The Hindustan Times – How the BJP made the Northeast its own

The BJP is remarkably adaptable in the northeast and assumes a different avatar. The fact that it has expanded so rapidly in the most unlikely of regions is a remarkable political story of our times.

Prashant Jha

North-East India, 16 February 2018. On Sunday, Tripura votes. The Left, which has ruled for 25 years in a row, is vulnerable. The mere fact that the BJP is the challenger is an astounding achievement, given that the party forfeited its deposit in 49 of the 50 seats it contested in 2013.

Nagaland votes on February 27. The BJP has managed to change the complexion of the state’s unipolar polity. It is in alliance with former CM Neiphiu Rio’s newly formed party, challenging the dominant Naga People’s Front (NPF).

But here is the twist. The NPF remains in the NDA, and its leaders are still insisting that the BJP is an ally. The only certainty in Kohima’s complex politics is that the BJP will be in government post polls.

In Meghalaya, another Christian dominated state, the BJP itself knows it cannot hope to win 10 or 15 of the 60 seats. Yet, it is hopeful of power. Its NDA ally, the National People’s Party, is fighting elections separately.

But if the Congress gets anything less than a majority, the NPP and the BJP will stitch up a post-poll alliance. This is the Manipur model, even if you get fewer seats, get to power through alliances.

What explains the BJP’s surge?

One, Narendra Modi and Amit Shah’s relentless focus on political power, ambition, and deeply held belief that every election has to be taken seriously and fought to win. Politically, the BJP knows it will struggle to replicate its performance in the North, West and Central India in 2019, and needs to improve its performance in the east.

Ideologically, the Sangh has long worked in the northeast. By expanding here, the BJP believes it is strengthening ‘nationalist forces’ and ‘national integration’.

Second, the party’s northeast in-charge, Ram Madhav, brings to elections an astute and professional style of political management. He starts preparations early and commissions surveys to understand issues and vulnerabilities of incumbents.

Madhav has a team of younger campaign strategists who cut their teeth in the Assam elections, worked in Manipur, and have been stationed in Agartala, Shillong and Dimapur.

They help with political messaging, give independent feedback on ticket distribution and alliances, sharpen the party’s campaign advertising and social media strategy, all of which is subject to Madhav’s approval.

Madhav is also quick in his decision making, and has built relationships with other local political leaders which makes alliances possible.

Three, to offset its weak organisation, the BJP has co-opted leaders from outside. The most successful example of this strategy is Himanta Biswa Sarma, whose entry arguably changed the course of the Assam election. And Assam then paved the way for BJP’s further expansion. Sarma is BJP’s most precious post-2014 find.

He can raise resources. He knows leaders from his Congress years in each state. He is a patient negotiator and a formidable organiser. This strategy was replicated in Manipur where CM N Biren Singh is formerly of the Congress and in Tripura where the initial corpus of leaders and a bulk of the cadre came from Congress.

Four, being in power at the centre is a huge asset. It helps the BJP make key governance promises. It gives the party additional resources, and allows it to unleash a campaign blitz with top ministers.

It gives the political leadership access to intelligence and security agencies, which play a key role in the region. It also makes it an attractive political option for local elites and voters who believe that they will be able to extract more resources from a friendly central government.

Five, the BJP is the challenger in all these states. It does not have to bear the baggage of the Union Government’s past sins of neglect and oppression, associated with the Congress, and the abysmal development record of many of the regional parties.

This allows it to carve out a message as a political insurgent, out to break with the past, promising ‘vikas’ and modernity.

And finally, the BJP is remarkably adaptable in the northeast and assumes a different avatar. It gives tickets to Christian candidates. It gives up the agenda of beef ban. It raises the issue of civil liberties and campaign against extra judicial executions.

It brings together warring Meitei and Naga leaders under the same government in Manipur; it stitches together a disparate coalition of Bengalis and tribals in Tripura.

