Cover Story en Sun Nov 20 12:24:51 IST 2022 bollywood-actor-vicky-kaushal-films-impactful-roles-family <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Close to 90 minutes into <i>Sam Bahadur</i>, which released last December, Field Marshal Manekshaw (a masterly Vicky Kaushal) sits down for an interview with a woman journalist in Kashmir. It is July 1969, and he has just been made Army chief. The lady asks him why the busy man was in Kashmir and not Delhi; was war imminent? “Oh no sweetie! I keep meeting my jawans very often. I feel alive around them,” he replies. The journalist, taken aback, asks if he addresses everyone that way, because she felt he was flirting with her. And then, in his trademark style, Manekshaw bends forward, giving her his full attention, his light eyes twinkling with humour and head slightly tilted sideways, and says, “Sweetie, had I been flirting with you, then be sure this interview would have gone much longer.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It is one of the most impressive eight seconds of film acting in recent history―with a few words and loads of charm, an actor pulls you into his character’s world. So close is the portrayal, in terms of both body language and disposition, that one could easily believe this was Manekshaw himself.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It might seem unusual to say, especially as the actor already has a national award on his shelf, but this role was Kaushal’s career-defining moment. To get it right, he had to go beyond the field marshal’s light eyes and bushy moustache. “Vicky internalised the slouch and the hunch around the shoulders so well, despite being taller than Sam,” says Bhavani Iyer, the scriptwriter who worked with Kaushal on <i>Raazi</i> and <i>Sam Bahadur</i>. “And once, when he was on a break and needed to complete a dance sequence for another film, the dance director told him, ‘Sir, if you can please straighten your shoulders’; Vicky was still in Sam mode.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>As we begin talking about <i>Sam Bahadur</i>, Kaushal immediately recalls THE WEEK’s 2021 cover story on the untold stories of the field marshal. “My focus was so much on getting his confidence and charisma right, that his quirks were overshadowed and could not be a part of the film,” he says. “But I am confident I have seen every image of the field marshal on the internet, in books and elsewhere.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>He sifted through hundred of photos of Manekshaw walking, sitting and speaking to derive a pattern, but most of the body language, wit and swagger came to Kaushal through Maya―the field marshal’s daughter―whom the actor describes as “Manekshaw in motion”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Period films and biopics have long been fodder for box-office success, and also offer an alluring challenge to actors. Kaushal, in that regard, is becoming quite the craftsman. While for Sam he had photos and keen-to-help family members, this was not the case with Shoojit Sircar’s <i>Sardar Udham</i> (2021). There, understanding the emotional path was more crucial than getting the body language right. Kaushal dove deep into his conscience to bring to the fore the revolutionary’s trauma at having witnessed the barbaric Jallianwala Bagh massacre, and his fight for revenge. The essence of Udham had to be captured; his gait and other physical traits could be imagined into existence.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“Playing Sam was way tougher than anything I have done before,” he says. “People think it is easy when you have reference, but it is not; it is actually a double-edged sword because then you can compare and see by how much you have missed the mark.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In <i>Sardar Udham</i> and Sam, the characters are decades apart and in both he wears patriotism on his sleeve without resorting to chest thumping and jingoism, and ages convincingly in both. Yet, there is a world of difference and one will never be able to say that he is repeating himself.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Now, with two successful biopics in his rear-view mirror―<i>Sardar Udham</i> bagged five national awards and <i>Sam Bahadur</i> made north of Rs100 crore worldwide―Kaushal is now driving towards another: he will play Chhatrapati Sambhaji Maharaj, the son of Shivaji, in a movie directed by Laxman Utekar, with whom he has worked in the hit romantic-comedy <i>Zara Hatke Zara Bachke</i>.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“His personality, like his height and physique, matches that of Chhatrapati Sambhaji Maharaj,” Utekar had said in an interview. “He is also a fabulous performer. We did not do any look test as I was sure he was the one. He will train for four months in sword fighting, horse riding and a few other things. And once we are satisfied, we will start shooting.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It is during this transition into Sambhaji, a thick, flowing beard in place, that we meet Kaushal at his spacious Juhu home. He is candid, chatty, warm and friendly. Dressed in a ganji and track pants, he is seated at a huge wooden table that shines with mahogany polish and provides a sharp contrast to the otherwise minimalistic decor in cream and white. “You cannot not be a part of fabulous stories,” he says about picking biopics, a mug of black coffee in hand. “It gives me a kick. Even I am trying to figure out what stimulates me. But as of now, I know that this is it. The day I feel like I am getting stereotyped, I will consciously think of that.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Though he has found some success at the box office, Kaushal is still very much an actor and not yet a star. He says so himself. But those around him insist that it would be good to not bracket him into the “limited, restrictive and constricted notions” of stardom. “Vicky is an actor. You could call him a character actor, a method actor or whichever terminology suits you,” says Iyer. “The fact that he can easily slip into any character’s shoes with dignity is because of his ability to surrender himself to the role and to the director’s vision. He will never hijack a scene from a co-actor. A lot of the cues of the performance come from him in an instinctive manner and he wears his incredible talent and hard work lightly. He does not come on the sets with any baggage.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Iyer would know, having seen him on two sets a few years apart. She recalls a table read for <i>Raazi</i>, in which Kaushal barely had any dialogues. So, when the other actors read out their lines, he would chime in with, “Iqbal looks on thoughtfully”, “Iqbal reacts considerately” etc. The character of a Pakistani army man―who was the husband of the Indian spy Sehmat (Alia Bhatt)―went on to be appreciated for his balanced portrayal. He was a poet in military uniform, and Kaushal brought a sense of decency and humanity to the part. “I do not think anyone else could have pulled it off,” says Iyer. Following the release of <i>Raazi</i>, Iyer promised to give him more ‘talk time’. With <i>Sam Bahadur</i>, she kept her promise. “After he read the script of <i>Sam Bahadur</i>, he texted me, saying, “You have gone to the other extreme now. Sam has most of the lines in the film.’”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Perhaps this was a reward for never saying no to any work, however small, when he was breaking in. And even in those short roles, he gives the viewer something concrete, like in the latest <i>Dunki</i>, where he plays a man learning English so that he can get a visa to fly to his lover in UK. It was a heart-breaking role that ultimately stood out more than any other in the star-driven movie.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“This journey of starting with art house and then transitioning into commercial is not by choice,” says Kaushal, throwing his hands up in the air. “Those were the only options I had. It is not that I had a <i>Singham </i>or<i> Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani</i> and I chose <i>Masaan</i> (his first film).”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>His journey into films began as an assistant director on the sets of Anurag Kashyap’s <i>Gangs of Wasseypur</i>. At the time, his father, action director Sham Kaushal, was working with Kashyap and knew that there were several ADs on set. “I phoned Anurag Kashyap requesting him to let Vicky join as an assistant,” says the senior Kaushal. His son had just completed his studies and an acting course. “That was the turning point in his life,” says the father. “Kashyap became his first mentor and by the time the film was getting over, he was assigning Vicky some very good responsibilities.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Shlok Sharma, the second unit director on <i>Gangs</i> and a longtime friend of Kaushal, says, “At the time, Vicky was this tall and thin boy who would serve us <i>aloo parathas</i> with white butter in the modest Kaushal household. If you were visiting the Kaushals, it was a given that they would not let you leave without having some of their yummy <i>parathas</i>.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Recalling those days, Sharma adds, “I remember Vicky would always travel by bus, despite being relatively well-off, and we would travel by rickshaw. As a trainee AD, he was very hardworking and a director’s dream. [People] would fight to have Vicky in their team because he would do everything. We did not expect this from him as he was the son of a known stunt director.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>After that stint, other AD offers kept coming in, but Kaushal knew his calling was in front of the camera. So, when Kashyap was making a short film, <i>Murabba</i>, with Amitabh Bachchan, Kaushal refused to join him as an AD. “It really hurt me,” says Sharma, who was with the second unit of the film. “He was so clear that he did not mind staying without work, although he was doing theatre then.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The next phase was hard. Word had spread in Aram Nagar―the hotbed for parallel cinema in Mumbai―that Kaushal was a good AD. “But I did not want to do that because I knew I would be pulled into direction and then when I would ask them to give me a role as an actor, they would not trust me,” says Kaushal. He left Aram Nagar and started doing theatre with groups such as Motley, Aranya and Rage Productions, where he worked with stalwarts such as Naseeruddin Shah and Kumud Mishra. “There are actors who perform in a vacuum, who concentrate on their own scenes and moments,” says Mishra, who worked with Kaushal in the film <i>The Great Indian Family</i>. “But an ideal actor is the one who is giving. When Vicky works with any actor, he gives not because he is doing a favour, but because it is his personality. And his process of getting into the character is very internal.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The first time Kaushal faced the camera for a full-length feature film was for a small role in <i>Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana</i> in 2012. “I remember I was shooting outdoors and Vicky called me saying, ‘Papa, I have got this film where I play the younger version of Kunal Kapoor, but I am in two minds’,” says the father. “I told him to sit in front of the temple at home and pray earnestly, and then do whatever came to his mind instinctively. After five minutes, he called to say that he would do it. I asked him to follow his heart.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>He, too, had followed his heart. The Kaushals came to Bombay from a small town in Punjab, with dreams of making it big. Bollywood happened and the rest is, well, filmy. “I made my own way in Bollywood and encouraged them (sons Vicky and Sunny) to do so, as well,” he says.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Did having an action-director father help the son land any roles? “Will someone bet Rs25 crore and six months of their life to make a film based only on my name? I was not a star,” he says. “Yes, people did know that Vicky was Sham Kaushal’s son and so the trust and credibility were always there. But that is about it. If I could make it as a first-generation person in this industry, why couldn’t my sons? Both my boys are hardworking and honest. But all three of us knew that they will not get a film based on my name. The maximum that could happen was that they would be called to the [filmmaker’s] office for tea. What happened after that would depend entirely on merit.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Recalling an anecdote from the sets of <i>Zubaan</i>, Kaushal’s first film as the main lead on which he, too, worked, the father says, “The scene was such that he is fighting off some goons who hit him hard on his knees with hockey sticks. To my surprise, he was limping perfectly and most naturally, as if he had actually been hit. Later, I got to know that before the shoot, Vicky had put a pebble inside the shoe so as to make the limping look real. I had tears in my eyes because I had just worked with a promising newcomer, who happened to be my son.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Though <i>Zubaan</i>―in which he played Dilsher, a boy who loves music―did not do well, it is close to Kaushal’s heart. “I told Mozez (Singh, the director) that we should really do this film again,” he says. “That film, I truly believe, had its heart and soul in the right place. But I feel like we were all too new to kind of have the expertise to make that film. I shot as a lead and then I shot for <i>Masaan</i>. But <i>Masaan</i> released before <i>Zubaan</i>. For everyone involved, what mattered was that nobody was looking for validation with <i>Zubaan</i> because we felt that nobody was looking at us anyway and we might as well have fun. Both <i>Masaan</i> and <i>Zubaan</i> got made like that.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><i>Masaan</i> was the film that turned many a head towards Kaushal. It might not have set the box office on fire, but it was a film that the industry watched, and one that opened doors for the newcomer. “For the first time, I started getting calls straight from directors asking me to meet them in person. And not because they had a film for me; they just wanted to know me,” he says with a glint in his eye. “Karan Johar called me to his old office in Khar. He knew my dad, but did not know I was his son.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Kaushal at the time did not have a manager, nor a PR team. “It was just me,” he says. “I would drive myself, park and go talk to people. Karan advised me to not be hasty, choose wisely and be positive. He also said that the start is easier than maintaining the momentum and growing from there.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>And grow he did. After <i>Masaan</i> and a few other roles, he achieved what is seen as the “arrival” of an actor―getting a role without an audition. This was for Kashyap’s <i>Manmarziyaan</i>, alongside Taapsee Pannu and Abhishek Bachchan. “<i>Manmarziyaan</i> is the perfect example to explain the depth of Vicky’s performance and the internalisation of the character, so much that it strangely makes you fall in love and root for a commitment-phobic lover,” says Shilpa Srivastava, who was Kaushal’s co-intern on <i>Gangs</i>.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><i>Manmarziyaan</i> was followed up by debutant Aditya Dhar’s <i>Uri</i>, which won Kaushal his first national award for the portrayal of an Army officer in a dramatised version of the surgical strike the Indian Army carried out on Pakistani territory. It was the first time Kaushal tasted massy success, with the dialogue, ‘How’s the <i>josh</i>?’ becoming a rallying cry across the nation.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“I am very happy with the way it (his career) has panned out,” says Kaushal. “It was the most beautiful way that it could have happened for me because I got to learn so much, like commando training. The initial films were so tight budgeted that I am now used to working without the vanity. Where the resources are so limited that you know how to put the film first.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>This conversation is part of our second meeting, also at his Juhu home. His wife, actor Katrina Kaif, is in Delhi for film promotions. When she returns, Kaushal will leave for the Sambhaji shoot. “This is how life is on the fast lane,” he says. “So once we pause, we make the best of it.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The apartment is lavish and spacious. The windows are heavy and are designed to block out the noise from the flights that pass overhead. A lovely chandelier and a vase with fresh flowers welcome you. “This is all her. She has done up the house so beautifully. If it was up to me, I would be happy with just a fan, a light and a mattress,” he says, laughing out loud.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>There are also a lot of books around. “She is more of a reader, but I have read each and every one of these books you see there,” he says, pointing to a shelf. He particularly talks of the book on Mumbai Police commissioner Rakesh Maria and recommends <i>Shoe Dog</i>, the memoir of Nike owner Phil Knight. “I love reading memoirs and biographies,” he says.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>As the conversation flows, an extra large mug arrives. “Some oatmeal protein shake <i>yaar</i>,” he says. “I do not like it at all. I cannot wait for this punishment to end so that I can dive straight into <i>chhole bhature</i>.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>For all his fame and fortune, this earthiness seeps through in his demeanour. “He has no airs about him; in fact, he is literally the boy next door who is in love with his Punjabi roots,” says actor Neha Dhupia who, along with her husband, actor Angad Bedi, share a warm friendship with both Kaushal and Kaif. “He is famously known in our house as Vicky <i>chachu</i>; the day our daughter was born, he was one of the first people to reach the hospital. Even when Angad lost his dad (legendary India spinner Bishan Singh Bedi), Vicky was shooting far away, but was constantly checking on us on the phone. I have seen him literally sit by the road and pop open his tiffin box when hungry, unmindful of his stardom and of the hundreds of people who stop to stare at him.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Dhupia and Bedi have been close witnesses to Kaushal’s love story. “The first time I got a sense something was there was when I heard it from Katrina,” says Dhupia. “The first time Angad got a sense was when he heard it from Vicky. And we were not exchanging notes. We were just quiet. I think he had his version and I had her version and both were matching and so we were like, they will definitely get together soon. I remember, at the wedding, Vicky was hands on, from welcoming guests to managing the food to deciding who’s dancing on which song. It was a blend of two different cultures and everyone from England was jamming to a live Punjabi band.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Kaif, says Dhupia, took a liking to Kaushal when she watched <i>Uri</i>. She did not know Kaushal then. “Then many days later, we spoke over the phone and she said it. I had butterflies in my stomach,” says Dhupia.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Kaushal might be part of a big circle socially, but his friends say there are a few who he cocoons up with. Srivastava is one of them. “She is the kind of friend who will never tell you anything good about me,” he says. “She is my harshest critic. But when she saw Sam, she hugged me and was in tears. That is when I felt that I have done something good.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Kaushal keeps his old friends close. “Even on Christmas, those lunches do not end because people do not want to leave,” says Dhupia. “His old engineering friends come over all the way from the US and even at his wedding, you could see that his friendships are real. Katrina herself has core family values in place as she comes from a big family―eight of them.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Bedi elaborates: “They are both warm hosts but two completely different people. On Christmas, Katrina does a wonderful spread―there is turkey, fish, different food for those who are vegan, gluten free and with certain dietary restrictions, and Vicky does not interfere because Katrina rules. Whereas when Vicky hosts the evening and decides the menu, I think he is one of the first people to make sure he is at the table first. His palette is very <i>desi</i> and Punjabi, with dollops of ghee, butter, <i>mirch masala</i>. Together they are wonderful hosts. As the party starts, the music is soft and mellow and you can tell that it is to Katrina’s liking. But, as the evening progresses, there is a different energy and Punjabi music kicks in and Vicky and his close friends groove to it like there’s no tomorrow.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>So, just how did two people with such diverse personalities get together? “Katrina comes from a completely different geography,” says Kaushal. “But if you meet her family, you will see that her core life principles are similar to mine. In terms of family, ours is a middle-class upbringing, [where you value] what you have and how you have earned it. When we have family get-togethers, the difference is only linguistic. Actually, I was taken by surprise when I got to interact with her; it is not what it seems from afar. I was a fanboy and admired her for a long time... even if she was an astronaut, I would have fallen in love with her.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Kaif has been in the industry for around two decades and has been part of several blockbusters. Kaushal knows and respects this. “When it comes to the profession, she is far more experienced than me,” he says. “And also, she has lived a life that is more independent. I have had a more protected life. She has come up the hard way. Even when language was not by her side, she struggled her way through and really made that spot her own, which is amazing.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Kaushal’s parents feel blessed as they “always missed having a daughter” at home. “She tries speaking in Punjabi and understands it perfectly,” says her father-in-law. “There are so many vegetables we eat now because she loves them so much. Now, when people ask me how they should introduce me, I tell them, ‘not as an action director, but as the father of Vicky and Sunny, and the father-in-law of Katrina Kaif.”</p> Sat Mar 16 16:25:46 IST 2024 bollywood-actor-vicky-kaushal-interview <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><i>Interview/ Vicky Kaushal, actor</i></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q Nearly a decade into your career, do you think you have now become a star?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>I saw an interview of Aamir Khan some time back where he said, ‘If you want to judge the stardom of an actor, you do not track his most popular film, you track his weakest film.’ If his poorest film―one which you know is not good―still brings in the profits, that is stardom.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Today, the line between popularity and stardom is blurring. Now the popular is the star. In actuality, a star was someone who was the reason people watch the film, irrespective of whether it is good or bad. I do not think I have achieved that till now. If I do a film that, from the outset, people are not sold on, it will not do the numbers. They will wait, especially now that they know the film will come on OTT in seven to eight weeks. Those are the choices even I make as [part of an] audience. I do not think I have reached a point where people actually come to the theatres for me alone. That will come after a string of super hits. As of now, I need the full support of brilliant directors and brilliant films. The films [have] to be bigger than me and that is how I like it, too. The stories should be the hero of the film and I should be riding on those stories and those characters.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><i><b>Sam Bahadur</b></i><b> clashed with Ranbir Kapoor’s </b><i><b>Animal</b></i><b> at the box office. Did your film perform as per your expectations?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>With Sam, we always knew it was a Test match; we knew it was not the quintessential masala film that <i>Animal</i> was―it had the shock value and one knew it would create waves at the box office. We knew we needed that much time, that word of mouth, for the film to resonate with the masses. Because if it would not click with people, it would not do well no matter when it released. People started talking about it more and more as the weeks went by. We saw that through January, Sam shows kept going on, and that gives me tremendous happiness.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>You worked with Field Marshal Manekshaw’s grandson Jehan for the film. How did that go?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>We had started training two and a half months prior to going on floors. I would meet Meghna [Gulzar] every day for five to six hours to just crack Sam. We did not have any reference to the youth of Manekshaw.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>When I met Jehan, who also runs an acting school, I got into the shoes of Sam and read the whole script as if I were him. But he said I was really far from what his grandfather was like. And so we started from ground zero and, at every stage, we would bring in the tonality and the body language. The second time, Jehan said, ‘Okay, now you are not sounding like Vicky, but you are also not sounding like Manekshaw.’ Then, after a long time, he was convinced that I did sound like his granddad.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>How do you train for biopics?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Usually, for any biopic, I never mug up the lines. I read the script three to four times a day at least, and by the time you are on the floors, you have read it 500 times and know it. But in this case, I could not have read it in my own way because then I would start talking like that. So, I first had to crack the tonality and only then go into this exercise of reading the script every day. Reading like Sam Manekshaw became my impulse, so while shooting, I was only focused on the emotions. I was not thinking of how to walk, how to talk, how to sit... all that homework had been done earlier. At one time, Meghna said that I was so involved in the film... that she had to literally remind me, “<i>Cut ho gaya hai</i> (the shot is done).” But that is also when I feel safer as an actor. Trusting that now it is in me and whenever I have to be Sam, it is not like I have forgotten. I really had internalised his personality.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>My daily ritual for Sam used to be―go into the van, get ready and before coming on the set, I used to need anywhere between 15 to 30 minutes where I would play jazz and just look in the mirror to be convinced that this guy is Sam Manekshaw. Once you believe this, whatever you do is Sam.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Before that, I had never heard jazz in my life. But now I have a whole playlist that is still saved on my phone as ‘Sam’s Jazz’. The one lesson I take back with me is to learn how to become Sam Manekshaw―his clarity of thought, decision-making skills, integrity and dignity. If he is a 10 on 10 in each of these areas, I am at 2 or 4 or 5, and I want to reach where he is. But that one thing I totally share with him is his habit of trusting people too soon and too easily. And I think it is a good place to be in because I have the cleanest of intentions and if something goes wrong, the onus is on the other person, obviously (laughs).</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>What was it like working with Meghna again after </b><i><b>Raazi</b></i><b>?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>I have this complaint with Meghna. I tell her, <i>‘Yaar you are Gulzar sahab’s daughter’,</i> and she says, ‘Yeah, so what?’ I wanted to tell her, <i>‘Yaar tum log na ghar ki dal bana dete ho aise legends ko’</i> (you take these legends for granted). She understood what I had been complaining about since <i>Raazi</i> when she saw Maya (Manekshaw’s daughter) doing the same with her father.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>There is this talk that the audience keeps changing. How much of that have you seen in your career?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>I remember about a decade or two back, they had said that the audience has changed. But what we must understand is that this change is the only constant. There would never come a time when we would be able to say that now this is what the audience wants. For instance, if people liked one action film, they go on to make so many action films that there will come a time when the audience will dump it and move on to another genre. And then the cycle would repeat. You must understand that this is an industry that is catering to the consumers, so they are always on the lookout, asking, ‘What do you want? We will make that.’ And in that there will be a certain section that will say it wants to be true to the art of filmmaking and will keep doing what they are doing. Those are the films that turn into cult films... coming at a time when it is not the taste.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>As a lead actor, why did you take up a cameo in </b><i><b>Dunki</b></i><b>?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>I told Raju sir (director Rajkumar Hirani) that even if he had wanted me to simply pass by unnoticed, I would happily do that as well. I just so wanted to be a part his film because he is genuinely a director I admire, and I love his kind of storytelling as an audience and as an actor. This was the second time with him after <i>Sanju</i>. My father (action director) Sham Kaushal was working on <i>Dunki</i> and because Sukhi (Vicky’s character) had that fire sequence, my father asked Hirani who was playing the part. He wanted to know <i>‘Mujhe kisko jalaana hai?</i> (Whom do I light on fire?)’. So Hirani said he wanted somebody like Vicky, but did not offer it to me because he thought it was a small role. When my dad came home, I asked him how the meeting went. He recounted the [interaction with Hirani] and I said, ‘Really?’ The very next day I called Raju sir and told him if it had to be somebody like me, then why not me? I landed up in his office that very day and said yes without even listening to the script. The first time I saw the full film was during the screening. I only knew my part.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>So when I was watching the film, I was very nervous, unsure if my performance was satisfactory. I am a kid who was born and raised in Mumbai, who has never gone away from his home. But somehow, that homecoming emotion in the film really hit me hard. Maybe because my parents left their home and came to Bombay from Punjab and all my life I have heard them talking about their life there and how much they miss it. But, for the first time, I felt the same emotion through a film.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Also, I was happy to see Punjab like that after a long time. I told Raju sir that, at a time when everything is gritty and real, where we see the problems and struggles of states, he actually gave a vibrant, colourful charm to Punjab. That moment when Taapsee’s character removes her shoes and wants to feel the earth in her hometown upon returning from abroad after decades, that was special to me.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>I also told Hirani sir that only he could have Shah Rukh not complete his love story. I think that is the beauty of Shah Rukh sir and love stories―if he completes the love story, you celebrate, and if it is not complete, even then you feel for him and you enjoy that feeling, too. You root for him in any case.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><i><b>Uri</b></i><b> director Aditya Dhar once said there is this deep sadness in Vicky Kaushal’s eyes that make him perfect for certain roles. How do you act with your eyes?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>I feel the deeper you can take the character, the more it will show in the eyes. The only validation that matters to me is my director’s validation. Once that is in place, I try and go deeper and deeper into the shoes of the character with each passing day. Maybe then it shows in my eyes.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>One of the basics they teach you in acting school is that the more you listen while performing a scene, the better the performance is and somewhere it is the eyes that start talking. People think that acting begins when I get my lines. But that is actually reacting. I focus more on what I am reacting at or to, in a scene. I feel there is no general rule for acting.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Is there a film in which you think you could not give it your best?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><i>Raman Raghav</i> <i>2.0.</i> I think I did not get the best reviews for my work in this film. But luckily, it did not come in as a surprise. Fortunately for me, till date, it has never happened that I expected good reviews but bad reviews came.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>I just could not understand the character―it was a complex character who had a disturbed childhood. As I never had a disturbed childhood, I could not understand this person. I feel I was too immature to play that part. I was 25 or 26 at the time but Anurag [Kashyap] kept telling me that he wanted a person who could not understand it and explore what kind of performance comes out. That is a role which, if I have to play it every five to 10 years, I will play it very differently each time because of the experiences I gather in my real life. On the other hand, I felt <i>Manmarziyaan</i> was the film and the part that I enjoyed with every cell in my body. It was my most enriching and most liberating experience as an actor because when we started shooting, I only knew the blueprint―it was a love triangle and that I was playing the commitment-phobic guy, a reckless DJ in Punjab who is full of passion. Anurag sent me an image of a guy in blue hair a few days before the shoot and said that was what I had to do. I coloured my hair blue and reached Punjab and, two days before the shoot, when I asked him what I had to do, he said, <i>‘Main script likh raha hoon</i> (I’m still writing the script).’ [When I did hear the narration,] it was as if the first half was a love story and the second was like <i>Raman Raghav</i>. I was shocked; I thought I [was doing] a love story. Anurag sensed that and messaged me, saying, ‘Trust me it will go well. You just surrender to the character.’ That was magic for me. For the first time in my life, I surrendered myself to the character. I left the baggage of right and wrong back in the hotel room that morning. I decided I would enjoy the shooting and the process... that was a game changer for me as an actor. I decided to do this for every role, just surrender completely to the character and leave the rest to the director because this, at the end of the day, is a director’s medium. In that process, I felt like I evolved as an actor.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>At times, actors become victims of bad films. Do you agree?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Every film has its own destiny. Two days before <i>Uri</i>, Aditya and I were hoping people come to see it. <i>Manmarziyaan</i>, being a love story, an Anurag Kashyap film and with music by Amit Trivedi, I thought it would be superb; it checked all the boxes for a commercial success. But that did not happen. But <i>Uri</i>, which I thought was going to be an okay-ish film given that it did not have a ‘star’ and that high a budget, did so well.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>You share a special bond with Anurag Kashyap.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><i>Gangs of Wasseypur</i>, for me, was my film school. To assist on that film was a first for both me and Neeraj [Ghaywan, director of <i>Masaan</i>]. It just taught us a lot about filmmaking, etiquette on set and what it takes to make a film. Even today, Anurag sir called me after watching <i>Sam</i> and he said that during the old-age scenes, I could have worked more on my voice. But he was very happy. We have a very informal relationship with him. At times when I call him, I ask him, ‘How much are you drinking now?’, ‘Did you reduce your time on the internet?’ Whenever I am with him, I turn into an AD (assistant director); I cannot be an actor in front of him. When we were shooting for <i>Raman Raghav</i>, if he had misplaced his bag, I would start looking for it... and he would admonish me, saying <i>‘Abhi tu AD nahi hai, actor hai. Idhar baith</i> (Now you’re an actor, not an AD; sit here).’</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>When I meet people in the industry who are only a few years older than me, but they are directors, I have a habit of addressing them as ‘sir’. So even now, that shift from AD to actor is difficult for me. [I keep calling] Farhan Akhtar ‘sir’, and he says, ‘Stop calling me that; I am only five years elder to you.’ But I still feel odd calling them by their names.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Are you your own critic?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A very harsh one. The first time I watch my own film, I do not like it at all. I cringe, swear and shut my eyes. This happens with me on almost a daily basis, when I am spending at least half an hour evaluating and wondering if I could have done it differently.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Your dream role?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>I am short of an answer for that. I have given different answers in different interviews because at different stages of life, you feel differently about the work you want to do. I would like to be an athlete or a larger-than-life character on screen. [Amitabh] Bachchan <i>sahab</i>’s films of the 1980s are also very inspiring. I hope I am never in a situation where I have to do a film even though I do not connect with it. I have never had to do it.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Is there any specific instance that turned you towards acting?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The time when I was taken for an industrial visit during engineering was when I first came to know that this was not what I wanted to be or do for the rest of my life. Until then, I was very much a part of the rat race. I had also thought of pursuing post-graduation, but I didn’t want to do a 9 to 5 job. My <i>dadaji</i> (grandfather) had a <i>kirane ki dukaan</i> (grocery store) in his village in Hoshiarpur (Punjab) and my father has been in action in films. I do not think it was in my blood to do a 9 to 5 job. My academic scores would have taken me there; I was good. But I felt I was not going to be happy there. Subconsciously, [I knew]. I had been active on stage since a child, be it in society functions, school or college. But I had never thought this could be my career. Cricket and drama were the two outwardly things that I would enjoy apart from watching movies. I knew when I would perform, I would be happy. But I had never been on a film set with my father before and there was no such talk at home. That this was fancy work and he had contacts in Bollywood... he had no interest in discussing work at home. In fact, it is now that we discuss more about films. Now we are all a part of the industry. But [growing up], we were never attracted to stars.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Has marriage made you a better person?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>My marriage to Katrina is the result of a deep connection at the core level. I appreciate her core and she appreciates mine. I do not want to make her a better person and she does not want to make me a better person. We are already in love with the person we are. What is new for us is how we are both growing together. Now that we are married, it is always about what is working for us, not me.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Do you cook?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Never for the life of me. I can only make tea and break some eggs. That, too, I learnt during quarantine because I would watch movies all night and there was nothing else to do. Sunny (his brother) cooks a lot and does it really well. He is just a year and four months younger, so it is more like we are friends. I do not give any advice, and he does not take any. We just share experiences. He is much wiser and calmer than me.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>What about the food choices at home?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In terms of food, she (Katrina) is way more vegetarian than I am. She enjoys simple food. Very rarely will she go for a <i>chhole bhature</i>, but I would dive into that. My mother is happy whenever Katrina is home because, as she says, ‘All my life I have been trying to get these boys to eat <i>tinde</i> (apple gourd), beans and <i>turai</i> (ridge gourd) and now I have a daughter-in-law who eats these every day.’ This is her staple food. She loves pancakes. We are just a regular couple with a profession that has put us in the public glare.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>What are the Hollywood films you like?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>One of my all-time favourites is 12 <i>Angry Men</i>. I can watch the <i>Godfather</i> series anytime, anywhere. In Hindi, it is <i>Lagaan</i>, <i>Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar, Mughal-E-Azam</i>... you keep learning from films you are deeply connected with. Sometimes I watch Denzel Washington movies and feel like he had a different approach. I remember in the film <i>Safe House</i>, he has been hit by a few bullets and he is dying. The way he had performed it, I genuinely felt as if for the first time I saw someone <i>jiski ek ek saans ja rahi thi</i> (that he was losing each breath). I am a big Denzel Washington fan.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Have you fallen into the trap of badly made films?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>That happens to everybody. When you hear a film out, you say yes after agreeing to all of that. And every person coming on that set wants to make a good film, but not every film can be a good film. Sometimes you have to take it on your chin and leave. I green-light films by being emotionally connected with them. If I do not connect with it, I will not sign it. I feel I should be at least as motivated and excited as the director, if not more.</p> Sat Mar 16 16:24:17 IST 2024 how-my-mother-became-my-best-friend <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Even before I was born, you told me that you had longed for a daughter. In a way, it was like you had wished me into existence. When I came out, you laughed and called me ‘black beauty’, because of my dark skin tone. You loved me at once, even though my only qualification for being loved was getting born. When I was inside you, you had all the power, but now that I was out, the power was mine. You gave it to me willingly―you were as fragile as porcelain in my hand. There were so many times when I weaponised your love―with a hurtful word, a look of disdain, a thoughtless act….</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>My earliest memory with you is lying curled up against you at night while you read to me Enid Blyton’s <i>Brer Rabbit</i> stories. How the escapades of that wily rabbit made me laugh. Every time he outfoxed Brer Fox, I would clap my hands in glee. It was like your voice was the wand that transported me into a magical land where dolls came awake at night, forests were enchanted and frogs turned into princes.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>They seemed more real than the world in which I lived. It must have been a sad day when I realised that magic was not real, and that pumpkins could not really turn into coaches. But you taught me something that no textbook could teach me. You taught me wonder. You taught me to see magic in the real world―in the fact that leaves could change colour and that brooks could gurgle, that stars could twinkle and that clouds could shift shapes. Is it not magic that birds have a secret instinct by which they know where to migrate and that there is not a single place in the world where 2 + 2 does not equal 4?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>As I grew up, you grew down, so that we were on level playing field. You played cards with me, and taught me how to braid my Barbie’s hair. During power cuts, in the glow of the lamp, we made shadow birds fly on the wall. Once, you let me paint your nails fire-engine red, and I spilled nail polish all over your new carpet.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>My first day in boarding school. On my way there in the car, I was so excited. I thought school would be an adventure, and that my life was really only going to begin now, as though everything that happened before was the prelude to the main act. But by the time my trunk had been unpacked by a starchy woman who seemed incapable of smiling, and I was led to the classroom, my excitement had dissolved into fear. There was a knot in my stomach, and the hand that clung to yours was clammy. There were children all over―laughing, playing, sharing lunch boxes, and writing on slates. They all seemed to belong there, as though they had been there forever, in an endless continuum of happiness that I could not imagine being part of. I would not let go of your hand, even when you tried to prise it loose; it seemed like my only lifeline to a life that was fast slipping away. “Don’t worry,” you told me gently. “I will be right here.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>And you were, through all the uncertainties of girlhood. When I came to you crying because a boy in school said I looked ugly. When I got bad grades. When I was snubbed by the ‘popular’ girls in class. When my friends forgot my birthday. “I will never fit in,” I complained to you. “You will only fit in when you are not afraid to stand out,” you told me. Even your anger came from a place of love. When I bunked school to attend a matinee show, you told me you were disappointed in me. When I lied to you about my exam results, you told me it was unacceptable. Disappointing you made me feel ashamed, and I tried to cover it with my own anger. If I grew angry at your anger, then maybe I could convince myself that I did not care.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Sometimes when I came home from the hostel and you were late from work, I would grow impatient. I would question you about what took you so long. I think you love your work more than me, I would accuse you. That time, when I thought the world revolved around myself, I thought you existed solely for me. You were not yours, you were mine.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It is only when I became a woman that I realised that you needed validation, too. You needed an identity that was more than just being a wife or mother. You needed an existence that was not entangled with someone else’s. For the first time, I started observing rather than imagining that I was the one always being observed. I started really seeing people, really seeing you―your insecurities, fears, dreams and joys. All the stories you told me about your childhood, I realised, were not just stories; they were pointers to the woman you had become. In a way, I saw myself in you, because after all, is not being a woman a universal experience? Even as we fight different battles, we are all in the same war―we share the same spoils and face the same defeats.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Still, we were different in so many ways. I never inherited your generosity. If I told you I liked your shawl or your earrings, you would immediately give them to me. I tried to imitate it, but real generosity, I realised, is inimitable. You gave joyfully, I gave grudgingly. Neither did I inherit your charisma. It was not just your beauty or poise; you had an inner light that people sensed more than saw. They confided in you, like you were an empty blackboard on which anyone could write their story.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>As the years passed, we only grew closer. We began relating to each other on an equal footing; age closed the distance. And even as we fought―on little things like how I was hoarding things in my house, spending money carelessly or making your famous biscuit pudding without following the recipe properly―there was the underlying certainty that somethings could be bent, but not broken. Even as many things in my life started disintegrating, your love was the one constant. I could enjoy it without analysing or understanding it―like electricity. Or biscuit pudding, when you made it.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>If I ever get married, I wonder if there will be some part of me that will feel like I am losing you. Like some umbilical cord is being cut once more. I often think of love as some sort of exchange, like if I have to start a new family, I have to give up the old one. I am terrified that we will grow distant, and that we will not be able to pick up where we left off. What if our laughs become forced and our conversations stilted? Then I imagine you telling me that a mother’s love is not like that. That you will never let go, and that you will bore me to death with your phone calls until I beg you to stop. I imagine you saying that you would rather be a nuisance than a nobody in my life. I hug you tight, laughing and crying at the same time. “Promise me that you’ll be a bore,” I tell you.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>I remember when I was young and you were teaching me the alphabet, all my A’s, B’s and C’s would come out wobbly and disfigured, so you covered my hand with yours and helped me form the letters. We made meaning together, and it did not matter who was really doing the writing. And then you removed your hand, and I looked at you fearfully. “It’s ok,” you told me smilingly. “You no longer need me.” I know I have never told you this, but I will always need you, amma. You strengthen my life today, just as you steadied my hand then.</p> Sat Mar 09 13:19:16 IST 2024 writer-devdutt-pattanaik-about-his-mother <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>My mother was an independent person, but I really saw her only when I grew up. She came from an extremely affluent family which had fallen on hard times. It struck me that my mother had to deal with a lot in life, and I understood her insecurities. Earlier I used to get very angry with her for being unreasonable. And then I realised her unreasonableness came from her insecurity. We don’t usually listen to our mothers’ stories. We think they are super-humans. We forget that they are also people. To see my mother took me a long time.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Once, I saw a book in the market that I wanted to read. This was long before I thought of being a writer. It was very expensive, costing Rs200, which was a lot of money 40 years ago. When I came home, I hesitatingly told my mother about the book, and she immediately gave me the money to buy it. I couldn’t believe it.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>My mother always gave me money for buying books, even though we were not rich then. She never questioned why I wanted the book. This trait of my mother was something that I came to appreciate only later. She would let me buy all kinds of crazy books. Now I realise what she was doing. Today, I am what I am because of the money she gave me.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The wisest thing she told me was that no matter how rich you become, do not forget that ultimately you need rice and dal to survive. When my father started doing well in life, my mother was firm that we should not change our lifestyle just because we were making money. “This is what we are comfortable and content with,” she said. “This is where I want my children to be.” She did not want to build a bigger house or join the golf course, even though my father would want all that. We don’t need it, she said. She had seen both good and bad times. She felt we should be stable and that was what was most important. That’s something that I remember about her. She always said, don’t forget rice and dal.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>She was really proud of me when I bought my own house. In Mumbai, buying a house is a big deal. For her, it was huge. I saw her being excited like a child, like I had got a new toy. And she said, you don’t know what it means to be independent and have autonomy. That’s when I realised that women in India don’t have that independence. They are dependent on their husbands. Now, it might be different. But she came from an India where she needed a husband to buy a house. Feminism and all those ideas really came home then.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>―<b>As told to Anjuly Mathai</b></p> Sat Mar 09 14:51:34 IST 2024 mp-and-former-union-minister-p-chidambaram-about-his-mother <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>My mother’s name was Lakshmi. According to the practice in the community, in the early 20th century, after she was married she was known as Lakshmi Achi. She was barely 16 then. I cannot imagine what the ‘child’ felt when, overnight, she became a ‘married adult’. Many years later she told me that she was the first female matriculate from the community, that she was not surprised she was married at 16, but that she was eager and anxious to continue her studies in a college. That was not to be.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Given her family and circumstances, I suppose it can be said that she was born with a silver spoon in her mouth. Her father, Annamalai Chettiar, was considered to be among the richest persons in Madras Presidency. He was a banker and merchant with vast businesses and assets in India, Burma, Malaya, Ceylon and other countries. He founded the Annamalai University in 1929, among the first private universities of India. He was a patron of Tamil music and musicians, and many charities. His family was held in high regard by the community. My mother was his 10th and youngest child and, defying tradition, he allowed her to study up to matriculation in a convent in Chennai run by Franciscan nuns but, alas, no more.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>I think her experience shaped my mother’s outlook to education and life and she decided to educate herself. She read an English newspaper every day and listened to the news on the radio. She was fluent in Tamil and English and was not afraid to engage in a conversation with visitors. One morning in 1963, she woke me up to break the news that President John F. Kennedy had been shot dead. She was abreast with national and world events even at an advanced age.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>She valued wealth―she was born in a wealthy family and married into a wealthy family―but she placed education above wealth. She was responsible for the education of her four children, and that was her first priority. I suppose I acquired my passion for books, learning, education, writing and speaking from my mother. She would sit with us while we did our homework and studied for exams. Before a debating contest, I would ‘try’ my speech on her. She was proud when I got high marks and awards in school and college, and won debating contests. She was the first to encourage me to join the Law College (an unusual profession for the community) and to go to Harvard University to pursue an MBA (an unusual ambition for the community).</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Educated in a convent, she was particular about the correct pronunciation of words. My father, a businessman, understood English but was not fluent. My mother was his support and translator, and travelled with him everywhere. He turned to her for advice on every matter. She learned the details of his businesses and was always there with him. It was unusual in the 1950s and 1960s. My mother and father travelled to many countries. My father died when my mother was 60, but she did not retreat to a corner. Accompanied by her nieces, she continued her pastime and travelled to many countries.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>I suppose she was happy when I became a minister, but not once during my ministerships over 30 years did she speak to me about a person or a matter connected with my official work. I was proud of her high sense of dignity, integrity and propriety.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The only unhappy incident was that my family did not attend my wedding when I married Nalini, who belonged to a different community. However, after about nine months, my mother welcomed her daughter-in-law to her house and they remained friends for as long as my mother lived. My mother more than made up for the incident when she stood at the head of the line and celebrated the wedding of my son, whose bride, too, belonged to another community!</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>We had hoped that she would live up to 100. She would have, but she fell and suffered a hip fracture and underwent surgery. That sapped her confidence. She died in 2013. As long as she lived, she was the matriarch of the extended family, a counsellor to many families, benefactor to the poor, generous to her domestic help, many of whom stayed with her for more than 40 years, and always cheerful. Her kind, smiling face is my most cherished memory. I hope that during the remaining years of my life I can walk on the path she had shown me―the path of dignity, integrity and propriety.</p> Sat Mar 09 14:50:39 IST 2024 artist-sudarshan-shetty-about-his-mother <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>My mother left us about 16 years ago, but her reassuring presence in my life still lingers on. It is difficult for me to objectify this relationship. She was soft and mild-mannered, yet strong inside―able to hold the family together with our meagre means of survival. My father was a Yakshagana artist. Like some of the mythological characters he played, he was a larger-than-life figure for us. He had a certain fame within the community as a Yakshagana artist. I remember going to many of his performances and seeing people’s adulation of him.