Friday, September 18, 2009

Jayakrishna Goit, the underground leader of the Akhil Terai Mukti Morcha, talks about his demand for an independent sovereign state in the Terai region of Nepal. Photo by Subhash Sharma

The Explosive Plains of Nepal

By Anuj Chopra

TERAI PLAINS, NEPAL -- At first glance, Jaikrishna Goit defies every image of an armed militant. A lean, bespectacled sexagenarian, clad in a handspun cotton kurta, he proffers quotes from history books to articulate his argument – that his native Terai, a low-lying stretch of alluvial plains in southern Nepal, has the right to secede and form an independent state.
“Our land was annexed by colonial powers and then ceded to Nepal’s Pahadi rulers in the 19th century through different treaties. But with the 1950 Indo-Nepal accord, all previous treaties stood abrogated. Nepal’s rule over Terai is illegal,” Mr Goit said in an interview at an ashram in a dusty Indian village near the border with Nepal. “We want – and deserve – liberation.”
For many Nepalis, Mr Goit is a terrorist, responsible for the deaths of innocent civilians and and willing to engage in criminality to achieve his separatist goals. When asked about his group’s methods, he paused to consider his response.
“Gandhi, too, advocated the use of arms for independence,” he said, before digging into his bag to pull out a magazine carrying an Indian government advertisement that had a quote from Gandhi. “Gandhi once said,” he began, quoting from the ad, “I would rather have people resort to arms in order to defend her honour than that she should in a cowardly manner remain a hopeless witness to their own dishonour”.
“We, Madhesis, aren’t cowards,” he added.
Once a top Maoist leader, Mr Goit is now high on the Nepali government’s most-wanted list. He leads the Akhil Terai Mukti Morcha (ATMM), an underground militant group fighting for a separate homeland for ethnic Madhesis, who make up one-third of Nepal’s population. He sidled out of hiding in Nepal through the porous Indo-Nepal border for this interview. ...
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Anand Kumar flanked by his bodyguards. Photo by Subhash Sharma

India's School For The Poor But Gifted

By Anuj Chopra

PATNA, INDIA -- On a recent evening, a gaggle of students huddled together on wobbly wooden benches in a spartan classroom under a tin-shed, celebrating their new-found achievement with milk cakes. “If I hadn’t made it,” remarked 17-year-old Vishwaraj Anand, one the students, “I would have to toil all my life in my father’s paddy farm. Now I’m a step closer to going to Nasa to study about the worlds beyond.” Their teacher, a short, slightly stout, man called Anand Kumar, stood before the dusty blackboard, wearing a beaming smile. These students recently passed an undergraduate entrance test. But not just any ordinary test.
For a whole year, they slogged with a singular obsession of gaining admission to the Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT), a string of 15 top-notch engineering colleges – the Indian equivalent of Ivy League schools – which, since India’s independence, have created some of the world’s brightest tech wizards and engineering geniuses.
IITs are notoriously selective in their admission procedure. About 384,977 students took their Joint Entrance Test (IIT-JEE) this year, hankering after 8,295 seats, indicating an admission rate of around two per cent, the most competitive in the world. (That at Princeton, Yale, and Harvard hovers around nine per cent). Only 10,035 cracked the test this year. Thirty of them sat in this ramshackle classroom.
Ronsomo Langthasa, one of the victims of ethnic violence, in front of her burnt house in Assam's Jorai village. Photo by Sanjit Das

Victims of Burning Ethnic Tensions

By Anuj Chopra

NORTH CACHAR HILLS, INDIA -- The gunmen, nearly a dozen of them, some in black commando fatigues and bandannas, others in ordinary clothes, came in the early hours of the morning. While the villagers were still sleeping, they opened fire. Those who were able to, ran, taking only their children. But the gunmen chased them down and then torched their homes. Pabitra Lankhasa, 50, remembers shouting over the din of confusion to his wife and children, telling them to run for their lives as their village was set ablaze behind them. Days later, the family returned, to find a blackened divot where their house once stood. Everything they owned was destroyed. After the early May attack, a clutch of policemen armed with indigenously-made assault rifles nervously guard Jorai village, in India’s state of Assam, hunkering behind a sandbag outpost and a makeshift watchtower in a jackfruit tree. “Why did they target us?” said Mr Lankhasa, wearing only a lungyi. “I have no clue. All I can say with certainty is that they were Zeme Naga assailants thirsty for Dimasa blood.” ...