Whether the BJP gets to power in all three states or is able to sustain its rise are open questions. But the fact that it has expanded so rapidly in the most unlikely of regions is a remarkable political story of our times.


The Hindustan Times – Amarinder Singh lauds Canadian minister Sajjan’s statements against Khalistanis

Amarinder Singh said the clarification by Sajjan has paved the way for better relations with Canada, which is home to a large Sikh population.

Chandigarh-Panjab-India, 08 February 2018. Punjab chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh lauded Canadian defence minister Harjit Sajjan for clarifying his stance on Khalistan, and congratulated Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for creating the necessary environment against secessionist forces believed to be operating from his country.

The Canadian Press on Wednesday carried a statement by Sajjan and his fellow Sikh minister Amarjit Sohi, saying they “neither sympathise with nor espouse the Sikh nationalist movement, which is bent on creating a separate country called Khalistan in India’s Punjab region”.

Amarinder said this statement demonstrated that the Canadian Prime Minister had clearly sent out a strong signal within his party and the government that he would not allow his country’s soil to be used for any ‘anti-India’ activities.

In a statement here on Thursday, the CM said the clarification by Sajjan that he does not sympathise with the (Khalistani) cause, has paved the way for better relations with Canada, which is home to a large Sikh population.

Amarinder Singh, who had refused to meet Harjit Sajjan during his visit to Punjab in April last year, said he was looking forward to meeting Trudeau during his visit to Punjab later this month.

He said this visit will give Canada and Punjab the opportunity to forge mutually beneficial business and trade ties.

Amarinder said no nation should foster divisive forces that propagate terrorism.

“Such activities pose a serious threat to global peace and, therefore, should not be allowed to flourish in any part of the world. Nurturing or supporting separatist forces always proves detrimental, in the long run, not only to countries against which they are unleashed but also to those which allow such elements to operate from their soil,” he added.

Canada, said Amarinder, had always been a friend of India, especially Punjab, whose people had contributed significantly to the Western nation’s progress and development.

The Hindustan Times – Rajasthan by-elections loss should worry BJP, Vasundhara Raje as state election nears

A sweep of this nature signals that the public sentiment is turning and the Congress party machine is doing something right, writes Prashant Jha.

Prashant Jha

Jaipur-Rajastan-India, 2 February 2018. It takes special skills for an incumbent to lose a by-election. This is especially true when you are in power in both the state and the Centre, and voters know that electing an opposition candidate will neither change the government nor help in “getting work done”.

Yet, the voters of Ajmer and Alwar have elected Congress candidates in the Lok Sabha bypolls by wide margins. And the voters of Mandalgarh have elected a Congress legislator for the state assembly. All three seats were held by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) earlier.

This is a warning signal for the BJP at the Centre, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and party president Amit Shah, and a stinging rebuke to the BJP in the state, led by chief minister Vasundhara Raje. It comes as a shot in the arm for the Congress in general, and Rajasthan Congress chief Sachin Pilot in particular.

The outcome will have implications for the morale and internal power equations in both parties. It will set the tone for the Rajasthan state assembly elections at the end of the year. It even offers some signs for the 2019 general elections.

State craft

The fact that Raje personally campaigned in the bypolls, spending weeks on the trot in the constituencies, means she cannot escape responsibility for the defeat. The scale of the losses shows that there was almost a wave against her government.

This is significant because Raje is already vulnerable. Many in the RSS and the BJP have felt that she is unpopular and have sought a change.

She has also traditionally had a somewhat difficult relationship with the party leadership in Delhi. But Raje did lead the BJP to victory in the last assembly elections. She has a strong base within the party in the state.

And there has been a degree of rapprochement with the Prime Minister. The BJP was aware that having her at the helm may not be a guarantee of victory, but removing her could lead to certain loss if she rebelled. This has helped her survive.

The bypolls, however, will strengthen those voices within the party that seek a change in leadership. It will put her on the defensive as campaigning begins for the state polls, and it also dampens the morale of the party ranks in general.