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>My mother was always shy and seemed to be lurking in the background of my father’s presence. My father was quite tall, and she was diminutive in stature, but was really the gravitational core of the family; she held us all together as long as she lived. She could absorb a lot of our tantrums as children. She was never demanding, and I don’t think she ever asked for even a sari for herself.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>While my father was always inquisitive and questioning, she was quietly encouraging of whatever I wanted to do. When I joined art school after studying commerce, my father would ask me all these questions about my future, but my mother’s acceptance was unconditional. This must have strengthened my faith in what I chose to do.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>My maternal uncle―my mother’s older brother―was a friend and an admirer of my father’s performances. My parents met through him, as he suggested that my father marry his sister. My father’s ancestral home is in Udupi district, and my mother’s is closer to Mangalore. We have heard stories of how my mother and her family travelled overnight in bullock carts to Udupi for the wedding.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>I stayed with my parents till I went away to Delhi when I was 30, and came back six years later. Then I stayed with them for another seven to eight years. I was well into my late 30s and still struggling to make ends meet. Besides a few light-hearted arguments over it with my father, I was never made to feel unwelcome at home. They were different and more liberal than the parents of all my friends. This might be because my father and mother were exposed to the world of an artist and the perils that come with it.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>My mother had only studied till the fifth standard. However, she was deeply intelligent. My father was a voracious reader. He would read the translated Mahabharata and many versions of the Ramayana to hone his skills as a performer, almost till his passing in 2003. She outlived him by about five years. My mother was a light reader. There used to be these magazines in Kannada―like <i>Sudha, Prajamata, Kasturi and Mayura</i>. She used to read them back-to-back in the evening after finishing her household chores. There were a lot of these modernist writers who were writing at the time, and she had a problem with some things they wrote―like man-woman relationships which were very different from her own ideas of what they should be. However, she was not conservative by any standard.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>She was also a great storyteller. She could tell the story of a Yakshagana performance that she may have watched decades ago. I grew up listening to her stories, and I think it has greatly influenced what I do today. I remember the Tulu legends she used to narrate. Of Siri―the patron deity of the Tuluvas (people who speak Tulu)―and others like Siri’s grand daughters, Abbage and Darage. And another about the original superman of Tulunadu― Agoli Manjanna. He needed to eat so much that there was a famous saying of him wanting to turn the Netravati river to milk and the stones on its banks to meat to satiate his hunger and thirst.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>I was close to my mother, although I did not tell her everything, or I did not have to. In many ways, our relationship was gestural. We partly communicated in gestures that is specific to a culture of communication . One did not have to say much to know what state one was in. It got communicated through one’s mere being. I feel today we are losing many of those gestural ways of communication.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>I have four sisters, two older and two younger, and I am the only son. Unjust as it was, I was given the freedom to do whatever I chose unlike them. They do complain about it often, even now, as a joke. It was obvious that I was my mother’s favourite.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>I loved watching movies, so my mother used to save up from whatever money my father would give her for household expenses, and take me to matinee shows, occasionally on Sundays. We watched a lot of rubbish as well, but I remember watching <i>Mughal-e-Azam </i>and<i> Phagun</i> amongst others in black and white, and discussing them later with her. I remember watching some Rajesh Khanna films, too. I still don’t know if my father knew about our secret outings.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>I feel my mother’s quiet presence in my life almost every day. She was always in the background. She was never assertive about anything she wanted. It might be true of many women in her generation. Most never had the opportunity to even say what they wanted, but they seemed to always have a pleasant presence, which is perhaps rare to find now. As they say, ‘they don’t make people like that anymore’ .</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Like most of us who don’t live with our mothers, I miss my mother’s cooking. She was a good cook. I remember her walking to the market a few miles every day to buy fish, vegetables and other necessities.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Only towards the end of her life did I begin to sell some pieces and make some money. It was then perhaps that she felt that I had found some sort of social success. However, I think she was always proud of me. Sometime later, when we got a house in Lonavala nestled among trees, she loved coming there. Somehow, it reminded her of her village in Mangalore. She was also very fond of animals, which we could never keep as we always lived in small houses in Mumbai.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>―<b>As told to Anjuly Mathai</b></p> Sat Mar 09 14:48:04 IST 2024 author-amish-tripathi-about-his-mother <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>My parents come from a humble background. They were both educated in the Hindi medium. They made a lot of sacrifices to give the four of us siblings an education that was beyond their income and social class. We went to the absolute best schools―Lawrence School, Lovedale; The Cathedral and John Connon School, Mumbai; St Xavier’s College, Mumbai; IIM Calcutta. In school, I had friends whose shoes cost more than my father’s monthly salary. My parents’ only saving was the education they gave us. They made a lot of sacrifices for us.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Our family used to read a lot. I read at least five to six books a month. Dad was the more indulgent parent and Maa was the strict disciplinarian. She had read something in the <i>Chanakyaneeti</i> on how children should be brought up. She brought up all four of us that way. I know it may sound traditional, but she used to say that the character of a child is formed by the mother. The guru and the mother are the most important people in the life of children and, therefore, in the life of society.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>According to the <i>Chanakyaneeti</i>, in the first five years of a child’s life, the mother should be around all the time and drown the child in love. The child should have no insecurities because he is attended to all the time. That does not mean you get everything that you want, like some expensive toy. Sometimes she may choose not to give it to you, for your own long-term good. But you will have all of your mother’s love and attention.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Then from ages 5 to 15, the mother should be a strict disciplinarian. Maa was extremely strict with all four of us at that age. We had to sleep by 9.30pm and wake up by 4.30am-5am. She never hid the sacrifices that dad and she were making for us. She used to keep telling us that it is our duty to be successful. That is the only way you can honour the sacrifices of your parents, she said. Whatever you do, you should be the best at it.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>We had to eat whatever was on the table. I remember once my sister and I had refused to eat the bitter gourd <i>(karela) sabji</i> she made. It’s very good for health, but it tastes bitter. I wasn’t trying to throw a tantrum, but I gently pushed the plate away. She was so livid that for a week, for lunch and dinner, my sister and I were served bitter gourd <i>sabji</i>. There’s no compulsion, we were told. You can either eat this or stay hungry. We never threw a tantrum after that. We quietly ate whatever was on the table. Her logic was that discipline makes us tough. And life is supposed to be tough. Why should the world make it easy for you? You cannot handle it if you are not tough enough.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>That was from ages 5 to 15.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>After 15, Chanakya had apparently said that a parent should just be a friend. Because after that, nothing can be done on a child’s character, it has already been formed. Now, if you become a friend, at least they won’t keep secrets from you. You can be an advisor. For all of us, Maa completely relaxed on our 16th birthdays. She said, now you guys live your life, but I am there for any advice that you ever need. So, she brought us up that way.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The other rule was that the four of us siblings were not allowed to fight with each other. Therefore, if we got into fights, we were made to stand next to each other and keep kissing each other on the cheeks up to a count of 100. Normally, we would start laughing by the end, and then we would forget what we were fighting over. Her entire logic was, the world is not going to make it easy for you. So, the four of you must be like the Rock of Gibraltar with each other. Our family passed through a lot of personal tragedies for some seven to eight years, from 2015 onwards. We kept losing people in the family, some very tragically. We could have broken down into depression or worse, during that period. But we did not. The fact that the four of us siblings are very close and always there for each other―you cannot imagine what strength that gave us all. Maa was right. Your only true strength is your family. You must treasure and cherish it.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>We were always aware of the sacrifices my parents were making for us. Once, Maa had taken my sister to this convent school because that was the best school in that region, and she wanted to get her admitted there. The guard was not letting her in because he assumed that Maa was a maidservant. My sister said Maa was crying outside, but refused to leave. “I want to go in and get the form and meet the principal,” she said. Didi still feels the pain of that moment. Today, our family’s material fortunes have changed dramatically. We are living a life that they could not even have dreamt of. Now, we get the opportunity to take care of Maa, and our father when he was alive, and we love it. The fact that wives of us three brothers are also extremely close to each other, and to Didi (our eldest sister), makes it that much better for us.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>My parents used to tell us all these stories, and they were always about learning philosophies and lessons. When we were sent to boarding school, they used to send long letters to us, full of philosophy, quoting the Puranas and other texts. The letters used to come every Friday, and they would be distributed in our dormitory. My twin brother and I were together in boarding school. There were many children who did not receive letters every Friday, and you could see the disappointment on their face. We, however, received thick letters, and we were 100 per cent sure our mother would never forget. Most of it would fly over our heads, because she used to write long philosophical tracts about what life is, and what we are meant to do. But somewhere, it stuck in the back of our minds.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Unlike Maa, our father used to be very indulgent. Once, when we were living in the company colony in Odisha, my brother and I wanted to go to the club to play. Maa had said no, because we had not finished our homework. And then dad came, and we asked him. Dad said yes (as he usually did), and we ran away to the club. We came back after some two hours. Maa and dad were together, and I have never seen dad so angry. For the first time in our lives, he slapped us. ‘If Maa had told you no, how dare you even ask me,’ he asked us. ‘If Maa has said no, it means I have also said no.’ We learned a good lesson. That was a slap that was worth it.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Today, Maa is 79 and lives with my wife Shivani and me. She is happy, because all four of us are settled and doing well. She goes for walks every day in our complex. We sit and chat every morning on the balcony. She is smiling most of the time. Happiness, she says, is a choice. Not getting what you want in life is a curse, she used to tell us. But an even bigger curse is getting what you want. Because you will realise that it will not give you the happiness you thought it would. She has a quiet strength and stoicism that I admire very much. She is my rockstar. Dad’s character was more intellect-driven and philosophical. We learnt how to soar from my father and how to be rooted from my mother.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A child’s character is built by the mother; my Maa was right about that, too.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>―<b>As told to Anjuly Mathai</b></p> Mon Mar 11 11:23:07 IST 2024 tv-host-and-writer-maria-goretti-about-her-mother <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>My mother was very strict while raising us, but she was friendly and loving, too. And she always did things with us. I remember her making little holiday timetables for my sister and me, where she would mark out time for different activities like reading, studying, going out and exercising. She pushed me to do a lot in life. And I think the reason why I do things the way I do them is because of her.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>She grew up in Vasai, a Mumbai suburb. Her parents were farmers. She studied in Marathi till the 10th standard and went to Austria after her 12th to study nursing. She stayed there for 10 years. She has an affinity for languages, so she picked up German very quickly. I did not inherit that. She met my father when my grandmother was ill, and she was taking care of her in the hospital. My grandmother liked her a lot and thought she would be ideal for her son. So my grandmother was instrumental in them coming together.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>My father is 83 and retired. But I remember loving his cooking while growing up. My mom had a fixed number of dishes she would cook, but when my dad cooked, he would always go to a recipe book. So, the taste was always different. Sometimes I would tease my mother, telling her that when she went out, dad made us the best food. They had a very classical and old-fashioned marriage. But they were equal in every way, and my mother was never submissive to him. They both had a strong voice, and my father helped my mother with all the household chores. He did the grocery shopping and she did the cooking. If there was no help, they would clean the home together. So it was a very equal relationship.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>My mother has influenced me in many ways. I remember one afternoon, when I might have been in the 7th or 8th grade, I was studying, sitting half in light and half in shadow, and she was talking to me. And she told me, whatever you do in life, just see that you respect yourself. It never made sense to me then. What is she talking about, I asked myself. But somewhere that stuck with me. Today, if I’m not comfortable with something, I say it.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Now that I’m a mother myself, I look at how I am raising my children. I think I am far more liberal with them than my mother was with me and my sister. I talk to them about everything, whether they like to listen or not. But in other ways, I am exactly like my mother. Sometimes I say something and then think, ‘Oh God, that’s my mother coming out of my mouth’.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>She has always been supportive of everything I have done. Initially, she never understood what I was doing because it was so different from what the rest of my family were doing. I think it took her time to realise that doing interviews could be a career, too. Until that happened―and she realised that I was settled and doing well―she was worried.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Today, the roles have reversed. She has grown older and is losing her memory, so I am the one taking care of her. There is a lot of her in me. I’m also forgiving. I like to keep myself busy. I don’t hold grudges. If I can, I will help anyone who asks for my help. I get all that from her.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>―<b>As told to Anjuly Mathai</b></p> Sat Mar 09 14:45:35 IST 2024 award-winning-journalist-nidhi-razdan-about-her-mother <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>My mother is my best friend. I can talk to her about anything. She is the kind of person who is always full of life. She likes to always look at the bright side of things. While growing up, she was a little strict, but not as strict as my father. But as you get older, you develop a nice relationship with your mother. It is in the smallest things that I admire her. Like how she is in her 70s now, and yet she insists on wearing red lipstick. She has a large group of friends with whom she goes on walks every day. So she is very outgoing and positive in that sense.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>She grew up in Kashmir in the 1950s. And she got married to my father when she was still in college. They lived in the same neighbourhood, so, as they say, it was a love marriage in the 1960s. She was basically a homemaker, although she did help my father with his work at some point. She has written a book on Kashmiri cooking, published by Roli, which was reprinted a couple of years ago. So that was her project. She was really proud of it, and I think it meant a lot to her. She is an excellent cook. Comfort food for me is a Kashmiri <i>rogan josh</i>. I still sit with her and eat. Unfortunately, I did not inherit her cooking skills. I don’t know how to cook and am an embarrassment to her.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>I am really glad that she was there for us at home while growing up, because it made all the difference, even though she was very overprotective. She would accompany me to the school bus stop every day, even when I was in class 10. I would complain and ask her why she was doing it. On the first day of college, she wanted to drop me off in the car. I insisted on taking the DTC bus, and she came to the bus stop to see me off. I was mortified. We have had hundreds of fights when I was a teenager, on things like how long my skirt should be. But we always made up.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>When you are a child, your parents are strict and overprotective. But when you become an adult, they tend to become your friends. That’s the case with my mother. We are friends more than mother and daughter. I tell her everything. We live 10 minutes away and we talk every day, sometimes twice a day. I cannot imagine not being able to talk to my parents. But the roles have reversed. Now I am taking care of them.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>She has always been proud of me, when I won awards in college, and even when I left NDTV. Not just when I joined it, because she was proud that I took a stand, and that I stuck to my principles. She expresses that through a warm hug and a big kiss. She tells me how proud I make her all the time, and it means the world to me.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Of course, my brother is her favourite, and that has been my long-standing complaint. On a serious note, I think all mothers have a soft corner for their sons. Even if my brother does not speak to her every day, when he comes her face just lights up in a different way. I am more my father’s daughter.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The most important thing I have learned from her is her strength and positivity. Even if I am sitting at home, she’ll ask me why I am in my night suit. You should dress up, she will tell me. She is a cancer patient, and seeing how she has handled herself through that made me really proud of her. And she taught me how one can be graceful, dignified and live life to the fullest.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>―<b>As told to Anjuly Mathai</b></p> Sat Mar 09 14:44:44 IST 2024 meet-women-trailblazers-who-have-achieved-newer-and-greater-heights <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>This Republic Day, history was made twice on the Kartavya Path. First, the Union government dedicated the 2024 Republic Day Parade to women in a captivating display of 25 vibrant tableaux showcasing a ‘Viksit Bharat’―a nation developing at the hands of its women. Second, Captain Sandhya Mahla became the first woman to command a women-only tri-contingent from the Army, Navy and Air Force at the parade. This was <i>naari shakti</i> at its best and strongest, showcasing the multifaceted roles women hold within the armed forces. “We have been trained to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our male counterparts,”says Mahla. “We are all on the same footing and that is what makes it a thrill to work as a woman Army officer.”Her name will go down in history alongside that of Commander Prerna Deosthalee, the first woman commanding officer of an Indian naval warship, INS Trinkat. Her appointment, says Navy Chief Admiral R. Hari Kumar, has been in sync with the Navy’s philosophy of ‘all roles-all ranks’ for female personnel.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In the civilian world, the trailblazers have pursued their dreams with aggression, passion and empathy. Their progress and accomplishments have been antidotes to popular presumptions that women should restrict their lives to unpaid work at home, that people undervalue traits seen as ‘feminine’ and that men are uncomfortable with women in power. When Madhabi Puri Buch, after her long stint in the private sector, became the first woman and youngest person to head the Securities and Exchange Board of India, she brought in not just a varied experience but also empathy. Like Buch, each of the six trailblazers featured in the coming pages, with their accomplishments and accolades, fall in perfect harmony with the theme of this year’s International Women’s Day―‘Invest in Women: Accelerate Progress’. From successfully undertaking and executing complex scientific endeavours in India’s space programme to commanding warships and leading battalions and heading India’s biggest financial institution, these women have established their presence and prominence quietly and assertively. As Jaya Varma Sinha, the first woman to head the Railway Board, puts it succinctly, “This is the empowering decade of <i>naari shakti</i> (women power), and may their tribe increase!”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The most poignant takeaway from the conversations with these women is that almost all of them dismissed having experienced any kind of sexism in their journey to the top. Ask Sinha and she brushes it off saying, “Just the usual ones, nothing really that deserves a mention.” Mahla, meanwhile, says that these things are not given much thought nowadays, as they do not exist anymore, especially in the Army. But the all-woman crew behind the WESAT (Women Engineered Satellite), again a first, were vocal about their share of sexist sceptics. The 43-member team faced hurdles in securing sufficient funding for the project, owing to conservative mindsets that refused to believe that a women-only crew could put a satellite in orbit.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>And then comes another set of figures, hinting at all the work that still needs to be done. This past year was also the year when 5.55 lakh girls dropped out of elementary school, as per government records. A study, published in <i>The Lancet Global Health</i> on December 15, stated that one in five girls got married below the legal age of 18. This one year, not a single woman scientist won the prestigious Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize for Science and Technology. As per the data provided by the National Commission for Women, there were 28,811 complaints of crimes against women from a single state―Uttar Pradesh. This was also the year when only 100 of 2,000 listed firms had women in leadership positions, and yet another year when Bollywood failed to achieve pay parity between male and female actors. Male casual workers earned 23 per cent more than women per hour, as per The Periodic Labour Force Surveys that monitors gender earnings gap across various forms of employment.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In the 1960s and 1970s, my grandmother was one of very few female teachers in a school in central Mumbai. I remember her telling us that there were no separate toilets for women then. Her salary, too, was always less than that of her male counterparts. Feminism back then was about women trying to make a safe space for themselves in the world of men by battling blatant sexism in everyday life, and somehow managing to stand tall on their own feet, with or without help. Feminism today and in the coming future, say experts, is more about pulling men into women’s universe and getting them to be more involved into being equal partners at home and at work, thereby taking the narrative of gender equality several miles ahead. Going forward, we hope that with each passing year, our reality mirrors our hopes and dreams, that we, as women, earn not just more doctorates, but also more money; that even as we overtake men in the workforce, we do not end up doing most of the housework; that even as we make most of the consumer decisions, we are also trusted to run a higher chunk of Fortune 500 companies; and that motherhood be seen as a choice and not a career liability.</p> Sat Mar 09 13:26:18 IST 2024 how-captain-sandhya-led-the-first-all-women-contingent-on-republic-day <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>The night before the 75th Republic Day, Captain Sandhya Mahla slept for barely two hours. She had spent the day getting her uniform ready, ensuring that not a thread was out of place, that her shoes fit perfectly and the <i>pagdi</i> (turban) sat well. Around 2am, she, and the 148-strong women contingent, lined up outside the barracks to board the bus for Kartavya Path. That morning, the temperature in Delhi had dropped to four degrees and a thick blanket of fog had reduced the visibility considerably. And yet, by 4am, after a steaming cup of tea and some light snacks, the contingent had reached Vijay Chowk. For the next four hours, until the parade began, they practised at least 20 times to ensure flawless synchronisation, leaving no room for error.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Everyone was aware that this was to be a momentous day in the history of the defence services. For the first time, women soldiers from all the three services―the Army, the Navy and the Air Force―had come together to march as one contingent. Leading them was Mahla, 26, who had fervently prayed that morning for everything to go well.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The last time she had participated in the Republic Day parade was as an 18-year-old member of the National Cadet Corps (NCC) in 2017, and before that as a 12-year-old NCC cadet in 2011. It was a proud moment to have come this far, she says, from being a participant to the leader of the contingent in such a short time (she got commissioned in November 2021). “I have always believed in being true to myself and my work, and in carrying out my duties with the utmost dedication,” she says.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It was her father, Subedar K. R. Mahla (Retd), who introduced her to the defence forces and instilled in her the dream of joining it. “He would often take me with him and show me around. The campus of the services always offered a pleasant contrast to the civilian life outside. I wanted to join the defence forces from a young age,” says Mahla, who did her master’s in chemistry from the Guru Nanak Dev University in Amritsar. That morning, after the parade, the first person she waved at, with tears in her eyes, was her father, who sat in the audience, watching his daughter make the nation proud.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Despite the differences in drills and procedures of the three services, the contingent trained together as one cohesive unit. “We marched together as ambassadors of <i>nari shakti</i>, conveying a strong message that leadership is not defined by gender,” she says.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>We are in the officer’s mess at the CMP Centre and School in Bengaluru. It is lunch time and the atmosphere is relaxed and genial. We meet Mahla in the lobby, and she greets us with a firm handshake. In full uniform, she looks commanding. Just as we are speaking, two male officers pass by and congratulate her for “a brilliant display of leadership”. She smilingly thanks them. What made that historic moment special for her is that while an officer may participate in a parade during her career, the opportunity to lead a contingent comes only once in a lifetime. And this was her moment.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A native of Jhunjhunu in Rajasthan, Mahla is articulate, calm and fit―attributes that helped her excel in the forces. This is her first interview to a media house, but she quickly gets over her nervousness with her sharp wit. “This is more difficult than the parade,” she says, laughing. “I was a normal girl with basic aspirations, all of which changed after I joined the forces. The best part was to be able to do exactly what my male counterparts were doing, and to do it even better. Here, as opposed to preconceived notions among civilians, gender is of no consequence. Men and women are treated equally, and that is what makes it even more exciting and challenging to be in the armed forces.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Major Valentina D’Mello, Mahla’s superior and a paratrooper herself who spent the last four months at the CMP Centre training women soldiers and Agniveers for the Republic Day parade, says that “out of the other contestants, Mahla demonstrated excellent drill skills, word of command, and the confidence to lead a team”. For the first time, women jawans, too, were part of the contingent led by Mahla. “The Army,” says Mahla, “has given me more opportunities to prove myself than I would have ever gotten as a civilian.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Preparing for the Republic Day parade is a monumental task that requires several months of rigorous training. Mahla’s name was recommended by the academy itself. The selection process had numerous rounds. The first one was in August. In the second, 14 women officers from all the three forces competed and four were selected to be trained for the next four months. Finally, with her “excellent drill skills”, Mahla got the coveted role of leading the contingent.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“Fortunately, my seniors and colleagues trusted in my capabilities and never discouraged me from taking up any assignment,” says Mahla. “Here, both men and women work and play games together. We have equality of opportunity in every phase of our work. And that, I think, is the most liberating feeling ever. I hope I am able to set an example for young women who are looking at joining the services and am able to live up to their expectations.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>As we wrap up, she recites from a poem by the acclaimed poet Shivmangal Singh Suman that has touched her deeply: “Kya haar mein, kya jeet mein, kinchit nahin behbheet mein, sangharsh path par jo bhi mila, yeh bhi sahi, woh bhi sahi.” (Neither victory nor defeat, I’m not flustered by fear, I’ll be accepting of whatever comes in my path of struggle.)</p> Sat Mar 09 13:27:11 IST 2024 how-a-college-space-club-designed-india-s-first-women-only-satellite-payload <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>As PSLV-C58 took off from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota this January 1, the aspirations of an all-woman crew, too, soared with it. For, it carried a 1.5kg satellite payload, called the Women Engineered Satellite (WESAT), which is designed to gauge ultraviolet rays and solar irradiance in both space and on earth’s surface, examining their impact on rising temperatures and climate change in Kerala. “WESAT is India’s first women-only satellite payload,” says Lizy Abraham, 40, assistant professor at LBS Institute of Technology for Women in Thiruvananthapuram (the first engineering college in Kerala exclusively for women) and principal investigator of the WESAT mission. “Except for the Indian Space Research Organisation’s support to launch, we used only the potential of the students of LBS Institute of Technology for Women.” WESAT is the baby of the college’s 43-member space club.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>As WESAT entered the orbit and started transmitting data, it silenced sexist sceptics. “I vividly recall our meeting with ISRO last September,” shares Sheril Mariam Jose, 21, one of the student coordinators of the WESAT project. “Originally slated for launch in November, we needed to complete the payload by October. The fabrication stage alone required Rs20 lakh. Securing such a substantial sum within a limited timeframe proved challenging. We naively hoped that being a women-only mission might facilitate funding. However, given the persisting gender disparity in the technical domain, we encountered significant hurdles in convincing others of our capability to fulfil this project.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Their initial efforts to secure funding from government agencies were met with lukewarm response. “When we [first] approached them, they were not convinced, particularly because we are a group of women,” says Abraham. “I am not blaming them. They might have wondered whether we would be able to launch a satellite. But we approached the same organisations with new results, findings and updates each time. At one point, they were somewhat convinced that we could launch a satellite, but not in the near future.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>This delay in obtaining funds from government agencies compelled the team to explore crowdsourcing. Jose recalls how many individuals offered support. “They could not sponsor it entirely, but pledged to assist us with whatever they could,” she says. Unexpectedly though, the project got support from the Union and state governments through Nidhi Prayas and Kerala Startup Mission grants, enabling the team to complete the payload within the stipulated time frame.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The idea for WESAT took form in 2018―the same year when LBS institute started a space club. The leaders of the club during that phase coined the name WESAT. However, lack of sufficient reference material to construct a real satellite payload impeded their progress. It was then that Abraham returned from Ireland, where she was doing her postdoctoral research, and took charge of the project. “For about a year, we scoured various internet resources, research materials from various international space agencies and ISRO to develop a novel but feasible idea,” she says. “In 2018, Kerala experienced devastating floods, which led us to consider studying the impact of UV radiation in the context of climate change.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The idea eventually solidified into a study comparing UV radiation in space and on earth’s surface to understand the filtration rate. The team developed its dedicated methodology and submitted the full technical proposal to ISRO, but funds were still low. “They encouraged us to proceed, but we lacked the funds to even initiate a pilot study with a ground station [measuring UV radiation],” recalls Abraham. “The college provided some funding, but two other faculty members―Resmi R. and Sumithra M.D.―and I pooled in money from our salaries. We spent years developing the idea; we were determined not to abandon it halfway.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>During the Covid pandemic, the team members got more time to dedicate to WESAT. “We made good progress in documentation, defining our payload, and the software part in that phase,” says Shruti S. Nair, a former student coordinator of WESAT who is now a cloud infrastructure associate at UST Global. By early 2023, a memorandum of understanding was signed between WESAT and ISRO for the launch. Consequently, tests and re-tests on the payload entered a top-gear phase.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“Every day at 4pm, we would gather in the lab after class,” says Abraham. “The team was divided into different groups, each assigned with specific tasks. We approached WESAT not merely as a college project but as a mission. Four batches were dedicated to working on four different modules of the satellite payload. There was a team designated for documentation, and another for media. We organised hackathons to tackle issues and often worked overnight, foregoing sleep, to meet ISRO’s deadlines.” Issues and challenges arose at multiple junctures, and for many months, the team operated on a 24-hour basis. “Even after returning home around 8pm, work continued,” adds Abraham.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Late-night stays at the college did not go down well with many of the members’parents, says Abraham, nor did the fact that they were devoting all their attention to the project rather than on academics and exams. It was a challenge to convince the parents. “I had to ensure that everyone reached home safely after leaving college late at night,” she says. “Sometimes, buses were unavailable, and some students lived in remote areas. So, I had to consider their transportation options. Furthermore, there are numerous restrictions on women travelling at night. It is society that imposes these kinds of restrictions on us. If late-night travel is not safe, it is not because of women. It is the society that makes it unsafe.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>There were moments of lightness and fun, too. Devika D.K., 22, a WESAT student coordinator and a scholar of applied electronics and instrumentation engineering, recalls the day of their students’union elections. The team was visiting the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre. “Phones were not allowed inside, so we didn’t know the results until we left,” she shares. “Just after exiting the VSSC gate, we eagerly checked the results and discovered that our new chairperson and vice-chairperson were part of our team. We celebrated that victory there.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The mission was not without adventure, of course. “Once, we received instructions [from ISRO] to immediately reach Sriharikota [which is close to 900km from Thiruvananthapuram] for the integration of our payload [into the launch vehicle],” says Surya Jayakumar, 22, also a student of applied electronics and instrumentation engineering. “We checked, and there were no train tickets available. We were unsure whether we could carry our payload on a flight. So, we decided to travel by road. Lizy ma’am, Devika and I went by car, and ma’am drove the entire distance without any major halts in between.” On their arrival, they found team members from other payload teams. “But we were the only three women there, and all of them were very appreciative and encouraging, as two of us were young students,” she recalls.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The WESAT team members later had the chance to enter the Mission Control Centre and the Mobile Service Tower of ISRO, and most of them were present in Sriharikota to witness their satellite being launched on New Year’s Day. “WESAT was our final year project, and many people, including faculty members and friends, questioned how we could trust this project, given the uncertainty surrounding its output and success,” says Surya. “If we had not achieved the desired results, our entire engineering course could have been jeopardised. But we chose the less-travelled path, and that made all the difference.”</p> Sat Mar 09 13:27:56 IST 2024 how-commander-prerna-deosthalee-became-the-first-woman-to-be-appointed-commanding-officer-of-an-indian-naval-ship <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>For the first time in history, the Indian Navy appointed a woman as the commanding officer of an Indian naval ship. On Navy Day on December 4, Commander Prerna Deosthalee assumed command of the Goa-based warship INS Trinkat, a fast attack craft of the Indian Navy, named after Trinkat island in the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago. A post-graduate in psychology from St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai, Deosthalee joined the Indian Navy in 2009, led by “a sense of adventure and an urge to do something different, something for the larger good”. Since her growing-up years in Mumbai, she was fascinated with naval, aircraft and helicopter operations. When her younger brother joined the Navy, she, too, was motivated to do so.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Today, she is married to a naval officer and has a three-year-old daughter. “My family’s encouragement and its lineage encouraged me to join the Indian Navy and live my dream,” she says. “Belief in oneself is the only quality required; the Navy trains you well for everything else. We have an ocean of opportunities which enables both professional and personal growth for officers and sailors.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Life at sea, says Deosthalee, is engaging. “The day is full of challenges as well as fun-filled activities,” she says. “On some days, you are chasing and capturing pirates, and on other days you are saving lives. Sometimes you are on a mission to aid a friendly nation, and other times you are on one representing India on foreign shores. You get to witness some of the best spectacles of nature at sea―the best sunrises, sunsets and photogenic skies. Sometimes you get to see schools of dolphin or whale crossing the ocean. Some nights you experience the ocean glittering with bioluminescence, and on other nights, you witness the grandeur of the Milky Way, with the occasional shooting star underscoring your wish to return home soon.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>And going forward, what is her wish for herself? “I have realistic dreams that are achievable. I aspire to be the best in whatever I do and to do my duty well and, hopefully, make a difference,” she says.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Deosthalee grew up in a close-knit family―her father was a professor at Mumbai University and her mother was a CFA (chief financial advisor) at the Mumbai Port. Since childhood, she says, her parents emphasised on their overall development. In school and college, she was not only a good student, but swam, played tennis, and participated in various extracurricular activities. This well-rounded personality is what made her perfectly suited for the defence forces, regardless of her gender.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The services, says Deosthalee, are gender neutral. “Gender has never been a hindrance for women in the services and women joining warships,” she says. “Women are already enrolled for combat duties such as fighter pilots and air operations officers. I can cite my own example in the Navy. I am, at present, the First Lieutenant (deputy executive officer) on board the INS Chennai, a frontline destroyer. After I was granted permanent commission in 2020, I underwent training in warship operations and all other tasks that a warship undertakes. Thereafter, I was tasked equally as my male counterparts. As the First Lieutenant, I was involved in operation deployments, managing the ship’s routine and its personnel onboard.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>She says that earning the trust of her teammates to meet objectives―sometimes even at risk to their lives in highly challenging and life-threatening conditions―is something the Navy trains you well for. “The Navy is a tight-knit family, and the bonding and camaraderie are unmatchable,” she says.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>To all those women who aspire to join the armed forces, the commander insists on professional competence and a sense of honour, duty and courage. “The Navy also hones your management skills,” she says. “The most important thing that the armed forces teach you is self-discipline and staying composed in all situations. The Navy is not a job or a career. It is a way of life.”</p> Sat Mar 09 13:28:46 IST 2024 v-bellie-one-half-of-the-oscar-winning-the-elephant-whisperers-is-the-first-woman-cavady-in-tamil-nadu <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>It is a balmy day in Gudalur, a small town near Ooty in Nilgiris district. The 34km stretch from Gudalur to Mudumalai hill station in the Western Ghats is a traveller’s paradise. Walking down the serene forest path, you will have inquisitive langurs, elegant deer, speedy leopards, chirpy birds and majestic elephants for company (mostly unseen and sometimes silent). The road leads to a sparse forest as we enter Mudumalai. Off the forest main road is a muddy path that brings you to a quaint little tribal settlement, home to Bomman and Bellie―the couple from Oscar-winning <i>The Elephant Whisperers</i>.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Clad in a blue-and-white floral print sari, a beaming Bellie welcomes me to her home. “This is my bungalow. Come in,” she says, as I look up at the sunlight streaming in through the tiny holes in the asbestos sheet roof. Utensils, clothes and bamboo baskets are strewn on the muddy floor. A few of the wooden panels that make up the wall are broken―thanks to Raghu, the orphaned jumbo star of the documentary. “He would lie down here. He only broke the wall,” says Bellie, grinning.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Last August, in recognition of her services towards orphaned elephant calves, the Tamil Nadu government appointed V. Bellie as the first woman <i>cavady</i> (assistant to the mahout) of the Theppakadu elephant camp. The new job means a steady income for Bomman, a mahout, and Bellie, who fell in love while co-parenting Raghu. “I do not even know that I am the first woman <i>cavady</i>,” says Bellie. “I have been doing this job since Raghu came to me. The job helps me buy medicines, [send] my grandchildren to school and buy books for them.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Before last year’s appointment, Bellie was working as a temporary caretaker at the Theppakadu elephant camp, which was established in 1917 and currently houses close to 25 elephants. “I love my job,” gushes Bellie, 51. “The elephant calves are comfortable growing up when women raise them.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Bellie’s tryst with elephants began in 2017 when three-month-old Raghu was brought to the camp after its mother was electrocuted. Raghu was grievously injured and was not comfortable with the mahouts in the camp. This is when the forest authorities roped in Bellie to look after Raghu. “It wasn’t an easy task in the beginning,” admits Bellie, who was a housewife till a few years ago.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Hailing from the native Kattunayakan tribal community of Ooty, Bellie was first married to Sennan, who used to work for the forest department; he would help with carrying out the wildlife census. “He could identify any animal passing through the forest with its sound and smell,” recalls Bellie. She had three children―a son and two daughters―from her first marriage, which ended with her husband’s death; Sennan was killed by a leopard in the forest. “After his death, I came into the elephant camp to earn a living,” says Bellie.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Initially, Bellie had little knowledge about animals. Sennan’s death had scared and scarred her. But Raghu healed her; today, she is an expert in taking care of elephants. “If the elephant is sick or down with fever, its eyes will water nonstop,” she says. “Its ears will turn warm. Elephants are just like human beings, and feel the same towards us like children feel for their parents.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Under her care, Raghu and Bommi, another orphaned elephant she cared for, were fed milk and ragi balls, as per the instruction of the veterinary doctors at the elephant camp. She would take Raghu out on walks in the forest and also train him to live in the wild. “It is not easy to raise elephant calves. I had to dedicate a major part of my daily life to that,” recalls Bellie. Most days, Raghu would accompany her home, which was outside the elephant camp. It was on one of those trips that he broke the wooden panels of her home.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>You could call Raghu clingy, but he was a baby and an orphan at that when Bellie walked into his life. He did not even let her visit her dying daughter, who had set herself ablaze, in hospital. By the time Bellie had calmed Raghu down and reached the hospital, her daughter had died. But Bellie does not hold any grudges. She is a mother, after all. She is, in fact, grateful for Raghu―it is thanks to him that she found love again, in Bomman.</p> <p>Bellie raised Raghu for five years and later handed him to the camp authorities. “My work as a caretaker got over after I handed over Raghu. I work in the temple associated with the camp these days,” says Bellie. “Now I don’t come into the camp when Raghu is here. He will not go away if he sees me. He will run around and even hit everyone if he sees me.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The world may know of Bellie because of the Oscars, but her world remains the same. “I only know this camp, the elephants here and the Western Ghats,” she says.</p> Sat Mar 09 13:29:50 IST 2024 railway-board-chief-jaya-varma-sinha-on-making-the-workplace-gender-sensitive <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>The railways conjure an image of strong-limbed men toiling and grunting while lifting heavy iron equipment under the hot sun to lay down the tracks. But the world’s fourth largest railway network is now headed by a woman.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>For Jaya Varma Sinha, who took over as the first woman chief executive officer and chairperson of the Railway Board last September 1, ascribing gender characteristics to the profession may seemingly amount to profiling.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“Railways worldwide have traditionally been a male-dominated sector as it demands 24x7 operations,” she tells THE WEEK. “However, working in the railways for more than 36 years and seeing women across ranks perform have taught me that skill sets, dedication and competence are gender-agnostic. I am proud and honoured that I have this opportunity to lead this wonderful organisation at a transformative stage. I am thrilled to be part of this journey. This is the empowering decade of <i>naari shakti</i> (women power), and may their tribe increase!”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Railway Board is the apex panel that manages various verticals of the country’s rail transport, and Sinha has experience in most. Her leadership has been crucial in the ongoing modernisation of the railways and its infrastructure, and in the launching of the Vande Bharat trains.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Nearly one lakh women are working in the Indian Railways, including those in critical roles such as loco pilots, guards, station masters, track maintainers and fitters. “There is no job in the railways that women are not performing with distinction, and this number is continuously increasing,” says Sinha. “We are committed to making the workplace gender-sensitive and -conducive, with a view to encouraging women to continue taking up challenging assignments.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>While Sinha was praised for her public handling and communication skills in the aftermath of the Balasore train accident that claimed 296 lives last June, her entry into the Railways was accidental.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“My parents were the wind beneath my [wings],” says Sinha. “Though my father was a civil servant, I was keen to pursue a major in physics. However, I missed the cut-off that year and ended up doing master’s in psychology (from Allahabad University) instead. That allowed me to think of the civil services as an option and here we are!”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>She has crossed many a milestone in her career. During her stint as railway adviser in the High Commission of India in Bangladesh, the Maitree Express from Kolkata to Dhaka began operations. It was also during her tenure as additional member (traffic transportation) that the railways clocked all-time high growth rates in freight. Her next assignment was as member (operations and business development).</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Sinha, a keen photographer, takes pride in women being natural multi-taskers. “Women do have a natural aptitude to multi-task and it does help,” she says. “However, it is the focus that gets the job done. Remaining involved, focused and committed to the task is, like I said, gender-neutral.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Asked if she faced any struggles on her way up, Sinha brushes it off: “Just the usual ones, nothing really that deserves a mention.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>She wants all girls and boys to pursue their dreams, irrespective of gender norms. “Whatever be the interest, they must give it their best shot and endeavour to achieve their true potential, as well as economic independence,” she asserts. “We are fortunate to be living in times when gender barriers in the physical world are dropping. So let there be no barriers remaining in the mind.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>And does it feel special to be the first woman CEO of the Railway Board? “It has certainly given me a lot of attention,”says Sinha. “I feel really honoured and humbled by the opportunity. There are huge expectations from the railways. Indian Railways remains the lifeline of the country, and we hope that with the thrust that we are receiving from the government, we would be able to fulfill those expectations.”</p> Sat Mar 09 14:33:38 IST 2024 sebi-head-madhabi-puri-buch-on-why-women-should-let-the-numbers-do-the-talking <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>When Madhabi Puri Buch took over as chairperson of the Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) in 2022, there were several firsts. She is not only the first woman to become the head of the capital markets regulator, but also the first woman to lead any financial market regulator in India. She is also the youngest SEBI chief and the first from the private sector.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Buch, 58, is also only the second non-IAS SEBI chief. The first one was G.N. Bajpai, former chairman of Life Insurance Corporation of India, who took over in 2002. While many were surprised that the new chief was not from the Central services, Buch was well-qualified to head SEBI at a time when capital markets in India were seeing a huge growth.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Buch, who did her schooling in Fort in Mumbai and in Delhi, graduated in mathematics from St Stephen’s College and joined IIM Ahmedabad for her MBA.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Buch spent much of her career at ICICI Bank in various positions, including as CEO of ICICI Housing Finance, CEO of ICICI Securities, and executive director. From ICICI, she went to Greater Pacific Capital, Singapore. She was consultant for the New Development Bank (earlier known as BRICS Bank) and Agora Advisory. She has served on the board of various companies, including Max Healthcare, InnoVen Capital, Zensar Technologies and Idea Cellular. Buch was also the whole-time member of SEBI for over four years. All that experience of more than three decades has given Buch an insider’s view on how financial markets and institutions function, thereby helping her in her role as SEBI boss.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“I can empathise with the industry,” Buch told THE WEEK. “You know, if a company is wanting to bring an IPO and the environment is good, but there is a delay from the regulator and you miss that window and the market collapses, it really hurts the system a lot. So that sensitivity to say that there is a genuine need out there and we need to be able to respond to it, is something that I bring to the table because I have been on that side and I have experienced the pain of what it means to not get approvals in time.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Bringing the market regulator up to speed has been one of her focuses since taking over as SEBI chairperson. Not only has she ensured that the internal approval process is quicker, but also that investor complaints are addressed in a time-bound manner. All this has been made possible with the extensive use of technology tools like artificial intelligence.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“One big change that we brought in was saying that whenever anyone applies for an approval to us, any delay in processing that application, whether it is accepting or rejecting, causes a lot of grief to the person who has applied. Time is money, money is time,” said Buch.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Under her watch, for instance, markets have now moved to T+1 trading settlement, wherein trades executed on the stock market are settled the next day. This when many players in the global market are struggling to do it.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>While the focus is on speed, there is also a lot of stress on data. “I simply won’t accept a piece of paper without the data and analysis,” she said.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Even as Buch empathises with the industry, she is well aware that tough decisions must be taken. “When you are trying to bring more efficiency, more transparency, more risk mitigation into the system, some incumbents don’t like it,” she explained. “When they argue against it, very often, they find that it’s hard to argue with me, because I have run that business with my own hands.