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Cadres of the ceasefire militant group, Dima Halam Daogan (DHD), at a weapons training drill in their designated camp in Assam's North Cachar Hills. Photo by Sanjit Das

Taking The Battle To Enemy Within

By Anuj Chopra

NORTH CACHAR HILLS, INDIA -- After hours of being out of mobile phone range, the bell finally rang. “Commander Daniel here,” said a scratchy voice on the other end, probably somewhere in the remote jungles of Assam’s North Cachar Hills. “What do you want?”

The signal was weak. His coarse voice was breaking. It sounded as though Commander Daniel was on the move. He declined a face-to-face interview – “Too risky, we are being hounded” – but he had a terse message for the Indian government.

“Tell them,” he said, “if they think they can crush us just because they’ve got our chairman, they are wrong. Our movement will not stop.”

One of the most wanted fugitives in the region, Commander Daniel – Daniel Dimasa – escaped with two other rebels in a jailbreak in December after eight months behind bars. He is one of the top commanders of the Dima Halam Daogah (Jewel), also called Black Widow, the most lethal insurgent group in the region, active since 2003. It is fighting for a separate state within India for the Dimasas, the largest tribal group in this hill district. ...

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Friday, August 14, 2009

"Commander" Sampat Pal of the Gulabi Gang teaches women how to wield a bamboo baton. Photo by Sanjit Das

India's Pink Gang Are Vigilantes

By Anuj Chopra

BANDA DISTRICT, INDIA --On a hot afternoon, a throng of two dozen women clad in candy-pink saris gathered beneath the cool shade of a gnarled banyan tree. They listened with rapt attention as a sinewy but robust woman they called "commander" delivered a military-type briefing. "To face down men in this part of the world, you have to use force," she said. "We function in a man's world where men make all the rules. Our fight is against injustice."
The "commander" is Sampat Pal, the 47-year-old leader of thousands of female vigilantes known as the Gulabi (Pink) Gang. Since its inception three years ago in a lawless area of the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, women from some 600 villages have joined the group, wielding heavy clubs and and traditional bamboo batons, called lathis, used by police for crowd control to "convince" wife beaters, rapists and corrupt bureaucrats to change their ways. ...

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Bangladesh's Bedes, known as river gypsies, live in tarpaulin tents after the monsoons. Photo by Sanjit Das


By Anuj Chopra

LAUHAJANG, BANGLADESH --Each monsoon season, swelling rivers send the nomadic Bedes, or "river gypsies," drifting once again across Bangladesh waterways. When the monsoons end, the Bedes return to land to live in tarpaulin tents or bamboo huts in places like Lauhajang, a village of 150 families 44 miles from the capital, Dhaka. The village is part of a government program to end the 800,000-member community's nomadic ways, educate their children and convince them to become part of mainstream society. In December, the Bedes were given the right to vote for the first time in national elections. "For all these years, we were living as refugees in our own country," said Saud Khan, 51, a Lauhajang resident. "For the first time, we feel like we have become citizens of Bangladesh." ...

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Saturday, May 23, 2009


By Anuj Chopra

NAYPYIDAW, BURMA -- When widespread protests erupted in 2007 on the streets of Rangoon, Burma's longtime capital, the ruling military generals hunkered down from the enraged crowds in their newest sanctuary, a remote administrative capital 400 kilometres to the north. Naypyidaw is an impregnable – or at least unreachable – command post, boasting Stalinist-style buildings, luxury homes, wide paved boulevards, and 24-hour-a-day electricity that is a world away from the blackouts and daily hardships faced by Burma's poor. The name translates into English as, Seat of Kings, and is teeming with an army of 80,000 bedraggled-looking construction workers, which human rights groups claim include forced labour programs. Hacked out of a malarial jungle starting in 2005, this 10-square-kilometre inland fortress – off limits to foreigners – is being built as the military's nerve centre, far from prying eyes ...