On the opposite end, the victory comes as a big morale boost for the Congress. The party is starved of electoral wins and a sweep of this nature signals that the public sentiment is turning and the party machine is doing something right.

The Congress picked candidates smartly and did micro caste-management well. In Ajmer, it was a senior Brahmin leader who ate into the BJP’s core vote. In contrast, the BJP put up a rookie candidate, the son of the deceased MP, in the hope of winning sympathy votes.

In Alwar, it was a veteran Yadav leader, a former MP, who competed with BJP’s Yadav candidate, thus splitting the community.

The margins indicate that Congress was able to win votes across different sections of society and resonate the larger narrative of Raje’s failures.

In Alwar, where the BJP had stepped up the communal rhetoric in a bid to polarise the electorate, the Congress was careful in not getting into the ‘Hindu-Muslim trap’ and keeping the focus on development.

Leadership mattered too. Pilot, as the Congress’s Rajasthan party chief, has worked hard on the ground over the past four years, creating and capitalising on the resentment against the Raje government.

When he did not contest in Ajmer, his old constituency, there was speculation that Pilot was scared. But he campaigned hard across all three seats, and told the electorate it was “his election”.

Like the BJP, there is internal factionalism in Congress too, with Ashok Gehlot harbouring ambitions of becoming the CM again. This verdict will strengthen Pilot’s hands.

The stage, therefore, is set for the state polls this year, with the BJP on the defensive and Raje’s leadership under question on one hand, and the momentum and morale with the Congress on the other.

National message

It would, however, be a mistake to confine the impact of the Rajasthan verdict to only the state, given that both Ajmer and Alwar were Lok Sabha polls. It should worry the BJP because this is an early sign that repeating its sweep of north and west India may not be possible. In 2014, the party got 25 out of 25 seats in Rajasthan.

If the current trends hold, Modi and Shah will have to prepare for a dip in those numbers.

Finally, the result comes as a much-needed gift to new Congress president Rahul Gandhi. He led a good campaign in Gujarat, where the victor seemed like the vanquished and the vanquished had a sense of jubilation. But it was a loss, and in politics only victory matters. This is a victory.

The Rajasthan outcome shows to the Congress leadership that by backing a young and strong state leader, focusing on the failures of the government, smartly picking candidates, astutely managing caste, and avoiding the ‘communal trap’, it could potentially win back key states going to polls this year. Indian politics has opened up.

The Hindustan Times – Doklam is part of China, learn lessons from standoff: PLA to India

Troops from India and China were locked in a 73-day standoff in Doklam during June-August last year after Indian forces stopped the construction of a road by the Chinese Army in the disputed area.

Sutirtho Patranobis

Beijing-China, 26 January 2018. The Chinese military on Thursday criticised the Indian Army chief’s remarks referring to Doklam as disputed territory and warned India to learn “lessons” from last year’s standoff near the Sikkim border so that similar incidents do not occur in future.

In its first response to General Bipin Rawat’s remarks on the standoff, the People’s Liberation Army contended Doklam or Donglang is part of China. The PLA also said Rawat’s comments showed Indian troops had illegally crossed into Donglang.

The 73-day standoff had pitted border troops from the two countries against each other from June to August-end. It ended when both sides agreed to pull back their forces from the area that is under Chinese control but claimed by Bhutan.

“I have noticed many of the Indian journalists’ remarks (on Rawat’s comments). Donglang is part of China and the remarks of the Indian side also shows the illegal border crossing of the Indian troops is clear in fact and nature,” Senior Colonel Wu Qian, a spokesperson for the PLA and the defence ministry, told a conference.

“We hope the Indian side will draw lessons from the incident to avoid similar incidents (being) repeated in the future,” he said.

The PLA reacted to Rawat’s comments earlier this month while responding to a question from the Chinese media.

