left Guwahati because of the tensions?”

“That was different… In Gujarat, riots start and end quickly. Here, the tension is constant. Murders, kidnapping, extortion. Although I must say the situation in Guwahati has improved quite a lot. They no longer harass you with constant and petty demands. Ab chota chota nahi, mota mota hota hai. They take Rs 1 crore, Rs 2 crore in one go.”

“No one demands money in Gujarat?”

“No, you have to only pay the tax. In Kolkata, you have to cough up donations at the time of Durga Puja, Kali Puja, what not.”

“But in Gujarat, don't you make contributions at the time of Navratri?”

“That's different. Those are voluntary payments. Here, if you don't pay, the dada log do gundagardi. We have a transport office on the Tara Chand Dutt Street in Kolkata. They show up a month before Durga Puja and ask us to pay a certain amount per truck...”

But the high point of Gujarat, according to Agarwal, is not the relative peace, but the fact that the state has”no such thing as labour”.

“The system is based on contracts. I pay people according to the amount of work they do for me—like the number of saris bundled,” he said.”I have a big business but only one person on my staff. In Kolkata, we have a small office but five staffers. Here, they force you to take them as staffers and then within days of joining, they raise the flag of protest.”

In his analysis, Gujarat's superiority boiled down to a difference of culture.

“Gujarati people are business-minded. Assam and Bengal, most people are in service... Business-minded people never want to get dragged into fights... It’s been more than 25 since I’ve been living in Gujarat. There hasn’t been any police enquiry. No thana, no court.”

“What about bribes?”

“Bribes are taken everywhere.”

“But they say you don’t need to bribe in Gujarat.”

“That’s only kehne ki baat. Taking and giving bribes is in our blood. We are corrupt to the core. Today's politics is for the gundas (hooligans). A good guy cannot stick around. If you stand for elections, you need to have money. Only if you spend can you win.

“But Aam Aadmi Party fought and won in Delhi without money power?”

“Look at what they are doing now. Have dinner with Kejriwal for Rs 20,000, for a lakh [Rs 100,000], etc., etc.”

“But people are giving out of free will.”

Ek dega to do lega. If someone's giving one, they’ll take back two. That's for sure. This whole thing [Aam Aadmi Party] is going to be short-lived. The way things are going in India, we’ll soon have a revolution. Only then would things get better.”

“What kind of revolution?”

“The politicians would start getting beaten up. Each one of them. Either reform yourself or you won't be spared.”

“Won't that adversely affect business?”

“Yes, it would, but just once. In the long term, things would be better.”

“People were thinking Kejriwal was bringing a revolution.”

“If Kejriwal wanted to bring revolution, would he have dumped Anna [Hazare]? Anna ko to dhakka de diya. He pushed Anna away. He only wants to further his own interest. Apni roti sek raha hai.” In the summer of 2011, social activist Anna Hazare had staged a long-drawn fast at the Ramlila Maidan, under the aegis of the India Against Corruption movement, the precursor to the AAP. The fast attracted much support from the Bharatiya Janata Party, which utilised it to build public opinion against the Congress-led UPA government. Later, the support dried as Kejriwal and Anna parted ways on the question of whether the movement should become a political party and enter electoral politics. Within a year of formation, AAP went on to win more seats in the Delhi assembly polls of 2013 than the BJP. In the Lok Sabha election, AAP has been trying to target both the Congress and BJP on the issue of crony capitalism and favours to businessmen.

It did not seem like a question that needed to be asked, but I asked nevertheless.

“Who do you vote for?”

“The business community has always voted for BJP.”

“Why is that so?”

“It’s hard to explain... Let me just say, the businessman wants to have peace.”

But as he would soon admit, economics is only part of the reason for the sustained support that the BJP draws from Bania communities.

“What’s lacking in India today? There's so much wealth that if India wants, it can buy out America,” Agarwal said.

What made this comment even more unreal was the fact that our train was passing through Kishanganj, one of the poorest districts of India, with a per capita income of just Rs 7,775 in 2006-‘07.

“But there's also tremendous poverty in India,” I said.

“That's true. But who's created it? Our politics. You need to keep people poor, not to raise them from poverty. If you raise them, how would you run your politics... We are paying the price for the mistakes of Nehru. There are more Muslims in India than in Pakistan. If Pakistan was an Islamic state, shouldn't India have been a Hindu Rashtra? And then there is all this regionalism. Sardar Patel wanted zones—east, west, north, south—and not states. But Nehru did not listen to him.”

With such a worldview, one could assume Agarwal would be delighted with the predictions for the next government. But he was not.

“One Narendra Modi as a sahukar would not help. He can't run the ministry alone. Would his colleagues also be sahukars?”

Sahukar is a term used for moneylenders. It might hold negative connotations for others, but for a businessman like Agarwal, it is a word of high praise, meaning a man you can trust.

“If you are good, but the others in your family don't support you, what can you do? If Modi wants to keep his government going, he would have to tolerate them. And it's certain that Modi is not getting a full majority. No party in India is in a position to get a full majority for the next 50 years. Only khichdi governments would come. The different constituents would keep pulling each other's leg.”

“But what if Modi were to get the magic number?”

Without a shade of doubt in his voice, and with much resignation, he shot back:”Why even imagine scenarios that won't happen?”

Post-script: The BJP not only reached the magic number, it crossed it easily, winning a majority of seats on its own for the first ever time.

9. The Wedding Chopper

Kishanganj, Bihar
March 31, 2014

A village celebration was underway in Lohagara village of Kishanganj district in Bihar. Under a tent, tables and chairs had been laid out. Mutton biryani was being stirred in large pots. A band-baaja group was belting away.

I stopped by to talk to people, raising my volume to be heard over the music of the band.

People assumed I was from the government and had come to carry out a survey. I explained that I was a journalist from Delhi and I had come to find out what people were thinking about and what sort of government they wanted to elect.

“Don’t tell me who you are voting for, but tell me about the issues on which you will vote.”

A young man said, “What are the issues? We'll give it to the Congress.”

“Whichever government is going to come will come, but there is no presence of the BJP here,” an older man added.

A third man intervened. He was worried about the indiscreet manner in which his neighbours were speaking. “We don’t want to say anything negative about anyone,” he said. “If these people end up saying something, please correct it when you write.”

“I want to write what's on people’s minds. Do they think Nitishji has done any work? Are they happy with the work of Maulanaji?”

Nitish Kumar is the chief minister of Bihar and the leader of the Janata Dal (United). Maulana Asararul Haque is the current Lok Sabha Member of Parliament, elected on a Congress ticket.

“Both parties are doing fine.” Everyone else had fallen silent, in unspoken recognition of the superior abilities of the man who knew how to field questions diplomatically.

“Is development taking place in Kishanganj?” I asked.

“Yes, whatever development is taking place under both the parties, we are fine with it,” he said.

“You mean to say you are happy with both?”


“No complaints against either?”

“No, why would we complain… No one is going to feed us; only if we work would we get to eat.”

While this could hardly be disputed, last year around this time, in the month of April, the whole village had been invited to a feast hosted by the local Member of Legislative Assembly Mohammad Tausif Alam to celebrate his wedding.

The villagers said they had never seen a celebration like that. “It was a huge feast,” said one man. “Half the district had been invited.” Massive tents stretched all the way from the highway to the village neighbourhood where the MLA lived. SUVs had been arranged to ferry guests as part of his baaraat to the bride's village, 25 km away. But the MLA himself took a chopper.

An MLA from one of the poorest districts of the poorest state of India taking a chopper to his wedding was a story even for the national media.

But the greatest condemnation of the ostentation came from the Muslim press. The Indian Muslim Observer reported, “If an MLA who allegedly declared his moveable assets to be worth Rs 6.92 lakhs and immovable assets of worth Rs 26.01 lakhs spends an estimated Rs 1 crore in marriage within less than three years’ time after the last state assembly elections, that tells the whole story of public representatives’ corrupt conducts and illegal earning.”

The paper added: “Some of the assembly constituencies with more than 60 per cent Muslim population like Bahadurganj, Kochadhaman [and] Amour have Muslim MLAs from Congress, RJD [Rashtriya Janata Dal] and BJP respectively, but leave aside the issues of general public welfare, none seems to bother about issues of even Muslims on whose name they beg for votes.”


The MLA was not at home. But his supporters were welcoming.

“I want to know what is the basis on which elections are fought here,” I explained to one of his aides, whose identity I promised not to disclose.

Vikaas,” he responded, with a slightly creased brow, shifting uneasily in the sofa.

“Please don't lie.”

There was a loud laugh. “I have come from far,” I explained. “Please give me the correct picture. I won't attribute the information to you.”

Easing up, he leaned back and turned expansive. “You have to make a place in the hearts of people, whether you do development work or not. If you have made a place in their hearts, you will get their votes. People are seeking good behaviour. If any need arises, if they are in trouble, if they need to get some big or small favour… Development comes second.”

“How do you make a place in people's hearts?”

“If you have come here, we would ask you to sit, we would honour you, offer you tea. You will think this person is good. Look at how he has asked me to come in, and not asked me to wait outside. You need to make people feel like family.”

A tray of tea and biscuits arrrived. “Does caste and community play a role in the election?” I asked.

The same laughter rang again. “Of course, how can anyone deny that?”


Muslims form 70% of the population of Kishanganj, according to the 2001 census. Ever since 1971, when the Kishanganj constituency was carved out of Purnea, only Muslim candidates have been elected here. Some of them were outsiders to the district. Journalist MJ Akbar won in 1989, Syed Shahabuddin in 1991, Shahnawaz Hussain in 1999 and Mohammed Taslimuddin in 2004.

“In 2009, people decided they wanted to have a local leader, and they elected Maulanaji, who is an eminent Islamic scholar,” said Abdul Karim, a local journalist. It helped that Maulana is a Surjapuri Muslim, a community of Muslims that is believed to be the largest in the area. The MLA Tausif Alam belongs to the same community. So does the JD(U)’s candidate for the Lok Sabha polls, Akhtarul Iman, who crossed over from the RJD two months ago.

With the Muslim votes likely to be split between Maulana and Iman, people in Kishanganj are talking about the possibility of a Hindu candidate winning for the first time. Dilip Jaiswal, the candidate of the BJP, is a member of Bihar assembly’s upper house. He is also the director of a local private medical college and is known for his generosity towards the poor.

“I have done social service for twenty-five years,” he said, getting out of his SUV when I intercepted him on campaign trail. “If nothing, I am sure people here would have told you Dilip Jaiswal is a good man. I want to do politics of insaaniyat.”

The aide of Tausif Alam told me, “Some of our people are voting for Dilip Jaiswal. He must have done something for them, given them free treatment. Now if he’s done a favour to you, how can we stop you from voting for him?”

Development is abstract but patronage is tangible.

In places where the impersonal state does not deliver ration cards, pensions, schools and roads without the personal intervention of a political functionary, people are most likely to vote for the candidate they see as most accessible. But an accessible MP or MLA is no good if he is not powerful enough to wrest a share for his people from the higher powers. Although the Centre funded the opening of a centre in Aligarh Muslim University in Kishanganj, and Congress president Sonia Gandhi flew down to lay its foundation stone in January this year, Maulana has not been able to take the full credit for it.

“Maulanaji is a good and honest man. But he is not fit to be a politician,” a veteran journalist spoke disparagingly of the scholar turned MP. “He was one of only two Congress MPs elected in Bihar. The other one, Meira Kumar, became the speaker. But he could not even get himself a ministry. That too, after being the party’s only Muslim MP from the state.”

Why does it matter to people that he wasn’t a minister?

“If he had become a minister, some people from here would have got jobs in Delhi,” said the journalist. “That’s what happened at the time of Shahnawaz Hussain.” Elected from Kishanganj in 1999, Hussain had served as a minister in the central government, and local people still remember him favourably.


When it comes to projecting power, the Congress MLA Tausif Alam did rather well at his wedding. Even Bihar’s chief minister Nitish Kumar attended, despite the fact that Alam was from a rival party.

While the press frowned upon the extravagance on display, the villagers of the area were quite impressed with what they saw. I asked them if they thought the expenditure was unjustified. One said, “After all, he is an MLA of the whole area. How can he exclude some people from his wedding by not inviting them? He has to take everyone along…”

The only people who were unhappy perhaps were the bandwaallahs. They didn’t get a chance to play at the MLA’s wedding. He had invited DJs from Kolkata.

Post-script: The JD(U) candidate Akhtarul Iman withdrew from the race in the middle of the election. He said he did this to prevent a split in the ‘secular’ votes which would help the BJP. This bolstered the prospects of Congress MP Maulana Asararul Haque, who went on to get re-elected from Kishanganj—one of two winning candidates of his party.

10. The Farce of Citizenship

Kishanganj, Bihar
April 1, 2014

“Ram Preet,” he said.”Hindu hai hum.

In a country where names are easy markers of identity, name enquiries are never seen as innocuous. In Bihar’s Kishanganj district, where Muslims form more than two-thirds of the population, I had asked an old rickshaw wallah, with a long flowing beard, his name.

When he heard that I had travelled from Delhi, he began reeling off names of places he knew. Shakurpur, Tilak Nagar, Sadar Baazar. Neighbourhoods that he had lived in during the long years he spent in North India.

“What did you do there?”

“I worked in the fields of Sardars in Punjab. I rode a rickshaw in Ludhiana. On my last stint in Delhi, I was a chowkidar [watchman] at a thakedaar's [contractor’s] factory in Sadar Bazaar. The thakedaar lived in Kakrola near Uttam Nagar. I would go there by metro. I thought I might die soon, let me indulge myself by riding the metro.”

“Who are you voting for this time?”

“To be honest, I don't feel like voting this time.”


“I have turned old voting over the years but I have seen that the poor do not get anything. When elections come, the neta log give speeches promising to do this and that. When they win, they forget everything. Topi wala kha pi leta hai, gareeb ko dhakka de deta hai. Those wearing political hats make merry while the poor are pushed away. But since I need to keep my name on the voters list, I vote.”

“Why is it important to keep your name on the voter list?”

Desh ka dhakosala bana rahe. So that the farce of citizenship is maintained. If I don’t vote, they would say I am not a man of this country.”

He said he was two years short of 70. And he had voted with greater enthusiasm when he was young. “I used to vote for the Congress… After all, it was Gandhiji who had driven out the British.”

But he dumped the Congress some 10 to 20 years ago, he says. “What to do; if people change sides, then my vote alone cannot help the party win… Wherever the others give their votes, so do I…”

The last few times, Ram Preet said, he has been voting for Nitish Kumar’s party, the Janata Dal (United). He belongs to the Kushwaha community, a backward caste, a close ally of Nitish Kumar's Kurmi caste.

“Caste does not feed you. You have to work hard to eat. But if 10 people are going that side, it does not make sense for me to go another side.”

I asked him if he had ever voted for the Bharatiya Janata Party.

“Once…when they had taken out the rath. I was in Delhi at that time. They said ‘Jiss Hindu ke sharir mein khoon nahi, wo Hindu bekaar hai’. The Hindu without blood in his body is no Hindu at all.”

He had perhaps misremembered the BJP’s slogan during the years of the Ramjanambhoomi movement, which culminated in the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya in 1992:”Jiss Hindu ka khoon nahin khaule, khoon nahin woh paani hai. If a Hindu’s blood does not boil, then it is water, not blood.”

At that time, Hindutva politics appealed to him. But later, he was disappointed to see that the party that claimed to speak for Hindus had started appealing to Muslims for votes. In Kishanganj, the BJP's Shahnawaz Hussain won the 1999 Lok Sabha elections.

“But Nitishji is also taking Muslim votes?” I asked the rickshaw puller.

“But Nitish has never said he won’t. BJP said so…”

“Was it good to say so?”

“No, it wasn’t…”

“Then why did you vote for the party?”

“You need to change the government at times…”

That's precisely the sentiment that appears to be helping the BJP this time. And so I asked the rickshaw puller the inevitable question: “What do you think of Narendra Modi?”

“Whatever you say…”

“No, you say…”

“You have come from far. You know better.”

“You are much older than me. You have seen more of this world.”

“But the crow’s child is wiser than the crow.”

“No, no, you tell me… What do you think of Modi?”

“Which party are you talking about?”

“Narendra Modi… You haven’t heard his name?”

The old man's face fell. He was well travelled, street smart and knew everything there was to know. Now, who was this man he hadn’t heard about?

Inka kaunsa chhaap hai? What’s his election symbol?”

“Looks like you haven't heard his name...”

“He hasn’t come here. How would we?”

The media might be playing a greater role in this election than ever before, but there are still Indians who do not recognise a leader until they see him in person.

11. The Mobile Phone

Kishanganj, Bihar
April 1, 2014

Khagra is a spread-out cluster of rundown brick homes, hovels with tin roofs and a few thatched huts. It's 10 minutes from Kishanganj railway station, not much farther from the bus stand, and very close to the highway.

There couldn’t have been a better location for men who want to buy sex.

One afternoon this week, I walked through Khagra, where women with painted faces sat outside homes. I approached an older woman who looked like the madam of the house.”There are no dhande waali [sex worker] girls here,” she said, reluctant to talk.”We are here to attend a wedding.”

I had better luck at the next house. The madam was a young woman. Dressed in a nightie, with a dupatta around her head, she was willing to chat. We sat on a bench under a tree. Her name was Minara Parveen. She had never cast a vote.

“I have a voter card, but it is in my sasuraal in Siwan,” she said.”I'm trying to get it here. I want to vote this time.”

“Who would you vote for?”

“Whoever does good by us. Who does not discriminate between girl and boy…”

Just then, her mobile rang. The ringtone was the song”Jeevan ke safari mein humsafar bhi chhoot jaate hai. In life, even fellow travellers fall behind.” It could have been the life story of most women here. An area of grinding poverty, proximate to both Nepal and Bangladesh, Kishanganj is a major trafficking hot spot, with four red light areas to its name.

“Jab se mobile aaya hai dekh rahe hai bewajah ka pyaar ho jaata hai. Wrong number se bhi pyaar ho jaata hai baat karte karte. Ever since mobile phones came, there is love happening for no reason. People are falling in love even while talking to wrong numbers,” said Minara. “The men come here for two to four days. They exchange mobile numbers with the girls. If it was possible, they would do everything on phones…”

Minara’s sister eloped with a man who wooed her on the phone.”When I had first heard what was happening, I asked him to get his parents to meet us if he wanted to marry her. For a few days he didn’t come. Later, we heard the two were in touch over phone. My sister ran away and after a few days she called to say, ‘Didi, I am married and happy.’ I was thrilled. I said, what else do I want? But then we began getting distress calls from her…”

The man had taken her to Delhi.”There’s some place called GB Road there?” Minara asked me. Garstin Bastion Road is Delhi’s largest red light area.

The man forced Minara’s sister to have sex with other men.”He thought he could both have a wife in his bed at night and an instrument to make money in the day.”

The torture became acute after Minara's sister got pregnant. She gave birth to a girl and both mother and child were thrown out.”Maybe he would have kept them if the child was a boy…”

“The men who come from outside carry expensive mobiles and wear flashy clothes. They must be taking them on rent. But the girls are fooled. They think these men must be from good families. They are lured into running away. Now tell me if those men were from good families, why would they be here?”


“My parents support me. But there is always talk in the community. Samaaj mein do chaar baat hota rehta hai.

“What sort of talk?”

“People say, ‘is there really so much work in the college that she needs to go out so often? Ladki ko chhoot de ke rakhi hai. You have given too much freedom to your daughter.’ But my parents ignore it. They say, the world has changed, duniya badal gayi hai.”

Nurshadi Begum is the first girl in her extended family to complete school and enrol in college. Her father belongs to a family of seven brothers. All of them have daughters. All of them are married, barring Nurshadi, and her younger cousin Reshma Parveen, who, inspired by her, has enrolled in 11th standard.

I met both the girls outside Kishanganj’s Marwari College. Reshma was shy but Nurshadi exuded great confidence, dressed in a short and stylish kurta and churidaar, with a string of imitation pearls around her neck, rings on her fingers and hair tied up loosely in a high, flowing ponytail.

“Today there are no classes,” she explained,”but we have come because Reshma needs to fill a form to get the grant of Rs 1,000 for her college dress.”

Cycles, stipends, grants and cash prizes are ways in which Bihar’s government has tried to incentivise girls to get educated. Nurshadi got Rs 10,000 when she topped her school in the 10th standard board exams.

At that time, she had moved to Kishanganj town from her village, which has an astonishing name—Karbala Kashi Bara, the hamlet of Karbala and Kashi.