By Anuj chopra
When the deeply-rutted village tracks morphed into wide, paved, six-lane roads, I knew I was nearing Burma's new jungle capital. A long and bumpy overnight bus ride, traversing 250 miles from Rangoon, has brought me to Naypyidaw – the country's administrative capital since 2005, and a secluded, secretive sanctuary for Burma's military generals. In Rangoon, two private bus services refused to sell me a ticket, fearing retribution from the military junta for ferrying a foreigner to the generals' nerve center. One owner of a rickety bus agreed to take me after I offered to pay double – with the caveat that he'd offload me the minute he sensed trouble with military authorities. Fortunately, it was a smooth ride (but for the rutted roads) and I was dropped at the hotel zone. I asked for a room at the Myat Taw Win hotel, one of many plush hotels, nervous I might be turned away. The receptionist gave me a cold stare, noted down my passport details in a mammoth register, and for $60 a night, offered me the key to a luxurious, self-contained villa with foreign cable TV and air conditioning. After some arguing, the hotel agreed to rent me a $3-an-hour motorbike with a driver, for a quick tour of Naypyidaw. "No pictures," I was warned. Two men caught taking pictures a few months ago are now serving time in the notorious Insein prison in Rangoon, I was reminded. ...

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Where Jailbirds Run On Their Records -- And Win

By Anuj Chopra

GHAZIPUR, INDIA -- For the past three years, a federal prison in the badlands of northern India has been the next best thing to freedom for Mukhtar Ansari. A tall, mustached member of the Uttar Pradesh state legislature, he's awaiting trial for more than two dozen alleged crimes, including murder. But Ansari has remained steadily in touch with his loyal supporters—especially in recent weeks, while he ran for a seat in the nation's parliament from his cell. Dedicated campaign workers like Lakshmi Devi, an elderly local widow who thinks of the jailed candidate as a modern-day Robin Hood, have been routinely allowed to call on Ansari at any time of day. They need only to flash an entry permit—not a government-issued photo ID, but a note on Ansari's personal letterhead. "Gatekeeper Sahib," the old woman's tattered letter says, handwritten in Hindi. "Do not stop aunty from coming to see me."

The Talk of Nepal: The Future of Its Gurkhas

By Anuj Chopra

KATHMANDU, NEPAL --The kukri strapped to Mekhman Tamang's hip belt is more than an ordinary family heirloom. When his father bequeathed the traditional knife to him 10 years ago, Tamang, a third-generation Gurkha soldier, also inherited the stout-hearted reputation tethered to thousands of Nepalese men who fought for foreign countries before him. Recruited by the British army in 1999, the 30-year-old soldier has braved hails of Taliban bullets during two recent stints in Afghanistan. But he is uncertain whether he will be able to pass down his kukri — or the Gurkha legacy — to his son.

For nearly two centuries, hundreds of thousands of Gurkhas have been plucked from the foothills of the Himalayas to serve primarily in the British and Indian armies. They have often been given dangerous frontline duties in Hong Kong, Malaysia, Borneo, the Falklands, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq. The British army has awarded more than a dozen Victoria Crosses to Nepalese soldiers over the years, but despite the job's prestige at home, Gurkhas have long complained of being treated differently from native soldiers. For decades, Gurkhas have struggled with the British government for parity of pay, pensions, and perks, and more recently, with British immigration officials over their right to settle in the U.K.,8599,1889035,00.html

A white layer of salt envelopes Mohammed Jehangir's farm in Khajura, Bangladesh. Photo by Anuj Chopra

How Global Warming Threatens Millions In Bangladesh

By Anuj Chopra

KHAJURA, BANGLADESH --In this obscure village perched on the rugged coastline along the Bay of Bengal, climate change exudes a taste. It is the flavor of salt. As recently as five years ago, water from the village well tasted sweet to Mohammed Jehangir. But now, a glassful, flecked with tiny white crystals, is briny. Like other paddy farmers in this southern village, Jehangir is baffled by the change. But international scientists aren't surprised to see such effects, as global warming causes sea levels to rise. It is a sign that the brackish water from the Bay of Bengal is encroaching, surging up Bangladesh's fresh-water rivers, percolating deep into the soil, fouling ponds and the underground water supply that millions depend on to drink and cultivate their farms. Salt is slowly, yet inexorably, making its way to the rice paddies of farmers like Jehangir, destroying their only source of income.

Khajura is on the front lines of climate change, and some of the poorest of the world's poor are feeling the consequences of the fossil fuel emissions by industrialized nations half a world away. There is little chance of, literally, turning back the tide. The implications are dire for many millions living here and for others in low-lying areas around the world. ...

