The resurgence of field hockey in India

By Kevin Fixler, for The Atlantic (class of 2012)
DELHI, India, July 19, 2012—In India, cricket is the national obsession, but it is actually field hockey that is its official game, with a more deeply embedded history within this patchwork of nations. Field hockey is the country’s most decorated international sport, and the men’s national team is the most accomplished in the Olympic event’s history—winners of 11 medals, including eight gold, dating back to 1928.

As the world’s second-fastest growing economy strives for more influence among the most powerful nations on earth, many of India’s 1.2 billion citizens view field hockey as the country’s best shot at making a statement on sport’s largest international stage—given that cricket is not an Olympic sport. Indian field hockey has fallen off in recent years though because of a lack of success, with the national team hitting rock bottom in 2008 when it failed to qualify for the Olympics for the first time ever. Hockey’s “Black Day,” as it is known, was a near-lethal blow to a sport that has been in freefall since India won its last Olympic medal, a gold, in 1980. Support for hockey has waned ever since.

But buried deep within many Indians is a hope that hockey glory will return. That longing was mirrored in Chak de! India, an award-winning 2007 film starring Bollywood’s top star, Shah Rukh Khan. It chronicled the rise of the women’s national hockey team. Today, there is even talk that Khan, whose image graces billboards and auto-rickshaw rearview mirrors nationwide, will play Indian hockey legend Dhyan Chand—the Pelé of hockey—in another upcoming film.

“I think there is always a potential for hockey,” said Arjun Halappa, a former captain of the national team, as well as one of the country’s top players the last decade. “Everyone might say hockey is gone, but still if you look into India, emotion is always there for hockey. After cricket, you can draw a crowd only with hockey.”

Read the rest of the story, published in The Atlantic. 

Defenseless to defenders

By Ashley Hopkinson (class of 2012)

Angela Cardoz

DELHI, India, April 2010—India’s growing ranks of millionaires want a new kind of security and status symbol—a female bodyguard. That desire is allowing a small group of women to work alongside men and live their dreams.

Even under the blazing heat of the midday sun in the far, northwestern Delhi suburb of Dwarka, Angela Cardoz looks relaxed in an all-black outfit, a collared shirt, pants and a light sweater, wrapped around her waist and loosely tied in a knot around the front. She looks like a ninja, standing out among the swirling colors of traditional Indian clothing — beautiful saris colored in pale yellows, bright greens and dazzling hues of red.

Cardoz, 37, is used to standing out, used to be being stared at.

Here in Dwarka, she has just stepped out of a large, black SUV. With her are three other women. Two are slim and tall enough to be models, their long, black hair pulled back from their faces. Another is short and muscular with shoulder-length hair. The fourth is Cardoz, the Indian ninja, not particularly tall, but muscular, her dark, black hair cut short and layered, the longest layer barely touching the top of her ears.

Cardoz walks with confident strides to the main office of her employer, Secura Security, an orange, four-storey building in the center of the city. Even in her office, they stare at her.

Cardoz and her three colleagues are female bodyguards, part of a new India, where women try to assert their rights, live their dreams and venture into positions and jobs that were once the exclusive domain of men.

Cardoz is from Goa, one of India’s smallest states, known for its beaches, Roman Catholic churches and enduring cultural influence—in song, dance and architecture—of its former colonial masters, the Portuguese. Goa is as different from New Delhi, Cardoz’s home for the last two years, as Maine is from Mexico.

It didn’t take long for Cardoz to realize that Delhi, where she lives with an aunt, was the best place to pursue her dream of being a bodyguard. Even with data suggesting that the crime rate in Goa has increased 59 percent over the last five years, India’s capital still snags top spot for being one of the most dangerous states in the country, especially for women.

Two of every three women have faced sexual harassment last year in Delhi, a city of 16 million, according to a United Nations and government backed survey, which included results found by Jagori, a grassroots organization that aims to raise awareness about women safety and gender equality. The local media often call Delhi the rape capital of India.

“It’s unfair that people think ‘oh she’s a woman she’s weak and she can’t defend herself so I can just come and try to touch her and trouble her,’” said Cardoz, one of 20 women at Secura’s Dwarka office. “I’m very happy to be in this job, my dream has come true.”