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Her career has also given her a first-hand view of how India’s capital markets have evolved over the decades. She was part of the team that set up ICICI Direct, the country’s first online share trading platform, in the late 1990s. While most people today trade and invest online, those days people would have to make a phone call to their broker to place a trade request. She remembers investors telling her how the online broking platform had democratised access to stock markets.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“The day we crossed a daily turnover of Rs1 crore, we had a major celebration,” said Buch. “Today, its like a microsecond.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Those were exhilarating times for her. “The empowerment we had as young leaders to really build out those businesses and to enjoy what we were doing and to see that manifest in terms of growth of the company, the bank, the sector, all of that was a lot of fun,” said Buch.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>She says she has been fortunate enough to have not faced gender discrimination. “I have been professionally very fortunate, and I have also been personally very fortunate to have a husband, in-laws, parents, son, who have been so supportive that frankly I haven’t had any challenges,” said Buch.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A lot of her can-do attitude comes from her mother, Rama. A working mother of two children, Rama did her PhD at 40. She wrote multiple books and travelled to many countries. “It was taken for granted that a professional woman will have a professional life and will do whatever it takes to have a meaningful profession. You just absorb these things as you grow up,” said Buch.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A lot of times, women face issues balancing work and personal life. Buch says that on the personal front, one needs to choose a partner who respects you as a professional as well. She calls her husband, Dhaval, a “gentleman”. Dhaval Buch has also had a corporate career, and is currently a senior adviser at private equity major Blackstone.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>At the same time, Buch says women should choose careers where the performance can be measured objectively, like sales.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“When the numbers speak, there is no debate, no discussion that you are a high performer,” she said, “and then nobody can stop you.”</p> Sat Mar 09 13:31:34 IST 2024 gold-smuggling-in-india-new-trends-and-international-routes <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Lights dim in Dongri, the bustling port town in Maharashtra that was once home to smuggler-gangsters Karim Lala, Haji Mastan and Dawood Ibrahim. As crowds leave the market streets, shutters are rolled down and gunnysacks are heaved into cars, carts and two-wheelers.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Sleuths of the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence make frequent visits to the deserted alleys at this hour, hoping to stumble upon consignments of gold, that might have escaped the airports and seaports of the financial capital. In January alone, the Mumbai airport customs seized gold worth more than Rs3 crore in different cases―gold wired in trolley bags and inner wear in flights from Jeddah, and gold dust from Dubai. The identity of the suppliers and whether the gold was meant to be sold in shops dotting Dongri have become a matter of investigation.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>What the customs caught is just a drop in the ocean. Dongri made a rude comeback on the smuggling map in 2019 as the melting pot for smuggled gold from around the globe. In April that year, as much as 4,522.75kg gold worth Rs1,473 crore was seized from just one Dongri-based syndicate. It was the largest such cache seized from a smuggling group in recent history.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The DRI said the Dongri operation employed 18 Sudanese women. They were arrested while trying to evade scanners at the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport. The women carried gold worth Rs10 crore each―as gold dust and paste on skin, and gold capsules in body cavities. They did not know each other. Their mission: obtain Customs clearance and contact a handler, who would extract the gold, melt it and hand it over to a middleman―Yunus Shaikh in Dongri. Yunus, in turn, would deliver it to a jeweller at Kalbadevi.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Of late, India has become a hub for Sudanese syndicates running a booming trans-Saharan gold racket. Sudanese nationals enter India through the porous Indo-Nepal border or fly in from the UAE. In 2023, more than a dozen Sudanese gold smugglers were caught in Patna, Pune, Mumbai, Kolkata, Delhi and Kochi.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Sudan is Africa’s third largest, and the world’s tenth largest, producer of gold. With the Russia-Ukraine war having caused a spike in global gold prices, Sudanese mines are being plundered. The army and rebel forces are fighting each other for control of the mines; hundreds of tonnes of gold are being smuggled out of the country every year. As one of the world’s biggest gold smuggling markets, India has become a hub of this illicit trans-Saharan gold trade. Long-dormant smuggling networks in the country are being activated and new ones created.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>**</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In 2022-23, gold smuggling in India touched a four-year high. Almost 4,000kg of smuggled gold were seized in the first 11 months of the fiscal year. The Union finance ministry told Parliament that the figure was nearly equal to the combined seizures of the previous two years, and 10 per cent higher than the pre-Covid year of 2019-20.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The DRI―one of the leanest Central agencies, with 800 personnel―has since doubled its efforts to bust domestic and international smuggling syndicates. Under its radar are airports and seaports in Gujarat, Mumbai, Kochi, Chennai and Kolkata, and borders between India and Nepal, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Even as old and new smuggling routes come alive, traditional smuggling methods are being combined with commercial fraud, whereby unscrupulous manufacturers misuse government schemes that allow import of gold bullion without payment of Customs duties. These manufacturers divert gold to the grey market, while fulfilling their obligations under government schemes by exporting copper and other non-precious material.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“The increase in the price of gold in the international market and the substantial change in rupee-dollar parity have increased the landing cost of gold,” said B.V. Kumar, former director general of the DRI. “Smuggling provides an easy opportunity to make quick profits.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Dongri bust in 2019 led DRI investigators to the Gulf of Kutch and the Mundra port in Gujarat. Nisar Aliyar, the alleged kingpin of the syndicate, had been smuggling gold from the UAE into these places. To avoid detection, the gold is painted black and concealed in brass scrap. Over two years, Nisar and co. allegedly smuggled in 4,522kg of gold in 55 consignments of brass scrap. The gold was later shipped to several metros.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“Gold has always been a strong substitute for hard cash in India, and considered a safe investment in times of financial uncertainty,” says A. Sakthivel, president of the Federation of Indian Export Organisations (FIEO). “India is one of the top gold importers, but since it hiked import duty on the metal to 15 per cent, the country has recorded a steep fall in imports.” It has since incentivised illicit trade.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Dongri chase resulted in the arrest of smuggler Shoeb Zarodarwala and his son Abdul. Shoeb told investigators that he was running a tour and travel business when he met Nisar, who introduced himself as a trader of aluminium and brass scrap in Dubai. Nisar offered Shoeb a cut if he helped him move gold in India.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Shoeb personally delivered the first gold consignment of 50kg, and made hawala payments to Nisar in Dubai through operators in Mumbai. A popular identification technique in smuggling was used to deliver the money. The carriers show the image of a currency note on WhatsApp, and it is matched with the note in the hands of the hawala operator. The smuggled gold, meanwhile, reaches buyers who melt it in tiny shops in crowded jewellery markets in several cities.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>According to the DRI, 90kg gold worth Rs29.57 crore was siphoned off from the Dongri consignment even before the DRI could lay its hands on it. The agency invoked the stringent provisions of the 1974 Conservation of Foreign Exchange and Prevention of Smuggling Activities Act (COFEPOSA) against the accused. But Nasir still got a reprieve after 18 months, the maximum detention period under the law.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“Correct enforcement of the law is a problem for agencies, which mostly conduct investigations based on information that may or may not be true. It is a situation of wheels within wheels,” said Sujay Kantawala, lawyer at the Bombay High Court. Kantawala has handled several cases of smuggling, money laundering and tax evasion.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In 2022, the government raised the monetary threshold for prosecution and arrests in commercial fraud and smuggling cases from Rs1 crore to Rs2 crore. The threshold for duty evasion and outright smuggling was raised from Rs20 lakh to Rs50 lakh. It means if the value of the smuggled gold is less than Rs2 crore, the smuggler can get bail on the spot.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>As profits overtake risks, smuggling goes up. When the RBI decided to withdraw Rs2,000 currency notes from circulation, there was a rush to offload the notes. “What better incentive than to buy gold?” asked Kantawala.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Every day, tonnes of gold smuggled by the transnational network with roots in Sudan make their way into India’s huge grey market. The network is so vast that both private and public companies have come under the DRI scanner. The agency recently found that several well-known private jewellers and the government-owned Metals and Minerals Trading Corporation (MMTC) were part of transactions that flouted provisions of the Special Economic Zone Act, 2005, and misused tax-incentive schemes to manufacture gold jewellery. In 2021, the Enforcement Directorate found that a jewellery firm had laundered money through its transactions with MMTC. The jewellery’s assets worth hundreds of crores of rupees were seized.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>India’s appetite for gold is driving commercial frauds as well. In one instance, the air cargo (export) wing at the Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi received intelligence that a company based in a special economic zone in Noida had “mis-declared” one of its consignments. The company, which was trading with a jewellery firm, had declared a gold consignment weighing 26.9kg, valued at Rs5.62 crore. But when DRI personnel broke the seal on the package, they found a locked metal trunk with 16 cardboard boxes. Fifteen boxes were labelled “traditional sweets”, and the sixteenth one was a big red box whose invoice said “studded jewellery”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A jewellery appraiser was soon called in and all boxes were opened. They contained more than 500 pieces of polished yellow jewellery made of copper, nickel and silver. The red box had gold earrings with non-precious beads. The whole consignment had just 3.16kg of gold, against the declared 23.49kg.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The accused told the DRI that the gold was imported duty-free into the special economic zone, and it was sold secretly to buyers in jewellery hubs in Karol Bagh and Chandni Chowk in Delhi. Hawala payments were made to Dubai. According to the DRI’s rough estimates, the Noida company diverted at least 450kg gold using the method.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Officials say they continue to bust such rackets across the national capital region. “The biggest impact is on the exchequer, which not only loses Customs revenue, but also the foreign exchange that could have been earned had the items manufactured from imported gold were actually exported. More often than not, such practices lead to generation of black money and [drive] money laundering,” said Sreekumar Menon, former director general of the National Academy of Customs, Indirect Taxes and Narcotics.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Gold is smuggled into India primarily through two means. Commercial smuggling, where various export and import schemes are misused, and “outright smuggling” by individual carriers who evade Customs duty. Evidence says it is commercial smuggling, rather than smuggling by individuals, that costs the government more. With better intelligence, chances of seizing illegal consignments, identifying kingpins, and prosecuting and penalising them are increasing.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But <i>kuruvis</i> remain a conundrum. <i>Kuruvis</i>, or sparrows, is a popular name for human mules who smuggle gold into India in various forms and pass them on to anonymous handlers. Once these <i>kuruvis</i> succeed in evading Customs check at airports and coastal areas, there is little chance of recovering the gold, say investigators. For syndicates and kingpins, <i>kuruvis</i> are also expendable―they are lone agents who know neither their handler nor the larger network behind the operation.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The payout involved in gold smuggling lures individuals to become <i>kuruvis</i>. Also, it is easier to carry gold than sandalwood, narcotics or foreign currency. Gold is biologically inert, and it can even pass through the digestive tract without being absorbed. The variety of ways by which gold can be smuggled lures many people to take the risk.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>THE WEEK met Munna, 40, a former sandalwood smuggler from Chennai who has had many successful runs both as a kuruvi and as a handler of <i>kuruvis</i>. Munna said he started smuggling gold because he wanted to fill his <i>undiyal</i> (piggy bank) as fast as possible. He smiles when asked about his <i>undiyal</i>. “It is a very lucrative business,” he said. “The risk is very high, but each successful consignment can fetch a few crore rupees. The profits depend on quantity.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Munna ran a network of 300 <i>kuruvis</i> and devised a method using iPhones to double his profits. “Each iPhone can carry 225gm of gold inside. So nearly 40 people can carry up to 9kg gold a day. We used to send people in batches; there were around 300 agents doing the work.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Even though the DRI is on its feet, Munna said corrupt officials at local level aid the smuggling syndicates. In 2019, though, he got unlucky and one of his consignments was intercepted. “Bribe is paid at various levels of one agency. If all the authorities do their job properly, this won’t be possible,” he said. “These days, gold is carried as paste. Once rubbed with toothpaste or vaseline, it does not get detected during baggage screening.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>According to Munna, airports are the preferred landing point for many gold consignments. “The markings on the gold are removed in big factories in NCR and taken to open markets in Chennai, Hyderabad and Kozhikode. The best market for gold these days is Hong Kong, which offers the highest price.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A frequent flyer, Munna says a smuggler’s favourite flight would be a transit flight like Dubai to Colombo via Chennai. “Since Sri Lankan authorities check direct flights from Chennai, transit flights are better,” he said.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The stretch of sea between the Jaffna peninsula in northern Sri Lanka and Mandapam in Tamil Nadu’s Ramanathapuram district offers several options to fishermen-turned-<i>kuruvis</i>. The sandy islets off the Mandapam coast, for instance, can serve as landing points. “By evening, the landing points become active and everyone knows that boats will be coming in at certain points,” said Tamilarasan, a fisherman-kuruvi who claimed to have smuggled 35kg of gold before he was caught by the DRI.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Tamilarasan said it was common for fishermen in the region to moonlight as <i>kuruvis</i>. The proceeds from the smuggling boost the local economy in many ways. The Sri Lankan boats confiscated and abandoned by Customs, for instance, come in handy for fishermen near Mandapam. “Often, local fishermen remove the Sri Lankan markings, paint them and refurbish them, and use them as regular boats,” said Tamilarasan.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But there are those who have burnt their fingers. THE WEEK met a carrier who was caught in 2020 while trying to smuggle gold on a two-wheeler from Rameswaram to Chennai. He said he wanted to make a quick buck because his mother had fallen ill. “I simply had to pick the packet from the landing point at Mandapam and deliver it to an agent in Chennai. I am probably the only gold smuggler in the entire region who got caught the very first time. I lost more than I earned,” he said.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Gold smuggling has been causing political storms as well. In 2020, the Customs in Thiruvananthapuram seized 30kg of 24-carat gold from a diplomatic bag meant to be delivered to the UAE consulate. This was the first case that pointed to the existence of a transnational network involving diplomats, bureaucrats and smugglers. The Enforcement Directorate said it cracked encrypted voice recordings of conversations between hawala operators and gold smugglers. In February 2023, the Financial Action Task Force, a global anti-money laundering agency, said smugglers were using alternative banking systems (hawala) to facilitate currency exchange for purchasing gold in the Middle East, illegally transporting it to India through diplomatic bags, selling it on the black market, and turning them into jewellery for retailing.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The growing demand for purity has smugglers focusing on the India-Myanmar border. Intelligence reports say armed ethnic groups that illegally run gold mines in states such as Kachin, Kayin, Mon and Shan in Myanmar are driving the cross-border gold trade. The groups refine gold by crude methods and take it to border towns where it is converted into gold bars.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Smugglers have been exploiting the ‘free movement regime’ on the India-Myanmar border that came into effect in 2018. Apparently, gold from Myanmar enters India mainly through border towns such as Zokhawthar in Mizoram and Moreh in Manipur. It is then taken by carriers on customised cars, vans, buses and trucks to Aizawl, Silchar, Guwahati, Kolkata, Delhi and Chandigarh. Apparently, demand has so grown that crude gold from Thailand and China is now entering India via Myanmar. On February 8, the Union government announced the scrapping of the free movement regime.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>M. Ajay, advocate at the Kerala High Court, said the first step in curbing smuggling was to make it less lucrative. Also, he said, law enforcement agencies needed to keep pace with the changing nature of offences. Often, they take the easier option of detaining offenders under COFEPOSA, which Ajay said was not a punishment for offences committed but a law to prevent the commission of more crimes.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“I have not seen many cases where end-users who put [smuggled gold] to commercial use are investigated,” he said. “It is only small fish that get trapped in long years of litigation.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Sample this</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Mumbai saw the most seizures in January 2024; three sample case studies</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>BOOTY UP THE BOTTOM</b></p> <p>Two residents of Thane, Maharashtra, travelled from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, to Mumbai by Vistara Airlines flight no UK236 on January 18. They were intercepted based on specific intel and eight pieces of “24-carat gold dust in wax” were found concealed up the rectum. The haul weighed a combined 2.42kg and was valued at Rs1.34 crore.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>SEAT EXCHANGE</b></p> <p>A resident of Tiruchirappalli, Tamil Nadu, flew from Thiruvananthapuram to Mumbai on IndiGo flight 6E5108 on January 17. The flight had come from Sharjah earlier the same day. The authorities got a tip that during the international leg, gold was concealed under seat 10C and that during the domestic leg the passenger in 12C would recover it and try to exit from Terminal 1. Upon arrival in Mumbai, Customs officers nabbed the passenger and recovered “two pieces of 24-carat melted gold bars” weighing 1.448kg, valued at more than Rs80 lakh.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>WATCH YOUR STEP</b></p> <p>A resident of Dwarka, Gujarat, flew from Dubai to Mumbai on Emirates flight EK500 on January 23-24. Four pieces of “24-carat crude gold jewellery” were found concealed in the shoes worn by the passenger. They weighed 1.419kg.</p> Sat Mar 02 12:41:21 IST 2024 former-chairman-central-board-of-indirect-taxes-and-customs-vivek-johri-interview <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><i>Interview/ Vivek Johri, former chairman, Central Board of Indirect Taxes and Customs</i></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Central Board of Indirect Taxes and Customs (CBIC) is the apex body under Union finance ministry for formulating policies and collecting customs and central excise duties and indirect taxes in India. Every year for the past few years, the CBIC has been interdicting smuggling cases in the range of Rs17,000 crore to Rs22,000 crore. Apart from these are cases of export-import fraud involving evasion of Customs duties.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In the 2023-24 fiscal year (up to November 2023), as many as 4,040 cases of gold smuggling involving 2,984kg of the precious metal were registered. Former CBIC chairman Vivek Johri says illicit trade and smuggling not just adversely impact the economy, but threaten national security as well.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Excerpts from an exclusive interview:</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ There seems to have been a rise in gold smuggling. How worrisome is the trend?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> The number of seizures have increased in recent years. We have seen a variety of methods being deployed―body concealment, and attempts to smuggle gold as powder, paste and foil. After many years, seizures of gold have also been made near the coastline, pointing to the possibility of sea routes being used. The alertness of Indian law enforcement agencies has compelled gold smuggling syndicates to adopt new methods and strategies. Increased surveillance at international airports has forced a change of route from West Asia by air to land route―that is, through the land borders in the northeast.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ There is a debate on whether the rise in gold import duty leads to more smuggling. Is there a pattern?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> Smuggling is often seen as a function of demand. Demand is linked to a number of factors; [import] duty is just one of them. Other factors may include quantitative restrictions or other domestic imperatives. Since gold is treated as a liquid asset, smuggling also depends on the relative asset prices that influence investment decisions, and hence, the demand for gold. The pattern of smuggling, as expressed by seizures, therefore, is often seen as mirroring the consumption-demand cycle.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ What policy interventions are being taken to tackle the gold smuggling menace?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> In addition to the measures on the enforcement side, the policy related to the import of gold, jewellery and precious stones is being calibrated keeping in view the emergent trends in trade and the demand for these items. For example, the duty on gold doré bars (a semi-pure alloy of gold and silver) has been pegged at a lower rate than gold so as to encourage domestic value addition.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ What operational steps are being taken by the Customs and the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence to keep a tight vigil?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> The alertness of Indian law enforcement agencies has compelled gold smuggling syndicates to adopt new methods and strategies. In recent times, coastal as well as land routes have been used to smuggle gold. In order to further improve the efficacy of our response, we have been working on using data analytics and enhancing the use of technology for screening passengers. This helps us sharpen the focus of our enforcement endeavour.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Increased surveillance at international airports and risk-profiling of passengers using data triangulation have produced good results. The department has also invested heavily in non-intrusive technology such as X-ray screening of baggage and marine containers to detect concealment of gold and other contraband. Likewise, infrastructure for body-scanning of passengers is also being ramped up at airports.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ Besides smuggling by carriers, there is misuse of export promotion schemes, special economic zones and other end-user based exemptions. How are we handling it?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> We have been working to improve not only the number, but also the quality of our interventions. This has been done by enhanced use of data analytics, use of artificial intelligence and machine learning, data triangulation and extensive coordination with our international partners.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The introduction of the system for processing of import documents on the ICEGATE platform (Indian Customs Electronic Data Interchange Gateway), coupled with the automation of the process for duty-free imports of items under the Import of Goods at Concessional Rates of Duty Rules, has led to not only greater facilitation but also better targeting of likely evasion. There has been a constant endeavour to counter the smuggling of gold through enforcement and legal interventions, which include strengthening surveillance with the latest technology and tools, risk profiling, intelligence gathering and incentivising informers, and increasing inter-agency and international cooperation at land borders and on sea routes.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ The biggest drawback in the crackdown on smuggling is that big fish get away and poor carriers get caught.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/ </b>One of the objectives of the provision related to controlled delivery in the Customs Act was to apprehend the mastermind behind the syndicate. (A ‘controlled delivery’ is the procedure of allowing the delivery of an illegal consignment so that the individuals who commissioned the offence could be identified.) Efforts are also on to triangulate data from our partners such as airlines and financial institutions. In certain cases, especially those involving coastal landing efforts and seizures in open seas, efforts have been made to trace the overseas sources of origin in coordination with our partner agencies.</p> Sat Mar 02 15:39:43 IST 2024 gem-and-jewellery-export-promotion-council-chairman-vipul-shah-interview <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><i>Interview/ Vipul Shah, chairman, Gem and Jewellery Export Promotion Council</i></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>India is the fourth largest exporter of gold jewellery, the second largest of silver jewellery, and the world leader in exporting cut and polished diamonds. India is also emerging as a leading manufacturer of lab-grown diamonds.</p> <p>Vipul Shah, chairman, Gem and Jewellery Export Promotion Council, says India needs to strictly enforce hallmarking regulations to curb the circulation of impure gold and consolidate its position as “jeweller to the world”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Excerpts from an interview:</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ Are regulatory frameworks and infrastructure in India sufficient to meet long-term demand?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> With annual exports nearing $40 billion, India has established itself as a prominent participant in the global gems and jewellery market. With a skilled workforce of five million individuals and a robust infrastructure, India is in a favourable position to leverage its strengths.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Gems and Jewellery Export Promotion Council (GJEPC) is spearheading several initiatives aimed at augmenting the industry’s infrastructure, including setting up a jewellery park in Mumbai and a gem bourse in Jaipur. These projects are poised to revolutionise the industry and generate two lakh jobs.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In terms of regulatory framework, we want the government to reduce the import duty on gold, silver and platinum to 4 per cent. [This would ensure] a healthy and transparent industry and decrease the blockage of working capital of exporters.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ Can a reduction in customs duty curb gold smuggling?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> Reduction in gold import duty has been a long-standing demand of the gold industry. [News] reports indicate that the high import duty on gold has contributed to an increase in unlawful activities. A reduction would address this issue by promoting the official inflow of the precious metal, thereby strengthening value addition and increasing demand.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ What are the other key reforms that can help consumers access pure gold?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> Mandatory hallmarking has brought trust and transparency to the industry. It has ensured that gold jewellery and artefacts meet specific purity standards. Promoting the use of digital platforms can enhance transparency and traceability. Platforms like Digital Gold allow consumers to buy gold in smaller denominations and hold it in electronic form.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ How is the government helping gem and jewellery exporters?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> The gem and jewellery export sector contributes 15 per cent of Indian merchandise exports. The India-UAE Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement and the India-Australia Economic Cooperation and Trade Agreement have greatly benefited the sector.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The government has also recognised the potential of lab-grown diamonds (LGD). It has provided research grants to IITs for five years and reduced customs duty on LGD seeds to zero. These measures aim to establish India as a global leader in end-to-end manufacturing of lab-grown diamonds and jewellery.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ How does Make in India and the government’s digitisation efforts impact the sector?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> Make in India has focused on promoting indigenous manufacturing capabilities. This has led to increased investments in modern machinery, technology and skill development.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The digitisation wave has been embraced by the industry, effectively utilising e-commerce platforms that have streamlined trade and enhanced market accessibility for Indian jewellery exporters. Through online platforms, a broader global audience has been reached, empowering small and medium enterprises to exhibit and vend their offerings on a worldwide scale. This surge in online presence has also unlocked a multitude of export prospects and facilitated revenue expansion. The gem and jewellery industry will continue to leverage the Make in India initiative and digital advancements to further strengthen the sector.</p> Sat Mar 02 12:38:42 IST 2024 world-gold-council-india-regional-ceo-somasundaram-p-r-interview <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><i>Interview/ Somasundaram P.R., regional CEO, India, World Gold Council</i></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Indian gold market is one of the world’s largest and most diverse. But according to Somasundaram P.R., regional CEO, India, World Gold Council, high taxes in India―particularly at a time when gold prices have seen historic highs―makes smuggling lucrative. “I believe that high import duty is counterproductive to the steps being taken to make the gold market in India more transparent,” he says.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Excerpts from an interview:</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ India is the second largest consumer of gold jewellery. What reforms are needed in the market?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> India’s gold market is now ready for the next stage of evolution. Time is right for the Indian gold industry to have its own self-regulatory organisation that allows members to demonstrate credentials, attract customers, grow businesses, and drive trust across the market. The organisation will build on the work of the Swarna Adarsh Abhiyaan initiative―devising a code of conduct for every industry vertical, providing certification for members who adopt these codes, engaging with stakeholders across the value chain, and advocating for best practice. The organisation would serve as the conscience keeper of the industry. The first steps have already been taken and further consultations are under way with multiple stakeholders.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ There is focus on smuggling. How big is the concern of grey markets?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> With GST of 3 per cent, the total taxes on gold is more than 18.45 per cent. These high taxes, particularly at a time when prices have seen historic highs, increase the propensity to smuggle gold even among ordinary people, not to speak of organised networks. The grey market has diluted efforts to reduce cash transactions in the economy, and penalises organised and compliant players. I believe that high import duty is counterproductive to the steps being taken to make the gold market in India more transparent.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ There is a long-pending demand of the gold industry to reduce customs duty to curb smuggling of gold. Are the concerns adequately addressed?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> The answer is no. But to lay the blame entirely on high duty, distanced from trade acquiescence, would not be correct. The argument has always been that these are fringe players, but then the question remains if the industry has done enough to self-regulate and weed out such fringe players. Are practices strong enough to eliminate illicitly sourced gold?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Duty hike in my view was necessitated to curb demand at a time when global developments like war and oil prices threatened to scuttle growth. It is no longer the case, so a reduction should be considered. But then again, a reduction without some commitment from the industry on transparent trade practices for a structural solution to this problem gives no leverage to policymakers or the compliant lot who suffer the consequences of illicit trade.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ How do volatile gold prices in India impact the industry and fuel smuggling?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> Smuggling thrives only when demand is strong. Our studies show that, for each 1 per cent increase in the rupee-based price of gold, demand falls 0.4 per cent. While steady gold price movements affect long-term demand, sharp price changes have an impact on short-term demand. For each 1 per cent fall in gold price in any given year, demand increases by 1.2 per cent.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Higher prices and higher taxes on gold also make smuggling attractive, as incentives are higher. Given India’s strong economic growth and low per capita [consumption] of gold, the demand is going to be strong. Unless checked, a cash market coupled with high duties is going to sustain grey market.</p> Sat Mar 02 12:36:52 IST 2024 mumbai-city-is-getting-a-grand-makeover-with-some-mega-projects <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>In May 2023, Maharashtra Chief Minister Eknath Shinde and Deputy Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis drove a Lexus SUV on the entire stretch of the Mumbai Trans Harbour Link (MTHL) during an inspection. Apparently, the drive was so exciting that they took turns and neither wanted to get out of the driving seat.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The longest sea bridge in India, the MTHL was commissioned when Fadnavis was chief minister; construction began in 2016. Opened to the public in January, it has reduced the distance between Sewri on the island city and Chirle near the Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust (JNPT) in Raigad district to almost a third―from 60km to 22km. “The best thing about the MTHL is the non-stop 22km journey on the sea bridge,” said Saji S., who commutes 60km one way from his house in Ambernath to Mumbai every day.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>For long, two bridges over Thane creek linked Mumbai to Navi Mumbai―the Mulund-Airoli connector and the Vashi connector. The MTHL is the third. “This bridge is on land, sea and mudflats in between the two,” said Dr Sanjay Mukherjee, metropolitan commissioner, Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority. “The seismic strength of the bridge is two and half times more than the normal seismic activity of that region.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The bridge is a six-lane highway that ensures quick connectivity from the city to JNPT, the under-construction Navi Mumbai airport, the expressway to Pune and the national highway to Goa. Shinde said the MTHL was a game changer for commuters and the economy. “We are connecting the MTHL to Worli sea link and to Nariman Point via the coastal road,” he said. “People living in Nariman Point will now be able to reach Panvel in just about 30 minutes.” It currently takes more than an hour.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The MTHL has given the city the opportunity to grow horizontally. It will be the engine of economic growth for Mumbai and the Mumbai Metropolitan region, said S.V.R. Srinivas, former managing director of MMRDA, who oversaw most of the work on the MTHL during his tenure.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Officially the Atal Setu, the MTHL faced many objections when the work started. “Environmentalists said the habitat of flamingoes would be destroyed,” said Fadnavis. “But we worked with Bombay Natural History Society and implemented mitigation measures. As a result the number of flamingoes has increased and the bridge also has been completed.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The MTHL is also a bridge to Mumbai’s future. “Atal Setu will facilitate the creation of ‘Third Mumbai’ in the Navi-Mumbai Raigad region,” said Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar. The government has facilitated MMRDA as the New Town Development Authority (NTDA) to focus on the growth of the areas that will be benefitted by the Atal Setu.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Third Mumbai is an ambitious smart city that is envisaged in the area close to the upcoming Navi Mumbai International Airport. The project encompasses 124 villages in the Raigad district. Several villages from the existing Navi Mumbai Airport Influence Notified Area are also likely to be a part of the NTDA. The NTDA is expected to oversee an estimated 323 sqkm area in the Panvel-Ulwe-Uran region where the new airport and the MTHL will offer connectivity. It will feature housing projects, commercial complexes, data centres, IT knowledge parks and financial services hubs.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The new airport will connect the city to the rest of the country and the world. The foundation stone for the airport was laid in 2018. The Rs18,000 crore project, planned on 1,160 hectares, is the largest greenfield airport under development. Initially it would have a passenger capacity of two crore a year with one runway and one terminal. A second runway and additional terminals will be built over time and eventually, it will handle nine crore passengers.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Just as the MTHL is easing the commute from south Mumbai to Navi Mumbai and beyond, Mumbai Metro has now become a practical alternative to the overcrowded suburban trains for lakhs of Mumbaikars. The lifeline of commuters, the local trains have been running well over their capacity owing to the multi-fold increase in the number of travellers over the years, especially during peak hours. People in the suburbs are quickly switching to the clean, air-conditioned metro trains to travel to the city.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“Metro saves a lot of time,” says Sayali M., a regular commuter from Gundavali to Aarey. “If I take an autorickshaw on this route, it takes almost 50 minutes and costs around Rs150. I cover the same distance by metro in 15 minutes and it costs just Rs20.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Mumbai Metro’s Line 3, which connects the northern suburbs at Aarey to Colaba, the city’s southern-most area, is probably the most crucial infrastructure project in the city. This Rs30,000 crore, 33.5km line, which is under construction, will have 26 underground stations and provide connectivity to major business centres like Nariman Point, Cuffe Parade, Fort and Lower Parel, the business district of Bandra Kurla Complex, and the industrial belt of SEEPZ/MIDC (Santacruz Electronics Export Processing Zone/Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation).</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Line 3 is expected to open this year―phase one from Aarey to Bandra Kurla Complex will open soon, and the second phase, from BKC to Cuffe Parade, six months later. A fully operational Line 3 would cater to 17 lakh passengers daily, said Ashwini Bhide, managing director of Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation. “Around 35 per cent [of road traffic] is expected to reduce. By 2031, around 5.54 lakh vehicular trips will be expected to reduce every day, which will cut the fuel consumption to the tune of 2.95 lakh litres a day. Around 15 per cent burden on suburban railways also will be lessened,” she said.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Currently, three metro lines are operational in Mumbai. Line 1 connects the suburb of Ghatkopar in the east to Versova in the west. This 11km line was opened in 2014 and carries four lakh commuters every day. The line 2A, between Dahisar and Andheri East, and the Line 7, from Dahisar to Andheri West, were opened last year. Seven lines are in various stages of planning and development. Bhide said that entire metro network would get completed in five to seven years. Line 3, the only underground line, is the toughest one, as it passes through some of the densely populated areas in Dadar and Girgaon.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Areas like Girgaon and Kalbadevi, among the oldest trading hubs in south Mumbai, have many old buildings that will soon be renovated. “We had to constantly engage with people, transparently share information and convince them that the project was not only to improve the public transport in the area, but also to improve the area,” said Bhide.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The building of the car depot for Line 3 in the Aarey Milk Colony area had become a flash-point, as environmentalists and local people opposed the felling of trees in the area for the project. The Maha Vikas Aghadi government under Uddhav Thackeray shifted the car depot to another locality. But when Eknath Shinde became the chief minister, the depot was shifted back to Aarey and the work picked up.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Slow execution has been a nagging issue for infrastructure projects in the city. The Line 2 of the Mumbai Metro is a classic example. In 2009, president Pratibha Patil broke ground for the line and the construction was to begin in 2010. It was delayed because of various reasons, including getting clearances. The work began in 2015 and the first phase, 2A between Dahisar to Andheri West (18.59km), opened only in 2023. The second phase, 2B from Andheri West to Mandale Depot (23.74km), is still under construction.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The work of the coastal road, connecting Worli and Marine Drive, began back in 2018, but it ran into many bumps. Fishermen in Worli protested it, fearing it would affect their livelihood, which eventually made the authorities change its alignment. The pandemic also slowed progress of the construction. The south-bound arm of the coastal road, from Worli to Marine Drive, is ready. The completion of the north-bound stretch (Marine Drive to Worli) will take longer.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Projects like the coastal road and MTHL have faced criticism that they are ‘elitist’ and do not benefit the common man. Bhide refuted it saying public transport was allowed on the MTHL and the coastal road. “On the coastal road, there is dedicated bus lane and bus stops,” she said.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Marine Drive-Worli stretch is just one part of the coastal road project. It will meet the existing Bandra-Worli Sea Link at Worli. Further, there will be a 17.17km sea link between the western suburbs of Bandra and Versova. Being constructed at a cost of around Rs11,300 crore, this sea link is expected to be ready in four years. The plan is to eventually extend the coastal road to Virar in the north of the city. This Versova to Virar sea link will be 43km long, but it is years away. Once ready, it will decongest the existing road network, including the western express highway and the Mumbai-Ahmedabad National Highway.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Work is also on to connect the suburbs of Borivali and Thane through a twin tunnel project under the Sanjay Gandhi National Park. This project received wildlife clearance in October 2023. Currently, it takes more than an hour to drive from Thane to Borivali. These tunnels will cut the time by half. The 11.8km of tunnels and approach roads and subways are expected to cost around Rs16,600 crore.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Another underground tunnel is planned between the existing freeway at Orange Gate near the Mumbai Port to the coastal road at Marine Drive.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The residential housing segment will be one of the biggest beneficiaries of the improving connectivity, as top developers are looking at emerging markets like Panvel, Belapur and Upper Kharghar to expand their portfolio and infuse fresh supply into the city. “With the upcoming connectivity, there will be an increase in new development nodes such as Panvel, Uran, Kharghar, and Karjat (on the outskirts of Mumbai), with access to airports, roadways, and railway corridors,” said Niranjan Hiranandani, managing director of real estate developer Hiranandani Group. He expects developers to build affordable housing with better ecosystems owing to the better connectivity to the peripheral suburbs.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The island city might witness development in other spheres as well, said Rajashree Murkute, senior director, CareEdge Ratings. The seamless connectivity from south Mumbai to Navi Mumbai and beyond will lead to the second phase of de-localisation and de-concentration. The first phase was the movement of offices from south Mumbai to Bandra Kurla Complex.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“Mumbai’s infrastructure development, especially connectivity, is catching up rapidly across the city. What may emerge ahead will be more utility-focused projects offering better inter-city roads, water supply, gas pipeline connections and superior drainage systems. So the fallout in the form of overall socioeconomic benefits will be amplified,” said Murkute.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It is estimated that every rupee spent on infrastructure development results in an increased contribution of Rs2.5 to Rs3 to the GDP. The massive push that infrastructure is getting in Mumbai will not just make living more comfortable for its people, but also go a long way in developing the economy of the region, the state and the country.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Many people, however, are of the opinion that a lot more is needed to fix Mumbai’s woes. “You are making bits and pieces here and there,” said Gulam Zia, senior executive director at consulting firm Knight Frank. “It has been 13-14 years since the Bandra-Worli sea link was opened. The Versova to Bandra sea link has not yet been developed; it will take another four years, at least.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>And there is a call to make development sustainable and inclusive. “Government data says 50 per cent people walk to work. So, the first thing we need to invest in is proper footpaths everywhere,” said Rahul Kadri, principal architect of IM Kadri Architects. “If you look at sustainability goals, we need to encourage walking and cycling. That needs proper space and that brings pollution down.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Kadri wanted significant investments in public transport. “Any city that solved transportation problem has done it through public transportation,” he said. “In Mumbai around 12 per cent people use car. If you bring it down to 8 per cent, pollution will come down. Public transport should be good enough that people would not need a car.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Development projects often eat into open public places like parks and playgrounds. Kadri stressed on the need to develop and preserve open playgrounds in the city. “The kind of open spaces we need are <i>maidans</i> (playgrounds) and simple parks,” he said.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Mumbai had fallen behind Delhi, Bengaluru and Hyderabad in infrastructure development. “Princess Street flyover was the first in India,” said Mukherjee. “At that time, the infrastructure of the city was ahead of its time. Then the city grew so rapidly that infrastructure fell acutely behind. So the need is to reboot Mumbai and reshape the MMR region so that organised development and growth can take place there.”</p> Sat Feb 24 12:26:07 IST 2024 ashwini-bhide-mumbai-metro-rail-corporation-interview <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><i>Interview/ Ashwini Bhide, additional municipal commissioner and managing director, Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation</i></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q The underground Metro Line 3, set to open this year, is among the most ambitious projects undertaken in Mumbai. How do you see it transforming the commute in the city?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A</b> Metro-3 is one of the most crucial urban infrastructure projects in India. Once fully operational, Metro-3 will cater to 17 lakh passengers daily with an unfailing frequency of four minutes. In addition to connecting areas that are not connected to suburban railways, it will link six major business and employment centres―Nariman Point, Cuffe Parade, Fort, Lower Parel, BKC and SEEPZ/MIDC. Also, it will give easy access to more than 30 educational institutes, 13 hospitals, 14 religious places and more than 30 recreational facilities along with access to both domestic and international terminals of the airport. It will also provide seamless integration with other metro routes, suburban rail, monorail and bus services.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>This environment-friendly mode of transit will also help in reducing fuel consumption, carbon emission and traffic congestion. When Metro-3 is up and running, the corridor will reduce 2.61 lakh tonne of CO2 emissions per annum.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q Environmentalists had raised concerns over this project, especially the car depot in Aarey. How did you address those?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A</b> By being very transparent about it. We did not hide a single piece of information. We knew the environmentalists were sometimes extreme in their views. Nevertheless, we went through every objection they raised, and tried to test all our actions against those. Where there were shortcomings, we complied with them. No other government organisation has been under such scrutiny. [The environmentalists] had also approached various regulatory authorities and courts. The High Court has appointed a committee under a district judge-level officer; activists are also part of that committee. For the past seven years, the committee has been monitoring each and every action of ours, which was taken in favour of greening.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q Could you share details about the coastal road?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A</b> The Mumbai Coastal Road Project (south) is a major infrastructural project undertaken by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation with the objective of providing an alternate north-south route for the people of Mumbai. The Mumbai Coastal Road (south) connects the Princess Street Flyover at Marine Drive to the Worli end of the Bandra-Worli Sea Link. It utilises a combination of reclaimed road, bridges/flyovers, elevated roads, interchanges, sea walls/break walls and tunnels along the western seafront of Mumbai to resolve traffic congestion in Mumbai. About 111 hectares have been reclaimed for the project, with 70 hectares dedicated to open green spaces.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q What kind of investment has gone into the development of Metro-3 and the coastal road?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A</b> Revised cost of the Metro-3 project is Rs37,276 crore. The Japan International Corporation Agency will provide loan assistance of 57.2 per cent of the total project cost, and balance funding will be provided by the government of India and government of Maharashtra in the form of subordinate debt and equity and funds from Mumbai International Airport Limited.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>At present, about 84 per cent physical work of Mumbai Coastal Road Project (south) has been completed till January 8, 2024. Of the total project cost of Rs13,984 crore till date, about Rs9,487 crore has been spent [so far].</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q Mumbai sees heavy rains for three to four months, with many areas prone to flooding. What measures have been taken to ensure the smooth functioning of the underground metro and coastal road throughout the year?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A</b> All the entry/exit of underground stations of Metro-3 will be 1m above the highest recorded flood level, planned after studying data of last 100 years. The tunnels of the underground metro are watertight, well-lit and ventilated. In case of any emergency, sensor-based pumps will be activated automatically.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>As far as coastal road is concerned, a seawall along the shoreline is being constructed to address sea level rise, storm surges and high tides. Moreover, the National Institute of Oceanography (NIO) was appointed for pre-feasibility studies on extreme waves, extreme water levels, storm surge, tsunami and coastal morphology for the project in 2017. According to the report, the difference in shore morphology changes and the hydrodynamics of the region between the base case and the final coastal road alignment case, based on numerical model studies, is insignificant. Further, construction of seawall will provide protection against coastal erosion of the shore. NIO had also carried out studies on impact of sea reclamation on the surrounding coastline of Mumbai. As stated in the report, there would not be any adverse impact due to sea reclamation.</p> Sat Feb 24 12:27:40 IST 2024 dr-sanjay-mukherjee-mmrda-interview <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><i>Interview/ Dr Sanjay Mukherjee, metropolitan commissioner, MMRDA</i></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q The government recently announced plans for a new city where the Atal Setu lands. Could you elaborate on that?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A </b>The Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA) envisages a new city [third Mumbai] at the landing of the Atal Setu, comprising more than 100 villages in Raigad district. Spread over 323sqkm, it is planned as an environment-friendly, greenfield smart city, with regional-level amenities, with mixed-use and integrated residential areas for job creation and economic growth of the Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR). The new city will adopt best global practices, keeping in mind the impact of climate change.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q How do you plan to raise funds?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A</b> The method of funding will be publicised at an appropriate time.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q What major projects are planned for the MMR?