“The PLA of China has occupied the area in the west of Torsa nullah called northern Doklam. At the actual spot, the two sides have disengaged. The tents remain. The observation posts remain. This is a territory disputed between Bhutan and China,” Rawat had said on January 12 on the eve of Army Day.

“The issue was that we had actually stepped into territory that wasn’t ours. And when you step into a territory which is not yours, the ministry of external affairs comes in. It is not that you have stepped into your territory, but into territory which either belonged to China or to Bhutan. It didn’t belong to us,” he had said.

Rawat had suggested India needs to shift focus from its border with Pakistan to the Chinese frontier. He also suggested that India needs to take along its other neighbours.

The PLA spokesperson referred to this remark and said: “Apart from this, I also want to emphasise that countries should be treated regardless of (their) size. The concept of the sphere of influence is a demonstration of the Cold War mentality which the Chinese side is always opposed to.”

Earlier, the foreign ministry had criticised Rawat’s remarks, describing them as “unconstructive”.

“Last year, India-China relations have witnessed some twists and turns,” foreign ministry spokesperson Lu Kang said. “The dialogue and consultation (between the leaders of the two countries) have shown sound momentum of improvement and development.

“Under such background, the unconstructive remarks by the Indian senior official not only go against the consensus reached by the two heads of state but also do not conform to the efforts made by the two sides to improve and develop bilateral relations,” Lu said, adding the remarks cannot help to preserve tranquillity and peace at the border.

The Hindustan Times – Amritsar boy who saved 15 kids to get National Bravery Award

The teen, who was also in the bus and injured, showed great courage and helped other children to come out of the water-filled bus.

HT Correspondent

Amritsar-Panjab-India, 18 January 2018. Seventeen-year-old Karanbeer Singh from Amritsar, who rescued 15 children from a school bus that had plunged into a drain, will be among the 18 children to receive the National Bravery Awards this year.

Singh, who was also in the bus and injured, showed great courage and helped other children to come out of the water-filled bus.

“He (driver) was driving rashly. I had warned him about the narrow bridge ahead that doesn’t have railings but he didn’t listen. Suddenly the front tyres were in the air and we landed in the drain,” said Karanbir.

He added that doors were jammed and he had to smash a window glass to come out and rescue the students.

A rashly driven school-van had fallen into a drain from a bridge at Muhawa village, 35 km from Amritsar, killing seven children on 20 September 2016. The van was taking students back home from DAV Public School, Neshta, when the accident took place five km from the school.

The awards, divided into five categories, Bharat Award, Geeta Chopra Award, Sanjay Chopra Award, Bapu Gaidhani Award, and General National Bravery Awards, will be given away by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on January 24. Karanbeer will receive the Sanjay Chopra award.

President Ramnath Kovind will host a reception for the awardees, seven girls and 11 boys, who will also be participating in the Republic Day parade on January 26.

18-year-old Nazia from Uttar Pradesh, who helped local police capture perpetrators of an illegal business of gambling and betting will be given the most coveted Bharat Award.

The Hindustan Times – Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir is temporary: RSS leader Indresh Kumar

Terrorist activities have reduced in Jammu and Kashmir due to the government’s policies and efforts to bring youths to the mainstream are yielding positive results, said RSS leader Indresh Kumar.

Jaipur-Rajastan-India, 11 January 2018. The status of article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir is “temporary”, RSS leader Indresh Kumar said on Thursday as he stressed that the occupation of Indian land by China and Pakistan was unconstitutional.

India was suffering from Pakistan-sponsored terrorism and secessionism and over 66,000 people had lost their lives since 1972 due to this, he said.

According to a statement issued here, the senior RSS leader said that article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir was “temporary”. He was in the city today to attend the Yuva Sansad 2018.

“Terrorist activities have reduced due to the policies of government and separatist leaders are in jails. Efforts to bring youths in Jammu and Kashmir to the mainstream are yielding positive results,” he claimed.