Cardoz is one of a few hundred women opting for careers as female bodyguards in leading security companies like Secura Security in Delhi and Tops Security in Goregaon, Mumbai. Tops Grup oversees 14 security companies under its brand including TOPS Security Limited, one of the largest security companies in the country. The division Tops Grup has more than 200 female bodyguards on staff from areas of the country including Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. The women are usually from lower-middle-class class families, officials said, sometimes driven by economic need.

Management officials said they began training women because of the demand to hire women in a country where the status of women in general is low, though that is changing. India is one of six countries with female only train cars. They started, in part, because of instances of eve teasing—a colloquial term used in India to describe public sexual harassment of women, which is commonplace in most public areas including, toilets, streets and crowded metro commuter trains. Cities in Indonesia, Brazil, Russia and Japan have women-only commuters cars for similar reasons. It may seem like a mild example of why someone would need a bodyguard, but Cardoz said pervasive sexual harassment of women is one reason their job has become increasingly necessary.

Sitting in a corner office of the Secura Security headquarters, Cardoz recounted the events of her first day of work, two years ago.

Cardoz was nervous, though her first task was simple: accompany the new boss to the mall while she shopped. Her boss was a wealthy, middle-aged woman from Delhi, whose name and occupation Cardoz said she could not reveal. That day, she kept her eyes on her boss, but she also focused some of her attention on a group of 20-something-year old young men, who had made of a game of harassing women as they entered the mall, she said. As her boss approached the mall entrance, Cardoz said the harassment from the men intensified. And she realized then that her client had become the young men’s new center of interest.

“Hey listen, it’s better you don’t do this,” Cardoz recalled saying as she stood face to face with the most belligerent young man in the group, “One day you will have a family and if someone does this to your family, how would you feel?”

In that particular situation, talking to the young men was enough to get them to stop, Cardoz said. If they had continued to act hostile, “I would have used more force,” she added. Like many female bodyguards Cardoz is trained for confrontation. Whether her response is verbal or physical depends on the level of threat, she said.

Cardoz’s client, whose identity she cannot reveal, is a part of India’s fast-growing rich, who can afford 20,000 ($ 377) to 50,000 ($ 943) rupees a month for protection. It is impractical for the majority of the population in a country where the average annual income, in 2011, was 82,000 rupees ($ 1,547).

The amounts vary based on the skills and experience of the guards. Those who are former police officers or army soldiers rank highest on the salary scale. Those like Cardoz, who came in with no such experience, rank lower on the salary scale.

Most industry spokespersons acknowledged that the relatively new business is trending toward being a status symbol for the wealthy rather than a means of crime prevention. The average client is a celebrity or business tycoon who wants female bodyguards for his wife and college-age daughters.

In some cases, the client is a wealthy female executive who would request the service for business trips out of town. The world’s second-fastest growing economy after China, India has spawned at least 50 of the world’s wealthiest U.S. dollar billionaires over the last ten years, according to Forbes Magazine. India is ranked number 19 on a separate Forbes global ranking of millionaires.

Womens’ rights organizations said that while female bodyguards are a novel idea that upholds their ideals of women empowerment, it is not something accessible to the masses.

Morever, female bodyguards may not address even one percent of the issue of gender insensitivity and violence against women, said activists of women’s organizations like Jagori and All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA).

“Yes, they (female bodyguards) might ensure your safety. But again it is an exclusive service and it is not a service that is commonly accessible to all,” said Prabhleen, a women’s rights advocate with Jagori in Delhi.

Prableen, who asked that her last name not be used, said it takes a long time for things to become common in India and bodyguarding is not a likely exception.

Sudha Sundararaman, the general secretary of AIDWA, said they have done little or no investigation into the increase of women into that field of work, but support women being in a position equal to their male counterparts.

“However, the whole concept of personal bodyguards is something that should not be necessary here,” said Sundararaman. “There needs to be a situation set up where the direction is not toward more females hiring bodyguards, but should be toward a general social atmosphere where people are safe.”

What women in India need is support, Prableen said. And that may include hiring a bodyguard, but for the general population, there needs to be an atmosphere that encourages women to speak up. Prableen said it’s not as much about Indian women being assertive as about that assertiveness being resented.

“The picture of a woman is seen good or bad,” Prableen said. “We need to accept that women in Delhi and women in India have that burden of preserving themselves as good women.”

Part of that preservation includes knowing one’s place, she said.

“In India it is this idea that you have to be good so you don’t speak up,” Prableen said. “Young girls are told by their mothers, fathers and even friends that if you speak against violence, you are calling for more attention and more violence.”