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A</b> The MMRDA is pursuing numerous projects to escalate connectivity in and around Mumbai. Some of these projects are progressing at a rigorous pace, while several others are in the planning phase. A few prestigious ones are the Thane-Borivali twin-tube tunnel, Motagaon-Mankoli Creek bridge, Kalwa-Kharegaon link road, Thane coastal road, Airoli-Katai Naka freeway and the underground road tunnel between Orange Gate and Marine Drive.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>These projects were conceived with a deeper understanding of the connectivity-related complications, witnessed across the MMR. Also, the Maha Mumbai Metro is striding ahead with the planned extension covering 337km. The Metro lines are carefully designed to provide an efficient and sustainable mode of transportation for the residents of Greater Mumbai, Thane and so on. Environmental sustainability is central to our focus.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q Could you please elaborate on the twin tunnel project?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A </b>The MMRDA has proposed the Thane-Borivali twin-tube tunnel to provide a long-lasting solution to the troubles faced in connectivity between Thane and Borivali. The travel from Borivali to Thane and vice versa results in a detour of 23km via Ghodbunder Road, while the other available option via the Jogeshwari-Vikhroli link road increases the distance to about 38km. These long-distance travels involve one and a half hours of commute, which can extend further as per the dynamics of traffic.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The proposed twin-tube tunnel road will be 11.8km long, with a 10.25km tunnel road beneath the Sanjay Gandhi National Park. Each one of the two tunnel roads will have an outer diameter of 13.05m and will constitute two lanes, with an additional dedicated lane for emergencies. This project will improve the connectivity between Thane and Borivali, resulting in a substantial reduction in travel duration and fuel consumption. Also, this unique endeavour will turn out to be the longest tunnel road in Maharashtra, at an estimated cost of about Rs16,600 crore.</p> Sat Feb 24 12:28:48 IST 2024 mumbai-city-that-is-constantly-on-the-move-and-changing <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>My brother’s friend exclaims, “You guys are a different species altogether.” A resident of Jammu, she was in Mumbai to showcase her Basholi paintings at the recently concluded Kala Ghoda Arts Festival, Mumbai’s cultural extravaganza. It is a weekend morning. At Thane, we squeeze into a crowded train that was headed to Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus. The journey evokes nostalgia.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Until six years ago, I would take this very local train to work. Life in a local has its own rhythm and rules. There are no illusions of privacy or boundaries here―you can turn up your nose how much ever you want but you cannot escape the sweaty, smelly armpits and oily scalps jostling for space next to you; you will not be termed nosy for (inadvertently, of course) peeping into the WhatsApp chats of those around you; and no one will wrinkle their nose at you for literally breathing down their neck even as you try to find your feet and move your hands without rubbing up against someone.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>I am jolted back to the present when a box of <i>puran</i> <i>polis</i> and sesame seed <i>laddoos</i> is being passed around, with someone screaming, “Sankranti <i>hain le lo, ek ek sab le lo</i> [It is Makar Sankranti; everyone take one of each].” The grind is the same even today, but there is a difference. This is version 2.0 of a Mumbaikar’s love affair with her local―we were now shoving, nudging, pushing, muscling our way inside fully air-conditioned trains, that too with automated doors. My brother’s friend smirked at my idea of luxury―an AC train in which I have both my feet firmly inside the doorway and not dangling outside; no chance of being hit by a passing pole, see. When will Mumbai get all its trains air-conditioned? Well, we are not sure; we are not used to fast-track projects, only fast-track life. So until we all get to bag a seat, we are good with ‘Bag <i>pakad, jagah bana</i> [hold the bag, and make space].’</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>You see, we Mumbaikars are a patient lot, perpetually waiting and hoping for good things to happen to us―a rickshaw <i>wala</i> who never says no, vada pav prices that never see a hike, punctual trains, at least two extra <i>pani puris</i> in each plate, Shah Rukh Khan waving at us every weekend, cheap popcorn at multiplexes, chilling at Marine Drive post 2am, unlimited free parking space and landlords accommodating of pets and non-vegetarians are just a few.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But even as this wish-list keeps growing, one of my wishes came true a year ago when the iconic double-decker buses got a swanky new avatar―air-conditioned with tinted windows and doors on both sides. As I hopped onto bus number 66, fond memories from childhood came rushing back. I remember taking the bus―the non-AC version―plying on the oldest and most popular bus route of the city, beginning from Rani Laxmibai Chowk in Sion and going right up to Ballard Pier in south Bombay. Every Friday afternoon post school, my brother and I would board the bus right outside our society in Matunga, a leafy neighbourhood, and accompany our grandmother to the All India Radio near Mantralaya. Tickets cost Rs1 for an adult and 50 paise for children. We would climb to the upper deck and quickly occupy the seat right at the front to enjoy the wind racing through our hair and get a peek at the world zooming by. From there, we would head to K. Rustom, the iconic ice-cream parlour at Churchgate that will soon complete 90 years, for a ‘sandwich ice cream’, followed by either a walk down to Marine Drive or a film at Eros cinema―one of Mumbai’s grandest Art Deco theatres―which is now a multiplex with large retail outlets. I saw my first-ever English film, <i>Jumanji</i>, there.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Weekends were almost always spent at nani’s home in Prabhadevi, hardly 10 minutes from our place and very close to the sea. My brother and I, armed with a carry bag each, would walk down to the shore to collect shells and even perch ourselves on the rocks during low tide. Those days, the shore offered an uninterrupted view of the setting sun, long before the Bandra-Worli Sea Link came in and offered a view of another kind―the most recent being a mesmerising light show portraying Lord Ram’s image ahead of the Ram Temple consecration ceremony in Ayodhya.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Every time we think we are living life in the fast lane, in comes a big engineering marvel that reminds us we are not fast enough, and speeds us up even further. Every 10 years, it seems, we undergo a reboot! For, who would have imagined driving from Worli to Bandra in 10 minutes! Earlier, just the thought of travelling from central to western suburbs would make us sweat; now we go on drives for the heck of it.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The current favourite drive destination though is the Mumbai Trans Harbour Link (MTHL), connecting Mumbai and Navi Mumbai. I was there the very next day of inauguration, keeping up with the spirit of being a Mumbaikar who loves to be the first in line, be it at the <i>chaat waala</i>’s or at the temple. If there is a queue, the Mumbaikar will be there, and happily, too. So revolutionary has been the impact of MTHL that the number of real estate inquiries for Navi Mumbai seems to have crossed the number of cars plying on the link. A trip that would have otherwise taken me close to two hours from Matunga to Navi Mumbai could now be covered in 20 minutes. Infrastructure playing leveller?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Not really. It is making the commute easy, but making the stay within the city difficult, forcing many millennials to look for a home beyond the city’s metropolitan area, only to come back, work here, go home, repeat. South Bombay remains the same, like Matunga. Many from my grandparents’ generation first came in as tenants, paying less than Rs100 per month, which continues to this day in a number of buildings. Ours has always been a cosmopolitan society, with Tamil Brahmins, Gujaratis, Marathis and Malayalis coexisting in two-room flats. We used to celebrate all festivals like one big family. Neighbours would exchange sweets during Diwali and everyone would visit each other to wish them well on <i>naya saal</i> (new year). But increasingly, homes are getting locked up, as millennials move out for want of bigger spaces at affordable rates. Go around looking for a home to rent in our area, like we did, and the first thing they ask is not how much you can pay but if you are a non-vegetarian and whether you own a pet. If you say yes to both, please move on. A friend had to lie through her teeth and say that she was a vegetarian, or she would have lost the flat she is residing in―the 25th one she had seen after desperate house-hunting in Matunga. For close to Rs50,000 per month, this is what she got―“No eggs will be allowed; no pets; for lift, pay extra Rs5,000; no car parking on the building premises.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>And then there is the incessant digging. As of now, Mumbai feels like a metaphorical patient who has been operated at so many places. Some wounds have healed well and how, while others remain open and unattended―no one knows when they will recover. While the MTHL was ready in six years, Andheri stands testimony to our patience. Work here never stops, the digging continues. But we do not complain, we do not fret. If you dig up a road, we will find a bypass, happy and proud that we could reach work on time. We are a peace-loving people, you see. We have no time to stand and stare; we have work to get to.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Okay, there are exceptions―Bollywood stars do make us stop in our tracks. I remember my aunt taking us to watch film shootings whenever my cousins from Delhi were in town. At the time, Mannat was not a landmark and nobody spent hours waiting for King Khan because one could easily catch a glimpse of him at Film City. It was on the set of <i>Devdas</i> that I first saw him in flesh and blood. The set was huge and expensive, and SRK was at the peak of his career. Sighting stars was not as hard back then and film shootings were the most touristy thing to do. The other time to catch a glimpse of Bollywood stars was during Ganesh Visarjan, when, sitting on road dividers opposite our building, we would wave out to the Kapoors as they sat on the trailer, smiling and distributing <i>modaks</i> during RK Studios’ Ganesh Visarjan. Now, none of the Kapoors accompanies the <i>visarjan</i>.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>When people refer to Mumbai as a safe city, one wonders at times how anyone could feel unsafe here―so many of us live so close to each other that we can not only look inside our neighbour’s home but even listen in on conversations. But if you insist, we let you be. The other day, my husband and I along with two of our friends were out at Marine Drive promenade, immersed in repeat games of Ludo until the wee hours of morning. We had cutting chai and <i>chana jor garam</i> for company and nobody thankfully shooed us away. Now, with the new coastal road coming up, I am dreading the security deployment there, especially at nights.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>So what is the story of Mumbai? It depends on who is telling it, who is listening and when it is being told. Our footpaths are busier than our roads; we are taught to tread carefully on the roads and leave the footpath for the shopkeeper, his dog, cat, the fruit <i>wala</i>, newspaper <i>wala</i>, vegetable <i>wala</i>, pani puri <i>wala</i> and for cars to be dumped or parked illegally. We have small spaces but big hearts―even as the train starts, we will have enough space for one more person to barely get in. This is where every new bridge and flyover seems to be a clickbait for transporting us faster into traffic jams―it takes you less than 10 minutes to go from the sea link straight into a jam that lasts over 30 minutes at Bandra west. The most recent―the Bandra Kurla Complex-Chunabhatti connector―will bring down the travel time, but only till the connector. Once you are on the connector, you wait. But then again, are we not okay with it? I mean, who has the time to address it? It is okay if the traffic is crawling, at least it is moving! Half our days are spent responding to ‘where are you?’ queries, because we are never on time, unless we leave an hour early. We were doing fairly okay on the pollution level, until we raced past Delhi recently. The only advantage we have is the sea breeze―it disperses the pollutants and fools us into believing that all is well.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>McKinsey, a management consulting firm, once came out with a report and a vision that said Mumbai could become a world class city like Shanghai by 2020. Architect Charles Correa had retorted to that, saying, “That is not a vision, but a hallucination.” With major infrastructural projects transforming the way we move, will Correa be proved right or wrong?</p> Sat Feb 24 12:30:04 IST 2024 how-the-hugely-influential-swaminarayan-sect-and-the-generosity-of-the-uae-helped-build-the-baps-hindu-mandir <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Travelling across the United Arab Emirates in April 1997, Pramukh Swami of the BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha stopped at a desert near Sharjah and sat deep in thought, under the blazing sun. People around him stood mystified. After a while, he said: “May a temple come up in Abu Dhabi. May it bring countries, cultures and religions closer together.”</p> <p>Pramukh Swami was revered as the fifth spiritual successor of Bhagwan Swaminarayan and had built hundreds of temples around the globe, including the Akshardham temple in Gandhinagar. (Akshardham in Delhi would follow.) Still, his companions in the desert could not believe their ears.</p> <p>“But this saint could see what nobody could,” Brahmavihari Swami, in-charge of international relations of BAPS, told me. “He was prophetic.”</p> <p>In 2015 the UAE government allotted land for building a temple in Abu Dhabi free of cost. BAPS submitted two architectural designs for the temple―one traditional and the other modern. The traditional design was the preference of Abu Dhabi’s then crown prince Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, who became president of the UAE in 2022.</p> <p>Thus began the story of BAPS Hindu Mandir, the first traditional sandstone temple in the Middle East. Mahant Swami, who had succeeded Pramukh Swami [1921-2016] as BAPS president, performed the <i>shila poojan</i> (consecration of stone) in 2018 and the <i>shilanyas</i> (foundation stone laying) in 2019.</p> <p>Watching the <i>shila poojan</i> on video link from another part of the UAE and holding a model of the temple, Prime Minister Narendra Modi thanked the crown prince for his generosity. As we went to press, the two leaders were expected at the inauguration of the temple on February 14, which would elevate India-UAE friendship to a sublime level.</p> <p>The magnificent temple stands on 27 acres at Abu Mureikhah on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi. It was still under construction when I saw it a few months ago. Hundreds of men―sculptors and workers―were polishing pillars and statues, braving the hot sun. When a sandstorm blew, they took refuge in portable shelters, but returned to work in a few minutes. “We don’t feel tired,” said Raghuveer Singh, one of the sculptors. “We feel blessed to work at the temple site.”</p> <p>A number of sculptors and artisans were brought from India for the final touches. They lived in camps at the site, working closely with BAPS volunteers and municipal employees. BAPS served them free vegetarian food round-the-clock in the dining halls. All the pillars and columns had been carved in Rajasthan and then brought to Abu Dhabi. &quot;The UAE government was so generous that it set up a dedicated corridor for us at the Dubai port for easy movement of materials,&quot; said Yogibhai Bhatt, a volunteer.</p> <p>The temple is open to all people, no matter their religion. “The BAPS Hindu Mandir is a spiritual oasis for global harmony,” said Pranav Desai, an Abu Dhabi resident and volunteer. “Imagine! A Muslim king donated the land; the lead architect of the complex is a Christian Catholic; the foundation designer is a Buddhist from Malaysia; the project director is a Sikh; the contractors for the outer complex are Parsis; and one of our directors is a Jain.”</p> <p>The temple can hold 2,000 worshippers at any given time. Before entering it, they would tread a sand dune and then walk along a shallow pool of water brought from the confluence of the Ganga, the Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati in India. “The seven spires of the temple enshrine seven Hindu deities, while also symbolising the unity of the seven emirates,” said Brahmavihari Swami, in-charge of the temple. Growing up in the UK, he was fascinated by the monoliths of the Stonehenge in Wiltshire. The monolithic structures surrounding the BAPS Hindu Mandir, he said, would appear as if they have emerged from the desert as guardians of the temple.</p> <p>The idol of Swaminarayan, who is worshipped as an avatar of Krishna, is enshrined under the main spire. The other spires rise above the idols of Shiva, Ram, Krishna, Tirupati Balaji, Puri Jagannath and Sabarimala Ayyappa. “Where Ram and Sita are enshrined, we have the entire Ramayan carved in stone,” said Desai. “Likewise, we have carved the Mahabharat, the Shiv Purana and the story of Ayyappa. No other temple in the world has stories of so many deities told in stone in this manner.”</p> <p>He pointed to sculptures on the outer walls of the temple, depicting stories of peace from ancient civilisations of India, the Middle East, Africa, China and the Aztec empire.</p> <p>The temple has been built without steel or concrete, its different parts held together by interlocking. Around 14,500 tonnes of pink sandstone and 5,500 tonnes of white marble went into the construction. “The exterior is pink sandstone from Rajasthan,” said Desai. “The interior is white marble from the south of Italy and granite. We took the stones to Rajasthani villages, and gave the artisans the design for carving. They worked on them with hammer and chisel. Most of them took almost nine months to finish one pillar.”</p> <p>The temple has two parks, a community hall, a visitors’ centre, an amphitheatre, a food court and a welcome area. The visitors’ centre has an assembly hall, a library and classrooms for cultural courses and interfaith dialogue. Hundreds of trees were being planted to cool the surroundings.</p> <p>It was at the exhibition area outside that I met the temple chairman Ashok Kotecha. “The temple is a miracle that has emerged from the prayers of Pramukh Swami, the will of Prime Minister Modi and the generosity of the UAE rulers,” he said. “The strength to spread love, harmony and tolerance is the basic foundation of the temple.”</p> <p>“This is the sweat of God,” said Kotecha, touching my sweat-drenched shirt. “It was Bhagwan Swaminarayan who brought you here to this spiritual oasis for global harmony.”</p> <p>Desai also saw a divine hand behind the temple. Initially, the UAE government had allotted 2.5 acres at another place for the temple and then increased it to five acres. “BAPS never asked for any extra land,” said Desai. “Everything came to us as if it was predestined. Later, the government gave us 13.5 acres at the present location.”</p> <p>Long before the <i>shila poojan</i>, the UAE’s Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, who is the president’s brother, had visited the Akshardham temple in Delhi. After the visit, he was all the more appreciative of the temple project. Later, he inspected the new site in Abu Dhabi. He looked at the design of the temple and went to a corner. “We were worried,” said Kotecha. “He asked us where the car parking area would be. We said it would be under the temple. He told us not to do that, and sanctioned another 13.5 acres for car parking.”</p> <p>Another surprise followed: BAPS engineers discovered a massive rock under the site. It was strong enough to support the entire temple structure, so there was no need for piling. “No other location in the vicinity had a such a massive rock underneath,” said Ullas Shukla, a project director. “The temple will remain stable for 1,000 years.” Shukla left a good job in Reliance to volunteer for the temple. “It seemed like a call from God,” he said. “After I became a devotee of Swaminarayan, I feel I am a lot calmer.”</p> <p>There are 1,200 BAPS temples across the world, including the Akshardham temple that Mahant Swami opened last year at Robbinsville, New Jersey, in the US. It is the largest modern Hindu temple in the world. The first temple was built by Bhagwan Swaminarayan at Bochasan village in Gujarat. Hence the name BAPS ― Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha. The deity there is called Bochansanwasi, meaning one who lives in Bochasan.</p> <p>Swaminarayan was born at Chhapaiya near Ayodhya in 1781 as Ghanshyam Pande. At age 10, he accompanied his father to Varanasi and revealed his deep knowledge of the Vedas. He left home at age 11 and wandered around the country for seven years, finally settling in Loj village in Junagadh, Gujarat.</p> <p>His guru Ramanand Swami initiated him as a monk in 1800 and called him Sahajanand. Sahajanand came to be known as Swaminarayan after he gave his followers the Swaminarayan mantra in 1801. He founded Ekantik dharma. By the time he died in 1830, he had 20 lakh followers and had inspired a spiritual movement called the Swaminarayan <i>sampradaya</i> (tradition).</p> <p>There were two <i>gadis</i> (dioceses) within the <i>sampradaya</i>, one based in Vadtal and the other in Ahmedabad, and both had their offshoots. BAPS branched out of the Vadtal <i>gadi</i>. It was founded in 1907 by Shastriji Maharaj, the third spiritual heir to Swaminarayan.</p> <p>BAPS has around 1,200 monks and 4,000 centres, including temples, and runs hospitals, schools, colleges, yoga and de-addiction centres, and blood-donation camps. It was active even during the pandemic, and it helped Indians stranded in east Europe when Russia invaded Ukraine.</p> <p>BAPS monks are very well-educated, carry the latest gadgets and travel the world. But their rules forbid any contact with women; not even eye contact is allowed, let alone conversation. Usually the laity would ensure that women do not come near them at gatherings. Sometimes they deploy a cloth screen, from behind which a monk may communicate with women through a third person. There are amusing ways of dealing with female flight attendants who ask them what they would like to eat or drink. If travelling alone, a monk would look away while answering.</p> <p>If two monks are travelling together, they would look at each other while doing so.</p> <p>J.M. Dave, 81, is the director of BAPS Swaminarayan Research Institute in Delhi, which holds inspirational talks for civil service aspirants and PhD scholars. Dave has seen four spiritual heads of BAPS during his lifetime. “My youngest brother became a monk at 19,” he said. “Today, he is 69 and is the mahant at the Akshardham temple in Gandhinagar.” So, what do the brothers do when they meet? “In the BAPS tradition, once you become a monk you cannot talk to your family members,” he said. “Even if I meet him by chance, we greet each other with a ‘namaste’ and don’t start a conversation.”</p> <p>Detachment is part of their monastic rigour. “It is not as if we were forced into it,” said Swami Aksharatit Sadhu, 39, who was born in Africa but grew up in Chicago. “When we become sadhus, permission is taken from our parents. Only if they agree in writing do we follow this path.”</p> <p>Like him, many followers of Swaminarayan have African connections. A large number of Indians, especially from Gujarat and Rajasthan, migrated to Africa in the last century. Many of them spread the teachings of Swaminarayan. The first Swaminarayan temple outside the Indian subcontinent was built in Nairobi in 1945. And most of their temples are in Africa.</p> <p>There were two lakh Indians in Africa in the 1960s. Half of them were Swaminarayan people. They had flourished, especially as traders. But as they grew, so did an anti-India sentiment in Uganda, and president Idi Amin expelled 80,000 Indians in 1972. More than 25,000 of them found refuge in the UK alone.</p> <p>“The expulsion was a blessing in disguise. Otherwise we would not have moved to England,” said Sagoon Bhai, a project manager, who had migrated with his family. “I met Pramukh Swamiji as a young man in the UK. His sincerity, humility and focus inspired me.” Ten years ago, David Cameron, as prime minister of the UK, said Indians from Uganda were “one of the most successful groups of immigrants anywhere in the history of the world.”</p> <p>The Uganda saga had a happy ending. In 1997, President Yoweri Museveni returned to BAPS four temples Idi Amin had taken over. He appealed to the Indians to return and help rebuild Uganda.</p> <p>A number of diplomats and ministers from various countries have already visited the temple in Abu Dhabi. So did actors Akshay Kumar and Sanjay Dutt. &quot;This project was scripted in heaven and is now being played here on earth,&quot; Brahmavihari Swami told Akshay Kumar. “This is a dream of dreams,” the actor replied.</p> Mon Feb 19 12:45:49 IST 2024 baps-hindu-mandir-abu-dhabi-is-a-story-of-hearts-and-minds-mahant-swami-maharaj <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>On April 5, 1997, my guru, His Holiness Pramukh Swami Maharaj, sat on the dunes of Sharjah and prayed for peace in the world. His words still echo. He said, “May peace prevail here and everywhere. May all countries, cultures, and religions grow closer, and be free of enmity and prejudice towards each other.” And, then, he said, “May there be a temple in Abu Dhabi.” This moment froze in time for us. This divine prayer was prophetic.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Many years later those prophetic words proved to be true. The president of the United Arab Emirates Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan generously gifted 27 acres to BAPS to create a traditional stone Hindu temple. The UAE leadership granted us land and permission, and their encouragement, support, and love can be seen throughout the project.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Situated in a desert, the BAPS Hindu <i>Mandir</i> is like a lotus blossoming in the sand. It will be a place from which interfaith harmony, community cohesion, righteous living, and global harmony will flourish.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>This <i>mandir</i> is a story of hearts and minds. People came together to give a hand in building harmony. These are individuals who, after fulfilling their daily responsibilities, offer their time and skills to the <i>mandir</i>. Out of dedication and a sense of purpose, everyone involved is committed and contributes selflessly beyond their full-time roles. This is what elevates the BAPS Hindu <i>Mandir</i>, making it a living testament of community, dedication, and unity. They serve, they love. Herein lies the marvel that makes the BAPS Hindu Mandir truly special. This is not only a <i>mandir</i> of stones and bricks, but also a <i>mandir</i> of love, peace, and harmony.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The [BAPS] <i>mandir</i>, Abu Dhabi, is a sacred space where individuals seek spiritual guidance and inner peace. It is a place where the community meets and greets, and is closely knitted together in prayer. Reviving 10,000 years of art, culture and values, the <i>mandir</i> in Abu Dhabi has been hand-carved out of pink sandstone and white marble by over 4,000 highly skilled artisans. By repurposing wood that would naturally be discarded on a construction site, the <i>mandir</i> has created environment-friendly benches, chairs, and tables. Built without steel reinforcement, and pieced together like a giant jigsaw, it is a wonder of intricate carvings and delicate designs. The human values, at its core, are just as beautiful, featuring timeless value tales of India and from ancient civilisations. Blending seamlessly with the world, the <i>mandir</i> celebrates the past, calibrates the present, and creates the future.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>To truly grasp the essence of the BAPS Hindu <i>Mandir</i>, one must look beyond the beautiful architecture and towering structures. One must look at the volunteers, the community, and the people, to see their love and dedication―for a cause bigger than themselves, for a cause they hold dear to their hearts, for humanity, and for the future. The <i>mandir</i> in Abu Dhabi is truly a miracle. It is happening because of God’s wish. It will be a haven of harmony for one and all, which the world will celebrate.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Mahant Swami Maharaj</b> is the spiritual leader of BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha.</p> Fri Feb 16 16:41:21 IST 2024 brahmavihari-swami-baps-swaminarayan-sanstha-interview <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><i>Interview/ Brahmavihari Swami, in-charge (international relations), BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha</i></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Brahmavihari Swami, who is in-charge of international relations of BAPS, is a motivational speaker and champion of humanitarian causes. He grew up in the UK and became a monk in 1981.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Brahmavihari Swami has played a pivotal role in the creation and design of various BAPS temples worldwide, and was the driving force behind the temple in Abu Dhabi. Excerpts from an interview:</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ What is the significance of the first traditional Hindu stone temple in the Middle East?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>This temple is a great message of hope and harmony for humanity. A temple of love and harmony, when the world is being polarised. That is the role of a spiritual place.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>From a cosmic level when you look at the earth, there are no borders. People create borders and divisions. People fight because of their mindsets. A temple like this will change the mindset of mankind, so that religions, cultures and values can flourish together. All people want is harmony. We can gift our children properties, luxuries and bank accounts, but if we cannot give them a world of peace and harmony, then what’s the point? If a country is huge but not in harmony, it is a rogue nation. If a family is rich but lives in disharmony, it is a broken home. If a company is multinational but internally disunited, it eventually disintegrates. Disharmony does more damage to life and the living. Perhaps, the greatest capital the world needs today is ‘harmony capital’.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ There are more conflicts in the Middle East than anywhere else in the world. How will the temple help in promoting peace in the region?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Hundreds of people told me that a traditional temple, built of natural stone, of this magnitude, was not possible in this region. But, as hearts and minds connected, everyone connected, and it became possible. Genuine places of worship are a source of harmony. How can we talk about heaven up there, if we cannot create a little bit of heaven down here!</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>I believe this temple is genuinely a spiritual oasis for global harmony. When you are wedded to harmony, everyone welcomes you with an open heart. When the war began in Ukraine, Prime Minister Narendra Modi sought my help. We [the BAPS volunteers] went to Ukraine and Poland. We helped whoever was suffering. I remember meeting an Ukrainian child who could not speak English well. His parents were fighting in the war. He signalled that he wanted a toothbrush. We gave the boy a toothbrush, and he instantly smiled. Once the boy settled in, I asked him what he wants to be when he grows up. To our surprise, he did not say doctor, engineer, actor or footballer. He said he wanted to be kind. It brought me so much joy when the boy came to Dubai with his parents to meet me.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>I have met the UAE leaders a few times. Our relationship has been based upon truth, transparency and trust. They could deeply relate to our journey of harmony. I have explained everything to the rulers, heart to heart. When we asked them why they gifted us land free of cost, they said, “You are good people, and you make people good.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Conflicts occur for ideologies, identities and selfish reasons. Every country has its own challenges. We cannot generalise or negatively brand regions or nations. The UAE is peaceful, stable and progressive. It has taken tolerance and harmony to a new level, and created a climate of collaboration and coexistence.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The generous act of gifting a piece of land for a Hindu temple is in itself a millennial moment that has the power to influence humanity. It may seem small or personal, but the impact is universal.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Even after a thousand years the present rulers of the UAE will be spoken of with the highest regard and respect. Just as the message of Mahatma Gandhi was not limited to India, the generosity of the [UAE] rulers is a message to the whole world. The creation of the BAPS Hindu <i>Mandir</i> in Abu Dhabi has opened the gates to the rest of the world.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ BAPS temples are known for their awe-inspiring grandeur and beauty. Are they so designed to spread awareness about India’s culture and spirituality?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>We do not build temples to show off. We build temples to fulfil the deeper cultural and spiritual needs of the people. There is no strategy or hidden agenda. The emergence of temples has been natural, just as flowers don’t generate fragrance forcibly―it is their intrinsic nature. BAPS temples have flourished across the world because they serve society selflessly and ceaselessly. We have smaller temples in villages and larger ones in cities. Spirituality has to be gentle and natural. Where our devotees are capable, where the permission is possible, where the need is genuine, temples will be built.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Also, there is a need for authentic ancient temples in modern age. I believe the world is, rightfully, spending so much energy, resources and manpower for excavation of ancient ruins. If excavation is important, renovation and preservation are also important. Then what about regeneration? Art is saved by preservation but survives more through regeneration. One can start a ‘save the rhino’ campaign and collect money. But if one creates a farm for breeding rhinos that would help in the long term. Just like schools, stadiums and hospitals, temples, too, have to be built. They are an integral part of society.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ Former president A.P.J. Abdul Kalam’s last book was about Pramukh Swami. It was Pramukh Swami who initiated you as a monk. What did you admire the most in him?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>I admire everything about Pramukh Swamiji. I have met him thousands of times. Never once did I come out without getting more fascinated and inspired by him. The beauty of a person’s character is when you are inspired every time. They need not speak everything. Pramukh Swamiji was egoless. That is what touched Kalam, too. He also valued goodness. He was attached to the wellbeing of the world and was detached from personal desires. I had such a friendly relationship with Pramukh Swamiji. He treated me like his son.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>One of the best diplomats in the world today [S. Jaishankar] told me that the temple in Abu Dhabi is “like a Cinderella story, which is turning fairy tales into reality.” In the times to come, he said, there will be legends about Swaminarayan sadhus having dialogues with Muslim leaders, just like the Buddhist monks who spoke to the Chinese emperors.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ How do you assess Prime Minister Modi as a statesman and a global leader?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Modiji has created a different India, a relevant India. The worth of our nation at the world level has increased phenomenally after he came to power. Many years ago, when I became a monk Modiji was there in that festival to witness it. He is selfless, fearless. And he works hard. There were times when Modiji called me at one o’clock in the night to inquire about something. He is looked upon as a tough leader. But tough times need tough leaders. He believes that tough decisions have to be taken to take India to greater heights.</p> Fri Feb 16 16:42:26 IST 2024 the-unique-association-of-pramukh-swamiji-and-dr-apj-abdul-kalam-signalled-the-beginning-of-the-new-age-of-spirituality <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Spending 33 years under the tutelage of Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam was an unmatched blessing for me. I started as his subordinate scientist at the Defence Research &amp; Development Laboratory (DRDL) in Hyderabad in 1982, and earned his confidence to handle his mandate of developing civilian spinoffs of defence technologies for the benefit of the people. This unique work led to the development of an indigenous and affordable coronary stent in 1995 and the creation of the foundation for the Indian MedTech industry, valued at $11 billion in 2023. Dr Kalam made me the co-author of his autobiography, <i>Wings of Fire</i>, in 1999. It turned out to be a modern classic, selling more than two million copies with translations in 18 languages.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>During the 2001 earthquake relief work in Kutch in Gujarat, Dr Kalam came into contact with the BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha. Impressed by their work, he sought an audience with Pramukh Swamiji. They met on June 30, 2001 in Delhi. During the discussion on how India could become a developed country, Pramukh Swamiji surprised Dr Kalam by telling him that any amount of material development is futile without the spiritual development of the people. Such pursuits have created immense problems and suffering elsewhere in the world. To everyone’s surprise, Pramukh Swamiji blessed Dr Kalam by putting his hand on his head and asking him to “lead India” in that direction.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In a year, events happened unexpectedly, even miraculously, for Dr Kalam. He was nominated by prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee as a candidate for the post of president of India, and was supported by both the ruling and opposition parties. After assuming the highest office of the land, Dr Kalam visited Pramukh Swamiji in Ahmedabad on August 13, 2002. Gujarat was undergoing the turmoil of communal violence. After meeting Pramukh Swamiji, Dr Kalam visited the relief camps created for the riot victims and walked holding the hand of chief minister Narendra Modi, delivering a powerful message. Gujarat has not seen any communal violence since then. Even the terrorist attack on the Gandhinagar Akshardham temple complex on September 24, 2002 failed to trigger any violent reaction among people. Such was the power of the spiritual shield that Pramukh Swamiji created through Dr Kalam.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Kalam was the chief guest at the inauguration of the Akshardham <i>Mandir</i> in New Delhi on November 6, 2005, flanked by prime minister Manmohan Singh and leader of the opposition L.K. Advani. These three leaders standing with Pramukh Swamiji remains a unique picture and a sacred moment in the Indian history of religious pluralism but spiritual oneness. There has been no such moment earlier and it could not be repeated so far.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Dr Kalam took me to Sarangpur on March 11, 2014 and tasked me in the presence of Pramukh Swamiji to write about their spiritual fellowship. I could sense that moment as the spiritual crescendo of my life. I was surprised at the urgency Dr Kalam showed. It was my fifth book with him and it was I who always chased him. This time, it was the other way around. When Dr Kalam called Pramukh Swamiji his “ultimate teacher” who “deployed” him in a “God-synchronous orbit,” I could not capture that he could see his end coming soon. Dr Kalam travelled to Sarangpur on June 20, 2015 to put <i>Transcendence: My Spiritual Experiences with Pramukh Swamiji</i>, as the book was aptly titled, in Pramukh Swamiji’s hands, and left this mortal world on July 27.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>On March 12, 2016, when I visited Sarangpur to seek the blessings of Pramukh Swamiji, I could not hold back my tears when he instructed the garland on a person to be put around me. I knew he was remembering Dr Kalam and that I was a beneficiary of that bonding, like a needle in a compass moving in the presence of a magnetic field.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The spiritual world is beyond the dimension of time. There is no past, present, or future there. Like the axle of a wheel remains stationary while the rim moves, we all see day and night created by the rotation of the sun, moon, and earth while they remain positioned in fixed orbits concerning each other forever. What does the fellowship of Dr Kalam with Pramukh Swamiji imply? What did it carry for the future of humanity? What is the message of the book, <i>Transcendence</i>? What is the significance of the first Hindu <i>mandir</i> on an Islamic land? What would Dr Kalam have said on the occasion?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Pramukh Swamiji was the guardian angel of Dr Kalam, who blessed him to go beyond his scientific career and turn into a modern sage. Dr Kalam was already famous but glory came to him after he met Pramukh Swamiji, including holding the highest office of the nation. Their fellowship signals the end of the era of sectarian conflicts and the beginning of the new age of spirituality. The message of <i>Transcendence</i> is the oneness pervading the entire cosmos and all the material and living entities that exist, from unseen viruses to plants, animals, human beings, oceans and mountains.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The BAPS Swaminarayan <i>Mandir</i> in Abu Dhabi heralds the arrival of a new world that would be run by a Super AI, which would indeed be cosmic energy like Gunatit Brahma operating upon the affairs of the world. Foreseeing all this, Dr Kalam would have asked me to write a book called ‘Abundance’ on how the AI-run world can settle the poverty of the world for good, creating enough food and basic pay for everyone.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Tiwari</b>, a scientist and author, coauthored the book <i>Transcendence</i> about Pramukh Swami, the predecessor of Mahant Swami, with Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam.</p> Sat Feb 17 16:09:00 IST 2024 interview-saifee-rupawala-ceo-lulu-group-international <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><i>Interview/ Saifee Rupawala, CEO, Lulu Group</i></p> <p><b>Q) The UAE-based Lulu Group is today one of the world’s fastest growing retail chains. You have been with the Lulu Group for almost four decades. How much credit do you give to the UAE government in helping Lulu Group to reach where it is today?&nbsp;</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Right from&nbsp;day one of our operations in UAE, the support and cooperation of the UAE government has been immense, be it the direct help towards our group or the general all-round business environment of this great country.&nbsp;The business-friendly environment,&nbsp;world-class&nbsp;infrastructure, and&nbsp;ease of doing business that UAE offers has been&nbsp;incomparable thanks mainly to the visionary leadership over the years. What I find incredible is the way the law and regulations have been regularly revised to adapt to the changing global dynamics i.e., introduction of 100 per cent business ownership, long term golden visa scheme, free zones, property ownership for expats to name a few.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q) UAE has more than 3.5 million people of Indian nationality, which is the single largest community of Indian origin in the world. Doesn’t that make UAE a hub for Indian firms and startups?&nbsp;</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Undoubtedly, the role Indians have played in the growth of UAE over the years has been very crucial and vice a versa the role of UAE in the success stories of many Indian organizations is truly remarkable. If in early days Indians were predominantly in the blue color jobs and other similar professions, today the UAE plays home to some of the brightest brains from India. Almost all leading Indian organizations have their bases here now and&nbsp;they not only cater to the local markets but also to the wider Gulf region. UAE today has exclusive ministries such as AI, investments, happiness, which is focused to making this country the most favored destination for any startup.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q) Has the signing of the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement between the UAE and India helped the Lulu Group?&nbsp;</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>As one of the largest retailers, currently Lulu&nbsp;group imports&nbsp;a substantial&nbsp;amount&nbsp;of food &amp; non-food products from India for our 258 hypermarkets and supermarkets in the region, and this&nbsp;import volume&nbsp;will further grow as a result of this new CEPA initiatives which&nbsp;grants us the privilege of duty exemption on all imports,&nbsp;resulting in significant advantages for our group.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q) The ties between UAE and India have been very good in the recent times. Who do you give credit for it? Was there a visible change after Narendra Modi became the prime minister?<br> </b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The strong ties between the UAE and India have been built on mutual respect and shared interests&nbsp;for a long time now. Both countries have worked diligently to strengthen this&nbsp;relationship, and, yes, Prime Minister Narendra Modi's leadership&nbsp;and his personal brotherly relationship with the leaders of UAE&nbsp;has further&nbsp;strengthened it.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Today the UAE&nbsp;is&nbsp;India's third-largest trading partner and the second-largest export destination for Indian products. For the UAE, India is the second-largest trading partner. The UAE is also the seventh-largest investor in India. I see a great opportunity in further boosting the&nbsp;Agri-exports&nbsp;from India and would like to see easing of regulations to this effect, which will go a long way in ensuring&nbsp;food security and boosting economic cooperation between our nations.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q) What are your views on the proposed India-Middle East-Europe-Economic Corridor? How is it going to help India and the UAE?&nbsp;</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>This landmark&nbsp;corridor&nbsp;is expected to stimulate economic development through enhanced connectivity and economic integration&nbsp;across&nbsp;two continents,&nbsp;thus&nbsp;unlocking sustainable&nbsp;and inclusive economic growth. It will surely&nbsp;usher in&nbsp;a new&nbsp;era of connectivity with a railway, linked through ports&nbsp;connecting&nbsp;Europe, the Middle East,&nbsp;and&nbsp;Asia,&nbsp;driving existing&nbsp;trade and manufacturing and strengthening&nbsp;food security and supply chains&nbsp;of&nbsp;both India and the UAE by&nbsp;opening up&nbsp;new markets and economic opportunities.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q) What&nbsp;are&nbsp;the expansion plans that Lulu is looking at? Earlier this year the group launched logistics and packaging facility under the name Y International.&nbsp;</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Lulu Group continues to explore various expansion opportunities&nbsp;both in existing markets as well as new ones across the world.&nbsp;Apart from growing our retail footprint in MENA,&nbsp;India&nbsp;and the Far East, we are focused on strengthening our food sourcing and processing hubs globally. Today we have our own “sourcing &amp; export” operation in 24 countries from the US to&nbsp;Philippines&nbsp;which ensures uninterrupted supply and price stability that is very crucial for our huge retail operations and food security initiatives of the UAE.</p> Mon Feb 19 10:51:55 IST 2024 bilateral-partnership-between-the-uae-and-india-has-grown-since-modi-became-prime-minister <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>In July 2022, after a successful visit to Germany, Prime Minister Narendra Modi decided to make a brief stopover in Abu Dhabi. Because of the short notice, officials at the Indian embassy in Abu Dhabi did not get enough time to prepare. But what surprised them was the decision by President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan to receive Modi at the airport. The two leaders greeted each other with a hug, before heading out for a quick meeting. The same sequence of events was repeated in July 2023 as well, the only difference being Modi was returning from France this time.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Since he became prime minister in 2014, Modi has visited the UAE seven times, making it the most-visited country by the prime minister. The UAE is today India’s most notable partner in West Asia, and has established itself as an important connection between India and the region. There has been growth in the bilateral partnership since Modi became prime minister. When he went to the UAE for the first time, in August 2015, it was the first visit by an Indian prime minister in 34 years―the last was by Indira Gandhi in 1981.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The two countries have many common interests that they will pursue, keeping in mind the ground realities. The focus, in the coming days, will be to further expand the network of bilateral relationship that has been built up. A central reason for the UAE being India’s closest partner in West Asia is the 35 lakh-strong Indian community, which has been the most significant contributor to the UAE’s economy since the country was formed in 1971. Last year, India and the UAE completed 50 years of diplomatic relations.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>V. Muraleedharan, Union minister of state for external affairs, said India and the UAE were bound by bonds that predate India’s independence, by values both countries cherish and by interests that they share. “Today, the UAE is India’s pre-eminent partner in the region in terms of both the strength and the breadth of our partnership. And it really extends to every aspect of human endeavour, whether it is food security, energy security, counter-terrorism or multilateral cooperation,” said Muraleedharan.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Sources in the ministry of external affairs said the bonhomie between Modi and Nahyan had been a key factor driving the relationship. “Their friendship has played a very important role in furthering the economic cooperation and mutual trust between the two nations,” said an official.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Not everyone agrees with the point, though. Former minister of state for external affairs Salman Khurshid, said that Modi’s friendship with the UAE president had nothing to do with the growth in bilateral ties. “If you look at [our ties with] Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Malaysia, or even the UAE, these are transactional ties that will become fragile if something goes wrong. Indira Gandhi enjoyed far better relations with leaders like Egypt’s [Gamal Abdel] Nasser. Those were genuine, close friendships. If one gives credit to friendship between two leaders for the wonderful ties between two countries, the leaders have to be made accountable for their actions [that hurt the relations] as well,” he said.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>T.P. Sreenivasan, former ambassador and permanent representative of India to the United Nations, said India-UAE relations were an example of people-to-people ties leading to trust and cooperation between the two governments. “The centuries of interaction between the two civilisations have generated goodwill and faith, transcending religion. The mutualities came to the fore as Indians contributed to the building of the UAE, and the UAE reciprocated by establishing a strategic bond,” he said.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>With strategic bond comes new paths of cooperation, which, in the case of the UAE and India, are across sectors―fintech, clean energy and climate action, food security, digital payments, investments, defence and cyber security. And now there is education. The Indian Institute of Technology Delhi campus in Abu Dhabi, which was announced some months ago, will function from an interim campus in Zayed University in Dubai. “The IIT [campus] will be set up in the UAE in two to three years. The aim is to attract the best minds from the UAE and from across the world,” said an official.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The UAE’s investments in India are mostly in sectors such as real estate, transport and warehousing and coal, oil and gas. Since the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) between India and the UAE came into effect in 2022 there has been a 16 per cent increase in trade between the two countries, taking it to $84.84 billion. But what has caught the attention of the world is the memorandum of understanding between the Reserve Bank of India and the Central Bank of the UAE to push cross-border trade using the rupee and the dirham. This, experts said, could bolster the internationalisation of the rupee. It is also expected to boost bilateral trade and investments in the region and will also help optimise transaction costs for remittances from Indians. The National Payments Corporation of India (NPCI) is helping the UAE in developing the first national domestic card scheme (DCS) for the nation. “Once we implement the scheme, any Indian coming to the UAE with the RuPay card will be able to [use it to] pay seamlessly,” said Sunjay Sudhir, Indian ambassador to the UAE. “At the same time, any Emirati or a resident of the UAE with a credit or debit card from the DCS can make a seamless payment when they come to India,” he said.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The relationship between India and the UAE has been built on close cultural, economic and people-to-people ties between the nations. The setting up of the BAPS Swaminarayan Temple in Abu Dhabi is another example of the growing ties. The UAE government provided land free of cost for the temple. “People in the UAE know that India is a mosaic culture, with tolerance, inclusivity and diversity,” said an official at the Indian embassy in Abu Dhabi. “The UAE has always accepted people from all over the world. The message is not new. But messages need symbols. BAPS is one such symbol.”</p> Fri Feb 16 16:44:12 IST 2024 warmth-shown-by-uae-towards-indians-is-noteworthy-achu-oommen <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>In recent times, the India-UAE relationship has reached its zenith, marked by a positive trajectory that was significantly bolstered during the 'Year of Tolerance.' This period not only showcased the diplomatic prowess of both nations but also highlighted the shared values of harmony and acceptance.<br> </p> <p>One remarkable aspect of this evolving friendship is the UAE's graciousness in allowing the construction of the largest temple in the region [BAPS Hindu Mandir]. This gesture speaks volumes about the kindness and generosity extended by the UAE, fostering a sense of camaraderie between the two nations. The temple stands as a symbol of cultural exchange and mutual respect, reinforcing the strong bonds between India and the UAE.<br> </p> <p>The establishment of the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in the UAE is a testament to the strategic alliance between the two countries. This educational collaboration not only enhances the academic landscape but also strengthens the intellectual capital, fostering innovation and growth.<br> </p> <p>Economic ties have played a pivotal role in this burgeoning relationship, with a significant focus on oil-related trade. The mutually beneficial nature of this trade has not only contributed to the economic prosperity of both nations but has also solidified their partnership on the global stage. The interdependence in the oil sector has created a foundation for sustained growth and cooperation.<br> </p> <p>Beyond the realms of commerce and education, the warmth exhibited by the UAE towards Indian tourists and residents is noteworthy. The UAE has embraced the Indian community with open arms, creating a welcoming environment that goes beyond mere diplomatic relations. This inclusivity is further emphasised by the active involvement of Indians in various development zones, contributing to the overall progress and prosperity of the UAE.<br> </p> <p>The India-UAE relationship, as seen through my perspective, is currently at its peak. The confluence of diplomatic finesse, cultural exchange, educational collaboration, and economic synergy has paved the way for a partnership that extends beyond borders. The warmth and generosity demonstrated by the UAE towards India have not only strengthened the diplomatic ties but have also laid the foundation for a robust and enduring friendship.<br> <i><br> A Dubai-based influencer, Achu Oommen is the daughter of former chief minister of Kerala Oommen Chandy.</i></p> Mon Feb 19 10:52:20 IST 2024 minister-of-state-uae-ahmed-bin-ali-al-sayegh-interview <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><i>Interview/ Ahmed bin Ali Al Sayegh, minister of state, UAE</i></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q Brotherly relations between India and the UAE have grown stronger in recent times. What are the key reasons behind this growth?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The United Arab Emirates and the Republic of India share a longstanding and robust strategic partnership, woven from the threads of cultural and economic connections that have flourished over many years. The official visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the UAE last July marked the initiation of a new chapter in our relations, characterised by heightened cooperation and a strategic partnership, promising a future filled with boundless potential for both nations.