On the Ram temple in Ayodhya issue, he said that even Muslims did not want a mosque to be built at the site as there are rules for construction of mosques.

The RSS leader, who has often made controversial remarks in the past, claimed the occupation of land by Shias and Sunnis was immoral.

Muslims in Ayodhya concede that occupying the land was a mistake by their ancestors and there was no need to have a mosque in the name of Babar, the statement said.

Kumar claimed that China had to bow down to India under diplomatic pressure on the Doklam issue. He said that war with China was not a solution to the problem.

He also said that the occupation by China and Pakistan of Indian territory was unconstitutional.

The Hindustan Times – India’s polity suffers from a strong caste bias

The OBC representation in Parliament has declined in the past decade to pre-Mandal levels of around 20% even as upper caste numbers have sharply risen to 44%.

Rajdeep Sardesai

Op/Ed, 5 January 2018. Caste narratives expose inner fault lines in our hierarchical society and can easily spark off controversy. Last week, when Jai Ram Thakur was selected as the BJP’s Himachal Pradesh chief ministerial candidate, I tweeted about how nine of the 11 BJP chief ministers (excluding the north-east) now belong to upper castes.

Predictably, the tweet raised an avalanche of protest. Since 280 characters on Twitter aren’t enough to make a nuanced argument on the divisive issue of caste, I deleted the tweet.

Thakur, a five-time MLA and the son of a mason and a farmer may be a deserving choice, but is also a beneficiary of Himachal’s ‘Thakur-waad’ dominance with nearly half the ruling party MLAs belonging to the community.

Indeed, my central argument is unshaken: Seventy years after independence, despite the push for a more ‘inclusive’ politics, we remain an upper caste-led polity.

When Narendra Modi became the country’s prime minister, it was seen as a watershed moment, one that would genuinely effect a change in the power pyramid. Until then, the highest executive post in the country was controlled by upper castes (the one exception was Deve Gowda, a Vokkaliga from Karnataka, whose brief tenure must be seen as an aberration).

Modi skillfully played up his OBC credentials during the 2014 campaign, especially in the caste cauldron of north India. Mani Shankar Aiyar’s sneeringly snobbish ‘chaiwallah’ comment only gave Modi the space to affirm his credentials as someone who had risen from a low-caste, low-income background to challenge the Brahminical elite.

Three years later, that elite is still very much in power. Just take a look at the senior ministers in the Union cabinet: the all-powerful Cabinet Committee on Security, for example, is monopolised by Brahmins and Thakurs. The senior bureaucracy is also dominated by the upper castes.

The Opposition is led by a Janeu-Dhari Hindu, as we were firmly reminded by the Congress during the Gujarat campaign. Yes, the President of India is a Dalit, but his tenure in Rashtrapati Bhavan is unlikely to lead to greater Dalit empowerment, just as a Pratibha Patil’s nomination hardly promoted women’s emancipation.

Truth is, the ‘Bahujan-isation’ of Indian politics has been an experiment fraught with risk. The rise of the Dravida parties in south India and the Dalit-Bahujan assertion in Maharashtra was preceded by a reformist social revolution that ensured a relatively smooth transition of political power.

By contrast, the Mandal revolution of the late 1980s in north India led to greater Dalit-OBC representation in electoral politics but also witnessed a fierce upper caste backlash.

Statistics now show that OBC representation in parliament has declined in the past decade to pre-Mandal levels of around 20% even as upper caste numbers have sharply risen to 44%.

The manner in which the BJP’s Hindutva wave swept aside narrow caste-based loyalties of the Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party in Uttar Pradesh in 2017 could be a pointer to the future. Even after courting non-Yadav OBCs and non-Dalit Jatavs during the elections, the BJP chose a saffron-robed upper caste Thakur as its Hindutva mascot to lead the government.