Living in a rented house in the town with four of her classmates, Nurshadi attended science and maths tuitions. She did very well in the board exams, and wanted to continue science in college, but living away from home did not seem viable. She enrolled in a B.A. course, and started to work as a teacher at Diamond Public School, the private English-medium school in her village. She spends her morning teaching at the school and attends college in the afternoon.

“People say, what’s the need to send girls to school? She has to stay at home and work. I tell them even then you must educate her. If nothing, she would better manage the house, and when her child goes to school, she would be able to monitor his progress,” said Nurshadi, who is enjoying teaching enough to want to acquire professional qualifications in the discipline.

It helps that the newly opened Aligarh Muslim University centre in Kishanganj offers B.Ed. courses. Both the Congress at the Centre and the Janata Dal (United) government in the state have been competing to take credit for it.

I asked Nurshadi who she would vote for.”Whoever works for the poor, constructs roads, gives rozgaar [employment] guarantee,” she said.

It didn’t take long to find out that her family has traditionally supported the Congress.

As we stood talking, her phone rang.”Anju, we are in college… Yes, the forms are available…”

Like in many other parts of India, mobile phones have been rather controversial in Kishanganj too. In December 2012, The Times of India reported,”In a khap-like diktat in Bihar otherwise not known for khap panchayats, a meeting of villagers of Sunderbari panchayat in Kishanganj district have ordered complete ban on the use of cellphones by unmarried girls and restricted use of the same by married women only within the four walls of their home.”

“When did you get a mobile phone?” I asked Nurshadi.

“After I started teaching at the school. They [the school authorities] might want to get in touch with me,” she said, before quickly adding,”It is ghar ka phone, the family's phone. But I carry it when I come outside. It’s my parents who ask me to keep it, so that I call in case there is a need.”

“Do people comment on your use of a mobile?”

“Of course, they do… Most girls are not allowed to keep them.”


“I was the first person here to get a mobile phone,” said Minara.”Way back in 2001. It was a Samsung. It cost Rs 11,000. I needed it to stay in touch with the orchestra.”

Minara calls herself a dancer. She says she has never done sex work.

She lost her parents while still young. She and her siblings moved in with an aunt in Khagra.”Bhua was not in this line. She only rented out rooms to others,” Minara explained.

In her teenage years, Minara began travelling with a troupe to dance at weddings. They would dance on stages girded by iron barriers. Even though the dances were never ashleel, as they were meant for family audiences, the crowds would often grow restive. Once a man tried to pull her down from the stage to forcibly take her away, but she resisted. He fired at her in rage. She managed to escape in the melee, but not without injury: her left arm still bears the scar of a bullet wound.

But work also led her to happiness. She found her husband at the dances.”We got married in the presence of family,” she says, with visible pride. She lived with her in-laws, but continued to dance on the sly during the wedding season.”My husband was upset. I told him you can earn to support me, but I need to earn to support my whole family.” She quit only when her daughter grew up and began to imitate her moves.”Meri beti meri chhaaya utaarne lagi.

After the break up of her marriage, Minara’s sister came back to live with her in Khagra, to manage the house, while her sister plied the trade. Soon, they were joined by her sister-in-law, who had also been dumped by her husband, after she had given birth to a girl child. All three women have sent their daughters away to live with a relative in the village.”My husband works in a small motor parts shop. I want to quickly save Rs 2 lakh [Rs 200,000] to Rs 3 lakh [Rs 300,000] to start another business for all of us. A cloth shop, a beauty parlour, anything,” she said.

It came as no surprise when Minara told me what she wanted from a leader.

Jo kahawat hai na ki aurat ko aurat na samjhe. The leader who is sensitive to women, who understands women. Even women have the right to live their lives. I agree that not everyone can get a job with Tatas and Birlas, but at least we should get a chance to live an ordinary life, to not be a burden on others.”

Minara says she wants to vote this time, but does not know whom to vote for. She used to like Rajiv Gandhi, and would be happy to vote for whomever has taken his place, but she doesn't know who that is.

“We have to find out more about the leaders… There's this person coming a lot on TV. Kaun Modi? Narendra Modi,” she said, fumbling over the name.”We are getting to hear that he is very dangerous for Muslims. We are scared. Kahin jeet ke Hindustan mein riot na kara de. What if he engineers a riot in India and our children get separated from us. Whoever comes to power should see people as humans and not as cattle to slaughter. Insaan ko insaan samjhe, jaanwar bhais bakri na samjhe. That's all we want.”

12.Old men, Old battles

Begusarai, Bihar
April 2, 2014

“It was lonely out there,” the young man said, showing me on his phone pictures of the small railway station in the hills of eastern Assam where he had been posted and from where he had just run away.

We had met aboard a train passing through Bihar. He was in his twenties, and he had landed a job with the Indian Railways after what seemed like a year-long marathon: a written test, followed by a physical test, a medical examination, a merit list and finally, the final list.

But within a week of reporting for his first posting, he decided to give it up. “I have submitted a letter asking for a week’s leave, but I am not going back for another three months. I am going to sit at home and prepare for exams for another job.”

Bihar’s middle-class youth try hard to move out of the state to study and work in cities elsewhere, and those who cannot, end up spending long years writing exams for government jobs.

“You know the story of Bihar. No industry, no jobs,” said the young man, by way of explanation.

But does he not fear losing his current job? How would he get away with unsanctioned leave?

“It is the public sector, they can't scrap my job. Meri naukari nahi khaa sakta.”

He asked me where I was headed. “Begusarai,” I said, naming the district that was once the industrial hub of Bihar, with a refinery, fertiliser factory and ancillary industries. The refinery is still around, but not much else.

“Oh, then you must go and see Leningrad.”


“I have heard this place is called Leningrad,” I asked an old man in Hindi, raising my voice to be heard above the din in the market. We were standing under a tall archway with a hammer and sickle perched on top. The village’s name was Bihat, and the archway, I was told, was ‘Moscow Gate’.

“Do you know about Leningrad?” he replied in English.”That tree. That's Leningrad,” he said, pointing in a direction further down the village market, to a small enclave where in the midst of overgrown grass stood a stone memorial of Comrade Chandrashekhar, not the revolutionary leader Azad, but Chandrashekhar Singh, the first communist to be elected to Bihar's state assembly.

Singh had won his first election in 1962. Since then, this part of Begusarai district of Bihar, earlier the Barauni assembly constituency, rechristened Teghra after delimitation, had been represented by the Communist Party of India in an unbroken line until the assembly election of 2010, when newspapers reported the fall of Leningrad:”The Left bastion of Teghra…was swamped by the Nitish Kumar wave today with the BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] planting its lotus flag on this small township that had been equated with the Russian city that was the hub of the October Revolution.”


Four years later, the Nitish wave has blown away. The summer has begun. Gusts of dust blow in from the banks of the Ganga. The power cuts force men to strip down to their banians and sit on charpoys outside. The women have no such options. And the Janata Dal (United) and BJP have parted ways.

The CPI is JD(U)'s new partner.

In 2009, the JD(U)'s candidate won 205,680 votes in Begusarai, while CPI was second at 164,843.

This time, CPI has put up a candidate, Rajendra Singh, and the JD(U) is supporting him.

In other places in the world, it would be possible to assume that the combined vote share of the two parties would lead the candidate to an easy victory.

But not in the multi-party system of India, and the caste arithmetic of Bihar.

For one, in 2009, the JD(U) had the votes of the supporters of the BJP, which it no longer has.

Secondly, in 2009, the JD(U) had fielded Monazir Hassan, who drew in considerable Muslim votes. This time, those votes are likely to migrate to the Rashtriya Janata Dal candidate Tanvir Hasan.

Three, the CPI is itself faced with internal rebellion, as I discovered in Leningrad.

At an old-style red brick building, stared down by revolutionary heroes, local and national—including both Chandrashekhars, Azad and Singh—I asked an old man how election preparations were going.

“There is gadbadi [wrongdoing],” he said.”The choice of candidate has led to revolt within the workers. The person who deserved to be given the ticket was sidelined.” Shatrughan Prasad Sigh, a 73-year-old CPI veteran, had lost out to Rajendra Prasad, also nearing 70. Sixteen of the party's 18 block secretaries in Begusarai district had resigned in protest.

The old man, himself in his late sixties, was Ram Ratan Singh, the leader who contested and lost the assembly election of 2010. In the communist tradition of Bihar, Singh belongs to the upper caste community of Bhumihars.

Bhumihars see themselves as Brahmins who own and cultivate land.

Elsewhere in Bihar, their control over land has pitted them against the landless Dalits mobilised by the Naxalite movement. In the 1980s and '90s, some of the worst massacres of Dalits were carried out by a Bhumihar militia called Ranvir Sena.

It is the Bhumihar lobby that has blocked reforms that could lead to land redistribution in Bihar. And it is Bhumihar-led CPI that is the strongest votary of land reform in the state assembly.

How do you explain this contradiction, I asked Ram Ratan Singh.

“Individual Bhumihar farmers hold small parcels of land, not large estates. But I agree that pooled together, most of the land in the state is controlled by our people. Now other parties have managed to plant a fear in their hearts that their land would be taken away if land reforms are carried out. But if I own just five bighas of land, that's less than the land ceiling, how can it be taken away? Other parties are misleading our people and using them to get to power.”

By other parties, Ram Ratan Singh meant the BJP, the party seen to have the greatest section of the Bhumihar votes in the state. In the villages of Begusarai, I heard pro-BJP voices over and over again, and they were nearly always Bhumihars. The BJP candidate from Begusarai, 70-year-old Bhola Singh, is Bhumihar, as is his rival in the party, Giriraj Singh, who tried to get a ticket from here but failed. The party eventually accommodated him in the Nawada constituency, keen to prevent a dent in its Bhumihar vote.

So why is a section of Bhumihars in Begusarai still with the CPI?

From conversations, it seemed that the support had more to do with caste pride—the identification with the leaders who are their caste brothers—and less with the party’s ideology.

In fact, the CPI owes its existence in Bihar not to industrialization but to an affront to Bhumihar pride.

“Our village’s leader Babu Ramcharitra Singh, who was a freedom fighter, the first science graduate in the district, the minister of irrigation in Bihar government, Congress ne unka ticket kaat diya, Congress denied him a ticket in 1957. People of this area could not tolerate it. They got him to contest independently, and even though at that time a Congress wave was sweeping the country, Congress ki aandhi chal rahi thi, he won.”

Ramcharitra Singh’s son Chandrashekhar contested the next election on a ticket of the CPI. “That day the Congress departed from here and never returned.”


“The land that gave birth to the Communist Party of India in Bihar is the land where the party would be buried.” This was JN Bhagat, the man I had met under Moscow Gate. He had retired as the deputy chief of the public sector company Hindustan Fertiliser Corporation's Barauni unit, which had closed down in 2002. “No new factories have come up since the time of Pandit Nehru,” Bhagat said.

“Why are the Communists doing so badly?” I asked him.

“Because of their bad policies. The factories closed because of their union baazi. Their leaders drew salaries while sitting at home, lazying around and doing politics.”

“People would tell you that we were responsible for the closure of the factory,” Ram Ratan Singh said, when I asked him about it. “But it was the liberalisation policy of the government that was responsible. The government denied workers the benefits due to them. Is it wrong to fight for our rights?”

He might not like the communists, but Bhagat is bitter about the way the government treated the employees of closed public sector units, denying them retirement benefits. “If you’ve been an MLA [Member of Legislative Assembly] for two years, you get a handsome pension. If you’ve been an employee for 33 years, you get nothing.”

But he keeps his bitterness to himself. His children, like most of their contemporaries, have moved out. They live in Delhi and work in private IT companies and banks. In Begusarai, the young have left and the old continue to squabble.

Post-script: The CPI was reduced to the third position in Begusarai. The BJP’s Bhola Singh won the election, as did his party rival and candidate from Nawada, Giriraj Singh.

13. Lonely in the Crowd

Patna, Bihar
April 3, 2014

The Bhagalpur-Surat Express rolled into Patna station, and the human mass sprawled on the platform lifted and moved into compartments already dense with men.

Most trains in India are gender-skewed, but those originating in Bihar are particularly so.

The passengers are overwhelmingly men of working age headed to distant places to earn and send money back home.

Among the migrants to Gujarat, I expected to hear much praise for the state and its chief minister.

But the young man seated next to me had little to offer.

“They say Gujarat is very developed,” I said. “Shor mach raha hai…

Machata rehta hai…” he said.”We don't really know much. We have no time to find out. All we do is go to work, eat, drink, sleep, get up and go to work again. Bas itna hi.”

He wasn’t interested in talking about larger things, but he was happy to talk about his own life.

Growing up in a family of 10 in a village in Bihar’s Katihar district, he had studied up to class 10 before his father, a landless worker, told him, “Beta, now take care of yourself.”

So, he went off to Surat, where he found work in an industrial stitching unit that adds lace borders to saris, and a room to share with four other men. But he didn’t give up on his studies. He came back this year to appear for his 12th standard board exams.

“I was a very good student… No one in our village has studied as much. I wanted to study science or commerce, but because of our financial situation, I had to take lighter subjects…history, political science, sociology.”

How was life in Gujarat, I asked. How much did he earn? From his appearance and attire—denims matched with a shirt under a sleeveless jacket, a faux-smartphone tucked in the pocket—it seemed to be a reasonable amount.

“Depending on the kind of sari—single border or double border—anywhere from Rs 8,000 to Rs 15,000 a month,” he said.

But the earnings were neither easy nor certain.”I work all seven days. The payment is per piece and per day. Missing one day would mean losing money.” People from his village had gone as far as Jordan, Muscat and Mauritius to work—if they could afford a visa agent.

What does he think of Gujarat? He screwed up his nose and said, “There is a lot of pollution there.” In the village where he lived, the textile industry had left the drains choked with effluents.

Meanwhile, a parallel conversation was taking place between two men seated near the aisle. The subject was the same—Gujarat’s industry.

“Jaante ho,” a young man was telling his friend, “Gujarat was the first state where modern industry was set up in India. Textile mills came up as early as the mid-nineteenth century. It is natural that the state would be more developed than others. Par halla ab mach raha hai…

I jumped into the conversation. “You mean to say Narendra Modi is being given undue credit for Gujarat’s development?”

“Yes, there is a lot of propaganda in the media and people have fallen for it. In my constituency Ara, the former home secretary RK Singh is contesting elections on a BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] ticket. No one even knows his name. But they are voting for BJP because they say they want to make Narendra Modi the prime minister.”

The young man, Ajit, was not a migrant worker. He was studying law while simultaneously preparing for banking exams.

“Who are you voting for?” I asked.

“BJP,” he said, without losing a minute. “The main thing is that Congress must go. It has inflicted such a great deal of corruption and inflation. We need the BJP because there is no other party that can take on the Congress.”

“There is JD(U) [Janata Dal (United)] in Bihar…”

“Oh, we have given enough chance to JD(U). Nitish Kumar has done nothing for young people. He said he would create fresh vacancies. Nothing happened. He said he would hold a rozgaar mela. Again, nothing happened… Kuch log ko naukari mil raha hai lekin pen ka power waala baitha hua hai… The meritorious students are not getting a chance at jobs.”

The reference to”merit” was a sure enough indicator that Ajit belonged to the upper castes, among whom there was a sentiment that Nitish Kumar had favoured Dalit and backward caste groups at their expense.

The man seated opposite me was coming from Jharkhand. He said he worked in Gandhidham in Gujarat’s Kutch region, “in a factory that makes rubber parts for foreign cars”.

“Which cars?”

“We don't know.”

“Where do the parts go?”

“We don't know.”

Ajay Singh was happy to be part of the dismembered global automobile chain as long as he made his Rs 300 a day.

“Who are you voting for?”

He gave an indirect answer: “BJP ki havaa chal rahi hai… Modi ke naam ka halla chal raha hai. There is a BJP wave in the name of Modi.”

At the next stop, the law student and his friend got off.

Three men took their place. One of them was young, another middle-aged and the third slightly old.

The middle-aged man, Sunil Kumar, was tall and lean, with a pencil moustache. He looked very excited—for the first time in thirteen years of living and working in Gujarat, he was taking his family with him.”Ghomaane ke liye, naaki rehne,” he said. “For a leisure trip, not to stay.”

But the railways had acted as a killjoy, splitting their seats across compartments. Sunil wanted to get people in this compartment to move and make way for his family. But since no one was willing to oblige, he sat down grumpily—until I brought up the subject of Narendra Modi.

Narendra Modi pyaara ho gaya hai sabko. Narendra Modi has become dear to all.”

“Why so?”

“Because of his work.”

“What has he done?”

“What has he not done?”

“No, seriously, tell me what he has done.”

The older man intervened. “Road, bijli, paani, bathroom, sab to kiya hai. He has done everything. Road, power, water and toilets.”

His name was Ram Kumar and he had lived in Surat for seventeen years. He claimed that the development of Gujarat picked up speed after Modi took over. What was even better, he said, was that the cycle of rioting had stopped. “Ek hi baar hua. Ab hamesha ke liye khatam. It happened once. Now it’s ended for good.

Sunil Kumar also spoke of”feeling safe in Gujarat”. As for economic prosperity, he said, inflation had dented everyone's earnings.”Ek kaam se pet nahi bharta. It is not enough for one person to earn which is why I am taking him along,” he said, turning to the young man seated next to him.”Isko sabzi market mein laga denge. I’ll get him to work in the vegetable market.

The young man, Basant Raj, who said he was called Raja by his friends, however, had other ambitions. “Are you a reporter?” he asked me.”Even I am an artist. I dance very well but I have not got a chance to show my talent.”

“Go to Bombay,” joked the old man.

Raja was a fan of Salman Khan. He had cut his hair in the style of the actor in the film Tere Naam. Raja was also an admirer of Narendra Modi.”I saw him in Sasaram at a rally… I really liked his shaili, his style, his manner of speaking. He is the only one who can remove corruption and inflation. Pakistan attacks us and throws bombs. The government does nothing. But Narendra Modi would retaliate and get us justice. Parts of Kashmir have been lost to both Pakistan and China. He will get them back.”

“If you don’t mind I would like to know your caste? Only for the reason that I am told people vote on caste basis in this state,” I told the group.

Sunil Kumar and Basant Raj were Kurmis, the caste group that Nitish Kumar belonged to.

“You have left Nitishji?”

“Should we worship him like a god?” Sunil shot back.

Ram Kumar was a Paswan. He said he would have voted for the BJP even if Ram Vilas Paswan had not joined the NDA. Paswans in the state were unhappy with Nitish creating a sub-category among Dalits, called Maha Dalits, excluding them from certain government benefits.

Ajay Singh, the auto parts workers, was a Chadravanshi, a Dalit sub-caste, and while he was not cheering Modi as much as the others, he wasn't averse to him either.

Ajit, the student who had gotten off at Ara, was most probably upper caste, and had expressed unequivocal support for the BJP.

“Everyone else would get wiped out,” said Basant Raj, aka Raja, pleased with the cross-caste support that his favourite leader was drawing.”We need a Dabangg neta to rule India.”

The boy seated next to me had tuned out of the conversation, or so it seemed. He was watching the sixties film Ek Phool Do Maali on his phone.

I turned to him and asked “You like old films?”

But he didn’t want to discuss films. This time, he had something to say about politics and elections.

Dada hai wo. He is a strongman. His left hand and right hand men carry out murders. Pehle ulta sidha kaam karega phir wahin bhalaiyi karega. First, he would do wrong and then he would cover up by undertaking welfare work. Neeche se katega upar se paani daalega. He would first cut the roots and then water the plant.”

He was the lone voice in the compartment opposed to Modi and his name was Sageer Ahmad.

Post-script: There was indeed a Modi wave sweeping through Bihar. The BJP won 22 of the 40 seats in Bihar and its allies won another nine, reducing the JD(U) to two seats from 20 in 2009.

14. The Mystic

Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh
April 4, 2014

Towering over the bedraggled maze of shops and homes near Rath Yatra Chowk in Varanasi stands a 13-storey spanking new apartment building called Sevashram.

For the next month, the ground floor of the building will serve as Narendra Modi's campaign office.

With its manicured lawns and modern decor, the building fits the image Modi wants to sell to people here: a resourceful leader who will modernise the economy of the ancient city.

But in its foundation lies a more mystical history.

The building has come up on land owned by the family of Bhagwan Das, a theosophist philosopher who wrote a book called The Essential Unity of Religions.