In 2004, Jagori, in existence for 24 years, began its Safe Delhi campaign, hoping it would encourage more women to take self-defense classes and publicly share their stories about violence. They organized mass protests, programs and candle light marches for their cause.

Prableen said it’s difficult for women to ask for help because they risk being blamed.

Prableen said consciously or unconsciously many victims of violence “take the guilt on themselves,” by feeding into the claim that they were dressed inappropriately or were sending body signals that teased their attacker.

Following a gang rape incident the in the Indian city Gurgaon, located about 18 miles south of New Delhi, local administration instituted an 8 p.m. curfew for female employees. Women across India created a firestorm on social media websites like Facebook and Twitter. Similar policies were suggested for women working in call centers across the country. Those positions require that employees work from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., to make up the time difference and field calls from places as far away as the United Sates.

That’s where bodyguard agency directors say they play an integral role—not in changing the way society views women being mistreated, but by giving women a chance to defend other women, who now have the chance to hire them in order to feel safe.

In general, women are seen as a vulnerable part of the population, Cardoz said, and being able to protect them is one reason she loves her job. She is able to empower women to speak up, while also protecting them, she said.

Secura Security Director AK Singh said like any other business they work based on client demand.  About three years ago more clients began to inquire about female bodyguards to protect their wives and children, and Singh said they seized the opportunity.

“We have some clients who are celebrities and they need some safety for their women, kids and young college girls,” he said. “ When clients started to approach us we started our women commander services,” Singh said, using the internal company term used to refer to female agents.

They responded by starting a training class that lasts six to eight weeks to prepare women who are eager to fight violence, he said, adding that, the demand for female bodyguards started to pick up in the latter part of 2011. Singh said his best guess about the sudden interest in female bodyguards is that people are beginning to see the value in having someone protect their wives and children, who can also blend in well with the structure of the family, without attracting excess attention.

“See, the woman has got some sense of responsibility, and she can handle the situation in a better manner than a man because women have to face some (of the same) problems clients (face),” Singh said. “This is a man’s arena, but still they are performing and doing their duties on the same level as the men.”

Tops Grup in Mumbai has had a similar service, except on a considerably larger scale. It’s been three years and the operation of a female bodyguard unit known as “Tops Angels,” is successful.

Brigadier M. I. Jaisinghani, a former army officer, is the director of training at Tops Grup Training Academy, located in 20 places across India, staffed by 100 instructors.

Jaisinghani said that they train their female bodyguards in martial arts and combat for 21 days before they are assigned to clients. They also have mandatory academic security training classes.

“We toughen them up by making them do these things every day,” Jaisinghani said. “We train them in such a manner that they are motivated to give their life for the client.”

The typical female bodyguard in India has to be physically fit and keep herself that way, graduate at least 10 th standard pass, the equivalent of 10th grade education, be between 20 to 35 years old and willing to be on call for work 24 hours, seven days a week. Exceptions are rare, he said.

Most bodyguards at Tops Grup are hired on yearly renewable contracts. The minimum contract is for a month. Secura Security allows clients to hire bodyguards by the hour, day or year. The company also absorbs the cost of training but Tops Grup security either have to pay a 6000 rupee ($ 113) training fee upfront or have it deducted from their salaries.

The typical female security guard earns roughly 7000 rupees ($ 132) a month and female bodyguards make an average of 40,000 rupees ($ 754) a month, 5,000 ($ 94) more than the average male bodyguard in the company.

But a safe India for the modern-day Indian woman seems like an ideal that is far off, said Mahuwa Tyagi, a bodyguard for two years. Tyagi is tall and slim, her long, black hair neatly pulled into a low ponytail as she talked at the Secura office in Dwarka.

The difference between the two women is that Tyagi was used to confrontation and combat at her former job as an officer with the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), a paramilitary unit that is deployed to trouble-spots across India. Trained by the CRPF and Secura Security, her services do not come cheap, by Indian standards. She can earn anywhere from 40,000 ($ 754) to 50,000 rupees ($ 943) a month.

Tyagi lives in a guest home on the property of her client, a non-resident Indian, protecting his family, primarily a college-age daughter, while caring for her own— a win-win situation, she said. Tyagi is married and can now spend time with her four-year old daughter, something she could not do in her previous job.

Like Cardoz, Tyagi said her family is pleased with her job, especially when she explains that she is protecting a family in the same way she used to protect people as a paramilitary officer.