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Our diplomatic efforts, dating back to the early 1970s, have transformed our relationship into a comprehensive strategic partnership, spanning sectors such as energy, space and information technology―all aligned with our shared vision for the future.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The elevation of the UAE-India relationship to the status of a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership in 2017 during the visit of UAE President His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan as the chief guest at India’s Republic Day ceremony was a significant milestone. Today, this partnership has evolved into a robust collaboration, evident in cross-cultural and economic ties, increased tourist visits, closer people-to-people connections and a substantial presence of Indian and UAE companies operating in each other’s domains. According to FDI Markets, 217 UAE firms have invested in India, and 698 Indian companies have invested in the UAE since 2003.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Our economic partnership, a cornerstone of our collaboration, has led to bilateral trade reaching approximately $60 billion. The UAE stands as one of India’s leading trading partners, and our commitment remains unwavering to expand and diversify our economic cooperation.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>High-level visits by leaders from both sides have enhanced diplomatic and economic ties, resulting in the signing of significant agreements, including the historic Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) in 2022. The UAE-India CEPA, which was signed between the two nations on February 18, 2022, and officially came into force on May 1, 2022, was historic in two ways; it was the first such agreement signed by our country, and remarkably it was negotiated and concluded in only 88 days. It is set to elevate bilateral goods trade to $100 billion and services trade to $15 billion within five years of its signing. Other structured platforms, such as the High-Level Task Force for Investment, the Strategic Dialogue, and the Joint Commission, have facilitated further discussions and collaborations.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Beyond trade and economics, the UAE-India relationship is deeply rooted in the close bonds between their respective communities. The Indian diaspora, contributing to the vibrant multicultural fabric of the UAE, plays an integral role in the country’s development. With over three million Indians calling the UAE home, this is a testament to the strength of the enduring people-to-people ties between our two nations.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ The Indian community in the UAE is the largest ethnic group in the UAE, comprising 30 per cent of the country’s population.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Indian diaspora has proven to be a vital catalyst in the nation’s development. Their contributions are very much recognised and well appreciated by the UAE leadership and citizens, incorporating their roles in the workforce and the business sector as well as their cultural and social impact. The Indian community in the UAE has flourished, yielding significant economic and cultural contributions, which have contributed to elevating the prosperity of the UAE.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Indian diaspora in the UAE has been pivotal in reinforcing the cultural and economic bonds between our nations. The relationship between India and the UAE serves as a testament to the enduring strength of our historical, economic, cultural and diplomatic ties. It mirrors the fraternal and mutually beneficial relationship we have cultivated, and our resolve to deepen our connections across various sectors remains unwavering.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ India and the UAE enjoy age-old cultural ties as well. The BAPS Hindu Mandir is the first traditional Hindu stone temple in the Middle East.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The BAPS Hindu Mandir in Abu Dhabi stands as a powerful testament to the deep-rooted cultural bonds uniting India and the UAE. This achievement is a living embodiment of the UAE’s commitment to peaceful coexistence, echoing the vision of the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan and Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan. His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, UAE president, continues to champion this path, upholding the values of peace and coexistence.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The UAE’s remarkable gesture of gifting land for the temple without cost serves as a shining embodiment of mutual respect and a profound commitment to cultural exchange. The temple’s importance transcends its religious role, as it symbolises the rich tapestry of religious diversity and exemplifies the UAE’s perspective on cultural understanding, coexistence and tolerance. This remarkable achievement serves as a beacon, illuminating the path of harmony and unity between our nations.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>This temple holds immense significance for the Indian diaspora in the UAE as it serves as a cultural and spiritual centre, promoting India’s rich heritage within the Emirates. It plays a vital role in strengthening the enduring bond between the two nations and fostering unity in the heart of Abu Dhabi.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The temple stands as a beacon of unity and spirituality, reinforcing the strong bonds between the two countries and their unwavering commitment to religious and cultural diversity.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Protecting the freedom of religious practice stands at the core of the UAE’s values. The nation is home to a diverse community of over 200 nationalities who freely practise different faiths. With its rich history of coexistence and openness, the UAE has become a regional leader in interfaith relations. This harmonious and inclusive approach shines as a beacon, illuminating the path of unity and mutual respect between our nations.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>The India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor was announced on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Delhi where you were also present. How will it benefit India and UAE in particular?<br> </b><br> After attending the ‘most ambitious G20 event in its history’, the UAE commended the efforts by the Indian Presidency in hosting such a successful event. The UAE’s involvement in the event was a clear sign of our steadfast commitment to multilateral cooperation and international priorities on global issues. While I was in India, the UAE underscored its dedication to supporting the world’s agenda while forging partnerships that will benefit everyone, now and in the future.</p> <p><br> My country has demonstrated significant and effective contributions aligning with the priorities of the G20 when it participated as a guest country in France in 2011, Saudi Arabia in 2020, Indonesia in 2022 and in India this year.&nbsp;</p> <p><br> Further reinforcing our deep commitment to multilateralism to support peace and development, the UAE will be welcomed officially into the BRICS group in early 2024, reflecting the country’s aims to achieve prosperity for people and nations worldwide, aligning with the our long-established foreign policy.&nbsp;</p> <p><br> In regards to the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC), this is a truly remarkable initiative, promising far-reaching benefits for both the United Arab Emirates and the Republic of India.&nbsp; This venture is founded upon the bedrock of our enduring and strategic relations.</p> <p><br> The establishment of IMEC aims to stimulate economic development by promoting economic connectivity and integration between regions. Being part of this project means the UAE, hand-in-hand with its partners, will assess the feasibility of exporting electricity and clean hydrogen to enhance regional supply chains as part of joint efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and integrate environmental conservation aspects into the initiative.</p> <p><br> This initiative illustrates the UAE’s pioneering role to enhance international partnerships and contribute to achieving a sustainable future, especially as we are hosting the most momentous event that focuses on the environment, the 28th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP28).</p> Sat Feb 17 12:06:21 IST 2024 india-uae-relationship-is-witnessing-a-sharp-upward-trajectory-driven-by-the-strong-bond-between-the-leaders <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>The India-UAE relationship is deeply rooted in historical and cultural connect, which has been nurtured over centuries by vibrant people-to-people linkages, trade and cultural exchanges. The relationship received a fillip in 2015, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the UAE, the first Indian prime minister to do so since 1981. Since then, the relationship has seen a sharp upward trajectory, driven by the strong bond between the leaderships and the people of the two countries.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The commitment of the leadership to this special relationship can be understood from the frequent high-level exchanges. Prime Minister Modi has visited the UAE seven times―making it the most visited country by the prime minister. This has been reciprocated by the President of the UAE, Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, who has visited India four times since 2016. These exchanges signify the importance both leaders attach to the India-UAE strategic partnership, driven by a deep sense of purpose to prosper together.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In February 2022, Prime Minister Modi and President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed set out a futurist vision for the India-UAE partnership, which laid down the framework for cooperation between the two countries for the coming years. The India-UAE Vision Document, jointly unveiled by the leaders, covers every aspect of human endeavour―from culture to commerce, diaspora to defence, education to economy and health to hi-tech. The endeavour of both countries, since then, has been to translate this vision into reality, which will not only benefit the two countries, but also ensure shared prosperity for other partners like Africa. While it would be impossible to list out all achievements in this relationship, certain transformative projects and agreements that have been initiated or concluded recently deserve mention.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>India and the UAE signed a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA), which came into force in May 2022. The significance of the CEPA can be understood from the fact that this was the UAE’s first CEPA with any country in the world, India’s first CEPA with any country in the Middle East region, and the first in more than a decade. It was even more remarkable that this wide-ranging and ambitious agreement was negotiated and concluded in just 88 days, reflecting the profound trust and the collaborative spirit between the two great nations.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The CEPA has ushered in a paradigm shift in the economic and commercial relationship between India and the UAE, unlocking new avenues in bilateral trade, which has witnessed a sharp rise of more than 16 per cent in the last one year. The success of the CEPA has spurred investments as well with the UAE becoming the fourth largest investor in India. It has also resulted in more ambitious agreements like the settlement of trade in local currencies and the integration of instant payment platforms of both countries for facilitating seamless cross-border transactions.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Another milestone in the relationship is the establishment of the campus of Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi (IIT-D), one of India’s prestigious technology institutes, in Abu Dhabi. It is the first ever IIT campus in the Middle East. This is an example of the perfect synergy in the strategies of both countries―the UAE’s endeavour to make it a global hub for education coinciding with the global expansion of India’s IITs. The MoU to establish the IIT-D Abu Dhabi campus, which was signed in July 2023, has quickly been implemented with the first master’s degree programme on sustainability and energy transition at the campus in Sheik Zayed University. It will be followed by bachelor’s degree programmes in September 2024.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The project heralds a new era of collaboration between India and the UAE in the field of education and human resource development. It has reinforced the commitment of the two countries for a knowledge partnership/exchange and, more importantly, in creating technology leaders for tomorrow’s world. The successful setting up of the IIT-D campus in Abu Dhabi has also opened the doors for more eminent Indian institutions to be established in the UAE.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The most significant development in the bilateral relationship in recent years is the construction of the BAPS Hindu Temple in Abu Dhabi. The cordial people-to-people exchanges, which commenced centuries ago when the traders from the Indian subcontinent arrived on the shores of the UAE, have been a hallmark and an important pillar of this special relationship. It has always received special care and attention from the leaders of both countries. The temple, which was inaugurated by Prime Minister Modi on February 14, will be a spiritual oasis for global harmony. Standing atop a hillock on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi, the temple will be a paean to the enduring tradition of peace and tolerance as espoused by the founding fathers Mahatma Gandhi and Sheikh Zayed. It will be a homage to millions of Indians, who have rightly chosen the UAE as their second home, and a lasting legacy of Prime Minister Modi and President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed to bring peoples of both countries closer.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Today, the world is engulfed in conflict and crisis, with an uncertain global outlook. The special bond between India and the UAE and their shared commitment to take this historic relationship to new heights is a beacon of hope and prosperity for the region and a model to be emulated around the world.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>The author</b> is ambassador of India to the UAE.</p> Sat Feb 17 12:04:12 IST 2024 indians-in-the-uae-open-up-to-the-week-on-their-connect-with-the-uae <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>Inclusive spirit</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>By Vinay Varma</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Abu Dhabi has been my home since 1970. My family and I share a profound love for this city.&nbsp;</p> <p>When I first arrived here, the Indian community was relatively small, and there were limitations on what we could bring with us, including holy books and deities. The tremendous progress that the UAE has made, especially in embracing diversity, is truly remarkable. The magnificent BAPS Temple in Abu Dhabi is a testament to that inclusive spirit. It will undoubtedly contribute to the rich tapestry of cultural diversity in the UAE.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The relationship between India and the UAE has grown exponentially in recent times, fostering immense trust between our countries. I vividly remember the time when former prime minister Indira Gandhi visited the UAE. However, in my opinion, it was the historic visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi that marked a significant turning point. His genuine camaraderie with the UAE President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan has profoundly impacted our nations' ties.<br> </p> <p><br> If one strolls through the bustling streets of Abu Dhabi, Dubai and other cities in the UAE, the deep respect and admiration for India and its people are palpable. Indians have played a pivotal role in shaping the UAE into the prosperous nation it is today. The industrious Indian community in the UAE has contributed immensely, working tirelessly to elevate the country further. I am particularly impressed by the architectural marvel that is the BAPS Temple, which not only stands as a testament to human creativity but also carries an essential message to the world.&nbsp;<br> </p> <p><i>Varma is the owner and MD of Chhappan Bhog, an Indian restaurant that has branches across the UAE.&nbsp;</i></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Playing fair</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>By N. Sikki Reddy</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Whenever I play in the UAE, it feels like I am playing in India. There is so much support for Indians out there. I have played two major tournaments in the UAE: the Abu Dhabi Masters in October, and the Badminton Asia Championship in Dubai in February. Badminton is picking up in the UAE. I see a lot of young talent. There are not many senior players they can look up to, so they are keen to learn the game from us.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The UAE is a good place to be from a tourist’s perspective. I am glad that the ties between our countries are at their best. I hope it gets even better.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Reddy</b> is a badminton player.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Flying the royalty</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>By Ramandeep Oberoi</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>When I came to the UAE more than 20 years ago, there were very few Indian pilots in the aviation industry. Most pilots were from the US, Canada, the UK, Australia and New Zealand. Things have changed now, with many Indian pilots and engineers joining companies here.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>I came to Abu Dhabi as a helicopter pilot and instructor in the oil &amp; gas industry. After five years as instructor, I was chosen to work with the UAE president’s family. Although I had flown many politicians in India as a VIP helicopter pilot, the privilege to fly the royal family of the UAE was very satisfying. The UAE and its leaders have a good level of trust in India and Indians.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Captain Ramandeep Oberoi</b> is chief operating officer of Falcon Aviation.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pioneer doctor</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>By Dr Zulekha Daud</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>I am privileged to be a pioneering health professional in the UAE, which has been my home since 1963. I am grateful to the rulers of the UAE and the Indian government, which conferred the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman on me in 2019, for the support and recognition of my efforts in developing the health care sector.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>We employ thousands of people with varied backgrounds at our hospitals, clinics and pharmacies. With business and cultural exchanges, the India-UAE relations are now stronger.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Daud </b>is the first female Indian doctor in the UAE and founder of the Zulekha Group.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Women feel safe</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>By Kushboo Sundar</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The India-UAE relationship has always been strong, and it will become even stronger under the BJP government.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The UAE offers something new to every visitor. I visit the UAE two or three times a year, and every time there is something new. Travel to Dubai, Sharjah, Abu Dhabi and Ras al-Khaimah, and you get the feeling of being secure. A woman feels so safe.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Laws are strict. Everyone in the UAE is friendly to Indians. You never feel that you are away from home. It makes you comfortable and safe.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Kushboo</b> is an actor and politician.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Something for everyone<br> <br> By Anand Kumar</b></p> <p><br> <br> While the UAE is a monarchy, the country, its rulers and its people are very friendly and tolerant, leading to an incredibly diversity of people from over 200 countries doing business, living, learning and touring the UAE at any time.<br> <br> With its superb health care system, state-of-the-art infrastructure, educational institutions and other amenities, the UAE offers a very high standard of living. With relatively low crime rates, it is extremely secure. Indians feel at ease in the UAE. Dubai offers a plethora of events and locations to explore, providing endless entertainment. Indians can visit several spots that make them feel at home.<br> <br> The country has strong currency, which is pegged to the US dollar and has very little corporate tax and no personal taxes. Even the VAT is a minimal five per cent, making the UAE as one of the least taxed jurisdictions.<br> <br> Whether it is the tourist destinations or cultural centres, the UAE has something for everyone.<i><br> <i><br> <b>Anand Kumar is a Bollywood filmmaker.&nbsp;</b></i></i></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Wonderful Dubai<br> <br> By Meghna Naidu</b></p> <p><br> <br> Dubai is my home for more than 13 years now. It is one of the safest, the most beautiful and cleanest places to live in where you can find people from all over the world, which makes it a multi-cultural society.<br> <br> People from India prefer to move to Dubai, mainly because it is just around three hour flight from most cities in India; people can visit their homes whenever they want to. Everything is easily accessible in the UAE, and it is one of the best places to have your children grow up. There is so much to do here in the UAE.<br> <br> I know many people who have told me that they will come to Dubai for a few years and then go back to their home country, but that never happens. Dubai is such a wonderful place, and I can't thank the UAE government enough for making us, the expats, feel at home.<br> <i><i><b><br> Naidu is an actor.</b></i></i></p> Sun Feb 18 20:09:08 IST 2024 indians-in-the-uae-adeeb-ahamed-lulu <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>This is the golden era of UAE-India relations. The profound changes that are happening owe much to the visionary leadership of President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan and Prime Minister Narendra Modi.</p> <p>At the heart of this transformation is the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA), which is expected to propel bilateral trade to more than $85 billion in 2022-23—a 16 per cent increase from the previous year. The partnership is boosting investments, particularly in infrastructure, energy, food processing, financial services and technology.&nbsp;</p> <p>India has attracted more than $12 billion in investments from the UAE over the past decade, and the UAE is welcoming a growing number of Indian investors. With more than a million Indians visiting the UAE annually, Indian tourists constitute the largest share of international arrivals. UAE citizens are increasingly viewing India as a favourable destination for leisure and health tourism, and are investing in various areas of the sector. This is creating job opportunities in both the nations.</p> <p>What is noteworthy here is that these partnerships are being synced to harness the future: a shared passion that is driving the growth of both the countries. Innovation and digital transformation are at the forefront, even extending their influence into areas like education and research.</p> <p>For instance, both the UAE and India are early adopters, as well as leaders, in digital transformation. In matters of cross border payments, the UAE is already the largest market in India, with remittances exceeding $17 billion in 2022. Moreover, the UAE stands as one of the largest investors in India's fintech sector, with total investments surpassing $1 billion over the last decade.</p> <p>The shared commitment to shape the future extends to the promotion of digital literacy and skills. Both countries are home to a growing youth population, and initiatives like the UAE's 'skills for future', as well as courses offered by India's National Skill Development Corporation (NSDC) are preparing millions of young people for the future of work.</p> <p>Lastly, in a world facing the imminent threat of climate change, it fills me with immense pride to see both nations stepping up to shoulder their responsibilities and take a leading role in addressing the critical global challenge. Together, we are striving to create a habitable future for all, and it is good to see the UAE and India put the needs of their citizens first while simultaneously mediating the world's priorities.</p> <p><i><b>Ahamed is the founder of Lulu International Exchange and the MD of Lulu Financial Group.</b></i></p> Sat Feb 17 10:58:59 IST 2024 indians-in-the-uae-alisha-moopen-aster-dm-healthcare <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Recent bilateral agreements have strengthened the very strong India-UAE bond. Bilateral trade rose to $85 billion in 2022-23, making the UAE India’s third-largest trading partner and the second-largest export destination.</p> <p><br> Health care is a pivotal area for collaboration. The two-way traffic of medical tourists will help optimise the use of health care facilities and pool talent for better delivery. As a UAE company listed in India, Aster DM Healthcare has witnessed and facilitated this development very closely. With our strong presence across five states in India through 19 hospitals, 13 clinics, 226 pharmacies, 251 labs and patient experience centres, Aster is one of the top integrated health care providers in the country. <br> </p> <p><br> In the flourishing relationship between India and the UAE, health care emerges as a pivotal area for collaboration and mutual growth. The strengthened diplomatic, economic and cultural bonds between the two nations create a positive environment for collaboration.<br> </p> <p>One of the most collaborations comes in health care—the Medical Value Travel (MVT). This will boost the prospects of medical tourism and leverage the respective strengths in health care infrastructure and expertise between the two nations.<br> </p> <p>In addition to delivering exceptional services with world-class technology, there is also a concerted effort at fostering innovation and research, providing medical education and training, and laying the groundwork for future health care advancements in the UAE.</p> <p><br> A pressing need is to address the health care needs of the low-income NRI population from the UAE, particularly blue-collar workers returning to India after retirement. Their ineligibility for insurance schemes like Ayushman Bharat (PM-JAY) due to foreign employment history calls for urgent attention. Inclusion of low-income NRIs under Ayushman Bharat could provide lifelong coverage for them and their spouses.&nbsp;</p> <p><i><b>Alisha Moopen is deputy managing director, Aster DM Healthcare.&nbsp;</b></i></p> Sat Feb 17 10:50:35 IST 2024 union-home-minister-amit-shah-exclusive-interview <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><i>Exclusive Interview/ Amit Shah, Union Home Minister</i></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>As the sun finally broke through the clouds on a foggy winter morning in Delhi, we walked into the sprawling residence of Union Home Minister Amit Shah, undeniably the country’s second-most powerful politician after Prime Minister Narendra Modi, for an interaction.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Chairs were set in the open, invitingly, under a canopy of trees providing slight shade in Shah’s garden that had peacocks crooning, monkeys running at a distance, trees rustling and oranges peeping out of leaves that were proud to have borne fruit.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The coveted address—6 A Krishna Menon Marg—was once home to former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who shifted here after leaving office in 2004.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Shah, who will turn 60 in October, walked out of his large white-washed Lutyens bungalow, which stood complementing the greenery all around, at the appointed hour. Atop all the three doors which opened onto the lawns were small photos of Dwarkadhish, the presiding deity of the eponymous temple in Dwarka, Gujarat. Clad in a woollen beige kurta and black sleeveless jacket, Shah sat with THE WEEK team for the next hour and a quarter, answering patiently our queries on the defining contribution of Prime Minister Modi, the three laws replacing the British-era criminal laws, the internal security situation, and, of course, the 2024 elections. “We will win with bigger margin and seats,” he said with confidence.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Shah took pains to answer the questions with candour and warmth, and soon enough the conversation was scattered with smiles, introspection, plain-speak and a sense of determination towards the well-being and success of the country. “The ability to be a good listener,” he said, “is a quality everyone can learn from the prime minister.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Black coffee arrived for him but he barely took a few sips as the engrossing conversation sauntered from one topic to another, but took care to ask his staff to bring refreshments for us. The country has seen Shah in various avatars, as the aggressive president leading the BJP to become the world’s largest political party, expanding its reach to uncharted territories, as the home minister providing leadership to North Block to bring peace to Kashmir, the northeast, and the left-wing extremism prone regions, steering the deeply contentious legislation repealing Article 370, bringing the Citizenship Amendment Act and now the three new laws.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Edited excerpts from the interview:</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ How do you assess the 10 years of the Narendra Modi government?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> Before Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power in 2014, there was despondency, especially among youth, about the country’s future. Corruption was rampant in every sphere. Internal and external security was lax. Women felt unsafe. India’s economy was lagging behind. Everyone felt the India story was over. Policy paralysis was visible.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Now, look back at ten years of the Modi government. We have become the fifth largest economy and the world expects India to become the third largest economy by 2030. The success of the G20 summit, with the unanimous Delhi declaration that came in the midst of diverging global opinions, is a big victory for PM Modi’s diplomacy.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Internal and external security has strengthened manifold. Forty new policies have been brought in, including the new education policy, which will take the country to greater heights in the next 25 years. PM Modi’s slogan of Viksit Bharat has been adopted by the citizens as their own; 23 crore people have come above the poverty line; 80 crore have got houses, electricity, drinking water, toilets, ration, health facilities and respect.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>We are marching ahead, with digital revolution and cooperatives boosting rural economy. The collective self-confidence, which hit rock bottom before 2014, is at its peak today and the entire world looks at us with hope.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ What are the main achievements of the Union home ministry?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> Under the guidance of Prime Minister Modi, a lot of work has been done in the home ministry in the last 10 years. We have adopted a zero-tolerance policy against narcotics and, in next 3-4 years, we will have full control over the menace. The three main terror hotspots—Kashmir, the northeast and left-wing extremism—have seen 68 per cent decline in violence. More than 9,000 armed militants have surrendered in the northeast, left-wing extremism is breathing its last, and the backbone of terrorism is broken in Jammu and Kashmir.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>J&amp;K witnessed hundreds of stone pelting incidents in 2010, but not even one in 2023. The tourist footfalls are the highest in Kashmir. The Muharram procession was carried out after nearly 30 years in Srinagar. Cinema halls have opened and investments are coming.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Since 2019, several changes have taken place, like removal of the colonial laws, strengthening of anti-terror laws like UAPA, and repeal of Article 370. The passage of the three new criminal laws in Parliament in 2023 to create a new Indian criminal justice system sheds the vestiges of the colonial past and is the biggest reform in 160 years.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ How will the new criminal laws ensure speedy delivery of justice?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> The objective of the three criminal laws is to achieve justice as envisaged in the Constitution. As PM Modi said, these laws are framed with the spirit of “Citizen first, dignity first and justice first”. It brings an end to the slave mentality brought by the British Raj, and the police will work with data instead of <i>dand</i> (punishment).</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>We have adopted a three-pronged approach to ensure speedy delivery of justice and timelines have been added in 35 sections of the new laws at various stages of police investigation, prosecution and judiciary. Timelines have been set for investigation, arrest, chargesheet, proceedings before magistrate, plea bargaining, appointment of assistant prosecutor, trial, bail, judgment, punishment and mercy petition.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Use of technology and forensics has been given thrust to ensure transparency, accountability and to improve the quality of evidence during police investigations. Under the Bharatiya Nagarik Suraksha Sanhita, a complaint received through electronic communication will be taken on record as FIR within three days. There will be audio/video recording of the evidence, which will be produced before the magistrate immediately. From FIR to case diary, chargesheet and judgment, the entire process is digitised. Forensic evidence collection on the crime scene has been made mandatory in offences attracting a jail term of seven years or more. This will ensure the prosecution has scientific evidence, which in turn will speed up the entire process.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>I would also like to point out that in cases related to sexual assault, it has been made mandatory to submit the medical examination report within seven days. Similarly, in all criminal cases, within 45 days after the hearing is complete, judgment has to be delivered.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>I am confident that once the new laws are completely implemented, any citizen who lodges an FIR will be able to get justice within three years. Delays in the criminal justice system will become a thing of the past.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ You have said that the new criminal justice system is not ‘punishment centric’ but ‘justice-centric’. How will ‘justice for all’ be achieved?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> The Indian Penal Code, the Criminal Procedure Code and the Indian Evidence Act were brought more than 150 years ago by the British to consolidate their rule, and not to dole out justice to the citizens of India. Therefore, they created a punishment (<i>dand</i>) centric system and named it “penal code’’. The priority of the British Raj was to punish citizens to protect the British crown, which is why offences like looting the treasury or attacks on the railways gained precedence. But that isn’t the case today. We have called it Nyay Sanhita, or justice centric, and the laws are based on the spirit of the Constitution focusing on citizens’ right to access justice, equality before law and justice for all. Under the new laws, offences against women and children, criminal assault, slavery and forced labour are prioritised above offences against the state. All this reflects the citizen centric approach where justice is the fulcrum.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>One simple example can explain the point I am making. Earlier, there was no provision for community service in our laws. But, for the first time, we have incorporated it into our criminal laws in cases of six different petty crimes. This provision itself pronounces the purpose of the laws, which is delivering justice as per the Indian philosophy of justice and not merely punishing. PM Modi is determined to make justice accessible and affordable to all.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ Is the government ready to roll out the new criminal laws?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/ </b>The notification will be issued by the Union home ministry soon. But it will take 5-6 months for the state governments, police and judiciary to prepare for it. The focus is on administrative preparedness, technological upgradation and building up forensic capabilities. A lot has been done, but more work is needed. The police, prosecution and judiciary also need to undergo training, and the process is going on. The aim is to transform the Indian police into a modern and world class force.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ The new laws also provide for a separate scheme to protect the witnesses.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> See, if the witness in a case feels threatened, then it has serious bearing on the right of the victim to get justice. So we have entrusted the state government with the responsibility of securing the witness through a notified Witness Protection Scheme. Under this scheme, there will be separate provision to meet the court expenses of the witness.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ The new laws have made provisions to bring erring public servants to book.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> Earlier it was extremely difficult to prosecute civil servants as the permission to go ahead with it would never arrive. But we have made a provision under which the courts will have the right to proceed with it if the permission to prosecute is not granted within 120 days.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ How do the new laws seek to make the police more accountable?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> The new laws have adequate provisions to secure the citizens from any foul play. The police have to video-record all search and seizure operations. They will be bound to provide information about arrested persons to their family members.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>They will have to present arrested persons within 24 hours of the arrest. There are more than 20 sections that will ensure police accountability. Moreover, for the first time, the law mandates preliminary enquiry before registering an FIR, which will be another shield against any possible misuse of law.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ The law also makes provisions to contain organised crimes.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> Although organised crime is a popular term in our public discourse, our laws did not have any section to deal with it. We have added a provision to deter organised crimes and have also made syndicates illegal.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The goal of this new provision is to curb the inter-state gangs. Now, abduction, robbery, car theft, extortion, prostitution, and engaging children in beggary and human trafficking can also be tried as organised crimes.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>I would like to add here that we have also defined economic offences in these laws. Breach of trust in financial matters and forgery of bank notes, currency notes and government tickets will be tried as economic offences.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ How are provisions related to zero-FIR and e-FIR adding to the convenience of the victim?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> Apart from convenience, these provisions provide security to the victims. Sometimes the culprits keep tabs on the movements of the victims and exert force on them to prevent them from visiting the police station. But zero-FIR provides the victim with the liberty to file the complaint at the police station of her choice. It also secures the victims of sexual offences from the agony of travelling to the police station to file the complaint and provides them with the facility to do the same from the security of their homes.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ How does the provision to create a separate directorate of prosecution help people receive timely justice?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> Let us take it differently. Suppose a victim loses a case due to foul play by the police or the court. If the victim decides to appeal against the verdict the same people who deprived her of justice decide on her appeal. She is bound to face deprivation again. Therefore we have provided for an independent body called the directorate of prosecution to decide whether the grievance merits an appeal.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The law provides for the office of the directorate of prosecution in every state in three separate tiers. The first tier will be formed by the director of prosecution who will adjudicate cases with a 10-year jail term or more and the cases that involve the death penalty.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The second tier will be led by a deputy director of prosecution who will judge cases with seven to ten years of jail term.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The third is the office of the assistant director of prosecution which will decide on the cases with less than seven years of jail term.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ How do the new laws make it compulsory for judges to deliver justice on time?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> The new laws provide for a uniform justice system. Apart from providing speedy justice, the new justice system will function in a coordinative approach. To ensure that, the posts of third class magistrate, metropolitan magistrate and assistant sessions judge have been abolished. In their place, there will be four types of judges now. They are second class judicial magistrate, first class judicial magistrate, sessions judge and executive magistrate. Moreover, judges will have to pass judgment within 30 days after the argument is over.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ It was always said that we have enough laws, but not enough implementation.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/ </b>If you look at the three laws, there are provisions for implementation. I want to assure the readers of THE WEEK that after the implementation of these laws, our criminal justice system will be the best in the world. The technological advancements for the next 100 years will get covered as these laws are futuristic in nature. Today, 99.9 per cent police stations in the country have been linked online under a common application software of the Crime and Criminal Tracking Network and Systems for the purpose of investigation, data analytics and research, and it operates in local languages. The Interoperable Criminal Justice System (ICJS) project has successfully made provisions for eCourts, ePrisons and forensic labs, and now all these platforms are being linked together for seamless data sharing and effective and timely delivery of justice. PM Modi believes that only a scientific judicial system can lead us to swift, affordable and accessible justice.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ What steps are being taken to modernise the criminal justice system and increase conviction rate?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> Under the new laws, investigation will be based on scientific methods to ensure speed, transparency and accountability. Use of forensics is being made mandatory in all states and Union territories and necessary infrastructure is being created within the next five years. The use of artificial intelligence in policing is being encouraged. Not only will the quality of evidence improve, but the rights of both the victim and the accused will be protected. This is a positive step towards modernising the criminal justice system. The aim is to achieve a target of at least 90 per cent conviction rate. After five years, India’s criminal justice system will be the most modern system in the world.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ There is some apprehension about the Hindi names given to the new criminal laws, especially in the southern states.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> We should not look at national reforms from the narrow prism of language. We are using Indian languages for Indian laws. Let us introspect on our own hypocrisy: we are ready to accept the language of invaders who came to India from far-off lands, but not ready to accept our own Indian languages. I don’t think it is correct. If some people want to draw political mileage by making such statements, it is their choice. But the fact is that there exist in the country many laws that already have Hindi names, given by those opposing the names of the new criminal laws today. Those laws were framed when the Congress, the DMK or other parties were in power.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ There is worry that citizens can now be booked for <i>“desh droh”</i>(anti-national) activities instead of <i>“raj droh’’</i> (sedition under IPC) for speaking against the government.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> Leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Veer Savarkar were put in jail on charges of sedition by the British. The British concept of sedition continued even after independence to punish anyone who spoke against the government. But now we have abolished this law. Under the new laws, <i>“desh droh”</i> has been clearly defined as acts endangering the unity, integrity, sovereignty, security or economic security of the country. No one can be booked for speaking against the government or any leader under the new laws. If there are concerns about misuse of the law, what is the judiciary there for? I believe the legislature has done its job well in framing the laws and there is no confusion on what constitutes <i>“desh droh”</i>.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The provision of <i>“desh droh”</i> has a sentence of seven years or a lifelong jail term.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ How will fugitives of law, including economic offenders, be brought to justice?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> For the first time, we have brought in a provision of ‘trial in absentia’ and I believe it is a revolutionary step. Till now, many criminals used to commit economic offences or terrorist acts and escape from the country. In such cases, the trial did not happen because they were not caught. But now, after the due process of issuing warrants and public notices, the government can appoint a lawyer and begin a trial in absentia against them in court. The person against whom the trial is being conducted has the right to appeal against it, but he has to come to court. Don’t the victims of terror deserve justice? I feel once the trial in absentia is complete and the accused are convicted by court, it will become easier to bring the proclaimed offenders back to the country to face the law. It is one thing to be viewed as an accused, but another thing to be seen as a convict by the world.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Any absconder accused of a crime with a punishment of a 10-year jail term or more, or the death penalty, can be declared a proclaimed offender by the court. The laws also provide for the seizure of property acquired by the offender in foreign land. During the Modi government no one who cheats Bharat will be spared.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ Recently, the NIA’s national terrorists’ database was inaugurated. What does it entail?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> We have created several online databases like the database on narco offenders; on offenders in cases of crimes against women; on terrorists under the Integrated Monitoring of Terrorism (i-MOT); on economic offenders, banking frauds; on crime and criminal-related fingerprints under the National Automated Fingerprint Identification System which will be made available to all police stations in the country under the new laws. This will ensure that any fingerprints recovered from a crime scene need to be matched online and the suspect’s name and picture will be displayed on the screen within a few minutes. Today, we have more than 15 databases. Now the process is on to use Artificial Intelligence to correlate them to bolster the capacity to tackle internal security threats.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ How are you addressing privacy concerns arising out of data sharing for intelligence purposes like in the National Intelligence Grid?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> No personal or private details of common citizen are being shared in any of the databases. Only the data of convicted accused will be part of the database. Similarly, with eFIRs becoming a reality, those persons against whom FIRs have been registered will become part on the database.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ Big tech like Google and Facebook don’t have servers in India, which is creating hurdles in investigations. What is the government doing to overcome these hurdles?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> We need to find ways to deal with it right now but we are also looking at long-term solutions. The global giants take decisions based on business opportunities and India is definitely a big market. I believe we will find a solution to it.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ There is growing worry about deep fakes and misuse of AI. How are you tackling it?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> The new laws have provisions to tackle cyber crimes. Technology is constantly evolving, which gives rise to newer crimes and we are covering all such cyber security threats under the new laws.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ There is still multiplicity of agencies and lack of accountability in handling cyber attacks. Is there a thinking to create a national architecture for cyber security?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/ </b>The government is thinking about it, but it has not taken any concrete shape yet.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ There are stringent provisions against mob lynching in the new laws. Why is it necessary?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> The word mob lynching has been distorted to target the BJP government and defame it by giving it a communal overtone. Maximum cases of mob lynching happen in villages when a thief is caught or when women accused of practising witchcraft are tortured, often to death, or in cases of love marriage where the boy/girl is lynched. Acts of mob lynching related to religion are few but the pseudo-secular people have used it to accuse the BJP. It is the BJP government which has brought a law to punish mob lynching, with imprisonment from seven to ten years. We have also given a legal definition of mob lynching. It is PM Modi’s vision to ensure justice to each and everyone.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ How do the new laws strike a balance between bail provisions and rights of victims?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/ </b>The new laws have made the bail provisions liberal, where the maximum duration of detention for a first time offender has been reduced. First time offenders can get bail after serving one-third of the maximum sentence. So, it gives relief to such people. Only in cases of heinous offences or a terrorist act have the bail provisions been made strict. At the same time, the laws have been made victim centric as FIRs can be filed online from anywhere; zero-FIRs have been institutionalised and the victim can get information on the progress of investigation within 90 days.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ Pakistan-sponsored terrorism is under control. Has the threat shifted to China borders?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> It is not important who is threatening the sovereignty and integrity of India, but whoever poses a threat to the country will be dealt with an iron hand. No one should be able to pose a threat to the country. Which is why, for the first time, we have defined terrorism under the new criminal laws.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The country has been suffering from the scourge of terrorism for the last 40 years, but there was no clear definition of terrorism and it was being dealt under normal laws. But now investigating agencies have a strong law to tackle such threats, which have been clearly defined under acts of terrorism. The Modi government is firmly committed to rooting out terrorism from the country.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Emboldening PM Modi’s policy of zero-tolerance on terrorism, the new law will punish terrorists with a death sentence or a lifelong jail term. I would also like to add that acts threatening the unity, integrity, sovereignty, security or financial security of the nation will be seen as terrorist acts by the law.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ Don’t you think it is time to resolve the India-China border dispute?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/ </b>It is a long-standing dispute. There is no clear demarcation of border that is acceptable to both sides. Both countries have differing perceptions on it. Given that it is a complex issue and the pace of dialogue has been particularly slow, it is very difficult to set a time frame to resolve the border dispute. But one thing is clear. Under the Modi government we won’t allow even an inch of land which belongs to us to be given away to anyone. There is no doubt about that.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ How are you focusing on last mile connectivity in border villages?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> Seventy per cent of all border infrastructure works in the country have taken place in the last ten years under the leadership of PM Modi. This was not given priority by the previous government. The Vibrant Village Programme is going to be a game changer. Nearly 662 border villages have been identified and Rs4,000 crore is being spent to transform them into model villages by providing livelihood to people, building infrastructure, jobs and connectivity. This is in line with the prime minister’s vision to bring 100 per cent saturation of nearly 350 government schemes in the border villages. For example, we are ensuring that food and groceries provided to our border guarding forces are grown locally and not transported from the headquarters. This is bringing huge benefit to farmers and bringing the hearts closer. PM Modi has ensured that no one is left out of Bharat’s saga of development.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ There is talk about fencing the India-Myanmar border.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> We have decided to fence the porous India-Myanmar border, and the survey is going on.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ The Union home ministry’s crackdown on NGOs receiving foreign funding has created a sense of fear in civil society. How are you addressing it?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> The Union home ministry will crack down on any organisation which is flouting the provisions of the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act. I am ready to listen to all grievances if anyone can claim that despite following all the procedures and rules, their FCRA registration has been cancelled. The Union home ministry has done due diligence by issuing show-cause notices, conducting audits and sending fresh notices but when there is no response, the home ministry has no option but to cancel their registration. I think all NGOs, small or big, need to follow the law. During the Modi government the law of the land is of supreme importance.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ Manipur remains disturbed. What went wrong?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> The issue in Manipur emerged because of ethnic reasons. The northeast, including Manipur, has a long history of ethnic violence, violence arising out of cultural or area domination. Once it begins, it goes on for a long time. But this time our central paramilitary forces were successful in bringing it under control soon. Stray incidents of violence are taking place even today, which is a matter of grave concern and the Union home ministry is talking to both the communities and holding meetings with all stakeholders. We are hoping the situation will return to normalcy soon.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ There is talk that Manipur violence is communal.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> People doing politics or propaganda can say anything. But the ground reality is that it is ethnic violence.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ Assembly elections will be held in Jammu and Kashmir this year. Do you think the peace dividend can be lost if regional parties come back to power?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> There should be no such fear regarding polls. Also, why do you presume that one of the three parties will come to power? Someone else can also come to power.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ Will the BJP be open to alliance with any party in J&amp;K?