Theosophy is a tradition of Western esoteric philosophy that emphasises mystical experience and the underlying unity of things.

Founded in 1875 in New York with the aim of forming “a nucleus of the Universal Brotherhood of Humanity, without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste or colour”, the Theosophical Society moved to Chennai, and among the many Indians drawn to it was Bhagwan Das. He joined the society in 1894, becoming a close associate of Annie Besant, the British socialist turned theosophist.

In a paper he read on the Foundation Day of the Theosophical Society in 1911, Das said,”All the scriptures of all the nations of all times and all climes repeat the one teaching ‘Seek and find the God within’… The lost religions of Assyria, Chaldaea, Egypt, Mexico, Peru said it. The living religions of the Manu, the Zoroaster, the Buddha, the Jina, the Acharya Shankara, the Christ, the Prophet say it… In India, the latest great teachers of both Hindu and Musalman have nothing else to say.”

In the paper, Das went on to quote Kabir, Bulle Shah and Nanak.

Latter-day scholars have unpacked the appeal of theosophy among Western-educated Indians as a form of”neo-Hinduism” that”evoked an idealised past in which Indian society had been a pure and harmonious expression of this true, spiritual Hinduism”. Romila Thapar, the prominent historian, sees”a close affinity” between the present-day Hindutva view and the theories of some theosophists.

But in public life in the early 20th century, the theosophists were far removed from sectarianism. Besant joined the Indian National Congress. So did Das, born into a family of bankers, a member of Varanasi's mercantile elite.

“In Benaras, the city's commercial aristocracy, the Naupati bankers, gave rise to a succession of active Congressmen,” wrote CA Bayly, the British historian. Das was one of them. He took part in the freedom movement, served as a member of Congress committees and was elected to the provincial assembly in 1934.

In Varanasi, Das helped Besant found the Central Hindu College, which later became the Benaras Hindu University.

In 1955, he was awarded the Bharat Ratna, along with Jawaharlal Nehru and M Visvesvaraya—the first Indians to get the country's highest civilian honour.

While Das's son, Sri Prakasa, was active in public life, serving as the governor of several states in the late 1940s and 1950s, the family has subsequently moved away from philosophy and politics and returned to its mercantile roots.

Today, Das' great grandson, Sameer Kant, lives in a plush apartment on the top-most floor of the Sevashram building. He runs an investment firm and speaks the apolitical language of money.

“I am an eternal optimist,” he said, when I asked him about his future outlook on the country.”Whichever government comes to power, the economy would do well. Our long-term prospects are very good.”

As a man of the markets, where is he putting his money, I asked him.

He laughed, declining to elaborate.

But later, he let slip in which direction he thought the wind was blowing.

“Three prime ministers have come to this house—Jawaharlal Nehru, Lal Bahudar Shastri, Indira Gandhi,” he said. “Now we might soon have the fourth prime minister visiting.” He was referring to Narendra Modi.

So how was it to have the Modi campaign office on the property of his great grandfather?

“It’s fine,” he said. “There is bound to be some nuisance. The day they had inaugurated the office, their workers messed up the garden with plastic cups.”

On their part, the BJP campaign managers seem to have tried to make up for the nuisance by putting up a picture of Bhagwan Das outside the entrance to their office. It is a carefully selected picture: Das can be seen in conversation with Sardar Patel.

15. The Boatman

Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh
April 5, 2014

“The baaraat is ready and waiting for the bridegroom,” said Kamlesh Mishra, a former government employee and supporter of Narendra Modi, who I met in Varanasi. The people of Benaras might do their best to keep the conversation engaging but there are, after all, only so many ways of saying “I support Modi.”

Having exhausted the morning talking to locals dreaming furiously of electing a man who could be India's future prime minister, I decided to use the rest of the day to talk to visitors to the city, whose voting preferences elsewhere in India would determine whether that is likely to happen.

As the cliché goes, Kashi, the sacred city within Varanasi, is a “microcosm of India”. Over centuries, the steady flow of pilgrims from all parts of the country has created a thriving cosmopolitanism, in which, as the epic scholarly tome The Sacred Complex of Kashi notes, even temples have come to be managed by priests from different regions.

“Kedar temple, Kedar ghat, Tilabhandeshwar and Vishalakshi managed by the South Indians; the Amba and the Gopal temples, looked after by the Gujaratis; the Balaji and the temples at Brahma ghat, owned by the Maithilis; the Pishachamochan and the Lakshmi Kund, managed by the Bhojpuris; and the Kali temple...owned by the Bengalis,” the authors say.

I decided to do a spot survey among the pilgrims, but I did not reckon how hard it would be, given the multiplicity of languages involved.

“English or Hindi?” I asked a group of women wearing the trademark mangalgiri cotton saris of Andhra.

“Nah,” they nodded. “Telugu.”

“Seemandhra or Telangana?”



“Kakinada. East Godavari district.”

While the women vaguely understood my questions, I had no way of following their responses, and so in some parts of the conversation, as a translation later revealed, the questions and answers bore no relation.

“Who are you voting for?”

“You tell us who we should be voting for. You are a journalist. Who should we be voting for?”

“Jagan Reddy? Kiran Reddy? Chandrababu Naidu?”

“We were all one state. We are separated now. No one could stop it. I don't feel like voting for anyone now.”

“Jagan Reddy. Kiran Reddy. Who is your top pick?”

“You tell us: who should we be voting for? Should we vote for Jagan Reddy? They separated us. After our children complete their education, where do they go for jobs? This KCR [K Chandrashekar Rao] is saying that he will get us out of Hyderabad.”

The women promptly identified their MP. “Pallam Raju. Central minister.” But when I brought up Modi, they seemed either not to know or not to care.

“Narendra Modi. What do you think of him?” I asked.

“Where are you from? What place do you belong to?” they asked me in turn.

“Narendra Modi?” I asked again.

But they were still on the subject of Telangana. “Kiran Reddy at least resigned and started this new Jai Samaikyandhra Party. Chandrababu Naidu allowed them early on to separate the state…”


The pilgrims from Maharashtra had heard of Modi. But he did not matter much to them, as one group from Tuljapur district that had come to Benaras by “luxury gaadiyaa” (luxury bus), stated quite emphatically.

Humari taraf nahi hai. He does not have a footprint in our area,” said Subhash Bhosade, a middle-aged man dressed in white shirt, trousers and topi.

His dismissal of Modi agitated his local tour guide, a young man named Vishal, who interjected,”Narendra Modi ko jeetao. Vote for the victory of Narendra Modi.

Bhosade stuck to his ground. “We vote for the Congress.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because the minister Padamsinh Patil is from our village.”

Patil is the Member of Parliament of Osamanabad constituency, of which Tuljapur is a part. He is from the Nationalist Congress Party and not the Congress. He used to be a minister in Maharashtra but is not currently one. Despite these inconsistencies, Bhosade’s response only confirmed that beyond North India, Modi was not as much of a draw.


“No BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] in Tamil Nadu,” said Swaminathan, a retired labour union leader from Tamil Nadu’s Tiruvallur district. In his late seventies, he had come to Benaras to fulfil his wife Lakshmi’s desire to visit the Kashi Vishwanath temple.

Identifying himself as a supporter of the Congress, he admitted that the party was “weak” in the state.

“What about DMK [Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam]?”

“DMK family problem. Eldest son fighting. Kanimozhi fighting. Maran 2G fraud.”

“AIADMK [All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam]?”

“Jayalalithaa speaking but not doing.”

Despite that, according to Swaminathan, AIADMK was expected to do reasonably well. The allies of the BJP, he said, would not benefit a great deal on account of Modi.


While most pilgrims come to Benaras to visit the Kashi Vishwanath temple dedicated to Lord Shiva, those from Bengal head to Thakur Dwar, a Krishna shrine located some distance from the city. A resident of Kolkata, Roopa Das was on the way to the railway station to catch a train to Mathura, another Krishna shrine, and just had enough time to answer quick questions.

“Who are you voting for?”

Aisa khatab bole? How can I say aloud?”

“How is Mamata di’s government doing?”

Bhaalo. Good.”

“That means you would vote for Trinamool [Trinamool Congress]?”

Je kaam karbe wohi paabe. The party that works gets our votes,” she said, with a smile, before rushing off.


On the way to the ghats, I met another group of Telugu-speaking pilgrims. They were from the Mahbubnagar district of the newly formed Telangana. Only one of them spoke Hindi. His name was Hussain. He was the tour guide.

“Who are you voting for?”

“Telangana mein Chandrashekhar ka hota.”

K Chandrashekhar Rao is the chief of the Telangana Rashtra Samithi, the party that was at the forefront of the statehood movement, and which might reap electoral dividends this time.

“What about Narendra Modi?”

The only way Modi would become relevant in their region, Hussain said, would be if the TRS chose to ally with the BJP.


There is a joke among journalists that the boatmen of Benaras are better at predicting electoral outcomes than pollsters. With pilgrims from all over India riding with them, the mallahs have a knack for interpreting the national undercurrent.

Narendra Bharati laughed when I told him this. We were on his boat in the middle of the Ganga.

“I think your opinion polls are better,” the middle-aged boatman said. “The other day I was watching Zee News and they were giving 217 seats to the BJP.”

He went on to discuss the opinion poll results in great detail, and I had almost given up on the hope of some earthy wisdom, when he delivered his punchline:”Jiskaa samikaran zyaada ho jaata hai, uski taraf bhaagte hai. Once a party gets enough seats to come within striking distance of power, others want to enter into alliances with it.”

By then, Bharati had turned expansive. With the wind against us, he strained as he rowed the boat, while continuing his analysis of the mood of the nation. “Look, 60% of people in this country are workers,” he said. “The day they don't labour, they don't get to eat. Thirty percent are budhijeevi, intellectuals. Baaki bache 10% woh hai badhe audhe ke log. The remaining 10% are powerful people, which includes police, politicians, criminals and the media.”

Post-script: The media might have indeed wielded great power in this election in the way it built Modi’s profile across India. The BJP made significant in-roads in both the East and the South, picking up seats in West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh and even Tamil Nadu.

16. The Epidemic

Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh
April 6, 2014

Epidemic Ward number 12 was breathing easy the day I visited last week. “Just six cases of AES,” the head nurse said, showing me the register of entries.

Acute encephalitis syndrome brings on high fever and brain inflammation and leaves a trail of mind-numbing child deaths in eastern Uttar Pradesh every monsoon.

More than 550 deaths were recorded last year. If this sounds shockingly high, the record in 2005 was worse: 1,344 deaths.

There’s only one large government hospital in the entire region to take on the chronic killer of children: Baba Raghav Das Medical College's Nehru Hospital.

From villages far and near, families arrive here with their ailing children, sleeping kits and gas stoves. The children are deposited in Epidemic Ward 12 and the parents bunk down in the fly-infested corridors outside. The lucky ones find out that the malaise gripping their child is not encephalitis, but something more ordinary: typhoid, diarrhoea, viral fever. Others end up keeping anxious vigil for days on end over an immobile child plugged into machines that keep beeping.

Careful not to disturb those critically ill, I walked into section B of the ward, where I was told by the nurse that all the children were encephalitis-free.

Two-year-old Satyam was playing with his mother. “We’ve been here for eleven days,” his mother said. “But the doctor says we can leave in three to four days.”

“Where did you take him the day he fell ill?” I asked her.

“To the store of the doctor,” she said.

“Store” is a rather appropriate term for the clinics of private doctors who charge exorbitant fees, regardless of whether they are qualified to practice.

“Is there a government health centre in your village?” I asked Satyam’s mother.

“There is…but it is no good.”

India’s public health system is decrepit in most states but the UP edition is arguably the worst. In 2007, a report of the National Family Health Survey said that 59% of sub-centres lacked a regular water supply and 75% lacked electricity. Of the 16,283 sanctioned posts of doctors in the state, the Hindustan Times reported last year, as many as 5,500 are lying vacant, 1,400 doctors are holding administrative posts and 600 doctors are simply missing.

Even the National Rural Health Mission, the United Progressive Alliance government’s flagship health scheme launched in 2005, failed to make a dent, getting mired in massive corruption. In 2011, the Comptroller and Auditor General reported that since the start of the NRHM, Rs 5,754 crore of the scheme’s funds remained unaccounted for in UP. Sanctioned public health centres never came up and existing centres were used to store potatoes.

Like most scams in India, UP’s NRHM racket involved high-ranking politicians and bureaucrats. The day I arrived in Gorakhpur, the newspapers reported the seizure of the property of a former Bahujan Samaj Party legislator, Ram Prasad Jaiswal, one of the accused in the NRHM scam.

Would this affect the elections in any way, I asked Satyam’s father.

“Not really,” he said. “Politics in Gorakhpur revolves entirely around the Hindu-Muslim question. Babaji has won three times. He will win this time as well.”

Babaji or Yogi Adityanath, the current Member of Parliament of Gorakhpur, is the head of a local temple and is a rabble-rousing Hindutva leader.

“He has done nothing in 15 years but people still vote for him because he has managed to create an impression that if he loses, it would be an insult to Hindus,” Satyam’s father said. “If Lok Sabha polling happens on Hindu vs Muslim lines, the state assembly elections are fought on caste lines.”

Nearing the age of 30, Satyam's father called himself a student although he isn’t actually enrolled in any course. In UP, “student” is the preferred term for those unemployed and applying for a government job. While his family owned farmland, Satyam’s father did not want to work the fields. Instead, he had set up a “net ki dukkan”. Not an internet café for idle people who wasted time over Facebook, he clarified: it was a store with two computers available for those who wanted to download and submit forms for government jobs. He had himself applied for a job when the state government had advertised 72,000-odd teacher vacancies. But the recruitment process got stuck in litigation. “Under Mayawati’s government, the recruitment was to take place according to TET merit.” TET is the Teacher’s Eligibility Test. “But Akhilesh government came and changed it to board exam merit. Someone went to court to challenge that…”

“What do you prefer—TET or school exam merit?”

“TET,” he said.


“There is rampant cheating in UP school exams. But the time I went to high school, Kalyan Singh was the chief minister. Under him, the administration was very strict. Idhar udhar nahi dekh sakte the. Only a couple of students used to clear the exams. Under Mulayam Singh, it is the exact opposite. Those who have cheated in school exams would stand to gain in the merit list.”

He was critical of the policies of Mulayam Singh Yadav, the leader of the Samajwadi Party, but when I asked him who he would vote for, he took no time in stating, “SP, regardless of whether it wins or loses.”

The reason for his political preference was not far to seek. It lay in his name: Bipin Kumar Yadav.

In UP, the SP is seen as a natural repository for Yadav votes, while the BSP, led by Mayawati, a Dalit leader, is viewed as the catchment for Dalit votes.

“You are young and educated. Why do you vote along caste lines?” I asked Bipin.

Ab aapko kaise samajhaye. How do I explain this to you,” he said. “Ab maan lijeye ki BSP ka log Mulayam Singh ko vote de dega to koi nahi manega diya. If BSP’s people vote for Mulayam’s party, no one would believe they did. If I vote for the BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party], the BJP won’t believe that I did.”


Three-year-old Sunil had virulent pneumonia. The phlegm had to be drained by a surgical cut on the right side of his chest. He was on blood transfusions and was being tended by his old grandparents. The family was from Ramnagar village in the neighbouring district of Deoria.

A fortnight ago, when Sunil had come down with high fever, they had taken him first to the public health centre, but when the doctor did not show up, they moved him to a private hospital, where within four days they had spent Rs 10,000, to no effect.

“Rs 800 on one injection, and injections twice a day,” said Sunil’s grandmother, a frail woman who looked exhausted from the effort of having to take care of a sick child.

The expenses had come down in the government hospital but they still needed to buy medicines, bandage rolls and syringes from outside.

“It's fine as long as our child recovers,” the old woman said, revealing why Sunil was so valued in the family: he was born after three daughters. The oldest is now thirteen years old.

“Would you be marrying her off soon?”

“No, no,” she said. “Not for another three to four years.”

UP has the highest infant and maternal mortality rates in India, and it will be hard to bring these numbers down so long as girls are married off young.

“Who do you vote for?” I asked the old couple.

Jisko ichcha kiya…Whoever catches one’s fancy,” said Sunil’s grandfather, Paramhans. “Although there is nothing to be gained by voting.”

“Then why do you vote?”

Yahin to adhikaar hai public kaAur to koi adhikaar nahi. This is the only right available to the public. Nothing else.”

At the mention of adhikaar, his wife got very agitated. “Jab aayi mile saamaan chal gayi. Something was sent for us, but it was passed on to other people,” she said.

Sunil had been hospitalised for the first time when he was six months old, along with a few other children of the village suspected of having encephalitis. At that time, officials had visited Sunil's neighbourhood and promised to provide a source for clean drinking water supply, since contaminated water is key to the spread of encephalitis. But the tap never materialised. Paramhans suspects the money was used by the village head, the pradhan, to sink handpumps in his compound. “He is Brahmin, you know,” he said, while they were Yadavs.


On the bed opposite Sunil's, a tiny six-month-old baby was suckling her mother's breast. Her name was Divya. She had been admitted to the hospital with high fever, but it had turned out to be a routine viral infection.

Like others in the room, Divya's family had spent money and wasted time at the private clinics near their village before they came to the city. They were Dalits and they owned no farmland. Divya’s father lived and worked in Chennai.”Paint polish karat hai,” her mother said. She had visited him once, taking a three-day train journey. Her memories of the visit revolved around the heat and the language that sounded like nothing she had heard before.

“Do you vote for Behenji?” I asked Divya’s mother. Behenji is how Mayawati is addressed by her followers. The young woman smiled, as did her mother-in-law.

“Behenji had come to Gorakhpur some years ago,” said the old woman. “I came to see her, spending my own money.”

“Your own money?”

To phir motor bhejeli reh li. You expect her to send a motor car for us.”

“When Behenji was in the government, did you get any benefits?”

“No, nothing.”


“We have a white card but we get only oil,” she said.

Intended for families below the poverty line, the white-coloured ration cards entitle families to subsidised wheat, rice and sugar.

“Then why do you vote for her?”

Her daughter-in-law said, “Hum aap pe vishwaas karenge to sab kuch ba aur nahi vishwas karnge to kuch nahi ba. Everything rests on faith.”


The fourth bed in the ward was taken by a child who belonged to a more prosperous family.

“We came here yesterday as soon as Ansh fell ill. We didn’t want to waste any time,” said the child’s father, Kameshwar, who mentioned he was a jeweller.

“Does that mean you are from the Bania community?”

“No, we are Nishads, the caste to which Jamuna Nishad belongs.”

Jamuna Nishad was a former legislator who contested and lost elections for the Bharatiya Janata Party and SP, before he won on a BSP ticket, becoming a minister in the Mayawati government. In 2008, he was booked for murder, which led to his expulsion from the BSP. He died in 2010. His wife was given a ticket by the SP. She is currently the MLA from a constituency in Gorakhpur district and has been fielded against Adityanath by the SP. For many of her voters she still remains”Jamuna Nishad, ki aurat. Jamuna Nishad, the woman.”

“Who are you voting for?”

“We have voted for Nishadji regardless of the party. Now we vote for his wife.”

Kamleshwar's father, Ram Daman Nishad, explained why they were so loyal: “It is best to stick with one's own family. Gaali dega, dulaar bhi karega. You get both love and abuse.”

“But if Babaji is so strong here, why is she wasting her money fighting a losing battle?”

“This is not a business. It is a career. And elections are unpredictable. Don’t write off the SP. After all, the government has done so much work.”

“What work?”

“They have distributed laptops and cycles. One hundred and fifty cycles have been distributed in our village alone. Would the beneficiaries forget the favour? Pappu Jaiswal used to win votes by distributing saris.”

“Jaiswal—as in in the one involved in NRHM scam?”

“No, no, Jitendra Jaiswal, the liquor mafia.”

A former BJP legislator and minister, Jitendra (alias Pappu Jaiswal) was a liquor baron.

“Does that mean he also distributed liquor along with saris?” I asked Ram Daman. Visibly annoyed at the question, the old man said,”Yeh koi poochne ki baat hai? Is this a question to be asked?”


“Eastern Uttar Pradesh has three prime ministers in the making: Narendra Modi, Mulayam Singh and Arvind Kejriwal, but none of them has uttered a single word on encephalitis,” said Dr RN Singh, a Gorakhpur-based doctor who had been campaigning for years for a National Encephalitis Eradication Programme on the lines of the anti-polio drive.