“It’s the same,” she said. “With the police I was protecting the country. Here, I’m protecting a family.”

Tyagi said although everyone does not agree with her career choice the general response is often encouraging.

“Obviously we will give a sense of empowerment (…) in India everybody thinks that there is specific work for women only, but also, if you say you’re doing this kind of thing they feel proud,” she said. “They actually are, like wow, that kind of reaction is what we get.”


An unlikely savior for Indian coffee farmers

By Brittany Schell (class of 2013)

BANGALORE, India, April 2012—In a country plagued for over a decade by farmer suicides, Seattle-based Starbucks, the global coffee scapegoat, could be an unlikely savior for Indian coffee farmers.

Specialist coffee shop chains are growing at an increasing rate in India. Cafe Coffee Day and Barista Lavazza, along with other rival cafes, have opened 1,200 shops in India over the past decade, as members of the growing middle class develop a taste for coffee. Starbucks just announced plans to open 50 new cafes in India by the end of the year.

Yet there is a gap between this prospering coffee economy and the farmers who grow the coffee beans. The coffee-growing states of Kerala and Karnataka rank among the five states with the highest rates of farmer suicide in India. More than 253,000 farmers have committed suicide in India since 1995, and in the southern states of Kerala and Karnataka the numbers are 19,000 and 35,000 respectively.

Could a multinational company like Starbucks could help address this gap?

Brittany’s final story is a written piece and a video. 

Pitching Baseball to India

By Laith Agha (class of 2012)

VARANASI, India, April 2012—When Dinesh Patel was a teenager, he figured that if he were to make a name for himself, he would do it with his arm. Growing up outside Varanasi, India’s holiest and oldest city, he could throw with more might than the other boys in his village, and at 15 years old he went off to a sports school to cultivate this natural gift. Within a few years, Patel hoped, he’d be launching javelins for India’s Olympic team.

He was right about his arm. He just didn’t realize it would make him an ambassador for a sport he’d never heard of.

Now 23, Patel is four years removed from being introduced to baseball by the inaugural Million Dollar Arm contest, a reality-show talent search for potential baseball players in the world’s second-most populated country. And after an impressive showing in the contest afforded him a chance to pitch professionally in the United States, Patel is trying to make a future for himself in baseball. In India.

Laith’s final story is a written piece. 

Renting Wombs: Gay couples seek surrogate mothers in India

By Lisette Mejia (class of 2012)

MUMBAI, India, April 2012—In the past few years, gay men from the U.S. have increasingly traveled to India to have children through surrogacy. This process usually involves two Indian women: an egg donor and a surrogate. Currently, a bill sits in the Indian law ministry that could ban the process for same-sex couples – but in the mean time, they continue on with their hopes of having kids of their own and grappling with the complexity of the situation

Out in the open

By Marta Franco (class of 2013)

MUMBAI, India, April 2012—After more than a century in the shadows, India’s homosexuals emerge from the closet.

On a sunny Sunday afternoon, Mumbai’s western suburb of Bandra, home to mostly observant middle-class Roman Catholic and Sunni Muslim families, is packed with people. Visitors and residents stroll the seaside promenades. The shop-strewn main streets are abuzz with vendors selling cheap shoes and colorful scarves. On the quieter, tree-lined lanes, customers visit little specialty boutiques and stores.

Down the 16th Road, a rainbow flag welcomes you to one such store: D’kloset. Outside, there is a mural of a man pulling another out of a closet. “No, no,” he says. “I’m not coming out.”

D’kloset owner Inder Vhatwar will tell you that is time for gay people in India to step out of the closet that locked them in for more than a century.

Marta’s final story is a print piece. 

Return of the White Death

By Octavio Raygoza (class of 2012)

MUMBAI, India, April 2012—As a virulent, new drug-resistant tuberculosis strain surfaces in India, the world fears a resurgence of its oldest disease.

Instead of helping her mother with household chores, Sonam S. Yambhare lay quietly on a rusted bed. She was one among dozens of women in Ward 8, a silent room with unpainted concrete walls in Mumbai’s 103-year-old government-run Sewri Tuberculosis Hospital.

There was no medical equipment in sight. Records were filed in rusted metal cabinets. Sometimes, orderlies, or “ward boys” as they are called, carried away the infected mattresses of dead patients. “Everyone is depressed here,” said Mokshada Chandge, a young doctor on her rounds, explaining the silence, a sharp contrast with the ceaseless bedlam of one of the world’s most densely populated cities.