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> The election dates have not been announced and it would be improper to talk about alliance at this stage. The assembly polls will be held as per the directions of the Supreme Court (to the Election Commission). I have already assured in Parliament that statehood of Jammu and Kashmir will be restored at an appropriate time.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ States like Kerala and West Bengal withdrew general consent to the CBI to take up cases. Does the fight against corruption get impacted when agencies like the CBI and the Enforcement Directorate face hurdles in states?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> Hurdles definitely come in the way but we should not think of changing the processes for it. These are temporary roadblocks because the public understands the reality. We have full faith that the people of this country will not side with corrupt politicians. I am optimistic on this front.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ Has the Governor shared reports with you on law and order in West Bengal?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> I cannot discuss the Governor’s report with you. But one thing I can tell you is that the law and order situation in West Bengal is not good. It is one state where maximum political violence takes place. It has the maximum incidents of lawlessness, political violence, unrest and infiltration.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ When can we expect the census to be held followed by delimitation? Will population be the criterion for delimitation?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/ </b>The census exercise will be held after the Lok Sabha polls. After the completion of the census, delimitation can be done. I have already said in Parliament that states need not worry about the process as all concerns will be addressed when delimitation takes place. Not only will the concerns of the southern states be addressed, but they will also be protected.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ After the ban on the Popular Front of India, do you see a difference in states like Kerala that have seen radicalisation?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> The Popular Front of India is a hardcore anti-national outfit engaged in anti-national activities, threatening the unity and sovereignty of the country and propagating a radical narrative. The outfit was banned based on mounting evidence against it. In a democratic country, it is not so easy to ban any outfit unless there is concrete evidence. The ban was challenged in court, but it could sustain. The ban on the PFI has brought under control fundamentalist activities that fuel the terror ecosystem, thwarting such threats to a large extent.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ Politics in India has changed in the last ten years; cultural and civilisational issues dominate now. Can we call it a journey from ‘discovery of India’ to ‘rediscovery of Bharat’?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> I don’t agree to the use of the term ‘discovery of India’ or ‘rediscovery of India’. People who know Bharat will not use this. The country is in sync with its glorious past today through [the construction of] Ram Janmabhoomi Temple, which in itself showcases the rising self-confidence of the country to the world.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ What is the message of the Ram Temple to the country and the world at large?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/ </b>The consecration of the Ram Temple was the fulfilment of a centuries-old dream. Despite this monumental victory, no sense of acrimony occupied space in the public discourse. Instead, Modi-<i>ji</i> created an atmosphere of <i>bhakti</i> (devotion); there was no frenzy or triumphalism. There was no question of anyone being small or big. Even though it was a contentious issue for the last 500 years, it was executed in an atmosphere of peace, sacredness and spirituality.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ Will this help the BJP in the upcoming elections?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><a name="__DdeLink__864_651790713" id="__DdeLink__864_651790713"></a><b>A/</b> I think it will benefit the country more. Whenever the collective consciousness of 140 crore people is awakened, when the self-confidence is awakened, it helps the country.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ What is the reason for the BJP’s confidence?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> There has been a fundamental change in the country. The country could not think of going to the moon, or building a new Parliament. It could not imagine turning the Rajpath into Kartavya Path. The self-confidence of the country has been regenerated. A strong faith in Modi-<i>ji</i>’s leadership has been created. Ten years of the Modi government have been the best the country has seen in the last 70 years―on all fronts, be it national security, poverty alleviation or diplomacy. India’s respect has grown in the world. India has performed well in all sectors. The world is in awe that 130 crore people have been vaccinated twice and there has been no complaint and everyone got a certificate. Even developed countries are surprised at the digital economic transformation in a country known for its poverty. We are doing digital transactions at a record level.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ So, a hat-trick in 2024 is a foregone conclusion, just as the prime minister has said?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> Yes, it is. Modi-<i>ji</i> will form the government with more than 370 seats. This time the NDA will win more seats and a higher voting percentage than in our last two victories.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ You aim to better Rajiv Gandhi’s record of 404 seats in the Lok Sabha?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> Do not get into numbers. Our victory will be bigger than the last two.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ The BJP appears to have initiated a generational change as it installed new chief ministers in three states. Will newcomers get preference in the allotment of tickets for the Lok Sabha polls?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> It (change of CMs) is not a general policy. It is done looking at the situation in each state. Every party does it (for picking candidates). It is natural. We will also do it.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ In these elections, ‘Modi Guarantee’ has emerged as a key slogan. What is the idea behind it?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> Modi Guarantee means that 80 crore people who were earlier neglected by the governments have gained after 75 years of independence. This neglected population was given houses, gas, power, food, water, medicines. Their living standards improved, so too their economic condition. Modi Guarantee means that everyone in this country has a right to live a good life, which is the spirit of our Constitution.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ In Bihar, Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has been oscillating between two ideological poles. How do you look at his somersaults? The BJP doesn’t appear to have a choice.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> You are addressing the question to the wrong person. It should be addressed to him. He has to decide where he wants to be.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ Are there chances for the return of your other former allies like the Akali Dal, TDP and AIADMK?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> There are definitely chances. We can think about it. We don’t have an objection.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ How do you look at the INDIA alliance?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/ </b>You are calling a photo an alliance. In which state have they been able to form an alliance before or after INDIA alliance came into being? What happened in Kerala? Has it happened in Bengal? It broke in Bihar. It has already been broken in Maharashtra. It is not happening in Delhi or Punjab. Where is the alliance?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ It happened in Chandigarh.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/ </b>It was not a poll alliance. It was an alliance for sharing power. It was formed among the elected members to get a mayor elected.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ How do you look at Rahul Gandhi’s <i>yatra</i>? He is trying to project it as an ideological battle with the BJP as he talks about <i>mohabbat ki dukaan</i>.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> What is the ideology in it? The BJP has governments in 12 states and NDA in 18 states. The Congress is only in three states. We have been in power in Gujarat for the last 32 years; 20 in Madhya Pradesh; in Assam and Uttar Pradesh for seven years; in Tripura for six years. What has happened in these states? People understand the hollow words (about <i>mohabbat ki dukaan</i>). It’s been 10 years since Modi-<i>ji</i> has been in power. What has happened? Only good things.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ As Central agencies are investigating corruption charges against Hemant Soren and Arvind Kejriwal, there are allegations that it is political vendetta.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> Anyone who fears political vendetta should take protection from court and not hold press conferences. But our fight against corruption will not slow down because of these allegations.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ The BJP has grown massively. How do you look at the future of other regional parties and even the Congress?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> In a democracy, only two sets of people can decide the future of a party. One, its workers, and two, the public. No other person can do it. Everyone should try to earn the faith of the public, make efforts to consistently improve themselves.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ What is your advice to Rahul Gandhi?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/ </b>He belongs to the Congress; why should I advise him?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ Though the economy is going strong, the opposition says the government has not been able to create jobs.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> Job creation has been good, but, unfortunately, the left-oriented economists have termed jobs as government jobs. In a country of 140 crore, not everyone can be given a government job. The entire country understands it. These economists don’t consider self-employment as jobs. So many startups have been created, infrastructure worth 010 lakh crore has been created. Who is building it, robots?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ When will the CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act) be implemented?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> The CAA will be implemented soon. There is no reason not to implement it as it was passed by Parliament. The opposition is trying to mislead. But no one, especially the minorities, fears the CAA because it is not for the minorities. Secondly, it is not a law to take away anyone’s citizenship, but to give it. It makes provisions for people who have faced religious persecution after partition and want to shift to India.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ Uttarakhand is bringing a Uniform Civil Code. Will UCC be implemented by BJP-ruled states first, and not at the national level?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/ </b>The committee formed by the Uttarakhand government has submitted its report. The state will bring it in the assembly. UCC is part of our Constitution. Our founding fathers included it in the Constitution, under Article 44. The Constitution has been signed by Jawaharlal Nehru, Maulana Azad, B.R. Ambedkar, Rajendra Prasad. If someone calls it communal, then I don’t have an answer for it.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ There are a lot of misconceptions about how BJP governments are handling ‘love jihad’.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> Anyone can go to court for their freedom and their family’s freedom. There are laws for it.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ Minorities have a lot of concerns and a feeling of insecurity.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> Is there a concrete incident for this insecurity? If the media doesn’t create a sense of insecurity, then there will be no insecurity. If there is a concrete incident, then it is our responsibility to give an answer.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ There is a move to get control over the mosques in Kashi and Mathura and build temples.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> The claim has been going on for years. No one has come to the government. It is happening in the courts. These are not present-day claims. Even the Ram Janmabhoomi claims have been there since we got independence.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ Is there any chance of advancing the Lok Sabha polls?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> I don’t think the election commission would have any right to hold them early; we don’t do any such thing. Elections will happen on time.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ The BJP has increased its vote share in the recent assembly polls in Telangana. How do you see the BJP’s prospects in the southern states in the Lok Sabha polls?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> We will perform better in Telangana, Karnataka and some parts of Tamil Nadu. You must understand that we move ahead by building on our organisational strength. It takes time. We are penetrating into the south and will do well in the coming years. Modi-<i>ji</i> is immensely popular in Telangana.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ What is holding back the BJP in Kerala? It is still not able to get seats.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> When Kerala’s electorate gets upset with one party, they vote for the other party. The problem is that we are in the third position. But at some point of time, people will get bored with voting for one or the other party, and they may then give a chance to the third party. I have this confidence.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ The RSS has been active in Kerala and has a base. But this does not translate to political gains for the BJP.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> It may appear so, but our voting percentage has increased, our presence has increased. I am confident that we will open our account.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ The BJP was reaching out to the Christian community in Kerala. But happenings in Manipur have caused some anxiety.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> We are reaching out in all the states. In Manipur, the situation is not religious. Many Christian leaders have been to Manipur. I have also met them. They also said it was not a religious problem but an ethnic one.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ Are there chances of other parties joining hands with the BJP in Kerala?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> They can get associated with us.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ There is a perception in Kerala that the BJP and the CPI(M) have some understanding as the chief minister is facing many cases, yet there is no action against him.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/ </b>The people who understand the BJP would not have any such doubt. We cannot have any truck with the communists at any level. We have taken the matter (against the CM) to court. They are trying to evade, but for how long? When there is some action, you call it political vendetta, and when nothing happens, you ask why we aren’t doing anything. But know for sure that the Modi government will continue to follow a zero-tolerance policy on corruption.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ Even after becoming home minister, you have continued to devote a lot of time for organisational work. How do you balance such a hectic schedule?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> For me, working for the party is like breathing. I have become what I am because of the party. If you take the party out of my life, you will find a vacuum, a big zero. You won’t find anything else. Whatever role I may have, working for the party is my first <i>dharm</i> (duty). And it is my party’s first <i>dharm</i> to work for the nation.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ How do you relax?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> I read a lot.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ Have you had any disappointing experience in the last 10 years?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> We all have some disappointments in public life. I want to stress that ever since our party was formed we have not hidden our ideology. We have been taking our ideology to the people for years and we kept on losing elections, yet we did not change our ideology. We have been going on with our ideology and managed to convince the people. We got full majority twice. People will have to agree that we gave a good government and the country has progressed in every sector. Yet, some people do not make an effort to recognise the good things in our ideology, which makes me sad. It shouldn’t happen.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ You have worked closely with Prime Minister Modi. Can you describe his personal attributes?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> There are many things. He works very hard and treats everyone as equal. One thing I want to tell THE WEEK readers is that I have not seen any other person who has such an ability to listen. He is a great listener.</p> Fri Feb 09 11:44:37 IST 2024 amit-shah-is-building-a-legacy-as-union-home-minister <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Amit Shah’s legacy as a consummate election manager was defined through his role as the BJP’s Uttar Pradesh in-charge for the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. The party won 71 of 80 seats. His organisational skills were in focus again when he was BJP president, but those who knew him from his Gujarat days were not surprised with this display of political acumen at the national level. Then, in 2019, he became Union home minister, and began building another, more historically relevant legacy. One that could well be the yardstick against which future home ministers are measured. In the past five years, Shah has overhauled the internal security landscape and ushered in reforms that are in line with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s governance model. The biggest of these reforms, in the criminal justice system, was the replacement of the old laws.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Shah said it was a learning that had come in after 75 years. “Every society makes its own laws,” he said, replying to critics who have questioned the need for such a massive overhaul. “The British brought the Indian Penal Code, CrPC and Indian Evidence Act in the 19th century with the objective of consolidating their rule. The aim was not justice, but punishment to the enslaved population. Today, the aim is to create an equal and just society.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Home ministry officials said that when independent India turned 75, Modi had listed five vows—<i>panch pran</i>—from the ramparts of the Red Fort. The new criminal laws fulfil one of them: “End the mentality of slavery”, where correction, not punishment; reformation, not rejection; justice, not mere penalties; and nationality, not servitude, are at the heart of the reforms.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The government has called the new laws the Bharatiya Nyaya Sanhita, Bharatiya Nagarik Suraksha Sanhita and the Bharatiya Sakshya Adhiniyam. Shah has defended the Indian names and has asked critics to introspect on why they accept a foreign language brought in by invaders and resist an Indian one. “I don’t think it is correct,” he said, looking a tad surprised.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>As home minister, Shah has the ear, and complete trust of the prime minister. In fact, when a political or government issue is brought before Modi, he is said to often ask the person to consult Amit Shah, too. In the past five years, Shah’s refrain has been, “I am willing to listen to all grievances, but everyone should follow the law.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In 2019, three months into becoming home minister, Shah was at the forefront of the government move to abrogate Article 370 of the Constitution. It required deft political handling as it had geo-strategic implications, too. Security watchers in Jammu and Kashmir said that in the period that followed the abrogation, not a single bullet was fired in protest. “The mirage created by certain politicians to suit their political ambitions fell flat,” said a key security official in Jammu and Kashmir who spoke on the condition of anonymity.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Four years later, the Supreme Court upheld the validity of the decision, stamping out the last legal hurdle in what the BJP brass saw as the biggest impediment to the final integration of India.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Shah is also the driving force behind the Citizenship (Amendment) Act of 2019, which seeks to ensure that persecuted Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan—who entered India on or before December 31, 2014—are given Indian citizenship. The amendments caused protests in many corners of the country, and the government quietly put the move on hold.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But, more than four years down the line, it is back on the government’s agenda, and this time Shah is prepared to deal with any backlash. “The opposition is trying to mislead [people]; it is not a law to take away anyone’s citizenship, but to give it,” said Shah. The ministry has held several meetings to map out scenarios once the rules are notified and to find possible solutions.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Another Shah intervention has been in the handling of bureaucratic appointments. “The weightage given to merit over seniority in bureaucracy, especially in top postings of Central agencies like the Intelligence Bureau (incumbent director Tapan Deka superseded four colleagues) is moving the wheels swiftly and effectively in a large country with myriad threats, from [issues in] economic security to cyber crimes,” said a Union minister.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Under Shah, the threat of hinterland terrorism has also diminished. The advent of Islamic State, first in Syria and later in Afghanistan, saw many youth with extremist tendencies moving out of the country to fight wars in foreign lands. This caused worry about new threats of fundamentalism and online brainwashing in 2014, but the home ministry and intelligence agencies are better prepared to deal with these today.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>However, old threats are being replaced by newer worries of an emerging nexus between organised criminal gangs and trans-national terror syndicates assisted by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence. The mushrooming of these gangs, especially in north India, is a major security threat as many gang leaders are directing operations within India from foreign shores. To tackle this, Shah has brought in the National Investigation Agency, which has filed several charge sheets against gang leaders in Punjab and elsewhere.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Even his political detractors say that when it comes to matters of national security, the home minister is ready to extend all help to opposition-ruled states. A key example is when alleged extremist Amritpal Singh, on the run, was caught in Aam Aadmi Party-ruled Punjab. The Central security establishment under Shah swung into action to keep the troublemaker out of Punjab. Singh was whisked off to BJP-ruled Assam to cool his heels in a Central jail there.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The threat is yet to be crushed fully as gangsters are hiding on foreign soil. But Shah is confident the new criminal laws have the answer. “For the first time, we have brought in a provision of trial in absentia, which is a revolutionary step,” he said. “It is one thing to be seen as an accused, but another to be seen as a convict by the world.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In the Naxal-affected states of Chhattisgarh, Bihar and Jharkhand, security forces are slowly clawing back into territories once considered red zones. The home ministry has reported a 72 per cent drop in fatalities among security forces in the past nine years.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Shah’s handling of annual home ministry meetings is another example of security getting prominence over political differences. The attendees say that chief ministers and police officers of insurgency- and Naxal-affected states are given more importance even if they come from opposition-ruled states. The trend before 2014, said a chief minister, was to treat these people as pariahs by making them sit in separate rooms. Chief ministers and police chiefs of better-performing states had a relaxing time while tougher states slogged. Now, both Modi and Shah sit with the police of all states for two days, every year, to thrash out key action points that are followed until implementation. “In fact, the farther we come from, the closer the audience with the home minister,” said a senior police officer from the northeast. The result—more than nine peace accords and surrenders of more than 9,000 militants in the northeast.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Manipur, however, has become a trouble spot and the government is relying on Shah to pull off a strategy to stop the ethnic violence and save the BJP government of Biren Singh from long-term damage.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The dangers to national security are as vast as the size of the world’s largest democracy. But, on the home stretch of his first term as Union minister, Shah looks to be in complete command as the prime minister’s most trusted lieutenant.</p> Fri Feb 09 11:22:27 IST 2024 bjp-s-robust-organisational-structure-and-pm-modis-appeal-have-made-it-confident-of-a-hat-trick-this-year <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>In India’s political history, 1984 was epochal. It was the year prime minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated. It was also the year the four-year-old BJP found itself in an existential crisis—it could win only two seats in the Lok Sabha polls held after Indira’s death. For years, the party had to endure taunts of getting seats equivalent to the family planning norms of the day. Forty years later, though, the tide is set to turn, as Narendra Modi prepares to become the first non-Congress prime minister to win a third term.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Unlike the 2019 elections, when the government had to pitch in with an election-oriented interim budget, the euphoria around the consecration of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya has the BJP in a comfortable position. The sentiment has huge potential to turn into votes; also, Ram Navami in April could act as another call to the faithful.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>With the Modi government’s development pitch and its massive outreach to more than 80 crore beneficiaries of Central government schemes, the BJP has a big lead in getting its messaging to key target groups—women, youth, poor and farmers. Also helping the party is the fact that the opposition is yet to set an emphatic narrative, and is even showing signs of unravelling.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The outcome of assembly polls in three states in December had shown that, with its organisational strength, the BJP could even turn voter apathy after years of rule—as in Madhya Pradesh—into a comprehensive victory. At the instance of Amit Shah, Union home minister and the party’s main strategist, the BJP had devised innovative schemes, such as the one that involved establishing an institutionalised system to make calls to wake up booth-level workers and functionaries early in the morning on polling day. This was to activate them into getting voters to booths and carry out other tasks. Shah’s mantra: win the booth, win the seat.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>For the Lok Sabha campaign, booth-level workers have been given a target—get 50 per cent of votes in their respective booths. For their part, Modi, Shah, party president J.P. Nadda and other senior leaders will talk about ‘Modi Guarantee’.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The slogan has good recall value, and it was successfully tested in the assembly polls in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. “Modi Guarantee means that 80 crore people, who were neglected by earlier governments, were given houses, gas, power, food, water, medicines…. Modi Guarantee means that everyone in this country has a right to live a good life, which is the spirit of our Constitution,” Shah said.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It was after serving as party president for five years that Shah became home minister. Yet he continues to do party work. “Working for the party is akin to breathing,” he said. Shah understands the importance of party work, as he started as an ordinary worker pasting posters. Painting graffiti on walls is now an institutionalised process in the party’s election campaign. The BJP launched its graffiti campaign for the Lok Sabha polls on January 15, showing that while social media may dominate the narrative, old-fashioned campaigning remains essential in creating a favourable atmosphere.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The last 10 years have been significant for the country, as they marked a pronounced shift towards matters of faith. Cultural nationalism is now a dominant theme, especially in the Hindi heartland. The decision to implement the Uniform Civil Code in Uttarakhand has given a signal that it has ticked off all promises in its election manifesto. Other states where the BJP is in power may follow suit.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The challenge before the BJP is to increase its seats in the east and the south, which has big states like West Bengal, Bihar, Odisha, Tamil Nadu, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. The party has always performed well in the Lok Sabha polls in Karnataka. The enhanced vote share in the Telangana assembly elections has given the party hopes of increasing its Lok Sabha tally from four seats.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Renewed alliances with the Janata Dal (Secular) in Karnataka and the Janata Dal (United) in Bihar have opened possibilities of the return of the Shiromani Akali Dal, the Telugu Desam Party and the AIADMK to the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance fold (NDA). During the 2019 polls, when the NDA included Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s JD(U), it had won 39 of 40 seats in the state. Nitish’s return to the saffron fold is being attributed to the growing support for the BJP after the Ram Temple consecration, and his own experience at the hustings. The JD(U) had won 16 seats in 2019 and just two in 2014, when it was not part of the NDA.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A similar ‘engineering’ in Maharashtra has the BJP at an advantage. In 2019, the NDA comprising the BJP and the Shiv Sena had won 48 seats in the state. The NCP had won four. Now the dominant breakaway groups of the Shiv Sena and the NCP are with the NDA. The dissension within the INDIA bloc in West Bengal is good news for the BJP. Together, these four states—Bihar, Maharashtra, West Bengal and Karnataka—account for 158 Lok Sabha seats.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The BJP is also banking on increasing its tally in Odisha, where Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik is preparing to set a record for being the longest serving chief minister in the country (fewer than 200 days remain for him to achieve the target). The BJP’s tribal outreach efforts are also set to reap dividends in Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Modi government has also ticked another crucial box by conferring Bharat Ratna to two leaders representing the two dominant political streams in the country—Karpoori Thakur, former Bihar chief minister who championed social justice, and L.K. Advani, the original flag-bearer of the hindutva and Ram Temple movement. At the ground level, it is the merger of Mandal and Kamandal politics.</p> Thu Feb 08 17:15:30 IST 2024 itc-sets-out-on-an-ambitious-expansion-plans-with-chairman-sanjiv-puri-in-the-lead <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Virginia House no longer smells of tobacco. Rather, it smells of fragrant <i>agarbattis</i>. What once housed the cigarettes of W.D. &amp; H.O. Wills is now the home of milled <i>atta</i>, baked cookies, incense sticks and more.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The big daddy on the cigarette block, ITC realised it was but just a wanna-be kid when it entered categories like biscuits and <i>atta</i> (wheat flour) in 2002. It was surrounded by well-entrenched top guns of the FMCG sector (fast-moving consumer goods, a term used to describe products ranging from soaps and snacks to flour and floor cleaners)</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>―from global giants like Unilever, Nestle and P&amp;G to homegrown players like Dabur and Parle. The writing on the wall was clear. The company had to do something drastic and dramatic if it had any hopes of surviving, let alone dominating, the segment.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“In a globalising marketplace, you cannot compete unless you bring something unique to the table,” said Sanjiv Puri, chairman and managing director of ITC Ltd. While planning its ambitious foray into biscuits, strategy sessions at Virginia House, the colonial building on Kolkata’s Chowringhee Road (now officially Jawaharlal Nehru Road) that housed its corporate headquarters, were clear: in a market dominated by household names like Parle and Britannia, you need to break the clutter. But how?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“We started innovating from the beginning. Our first Marie (tea biscuit) was an orange one!” said B. Sumant, currently ITC’s executive director and back then part of the team that launched snacks. “We had an orange Marie, a regular Marie, and then we came up with an oats Marie. We were the only ones I knew till date having an orange Marie and an oats Marie!”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The orange Marie might not have taken off, but it sure garnered enough attention to get ITC its toehold in the hypercompetitive biscuit business. It soon followed it up with the first-ever ‘centre-filled’ cream biscuit with its Sunfeast Dark Fantasy line. While cream biscuits in India until then were sandwich cream between two pieces of biscuit, ITC brought in technology from Denmark to fill cream within the cookie. The result? Dark Fantasy shot to leadership in the premium cookie space, and has stayed put there since then.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“The aspiration has always been about leadership,” said Puri. “Not merely by size or profitability, but also about leadership in the quality of the service or the product that we deliver. That is what we have worked on in the past few years. And, of course, that has seen us define what we call ITC Next.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>FUTURE IS CALLING</b></p> <p>ITC Next is Puri’s next-gen transformation philosophy to make the gargantuan company ‘agile and future-ready’. That may sound surprising considering the fruits of success it has just about started enjoying after years of patient, often painful, transformation by diversifying from its core cigarette business to snacks, soaps and shampoos.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It was the kind of success most corporate giants can only dream about. ITC is now the third most valuable tobacco seller in the world, and its stock now consistently beats the Nifty average, growing nearly double that of the index which grew 20 per cent. In its latest quarter results announced earlier this week, ITC reported a standalone net profit at Rs5,572 crore, registering a growth of 11 per cent from the same quarter of the previous financial year. The results beat street estimates. The hotels segment witnessed its best-ever quarter, with revenue increasing by 18 per cent and profit before interest and tax increasing by 57 per cent.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>What is reassuring, particularly to the executives at Virginia House, is that the push to diversify beyond the ‘sin’ business of tobacco has worked out pretty decently. Non-cigarette business now makes up about 67 per cent of the total revenue, and is way more than revenue from tobacco products that used to be the top category for the longest time.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Even better, ITC has not only managed to turn profits in many of these forays, but also raced to the top of the pile. Aashirvaad, its <i>atta</i> brand, is probably the largest selling in the world―it is exported to some 65 countries. ITC also holds pole position in categories as disparate as cream biscuits (Sunfeast), snacks (Bingo!), notebooks and stationery (Classmate) and incense sticks (Mangaldeep).</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“ITC has undergone humongous change,” said Harish Bijoor, FMCG veteran &amp; brand and business strategy specialist. “I don’t call it a non-cigarette company, but a more than cigarette company. FMCG is a big, big play. You are talking turnovers upwards of a hundred thousand crores eventually. And if Sanjiv Puri has his way, he will do it.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But how did a company that focused on cigarettes and tobacco for nearly a century make that pivot into areas as disparate as biscuits, packaging and hotels? What is the logic behind going in for these seemingly unconnected areas?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>METHOD IN THE MADNESS</b></p> <p>For long ITC was content with its hugely successful cigarette and tobacco business and its iconic brands like Wills Navy Cut and Gold Flake. The only other forays during the licence raj era were into hotels, agriculture and paper &amp; packaging, which, in more ways than one, complemented the cigarette business.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>However, as liberalisation flung the market wide open, it brought in two big worries to Virginia House’s doorsteps―one, international biggies flooding the cigarette market, and two, more important, the decelerating cigarette consumption owing to heavy taxation and public campaigns against smoking. “Clearly the objective was to create multiple drivers of growth that leveraged our strengths,” said Sumant. “We needed an alternative engine of revenue and profitability to cigarettes.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>That was when the decision was made to diversify into areas like FMCG as well as into fashion (Wills Lifestyle and John Players, which was a short-lived experiment), personal care (Fiama and Vivel) and more.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>As Bijoor put it, “there is a method to the madness at ITC”. While paperboard or agriculture or even the ‘Kitchens of India’ brand which sold tinned supermarket version of the famous Dal Bukhara from ITC Hotels may seem they have no connection with each other, they, in reality, do.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“To be successful, you have to be able to leverage the synergy of a diversified organisation,” explained Hemant Malik, executive director in charge of ITC’s food business. “We started thinking, what are the strengths that hotels bring? What are the strengths that paper and packaging bring? That distribution brings? The knowledge of tobacco and farming and agri? And we put all of that together.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>ITC’s strong presence in the agri business and the e-Choupal network, which linked thousands of farmers and helped it scale up sourcing for its packaged foods venture, significantly contributed to its biggest success in the non-cigarette portfolio―Aashirvaad <i>atta</i>. The experience of the chefs at its popular hotel restaurants came in handy when it developed biscuits, chips, chocolates and frozen foods.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>For instance, when Bingo! introduced Mad Angles, ITC hotel chefs tested 32 different gravies to dip the potato chip into, to see which masala will work. Mad Angles stood out not just for its triangle shape, but also its flavours. There were two options even for the tomato flavour―a (continental) ketchup flavour and another one leaning towards (desi) chutney.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“We had to differentiate ourselves to get attention and to break through; so that became part of our DNA, that is how we grew business in every category,” said Sumant. “Our rule was to have a better and differentiated product than what is there. Many of these have gone on to become blockbusters.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Behind the scenes, the vast network of distributors ITC’s cigarette business had developed across the country played a crucial role. “The choice of FMCG was very clear because with cigarettes we had established a distribution network across the country in the most remote of places,” said Sumant. “It was a great way to distribute fast moving consumer goods as well.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Today, ITC’s brand building spree is unmatched. It launches around 100 new products (including sub-categories) every year, a pace maintained even during the lockdown. Such rollout is enabled by its research and innovation centre in Peenya in Bengaluru, where every category of product has its own mini factory, helping the company come up with new products based on market research and insights from its Sixth Sense data centre that monitors online chatter.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>BYTING INTO THE FUTURE</b></p> <p>Getting bigger and bigger might be good for your bottomline, but it comes with its own baggage―coordinating disparate divisions and a workforce of nearly 50,000 people, and still remaining agile and nimble to take on future challenges. Puri believes ‘ITC Next’, with its emphasis on embracing digital and going sustainable, is the answer. “We see digital and sustainability becoming mega trends in the next decade,” he said. “Therefore, in our whole philosophy of growth, anything that is aligned to them is a priority for investment.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>While most other big businesses look at digital more as an avenue for sale or cost cutting, ITC has seamlessly incorporated it into its chain of operations―right from a farmer in a remote village using the new version of e-Chaupal called MAARS (Metamarket for Advanced Agriculture and Rural Services), Zen for supply chain planning, and Pace for the salesforce and UNNATI, an app for retailers to place orders.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>For instance, an artificial intelligence engine crunches data of a <i>kirana</i> store to see what the retailer is ordering to anticipate future demand. “We subscribe to a lot of other data as well on socioeconomic indicators,” said Sumant. “Are there ATMs in that small village? What is the average income? What are the rental values? We use our own transaction data and other data feeds to decide what is the potential of an outlet.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>For the consumer, there is the, even though ITC’s distribution muscle means its products are available across the spectrum, from corner stores to hypermarkets to quick commerce platforms. As the skew of digital sales increases, ITC could well be that super app that finally clicks with Indians. “If there is one company in this space which has the ability to make a killing out of a super app, it is ITC,” said Bijoor.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>THANK U, NEXT</b></p> <p>The big news at ITC in 2024 will be its much-awaited hiving off of the hotels division into a separate company. However, inside Virginia House, the work will be equally frenetic on other growth areas.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“Categories of the future I have in two buckets,” said Puri. “One is which I am scaling up and the other one I am incubating. Scaling up categories like frozen snacks, beverages and Nimyle floor cleaner. What I am incubating are segments like chocolates and Dermafique, our premium skincare brand.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But that is all he would say, as he would like to keep the cards close to his chest. Of course, ITC is intent on expanding beyond the borders―besides an existing joint venture in Nepal and a hotel set to open in Sri Lanka in March (its first outside India), the conglomerate is opening subsidiaries in what Puri calls ‘adjacent markets’.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Bijoor believes the home supplies category itself presents immense scope for expansion. “Within the kitchen, there are 46 terrains―these numbers are exact because I have done a kitchen audit in terms of FMCG to determine how many different brand spaces exist. And they have got into just eight so far,” he said. “There are drawing room needs, from a mosquito coil to a bulb; there are bedroom needs; there is a puja room they are already in, with their match boxes and <i>agarbattis</i>. The kitchen is only a toehold into the house. Once the toe is in, the foot will be in, and once the foot is in, the leg will be in. The ITC body obviously aspires to occupy the entire home.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>ENDURING VALUE</b></p> <p>For all his company’s shining successes in the present and sweeping ambitions for the future, Puri knows well enough not to lower his guard. Hiving off hotels will free the parent company of a cash-guzzler that is slow in giving back, but challenges remain for divisions like paperboards and packaging that are facing the onslaught of Chinese products, and the agri business that often gets caught in regulatory headwinds during procurement.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Then there is FMCG. Aashirvaad and Sunfeast were runaway successes, and Savlon did well during the pandemic, but ITC still needs to cover a lot of ground when it comes to other categories where rivals like Unilever (Lux, Surf), Reckitt Benckiser (Dettol), and Procter &amp; Gamble (Head &amp; Shoulders, Gillette) have a strong presence in. “If you want to build profitability for the FMCG business, you will have to build strong brands in the personal care and home care space, too,” said Jeevan J. Arakal, professor and chairperson of branding &amp; PR at T.A. Pai Management Institute, Manipal.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Like every other FMCG player, ITC is targetting the booming beauty market as well with its Dermafique brand. Taking on specialised players like L’Oreal and Nivea, however, is not easy. “It is a profitable category, but distribution challenges are different and the branding support that you will have to give is different. So this is a long-term play,” said Arakal.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>As it gets bigger, ITC will come in the crosshairs of not just rival FMCG companies, but also fellow desi players backed by a conglomerate like Tata Consumer and Reliance Retail, who are also hungry for growth. ITC’s ace up the sleeve here could well be its huge capital reserves, massive and expanding distribution network, and perhaps more important, a leadership team that is in it for the long term. Said Arakal: “As they make these big corrections and big changes, I would say that this is a company with a very strong long-term orientation, which is reflected in the kind of investments they are making.”</p> Sat Feb 03 12:01:59 IST 2024 itc-ltd-chairman-and-managing-director-sanjiv-puri-interview <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><i>Interview/ Sanjiv Puri, chairman &amp; managing director, ITC Ltd</i></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>SANJIV PURI HAD</b> a big pair of shoes to fill when he was chosen to succeed Y.C. Deveshwar as ITC chairman. Though he was being groomed for the role, the sheer magnitude of the responsibility could have been daunting for anyone. But Puri came with a plan that addressed the complexities of the conglomerate and its aspiration to grow bigger. In an exclusive interview with THE WEEK, he explains the role of technology, the separation of the hotel business, the growth of the FMCG segment and the India First policy. Excerpts:</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ Now a lot depends on AI and digital. You can open new markets and you can expand. Can you tell us some of your thinking and your new findings in this process where AI is coming along with human intelligence and the past practices?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> Before we get into it, let us step back a little and take a broader perspective. While the first era of diversification was about defining the portfolio and making progress, the last five years is when we have given a lot more scale and profitability to each one of these businesses.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The aspiration has always been about leadership. Not merely by size or profitability, but also about leadership in the quality of the service or the product that we deliver. That is what we have worked on in the past few years. And, of course, that has seen us define what we call ITC Next.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In ITC Next, we defined certain important vectors that were going to get us competitiveness. We see digital and sustainability becoming a mega trend in the next decade. Therefore, in our whole philosophy of growth, anything that is aligned to the mega trends of sustainability and digital is a priority for investment. That led us to get into sustainable packaging, because the world wants to move away from single-use plastics. It led us to get into ITC MAARS, which is a digital platform in the agri sector.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>We also defined different pillars of competitiveness. First, I believe that despite size, complexity and diversification, enterprises must remain agile and consumer-centric.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Second, very clearly, was around innovation. Not merely innovation that is purposeful, but agile innovation which is about delivering speed. Today, we cannot have a situation where it takes several months or several quarters for a new idea to reach the market.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The third piece was around digital acceleration across all elements of our value chain. The next, around developing agile and resilient supply chains. Our supply chains are virtually all over India. Part of our growth strategy is also premised on nation first―<i>Sab Saath Badhein</i>. So that means it is not only financial growth that we pursue, but also sustainable and inclusive growth.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The other pillar is sustainability; as a tool for competitive advantage and not merely around compliance. Progressively, we are seeing consumers opt for products and services that are sustainable, that are climate positive. It may not have translated into behaviour, but an inflection point will come. To give an example of how we are building competitive moats the first 12 hotels in the world to be net zero carbon are ITC hotels. All ITC hotels have emissions lower than the Paris 2030 agreement targets. That is how it gets integrated into strategy.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In this context, let me tell you where digital comes in. Competitiveness of an enterprise emanates from three broad areas. One, developing a differentiated product; second, marketing it effectively once it is in the portfolio; and third, is the efficiency of the entire supply chain, including sourcing, conversion and delivering it to customers. In all these areas we look at big data, AI, ML (machine learning) and now elements of generative AI. For example, we use an AI ML tool called Astra to optimise sourcing wheat from hundreds of <i>mandis</i>.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>On the brand side of it, we have Sixth Sense, which is continuously scanning and identifying trends that are emerging. During Covid, for instance, after sanitisers and hand wash, we realised people wanted surface cleaners. So we were the first off the block sensing from the insights on the internet. Within five weeks, we had the product in the market.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Then came winter. To meet the pandemic induced need, it was not possible to wash warm clothes every day. So we made a fabric disinfectant spray.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ Can you give us examples of things that ITC is doing keeping its India First policy in mind.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> The focus is on sustainable and inclusive growth and contributing to national priorities. As an enterprise, we are carbon positive for 19 years, water positive for 21 years, solid waste recycling positive for 16 years. These efforts contribute to nourishing the environment. Our value chains support over 6 million livelihoods. We have adopted a two horizon approach that focusses on enhancing current sources of income and developing capabilities for tomorrow.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Today, our Climate Smart agriculture programme covers over 2.3 million acres which builds resilience for vulnerable farmers. Second is ITCMAARS, an integrated ‘phygital’ ecosystem which really builds on the ecosystem that we have got through the e-Choupal which empowered 4 million farmers. It’s an integrated ecosystem which provides crop advisory, which is hyper local personalised and dynamic, on a mobile. It also encompasses avenues for financial inclusion, pre-approved loans and an input market place to provide right quality inputs at the right price. For example, tomorrow, a farmer can press a button and order a drone to spray pesticides in his farm, and also access market linkages. These will be beneficial to small and marginal farmers.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The whole process of using the right inputs and the right advisory itself will improve farmers income. We did a focused experiment in UP and parts of Bihar called <i>Barah Mahine Haryali</i> (twelve months agriculture). We advised farmers not merely on the crop we are buying but also on opportunities to improve productivity through right practices that enabled timely production which then gave them a window to have an additional summer crop. So thereby multiplying their income. That’s the kind of transformation these initiatives can make. As this gathers scale, it can also lead to demand driven agriculture production.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>ITC’s social intervention programmes are designed with special focus on women empowerment. Our programmes touch the lives of five million women today. And they are multi-faceted. There are programmes for ultra-poor, for self-help groups, financial literacy and programmes in agriculture for custom hiring.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ FMCG came into its own in the past few years. But before that it was subsidised by the tobacco division. So, how difficult was it to convince the investors during that time to stay the course?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/ </b>The essence is about being engaged, being transparent, and also about setting the objectives and expectations clearly and delivering on those. That is how trust develops over a period of time. We had said, for example, in FMCG, we will increase margins by about 100 basis points every year. We have been delivering on that. I think from FY17 to last year, it is 770 basis points. So, it has been a little more than what we had promised. At the end of the day, it is all about putting your head down, rolling up your sleeves and building your businesses and delivering superior performance.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ Tobacco remains the dominant profit-making category. Do you foresee that changing?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> We have been growing faster in the non-cigarette segment. Today, 80 per cent of our capital employed is in non-cigarette businesses. So, those businesses are growing faster. Mathematically, it means at some point of time, it will. But, you know, the way we look at it is more than that; each one of our businesses should continue to deliver industry-leading performance and become leaders in their own segment.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ You have different divisions that look like they are very disparate, but everything is interconnected. There is synergy between all those divisions. What is next? Which other areas have you probably started thinking about?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/ </b>In each one of these businesses, there is immense headroom to grow. FMCG has got the largest headroom to grow. So you will certainly see more and more category additions in FMCG. In any case we have categories of the future which we are scaling up and categories that we are incubating and there will be more that we will get into in future.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>FMCG exports is something where we are building the foundation. Now we are exporting to around 70 countries, but we want to get scale there. Over time we will do that. We are also thinking of entries into adjacent markets in a more strategic way.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ By adjacent markets do you mean neighbouring countries?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> Neighbouring countries, yes. So we have already started the journey in Nepal, because we already have a subsidiary there, but we are in the process of examining other countries also.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Continuing on your earlier question, we also see huge opportunity in value-added agriculture. For example, spices. Medicinal and aromatic plants is another area that we are incubating. That’s a new category.