As part of his campaign, a few years ago, Singh met Rahul Gandhi who he claims responded with great sensitivity. “The Centre sanctioned Rs 4,000 crore but then the 2012 UP elections took place. The Congress did badly in eastern UP and since then Rahul seems to have lost interest.”

In the run up to the 2012 elections, Singh took out a yatra through eastern UP, getting people to write letters to political leaders on the issue of encephalitis deaths. “I myself wrote letters in blood,” Singh said. “I will write again this time.”

What a waste of blood, if the people of eastern UP are voting in the manner of those I met in the Epidemic Ward.

Post-script: The BJP won more than 40% of the vote share and 71 of the 80 seats in UP. Should this be interpreted as a sign that caste-allegiances have weakened in the state? This is a subject that is likely to invite much attention from political scholars.

17. The Bahubalis

Gonda, Uttar Pradesh
April 7, 2014

He laughed heartily before he began narrating the story of the day he cried in public.

“I said I had not expected to see such a large crowd. I have not done any work for you. My father and grandfather served you and that is why you have come to see me. I am deeply grateful to you. I live in Gonda but I do not come to your village. And yet you have come to see me. I started crying. They started crying too. Hum roye laage wo bhi roye lagga.

The memory of the tears brought on another round of guffaws.

Quietening down, he said, “Hum apna kaam bana lete hai. We get our work done.”

A stocky man with a round face and a balding head, 47-year-old Vinod Kumar Singh, better known as Pandit Singh, is the straight-talking Samajwadi Party legislator from Gonda and Uttar Pradesh’s minister of secondary education.

One morning last week, I met him at his home in Gonda, making my way past a courtyard full of supporters into a living room with cushy leather sofas.

Singh had shot to fame in 2012 when he was accused of beating up and abducting the district's chief medical officer. The controversy forced him to resign from the Akhilesh Yadav ministry.

A few months later, he was reinstated, and now the party has given him a ticket to contest the Lok Sabha polls from Kaiserganj, one of the two constituencies in Gonda.

Singh claimed he had been falsely implicated by officials with allegiances to his rivals. “I had recommended the names of some local boys for the posts under the health mission. But when the list came out, their names were missing. I went to the CMO's [chief medical officer’s] house. He agreed to tear apart the list and make a fresh one. But some officers conspired against me and called him to Lucknow, where they made him disappear while falsely accusing me of kidnapping him.”

Daanta tha, gaali diya tha, maara nahi. I had scolded and abused him but I had not hit him,” he said.

“Sahi hai. That's right,” added one of his associates. “Sirf gaali diye the ki kaatenge tumko. All he had said was that I would cut you to pieces.”


On the train to Gonda, I had overheard a man telling others: “Jaante hai, in Gonda, things are so bad that even the railway police asks passengers to lower the window shades. Criminal gangs operate with impunity. Within a split second, they can snatch away your bag or even pull the chain off your neck.”

No such thing happened at Gonda railway station, and I dismissed the talk as typical middle-class alarmism, until the next morning, when I met the politicians of the district.


“You have an image of being a bahubali, a strongman. What do you say to that?” I asked Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, the Bharatiya Janata Party's candidate from the Kaiserganj constituency.

“I do not want to comment. All I would say is that kissi gareeb ko kissi shareef ko maine tang nahi kiya. I have never troubled the poor and the decent. Aur jo atatai hai maine kabhi sangarsh se apna kadam peeche nahi hataya. And I have never shied away from taking on those who oppress others.”

Clad in a crisp dhoti-kurta, with a long face and a short beard, 57-year-old Brij Bhushan spoke with the reserve and sophistication fitting of a four-time Member of Parliament. He had more political experience than Pandit Singh as well as more serious criminal charges: rioting, carrying arms and attempt to murder. In the mid-nineties, he spent several months in Tihar Jail on charges of harbouring members of the Dawood Ibrahim gang. A former BJP MP was convicted in the case but Brij Bhushan was acquitted for lack of evidence.

In recent years, he scored a nationally notable moment in 2008 when he cross-voted against his party on the floor of the Lok Sabha in a crucial confidence motion against the United Progressive Alliance. The BJP expelled him and the SP welcomed him. In 2009, he won the Kaiserganj seat on a SP ticket. But in 2014, he is back with the BJP.

How do you explain this party switching, I asked him.

Dekhiye, in 1989, the Ram Janambhoomi movement took place. I was the first person in the region to be arrested by Mulayam Singh. In 1993, the disputed structure was demolished. I was the first person to be arrested by CBI [the Central Bureau of Investigation]. In 1991, I won elections from Gonda for the BJP. Since I was in jail in 1996, my wife contested and won on my behalf. In 1999, I won again, and in 2004, I shifted to Balrampur and I won from there too. But in 2009, I joined Mulayam Singh.”

Pausing for effect, he said,”Yunhi koi bewafaa nahi hota. Kuch ruswaiyi bhi rahi hogi.

The story of his betrayal of the BJP centred on the death of Ghanshyam Shukla, the man who replaced him as the party's candidate from Gonda in 2004. Shukla died in a road accident the day of the polls. “My opponents spread the rumour that it was not a murder, it was an accident. Sorry, I meant they said it was a murder and not an accident.” Correcting his Freudian slip, he continued, “Atalji called and said, ‘Marwaa diyaa’ [you killed him]. That day I began having differences with the BJP.”


“Why did the Samajwadi Party accept Brij Bhushan Sharan?” I asked Pandit Singh.

Humare neta bhole baba sant ji hai. Jo pao shao pakada, le liye. Our leader is a simple man. Brij Bhushan touched his feet. He took him under his fold.”

“Mulayam Singh must have accepted Brij Bhushan because he is a mazboot leader,” I said.

Mafia sargana hai to mazboot hai hi. He is a man of the mafia, he would be strong. He is a history-sheeter, goonda, bahubali. He had me shot at. Look,” he said, leaning forward from his sofa to show me the scars on his arms.”Not one but 20 bullets. I was in hospital for fourteen months.”

The shooting episode dates back to 1993, a turning point in the life of both Pandit Singh and Brij Bhushan, who, until then—in what might sound like a film plot—were friends and partners in crime. Senior journalists in Gonda recall their footprint in the eighties extending from motorcycle thefts to liquor dens. They even got boys to fish coins lying at the bottom of temple ponds. A flood in the district created bigger opportunities and they turned civil contractors. A financial dispute reportedly led to a gunfight.

“I was in Delhi at the time,” said Brij Bhushan, when I asked him about the episode.”But he still named me in the case.”

According to the four-time MP, all criminal cases against him are rooted in political vendetta.”It started when I was still in inter-college. The local raja had monopolised politics in the region. No one could contest elections without his consent. I took him on, and in the process, I established democracy in Gonda. In turn, these cases were slapped against me.”


Part of impoverished eastern UP, barring a few old sugar mills, Gonda has no industry, no major trade and only a few large landowners. But there is no dearth of automobile showrooms, SUVs and hotels owned by politicians.

At JP Palace, a hotel with glass chandeliers and Mughal prints in its lobby, the 23-year-old at the front desk told me he had left Gonda after school because college degrees from the district had”no value”. He moved to Lucknow for his graduation.

“Both the local MP and the MLA [Member of Legislative Assembly] run colleges which specialise in getting students passed on the basis of cheating,” he said.”This has sullied Gonda's reputation as a place where untalented log get ahead.”

Why do students enrol in such colleges, I asked him. Because all they want are marks to qualify for government jobs, he said.

Such was the clamour for quick-and-easy degrees, said PP Yadav, the secretary of Lal Bahadur Shastri College, that only 6,000-odd students had enrolled in the half-century-old institution, which paid its teachers up to Rs 1.5 lakh a month, while more than 30,000 students had enrolled in Nandini Nagar Mahavidyala, Brij Bhushan’s college, which paid teachers just Rs 5,000.


Pandit Thakur explained the political rationale behind setting up colleges.”A college has 100 to 200 staffers. Since they draw their salary from you, they are loyal to you. Not only do their entire families vote for you, they also canvass for you at the time of elections.”

The best part was that the political investment was subsidised by the government, which gave aid to the colleges despite the fact that they were private institutions that charged fees.

In the villages, I came across several of Brij Bhushan's Mahavidyalayas. One of them was housed in a row of shops. All of them were empty. The students, I was told, attended college only around exam time.

When I asked Brij Bhushan about his colleges, he said with great pride,”I have opened 48 educational institutions.”

But the quality of the institutions was reported to be poor and cheating was rampant, I said.

He replied,”That's Mulayam's gift to the state. The day he came to power and reversed the BJP government's anti-cheating ordinance, that day education departed from UP. Today, only 15% of students study, the rest cheat.”

What about the political capital he had created through his colleges, I asked.

“I didn't start them with any political aim, but yes, today the boys rally around me. Others might call me mafia but my students idolise me. Jisko mafia manana hai maane lekin padhne waala ladka mujhe adarsh manta hai. I used to touch the feet of Brahmins. Today, young Brahmin boys touch my feet calling me guru ji.”

The reference to Brahmins was not incidental. At the moment, the greatest threat to Brij Bhushan’s political future comes from Brahmins. Both he and Pandit Singh belong to the Thakur community. Between them, the Thakur vote in Kaiserganj is likely to get split. Although the BJP traditionally gets Brahmin votes, this time, there is anger against the party in the community, because many Brahmin leaders were either denied tickets or constituencies of their choice.

And it doesn’t help that the Bahujan Samaj Party's candidate from Kaiserganj, KK Ojha, is Brahmin.


Not to be outdone by his friend-turned-foe, Pandit too has opened twelve colleges in the district.

“I gave Rs 25 lakh [Rs 2.5 million] to Brij Bhushan's college from my MLA fund. He gave Rs 25 lakh to my college from his MP fund,” he said.

Did the exchange of funds between the two indicate a secret alliance, I asked.

Pandit laughed.”If I decide to give testimony against him in the 1993 shootout case, I can get him put behind bars. But I have refrained from doing so because I want to keep him alive. It is fun to wrestle with a strong person. You remain alert. You don't make mistakes.”

In his younger days, Brij Bhushan was a wrestler of repute. Today, he heads India's Wrestling Federation.

Brij Bhushan se halke nahi hai. I am not a light-weight compared to Brij Bhushan,” Pandit said.”I can match him in everything. Even in maar pitai [beatings].”

The competition between the two bahubalis extends even to emotional breakdowns. Pandit cried in a public rally not long after Brij Bhushan was seen with moist eyes at a campaign meeting.

“I did not cry. I just turned bhavuk [emotional],” Brij Bhushan told me, when I asked him about it.”It happens to those of us who have soft hearts.”

Post-script: Brij Bhushan won the election from Kaiserganj with 381,500 votes. Pandit Singh gave him a fight—he managed to draw in 303,282 votes. Ojha finished third with just 146,726 votes.

18. The Phone Number

Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh
April 8, 2014

On a bracing summer morning in Lucknow last week, after a brief round of haggling over fares, I sat in Raju Yadav’s auto rickshaw, and within a few minutes, he had given me an outline of his life: as a child, he had run away from his village near Haldwani to come to Lucknow, where he worked in a hotel, graduated to riding a cycle rickshaw and finally learnt to drive. He is now married and his daughter is old enough to go to school. But he can't afford to send her to an English-medium school because his auto is a hired one. Of the Rs 800 he earns on average every day, Rs 300 goes to the auto owner.

The conversation soon turned to the elections, as we headed for Ambedkar Park, the sprawling and controversial memorial built by the former Bahujan Samaj Party government. With its larger-than-life sandstone elephants and towering statues of Dalit leaders, the park has been compared with London’s St Paul’s Cathedral, Cambodia’s Angkor Wat and Egypt’s Karnak Temple. “Only the pyramids are starker; only the Parthenon itself more monumental,” wrote The Financial Times, in a report that tried to explain why the government of one of India's poorest states would spend billions of rupees on it.

Who are you voting for, I asked Raju.

“I vote for Behenji,” he said.

BSP leader Mayawati is respectfully called Behenji by her followers.

But wasn't that unusual for a Yadav, I asked. Yadavs are traditionally known to vote for the Samajwadi Party, the party currently in government led by Akhilesh Yadav.

“I vote for Behenji because she gave me a roof of my own,” he said, “while Akhilesh cannot even give me electricity.”

What do you mean, I asked.

Chaliye hum aapko dikhaate hai. Come, I’ll show you.”

The sandstone elephants had come into view but we headed off in another direction.


In the five years of Mayawati’s government in Uttar Pradesh from 2007, the massive memorials she erected in the heart of Lucknow drew steady attention. But the small homes she built for the poor on its outskirts went largely unnoticed.

Launched in 2008, the Manyawar Kanshiram Shahri Garib Awas Yojana scheme aimed to construct 100,000 low-cost homes for the urban poor every year. Of these, half were reserved for scheduled castes and tribes.

At the time Mayawati was voted out of power, the first round of construction was over—more than 90,000 homes had come up in towns and cities across the state—and a second and a third round were underway.

Within two months of winning elections in 2012, the SP government scrapped the scheme. No new construction would be undertaken, it announced, once the existing construction was wrapped up.

Work was completed on half a dozen housing colonies in Lucknow in the summer of 2013. People moved into their homes—only to find there was no electricity.

“There are poles on the road but there is no connection in our homes. Summer is coming soon. How will we manage?” Kunti, who lived in the Kanshiram colony in Chinhat, a semi-urban area on the eastern edge of the city, wasted no time in briefing me when I got off the auto.

Turning into the colony, driving past neat rows of four-storey buildings, with handbills of a Mayawati rally and a computer institute stuck on the white and blue walls, Raju’s auto had stopped near a small candy shop made of wood and plastic, where Kunti sat with her husband, Ram Narayan Gautam. A mistri, he worked in people’s homes, and lived from day to day on uncertain wages.

“Zindagi humari poori guzar gayi madiye mein. My life went by under a tent,” said Kunti in a high-pitched girl-like voice that sat at odds with her face creased with both age and exertion. Before they had moved here, the Dalit couple and their two children had lived in Daliganj, in the centre of the city, in a shanty neighbourhood.

How did they find a house here, I asked them.

In response, Ram Narayan pulled out a small tattered notebook from his pocket. He opened it to a torn page where a number was scribbled against the name of ‘Manani Mukhyamatri, Honourable Chief Minister’.

“This is Behenji’s number. Unke saath jo baithate wo khud hi uthate hai. Her assistant picks it up.”

It was an extraordinary story: a relative who worked for the BSP had given Ram Narayan the number, and once when they had trouble in their shanty town, he had called on it. The man at the other end, he claimed, told him”Jhopadpatti mein mar rahe ho, kahe na colony paas karwa lete. Why are you dying in the shantytown? Why don’t you apply for a home in the colony?”

The same evening, an officer was at their doorstep. “He came at the time we had sat down for dinner,” said Kunti. “He took pictures of our house. And later we came to know our name was on the list.”

“Behenji was very clever to put the names of the poor beneficiaries on the internet,” said Ram Narayan. “Else the next government would have eaten up our homes.”

The home itself was matchbox-sized. Two tiny rooms, each not bigger than a double bed.

“Here's the bathroom,” said Ram Narayan, as he showed me the small square cubicle, with a sense of quiet pride, “and here's the toilet”.

What about water supply, I asked.

“No problem at all,” he said with much emphasis. “We get water twice a day. For at least an hour.”

Grateful for the government’s small mercies, their only grouse was the lack of electricity.

“We went and met the officials who asked us to wait until the elections,” said Ram Narayan. “Depending on who wins, they said, we would either get or not get the connection.”


“We are currently busy with elections,” said Raj Shekhar, the district commissioner of Lucknow, when I called to ask him about the lack of electricity supply to the Kanshiram colonies. “You should check with the electricity supply authority.”

Officials at the authority's office did not respond to calls.

In earlier media reports, the officer in charge of the housing projects had blamed electricity officials for demanding funds to provide connections, while electricity officials had said that the financial condition of the board did not permit free connections. Meanwhile, on January 27, before the crisis could be resolved, the Akhilesh government issued an order asking officials to freeze spending under the scheme.


“2 June 1995. Grih Athithi Kaand. The Guest House episode.”

I had asked Mahesh Satyawadi, a middle-aged social worker who lived in the colony at Gheru, 20 km from Lucknow on the Kanpur road, why the Kanshiram housing colonies were being denied electricity.

In response, he invoked the events of 1995, when a mob of SP workers stormed a government guesthouse in which Mayawati was staying, intent on punishing her for withdrawing support from their government. The police managed to reach just in time to rescue her from the mob. This was the start of a deeply acrimonious politics in the state, which the residents of the Kanshiram colonies believe explains the present government’s khunas (resentment) towards them.

“You have personal scores to settle but what is the fault of poor people? Do only BSP supporters live in these colonies?” said Satyawadi.

On cue, the nameless crowd gathered around us began to break up into individuals with distinct identities.

“Ali Ahmad.”

“Sanjay Agarwal.”

“Horelal Pasi.”

“Manoj Yadav.”

“And there’s a Mishra, who sells chaat,” said Satyawadi, who identified himself as anusochit jaati (scheduled caste).

Raju had introduced him as netaji, but Satyawadi clarified that he was not a politician. “I am a social worker,” he said, walking me up to his home on the fourth floor, to show me all the letters, press clippings and Right to Information documents that he had collected during his struggle to first get homes and then electricity for the people of his neighbourhood.

“I sat on a hunger strike in 2008, as soon as the scheme was announced, because I felt that the homes would be taken away by others, and the deserving would be left out,” he recalled.

“I have been working for the community for more than 20 years. But I did not take up a political post isliye kyunki humein dalali nahi karni—because I don’t want to be a broker.”

As he pulled out papers from a broken suitcase, I noticed an old BSP letter dating back to 1996.

“The party workers who have reached high positions are all known to me. Ram Avtar Mittal. Mewa Lal Gautam.” Reminiscing of the early days of the party, he said, “That was a different time. Dalits were being oppressed, the party was working for Dalit uplift, and people like me wanted to volunteer for it. But things changed. Kanshi Ram died. Party leaders became obsessed with making money. They forgot the old slogan, Tilak,Tarazu aur Talwaar…

In the elections of 2007, the slogan that attacked the symbols of the upper castes, and by extension, the caste system, was replaced by one that embraced them: Haathi nahi, Ganesh hai Brahma Vishnu Mahesh hai.

This, coupled with the rising trend of wealthy candidates being favoured over long-time workers, had led many old timers to quit the BSP.

Chastened by its defeat in 2012, the party appears to have made an attempt to strike a balance this time. In Lucknow, Nakul Dubey, a wealthy Brahmin leader and a former BSP minister, is in the fray against the BJP president Rajnath Singh. In Mohanlalganj, the outer Lucknow constituency in which the Kanshiram colonies fall, the party has fielded RK Chaudhary, a leader from the Dalit Pasi community and founder-member of BSP, who left the party in 2001, only to return to its fold last year.

Would he be voting for Chaudhary, I asked Satyawadi.

“I would vote for whoever has a clean image.”

As we went back downstairs, the crowd gathered on the road had grown larger and more restive.

“Please write: Life here has come to a standstill. Children's education is suffering. Crimes are taking place with alarming frequency. We need to get electricity with immediate effect,” said an old woman, Uma Sheel Masi, who identified herself as “a Christian and a former president of the woman's wing of the CPI(ML) [Communist Party of India (Marxist–Leninist)]”.

“We will march to Parliament if the government does not give us electricity,” she said, adding that she was hopeful there wouldn't be a need for that. “Once our sister Mayawatiji wins this election, she would set things right.”

But the coming elections were for the Lok Sabha and not for the state assembly, I said.

“So what. They will impact even the state.”

Since when has she been voting for Mayawati, I asked her.

“From the time Mayawati gave me a house. Wo humari humdard hai. Hum unke humdard hai. She cares for us and we care for her. Only she can come and give us electricity.”

But what if the SP government gave them electricity before the elections—would she vote for them?

She paused. The answer lay in her confused silence.

But for the Dalits in the crowd, there was no such confusion. An old man, Vinod Kumar Gautam, broke into the slogan:”Vote padega haathi pe chahe goli lagagi chaati mein. Shoot us in the chest but we will still vote for the elephant.”


As we drove away, I asked Raju who he would be voting for.

“It all depends on the electricity situation,” he said. “If there is no electricity, I would vote for Behenji.”

And if there is electricity, would he vote for SP?

“Why not? Whoever does good work should be rewarded... Waise people nowadays are talking a lot about Narendra Modi. They say he is forming the government in Delhi.”

Does that mean he is considering voting for the BJP?