With the Yadav ‘parivar’ of UP and Bihar along with the BSP’s Mayawati typecast as a corrupt, self-aggrandising, family raj leadership, the BJP has tried to co-opt the disenchanted Mandal foot-soldiers, many of them from smaller, poorer communities, within a broader Hindu religious umbrella.

The Congress too, is attempting to build a rival ‘rainbow’ coalition by aligning with a new generation of aggressive and articulate Dalit-Bahujan leaders like Jignesh Mevani while also embracing a Hardik Patel.

Neither the co-option nor the alignment may be smooth in every instance with dominant caste interests often clashing with the rest. The troubling events in Maharashtra this week where there was an attack on Dalits who were marking the 200th anniversary celebrations of a battle in which a British contingent comprising a sizeable number of Mahars (a Dalit sub caste) defeated the Peshwas reflects how old animosities are finding new expressions.

Amid growing rural distress and economic inequities, influential agrarian caste protest movements have also surfaced amongst the Patidars in Gujarat, Marathas in Maharashtra and the Jats in Haryana, each pushing for a share in the reservation pie.

Accommodating these powerful groups without alienating sizeable Dalit-Bahujan interests is now a big challenge for any major political force, one that could shape the future of post-Mandal politics.

Post-script: To those turned off by caste arithmetic in politics, how about a review of the matrimonial columns in newspapers that so glaringly mirror social prejudice? As for us journalists, we too maybe need to look within and ask the inconvenient question: how many Dalit, OBC, Adivasi editors do we have in Indian newsrooms?

Rajdeep Sardesai is a senior journalist and author

The views expressed are personal

The Hindustan Times – Pakistan authorities humiliated us like they did Jadhav’s family: Sarabjit Singh’s sister

Dalbir Kaur said their ordeal was similar to what Kulbhushan Jadhav’s family endured in Islamabad recently

Chandigarh-Panjab-India, 28 December 2017. The family members of Sarabjit Singh were humiliated when they went to meet him with Pakistani authorities even wiping off the ‘sindoor’ from his wife’s forehead, his sister Dalbir Kaur said on Thursday amid outrage over the treatment meted out to Kulbhushan Jadhav’s mother and wife.

Dalbir Kaur said that Singh’s family had gone to meet him in a Lahore jail in 2008.

“We had no clue of the shocking things that were to unfold before our meeting with Sarabjit,” Dalbir Kaur, who hails from Amritsar district, told PTI over the phone.

Singh’s wife Sukhpreet Kaur, his teenaged daughters Swapandeep and Poonam, besides Dalbir Kaur went to Lahore to meet the Indian national for the first time in 18 years.

The ordeal was similar to what Jadhav’s family endured in Islamabad recently, according to Dalbir Kaur.

Jadhav’s mother and wife were stripped of their bindis, bangles and ‘mangalsutra’, made to change into different clothes and wear slippers by discarding their shoes.

“Even before the meeting was to take place, the behaviour of Pakistani authorities was bad. A female cop took out a handkerchief and wiped out the ‘sindoor’ from Sukhpreet’s forehead. Both Sukhpreet and I were asked to take out hair pins as well.

Sarabjit’s teenaged daughters were also mistreated, and authorities were rude even after I raised objections. We were even asked to take out our ‘kadas’ (bracelets),” Dalbir Kaur said.

She recalled that as Singh loved “bharwan karela”, a bitter gourd dish, the family cooked it at their home in Amritsar and brought it for him.

“However, again the Pakistan authorities were rude. They opened the container and forcibly stuffed it into our mouths asking us to taste it first,” she said.

That was not the end of the ordeal, she said.

“Before proceeding to meet Sarabjit in jail, a manager at a Lahore Gurudwara asked us to keep our passports there.

When we were to leave after the meeting, we were told to show our passports. When reminded that we had been asked to deposit these at the Gurudwara, the Pakistan authorities delayed our departure telling us that the documents were not traceable,” she said.

Dalbir Kaur said that in 2011 too she met Singh in jail.