Octavio’s final story is a print piece. 

Teach for India

By Lillian R. Mongeau, for (class of 2011)

MUMBAI, Maharashtra, April 2010—Skinny arms stretched high, 59 eager hands rose above 60 equally eager faces. Even as one hand seemed about to be clipped by a fan circling overhead, students covered their mouths to remind themselves not to shout out the answer before being called upon.

Save the whir of the fans, silence prevailed, but this did not prevent Umer Gauss Khan from jumping a bit or Afrin Akram from standing on the very tips of her toes, adding a few extra inches to her petite frame.

So far, this second grade class in the Govandi neighborhood, a slum near Mumbai, India had correctly placed three numbers-1, 11, and 21-in ascending order.

The question they were all so eager to answer: Which number comes next-111, 101, or 99?

The students sat three to an old-fashioned bench desk and each wore a dusty, white uniform and brown tie bearing the initials of their private English school: Shri Geeta Vikas Mandal, where tuition is about $4 per child per month. Most of the families who send their children here cannot afford even the meager fees and the school depends on charitable support to cover the difference. The lack of funds, however, has clearly not dampened these students’ appetite for learning and may be in large part due to the man standing at the front of the room and the woman giving extra attention to a boy in the back.

This is the classroom of Rahul Ranjan and Iffat Khan, two of the first to heed the call of Teach For India, a new program that trains and places recent college graduates and young professionals in slum-area schools in Mumbai and Pune. Last July, the non-profit began operating in low-income private and government-run schools. The program received 2,000 applications for its first round of 87 spots. For 2010, 3,800 applicants competed for 150 openings.

TFI bases its teacher training on the Teach for America model and is a member of the Teach For All network, which connects them with similar programs around the world. Despite these international connections, the program is the lone option in India for high-achieving young people who want to teach for two years.

Read the rest of the story on

Lillian R. Mongeau travelled to Mumbai to report on the brand new Teach For India program, one of several such programs modeled on Teach For America to spring up in recent years across the globe. She has written a short story for and hopes to sell a longer piece in advance of TFI’s late-May visit to New York City.

A Land Apart: India’s Northeast

By Becky Palmstrom (class of 2011)

ASSAM, India, April 2010—Khagel Barman was famished as he headed down a dirt path towards his home, a turquoise adobe house, sat on the green plains of Assam, in North East India. The twenty-year old directed the cows ahead of him and carried a woven sack over his shoulder. The sack bulged with the potatoes he’d spent the day gathering. The dying sunlight lit up the lush leaves and tilled fields he trudged. It was just after 6pm and it would be Khagel’s last sunset.

Khagel lived with his family in a region of India crammed between China, Burma and Bangladesh. This triangle of earth is attached to mainland India by a sliver of earth barely 15 kilometers wide. As multi-ethnic as Afghanistan or the Balkans it is not without similar troubles and although India’s conflict over Kashmir and the clashes with the Naxalites garner more headlines, the seven sister states of the North-East of India have some of the most stubborn and bloody insurgency movements in the country. There are some 130 different armed groups here: sometimes fighting for an ideology, sometimes for an autonomous ethnic homeland, sometimes for complete independence and sometimes because there is no other way to make a living. Over the years more and more groups have turned to extortion, “taxing” civilians and exploiting the vacuum of law and order to grow stronger. In some areas, like the state of Manipur, the war economy is so rooted it has become the main employment opportunity for young people.

Although this is a place wracked by ethnic conflict and where many are resentful of the Indian state, there had been little violence in the area surrounding the Barman’s house before that day in 2000 when Khagel, a second year art student, walked home with his sack of potatoes.

As Khagel ambled into his home’s small courtyard he greeted his father, a thin, bony man, who sat at the doorway watching the darkness settle. Khagel washed the grime of the fields off his face and out of his thick black hair and bushy moustache. He called to his mother for dinner and she started preparing rice. Khagel’s friend from Art College had stopped by to watch that night’s cricket match between India and Pakistan.

As 7 pm drew closer, the courtyard filled with Muslim worship songs from the television set, the clucking of chickens and the noise of the cricket commentary. It was the sound of the two cars that made Khagel’s father, Garnesh, look up from his place in the courtyard. The vehicles had stopped at the gate Khagel had just entered. Sixteen police officers and masked men got out.