“Let there be light first. Only then would we know who is good and who is bad.”


“We have always voted for the BSP. Whether it wins or loses,” said Kunti.

“Have you heard the name of Narendra Modi?” I asked her.

“Even if I may have heard, I have forgotten. I keep forgetting names. But he would know. Ask him,” she said, pointing to her husband.

But Ram Narayan was too busy to listen. He was scribbling down a number in his tattered notebook.

It was a phone number advertised on a poster of the Association for Democratic Reforms pasted on the back of Raju's auto.

The poster exhorted people to give missed calls to the number if they wanted to know more about the assets of their local candidate.

While the number was in bold, the rest of the message was in fine print. Ram Narayan had missed reading it.

Kabhi zaroorat padegi to batiyaenge to kuch na kuch to fayada milega. If a need arises, we would call, and surely there would be some benefit,” he said.

His trust and confidence stemmed from the picture on the poster: A man with an intense look on his face stood with folded arms.

“He has been coming on TV and asking people about their problems. People have been taking their problems to his baithak. Even officials come there. There is no electricity here, but at our earlier residence, inko hum bahut chav se dekhte the, we used to watch him with great interest. Now that we have his number, we can call tell him about our problem.”

“Would you vote for him if he stood for elections?”

“Of course. Bilkul.”

“What's his name?”

“Oh, I keep forgetting names,” said Kunti.”Kya naam raha inka...What’s his name...haan...Aamir Khan.”

Post-script: Raju Yadav had dropped a hint when he named Narendra Modi. Many voters appear to have abandoned old loyalties to vote for the BJP in UP. The BSP, meanwhile, could not even win one seat although it won nearly 20% of the vote share.

19. The Boy Who Switched

Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh
April 10, 2014

He'd be the boy you'd take home to meet your mother. Soft-spoken, courteous, well mannered.

He sat quietly next to the window in a compartment of the Lucknow-Chandigarh Superfast. Where was he headed for, I asked. Home, he said. To cast his first vote.

For this, he had taken both leave from work and the trouble of an overnight train journey from Lucknow to Ambala, to be followed by a one-hour bus journey to Kurukshetra, the town where his family lived.

“We tend to blame the government for everything. But unless we vote, we have no right to complain,” he said. “Kartavya aur adhikaar. Duties and rights. They go hand in hand.”

His name was Lovneesh Kumar. He was 22 years old. At the time of the last election, he had been too young to vote but he claimed he had still contributed to the political process, by joining a college campaign “that tried to get people to vote by explaining to them its importance, telling them that there were countries where people are deprived of voting rights.”

A computer science graduate, Kumar now works for an IT firm in Lucknow.

How did his boss react to his request for leave?

“He was very happy. He said hum log to sirf baat karte hai, we only talk, but you are putting your words to action.”

Inspired by the example he has set, his other colleagues too have made plans to take leave to go to their hometowns to cast their votes. “Thankfully, voting is staggered across phases. So we can take turns at taking leave.”

With his youthful idealism, his strong sense of citizenship, his roots in a state to which Arvind Kejriwal belonged, Kumar had the makings of an Aam Aadmi Party supporter.

Who was he voting for, I asked him.

He declined to reveal. “The ballot is secret,” he said.

“Tell me what you would base your voting decision on.”

“The work of the candidate,” he said. “Criminal cases, if any. And whether or not he is a resident of the constituency.”

By this criteria, I said, it was apparent he would not be voting for the Kurukshetra’s sitting Member of Parliament, Congress leader and industrialist Naveen Jindal who lives in New Delhi and has been named in a police First Information Report in ‘Coalgate’, as the ongoing investigations into misallocations of coal blocks have been termed in the media.

He smiled but said nothing.

I tried a different question: “Among the national leaders, who do you like?”

“There are three national leaders. Rahul Gandhi, Arvind Kejriwal and Narendra Modi,” he said, pausing for effect. “Rahul Gandhi was elected to Parliament in 2004. He has had 10 years. But he has done nothing. He did not even attend Parliament regularly. Arvind Kejriwal was given a chance as the chief minister of Delhi. But he ran away. Narendra Modi has not only won elections three times, he has also delivered on his promises.”

The biggest promise Modi had delivered on was growth, Kumar maintained. “The greatest evidence of growth under Modi is that businesses have moved from other states to Gujarat. Look at Tata Motors.”

Connecting economic growth to his own life prospects, he said, “Only when you grow can you create jobs. Only when there are more jobs can someone like me switch [from one job to another]. Only when I switch can I grow fast.”

Already, in his short career of one and a half years, he had jumped companies.

“My father spent 35 years in the Bhakra Beas Management Board. It was a government job. Promotions were not based on merit. They were based on seniority and reservations. It was my father who advised me to take employment in the private sector.”

But what about the 2002 riots that took place under Modi's watch?

“Riots take place everywhere. They took place in Muzaffarnagar under Akhilesh Yadav but no one seems to have a problem with that.”

And yet, his expression gave away his discomfiture. The earnestness and conviction that he had exuded disappeared, and a slightly pained expression took its place.

“Look, the Aam Aadmi Party should not have contested the Lok Sabha election this time. Kejriwal fought and won elections in Delhi on 17 issues. For one, he left 16. If he had stayed on and proved himself, everyone would have voted for them in the next Lok Sabha poll. Head bhi unki tail bhi unki.

Arvind Kejriwal might now regret his decision to quit abruptly, but it could be too late: AAP's loss has been the Bharatiya Janata Party’s gain.

Post-script: Let alone Haryana, the AAP did not even win a single seat in Delhi, which it had swept in the assembly polls in December 2013. One of the key reasons was voter disenchantment with the party’s decision to quit the Delhi government within seven weeks of taking over. In public perception, the party’s claims of being a serious political alternative to the Congress and the BJP stood dented.

20. Remote Control

Ambala, Haryana
April 10, 2014

In a state infamous for the lowest sex ratio in India, the Haryana district of Ambala occupies a position of political preeminence.

Sushma Swaraj, the leader of opposition in the outgoing Parliament, was born and raised here. As was Kumari Selja, the local Member of Parliament and minister for social justice and empowerment, the only representative in the United Progressive Alliance government from Haryana.

Swaraj might not have contested from Ambala, but she's still powerful enough to dwarf Narendra Modi on the Bharatiya Janata Party posters here—no mean feat, given that even Rajnath Singh, the party president, has failed to do that in Lucknow.

Selja has bowed out of the elections this time, opting for a Rajya Sabha seat, but people in Ambala still remember with awe the way Sonia Gandhi had clutched her arm for support the day she fell ill in Parliament—an image they saw on TV.

Ambala distinguishes itself not only through the powerful women it has sent to Parliament. It has among the highest literacy rates in Haryana, second only to Gurgaon, an extension of Delhi, and Panchkula, an extension of Chandigarh. Its female literacy rate is 10 percentage points higher than the state average.

By all accounts, if there is any place in Haryana where women's participation in the political process could be high, it would be here.

One measure of the rising political participation of women in India is the increasing turnout in elections. As The Hindu reported, a study of 16 states in India found that “the sex ratio of voters—the number of women voters for every 1,000 men voters—improved from 715 in the 1960s to 883 in the 2000s. Significantly, this improvement did not come about because more women registered to vote than men but because more women actively voted.”

If women are voting more actively, what are the issues they are voting for?

On election day, I visited polling booths in the villages of Ambala, where shalwar kameez-clad women were out in full force: in many places, the queues of dupatta-covered heads were longer than those of trouser-clad legs.

Dressed in all pink, from head to toe, Meenakshi Sharma emerged from the polling booth at Mohra village.

“Who did you vote for?” I asked her.

She laughed.

“Ok tell me, what was the basis on which you voted?” I asked her.

“I voted for someone who could be a good leader.”

“Who do you rate as a good leader among the local candidates?”

“I don't know their names.” Then, lowering her voice, the woman in her twenties said, “Actually, my husband briefed me before I came here. He told me that I should press the button next to the lotus.” Lotus is the symbol of the BJP.

By then, her sister-in-law, Urmila, emerged from the booth and joined the discussion. She was older and more assertive in the way she spoke.

“Did the Congress do any work here?”

Mehengai badhai aur kya… It increased the prices, what else.”

“So you feel you need to change the government?”

“No, not really,” she said.”Mera iraada to tha inhee ko jee tane ka. I wanted to vote for the Congress people... They have given me a job, after all.


“In the CRPF.”

She was talking about her husband's job. A jawan in the Central Reserve Police Force, stationed in Delhi, he is currently travelling on election duty. He could not come home to cast his vote but he made sure he instructed his wife on the phone.

“He asked me to vote for lotus. He said it is important to change the government.”

“Do all women here follow their husband's instructions when they vote?”

Both Meenakshi and Urmila laughed.”Sunani padhe hai ji. You have to listen.”

But the ballot was secret. They could defy their husbands without any risk of them getting to know, I said.

They laughed and left it at that.

But a middle-aged woman at another booth had a reply. “Why defy husbands? They go out. They know better.”

Some woman couched it as ‘taking advice’. Others said they did it out of ‘respect’.” Koi zor zabardasti nahi. No force or compulsion.”


Learning early to defer to the views of the menfolk, the women have been socialised into internalizing the same worldview, which is shaped, like in most parts of rural India, by caste, class and the agrarian economy.

Ambala is set apart from the rest of Haryana by its demographic mix. Dalits are numerous enough to have made it the only reserved constituency in the state.

The population of Jats, the dominant land-owning caste, is negligible.

Instead, land is in the hands of Punjabi-speaking Sainis and Brahmins, who are locked in conflict with the mostly landless Dalits, who work their fields.

Driving through Naraingarh block past ripening wheat fields, which would soon make way for paddy on land fertile enough to yield three crops in a year, I arrived in Gadrauli village, where a group of Saini women sat on charpoys, having cast their votes. Their shalwar kameezes were bright and colourful with sequins and embroidery. They wore make-up and chatted convivially.

“Who’s standing for elections here?” I asked them.

They looked at each other in confusion before one of them said, “Ratan Lal Kattaria.”

Kattaria is the BJP candidate from Ambala.

“Who else?”


They laughed at their own ignorance.

“Looks like you have all voted for BJP,” I said. “You know only the name of the BJP candidate, after all.”

They laughed heartily again.

A woman named Shashi Bala explained, “The Congress has done nothing for us, poor people; gareeb loggaa waaste kuch nahi kiya.”

“Why do you call yourself poor? Your fields look great. The area looks very prosperous.”

“You don’t understand agriculture, it seems. Do you know how expensive it is to get labour to harvest the crop? The government is giving them food grains for free every month. They don’t need to work anymore. They keep demanding higher wages every year. We, zamindars, have no option but to buckle in.”

“Humara waaste kuch bhi nahi hai; chamaara waaste sab kuch hai. The government has given us nothing; everything has been given to the chamaars,” an old woman intervened. Chamaars in a derogatory term used for a Dalit sub-caste.

“Their children are getting jobs without any hard work while our children stay up all night to study, getting only four hours of sleep, and then they have to go out in search for work,” said Shashi, whose son had studied engineering at a local college before moving out to Bangalore for work. “He has just started out. He does not earn a lot. We are sending him Rs 20,000 every month... Kharcha to ho hi jaata hai. Things nowadays keep getting more and more expensive.”

“How much is the daily wage you give to your workers?”

Poocho mat. Rs 200 to Rs 250 a day in harvest season,” she said, unmindful of any irony implicit in her views.

At the polling booth inside the village school, it was easy to identify the Dalit women. They wore pale and worn-out shalwar kameezes. Their faces were sunburnt and their hands calloused.

“Who are you voting for?”

“Jisko aap kahenge uske daal denge. For whomever you say.”

“Who are the candidates in the fray?”

“We don’t know…We vote for the symbol.”

A few more questions, and it emerged that the women were voting for the Congress.

“Has the Congress done any work here?”

“No one does any work.”

“So why are you voting?”

“Je na daale vote to kandum karni hai. Not voting means wasting your vote.”

“Has Selja visited your village?”

“No,” said one woman. Another interjected, “She had come some years ago.”

An older woman began reminiscing about Indira Gandhi.

“Tell me, are your children getting to study? Are they getting jobs?”

“They are studying up to 15th class [graduating from college] but they aren’t getting any jobs. Phir rahe hai, dihaadi kar rahe hai. They are roaming around looking for daily wage work.”


The only thing that unites all women here—Dalit, Saini, Brahmin, Bania—is a lack of autonomy that extends from voting decisions to personal choices.

Ultrasound clinics are ubiquitous in Ambala.

All of them have put up the mandatory poster declaring that sex determination tests are illegal.

But a doctor at one of the leading clinics said the only thing that kept doctors from doing sex determination tests was their conscience. Legal enforcement of the ban on sex-testing, Dr Rajeev said, was a farce. “They come and check our records and they harass us if there are minor errors—like say, I have failed to sign the Form F twice.”

Form F is the form that ultrasound clinics need to maintain for cases of pregnant women.

“Filling the form correctly does not rule out sex determination, as making small mistakes does not amount to proof for it,” he said. “Instead I would say the government should legalise sex determination, find out the sex of the foetuses and then keep track of the female ones till the child is born. Parents should be held responsible. If you have aborted a female foetus, you should be made to answer why.”


If there is one place where women seem to enjoy some freedom, it is Ambala's wholesale cloth market. Famous in the region for its bridal lehengas, women from as far as Punjab flock for their shopping.

A group of young women shoppers took offence to my questions on gender inequality. “We are equal,” a woman dressed in Western clothes said. They were here to shop for a wedding. The would-be bride asserted, “I have done my B.Sc.” Her friend added, “And she'll do her M.Sc. after marriage.”

I explained that I didn't mean to suggest that all women in Ambala were being denied freedoms, but surely if so many women in the villages were basing their voting choices on their husbands’ diktats, there was a gender issue at hand. “If that is happening, it is wrong,” they said.

It took an older woman to offer more perspective. “Yes, freedoms here are limited,” said Kamlesh, a short-statured woman in her late thirties, who had come to the market with her 16-year-old daughter and three-year-old son. “Now, before coming here, I had to ask ki market jaaye ki na jaaye,” she said, with a laugh.

“People here are very careful about izzat [honour],” she continued, “and that's why they do not allow women to go out. If women go out less, they feel less confident.” It is this lack of confidence that makes her turn to her husband for advice at the time of elections. But doesn’t she watch TV to get to know the news directly, I asked. “We can't believe the news we see on TV, can we?”

“Is it true that sex determination tests are still common?”

“Yes,” she said. “Jitna marzi sarkar kar le, people still get it done.”

Why, I asked.

“If you have had two daughters, the third time you are pregnant you would like to check once…else your mother-in-law would make life difficult for you. I too had two daughters…”

“So did you go for a test the third time?”

“No, I did not,” she said, “I had full faith in Mataji that she would fulfil my wishes [for a son].”

“Why do people want sons? To take care of them in old age?”

“Sons are good for nothing. Ladkiyan to phir bhi pooch leti hai. Girls still take care of their parents’ well-being.”

“Then why do people want sons so badly?”

She did not have an answer.


In the evening, as voting drew to an end, I met an old woman in her seventies who sat outside the polling booth.

“Who did you vote for, Mataji?”

“I don’t know. I pressed the button that he asked me to,” she said, referring to her son, who had accompanied her inside the booth, since she couldn’t walk on her own.

“Which button?” I asked.

“I couldn’t see. My eyes are failing me.”

“Have you always voted?”

“Hamesha,” she said, with a firm nod of her head.

“Who did you vote for when you were young?”

“Whoever I was asked to vote for by the father of my children.”

21. The Revolutionaries

Ludhiana, Punjab
April 14, 2014

“Kejriwal is a bhagauda. He was given a chance to run the government but he ran away.”

On trains, in buses, at street corners and in village gatherings, this was the most commonly heard sentiment about the Aam Aadmi Party and its leader—until the train crossed into the fields of Punjab. The landscape shifted and so did political sentiment.

Koi chaprasi bhi apna daftar nahi chadhta; inhaane CM di kursi chadd di. Even a peon does not give up his job; he gave up the position of the chief minister.” Charanjit Singh, an old man in a village near Patiala, who identified himself as a supporter of the Akali Dal, spoke with admiration for Arvind Kejriwal's “sacrifice”.

Sacrifice appeals to the Punjabi psyche, said Satwant Singh, a Left activist, as does Kejriwal’s image as an underdog. “If a small man shows courage and takes on someone tagada [strong], people root for him.”

But you don't have to look deep in the Punjabi psyche to understand why AAP is doing well in Punjab.

The state has traditionally swung between the Congress and the Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party combine. In the last assembly elections in 2012, the Akalis sprung a surprise and made history when they bucked anti-incumbency and won a second term. As the joke goes, even the Akalis were surprised that they won.

This time, even if they flooded the villages with terror, alcohol and money, said an old man in Sangrur, there would be no escaping the wrath of voters. But the principal opposition party, the Congress, faces anti-incumbency at the Centre too.

This has opened up a foothold for the AAP in Punjab, which, unlike other states, does not have multiple competing parties and has space for a third political formation.

What also seems to be helping AAP is the choice of its candidates. Most of them are people with a reputation for being independent and engaged with public life, as found in the Malwa region.


Patiala is the stronghold of the Indian National Congress. Its tallest leader in the state and former chief minister Amarinder Singh belongs to the family that ruled the erstwhile princely state of Patiala. With Singh taking on the BJP’s Arun Jaitley in Amritsar, his wife, Preneet Kaur, a minister in the United Progressive Alliance government, is once again contesting the Lok Sabha elections from Patiala.

Not far from the palatial home of the Maharani, as Kaur is known, is the poor man’s clinic of Dr Dharamvir Gandhi, the AAP’s first time candidate. At Gandhi’s clinic, Dalits, brick kiln workers, landless labourers are all treated for free. There is a tiered fee structure for the rest: Rs 50 for skilled workers, Rs 100 for professionals, Rs 150 for non-resident Indians.

One morning last week, as his colleagues sat attending patients who had come from afar, 62-year-old Gandhi rushed in and out of his home that serves as his clinic, with just enough time for his wife to thrust an egg sandwich into his hands. From a quiet life as a doctor, what had prompted him to enter the chaotic electoral arena, I asked him, as he jumped into his car, headed for an election meet.

“I have been in politics all along,” said Gandhi, a short, bespectacled man with a thin crop of graying hair. “I courted arrest as a student leader during the Emergency. I spent two-and-a-half years in the slums of Ludhiana among migrant workers. I took part in the farmer’s movement. I have been with people’s struggles all this while. And I run a clean practice as a doctor. There is so much inequality in society you cannot charge people at one level. These days, my fellow doctors get a smart lady to sit at the reception. She charges people Rs 300 and only then are they allowed to enter. By doing this, you are denying science to poor people. Science belongs as much to slums as to South Delhi and South Bombay. It is the heritage of all mankind.”

What were the issues on which he was seeking a mandate?

“Punjab is witnessing tyranny. Sukhbir Badal is out to grab Punjab through his gangmen. They have turned the state into mafia raj. There is drug mafia, transport mafia, sand mafia, cable TV mafia…”

The charges against the Badals are indeed serious, as a series of investigations by The Tribune have shown.

“Whether it is coal and oil in the country, or buses, sand, gravel, cable TV in Punjab…inha Badal ne, maharajiya ne, ambaniya ne kabza kar littaa hai. These Badals, maharajas and Ambanis have captured it all,” Gandhi thundered into a microphone at a roadside gathering 10 km outside Patiala.

Before I took his leave, I had one last question.

Gandhi was a name more commonly found in Gujarat. What was a Gandhi doing in Punjab?

“I got the name Gandhi for my work as a student activist. My father was an adarshwadi [idealistic] teacher. He did not believe in religion and caste. He did not want his sons to associate with any narrow identity. He named my brothers Harvir Kabir and Yashvir Nanak. And he named me Dharamvir Bulla… Bulla, as in Bulleh Shah, the revolutionary rebel poet. Have you heard of him?”

With this, he broke into a couplet by Bulleh Shah:

Bulleh nalu chulha changa/Jispe ann pakayeeda

Thakur nalu theekar changa/Pulpul dana khayeeda

Pauthi nalu khuthi changi/Jiske rizak kamaeeda

Bulleh Shah nu murshid milaya/Darshan ho gaya sai da

The stove is better than Bulla/You can cook on it

The earthen pot is better than God/You can serve in it

The donkey is better than the scripture/You can earn a living with it

Bulleh Shah has found a teacher and glimpsed God


“Mann sahab, I love you,” said a young boy, coming up to the window of the SUV in which Bhagwant Mann drove across Sangrur. A stand-up comedian famous for political satire, Mann is a celebrity in Punjab. He is contesting on an AAP ticket from Sangrur.