“I was the only one to be granted a visa. But this time too their treatment was no different. They took my ‘kirpan’ forcibly and when I asked them to at least keep it safely, they flung it in some corner showing disrespect which deeply hurt my religious sentiments,” she said.

“When I met Sarabjit, he cried a lot, asking me to help prove his innocence,” she recalled.

The Hindustan Times – Fireworks expected in Parliament as BJP to rake up 1984 Sikh riots to counter Congress

Any debate on the 1984 Sikh riots and Golden temple issues is bound to push the Congress in a defensive corner

Saubhadra Chatterji

New Delhi, 22 December 2017. The BJP wants to revive the sensitive issue of deploying army in Golden Temple and the 1984 riots in Rajya Sabha on Friday as an upbeat Congress is demanding Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s clarification on his statement during Gujarat assembly elections.

BJP MP Subramanian Swamy wants to move a resolution to express regret on the deployment of army by the then Indira Gandhi government in Golden Temple 1984. He also wants speedy action against all culprits of 1984 Sikh riots, which he said, “continues to shock the conscience of the patriotic citizens of India”.

His resolution says, “This House, to further the process of healing the long standing hurt feelings and sentiments, resolves that the deployment of the military in the Golden Temple at Amritsar on June 6, 1984 in retrospect, is deeply regrettable, and the targeted mass killing of Sikhs on November 1-3, 1984 continues to shock the conscience of the patriotic citizens of India and further calls upon the Union and State Governments to declassify all the records relating to these two tragic events of 1984 and take speedy action according to Article 21 of the Constitution, to bring to book under the criminal law all those found guilty in the mass killing of Sikhs in November, 1984.”

Any debate on these two issues is bound to push the Congress in a defensive corner.

While the government has listed three bills for passage in the Upper House, The Indian Institute of Petroleum and Energy Bill, The State Banks (Repeal and Amendment) Bill and The National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (Amendment) Bill, it has listed the GST amendment bill in the Lower House.

The government also wants to push The Specific Relief (Amendment) Bill to further improve ease of doing business.

The National Capital Territory of Delhi Laws (Special Provisions) Second (Amendment) Bill and The Public Premises (Eviction of Unauthorised Occupants) Amendment Bill has also been slated for passing.

The Hindustan Times – Meet Chandigarh’s langar baba, who has been feeding the poor for decades

The man lost his childhood to the Partition, but worked hard to build a business worth crores so that he can give back to society. He has been feeding the underprivileged in Chandigarh for over three decades.

Tanbir Dhaliwal

Chandigarh-Panjab-India, 15 December 2017. “Don’t ask me about my childhood. I won’t be able to narrate that time,” said 83-year-old Jagdish Lal Ahuja, in a voice choked with emotion.

In 1947, a 12-year-old boy born in Peshawar, Pakistan, came over to this side during the Partition. The event not only took away his birthplace from him, but his childhood too.

It is this lost childhood that Ahuja, popularly known as PGI’s ‘langar baba’, is searching among hundreds of poor kids whom he feeds daily. Over three decades have passed since he started organising langars across Chandigarh in 1981.

In 2001, he started a daily langar outside Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research (PGIMER). He has been at it without a break.

Sold property worth crores

In 2015, he sold his seventh property worth Rs 1.6 crore to arrange money for his noble initiative. Ahuja has sold six other such properties worth crores to ensure that the poor do not go to bed on an empty stomach.

Sitting on an easy chair, strategically placed near the heater, he said, “ Puttar, we will share a cold drink and have tea too. Don’t say no.” He offered a chair next to him and took out a brand new tablet from his table and handed it over.

“It has recordings of all the work I have done. My daughter gave it to me a while back, but I find it hard to operate,” he said, struggling with the gadget. Ahuja has a wife, a daughter and two sons. The kids have their own business and are well settled.