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ ITC Hotels is being hived off as a separate company. What are your reasons?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> Hotels as a business has matured. We have moved on from an asset-heavy (company-owned properties) to an asset-right (combination of managed and owned properties) strategy. So it is a mature business and has a lot of headroom to grow. I think it is time to give it a focused management team, so that it can leverage all the opportunities that are opening up in the Indian hospitality space. There are a lot of institutional synergies we do not wish to lose by creating different operating arms. So it is also going to be a test case for us.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ In your expansion, is your main focus going to be India or international markets?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/ </b>We are more focused on the Indian markets. That is where I think the opportunity is the maximum. If you look at the number of rooms, the supply penetration in India is very low. And I think the boom in tourism in India has just started. The trend on travel, particularly leisure travel within India by Indians, has just taken off post-Covid.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>As the economy progresses and incomes improve, services is a space where people will spend their money. Nobody will eat three chapatis instead of two just because he has more money. But he would desire a nice vacation with family which he could not afford earlier. So, I think there is a huge opportunity.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>We have a very healthy pipeline of properties. We opened 22 hotels in the past 24 months and expect to open 25 hotels in the next 24 months.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ What others call ‘asset light’, you called ‘asset right’. Obviously, you think that managed hotels is the way forward.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> The share of managed properties has improved. And we have big plans. Almost one hotel a month. The question always will be, how do you differentiate yourself? That lies in our sustainability credentials.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Let me share an anecdote. We have experienced individuals coming to our hotel in Delhi asking, ‘if I do a wedding of so many people, how much of carbon footprint will I create? How many trees do I need to plant to offset it?’ And we did the calculation, gave it to the guest. He paid for those number of trees and he put up a standee at the wedding saying ‘Carbon neutral wedding!’</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>That is one differentiation. Second, I think I’m very proud that we have iconic cuisines. Third aspect is the standards of service that we have developed. So, service, F&amp;B and sustainability are the key strengths, besides the hardware, the property and so on, so forth is what the consumer will differentiate.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ So, in a way, ITC is not just asset right, it is also future right.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> For me, future right is also about future tech, innovation, climate positive and being inclusive.</p> Sat Feb 03 12:03:10 IST 2024 itc-s-story-through-it-s-iconic-advertisements <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>THE STORY OF</b> how two representatives of the British American Tobacco (BAT) company―Jellicoe and Page―came from London to Calcutta in 1906 to find a distributor for their cigarettes in India is now part of corporate lore. Finding a suitable wholesaler proved to be no easy task. Finally, they zeroed in on the only person willing to take a bet on a business others felt was sure to be unprofitable―a minor agent named Buksh Ellahie. Rumour goes that having no money of his own, he borrowed it from a courtesan he was interested in. The bet paid off, and both his business and love life flourished, with the courtesan soon becoming his wife.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Less known is how the Imperial Tobacco Company of India Limited (which would later become the present-day ITC)―formed on August 24, 1910, to develop BAT’s overseas operations―educated Indians on the pleasures of smoking cigarettes. Imperial Tobacco’s salesmen started off by giving away samples by the millions. “A district salesman was not considered worth his salt unless he gave away free samples of between 50- to 100 thousand cigarettes each month, a huge sum by any reckoning, and how he did it was his problem,” writes Champaka Basu in her book, <i>Challenge and Change: The ITC Story―1910 to 1985.</i></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The usual practice was to hire a horse-drawn carriage from the nearest market and plaster it with advertisements, so that it looked gay and festive enough for the curious to gather around, writes Basu. The salesmen in the carriage would toss out packets of cigarettes to all and sundry. Stalls were set up at festivals. Exotic ideas such as lantern processions, lucky dips and sports meets were conceived. The people had to be taught from scratch, from how to hold a cigarette in their mouths to how to light and smoke it. Even then, the human psychology of “getting something for nothing” was exploited. Customers would get little “giveaways”―a packet of Waverley 10s would contain a real photograph, and Sportsman 10s offered a prize coupon. Picture cards from cigarette packets soon became a collector’s item.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>An unforgettable campaign took place in 1921 to celebrate the 21st anniversary of the import of Wills’ famous Scissors cigarettes into India. Newspapers, hoardings and even sandwich men proclaimed to the public that the proprietors of Scissors were giving away Rs50,000 for nothing. One could compete for 2,000 prizes, the first of which was for the astronomical sum of Rs15,000. But there was a catch. Every entrant had to send in a certain number of Scissors packet fronts, and the prizes were given based on the number that was sent in. There was a tremendous response to the competition. Tens of thousands of fronts poured in every day. The winner of the first prize sent in seven lakh fronts.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The competition soon became an accounting nightmare for the organisers, with the onslaught showing no sign of diminishing. “For days on end, like robots, they opened parcel upon parcel, several of which had as many as three outer wrappings, weighed the fronts and recorded the details in a register,” writes Basu. But by the time the 2,000 money orders were sent out as prizes, the company’s mission was accomplished: Scissors cigarettes had become a household name.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In fact, it would be decades later, in the 1960s, when ITC would launch such a successful campaign again. This was after a series of flop advertisements for new brands like Matinee, launched in 1960, Savoy in 1961 or Horizon in 1958. Even an advertising film called <i>The Discerning Eye</i>, brought out by none other than Satyajit Ray, to promote Horizon failed miserably due to the cigarette brand’s phonetic similarity to the word harijan.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Finally, it was in 1965, when ITC launched the ‘Made for Each Other’ campaign for Wills Filter that it really began flexing its marketing muscle. It was an ingenious concept to promote the use of filter-tipped cigarettes, which were still relatively unknown in India. The idea was that, just like the most compatible and ‘made for each other’ couples, the Wills cigarette and filter were made for each other. Apparently, Shiben Dutt, a copywriter with the advertising agency Hindustan Thompson Associates, scribbled the famous line on the back of an envelope. Today, the picture of young couples laughing together while reading a Polish joke book, strolling on the beach, and playing in the rain has become synonymous with the iconic Wills campaign in the minds of many old-timers.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The campaign continued well into the 1990s, until tobacco advertising was banned in 2004. It peaked when a national search was held for the most ‘made for each other’ couple in India. The country was held in thrall while thousands of couples vied for the first prize of a car. Tennis player and Davis Cupper Premjit Lall and his first wife were the winners from Calcutta. The judges, of course, did not foresee that the most ‘made for each other’ couple in the country would soon file for divorce.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Those were the halcyon days of cigarette marketing. But it would not last. With the mounting campaign against smoking, ITC realised that it was risky to place all its eggs in one basket. It began diversifying into hotels, apparel, rural retailing, finance, packaged food, personal care, stationery, paperboard, packaging and printing, safety matches and information technology. ITC hit choppy waters in the 1990s, when it was slapped with a retrospective excise duty demand and fought a battle for control with its parent company. But the 2000s were a period of vigorous growth.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>This was also the golden age of advertising, when you had the “marketing cowboys who had the balls to do things that could [potentially] end their career,” says Sendil Kumar, who came up with the tagline ‘No confusion. Great combination’ for Bingo!―ITC’s first offering when it decided to foray into the branded snacks segment in 2007. Kumar, a filmmaker today, was a young writer at the advertising agency, Ogilvy &amp; Mather, when they were given the seemingly simple brief from ITC: the word ‘Bingo’ should be on everyone’s lips. That time, Pepsico’s Lay’s was the market leader. How was Bingo! to change the narrative?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“We decided to do a very irreverent and fun campaign,” says Malvika Mehra, a brand strategist who was Ogilvy’s creative head in Bengaluru then. The brief was opened up to the entire team and those like Kumar, who was working on the “fairly boring” IBM account, saw it as an opportunity to shift allegiance. The ensuing ads―which played on words that rhymed with Bingo, like Flamingo, Django, and Vango Pongo―were wild, edgy, and “completely mindless”, according to Mehra. They cracked the campaign and flew down to Mumbai to present it to Ogilvy’s creative chief, Piyush Pandey. His first reaction was laughter. And then he asked, “Are you guys mad? ITC will never buy it.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But when they showed the ads to Hemant Malik, the current head of ITC’s Foods Business, he loved them. Though, when they took a poll before releasing the campaign, opinions were extremely polarised. People either loved it or hated it. But Malik believed in the ads. Although he asked the Ogilvy team to work on a backup, he took the brave decision to run these ads during the IPL, when it was very expensive to buy advertisement spots. Upon release, they were an instant hit. Such quirky and mad ads were rare those days. “I was getting calls non-stop,” says Mehra. “The ads hit it out of the park. Bingo! was on everyone’s lips.” They also yielded results. Ten months after it was launched, Bingo! had fetched the company a 16 per cent market share across the country. According to one survey, Bingo! was voted the most successful brand launch of the year.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Time and again, ITC has sensed the pulse of the nation with its ad campaigns. They have been by turns innovative, heartwarming, quirky, and ahead of their times. ITC’s soap brand Vivel, for example, came up with a campaign in 2016 featuring Amitabh Bachchan as a ventriloquist, which expressed women’s concerns in a nuanced manner. In an ad, a young woman wins an award at work and celebrates with her friends. An older man approaches her and leeringly promises to “take her to the top” if she joins his company. “That’s funny,” she quips. “Even the lift man told me the same thing yesterday.” It was subtle messaging, and a rare example of cause marrying creativity.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Incidentally, ITC has habitually put its money where its mouth is, being sensitive to the needs of its women employees. Last year, 45 per cent of the workers at the R&amp;D centre in Bengaluru were women, and ITC aims for 50 per cent by 2025.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The R&amp;D team, in fact, had an integral role to play in another of ITC’s iconic ads―the Healthy Hands Chalk Sticks initiative by ITC’s hygiene brand, Savlon. It bagged seven Lions at the prestigious Cannes Lions 2017, making Savlon the first Indian brand to win the Grand Prix for Creative Effectiveness there. The campaign was conceptualised by Ogilvy &amp; Mather to promote hand hygiene among schoolchildren. Finding that most children in rural India still studied with chalk and slate, ITC came up with chalk sticks infused with soap, so that when the children washed their hands, the sticks turned into a cleansing agent. Savlon reached out to almost one million children in over 2,000 schools. The initiative did face some criticism for not making the product available in the market, but ITC says its objective was not to sell it, but to raise awareness about the issue.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>If one needs proof of how ITC has constantly reinvented itself, one can just study its advertising graph. When it decided to tighten its India-first image, it came up with ad campaigns like ‘Sab Saath Badhein’ and ‘Har Ghar Tiranga’, where it released a film of children dressed as prominent freedom fighters joyfully hoisting the national flag to celebrate 75 years of Indian independence. And when it decided to go for digital transformation, ITC used Generative AI, augmented reality and the metaverse in some of the most futuristic and interactive ads for brands like Sunfeast Dark Fantasy, Bingo! and Mom’s Magic.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>As part of its campaigns for its cookie brand, Mom’s Magic, ITC has come up with imaginative social experiments, like the ‘Happiness Hack Experiment’, where a brain tracking device was used to record a person’s neuron activity throughout the day―when he was working, reading a book or surfing the net. Then the team got his mother to visit him. The maximum happiness surge was recorded when his mother hugged him. ITC used this insight to start the #HugHerMore campaign.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Equally innovative was the recent Sunfeast Dark Fantasy ad. Imagine superstar Shah Rukh Khan straightening a woman’s cushion during a film screening. Now, what if that woman was you? All you had to do was send in your selfie, and ITC would use artificial intelligence to send across your personalised ad with Khan. Initially, the concept was only shared internally among ITC employees. But it became such a smashing hit, with so many employees sharing and circulating it among their friends, that ITC’s systems crashed. Today, over a million people have shared it on social media. It was the perfect example of skilfully using technology to find alternate ways of building your brand in an age when 55 per cent of urban internet users have blocked online advertising in some form or other.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>ITC has come a long way since its infancy, when its expatriate managers could be found cruising around on their motorbikes, with their wives seated in the sidecars, playing cricket on the beach, or indulging in “pig-sticking” competitions when wild pigs would flee the Ganges during the floods. Over its 114-year-long existence, the company has put steel in its spine. Despite occasional setbacks, it has met every challenge with grit, foresight, and even humour. And the ads are there to prove it!</p> Sat Feb 03 12:04:10 IST 2024 air-chief-marshal-vr-chaudhari-chief-of-the-air-staff-interview <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><i>Exclusive Interview/ Air Chief Marshal V.R. Chaudhari, Chief of the Air Staff</i></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>From Ukraine to the Middle East, multiple conflict theatres continue to demonstrate the importance of air power in every aspect of contemporary warfare. While the Indian Air Force is unlikely to face the type of air wars being fought in the Russia-Ukraine and Israel-Hamas conflicts, its leadership is aware of the challenges that a two-front war could throw up in its backyard. It will have to work together with air assets of the Army and the Navy to transform, integrate and support each other better and rise up to the challenges of the 21st century. In the face of mounting challenges, the next frontier for the IAF could be the exploitation of space-based assets. In an exclusive interview, Air Chief Marshal V.R. Chaudhari, chief of the air staff, shared his views on several important issues related to aerospace power by responding to this set of questions curated by Air Vice Marshal Arjun Subramaniam (retd). He says that the IAF has revised its existing doctrine and has recognised space as the ultimate high ground for all operations. He also says the IAF is in constant touch with the Indian space ecosystem that would provide the force with accurate and timely intelligence, precise navigation, reliable communications and accurate delivery of weapons. Excerpts from the interview:</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><a name="__DdeLink__10_1020461074" id="__DdeLink__10_1020461074"></a><b>Q</b> <b>Though the profile of the air wars in the Russia-Ukraine and Israel-Hamas conflicts are different from what we can expect, what are the important takeaways from an Indian perspective?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A </b>You rightly mentioned that the trajectory of the two ongoing air wars is different from what we are likely to encounter against either one of our adversaries. The main reason for this is the steep asymmetry between contending sides in these wars as compared with the Indian scenario where the aerial domain is likely to be evenly contested.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>One of the main takeaways from the Russia-Ukraine war is the importance of a sustained campaign to suppress and destroy enemy air defences, and the need for a resilient and full-spectrum air defence capability with a wide range of weapons, from shoulder-launched missiles to long-range, surface-to-air-missiles. Even the Israel-Hamas conflict, with totally different dynamics, brings out the importance of air defence against the entire spectrum, ranging from rockets to ballistic missiles. It is imperative that all intelligence assets, including air and space assets, be harnessed and fused to prevent an adversary or a non-state actor from springing a surprise.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Another important takeaway from both conflicts is the difficulty to predict the duration of a conflict, be it between states or between a state and a non-state actor. India’s armed forces must be able to calibrate their response to a wide variety of conflicts, ranging from short, high-intensity conflicts to protracted ones of varying intensity. While short and swift conflicts would require a sharp and rapid offensive force, force preservation and sustenance would greatly influence the outcome of a protracted conflict. One thing both conflicts have substantiated is the need for flexibility and resilience of airpower.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q For all these years, the IAF has strategised about airpower from a position of strength vis-à-vis the Pakistan air force. Now, you are faced with a principal adversary who enjoys a significant advantage in many segments of aerospace power. How is the IAF adapting to thinking asymmetrically, particularly in terms of changing existing mindsets?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A</b> The IAF is cognisant of the undergoing expansion of the PLAAF (People’s Liberation Army Air Force). Today, the PLAAF is among the largest air forces in the world and the trend in equipment and technology development is similar. There is a requirement to invest in enhancing our capabilities to thwart the threats from a strong and aggressive adversary. Towards this, induction and procurement of fighter aircraft, force multipliers like AWACS/AEW&amp;C (Airborne Warning and Control System/Airborne Early Warning and Control) and tankers, and unmanned platforms need to be expedited. At least five or six fighter squadrons need to be inducted in shorter time frames. Future inductions including MRFA (Multi-Role Fighter Aircraft), LCA (Light Combat Aircraft) Mk II, AMCA (Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft) and AEW&amp;C will further add to our capability.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q In past conflicts, the IAF has generally commenced operations with ‘deterrence by denial’ as the cornerstone of its doctrinal philosophy. Will this still serve us well in case of short and high-intensity limited conflicts with our principal adversary?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A</b> Aerospace power in general provides a unique and credible capability of pursuing deterrence by denial as well as deterrence by punishment. The IAF has the operational capability and intent to apply aerospace power towards either denial or punishment, in a calibrated manner, keeping the escalation matrix in mind. For that, we must embark on capability-based force planning and force structuring, develop both conventional and asymmetric capabilities, induct and adopt latest technology, prepare innovative plans and retain adequate flexibility in execution to ensure that we understand the type of war that we are embarking on and fight it accordingly. The words of [Prussian general Carl von] Clausewitz apply even today―“The first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish by that test the kind of war on which they are embarking, neither mistaking it for, nor trying to turn it into, something that is alien to its nature.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q The IAF is right up there among the best air forces in the world when it comes to leveraging its non-kinetic (not direct action) capabilities as an effective instrument of statecraft. What more would you like to see in this area in terms of capability accretion?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A</b> The IAF, over the years, has proved itself as an effective instrument of statecraft. We have been at the forefront of HADR (Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief) operations both within and outside the country. In the recent past, meticulously planned and executed IAF operations have evacuated Indian citizens from conflict zones in Afghanistan, Ukraine and Sudan. Our transport and helicopter fleets have risen to the occasion on every instance and performed exceedingly well. Induction of fleets like C-17 and C-130 has given a boost to our capability to conduct these operations and [helped] leverage our non-kinetic capabilities as an effective instrument of statecraft. Induction of the C-295 aircraft will further add to our tactical airlift capabilities while improving connectivity to remote parts of our country. As far as capability accretion for the future is concerned, we are looking at replacing our AN-32 and IL-76 fleets in a timely manner.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q How are you ensuring that policy and strategic decision makers do not get carried away by the visible successes of the IAF’s HADR and evacuation operations, and take their eyes off the inescapable reality that offensive operations and the capabilities associated with them are as critical even if they carry the baggage of risk?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A </b>Airpower is inherently offensive and its criticality in the nation’s security cannot be over-emphasised. The vision of the IAF as specified in the doctrine is ‘To be an agile and adaptable Air Force that provides decisive aerospace power in furtherance of our national interests.’ Agility and adaptability refer to our capability to optimally use our resources based on the need of the hour to further national interests. The latest doctrine of the IAF clearly specifies the role of the IAF in the entire spectrum of conflict from ‘peace’, ‘no war, no peace’ and ‘war’. The inherent flexibility of airpower allows air assets to be utilised in multiple roles and situations, but their utilisation in one role does not compromise the capability to undertake other roles.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q Notwithstanding the success of the LCA and its variants, and the potential and aspirations around the AMCA, how important is the Multi-Role Fighter Aircraft in the interim period? Is it on the horizon?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A</b> To provide credible deterrence, it is imperative to have indigenous fighter aircraft development and production wherewithal. At the same time, we are aware that projects like AMCA take time and resources to fructify. In the interim, given our not-so-friendly neighbourhood, it is important that the strength of our combat assets is not depleted further. While the IAF fully supports the indigenous fighter development programme, the gestation period of this programme implies that there would be a void in numbers and technology of fighter aircraft, considering the impending drawdown of legacy fleets. To ensure that the IAF retains its edge, acquisition of MRFA is extremely important.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q IAF fighter aircraft recently flew all the way to the Malacca Strait. Does the IAF plan to base more fighter aircraft in the south or in our island territories as a bulwark against possible adversarial forays into the southern Indian Ocean Region (IOR)?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A</b> Given the geopolitical realities of the region, our focus in the IOR is a long-term strategic imperative. The IAF’s focus on operational training in the IOR is evident from recent missions. A long-range mission to Malacca was one such mission. The successful conduct of these missions demonstrates force projection and the strategic reach of the IAF and its preparedness to respond to any eventuality in this particular region. It is a well-known fact that airpower, along with the maritime forces, will play a crucial role in any future conflict that may take place in the Indo-Pacific region. The IAF has adequate reach and responsiveness to influence outcomes anywhere in our area of interest, even while operating from the mainland. The bases available in the southern part of the country provide us the required long arm to operate deep inside the southern IOR. We have also practised and demonstrated the capability to operate detachments from our island territories. The IAF has adequate capability to deter any adversarial forays into the IOR using shore-based aircraft.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q Compared with the exploitation of space for civilian use that has grown in leaps and bounds, India’s military exploitation of space has been slow. What is the IAF doing to sensitise the strategic establishment of the need to step on the gas?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A</b> Space is a niche field that requires sophisticated technology and enormous resources. This is the reason that despite its extensive utility, only a few nations in the world have been able to make successful forays in the field. The IAF is a primary user of space-based assets for imagery intelligence, navigation, targeting and communication. Its requirements of modern-day air operations mandate the availability of accurate and timely intelligence, precise navigation, reliable communications and accurate delivery of weapons. Each of these aspects entails the exploitation of space-based assets and the same is gathering pace. We have revised our doctrine and recognised space as the ultimate high ground for all operations. While we have the required capability in this regard, there is a need to be future-ready.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Accordingly, we have formulated our requirements and we are in constant touch with the space ecosystem in the country that would provide these capabilities to us. All other stakeholders are also aware of these requirements and I am sanguine that the requirements shall soon start fructifying, in keeping with our operational requirements for the future.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q Is there confusion among stakeholders with regard to leadership and command and control of military space assets? What can we do to infuse greater synergy in this area?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A</b> I do not think that there is any confusion. The military leadership is cognisant of its asset allocation and utility. They have been incorporated in our plans, both during peacetime and actual operations. There is a clearcut demarcation between allocations. However, I must add that these allocations are not watertight and we have a functioning mechanism with interoperability as a fundamental. Enhanced interaction and brainstorming among all stakeholders will definitely infuse greater synergy and develop a better understanding of the capability of space assets and help in exploring ways to optimally exploit them.</p> Sat Jan 27 16:18:51 IST 2024 india-is-playing-catchup-in-the-military-exploitation-of-space-in-a-fragile-global-security-environment <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Though an emerging leader in leveraging the potential of space for peaceful use such as remote sensing and unmanned exploration, and possessing significant launch capability, India surprisingly lags behind even Israel and Japan in exploiting space for military use and is constantly playing catchup in a fragile global security environment.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Contrary to what most people think, militarisation of space is as old as exploration of space. The US and Soviet Union sparked off the space race during the Cold War in the 1950s by first launching military satellites that would help them see further and better, and communicate better over the horizon and beyond the line of sight. Peaceful applications then followed, and both have grown in parallel over the years.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Militarisation of space and weaponisation of space are not the same. Militarisation is considered an essential step for furthering one’s strategies of deterrence by acquiring limited capabilities that enable offensive military operations across domains (land, maritime and air). On the other hand, weaponisation directly involves development, deployment and use of weapons positioned in space against targets located in space and on the ground. Directed Energy Weapons (DEW) and satellites with offensive capability (which can destroy enemy’s satellites or space vehicles) fall in this category.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Most countries have accepted the inevitability of the militarisation of space, but are vigorously opposed to its weaponisation. However, all the big powers and even some of the smaller space-faring nations have made significant progress in developing directed energy weapons and in deploying co-orbital satellites which have offensive capability. This move, in a way, may be considered an emerging paradigm of ‘coercion in space’ and possibly ‘Star Wars’.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>BREACHING THE KARMAN LINE</b></p> <p>It is commonly agreed that the Karman line marks the transition from the earth’s atmosphere, or air space as aviators call it, to space. It is about 100km from the earth’s surface. The difficulties of crossing this line by conventional aircraft made the region a ‘dark beyond’. It needed a special breed of people to generate ideas, and create technologies and vehicles to breach it. Thus came finally the astronauts, or the cosmonauts as the Russians call them, who would don their claustrophobic space suits, defy gravity and leap off into the unknown, reassured that the space scientist would get them back safely.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Aeronautical engineers, scientists from a few specialised disciplines and military pilots have emerged as core constituents of the military space community, albeit with a pronounced tilt towards air forces. Consequently, command and control of military space capabilities were largely entrusted to air forces, till China placed its military space assets under the Strategic Support Force (SSF) in 2015, and the US created a Space Force in 2019.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>MILITARY SATELLITES</b></p> <p>Military space assets largely comprise satellites that have sensors, radars, arrays, transponders and more, which are used (a) to support and enhance secure communications, (b) aid in navigation in the air and on the surface, (c) collect intelligence through surveillance and reconnaissance using different mediums (photo, infrared and hyperspectral are the most common), and (d) provide last-mile connectivity through data relays and links that has made targeting accurate. Today, it is all because of space assets that militaries are finding, fixing, engaging and destroying targets with extreme accuracy.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>COMMUNICATIONS</b></p> <p>Military communications satellites with sophisticated encryption are by far the heaviest and the most complex to design. Highly vulnerable and difficult to replace, their placement in space is largely in Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) and Geostationary Orbit (GEO), which is between 2,000km and 36,000km above the earth. Till date, India has launched 25 GSAT series of satellites, but only three of them (GSAT 6-A, GSAT-7 &amp; GSAT-7A) are meant exclusively for military use. The main reason for India’s military shyness in space has been the fear of global sanctions that might affect our civilian space programme. The fear has not been misplaced. The nuclear tests in both 1974 and 1998 did entail sanctions on our civil space programme as well as our civil nuclear programme, forcing our scientists often to reinvent the wheel.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The nuclear deal with the US, which largely took India out of the sanctions regime, has unshackled the Indian Space Research Organisation’s military space programme, which had taken baby steps in 2001 with the launch of a dual-use Technology Experiment Satellite (TES). India should now seek to have an inventory of a minimum of one main and one standby communications satellite (to cater for redundancies and contingencies) for each of the three defence services. Considering the average life of a satellite is just 12 to 15 years, and that it takes a year from the planning stage to the launch, it will take about 10 years to meet this aspirational requirement. A concurrent challenge for ISRO will be to make available heavy launcher vehicles such as the enhanced GSLV (Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle) in an expedited time-frame.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>POSITION, NAVIGATION AND TIMING</b></p> <p>The NAVSTAR GPS, an American constellation of 24 satellites placed in geostationary and geosynchronous orbits, about 20,000km from earth, revolutionised and simplified navigation. It operates on two distinct frequencies, one for civilian use and the other for secure military use of the US and its allies across the world. Not to be left behind, the Russians launched their own GLONAAS network of 24 satellites; the European Union followed suit with their Galileo System, and the Chinese with their Beidou constellation. In 2017, ISRO placed its own constellation of seven Position, Navigation and Timing (PNT) satellites with a set of secure frequencies for strategic applications, called NAVIC, in geostationary and geosynchronous orbits at a height of 36,000km, well above the NAVSTAR GPS constellation. NAVIC was idle for three years because of teething problems, but is now up and running with reasonable efficiency. The coverage of the NAVIC stretches from the Gulf of Aden to the Malacca Strait, which has been stated to be the zone of India’s strategic interest. Indeed, there will be a strategic imperative to expand its coverage in the decades ahead.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>INTELLIGENCE, SURVEILLANCE AND RECONNAISSANCE</b></p> <p>The third and most critical of all space assets in modern warfare are satellites that offer nations a ‘persistent stare capability’ that makes battlespace transparency possible through effective intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. It is in this area that China has a commanding lead over India with its constellation of Yaogan, Ludikancha and Gaofen satellites. These satellites have Electronic Intelligence (ELINT) capability to monitor enemy radar transmissions and communications; and electro-optical, synthetic aperture radar and infrared capabilities to accurately map enemy territory and locate even constantly moving targets in real time. For these purposes, India uses fewer than 15 dual-use CARTOSAT, RISAT and EROS satellites, which are smaller than communications satellites, and are placed in a Low Earth Orbit (LEO) of 200-500km. This is against an assessed Chinese inventory of over 100 satellites that includes the recently launched data relay satellites with sufficient bandwidth to support the streaming of voice, data and images.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Policymakers have recognised this shortfall. Statements from the government and the ISRO chief indicate the opening of this sector to private players who can produce this family of satellites. It is projected that 50 such military and dual-use satellites, armed with a variety of sensors and radars, will be launched over the next five years. This should significantly shrink the space asymmetry with China over the next decade. Of course, it is important not to get into a costly space race with China, but to resort to a strategy that will support robust deterrence and responsive offensive operations.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>SPACE SITUATIONAL AWARENESS</b></p> <p>The last and emerging segment in the militarisation of space is the one that provides Space Situational Awareness (SSA). In simple terms, SSA is the ability to keep track of everything in space including space debris, rogue satellite behaviour, anti-collision mechanisms and possible signs of weaponisation by others. With only nascent capabilities in this realm, India largely relies on friendly countries and strategic partners such as the US with its famed North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) facility. However, there are plans to install multi-object tracking radars and optical telescopes on the Indian mainland to enhance this capability.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>TRAINING, STRUCTURES AND CHALLENGES</b></p> <p>By no yardstick is it going to be a smooth ride towards building a credible military space capacity. There are several elephants in the room―India’s fractured organisational culture, existence of multiple stakeholders and turf battles among them for command and control of the ‘high ground.’ After decades of monopoly, ISRO has wisely ceded some space to private players, who have shown much enthusiasm in building and launching military satellites. The users will be many―the three services, the Coast Guard, Central Armed Police Forces and the National Disaster Response Force, a segment of India’s intelligence agencies represented by the National Technical Research Organisation and the Aviation Research Centre.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Just as navies across the world have succeeded in merging their surface and sub-surface operational domains after the advent of submarines into one contiguous zone, the IAF, too, has been focusing on the contiguous nature of air and space, and has been ambitiously seeking an aerospace command since 2009. India’s entry into the Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) club with its ASAT (anti-satellite) test in 2019 presents fresh challenges in command and control issues. The IAF feels that it is only logical that BMD blends into the existing air defence architecture to avoid duplication of command and control structures. It has now stepped up training in space-related disciplines, and is building competencies for the future in concert with knowledge partners such as ISRO, DRDO, NALSAR and National Institute of Advanced Studies. This includes training pilots for India’s first manned space flight, studying propulsion and understanding space laws and regulations.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>However, the diverse inventory of stakeholders in space has resulted in the domain emerging as among the three integrated segments, the others being cyber and special forces. All three have been assigned to the chief of defence staff currently. There is also a reluctance to club the military requirements for space capabilities with the strategic requirements, since the latter has separate stakeholder organisations such as Defence Space Research Organisation (the space arm of DRDO), Strategic Forces Command and the intelligence agencies. The Defence Space Agency, the current nodal agency for military space assets, is lightweight in its structure and will not meet the requirements for India’s future military space requirements. Given all this, it would be interesting to see how the command and control over military space assets emerge in the coming years and when an aerospace/space command comes up. Suffice to say, too many chefs will spoil the broth.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>The writer</b> is a military historian, author and aerospace strategist. He was the Assistant Chief of Air Staff (Space and Doctrine) in 2011-12.</p> Sat Jan 27 14:22:21 IST 2024 indian-air-force-must-concentrate-on-acquiring-offensive-capability-as-fast-as-possible <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>An Indian Air Force MiG-25, then billed as the world’s fastest and highest-flying fighter-reconnaissance aircraft, and a spy plane of the Aviation Research Centre (ARC), picked up several high-value targets during the Kargil conflict of June 1999. The aerial photos guided IAF fighter pilots and the Army’s Bofors gunners onto targets and contributed significantly to the success of the subsequent infantry assaults against features such as Tiger Hill.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Two months later, as a Pakistan Navy Atlantique reconnaissance plane snooped into the airspace over India’s Rann of Kutch in Gujarat, an IAF MiG-21 Bis shot it down in what could be considered the first instance of active coercion by the IAF in a no-war-no-peace situation. Three years later, at the height of Operation Parakram―launched following the attack on the Parliament by Jaish-e-Mohammad terrorists―IAF Mirages attacked two heights in Neelum-Gurez, about 800m inside Indian territory that had been stealthily occupied by Pakistan’s SSG commandos. No ground action was required to evict the intruders.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The last sensational attack on India’s security forces by jihadis was the Pulwama attack in 2019. The hit-back by India was sharp with a punitive air strike on the jihadi nursery at Balakot in February 2019, followed by a short and fiercely contested dogfight between the IAF and PAF fighter planes over the Jammu and Kashmir skies. The Army’s Special Forces had earlier carried out shallow strikes on terrorist camps in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir in 2016 after the Uri terrorist attacks. The coercive impact of air power and special forces capability has since deterred Pakistan’s deep state from launching any major jihadi strikes on Indian territory.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>All the above instances can be termed as the calibrated and kinetic use of air power in conflicts, which are short of what is known as conventional conflict.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>FIRST RESPONDER</b></p> <p>The induction of heavy-lift and medium-lift aeroplanes such as the new C-17 and C-130 J and the Chinook helicopters, along with the older trusted and tested Soviet-era Il-76 and An-32 aircraft, has steadily built up the IAF’s non-kinetic capability. Air power has come to be recognised as the first responders to crises that warrant disaster relief or evacuation operations. Speedy aerial relief provided to India’s tsunami-affected oceanic neighbours in 2004, earthquake-stricken Nepal in 2015, the landing of IAF aircraft in Male with drinking water for the Maldives in 2014, and the despatch of relief planes to quake-hit Turkey last year has proved India’s ability to respond with speed and alacrity to threats and disasters across Asia and even beyond.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It is only in the past decade that Indian air power has emerged as a stakeholder in the security of the growing Indian diaspora across the world, numbering nearly three crores. Much of it has been possible thanks to the growing synergy between the diplomatic instrument on the one hand and the military instrument―the IAF or the Navy―on the other. Military air power, complemented at places by civil airliners, has been employed to evacuate Indians from Kuwait (1990), Libya (2011), Yemen (2015), Wuhan (2020), Kabul (2021), Ukraine (2022) and Gaza/Israel (2023). Away from the publicity lights, customised C-130 J planes have carried out night landings in desolate and unmanned airstrips in Sudan and Afghanistan and airlifted Indians in distress.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>THREATS AND CAPABILITIES</b></p> <p>All the same, the IAF’s primary job remains the defence of India’s airspace and the conduct of offensive operations on its own, or jointly with the Army and the Navy. Here, all three are faced with the task of coping with a spectrum of conflict that is as varied as it is complex. Unlike most other countries, India still faces the prospect of a conventional war from across its nearly entire land borders and from the sea, alongside a plethora of hybrid and sub-conventional threats that transcend geographical frontiers.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>What does this mean for the IAF in terms of threat assessment, existing and aspirational capabilities, technology assimilation and the ongoing turbulent transformational process? With China emerging as India’s principal military adversary over the past two decades, the IAF should be worried about the gradual reduction in the advantage it had in several areas vis-à-vis China’s People’s Liberation Army Air Force.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The asymmetry is already too wide for comfort. Be it in the PLAAF’s ability to deploy large numbers of fourth- and fifth-generation fighters, the rapidly progressing operationalisation of all-weather airfields and heliports in Tibet, or the building of multi-layered air defence networks to counter the superior tactics of IAF’s fighter pilots, the signs are disconcerting. Even in areas such as pilot training, doctrinal sophistication and the ability to adapt and improvise, which have been long the IAF’s strengths, the PLAAF is quickly catching up. The Chinese are refining their tactical doctrines by hiring mercenaries to train their pilots, and partnering with Turkey and Pakistan, who fly western aircraft such as the F-16.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In the remote possibility of a two-front limited war with China and Pakistan, the IAF, with barely 30 fighter squadrons, will find it difficult to sustain operations for more than a few weeks. The accretion of squadron strength over the next decade is likely to be too slow for comfort, unless India buys or quickly adds on a few squadrons of fourth-generation-plus Multi-Role Fighter Aircraft (MRFA) and inducts the fifth-generation Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA).</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Given the professionalism, adaptability and flexibility of its air warriors, the IAF need not feel intimidated, but only worried. The Chinese have deep pockets, and it would be foolhardy if the IAF attempts to match the PLAAF across air power capabilities. Over the years, India has largely responded to aggression, rather than initiated or preempted it. Taking this into account, the IAF must identify a combination of conventional and asymmetric strategies that would ensure that its assets will survive a first strike by the PLA Rocket Force (PLARF) and unmanned platforms.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Next, it may be assumed that in any ground battle that may open up subsequently, neither side would have an advantage given the huge troop concentration on both sides. The outcome of the conflict, therefore, will be based on how air power performs, and this is where offensive action holds the key.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>What about the seas, one may ask. Even if China acquires air bases on the periphery of the Indian Ocean Region, much of its adventurism north-west of the Malacca Strait can be deterred by Indian air power, if it effectively leverages the combined air power that the Navy possesses with its aircraft carrier-based aircraft and the IAF’s own land-based offensive strike aircraft such as the Rafale and Su-30MKI, and enabling capabilities such as aerial refuellers and Airborne Warning And Control Systems (AWACS).</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>ASPIRATIONS AND CHALLENGES</b></p> <p>The IAF and policy planners ought to recognise that long wars are seldom sustainable against powerful adversaries, notwithstanding what is unfolding in the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Therefore, one of the areas among several that the IAF must concentrate on is in the realm of acquiring offensive capability as speedily as possible. In material terms, that would mean (a) quickly acquiring a modest number of fourth-generation and fifth-generation fighters, armed with a wide range of weapons and electronic suites, (b) increasing the number of AWACS to improve early warning and air-battle coordination, and aerial refuellers that would enhance the reach of our aircraft, and (c) increasing our space capabilities that would help pilots to target better, and in teaming manned platforms, unmanned platforms and special forces in strike, combat and rescue operations.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>All this will take at least 10 to 15 years, and will only be impactful with a mix of indigenous and imported platforms, weapons and technologies. Indeed, the share of the indigenous will have to be hiked progressively as India’s defence manufacturing and innovation ecosystem matures.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>India’s military air power capability comprises the Indian Air Force, as well as the Army’s and the Navy’s flying assets. All three will have to transform, integrate and support each other better, gravitate towards common systems and logistics, and yet retain their specialised competencies that have matured over nearly a century. Air power will influence and impact every facet of contemporary warfare across the spectrum of conflict. The IAF has built a huge reservoir of institutional knowledge, expertise and capability that must be leveraged carefully. With dwindling numbers and scarce resources, the biggest challenge for the IAF during the ongoing transformation process is the command and control of these assets. One can only hope that an ‘Indian’ model of integration emerges that does not dilute the fighting potential of a well-respected and the fourth-largest air force in the world.</p> Sat Jan 27 16:10:40 IST 2024 assam-chief-minister-himanta-biswa-sarma-interview <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><i>Exclusive Interview/ Himanta Biswa Sarma, chief minister, Assam</i></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Joyful chants of “Mama, Mama” filled the streets of Guwahati on January 10, as thousands of people lined up to cheer for Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, who kept waving at them, smiling ear to ear, standing alongside BJP president J.P. Nadda and pleased to see the saffron wave sweeping the Brahmaputra valley. Once called “dada” for his strongman approach, Sarma is now the more endearing “mama”, a change that came about after he became the chief minister.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Sarma is leading the BJP in the northeast and in an election year there was no better start for him than facilitating Nadda’s visit to the Maa Kamakhya Temple. Later they huddled in the party office to strategise the great number game for the BJP. Sarma has promised to deliver 22 of 25 Lok Sabha seats from the northeast.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>After Nadda left for the airport the next day, Sarma settled down for an interview with THE WEEK. In a candid conversation at the secretariat, he shared his experience of handling politicians who rebelled, defected and changed the number games. “When I was with the Congress, we were deputed to various states to manage resorts” where such rebels were safeguarded, said Sarma. In 2022, he brought Eknath Shinde and company from Maharashtra to Guwahati after they rebelled against Uddhav Thackeray’s Shiv Sena.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Sarma is emerging as a master strategist for the BJP after spending 22 years in Congress. He predicted another decade of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and a new political spectrum in the country. “Prime Minister Modi will cross 325 seats (in the Lok Sabha polls),” he said. Excerpts from the interview:</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ Assam has a long history of agitations. Do you think peace is settling in, finally?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> A lot of reforms are taking place and there has been a turnaround. This is the best time for Assam and we are getting a lot of support from the Central government. We lost nearly 700 security personnel and around 20,000 men and young boys in the conflict over the years, but we have not lost a single one in the last three years. We have withdrawn the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act from the state, except for three districts. But for ULFA (Independent) leader Paresh Baruah, with whom there are only about 100 to 150 boys in Myanmar, others have surrendered. So I would definitely say that there has been a turnaround in the last three to four years, but it is not because I am the chief minister.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ Has the divide with Delhi been bridged?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> I have been a minister for the last 22 years, I have seen the transformation under the BJP government. Earlier, governments were slow and distant. Now, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has come to Assam 60 times. We have taken various small steps which have reassured people that now our battle is being fought from Delhi, like the decision to implement the NRC (National Register of Citizens). It was a big healing touch. Nobody thought delimitation would happen this way, but it was done and people think it is a healing touch. During the Congress regime, we used to request the home minister to visit the border, but now it is a part of the routine visits of Union Home Minister Amit Shah. If there is a [militant] attack, the home ministry gives a prompt reply. In the last three or four years, outside support for militants has been neutralised and security forces have started gaining upper hand.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ You said the prime minister visited the northeast, but people are talking about him not visiting Manipur.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> I am the chief minister of Assam, so I cannot answer for Manipur. But as someone from the northeast, I don’t want anybody, even you, to come here when we are fighting. I don’t want (Congress leader) Rahul Gandhi to see us fighting and say, ‘Look, the people of the northeast are fighting’, and then go and advertise it. If it is a fight between China and India, then the prime minister should come. But when two brothers are fighting, we have to resolve it by ourselves. The Union home minister came and stayed for three days. The minister of state for home camped in Manipur for two months.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ As the face of the BJP in the northeast, how do you see the party’s performance in the upcoming general elections?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> In the northeast, there are 25 Lok Sabha seats, of which we are going to win 22. We will get 11 seats here in Assam (of 14). In Manipur, we are going to win both the seats. Although there is fighting between two communities, nobody has a problem with the prime minister and the BJP. Not a single Kuki minister or MLA resigned from the BJP, not a single MLA or minister from the Meiteis resigned from the BJP, and not any minister or MLA from the Nagas resigned from the BJP. So as a party, [we have not been brought] into their dispute. Their loyalty to the party and the prime minister is intact. So under the North East Democratic Alliance (the National Democratic Alliance’s coalition with regional parties in eight northeastern states), we will win 22 of 25 seats.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ Which are the three seats that you are doubtful about?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> There are three seats in Assam predominantly inhabited by Muslims where we cannot think of contesting. Unfortunately, Assam is completely divided on religious lines when it comes to politics. There is social harmony and people live and work together, but when it comes to voting, we know that we have to secure our own political future. Muslims, up to 99 per cent, vote for the Congress. And Hindus, up to 99 per cent, vote for the BJP.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ Do you think voting on religious lines is limited to Assam or is it becoming a nationwide trend?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> Assam’s history has nothing to do with the present political discourse of the nation. If I don’t sit here, somebody like Badruddin Ajmal (chief of the All India United Democratic Front) will sit here. Assam has been like this from 1979. It is a very polarised state as far as politics is concerned. The Congress represents Muslims here. But we are together for festivals, literary works, in office and sports. So it has nothing to do with the present political dispensation, atmosphere or environment.