The men were part of India’s policy to stamp out armed activities in Assam. Although the armed groups are responsible for human rights violations, the Indian state’s attempts to quell the insurgency also cause violations. The North East is currently the only area other than Kashmir, where an old British law is used to arrest, detain and shoot those “suspected” of insurgency. Under the law, no military personnel can be held accountable for their actions without permission from the Central government; offering immunity and some say, promoting impunity, even when, as in Khagel’s case, they get the wrong person.

“They were like this,” Khagel’s father Garnesh explains ten years later, taking a white and red faded scarf from his neck and wrapping it over his nose and mouth illustrating the masked men who visited that day. The men called out for Khagel and before his father could answer, Khagel stood facing the men.

“Yes, I am Khagel Barman,” he said.

Nilima, Khagel’s mother heard the scrunching of boots and voices of the men in the courtyard and abandoned the rice she was washing to ask what the men wanted from her son.

“You don’t know your son,” one of the policemen said. “You don’t know what your son has been doing.”

But all Khagel had been doing was running meetings and participating in student politics at the local Art College. According to family, friends and even local policemen, he had never been involved in armed activities. The Unified Command structure in Assam extends AFSPA to cover police working with the army against so-called terrorists. In the courtyard of the Barman’s turquoise house the physical ramifications of the Act played out.

One of the policemen pushed Khagel roughly into the dirt and kicked him in the stomach.

“They put their foot to his head.” Garnesh says, standing up to illustrate the raised foot crushing down onto the head of a Khagel who now only exists in the memories of his parents.

The chickens had stopped clucking, his parents remember. Nilima rushed forward screaming for them to stop. They didn’t. Instead she and other members of the family were shoved into a room off the courtyard. The door was bolted and the family watched through the gaps in the bamboo walls as the men lined up with their guns pointed towards Khagel.

“They took him to one side of the courtyard and they asked him to stand, like this,” Garnesh says, pointing out the scrap of earth where it happened. Then Garnesh describes the sound of the twenty-seven bullets that broke the skin of Khagel and Garnesh and Nilima’s world.

“The arm was separated because there were so many bullets,” Garnesh illustrates the strangled look of Khagel’s body as first his arm came off and then he fell. The men emptied Khagel’s sack of potatoes out onto the ground and stuffed his still warm body into the sack. Nilima says she doesn’t know what happened next – she blanked out.

Ten years have gone by and she sits in the room where her son spent his last minutes. Her back is poker-straight as though she might break into fragments if she makes a sudden move.  There is a portrait of her dead son staring down at us from the wall. The turquoise paint is faded.

It is hard not to see this family entirely through the prism of their son’s death – an injustice that bleeds into every part of their reality: from the poverty they face without a son to support them, to the smudged sadness at the edges of their eyes. Despite an apology from members of the police in the weeks after their son’s death and promises of compensation, none of the police involved in the murder of Khagel Barman have faced trial. It has taken ten years for the compensation to come through. Anjuman Ara Begum, a researcher with Asia Human Rights Commission, says although the number of people killed by the state has fallen, abuse of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act in Assam and Manipur continues.

Begum has spoken with over 70 families who have lost their loved ones in incidences similar to the Barman’s. She says more than 90 percent of the families have received no compensation for their loss.

AFSPA is the residue of Britain’s time in India and was once used to control “disturbed” areas of the country. In 1958 the Indian state resurrected AFSPA to quell an uprising in the Naga Hills in the north of the region. Way before 9/11, India, the largest democracy in the world, was using anti-terrorist legislation in its North East. The hill tribes on the border of Burma and China have always been easy to define as “disturbed” – they have always been fiercely dependent – yet the struggles of the armed groups in this region have remained off the international agenda and mainly ignored by the media. AFSPA is just one part of the culture of impunity in the seven sister states, where 230 ethnic groups fight to be heard.

On the heavily militarized border between Bhutan and India violations committed by non-government forces show the complexity of the North-Eastern conflicts and one of the reasons why a blanket repeal of AFSPA is unlikely. Here the rainy season has begun and the weather can’t seem to make up its mind, flipping between sharp sunlight and brutal hailstorms in minutes. The stories are familiar in a region where ethnic identity and territory have been intrinsically linked – as though claiming a homeland is the only way of claiming a voice.