The tablet had six to seven videos, showing a man in his 70s, serving langar, handing out woollens, biscuits and fruits at various colonies such as Maloya, Sector 24, Industrial Area, an old age home Snehalaya, outside PGIMER, Government Medical College and Hospital (GMCH), Sector 32, and other places.

Hard Times

“Now, tell me what you want to know?” asked Ahuja in an authoritative tone. However, questions about his childhood left him distressed.

He started after a long pause. “I was 12 when I left Peshawar. We arrived at the Patiala base camp from where we were sent to camps in Amritsar. I stayed there for some months and shifted back to Patiala,” he said.

Ahuja was the only breadwinner of the family as his father did not work and his mother was a homemaker. “Everyday, I walked three miles barefoot to buy namkeen dal for Rs 1 and sold it for Rs 1 and 2 aane at stations. I made two such rounds daily and earned Rs 2 and 2 aane.

By the time I got home, my feet and hand would be full of blisters, but I still had to earn or else I would go hungry for days,” he said, his voice choking up.

He never went to school in Peshawar even though he could afford to do so. He said, “My father beat me up if I studied and teachers beat me up in school because I would not have done my homework. So, yes, I could not study; my childhood was horrifying.”

From selling namkeen dal at the stations in Amritsar to selling toffees, jaggery, and fruits on the streets of Patiala, Ahuja continued working and fought hard when faced with hardships.

Now that baba is growing old and is fighting cancer, he only comes for a visit towards the end of the langar. That is when he distributes balloons, toffees and snacks to children.

Starting from scratch

At 21, he moved to Chandigarh after a fight with his family. Here, he started buying and selling fruits. His journey in the new city that started from the purchase of a cart of oranges for Rs 15 turned into an enterprise worth crores.

He bought his first property, a house in Sector 22, in 1965-66 for Rs 4,000. He recently sold this property to fund the langar. Since he had a business of selling bananas, he was often known as the “banana king”. Soon, he was became popular as ‘langar wale baba’.

Talking about how he began this initiative, Ahuja said, “It was my son’s eighth birthday and I wanted to celebrate it by giving to the society. So, I decided to organise a langar for children.”

“We cooked food for 150 children and served it in the market in Sector 26. The moment I saw the joy on the faces of the children, it reminded me of my childhood. I then announced that this langar will be held daily,” he added.

Years of service

He said, “It was on Guru Gobind Singh’s birthday that I wanted to distribute halwa and was wondering which place I should choose to set up. I was passing through PGIMER and saw a boy serving rice to the poor; that’s where I got the idea.”

Since then, baba’s langar is part of a routine at PGIMER. Between 6pm and 6.30pm, a black van stops outside gate number 2 of PGIMER and a stall is set up. In no time, people queue up for food. The langar outside GMCH-32 is organised in the afternoon.

“Not a single day has passed in the last 17 years that this langar was not organised outside PGIMER. We serve dal, chapatti, rice, halwa and banana. Apart from this, we also serve biscuits to cancer patients and kurkure, toffees, lollipops with whistles and balloons to children,” said Ahuja.

No favours from others

However, these days, shortage of money has made it difficult to run the langar but that has not stopped him. Asking for financial help from others to run the langar is against Ahuja’s principles. Instead, he has chosen to cut down the supply.

“Earlier, I made this langar for over 2,000 people daily; now it’s for 500. I have reduced the quantity after 2015,” he added.

The number of vegetable drums has reduced from 17 to seven, the carts of chapattis have reduced from six to three and only two boxes of bananas are distributed instead of six.

His motivation comes from those he feeds daily. He said, “Main apna bachpan dekhda haan, inna ch (I see my childhood in them).”

Now that baba is growing old and is fighting cancer, he only comes for a visit towards the end of the langar. That is when he distributes balloons, toffees and snacks to children.

“I have never sought a favour from anyone, but can only expect some help from the government. Kindly convey my message to the governor that I might need his help in continuing the langar in the near future,” said Ahuja.