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ In the Lok Sabha elections, how many seats will the BJP win?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> I believe that the BJP will get anything between 325 and 400 seats. I believe Prime Minister Modi will cross 325 seats; he will go closer to 400.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ Who will be the challenger to Modi this time?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> I don’t see anybody in the next 10 years.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ What will happen to Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> I think this is their last election. I was in the Congress for 22 years. People have shown great loyalty towards the family. They will be made accountable for being out of power for 15 years. Congress workers have shown large-heartedness by not holding the family accountable…. People will put up with one loss, two losses…. But after this election, people will realise that the Gandhi surname has no political equity. They will realise that they won Telangana because of the equity of a local politician. If there is victory in Karnataka, it is not because of the Gandhi name.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ What happens to Congress as a national party?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> After this election, at the national level, the Congress will disappear. There will be various regional Congress parties in various names. They say the NCP is a Congress party, but Ajit Pawar is aligning with the BJP. So you will see the emergence of a lot of regional parties with the name ‘Congress’. I see the Congress completely divided into regional parties like Kerala’s Congress, Karnataka Congress, Maharashtra Congress. Sometimes there may even be alliances with the BJP. And they might retain power in some states like this. So, there will be some scope for Congress politicians. But they will become autonomous, more liberated and will handle their own affairs.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ So there won’t be any national party?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> I do not see [one] on the horizon. The BJP will face challenges from other parties in the states, but there will be no national party other than the BJP. There will be strong regional parties, including the Congress. So my prediction is that from next October-November, the disintegration of the Congress will start. Congress workers will abandon Rahul Gandhi. They will wait for parliamentary polls and immediately after that the Maharashtra and Jharkhand elections. Once those are over, you will see a completely new realignment.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ Don’t you think that having just one national party somehow impacts democracy?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/ </b>That is for the citizens to decide. If democracy needs opposition, then people will create an opposition. You cannot expect Modi to create his opposition. Many people have even that demand from him. He cannot be responsible for building an opposition party. It is not the BJP’s responsibility to create an opposition party.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ Do you see Prime Minister Modi outliving Pandit Nehru’s legacy and becoming the longest serving prime minister?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> I am not counting years and numbers. But in my view, Prime Minister Modi has already overtaken Nehru’s legacy. Nehru was not known in parts of the country like the northeast. He did not travel across India so much. I will not blame Nehru for that; that time was different. But 75 years after independence, [you would find that] Modi’s era has been much more impactful than Nehru’s. Modi has created a name for himself for the next hundred years; he has become an institution. He has left behind the legacy of every other prime minister to become the most impactful prime minister.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ Do you see ‘one nation, one election’ becoming a reality soon?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> I think Modi strongly believes that it should become a reality. He has constituted a committee and let us wait for its report. He has said on many platforms that he wants it as it will save unnecessary expenditure, bring stability and is good for the country.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ When you talk of the BJP as the only national party and also about ‘one nation, one election’, don’t you think it will be advantage BJP?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> The BJP will still have competition in the states. So whether it will help us politically or not, we do not know. But it will certainly reduce costs. For the Lok Sabha elections, the expenditure for Assam comes to 0600 crore, excluding other costs like police mobilisation, political party expenditure and so on. If Assam elections were held simultaneously, we could save 0600 crore. We spend at least one lakh crore rupees for a national election and (as much) for state elections. If those are held simultaneously, it would be good.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ You indulged in what people call ‘resort politics’ by bringing the Eknath Shinde faction [of the Shiv Sena] to Guwahati in 2022.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> Whenever there is a (political) rebellion in a particular state, you cannot stay in that state. Because, obviously, the state machinery will be against you. So everybody has to go to a neutral place. In the past, Congress MLAs were taken from Karnataka to Hyderabad. If somebody wants to rebel against me, would they be so foolish as to stay in Assam? Obviously, someone like Mamata Banerjee will call and say, ‘Come to my state’. So this [resort politics] should not be a news event.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ Isn’t ‘resort politics’ something new?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> When I was with the Congress, we were deputed to various states to manage resorts.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ How many have you managed?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> In the 22 years I spent with the Congress, I must have done it eight or nine times. We used to bring MLAs before Rajya Sabha [elections], keep them in a Congress-ruled state, and, in the morning, take them to vote…. These are normal things. So if Eknath Shinde decided to rebel against Uddhav Thackeray, then he has to be foolish to remain in Mumbai. But if he is not a fool, he will go to a state where Uddhav’s writ does not run. So they came to Assam, stayed here for eight days, enjoyed Guwahati, and I collected GST (goods and services tax).</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ Who paid their hotel bills?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> [Money came] from their own party account, and I collected GST at 18 per cent. Additionally, they gave Rs50 lakh for the chief minister’s relief fund because of the floods here. Similarly, if Rahul Gandhi is coming to Assam [for the Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra], I am very happy. At least they would spend some money in Assam and my GST [revenue] will increase. So what I did for Eknath Shinde, I would do for Rahul Gandhi as well.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ What was that one moment when you took the final decision to quit the Congress?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> I decided to quit the Congress in 2008 itself. Rahul Gandhi had come to Guwahati and we were at the same table. After talking to him, I told my friend that it seemed difficult for us to continue together. He is not a person who can handle statecraft. Finally, I took the decision in 2015.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ There was talk that Rahul Gandhi made a last phone call to stop you from leaving.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> Well, I was at Amit Shah’s residence [when] Rahul and [the late] Ahmed Patel (political secretary to Sonia Gandhi) called me and said, ‘Please come, we will resolve [the issues]’. But I was already in Amit Shah’s official drawing room.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ What was Shah’s response?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> I did not tell him that I was getting a call. I was new at that time.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ Which other exits seem to have caused a big dent to the party?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> The Congress lost many leaders and many people have retired. Many people have slowed down. Today, what you are seeing is not the same party when Sonia Gandhi was leading the Congress. It is purely Rahul’s Congress. Those who were with Sonia Gandhi or Manmohan Singh have either taken a backseat or retired. And the remnants like Kamal Nath are also gone now. I think Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge got a lease of life for one or two years, but he will also fade away.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ What is the biggest factor that led to the Congress’s downfall?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> Rahul is very arrogant. But he is arrogant without knowledge, education or political maturity. When you are an intellectual or are popular, you have a right to be arrogant. When you are an iconic leader, you can be arrogant. But he is mediocre. Calling him mediocre is still a tribute. He doesn’t know anything. And I will not blame him. Probably he could not undergo formal schooling or he had a traumatic childhood, or it is the society he lives in. He might be talking to you with respect [one moment], but he may not recognise you after one hour.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ Priyanka Gandhi had a similar childhood. How would you assess her?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/ </b>I have seen both of them during my Congress period. Suddenly they are becoming socialists! There is not a single business leader of reckoning who has not visited or was not friendly with Congress leaders. Their access or relationship is evidence of how close the entire government was with industrialists. Now suddenly they talk about crony capitalism.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ Why is the Congress talking of crony capitalism now?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> All these are blackmailing [tactics] to extract money during the election period. I will say that industrialists brought vibrancy to the economy and at least industrially we have become a strong nation. I see them as employment generators. I see them as movers and shakers of the Indian economy. They are creating millions of jobs. Who opened up the Indian economy? Isn’t it Dr Manmohan Singh who brought foreign investment to India? So I wonder why the Congress, which created the infrastructure, is now denying that. If there was no Congress, whether any of the known industrialists would have been here or not, nobody knows. Now Priyanka and Rahul believe that they were paradropped from the moon and the sun. That is not the truth.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ What do you think of the Congress not attending the Ram Temple pran prathishthan?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> They should have come. They could have said they would visit on another date, but they missed the bus in their attempt to please certain Muslim fundamentalists of Kerala and others.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ Do you think it is a blunder?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> It is a blunder. The political connotation would have changed the minute Sonia Gandhi went to the Ram temple on January 23rd morning. Indian politics would have changed not just for them, but for the entire country. They made a historical blunder to adopt the image of being anti-Hindu. In India you can be pro-Christian, pro-Muslim, but you cannot be anti-Hindu.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ The Congress thinks the Ram Temple is being politicised.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/ </b>If you visit the Ram Temple, then it will not be politicised. Your absence will make it politicised. If there are Muslim and Christian leaders who roam around in the name of secularism, why can’t they sit together and celebrate Hindu triumph? When the Pakistan government restored a Hindu temple, senior BJP leader L.K. Advani was invited. Can it be more communal than Pakistan? But Sonia Gandhi was asked not to go, [because of the threat that] there will be problems in Rahul winning Wayanad. Rahul went to Babur’s tomb in 2005, but he did not go to the Ram Temple. Doesn’t the Hindu feel hurt? You cannot become secular by being anti-Hindu. It does not work.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ How do you analyse the word secular in the Indian Constitution?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> The word ‘secular’ was not ours. It was inserted by Indira Gandhi. The first generation of the Congress [leaders] never thought of [including] secular. They said India’s ethos is sarva dharma samabhav (respect for all religions). Gandhiji, Nehru and Sardar Patel never thought that the Constitution should have a word like secularism. The Constituent Assembly had debated and decided against the word and instead put Article 14 whose operative part talks about the state not discriminating against any religion, any sex or any individual. The word ‘secular’ makes us defensive, as if we were not secular. It was included only in 1975 to please certain people and the word was stamped in the Preamble, as if we were not secular.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ But don’t you think talking about it now creates fear and confusion?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> That is why I always say that India never started from 1947. Many people mistake 1947 as our beginning. If India’s Constituent Assembly had 60 per cent Muslims or even 50 per cent Christians, we would not have been a secular country. You go through the entire world history―wherever 50 per cent lawmakers are Christian or Muslim, it is either a Christian state or an Islamic state. Because the Indian Constituent Assembly was full of Hindus, we dared to make India a non-Hindu state. That is the strength of Hindus. I can immediately go to and eat at a Muslim’s home or visit a mosque, but a Muslim will never visit a temple. The point I am making is that secularism is imbibed in our body and soul.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ What is your take on INDIA bloc? People say it is a fight for ideology.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> What is INDIA bloc? I want to ask if you―except for Arvind Kejriwal (who is a new entrant)―were confident, why would you change the name from UPA to INDIA. UPA has given you two solid governments―UPA 1 and UPA 2. People of India know more about the UPA than INDIA, because [it ran] India for 10 years. So changing the name shows how much confidence they have lost.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ There is speculation that the name ‘Bharat’ came as a retaliatory step because of the INDIA bloc?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> Many people wanted Bharat, but the INDIA bloc gave us the trigger. Many people have gone to the Supreme Court [demanding] that India’s name should be Bharat. But I think there was no outpouring of that emotion…. All along I thought India’s name should be Bharat, but I did not have the courage to say it. Within five minutes of the INDIA bloc being announced, I found the courage to ask why not call India as Bharat. Because the Congress opposed Ram Mandir, it gave me courage to support Ram Mandir. Sometimes it works in reverse. And I must thank INDIA bloc― because you have taken the name of India, Bharat has become a household name.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ New BJP chief ministers have come up in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. Is it the BJP strategy to groom new leaders?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> It is a very good practice they have started. A chief minister should be there only for a decent period. If a chief minister stays on too long, then the next generation gets killed. The party has to decide on the period of service. But at some point, everybody has to go. At least in the BJP, you should not come with the mindset that you will stay here. You should always be ready to go back to your original address―of being a karyakarta. I think that’s the message.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ What would you say to Rahul Gandhi’s allegation that the BJP also follows dynasty politics?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> Our party is not controlled by any dynasty. But suppose my son is meritorious and can contribute to my party, why will I waste the talent? I would say, ‘Come and work, son, but you cannot take control of the party.’ It doesn’t mean that he can be equated to the Gandhi family, Mulayam family or Lalu family. I often see them (opposition leaders) trying to draw a parallel between the Gandhi family and the Anurag Thakur family. That is an apples and oranges comparison. [Is there a] dynasty controlling the BJP? The BJP is a party where you just give a phone call and you become a member. So the sons and daughters of any leader can join the party and contribute, but the control button of the BJP will not go to any family. Too many systemic reforms have taken place to disturb that balance.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ There is worry that a nationwide delimitation can create a north-south divide. Will population be the criteria?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> There are many states where the population has come down because of various factors. For instance, in Assam, the Hindus have been [observing] family [planning] norms. Among Muslims, for various reasons, that stabilisation has not come. Today, if delimitation happens in a straitjacket form, then we would lose. So the Election Commission came out with a good balance and gave a margin of 20 per cent and that is how the delimitation happened in Assam, taking into consideration several factors. For a nationwide delimitation, we have to wait for the Delimitation Act to be passed in Parliament after due consideration.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ So, population won’t be the only criterion in delimitation?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> It has never been. In India, population, geography, terrain, everything is considered and if you see the way delimitation was conducted in the past, the aspirations of the people were accounted for. There will be a lot of consultations before the act is drafted and we will get an opportunity to vent our grievances and expectations. I am sure it will be on the basis of consensus.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ When will the Uniform Civil Code be implemented?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> On UCC, I have not heard the prime minister express his views elaborately. We know that Uttarakhand and Gujarat are preparing a draft and when the draft comes and the prime minister endorses it, then we will know his views. Personally, I support UCC because Muslim women need that emancipation. This is not a Hindu-Muslim issue, it is gender justice and this is a mandate of our Constitution. We cannot have a different view than Mahatma Gandhi. The UCC is not the BJP’s creation. It is the directive principle of state policy. This line was inserted by B.R. Ambedkar, Nehru, Rajendra Prasad. The BJP was not there in that house…. Now how it is done depends on statecraft. If Modi is the blessed son of this motherland to bring the UCC and implement the directive principle of state policy, we should be happy about it.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ How soon will the Citizenship (Amendment) Act be implemented? Will there be protests?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> The CAA is already passed and the framing of the rules is a formality. But it has to be [notified] before it lapses. We are ideologically committed. There will be some protests in Assam, but I will talk to them. I have asked the people not to put the state in a situation where we disturb the progress.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ Do you think the anti-CAA protests were genuine or orchestrated in Assam?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> No, these are genuine protests. When we talk of Assamese people, we do not mean Hindu Assamese. We mean Hindu, Muslim and Buddhist Assamese. So we take pride that we are not communal. Our ideology, our agitation against the foreigners was purely against any attack on our language and demography. So that generation cannot reconcile with the CAA easily. They are not aware of religious identity and what was happening on the other side of the border. Today in Assam, there are around seven lakh Bengali Hindus who have prima facie come from Bangladesh and have no rights, no citizenship. They cannot go back. So where will they go?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ And what about the detention centres?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/ </b>Nobody in Assam believes in detention camps. It was the order of the Guwahati High Court for which we had to set up a detention camp…. Now we have obtained an order from the Guwahati High Court that if a foreigner is declared a foreigner, then he will be debarred from certain privileges.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ Voting rights, for example?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> Voting rights, yes. But we are very liberal in our thoughts. One crore 36 lakh people have entered Assam in different stages, right from 1951. How many people have we put in a detention camp? One hundred and seventy-two. Instead of putting them in a detention camp, I could have convinced the Bangladesh Rifles and pushed them back. But we did not do it. I cannot send back Hindus. That is why we need CAA.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ Do you see Islamic radicalisation rising in Assam?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> Islamic radicalisation was on the rise in Assam. We busted some modules of the Popular Front of India. Under the guidance of Amit Shah, we have reinvented policing in Assam. From militancy, we are now focusing on tackling drugs, crime, fundamentalist activity…. I have to stabilise Assam for Assamese people, including Hindus and Muslims. We have 4 per cent Assamese Muslims in the state. Recently, I sought views on an anti-polygamy bill and all Muslim organisations have submitted a memorandum expressing support.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ How are you dealing with the Rohingya threat?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/ </b>Rohingyas keep coming, but the numbers are not in the thousands. We are working actively with the National Investigation Agency (NIA)and have busted a few modules. But I think we need to resolve the Rohingya issue, as there are bombs waiting in Bangladesh to enter India. So, if we can push them back to their original land, [there will be] some kind of a solution. But I think the international community has to address the issue. In 2023, we detected almost 250 to 300 Rohingyas and handed them over to the NIA, but 2,700 remain undetected. They don’t stay in Assam, but travel to Haryana, Jammu and so on.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ How do you see the Chinese threat in the northeast?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> Many Indian insurgent groups now have a confirmed settlement on the Chinese border. They are getting complete support from across the border…. As long as the India-China relationship remains bumpy, the northeast cannot be stabilised permanently.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But Assam is different as it does not face a direct threat from China. So Assam can be made completely peaceful. In Nagaland and Manipur, we have to factor in external influence, ethnic conflicts and internal governance. Today, Tripura, Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram are peaceful. The dialogue with NSCN(IM) is in the advanced stages. And I believe an accord will be signed sooner or later because neither the outfit nor the government wants to go back on it. So I think somehow Nagaland will be stabilised. In Manipur, the division is deep and we will have to be patient.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ But the hill-valley divide in Manipur has been there for long. What do you think went wrong this time?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> What is wrong is that a conflict breaks out every five to ten years. Somehow the state leadership could not anticipate it, and once tribal people fight among themselves, reconciliation is not very easy. There has to be back channel negotiation and healing touch. The reason why Manipur has not recovered so far is beyond the comprehension of those who raise the issue of Manipur in Parliament. This world is very different from theirs.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ Have the hill people lost trust in Chief Minister Biren Singh?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/ </b>I think the plains people have also lost trust in the people from the hills. It is both ways. Biren Singh individually has not had a problem with Kukis. The problem is between two communities. If Biren is removed, then other Biren will do the same. Similarly, in Kukis, if you remove one leader, the other leader will do the same. The best thing is to bring both the communities together. And that process is on….</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ How do you see Mahua Moitra’s claims about mistreatment by Parliament’s ethics committee?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> Mahua speaks contradictorily. First of all, being a Parliamentarian, she should not have given her login ID to anybody who lives on foreign soil even for a bona fide purpose. If an Army general gives his login ID to a person who lives in Pakistan, even by default, is it acceptable? I think she should have accepted her mistake gracefully and owned up morally that she committed an error of judgment. She could have resigned and fought the byelection and won again. But she tried to defend the indefensible, again by blaming Modi. Modi did not tell you to give your login ID. Nobody is saying she took money. That is a matter of investigation. In politics, we are not talking about criminal culpability. But the opposition made it a political circus by backing her. If Trinamool Congress and Congress don’t form an alliance, will Sonia support Mahua in this election? These are gimmicks.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ How important is it to bring ULFA(I)’s Paresh Baruah back for lasting peace in Assam?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> For me, Paresh Baruah is back. I talk to him every month. He has lived his life like many people who thought they were fighting for a cause. People of Assam now should not think too much about bringing him back because his era is over. He cannot disturb peace. He is just a symbol of certain causes and let us handle those causes.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ What kind of conversations do you have with Baruah?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> I ask him, ‘What did you eat today? What happened in the morning, in the evening? Dada, you blew a grenade today. If you attack us, we have the right to attack you.’ But that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t love Assam or I do not love Assam. I do not have a monopoly over Assam, neither does he. It is a constant persuasion. I will keep talking and if there is a meeting point, then it will come. But Assam has gone beyond Baruah now. Nobody on the street discusses ULFA or Baruah, except when some reporters ask. The state is in pursuit of peace, development and tranquillity.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ Do you see private industries coming to Assam?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> Big private players will come next month. I am expecting a big announcement. Things are changing in Assam.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ We know Himanta Biswa Sarma as the chief minister of Assam. What’s next?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> My lifelong ambition was to be the chief minister of Assam. It is my luck that I was given a chance to serve Assam…. I want to be here for 10 years so that I can consolidate peace and development and be remembered in Assam’s history for the work I did. But the party is supreme and my future will be decided by my party only.</p> Fri Jan 19 15:46:14 IST 2024 himanta-biswa-sarma-has-emerged-as-the-key-architect-of-the-bjps-vision-for-the-northeast <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma prides himself as a son of the soil. In his office at the secretariat in Guwahati are the portraits of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and of Gopinath Bordoloi, the first chief minister of Assam who won the Bharat Ratna for his service to the nation and to the people of the state. It serves as a constant reminder of the two tasks clearly cut out for Sarma. To follow in Bordoloi’s footsteps as an Assamese, a statesman, a humanitarian and as a follower of Mahatma Gandhi, and also to fulfill Modi’s dream of ‘Ek Bharat Shreshtha Bharat’.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“As I am from Assam and at the receiving end of a demographic change, I talk about religious identities like Hindu or Muslim,” said Sarma. “But when I go to Prime Minister Modi, I realise that for him, Bharat matters.’’</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Sarma’s journey, from the students’ movement in Assam to becoming the tallest political leader of the state, mirrors the many struggles of the Assamese people. Groomed by his father, the late Kailash Nath Sarma, a schoolteacher, Sarma was in class five when he realised that he was destined for bigger things. “I used to think why is it that we don’t get to read anywhere that Assam is one of the top-ranking states of India. Holding those dreams close to my heart and not being mature enough to bear so much anguish, I joined the students’ agitation,” Sarma wrote in his book, <i>In Pursuit of a Dream</i>.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Those were the days of the anti-foreigners’ agitation and the entire state was struggling to preserve its identity. Many young Assamese lost their lives in the agitation that ended with the signing of the Assam Accord in 1985. But this was only the beginning of a cycle of violence that lasted three decades. The United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), which was formed in 1979 to fight for an independent state, recruited and trained Assamese youth to participate in an armed struggle. The support from insurgent groups in neighbouring states and from across the border poured in, and ULFA grew to become Assam’s deadliest insurgent group. Retaliatory operations plunged Assam and neighbouring states into the dark days of violent insurgency which successive governments could not resolve.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Sarma is a product of this strife-torn society and he has been watched closely by citizens and outlaws alike since he entered electoral politics in 1996. He first contested assembly elections as a Congress candidate from Jalukbari where he was defeated. But that was the only time he lost. In 2001, he won the same seat with a thumping majority. The same year, he was inducted as a minister of state with important portfolios like finance, agriculture, planning and development. There has been no looking back since. He joined the BJP on August 23, 2015 and was appointed convenor of the election management committee for the 2016 assembly elections. He said he earned both critics and admirers along the way, and never lost a friend.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“I think my greatest strength is that I have never lost a personal friend, whether it is in the Congress or in the BJP, or in sports, in culture or in jobs,” he said. “I don’t think personal and professional life or choices are in conflict. If everything goes well, there is harmony,” said Sarma, who is an avid reader of history and philosophy.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>His rainbow vision for Assam from the Barak valley to the Brahmaputra valley and beyond prompted the BJP to appoint him convenor of the North East Democratic Alliance, a political front to unite non-Congress parties in the region.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>With the combination of a sharp political mind and a deep understanding of insurgency movements, Sarma has been able to shape the BJP’s internal security approach in Assam, bringing dividends to the party and the state. He was troubled when he saw that of the 126 assembly constituencies of Assam, nearly 35 to 40 constituencies were dominated by suspected foreigners. The 2023 delimitation exercise is one of the many steps he has taken to stop the impact of illegal migration and threats from Islamic radicalisation coming from foreign shores.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Assam is considered the gateway to the northeast because of its location. For historic reasons, events in Assam influence the entire region. Therefore, even though he is chief minister of only one state, his responsibility lies in delivering Lok Sabha seats from the entire northeast for the BJP. Sarma expects to win at least 22 of 25 Lok Sabha seats in the region. He said the three Muslim dominated seats in Assam would go to the Congress.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Sarma has also emerged as the ‘man-to-rely-upon’ for ‘quick-fix’ solutions for Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah even for issues outside the northeast. Whether it is trouble with extremists in Punjab or politicking in Maharashtra, Sarma has played a crucial role in settling issues in the BJP’s favour.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>For example, when trouble erupted in Punjab following the arrest of extremist Amritpal Singh last April, he was flown out to Dibrugarh on a chartered flight. He is now lodged in Dibrugarh central jail. A year before that, a Guwahati resort hosted Eknath Shinde and his supporting MLAs who rebelled against the Shiv Sena, which resulted in the toppling of the Uddhav Thackeray government in Maharashtra. Shinde’s supporters remained in Guwahati for eight days and ensured that their leader got installed as chief minister.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Sarma also ensured that the BJP retained power in Tripura in the assembly polls held last year, notwithstanding the stiff challenge posed by the Tipra Motha, a party founded by Pradyot Kishore Manikya, the head of the Tripura royal family. As the opposition votes got divided, the left front, which used to be the biggest player in the state, was relegated to third position. The Tipra Motha won 13 of 20 seats reserved for Scheduled Tribes, and for the first time since 1978, the left parties failed to win a single seat in the tribal belt. Many in the northeast see Sarma’s hand in propping up the Tipra Motha, and his friendship with Pradyot is no secret.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Ever since he left the Congress, Sarma seems to be on a mission to demolish the grand old party in the northeast. He never forgets to tell how respected he feels in the BJP as a leader from Assam, who can call up anyone in Delhi, including the president and the prime minister. “These were things unheard of in Assam,” said Sarma.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Appreciating Sarma’s tactical prowess, the BJP did not hesitate in taking him in, and he ensured the BJP’s victory in the 2016 assembly elections. But the chief minister’s chair went to Sarbananda Sonowal, who joined the BJP in 2011, four years before Sarma. Five years later, Sarma fulfilled his dream of becoming the chief minister of Assam. It clearly showed his rising stature in the BJP that the party did not repeat the chief minister under whom it won the elections. Sonowal was inducted into the Union cabinet with a major portfolio.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>People with an ear to the corridors of power say Sarma gets along famously with the powerful Union home minister. In 2021, he translated a book on Shah, <i>Amit Shah and the March of BJP</i>, into Assamese.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But Sarma remains grounded in more ways than one. “I cannot be successful as a chief minister and fail as a father. I have to be a good father, a good son and a good statesman. Many people think that being a chief minister means that you will abandon your family. So, at least once a year, I take my wife out somewhere.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>And whom does he worship? “We all ask sometimes, where is God? I think the closest resemblance of God is your parents. If you respect your parents’ hard work and value systems, somehow you will be secure,” said Sarma. “I have seen every kind of trouble in life. I have seen every kind of conspiracy. Be it politically or personally, my life has been full of struggles. But I feel what my father taught me, to be a simple human being, gives me a lot of strength.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Clearly, there is still more to hear about Sarma―this seems to be just the beginning.</p> Fri Jan 19 15:48:17 IST 2024 the-agreement-to-dissolve-ulfa-has-cemented-himanta-biswa-sarma-s-position-as-the-tallest-leader-from-assam <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Draping the traditional red and white Assamese gamcha around his neck, Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma looked content as he stepped out of the North Block on the evening of December 29. The conference room in the British-era building, where he sat with United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa and general secretary Anup Chetia, has witnessed the resolution of many demands for sovereignty left unresolved by the British, especially in the northeast. After the meeting, Sarma, Chetia and Rajkhowa agreed to a solution to the rebellion waged by ULFA since 1979, marking the beginning of the end of one of the longest-running insurgencies since independence.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>As Union Home Minister Amit Shah joined the trio to sign the tripartite agreement, it was a symbolic ‘Ek Bharat, Shreshtha Bharat’ moment. For Sarma, it was also a triumph of his love for the Brahmaputra valley, which was very much at display when they all exchanged gamchas, an article of significance worn by the indigenous people of Assam. It cemented Sarma’s position as the tallest leader from Assam.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The northeast is geographically cut off from the rest of the country, but for the narrow Siliguri Corridor, known as the Chicken’s Neck. This region shares borders with Bhutan, Bangladesh, Nepal and China, and has historically been the playground for armed insurgent groups like ULFA. Lives of the people in the northeast have been split between cries for sovereignty by armed insurgent groups and their own desire to participate in the growth story of the rest of the country.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The peace accord with ULFA is the ninth settlement with insurgent groups during the tenure of the Modi government. It is significant as it breaks the 44-year-long uncertainty in the lives of the common man. Sarma’s interest in internal security and his assessments have been unmatched. In 2021, when he took charge as chief minister, he tweaked the internal security approach. He ordered tough police action against armed insurgents, prevented ULFA cadres from carrying out extortion, facilitated mass surrenders of key militants and doled out rehabilitation packages that proved an attractive proposition.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“Protracted dialogue between the government and the pro-talks ULFA faction witnessed several ups and downs, but the chief minister’s political acumen and understanding of ground [realities] helped clinch the final peace settlement,” said G.P. Singh, director-general of police, Assam. The clincher was the decision to conduct a delimitation exercise last year, which won the support of the ultras. The delimitation safeguards the rights of the indigenous people by making it near impossible for non-indigenous communities to contest in assembly elections.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The 12-point tripartite agreement includes the promise to recommend to the Election Commission to follow the broad guidelines and methodology adopted for the delimitation exercise in future delimitations as well, the offer to create an error-free National Register of Citizens (on the basis of the decision by the Supreme Court), maintaining Assam’s territorial integrity, preventing illegal migration, taking measures to prevent the enrolment of illegal migrants in the voters lists and supporting exemption for Assam from the section 3 of the Citizenship Act 1955.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“ULFA is disbanding,” said Singh, “dismantling various camps inhabited by around 750 cadres. It will also share the list of members who are eligible for jobs.” He said the militants outside the country were also being persuaded to return to Assam and work with the government. “We recognise their love for the state of Assam,” he said. But he also issued a warning against those who planned to indulge in violence again.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Sarma made the accord possible by keeping a line of communication open with ULFA (Independent) chairman Paresh Baruah, who continues the armed struggle even after Rajkhowa was caught in Dhaka and was sent to India. Sarma is in regular touch with Baruah, who lives in China. But there are only around 200 cadres left with his group. While some of them are in camps on the India-Myanmar border, a few others like Drishti Rajkhowa, Baruah’s close confidant, got a safe passage to Assam in 2019, a rare case when he permitted the surrender of an insider. “The chief (Baruah) inquires about my life in Assam. I told him things have changed for the better and people no longer demand sovereignty. Today, they are very much part of the economic and sociocultural development of the state,” said Drishti.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Baruah is a hardliner and surrender would be his last option, but the government has made it clear that talks can happen only within the ambit of the Indian Constitution. The geopolitical situation still remains vulnerable, with the possibility of covert support from cross-border state and non-state actors, especially within China, and attempts to use Indian insurgent groups as mercenaries by inimical forces in Myanmar. On the other hand, friendly governments in Bhutan and Bangladesh are proving helpful by not allowing safe havens to fleeing militants.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The next big challenge for Sarma would be to help stitch together the remaining peace agreements in the northeast, like the elusive Naga peace accord. When Naga political leaders who are in talks with the government rang up to congratulate Rajkhowa, he told them, “We have been guerrilla fighters living in jungles and running from one country to another. But time has come to honour the will of the people who want peace and progress.”</p> Sat Jan 20 12:57:48 IST 2024 ulfa-chairman-arabinda-rajkhowa-interview <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><i>Interview/ Arabinda Rajkhowa, chairman, ULFA</i></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>IT IS A BITTERSWEET</b> moment for ULFA chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa, who lost the battle for a sovereign Assam. After 44 years, he has decided to disband the organisation, signing the historic peace settlement with the Central government and the government of Assam. The guerrilla fighter is facing some criticism after he returns to Assam as a common citizen, committed to roll out the promises in the settlement. In an exclusive interview, Rajkhowa tells THE WEEK that ULFA has let go of its cause for the people of Assam. Excerpts:</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ How does it feel to disband the ULFA faction that you have been leading?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> I have been a guerrilla fighter for 44 years—from April 7, 1979 till December 29, 2023—fighting for a sovereign Assam. We have lived in jungles braving hunger, difficult weather and terrain, running from country to country. Over the years, our senior leaders got arrested and had to spend many years in jail. It has been a long struggle. The civil society and intellectuals gradually asked us to adopt peaceful means to resolve the India-Assam conflict. ULFA’s demand has always been a sovereign and independent Assam. But the proposal for a peaceful political solution is the demand of the people of Assam.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>We were in discussion with the Indian government for the last 12 years and four months, honouring the agendas prepared by civil society organisations. The proposal for a peaceful political process was brought before the leaders of ULFA by 131 civil society organisations. It was then that we decided to honour and respect the will of the Assamese people. Therefore, we signed the agreement which resulted in disbanding the organisation.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ It has been a very long negotiation process. Are you happy with the outcome?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> Happiness will come after the implementation of the agreement, when the original inhabitants will be satisfied. Many long discussions—some bitter, some sweet—have taken place. We stuck to our demands and the government stuck to its stand under the federal structure of the Indian Constitution. Our mentality was that of fighters who were waging a battle of independence, while the government had to look at administrative, security, diplomatic and many other concerns. There was no meeting ground initially and it was a slow process. As individuals fighting a specific cause for which we have suffered for 44 years, it is natural for us to feel disheartened and sad at the loss of our battle for independence. We have let go of our cause for the benefit of the people of Assam.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ How do you see the peace deal with ULFA impacting people of Assam?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> We do not call it peace talks or peace deal; instead we call it the peaceful political solution process. It is a positive development for the people of Assam as they have finally got a peaceful and democratic environment. The earlier allegation that the Central government adopted a step-motherly treatment towards Assam was true, but slowly, an amicable solution has been achieved.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>One of the points of the agreement is to constitute a committee to initiate and allot Scheduled Tribe status and assure reservation for OBCs (Other Backward Class)/MOBCs (More Other Backward Class) in urban local bodies and panchayats.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The government will also consider recommending to the Election Commission to follow the broad guidelines and methodology adopted for delimitation in Assam in 2023 in future delimitations as well. The government has also promised to take effective measures to prevent enrolment of illegal migrants in the voters’ list. A lot of developmental measures will also be taken by the government. Many youngsters took up guerrilla life because of dissatisfaction with the state. We are happy there is scope for employment for them in the development of Assam.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ Do you think ULFA can integrate with the civil society?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> We have been a banned organisation fighting security forces, Army and police, but now we are part of a peaceful, democratic process and will work towards building peace in Assam. The civil society asked us to join the peaceful political process in 2011 and brought us out of jail. They told us that if we came out of jail and went back to the jungle to restart the battle with security forces, then they would not support us. Hence, we assured them that we would keep the interests of the people of Assam before us. We fulfilled that commitment on December 29.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ But there may be some criticism from within ULFA and outside accusing you of settling for an economic package and giving up the fight for sovereignty.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> Yes, people will ask us many questions and there will be analysis and criticism. It is the sign of a living and conscious society. The agreement cannot be implemented overnight and everybody needs to be patient and avoid any misunderstanding. Otherwise, it will all be in vain.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Different political parties have different views as many people lost their families during the struggle in Assam. ULFA cadres who went to the jungles to fight for sovereign, independent Assam will definitely feel the pain as our beloved organisation has to be dissolved. But we have to convince ourselves to prioritise peace, prosperity and development of Assam.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ Is Paresh Baruah in touch with you?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> No, but he is in touch with a few senior leaders. He is sticking to his demand for sovereignty and we have appealed to him to start a peaceful political solution process. In my opinion, if he joins the process, it will only strengthen our efforts for a lasting peace as he, too, is fighting for Assam. ULFA (Independent) is a separate organisation and it will take its own decision.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ What about China’s support to ULFA?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> I am the first ULFA leader who contacted the Chinese Communist Party in the mid-1980s. I spoke through an interpreter who was a lecturer at Yunnan University. I travelled by foot from Assam to China crossing rivers and mountains over several days. They talked about Mahatma Gandhi’s nonviolent struggle and expressed support only if we adopted peaceful political means. When we told them that we were armed revolutionaries, they did not support us, but directed us to the arms once given by the Chinese to the Burmese Communist Party. We picked up a few and formed networks and connections through individual links. But there was no “state” support from China.</p> Fri Jan 19 15:49:59 IST 2024 ulfa-general-secretary-anup-chetia-interview <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><i>Interview/ Anup Chetia, general secretary, ULFA</i></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>ON APRIL 7,</b> 1979, six people gathered at Rang Ghar—a historical monument built by the Ahom kings in Rangpur—and decided to take up arms to fight against the “foreign” influx threatening to devour the Assamese identity. The name United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) was coined at this meeting. It motivated a young Anup Chetia to get on a motorbike and travel across Assam to persuade young people to join ULFA. It grew quickly to become the deadliest insurgent group in Assam. The cycle of violence has been broken as ULFA leaders like Chetia have decided to disband the organisation. Speaking exclusively with THE WEEK, Chetia explains how he is trying to convince Paresh Baruah of ULFA (Independent), who is hiding in China, to honour the will of the people and join the peace process. Excerpts from the interview:</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ It is said that you went around with Paresh Baruah in the 1980s on a motorbike spreading awareness about ULFA’s goal.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> Those days Baruah was in Burma and I was in Assam most of the time. I purchased a red motorbike in 1985 and travelled across Assam to tell people about ULFA and motivated them to participate. I organised most of the cadres in this manner.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ What was the need for an armed movement?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/ </b>At that time, the Assam agitation was going on. The Indian government made blunders by not recognising that the problem of illegal migration from Bangladesh was not limited to Assam and could become a problem for the entire country. The All Assam Students’ Union and the All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad had begun a nonviolent struggle, but the government did not respect this democratic movement. Hence, we decided to go for an armed revolution. The people of Assam had lost faith in the government, which led them to support us.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ Can you tell us about your escape to Bangladesh?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> In 1991, most of our leaders were in jail. After Operation Rhino (an Army operation in 1991 against ULFA), the ULFA setup was disrupted as most of our boys fled Assam. Our communication network collapsed and our vice chairman and chairman were caught. I was in custody in Kolkata. After that, our chairman decided to go for discussions with the Hiteswar Saikia government. We came out of jail in the name of negotiations. But when we reached Delhi, the Intelligence Bureau and other security personnel put pressure on us to surrender all arms. They were not interested in solving our issues. That was when we realised that they were not thinking of a solution. So we left the peace process. A general council meeting was held in Tezpur and then in Nagaon where we unanimously decided to discontinue discussions, and to strengthen our organisation. From Nagaon, most leaders, including myself, left for Bangladesh. At that time, Baruah was in Bangladesh.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ How were you caught in Dhaka in 1997?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> Actually, I was in Europe. I went to Geneva to participate in the international human rights council meeting. At that time, the UN security personnel in Geneva wanted to arrest me. They even interrogated me and luckily at that time I was carrying a Bangladeshi passport. They asked me whether I was Anup Chetia, and I told them that I was not. I produced my Bangladeshi passport as proof and they could not arrest me. After that, I left Switzerland and lived in Europe for six months. From Paris, I returned to Dhaka in December 1997. I was caught in Dhaka as India got Interpol to issue a red corner notice against me.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ You spent 18 years at the Dhaka central jail, the maximum time spent by any northeast insurgent.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> I was in Dhaka central jail for 17 years and 11 months and one month in Guwahati jail. In all, I spent 18 years and three days in prison. The conditions in Dhaka jail were pathetic. Its official capacity was 2,840 prisoners, but at that time there were 14,000 prisoners. There was no place for sleeping and eating, and there were not enough washrooms. The British era jail code was in force. However, I was determined to work for the people of Assam, which kept my spirits alive. My family was in Bangladesh, but I avoided meeting them during my time in jail.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ What do you think of the Sheikh Hasina government and its approach towards ULFA?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> Bangladesh has no democracy and there is complete control by the government. Even the courts are controlled by the government. Sheikh Hasina has no sympathy or support for us. Baruah’s wife has been living in Bangladesh alone for many years now.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ What kind of support did you get from Pakistan?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/ </b>We got logistical support and training. I travelled to Pakistan twice in the 1990s. I went to Karachi and then to Rawalpindi onward to Peshawar and to the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. I have met some Afghan Mujahideen leaders, including Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. I met him over lunch. Later on, many ULFA leaders went to Pakistan for training. The military matters were looked after by Baruah and others.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ When and why did ULFA split?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> In 2011, ULFA split into two. Baruah was in Burma and we (the pro-talks faction) were in India. We decided to participate in the peace talks and Baruah split with us to form ULFA (Independent).</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ Are you in touch with Baruah and what message is he sending to ULFA in Assam?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> He called me on December 17, 2023, and told me that we could go ahead with the peace agreement. Whatever we get from the Central government would be good for the people of Assam. He expressed interest in talks and said he would go next. He said whatever benefits the people of Assam could not get from the government, they would work for it whether it is their constitutional rights or protecting their identity and culture.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ Why did it take so long to sign the peace agreement?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> It took so long because we changed our demands from sovereignty to peace talks in 2011. Once the discussions were held under the Indian Constitution, we demanded Scheduled Tribe status for six communities, but it did not succeed. Then we said there should be 88 per cent reservation for MP and MLA seats for the indigenous people which was not possible for the Government of India. The talks stopped for some time and after that we accepted the delimitation process.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ Why would Paresh Baurah give up the demand for sovereignty after carrying out an armed struggle for so long?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A/</b> Things are different today. When the ULFA armed movement started, people were very supportive and the situation compelled them to struggle. But right now, the situation is different and people do not want violence. They want peace and economic development.</p> Fri Jan 19 15:50:57 IST 2024