So strong are his chances of winning that his political opponents have taken the trouble of finding an unknown farmer named Bhagwant Singh in the constituency and have got him to file a nomination as an independent with the symbol of a kite. As The Tribune reported, “Some voters intending to vote for Bhagwant Mann may end up voting for Bhagwant Singh [by mistake] as ‘kite’ was his election symbol in the 2012 Assembly elections.”

In 2012, Mann had contested his first election, finishing third in Lehragaga constituency with a vote share of 21.8%. He had contested on the kite symbol as a candidate of the Punjab People’s Party. The PPP was created in 2011 by Manpreet Badal, a cousin of Sukhbir Badal, who had rebelled against the Akali Dal. The party did not win any seats and Manpreet is now contesting the Lok Sabha elections on a Congress ticket.

“Bhagat Singh did not get along with the Congress. How can his followers join it now?” says Mann, explaining why he ended his association with Manpreet Badal, choosing to join AAP instead.

Mann’s friendship with Arvind Kejriwal dates back to the Anna Hazare agitation in 2011, which he had attended at Delhi’s Ramlila Grounds along with 400 men dressed in Bhagat Singh-style basanti pagadis, yellow coloured turbans. “We had gone to mark Bhagat Singh’s attendance,” he said.

Dressed in jeans and a white short kurta, styled as a modern-day protégé of Bhagat Singh, Mann has a strong appeal among the youth, evident from the number of young men riding motorcycles and racing ahead of his car from village to village.

“Politicians might get happy at a sight like this but mere liye dukh ki baat hai—it is upsetting for me. Why are these young men here on a working day? Why are they not at work? What would they gain by joining my election campaign? Are they looking for an MLA [Member of Legistlative Assembly] ticket from me? Clearly not. They are joining because they hope for a day when the youth of Punjab will not have to queue up outside embassies for visas because there would be enough jobs in the state itself.”

At a village gathering, Mann spends much time addressing the women, who laugh at all his jokes.

“Badal sahab loves to get his pictures clicked,” he told them.”Paani di tanki te badal ki photo. Cycle ki tokeri pe badal di photo. From water tanks to bicycle baskets, Below Poverty Line cards to ambulances, you’ll find Badal’s picture on them. Now, we have come to know the government plans to distribute utensils among the poor. Pitalla te bhi bebe badal ki photo hai. Even the utensils, let me tell you sisters, have Badal’s photo…”

The women laugh and clap as Mann delivers the punchline: “What Badal does not know is that this time the women of Punjab would wipe his party clean.”

The jokes aside, Mann’s political astuteness is evident from the way he gets a Sikh farmer from Gujarat to brief villagers about how Sikh settlers in Kutch had to fight eviction notices from Narendra Modi’s government. “These are the kind of anti-Punjabi people the Badals are in alliance with,” Mann told the gathering.

Isn’t politics more difficult than comedy, I asked him.

“Comedy is a very serious business. It is easier to make people weep than laugh. They are anyway on the brink of tears thanks to inflation, unemployment, cancer…”

He is a consummate entertainer but what had he done at the grassroots to be taken seriously as a politician, I asked.

“I was born in a village. I grew up in a village. Mere se zyada ground kaun janta hai,” he said.”Baaki inhone tamasha banaya hai mulk ka. It is the politicians who have made a tamasha of the country. They go around attacking each other with pepper spray in Parliament. As for Sukhbir Badal, he is the real comedy king of Punjab. Do you know what he said? Punjab ki sadak aisi bana donga ek haath mein peg pakado ek mein steering aur peg girega nahi. I would make the roads of Punjab so smooth that you can hold the steering wheel in one hand and your drink in the other and it won’t spill.”

Did Badal indeed say this or was this AAP hyperbole?

Last October, the Hindustan Times reported that while distributing bicycles among school girls, Badal “went overboard with claims about road development in Punjab. He said the highways and traffic would be so good that ‘je daaru pee ke vi drive karoge tan accidents nahi honge [even if you drink and drive, there will be no accidents].’ Punjab is number two in the country in road-accident deaths, and drunk driving is one of the main reasons.”


Dilli takhat te daler nu bhejji, Hakka de layi sher no bheji. Send a brave man to the seat in Delhi. Send the lion who can fight for your rights.

The soft-spoken Harvinder Singh Phoolka makes for an unlikely sher.

The man on the street in Ludhiana calls the senior lawyer who practises at the Supreme Court Phoolka sahab and tells you that he fought for the victims of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots for free.

If you ask whether, as the candidate of AAP, Phoolka sahab stands a chance to win the election, you would be told, “Tagada muqabala hai. It is a close contest.”

Phoolka is pitted against the Congress’s Ravneet Singh Bittu, the grandson of Beant Singh, the former Congress chief minister slain by militants, Akali Dal’s Manpreet Singh Ayali and independent candidate Simarjit Singh Bains.

If the Akalis and Congress have organisational strength, Bains is seen as the tough guy jo gareeba de kam karaunda hai (who gets poor people’s work done). “He runs a service centre where you can go and seek help for anything, from licences to police cases,” a teashop vendor told me.

“We are trying to educate voters that this is not an election of a councillor who will get your ration cards made,” Phoolka said when I met him in the AAP’s office. “You need to send a person who can represent you in the Parliament and work towards changing the system so that you no longer need to access a politician to get your work done… Leaders have paralysed the administrative system. They have captured all power. We need to restore the administrative system. We need to implement the laws and get people the rights that laws give them.”

But this legalistic view of politics might not win votes among an electorate accustomed to a politics of patronage. A woman showed up at AAP’s office to request Phoolka to get her son admitted to high school without fees. Phoolka explained that he could not help her until the elections were over. “Come back later and we will evaluate your case,” he told her. “I am associated with several educational institutions that give scholarships to needy students,” he told me.

What appeals much more to voters in Ludhiana is Phoolka’s record of fighting the 1984 cases. This goes well with the larger attempt by the AAP to claim credit for demanding that a special investigation team be set up to probe the 1984 cases afresh. Justice, rights, struggle are the words that resonated the most in the slogans of the AAP workers as Phoolka’s roadshow wound through the traffic-snarls near Ludhiana railway station, the dense markets, low-income neighbourhoods and Dalit colonies, with Rakhi Birla, the AAP leader from Delhi, as the star attraction.

“Sadda haq, Aithe Rakh.” Give us our rights.

“Bahar Niklo Dukano se, Jung Lado Baimaano se.” Step out of your shops and fight with the corrupt.

“Pehle Sheila Haari hai, ab Badal ki baari hai.” Sheila lost and now it is the turn of Badal.

The best slogan, however, sprung up spontaneously in a Dalit colony, where women stood outside their homes, greatly enthused by the presence of Rakhi Birla. “After all, she is from our community,” they told me, before they broke into, “Aam Aadmi Party ki balle balle, baaki saare thalle thalle.”

Post-script: The AAP went on to pick up four seats in Punjab—its only four seats in Lok Sabha. Gandhi and Mann won, although Phoolka could not.

22. The Overdose

Ludhiana, Punjab
April 15, 2014

The tall iron gates open to a small yard. On the left lies a reception room with a desk and few chairs.

As you walk in, there is a locked door on your right.

If you go past, you enter another small and dark room, which has steps that lead to a neon-lit, windowless hall.

Forty young men sat solemnly on the floor of the hall eating eggs and bread for breakfast one morning last week. Most had shaved heads.

Piled up against the wall were iron beds with mattresses covered in white sheets. On the other side of the room, in wooden cupboards, their clothes were stacked on half-a-shelf each.

Wall posters spelt out the daily schedule, packed with hour-to-hour activity, with sessions titled “encounter”, “family deal”, “mood making”.

Neither a hostel nor a prison, but somewhere in between, the Jeevan Jyot Nasha Chadua Kender, located near the town of Khanna, is one of the 80 licensed drug de-addiction centres in Punjab.

If its owner is to be believed, in the coming days, the cramped halls of centres like this will fill up further as panicked parents send young boys to rehab to keep them away from harm during the elections.

“Parents get their boys admitted before elections,” said Avtar Singh Aujla, the centre’s owner, “because young men are in demand during elections.”

He explained, “[Political] parties need them to roam around, do party work, gather crowds. Youth ko kahenge do sau bande le kar aa wahan nasha free karaa denge. They are told, ‘Get 200 people, we will supply drugs for free.’ Some of them overdose on free smack and die.”

This may sound like an exaggeration but in the first 40 days after the model code of conduct came into force, the Election Commission seized drugs worth Rs 700 crore in Punjab: 136 kg of heroin, 14,823 kg of poppy husk, 76.2 kg of opium and 51,623 kg of molasses.


“Back in the day, patients were middle-aged men,” says Dr Aniruddh Kala, the founding president of the Indian Association of Private Psychiatry, who started the first acute psychiatric care clinic in Ludhiana, which also provides treatment to drug-addicts.

With its proximity to the poppy fields of Afghanistan, Punjab has had a long history of opium consumption. The consumption of small quantities of the intoxicant was socially and culturally acceptable—much like alcohol. Farmers took spoonfuls before starting work in the fields. The experience of Partition and the unrest in the eighties led many to look for escape.

But most opium consumers remained in control of their indulgence. The only ones who came for de-addiction were those travelling abroad, says Dr Kala. “One of my first patients was an old man leaving for Canada to visit his son,” Kala said. “He said he wanted to quit because wahan to milni nahi hai [it won’t be possible to get any there].

In the early nineties, however, bhukkhi (poppy husk) made way for chitta (white heroin powder). The synthetic derivatives of opium—morphine, heroin, smack—came mostly from Delhi. “I called it the Shatabdi syndrome,” said Dr Kala. The Shatabdi Express is a fast train running from Delhi to Ludhiana. “It started in 1994,” he said. “At that time, if your village was not on the route of the train from Delhi, you were relatively safe.”

But it did not take long before the synthetic drugs spread more widely, and also proliferated in forms. Cough syrups, psychotropic medicines, painkillers meant to be prescribed by doctors were available over the counter.

Today, Dr Kala says the average patient is a young man who is “disruptive, troublesome, stubborn”.

“Sometimes parents bring a young man to my clinic and he gets angry at them. He says, ‘You said you were going to get me a motorcycle and you’ve brought me here.’”

Analysing the social factors driving drug abuse in Punjab, Rahul Advani of the Institute of South Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore writes in a research paper, “The practice of extreme drug abuse emerges out of tension created by the combination of a relatively wealthy and aspiring rural population with a slowing agricultural economy.”

After the years of the Green Revolution and rising incomes, Punjab’s cash crop economy has run into declining yields. The government’s response has been to increase subsidies for farmers, which has pushed the state’s finances into the red, leading to declining investments in education, health and industry.

While their earnings have declined, the levels of aspiration among people have not. Nor has the culture of hyper-masculinity.

With an aversion to toiling in the fields and a lack of industrial jobs, Punjab’s youth have both time and cash at their disposal. Coupled with the easy availability of drugs, this is creating “the frightening possibility of an entire generation in Punjab being lost to drugs”, Advani writes.

“From the inability to encourage crop diversification, the hollowing out of education, the failure to create jobs and industry,” said Dr Kala, “what we are seeing as the drug problem is nothing but a failure of governance.”


The more insidious connection between drugs and Punjab’s political system came to light in January when a police officer-turned-druglord named Jagdish Singh Bhola was arrested in a synthetic drugs haul case. Bhola alleged that Akali Dal leader Bikram Singh Majithia was the kingpin of the business. Majithia is the state’s revenue minister and the brother-in-law of deputy chief minister Sukhbir Badal.

The police have arrested 55 people in the case, including Akali Dal politicians Jagjit Singh Chahal and Maninder Singh Aulakh. The Hindu reported that their interrogation revealed that “they had frequently used government vehicles to smuggle drugs… Chahal has three pharmaceutical units in Himachal Pradesh, from where precursor chemicals were being diverted to make party drugs Ice and Ecstasy.”

Bhola threatened to reveal more names of politicians if the case was handed over to the Central Bureau of Investigation. At the moment, the High Court of Punjab and Haryana, which is hearing a petition in the case, has held back from a CBI enquiry.

But coming in the run-up to the elections, Bhola’s revelations, The Hindu writes, have “thrown Punjab’s acrimonious polity into a tizzy”.

At a recent election meeting, Arvind Kejriwal went for the jugular, as reported by the Hindustan Times.

“Who are the traders of drugs?” he asked the crowds at a rally in Sangrur.

“Majithia,” the crowd replied.

“Who is Majithia?”

“Brother-in-law of Sukhbir Badal.”

“You know the truth, still you voted them in the last elections…”

Not just Arvind Kejriwal, Congress leaders Ambika Soni and Amarinder Singh have also been attacking the Akali government and giving great prominence to the drug problem in their speeches. Even Arun Jaitley, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s candidate from Amritsar, could not get away from the subject, despite his party’s alliance with Akali Dal.

For their part, the Akali leaders have tried to shift the blame to the Centre, claiming it has failed to curb the flow of drugs from Pakistan into Punjab.

Meanwhile, one of their candidates, the Lok Sabha MP from Faridkot, Paramjit Kaur Gulshan, caused some embarrassment to the party when she reportedly told voters she supported the opening of licensed poppy husk shops in the state.


Away from the election sound and fury, thousands of men, both young and middle-aged, spend days and nights in grim, airless buildings that pass off as de-addiction centres.

Unregulated until recently, the centres have been extremely controversial.

They sprung up in response to the needs of families unable to tackle difficult men hooked on drugs.

But the absence of consent created a lot of room for abuse. For instance, it became possible for people to get relatives with whom they had legal disputes picked up and sent to such centres.

A petition in the High Court claimed that the owners of the centres were picking up men from their homes in the dead of the night, confining them against their will, beating and torturing them, sometimes to death.

In response to the petition, the High Court asked the government to frame minimum standards, which it did.

Now, the centres require a licence and must have both professional psychiatrists and counsellors on board. An addict must be treated in a hospital and his consent must be taken before he is brought to a centre.

But those familiar with the workings of the centres said the rules have remained on paper. Men continue to be picked up from their homes in their sleep.

“The addicts who have had previous experience at the centres and are familiar with the strategy have now started keeping knives and guns under their pillow,” said the owner of one centre, on condition of anonymity.

While they take most addicts to the hospital, the more violent ones are brought directly to the centre. “Since withdrawal without medicines is very painful, causing severe diarrhoea, nasal discharge and body ache, the men are not able to flee,” the man said.


The owner of Jeevan Jyot, Avtar Singh Aujla, a hefty man with ruddy cheeks, would do well as a bouncer outside a nightclub. He told me that he is an ex-addict and his experience comes in handy when weaning away other men from drugs.

What was his success rate, I asked.

Of the 10 people who came to the centre, eight did not stay to complete the nine-month programme, he said. “That leaves only two,” he said, “of whom we are able to cure at least one.”

Gursharan Singh, 23, could be one of those. The son of an industrialist, he was a student at Chandigarh’s DAV College, where he says, “curiosity got the better of him” after he saw his seniors inject drugs.

“Initially, there was no problem,” Singh said. “I continued to get good marks.” But eventually, things came to such a pass that on the day of his sister’s wedding, he ran away with her jewellery and sold it to buy drugs.

Today, after spending three months at Jeevan Jyot, he feels he is on the recovery path. His head is shaved, his body is clean.

Who does he hold responsible for what he has gone through, I asked him.

“Myself, who else,” he says.

But does he see any wider pattern in the easy availability of drugs in Punjab?

“The government is responsible to some extent,” he says, in what sounds like an afterthought.

Does he plan to vote in the coming election?

“I don’t want to vote,” he said. “All politicians care for themselves. Koi kissi ke liye nahi hai. Bas apni life happy honi chahiye. Parents ko khush rakhna chahiye. One should just look after their own life and keep their parents happy. That’s all.”


He has a puma tattooed on his neck. His turban is stylish. So are his clothes. The son of a farmer in a village in the district of Fatehpur Sahib, 22-year-old Sukhwir Singh picked up a heroin habit went he went to the city to attend college. As he started losing weight, his parents begged him to give up drugs. Fights took place at home. Nothing changed. But a month ago, his hands started to tremble and he began to fall unconscious. That’s when he asked his mother to bring him to Ludhiana, where he had heard about Dr Kala’s clinic.

After spending two weeks in acute care, Singh says he is now ready to go home.

“Who do you think is responsible for the drug problem in Punjab?” I asked him.

His mother, Ranjeet Kaur, replied, “Pakistan.”

“Pakistan is sending drugs across the border so that the youth in Punjab are finished,” she said.”Punjab de poore jawan bilkul khatam ho jaan. And when there is a war, no one is fit enough to fight. Jad kad ladai ho ek koi war karne joge na rahen.”

But what about the Punjab government, I asked.

“Sarkar to aap khandi hondi hai.”

“You mean people in the government take drugs?”

“No, she meant they are profiting from drugs,” Sukhwir Singh intervened. “You must have heard about Majithia, haven’t you?”

Who would they be voting for, I asked.

Appa Sikh haan. Sikhaan nu paunde haan. We are Sikhs. We vote for Sikhs,” the mother said.

But the son had a different view. “Naya banda chunenge. Kejirwal ko vote payenge. We will go for a new leader. We will vote for Kejriwal.”

If the Aam Aadmi Party does well in Punjab—and there are chances it will—a large part of the credit would go to the way it has identified the drug problem as the central theme of its election campaign, coining a slogan that is getting much attention in rural Punjab: “'Na bhukkhi nu na daru nu, vote padaange jhaaru nu.' Vote for the broom [symbol of AAP], not for drugs and alcohol.”

23. The Shrine

April 17, 2014

Tangri Palace is a modest hotel owned by a man with visions of lost Dogra grandeur.

In October 1947, Hari Singh, the Dogra king who ruled Jammu and Kashmir, signed the instrument of accession that merged his princely state with India. Under Article 370 of the Indian constitution, the state was given autonomy. New Delhi’s powers were limited to the areas of defence, foreign affairs, currency and communications.

While the valley of Kashmir remains roiled over the treaty, with a fierce separatist movement questioning the legitimacy of the merger, the plains of Jammu are not free of resentment either.

“From the day the treaty was signed, Srinagar has ruled us Dogras,” said Narendra Tangri, a middle-aged man with a deep voice coming from beyond a handle-bar moustache. The hotel owner, a resident of Kathua, the southernmost district of Jammu region, shares the view common in these parts that power is vested in the valley, which has been pampered by the Centre. As a result, Kashmiris get more central funds and state jobs than the people of Jammu.”Kya milta hai Dogron ko? Kuch nahi. The Dogras get nothing.”

In the Jammu region, Rekha Chowdhary wrote in Seminar in 2008, “a feeling of political neglect has persisted since the early fifties....the politics of regional neglect has often been appropriated by the Hindu Right organisations and thus communalised in the process”.

Who was he voting for, I asked Tangri.

“It is important to bring change in the country. But to be honest with you, I am angry with Narendra Modi. He came to Kathua and did not say a word about ending Article 370.”

With this, he pushed into my view the morning edition of the Dainik Jagran, which featured him on the front page of its city supplement, looking serious behind dark glasses, seated with a panel of leaders. The accompanying story said, “No party cares for the interests of Jammu... The Shiv Sena will not support anyone in this election.”

Tangri, I realised, was the Kathua district president of the Shiv Sena.

He had joined the party in 1990 as a young man impressed with the way Bal Thackeray was “resisting the attempts by Pakistanis to take over Bombay using Dawood Ibrahim”. Two decades later, he says he is glad that he did. “We owe it to Hindu organisations that we have managed to stay put in Jammu. Else like the Kashmiri Pandits in the valley, we too would have been thrown out.”

It was futile to remind him that Hindus are a majority in Jammu region and face no threat of eviction.

The shadow of Pakistan provides a great impetus for the growth of hardline Hindutva. It was no surprise that one of the few places where Narendra Modi deviated from his development narrative was the town of Hiranagar in Kathua. Addressing a rally in the town in the last week of March, he focused on the theme of terrorism.

Kathua is part of Udhampur constituency. It sprawls across six districts, three of which have a Hindu majority, while the others have a majority of Muslims.

In August last year, communal riots in Kishtwar district left three people dead. A month later, 11 people were killed in a militant attack in Kathua. Two days after Modi's speech in March, unknown assailants shot down three people in the district.