Reeperbahn in Hamburg: One of the Europe's oldest and most famous red-light districts. Photo by Anuj Chopra

Red Lights Go Out In Reeperbahn

By Anuj Chopra

HAMBURG, GERMANY --At first, it feels like you are in a high-security enclave. High barricades bookend the infamous Herbertstrasse, sometimes called the "street of shame". Then, you notice women perched comfortably on swivel chairs, dressed in nothing but stockings and suspenders, looking out from narrow shop windows. Some stick their necks out, to lure passers-by to come in or to hurl invective at tourists trying to cheekily snap a picture. Known for its tacky sex shops, strip joints, bordellos and casinos, the Reeperbahn in Hamburg's St Pauli area is one of the oldest and most famous red-light districts of the world. Once a favorite hangout for fatigued sailors from ships that anchored at Hamburg's famous port, it slowly began drawing hordes of tourists from all over the world. But now prostitution is slowly dying in the Reeperbahn. The sex industry here is in terminal decline as prostitution flourishes through more modern ways, mainly through the internet, a medium that is considered both discreet and safe...

An illegal migrant wades through thorny bushes to reach his squalid hut in a jungle on the fringes of Calais, France. Photo by Anuj Chopra

Émigrés' Europe Dreams In Chains

By Anuj Chopra

CALAIS, FRANCE -- As darkness begins descending on the French port of Calais, Naseer Ahmad, 17, sidles out of his hovel hidden amid thorny bushes in a jungle and heads towards the mouth of Le tunnel sous la Manche, the rail tunnel beneath the English Channel that connects France and England. Ahmad makes his way along roads and across fields, crosses high fences and razor wire and sneaks past floodlights and police patrols. When he gets to the tracks, he tries to jump aboard freight or passenger trains headed down the tunnel. The lanky young Afghan has been trying to smuggle himself into England in this manner for over a year. “Life in England is a dream,” he says. “After coming so far, I won’t give up.” Ahmad arrived in Calais a year ago after a perilous 5,630-kilometre journey from southern Afghanistan’s war-torn Helmand province. He covered the distance partly on foot and partly hidden in cargo containers or in rickety boats. He was guided all along by fly-by-night agents who helped migrants such as himself to evade arrest and smuggled them to foreign shores in return for a hefty fee. ...

Mud houses cling to a hill overlooking Kabul. Photo by Anuj Chopra

Afghanistan Faced With Severe Housing Shortage

By Anuj Chopra

KABUL, Afghanistan -- It's a daily ritual for 8-year-old Bismillah. Every morning, five grimy plastic cans slung over his tiny shoulder, he descends a rugged hillside, negotiating the steep pitches of scree and gravel with goat-like agility. At the bottom of the hill, he waits under the broiling sun in a long queue leading up to a spigot. But wait he must or his family will be left without drinking water for the day. Bismillah lives with his handicapped father, mother and four sisters in a mud-and-wood house in a cramped settlement clinging to a shale-brown hill overlooking Kabul. With no direct water supply, dwellers of these rudimentary housing settlements -- all illegally built -- must lug their water from the bottom of the hill. "Life is hard," says, Suraiya begum, Bismillah's mother, her face hidden behind the lavender fabric of her burqa. "We wouldn't live here if we had a better choice." Six years after the invasion, ask ordinary Afghans the biggest challenge they face, and their answer isn't likely to be the Taliban. It is, in fact, to find a roof over their heads. ...

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

SRI LANKA: Peace Isn't That Different From War

By Anuj Chopra

JAFFNA, SRI LANKA — It's only an hour's airtime from Sri Lanka's capital city, Colombo, to the Jaffna peninsula at the northern tip of the island, but getting there is a miserable ordeal that can kill nearly half a day. Suitcases in hand, heaving and sweating for hours under the blazing sun, passengers endure a gauntlet of checkpoints, where they are repeatedly stopped, questioned, frisked and hassled. Most of the travelers are ethnic Tamils, a minority on the island, although they're the overwhelming majority in the battle-scarred north. Some, without the necessary paperwork, are turned back. No one dares to protest. The slightest disruption can halt air service at any time. After five sweltering hours of queuing up, a Tamil passenger elbows me in the ribs and mutters: "This is how you're treated when you're taken to a prison camp."...