Held in the aftermath of this violence, these elections, local journalists say, have been among the most polarised in recent times.

On polling day, across booths in Kathua, Hindu voters said they were voting for the Bharatiya Janata Party because they believed it could tackle the cross-border terrorism of Pakistan and the alleged privileges of Kashmir. Many did not even know the name of the party’s candidate Jitendra Singh.

A few like Tangri spread their anger wide, sparing not even the local Gujjars and Bakarwals, the shepherd communities that move between the hills and plains in search of grazing pasture for their sheep and cattle.

Muslim by faith, tribal by ethnicity, their culture and language set them apart from both the dominant communities of the state—Dogri-speaking Hindus and Kashmiri-speaking Muslims.

But in recent years, with the sharpening of the communal lines in the state, their shifting landscapes have come under strain.

Last year, after the riots in Kishtwar, tensions travelled to the rest of the region, and some Gujjars were beaten up in Kathua. “They were so scared that they stopped coming to our homes to deliver milk,” said Bharat Bhushan, a taxi driver. “Thankfully, it all quietened down in two to three days.”


The women were dressed in bright colours. The men wore mostly white. Both had kohl-lined eyes.

Eight months ago, they had walked their buffaloes down from Billawar, up in the hills, 70 km away. As is customary, the farmers in the plains gave them space outside their villages to set up huts and cattle sheds. When they move out at the end of the summer, they would leave behind fields rich in manure for the farmers to plough.

On the morning of the elections, in the countryside of Kathua, a group of Gujjars stood by the road, waiting to gather enough numbers to make a trip to their homes in the hills to cast their votes.

Who would they vote for, I asked.

Hum to haath ko denge. We will vote for the hand,” said Sher Ali, an elder of the group.

Was that because the Congress had worked for them, I asked, provoking much laughter.

Kaam to kissi ne nahi karke dena. Kaam khud karenge to roti khayenge. No one works for the poor. One has to work and feed oneself.”

It turned out that their area's Gujjar leader was a member of the National Conference, which had formed a pre-poll alliance with the Congress. The Congress was hopeful that the alliance would help its candidate, Ghulam Nabi Azad, the minister for health in the United Progressive Alliance government, withstand the BJP's tide.

Living on the margins, the Gujjars had heard of neither Narendra Modi nor Omar Abdullah, the state's chief minister. Why did they vote, I asked them.

Vote nazayaz nahi jane dena. Chahe kidde daalo, daalo zaroor. Your vote should not be allowed to go to waste. Give it to someone,” said Sher Ali.

But was it not expensive and exhausting to travel 70 km to cast their vote?

At this, Ali pointed to a bus standing a short distance away. The local leader had sent it to fetch them.

Bande nu khareed liya. The politicians buy our leaders,” explained Ali, who by now had warmed into the conversation. “You stopped by to talk to us. But the ministers don't. Gareeb ko poochna nahi. They come and deliver speeches. They claim they have given us BPL [Below Poverty Line] cards and that we are getting wheat for Rs 2 a kg. But we haven't got any cards. We buy wheat for Rs 25 a kg. They say our children would get jobs once they pass 10th and 12th, but they don't.”

As evidence, Murad Din, a young man, was pushed forward. He was the only one in the group who wore trousers instead of shalwars. He had studied up till the 12th standard and yet he was still tending buffaloes.

Yeh bhi khareedne aaye hai. They have come to buy us,” said the elder Ali, as the group started moving towards the bus.”Humara kuch nahi karna kissi ne. They don’t really care for us.”


“We are the ‘and’ in Jammu and Kashmir,” joked Danish Muzzafar, a journalist based in Banihal.

Part of the same constituency as Kathua, but separated by 220 km of road, lies the town of Banihal. It forms the northern periphery of the region of Jammu. A potholed highway passing through the town leads to Kashmir. Travellers navigating the rough highway have comforting views of the Chenab river flowing below.

Most people in the region, which is known as Chenab valley, speak Kashmiri. “The people of Jammu think of us as Kashmiri, because in terms of language, culture, dress, food, we are Kashmiri,” explained a college teacher who did not wish to be named. “We also identify with Kashmir in terms of our political will.” By this, he meant he saw India as an occupying force and believed Kashmiri people had the right to self-determination. But the great tragedy, he said, was that despite the common culture, “the people of Kashmir valley think we are part of Jammu because geographically we are separated from them by the Pir Panjal range”.

People here believe this identity crisis has contributed to a neglect of the Chenab valley. In recent years, the demand for a separate hill council for the Chenab valley has picked up steam.

But during this election, said the teacher, it was not regional aspirations that underpinned people's voting choices as much as religious identities. “I have never voted in my life. I was waiting for the day of self-determination. But I voted this time,” he said, showing me his inked finger, “because it is important to keep Narendra Modi out.”

Hindus might be a minority in the state but Muslims are a minority in Jammu region. Fear and insecurity remain the common drivers of people’s political choices.


One evening in Jammu, after a dinner conversation on the polarisation of the state, a journalist-friend who lived in the city walked me down to my hotel on Residency Road, the city's busy commercial street. Here, we found that a musical concert was being set up on the pavement. Harmoniums were being tested, microphones adjusted. An audience of men and women had begun settling into chairs. The children had taken over roadside ledges.

'Vishaal Bhandara. Mehefil-e-Qawaali,' said a poster stuck on a shop front. It was not just a night of music by the qawwals. There was food being served too, in the tradition of Hindu feasts.

What was this hybrid event, I asked my journalist friend. He lived in a neighbourhood further down the road but did not know.

Then, a man appeared to confabulate with the musicians. He looked like the organiser of the evening. They had a brief discussion and he walked away. We followed him as he went inside a tiny wedge-like shop decorated with balloons and festoons. Once inside, we discovered we were at the dargah (shrine) of Baba Umar Ali Shah.

“Like we celebrate the birthday of our family members, we thought of throwing a bash for Babaji,” said Vishal Sharma, the man we had followed. “Although traditionally rice and chana is served at dargahs, we thought that hum inko apna samajhte hai, since we consider Babaji as part of the family, we should celebrate like we do at home, with pizza, chowmein, paneer bhurji, sugar candy...”

Vishal Sharma works in the administrative section of the Jammu and Kashmir legislative assembly. Born and raised in Jammu, he lives in a neighbourhood in the old city. He remembers visiting the dargah as a child with his grandfather. Some years ago, the childhood memory surfaced and he found himself back at the tiny shrine wedged between a paan bhandar and an optician’s shop. “I did not even know Babaji's name,” he said. “The place was dark and dusty. No one used to come here. Andar se awaaz aayi aur main inka sewak ban gaya. I began coming here regularly. One day, a man at neighbouring STD-PCO booth told me there used to be a board with the name of Baba Umar Ali Shah...”

Wasn't this syncretism rare in the region's communally surcharged climate?

“Look, when panic is created, everyone flees, whether Hindu or Muslim,” he said. “Nahi to aisa kuch nahi hai. He is a Muslim fakir and I am his Hindu devotee.”

The poster of the organising committee had both Hindu and Muslim names. The music had picked up steam. “Allah hu, Allah hu, Allah hu...

“Some Muslims thought we were capturing the shrine because we wanted to profit from it. But I have never taken money from here. In fact, once we thought, why not put up a gate outside and a donation box inside to collect the money offerings and put them to good use? But then Babaji came to me and said: Tum kaun hote ho? Who are you to create enclosure? Ibadatgaah se wahin uthata hai jo zaroorat mand hota hai. Only the needy pick up money from a place of worship. If someone in need comes to me, I would give him my chaddar. What else am I there for? Phir main kiss liye hoon.

And so the shrine has remained open and unguarded.

“Our people visit temples and dargahs. They worship stones but do not feel anything deeply. Yeh jo buzurgwaar hai, these old and wise people, they have gone away. They won't fly back. But they continue to send us messages. It depends on us whether we are intelligent enough to pick them or not.”

The musicians, a troupe from a village in the neighbouring district, had broken into the next song, which not only dissolved the religious and regional boundaries within Jammu and Kashmir, but in one sweep felled the border with Pakistan.

Ho, laal meri pat rakhiyo bhala jhulelalan

Sindri daa, sewan daa, shakishah baaz kalandar...

It was the famous Sufi song, sung in honour of the mystic Hazrat Shah Baz Kalandar who lived in Larkana in modern-day Pakistan.

The audience clapped to the beat.

Dama dam mast kalandar

Ali da pehla number

The singer raised his voice.

Ho laal meri, ho laal meri

On this note, we took leave of Babaji.

Post-script: The polarisation worked in the favour of the BJP, which won both the seats in the Jammu region.

24. The Train to Kashmir

Srinagar, Kashmir
April 21, 2014

The ticket seller had run out of coins. Word travelled down the restless queue. For a change, I was useful. I emptied out my wallet weighed down by the detritus of a long journey that had started in Guwahati and was ending with a train to Kashmir.

Last summer, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and United Progressive Alliance chairperson Sonia Gandhi had flown down to the town of Banihal in Jammu division to show the green flag to a red train that runs past ice blue mountains, fields of yellow-coloured mustard and violet-hued saffron, orchards of apples and almonds, the towns of Anantnag, Srinagar and Sopore to come to an end in Baramulla in Kashmir.

In railway parlance, it is a DEMU, a diesel electric multiple unit. The slick-looking suburban train has a head shaped like a snake and chairs that are not only cushioned but also upholstered. It is not listed on the railway ticketing website. To buy a ticket, you need to show up at the counter. Perhaps that has kept the Indian tourist from discovering the Banihal-Baramulla DEMU. And for good reason, the train has no space for tourists. At least not the first train that leaves Banihal at 7:10 am. It is packed with office-goers and students. It’s so packed that some of them ride on the roof.

The similarity with other trains in India does not end here. With men pressed tight against each other, there are fewer women to be found on the train.

At Banihal, the station where the train starts, the compartments were relatively empty. I found a seat next to a young woman travelling with her baby and mother. The three generations were riding a train for the first time. They were going to Anantnag, the young woman said, because she was unwell and needed to see a doctor. Her mother, who spoke only Kashmiri, gave a broad smile, and when she saw me taking pictures, she was kind enough to offer me her window seat.

Three rows behind us sat two bright-faced young women who kept up a constant chatter. They were sisters, Saiqa and Azrat, both attending the first year of college. One of them had enrolled in a medical course. “Had the train not been available, we might not have taken admission in Anantnag,” Saiqa said.

The train has cut down both journey time and cost. “It would take two hours from Banihal to Anantnag. Now it takes just 45 minutes. The taxi would cost Rs 180 for a return journey. By train, it comes to just Rs 20.”

“And in the winter, the road often closes due to snow,” added a young man listening to our conversation.

By boring Asia’s third-longest tunnel through the Pir Panjal range, the Indian Railways has ensured that Kashmir would remain connected with the Jammu region and the rest of India all year round, come rain or snow.

On the inaugural run of the train, The Hindu reported, Sonia Gandhi expressed the hope that the rail link would improve trade and tourism.

She chose her words carefully, but a retired army general, Afsar Karim, speaking with Mint, gave a more instrumental view of the train. “The people of Kashmir have been feeling deprived for years,” he said. “The more facilities you provide, the more it will help link them to the rest of India.”

Not everyone agreed. “If the government thinks the train would integrate Kashmir with India,” an activist in Banihal told me, “it is living in false hope. The train would only integrate Kashmiris further against India.”

The train’s inauguration had prompted cautious words from chief minister Omar Abdullah: “Kashmir is not simply an economic problem. It is essentially a political problem that needs a political solution.”


At Anantnag, the train grew heavy with passengers. Four people squeezed into chairs for three. The young man seated next to me was an electrician travelling to his office in Srinagar. “I work for the central excise department,” he said. “Gine chune factory hai. Only a handful of factories in Kashmir. Twenty-five of them produce enough output to come under our jurisdiction. But there is a lot of trade that the department needs to monitor.”

As the office electrician, his job included the task of keeping the office computers safe from the valley's power fluctuations.

He had found the job through a newspaper advertisement. “Since it was a central government office, they were not satisfied with just looking at certificates. They wanted me to repair a fan from the era of Maharaja Hari Singh,” he laughed, remembering his interview. His neat clothes got soiled but he came out with flying colours.

Getting the job within a year of completing his electrician training course was a stroke of good luck. “Unemployment rates are very high,” he said. He had completed about five years at the job.

How old was he, I asked.


How come he started his first job past the age of 30, I asked, and instantly regretted my question.

Those who grew up in the turmoil-hit Kashmir of the 1990s were out of school as much as they were in it. After he passed school, the young man told me, his parents did not allow him to go to college for many years. They wanted to hold him safe and close, and confined him to looking after the family's orchards. It would take them many years to let him go to the city for study and work. If there was a trace of anger in his mellow voice, it was hard to spot.

As the train sped past the spread of yellow mustard at the foot of grey mountains outlined against a startlingly blue sky, he pointed at the chinars that had fallen to a harsh winter, and the almond and apple trees waiting to blossom. “This is nothing,” he said. “You must see the rest of Kashmir.”

The conversation turned to the elections. I asked the names of the candidates contesting from Anantnag.

He struggled to remember them but eventually did: Mehboob Beg of the National Conference and Mehbooba Mufti of the People’s Democratic Party.

He didn’t seem to have much interest in politics, I remarked.

Elections don't mean much, he said.”Yeh logon ko bewakoof banate hai. The politicians fool people. The foundation of a bridge was laid in my village four years ago. It has still not been built.”

Does he vote, I asked.

“Agar koi banda hoga jo awaam ki khidmat karega. If there is a candidate who would serve the people,” he said.

We could be discussing politics anywhere in the world.

The train had stopped at yet another station. People were struggling to get in. Policemen were walking up and down the platform, waving their batons, gesturing to people in the aisles that they needed to move forward. “There is space inside the bogeys,” an announcer was saying. “We request passengers to move forward. Please do not jam the doors.” With people dangling from the doors, they would not close. The train was stuck.

“There are more crowds today because there was a strike yesterday and people were not able to travel,” explained the man.

The separatists had called the strike as part of their call for the boycott of elections.

“No one is forced to boycott elections,” the man explained, as the train finally began to pull out. “Those who want to vote are free to step out… But usually only those who are connected to the politician in some way or the other and are expecting doosri taraf se help [personal favours] are the ones who vote.”

Voter turnouts in Kashmir have been low ever since the state assembly elections in 1987 were allegedly rigged. In 1984, 68% of voters in Kashmir came out to vote. Two decades later, in the elections of 2004, voting percentages in the three constituencies of Kashmir had sunk: 16% in Anantnag, 19% in Srinagar and 36% in Baramulla.

Not only are voter turnouts in the valley low, fewer people enrol as voters. As a report of the Election Commission outlines, while the expected electoral population ratio—the ratio of people of voting age in the general population—is 62% in Srinagar, the actual electoral population ratio is just 46%. In effect, this means that the actual voter participation is even lower than what the turnout figures suggest.

So far, in the ongoing Lok Sabha elections, two constituencies of Kashmir have gone to the polls. Anantnag saw a 28% voter turnout, while Srinagar saw 26%. A 24-year-old man, Bashir Ahmad Bhat, pelted stones on voting day and was shot dead by the Central Reserve Police Force.

That morning on the train, a week before Srinagar went to polls, it took a reference to the stone pelting that had been taking place in the run-up to polls for the young man who cared little for politics to turn political. “People pelt stones only when zyaati [oppression] gets out of hand,” he said, keeping his voice steady and gentle. “Our mothers and sisters are assaulted by army men. Not a single house has been spared. There are seven lakh [700,000] soldiers stationed in the state. Koi na koi to galti karega. Not everyone can be a farishta [angel].”

While it was hard to find any official document of the government confirming the presence of seven lakh soldiers on the ground, the Election Commission report states that personnel of the armed forces and paramilitary forces make up 3.3% of the state's population, which would mean more than four lakh troops.

Puraaana gairat aa jaata hai, zayada zyaati hoti hai phir sadak par utar jaate hai, humein azaadi chahiye, na India na Pakistan; humein apne haal pe chod do. When there is injustice, people’s sense of honour is awakened. They come out on the streets and say we want independence, we don’t want to be with either India or Pakistan; please leave us alone.” The young man's voice was still steady.

What did he want, I asked him.”Kashmir azad rahe albatta jo business hai India ke saath kare. That Kashmir remains independent while doing business with India. We could sign an ilhaq [agreement] with India that it would be our main trading partner.”

Whatever the view in Delhi, for people in Kashmir, political freedom and economic security are not mutually exclusive categories.

As the train approached Srinagar, we looked up to see the dense mass of bodies bunched up in the aisles, and I found myself speaking aloud: “Why doesn’t the government start more trains?” Only three train services are available between Banihal to Baramulla every day.

“People have been asking for more services. There have even been some protests,” the young man said, adding a parting shot laced with laughter, “Maybe the government wants to keep Kashmiris busy protesting.”

As he got off the train, he broke into a brisk run. So did the others. Even the women. The commuter in Mumbai would be out-paced by her Srinagar counterpart.

“Why is everyone running?” I asked a fellow passenger.

“To grab a seat on the buses, of which there aren’t too many,” came the reply.

Maybe the government actually wants to keep Kashmiris too busy to come out to protest.

Soon, I realised that I had to run too. The train had abruptly terminated at Srinagar. An announcement was being made. Passengers to Baramulla were being asked to switch to another train.


This time, I was the fourth person to squeeze into a seat for three. A middle-aged man dressed in a bottle green pullover and denims was kind enough to make space for me.

He could be a journalist, the way he asked questions. After I finished explaining that I was a reporter visiting Kashmir to cover elections, I took the chance to ask him: “Do you vote?”

“Ji nahi. Sachh bolenge. Jhooth nahi. No, I don’t. No point lying.

Why not, I asked. “Kyunki koi fayada nahi?”

“Nafa nuksaan ki baat nahi hai. It is not about cost and benefit. Yahan ki government Dilli waale chalaate hai. The government here is run by Delhi. Our leaders are useless people. They don’t even speak up. Ab dekh lijeye Mamata Banerjee ko. Now look at Mamata Banerjee. Aurat hote hue bhi bahut kuch kiya hai. She has done a lot even though she is a woman.”

The oddity of the Trinamool Congress leader cropping up in a conversation in Kashmir was explained by the fact that the man was a handicrafts trader who set up shop in Siliguri in the foothills of West Bengal for five months every year.

“Yahan se achcha wahin lagta hai. Sach. Kasam se. Bekhauf hai. It is much better to live there. There is no fear. Here, when turmoil takes place, even an innocent man could get caught for no reason. Without sukun [peace], even home is no good.”

Why did he choose West Bengal of all the states in India, I asked him.

“During peak of militancy, there was only one man…kya naam tha uska…Jyoti Basu, chief minister of Bengal, who said we welcome Kashmiris and no one would harm them. In other states, we were viewed with suspicion.”

Then, to display his knowledge of Bengali, he said,”Ami apna dar juni khoob bhalu hi karbo. The politicians in Bengal assured our people that we would stand you in good stead.”

It was his turn to ask a question: “What do you think of Kashmir and its people?”

He heard out my effusive praise and then asked another one:”To phir aap bahar mein yeh kyun nahi bolte? Then why don’t you speak up for us outside?”

“A hundred thousand tourists come here and praise us at the time of leaving. Kashmiri log bahut simple hai, bahut achche hai, mizaz ke hai, milansaar hai. But once they are home, they forget us. Agar India hum logon ko bolta hai Kashmiri humare hai, chaliye do minute ke liye maan lein. Let’s believe for a moment that we are a part of India, then why don’t fellow Indians speak up when we are tortured?

“A man is shot dead here. They set up a bench. An enquiry takes place but nothing happens. There’s been no justice in most cases. Ab aap hi bataiye vote dena hum logon ke liye theek hai? Please tell us, do you think it would be right for us to cast votes?”

At this point, a young man, a student of agricultural science, seated next to us, who had been carefully following the conversation, decided to join in. “Some people vote because a government is needed to run the day-to-day administration in the state,” he said. “A government would be formed anyway, even if we don’t vote. So we might as well vote and exercise some choice.” That could perhaps explain why there is greater participation of people in the village panchayat and state assembly level elections. People feel more invested in elections that would impact local governance. “People vote for improving their lives. It does not mean they support India, as the government goes proclaiming around the world.”

For the student, it was the first time he had the choice to vote. He was still making up his mind on whether he should. “If I vote, I would go for the Aam Aadmi Party,” he said.”Wo party janata ke baare mein soochti hai.” The leading candidate from his constituency, Srinagar, was Farooq Abdullah, the leader of the National Conference. “Most people don’t like him,” claimed the student. Then how does he keeping winning elections, I asked. “Because most people don’t vote.” At this, his classmate and friend, a young girl, the fourth person on our seat, who had been gazing out of the window all the while, seemingly indifferent to the conversation, turned around and burst out laughing. The train pulled into the station. And the conundrum remained unresolved.

Post-script: For the first time ever, five-time Member of Parliament Farooq Abdullah lost the elections.

25. A New Road

Srinagar, Kashmir
April 22, 2014

The auto-rickshaw driver did not believe in mincing words. “Why should I vote when my vote has no value?” he said, as he drove me around the lanes of downtown Srinagar.

Abdul Rashid was 52 years old. The only time he had voted was as a young man in 1987. “It was a waste,” he recalled. “Delhi overturned our vote and installed a puppet government.” The tumult over that election marked the beginning of militancy in Kashmir.

While he had no interest in voting, Rashid had strong views on who should form the government in Delhi.

“People here want Modi sarkar in Delhi. Yahan siyasi tabdeeli ho jayegi. Kashmir's politics would change.”

How precisely, I asked.

“The India parties National Conference and Congress have been claiming that no one can touch Article 370. They are fooling people. They are the ones who have hollowed out Article 370. Now if Modi comes, he would end it.”

Article 370 of the Indian constitution gives autonomy to Jammu and Kashmir to frame its own laws. New Delhi's powers are limited to defence, foreign affairs, currency and communications. But Kashmiris say the situation on the ground is starkly different. Over the years, popularly elected governments in the state have been overthrown, resolutions passed in the state assembly have been ignored, Indian troops have flooded the valley, leading many in Kashmir to believe that Article 370 is nothing but the fig leaf for an armed occupation.

In India, parties like the Bharatiya Janata Party hold a diametrically opposite view. As the party's manifesto in 2009 said: “Article 370 poses a psychological barrier for the full integration of the people of Jammu & Kashmir with the national mainstream. The BJP remains committed to the abrogation of this Article.”

If Modi scraps Article 370, what would be the response in Kashmir, I asked the auto-rickshaw driver.

“It would make people come out on the streets.”

“How would that help?”

Yahan haalat kharab ho jayenge. The situation here will deteriorate.”

“How is that good?”

Koi na koi rasta nikal jayega. Kashmir masla hal ho jayega. A new road would open up. The Kashmir question would be solved.”

This was not a stray view. From shopkeepers to hoteliers, students to office-goers, many on the streets of Srinagar seem to believe that a BJP government would have more to deliver to Kashmir. Invoking Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the BJP leader and former prime minister, hotelier Nasir Ahmed said, “Vajpayee opened the road for trade with Pakistan. Wo to bechaare Agra mein Kashmir masla hal kar lete. He would have settled the Kashmir question in Agra [in the summit with Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf] but vested interests came in the way.”

“What people in Kashmir seem to have forgotten is that Vajpayee's government introduced POTA [the Prevention of Terrorism Act], which was used against them. It gave more incentives for extra-judicial killings. The number of encounters picked up those years,” said Khurram Pervez, a lawyer who has been at the forefront of documenting human rights violations in the valley as the convenor of Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society.

These are not issues that the NC, the party in power in the state, is raising in its attacks on the BJP in this election. This is perhaps because it was a partner in the Vajpayee government. Instead, for weeks now, its leaders have been focusing on Narendra Modi's record in Gujarat, accusing the main opposition party in the state, the People's Democratic Party, of being in secret alliance with the BJP.

Such attacks, however, seem to have more resonance in Jammu region, where voters are polarised along religious lines, and not much in Srinagar, where politics revolves around the question of self-determination for Kashmir.

NC leader Farooq Abdullah's remarks about the Gujarat chief minister might have made headlines in the rest of India, but in Kashmir, the most significant reference to Narendra Modi came from Syed Shah Geelani, the leader of the separatist Tehreek-e-Hurriyat, part of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference.

Speaking with reporters, Geelani said Modi had sent two emissaries to meet him and other Kashmiri separatist leaders. He turned them away, he said, because of “Modi’s role as chief minister during the 2002 Gujarat communal riots”. But the other leaders, he claimed, were favourably inclined towards the BJP. This was seen as a reference to Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, another APHC leader, who immediately issued a denial, as did the BJP in New Delhi.

“Fundamentally, this is an issue of supremacy,” said a senior journalist who did not wish to be identified. “Geelani wanted to show that he is open while others are not. This is classic internal bickering within the resistance camp. Many are upset that if Geelani sahab wanted to talk about Modi's emissaries, he could have talked about his meeting with them; why did he have to talk about the others? This could lead to fratricidal killings, which have taken place in the past.”

And then, in an evocative turn of phrase, he added,”Begaani shaadi mein Abdullah diwaana. [At a stranger’s wedding, Abdullah is going crazy]. Modi has not yet been elected in India and he has already started rattling Kashmir.”

26. Life on the Border

Srinagar, Kashmir
April 23, 2014

“This is India’s last village. Jaise Kanyakumari, waise Gwalta.”

High up in the mountains of Kashmir, along an invisible Line of Control, lies the village of Gwalta, where 700 people live in scattered homes built of stone and cement.

Navigating the steep, broken road to the village is less painful than getting the thin strip of paper required to travel to the highly militarised area.

Called a temporary route permit, it must bear the traveller's photograph, and the stamp and signature of the police officer stationed in the town of Uri.

I was lucky. I ran into a panch of Gwalta, a member of the village council, when I visited the town a few days ago. The combined clout of a people’s representative and my status as a journalist meant that the policemen not only processed a TRP in no time, they even inverted the natural order of hospitality.

“Unhone humein chai pilaiyi. They offered us tea,” Imtayaz Ahmad Abassi, the panch, a young man in his twenties, said with some emphasis. Last year, he had sought TRPs for the construction workers that he needed to take to the village to build a school. “The clerk at the police station was new. He did not recognise me. Bola chai pillao. Maine kahaa theek hai yaar jaldi banao TRP. He asked for tea. I said fine, make the TRPs.” The panch ended up paying Rs 500 for permits for 20 workers.

When weddings take place in the village, the price of TRPs goes up.”Aapke yahan shaadi ho rahi humein party khilao. ‘There is a wedding in your family, give us a party,’ they say. For every guest at the wedding, the policemen take Rs 50 each.”

There were no permits required to travel to the villages along the international border in Kathua, the district in Jammu region that I visited on April 17, the day the area went to polls.

Unlike Kashmir, when the LoC zigzagged through mountainous reaches, here, the border passed through gently undulating flatlands currently ripe with wheat.

But the roads were as bad and gravelly.

“See the condition of the road. Yeh hai border area ka haal,” said Bharat Bhushan, the taxi driver who was taking me around. He was taking me to Chak Changa, a village within a mile of the border, where his relatives lived.

On the way, we stopped at a polling booth and ran into Purshottam Das, the president of the district border union, an old man with a gaunt face.

“There are only problems in the border area and nothing else,” he said. “Farmers’ land has been lost to the fence. Kabhi firing ho rahi hai, kabhi kuch ho raha hai. Firing keeps happening. People have to constantly run.” Others at the booth complained about the lack of good educational institutions. Many alleged that they were being denied the job reservations that were being given to people living on the LoC in Kashmir. In the run-up to elections, candidates of both the Indian National Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party have promised to work on extending reservation benefits in army and paramilitary jobs to the people of the border areas.

At Chak Changa village, Bhushan’s uncle, Parmananda Sharma, had just come back from casting his vote.

“I gave it to Congress,” he said.

“Don’t lie,” said Bhushan. “Everyone here is voting for BJP.”

“Even if I voted for BJP, no one would believe I did,” he said, with a laugh, explaining that he was closely associated with a local Congress leader.

Born in 1943, the old man’s memories of India’s Independence were foggy but for the sight of fields lit up at night in the incandescent glow of exploding bombs. He also remembered that the village was evacuated and people were taken to the town of Kathua. There was no time to pack. “All we could take was our bodies,” he said.”Sirf apna sharir le ke gaye the.”

The villagers returned home a couple of years later but fled each time hostilities broke out between India and Pakistan. “Evacuation happened four to five times. In 1965, 1971, 1986, 1999,” he recounted. The first two saw full-scale wars between India and Pakistan. In 1999, there was a limited but high-intensity war in the mountains of Kargil. In 1986, as I read up later, India had launched Operation Brasstacks. Unknown outside strategic circles, it was positioned by the government as a military exercise involving the mobilisation of Indian troops along the Rajasthan border, but as the accounts of villagers show, its impact had been felt more widely.

Even when the two countries were not at war, an exchange of fire on the border is commonplace.

“A shell landed right here,” said the old man. It was the summer of 2002. Sharma and his wife were alone at home, seated in the courtyard, when a blast shook their home and cracked up its walls. Both were rushed to the hospital with shrapnel injuries. They spent Rs 60,000 over the next few days. If the government released any compensation, it did not reach them. The shrapnel will never be removed. “The doctor said if we try to dig out the pieces, they would go deeper and would enter the blood stream,” he said. “They said they would try to dissolve them through medicines. But the medicines cost Rs 2,000 to Rs 3,000 a week.” Since the old couple cannot afford the medicines, the tiny metal pieces have remained lodged under their skin. Sharma lifted his shirt and his wife extended her arms to show me the barely visible mounds that they said flared up and ached in the summer when it got too hot.

Shelling has become infrequent since 2003, the year India and Pakistan agreed on a ceasefire.

But what continues to bother the old man is that the tangle of barbed wire that passes right through his fields. It is the electric fence built by the Border Security Force to secure the international border. It has been placed a few hundred metres away from the border.

“Humari zameen bahut gharab hui ha,” says Sharma. “A lot of our land has gone waste.”

Of the 40 acres of land owned by the family, roughly half lies between the fence and the border. For some years, the family was not able to cultivate that portion of land. Now, BSF guards keep watch as they work in the fields at the time of sowing and harvest. A security officer said that the fence was placed at a distance from the border to allow them to patrol and “dominate” the area.

“Taar ugarwad rukne ke liye tha. If the purpose of the fence was to stop infiltration, it has failed,” said Sharma, referring to recent episodes of terror attacks in Kathua.

Sharma says he would prefer a wall in place of the fence. “At least it would stop the bullets. Diwaar goli to rook sakti hai. At least a wall can stop the bullets.

A wall running the length of the border might sound like an old man’s crazy idea.

But it is, in fact, a serious proposal mooted by the BSF, which wants to build a 10-metre-high wall running along 175 km of the India-Pakistan border.

If the proposal is cleared, Sharma might altogether lose his land—a prospect that he has not considered.

Before Independence, part of the family’s land was cultivated by Muslim sharecroppers who lived in a village, which is now on the other side of the border.

“They used to visit our homes. Humara aana jaana chalta tha,” said Sharma, recalling what he had heard from his father.

He still runs into them sometimes when he works in the fields. “Their land is right next to ours.”

Do they end up talking?

“Only when the soldiers are not watching,” said Sharma. “They used to ask, aapke baba ji kaise hai [how is your grandfather]?”

Sharma grew up with stories of the pre-Partition days. Many of his relatives talked about the land and homes they had left behind in Pakistan when they crossed over to India.

In 1971, when Indian troops managed to capture Pakistani territory, and civilians began marching with triumphant soldiers, curiosity got the better of Sharma. He crossed the border to see what the land on the other side was like. He was relieved to see it was not better than India. “Their fields and homes were similar to ours. But the roads—athaarah km tak road ka nishaan hi nahi tha [there wasn’t a trace of roads for 18 km].”

 “Even if you give me Rs 10,000, I won't drive on this road again,” declared the taxi driver in disgust, on the way to Gwalta in the mountains of Uri in Kashmir.

As we neared the village, the road got bumpier, but Imtayaz Ahmad Abassi, the young panch, a handsome man with a thick mop of hair, grew progressively more relaxed.

“You were asking me why the people of Uri take part in politics and elections,” he said, leaning back over the front seat, referring to an earlier conversation that had taken place in a restaurant in the town. Over mutton and rice, customers had been debating with the restaurant owner the relative merits of the candidates in the fray from Baramulla, the Lok Sabha constituency of which Uri was a part. At the end of an animated conversation, consensus emerged that the National Conference leader and sitting Member of Parliament, Sharif-ud-din-Shariq, was in danger of losing the seat to Muzzafar Baig, the People’s Democratic Party candidate, a local Member of Legislative Assembly who had contested and lost five parliamentary elections.

The sense of involvement among voters was in marked contrast with the rest of Kashmir. Uri reports the highest voter turnouts in the region.

A student activist, who was travelling with me from Baramulla, claimed it was because of the heavy military presence, which forced voters to fall in line.

A security officer in Uri claimed it was because the ethnic composition in the rural mountainous pockets was different from the valley.

“The people here are Pahadis. They don't even speak Kashmiri. They feel closer to the Indian mainstream,” he said. “Almost every home has someone in the armed and paramilitary forces.”

Abassi’s personal narrative revealed greater complexity.

When he was one year old, his father, who was in the central paramilitary forces, died on duty while posted in Assam.

His chacha (uncle) crossed over to Pakistan-controlled Kashmir. He doesn’t know why—it happened before he was born.

In the early nineties, at the peak of the militancy, his maternal uncle was forced to do patrolling by the army. “The soldiers would land up at home and drag men out. Those who refused to do duty were beaten up,” Abassi said.

Another uncle was picked up by the army and he never came back. “It is believed he was killed and his body was disposed of.”

In this volatile atmosphere, when he came of age, Abassi decided to turn down the Central Reserve Police Force job he was offered in place of his dead father, choosing instead to join politics. “Being in politics insulates you from many things,” he said. “The army brigadier knows you. The police superintendent knows you. The district commissioner knows you.”

But even a political job cannot protect you from the firing from across the LoC. As a child, Abassi had barely survived a round of shelling. “My mother woke me up in the middle of the night and we took refuge under a rock,” he said. Two girls in the village were killed in the fire in 2002, before the ceasefire between India and Pakistan came under operation.

We sat talking over tea and cake at his home after a strenuous trek up the stairs carved into the mountain-face which was clouded in a drizzle that afternoon. Abassi's mama dropped by and conversation turned to the elections. “We don’t want to elect someone jo Srinagar aur Dilli mein baith jaaye aur yahan ke logon ko pooche nahi,” he said, indicating his disapproval of the sitting MP, who, according to people, did not visit the constituency after getting elected.

A few moments later, his son appeared and joined the baithak. He turned out to be a soldier of the Indian Army, dressed in a tracksuit with the insignia of the Jammu and Kashmir Light Infantry.

I asked him about the anger among Kashmir's people over the conduct of the soldiers. “Since you belong to both Kashmir and the army, I would like to get a perspective from you.”

“It is true that the civilian population does not like the Indian Army,” he said. “They want freedom to do what they want but Hindustan does not approve of this. It is our duty to stop them from wrongdoing and to show them the right path.”

This provoked the student activist who was accompanying me. He began to recount the instances of beatings and killings by the army.

“The army only acts when the limit is breached, sar se paani upar chala jaata hai, the soldier responded. “The fabric used to make our uniforms is widely available in the market. Anyone can buy it and impersonate us. Fauj badnaam ho jaati hai. The army is falsely maligned.”

“But there are so many instances when the army has had to accept that its men killed people in cold blood. Ab Machil fake encounter le lijeye, take the Machil fake encounter,” countered the activist, referring to an incident which took place in the summer of 2010. Soldiers shot dead three young men from Baramulla and claimed they were Pakistani infiltrators. Last December, the Army ordered the court martial of six soldiers, including two officers.

But Abassi's cousin, the soldier, was unmoved. He claimed that most of the charges against the army were fabricated. “Maan lo Indian Army ne kissi bande ko utha liya. Suppose the army picks someone up. He is dropped home after interrogation. Within moments, a militant group comes and takes him away. And the village goes and files an FIR [First Information Report] against the army.”

“Can you cite a single documented instance of this?” said the activist.

No one had raised a voice, and yet the argument had turned fractious. I turned to the soldier’s father, Abassi’s uncle. “Aap buzurg hai. You are the oldest in this room. You tell me what is the truth?”

“It is the job of the army to view people with suspicion,” he said. “They round up men in the village and take away four to five people. When they do not come back, the families go to the police station and file FIRs. The army is ordered to produce the people. But it plainly denies that it took them away. Uske baad kya zulm ho sakta hai Kashmir mein batao, sister. What could be worse than this form of torture? Upar waale ke saamne sach bolna chahiye. One should speak the truth in the presence of the almighty.”

The old man’s son, the soldier, who had been listening quietly, with visible strain building up on his face, offered one final defence: “Sometimes there are situations which force you to act a certain way. When you lose one of your men—doesn’t matter where he comes from—uske saath aapka chaubees ghante ka concern hai, you hang out together all day. Aapke saamne uski jaan nikal jaaye aap kitna bardast karoge. How would you take it when you see him die?”

The activist lost no time to reply: “Aapka kaam hai civilian ki hifazat karna. It is your job to protect civilians.”

Abassi, however, had an altogether different take on the relations between civilians and the army. A few years ago, eager to meet the uncle he had heard about but had never seen, Abassi got a passport and crossed over to Pakistan-controlled Kashmir. He found that people there lived in better homes—the remittances sent by young men working abroad had pushed up the standard of living—but he also noticed that they lived in greater fear.

“While walking around town, if a security post appeared, people would take great pain to avoid it,” he said. “They would take a longer route but not walk past the post.”

Like Sharma, the old farmer in Kathua, Abassi found comfort in the knowledge that life on the other side of the fence was no better than his.

It is tempting to consider what might follow if the people of Jammu and the people of Kashmir were to cross the invisible borders within.


The rickshaw puller in Kishanganj has hopefully managed to acquaint himself with the man who is India's new prime minister. Narendra Modi has led the Bharatiya Janata Party to its first-ever majority in the Lok Sabha. Whatever else might have underwritten the victoryaspiration, polarisation, inflation, anti-incumbency, youth votersit might not have had the same force in the absence of Modi's ubiquity.

Charming as the old rickshaw puller was, he was an aberration. Nearly everyone I met on the journey had heard of Modiwhether it was Adivasis in Bengal’s tea gardens, women in Bihar’s brothels, Dalits in Uttar Pradesh’s slums, shikarawallahs in Kashmir. More often than not, people spoke of him as the man they were watching on TV, the leader who had reportedly worked wonders in Gujarat, and who was on his way to Delhi. 

It was the train from Bihar to Gujarat that carried the most political insights. Everyone in the compartment, regardless of which caste they belonged to, showed great enthusiasm for Modi. Isolated in the crush of Modi supporters was a young Muslim man, who held the same aspirations for a better life that the others did, but in his case, they were clouded by fear. Would his fears lessen or deepen in the course of the next few years?

The poor migrant workers were better prognosticators of the election results than the rich Marwari trader. And that should not be surprising. The poor hold the bulk of votes in India even though it is overwhelmingly the rich who enter Parliament. The average wealth of the members of the new Lok Sabha is 500 times the average wealth of an Indian citizen. People know that the rich come begging for their votes so that they can go back to make more money. Why then do the poor in India vote?

Of the many answers that people gave me on the journey, the one that stayed with me the most came from a woman I met in a village in Gonda in UP.

“I think of my vote as charity and give it away,” she said. Now nearing 50, Shanti was a young teenage bride in 1982. She had not yet spent a week in the company of her husband when policemen dragged him out of their house in the dead of the night to the damp grounds next to the village pond where they shot him in cold blood. Twelve men of the village in UP became collateral in a case of rivalry between two factions of the police. A junior police officer, seeking to settle scores with his senior, fabricated the news of a criminal hideout in the village. Once there, he killed the senior police officer and decided to cover-up by staging an encounter with alleged criminals.

Last year, after 31 years, the courts pronounced the policemen guilty of murder. For the villagers, it was unexpected justice. They had not fought the case. The family of the senior police officer had. They had simply resigned themselves to tiding over another stroke of misfortune.

For a majority of its citizens, the Indian state is not a welfare state as much as it is a predatory one. The widow could spite the state by not voting. But she is spiting it better by giving it her charitydaan as she called it. It later struck me that the Hindi word for vote is matdaan, a conjugation of mat, which means opinion, and daan that stands for offerings or alms. Once more in India, the poor have given alms to the rich. 

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