I am in the heartland of one of the ethnic groups, the Adivasi, four hours north-west of the Barman’s in an area known as Boroland. The colors of the Adivasi women’s clothes are all the brighter for existing in a cluster of houses that look as though they might disappear under a plane of mud. The mud morphs from cracked desert to a clay-like swamp as the hailstorms begin. The women are constantly getting up to brush the mud out of their homes (whose floors are themselves made of the stuff). These are some of the internally displaced. They now live as strangers in their own land, without access to clean water, schools or adequate food.

Boroland is an autonomous council in the state of Assam. For years Boro armed groups fought for greater autonomy. Finally in the early 2000’s the Indian government relented and agreed that in the areas where the Boro population was at least 50 percent an autonomous council would be created to administer their own affairs. The Assam state government estimates two thousand people were killed as the Boro re-arranged the ethnic landscape.

“Before we were living a very peaceful life,” says a woman dressed in the bright green woven scarf typical of this area. “I do not know how it could have happened that our neighbors did this.”

“First they would come and take our buffalo,” she says, “Then they would come to our house and shoot us. They cut people into pieces.”

Almost 200,000 people were displaced.

“They burnt the 80 houses in our village, one after the other,” another woman nursing a baby chimes in. “If we tried to save anything from our home they took us and threw us to the ground.”

“We ran to the border and lived for three days without food or water,” she continues. “Now we cannot go back to our land. The Boro live there now.”

The women are talking over each other, arguing or disagreeing or correcting each other as the translator tries to keep up.

“My husband was beaten so badly last time that he can no longer work, his arms were too broken,” says one woman, while another illustrates the beating, standing and whacking her scarf over and over again on a stone in the middle of the muddy center of their village – “bang bang bang” she yells and the group of women laugh at her impersonation.

“Everybody is asking for a separate state,” says an old woman, laughing. “How will it work?” Others mutter in agreement. “We cannot build our houses properly because we do not know when we will have to leave again.”

“For a year or so they have stopped coming and killing,” says another. “But you never know when it will happen again.”

It is not only the Adivasi who were displaced. The Rajbongshis, the Muslims, the Nepalis and the Sutraohars also lost their land and therefore the ability to farm.

There is a mixed response when I ask the women about the Armed forces and the police. In some of the communities we visit, the women tell me the military has been helpful.

“They used to come to our village and protect and help us,” says one woman. “There was one police officer, he was very helpful. We wouldn’t have land if it wasn’t for him.”

While the world ignores the conflicts in the far North-East of India AFPSA is just one part of a complicated, violent series of relationships that steal security and life from civilians. Putting the blame on the shoulders of any one entity is a complicated, political and often dangerous process. In Boroland a few months ago a group of students crept out in the dead of night to paint “No Arms in Boroland” on a wall in the city. They were found by one of the military groups who told them they would be shown what no arms in Boroland looked like. The student’s arms were so badly cut they had to be hospitalized.

Although Meenakshi Gang, the Indian researcher for Human Rights Watch says rights are violated on all sides of the conflicts in the seven sister states the presence of AFSPA in some of the states for nearly six decades has not only led to widespread human rights violations, but has also created a mobilizing tool for the armed groups.


“The law has been so widely abused that it has now become a symbol of hate in places like Manipur and Assam,” she says, which is why even a recent Indian government commission examining the Act recommended its repeal.


However, the Indian army is yet to be convinced. They claim the Act is a necessary tool for protecting civilians. An Indian army officer expresses a commonly held view.

“If you are saying that one misuse merits a repeal – it is like saying because of the government’s misuse of election laws we should get rid of democracy,” he says, emphasizing the importance of seeing the law in a context of battle, where split second decisions are part of daily life.

The officer spent several years fighting under AFSPA in the state of Manipur and asked not to be named for this piece.

“Look it is one violation in 100,000 acts. Once in a year by one random person,” he says. “You cannot fall into the trap of making a mountain out of a molehill.”

I think about one woman in Manipur who started a hunger fast after the Indian army mowed down ten people at a bus stop in the capital, Imphal. Her name is Irom Sharmila. Soon after Sharmila’s hunger strike began in 2000 the Indian government arrested her through another leftover British law, which charged her with “attempting to commit suicide.” She has been in and out of army custody ever since, where lentil soup is forced through her nose to keep her alive. She says she will not let food or liquid pass her lips until the government of India repeals AFSPA.

I ask the officer about the massacre that inspired Sharmila’s fast: In November 2000 on a road outside of Imphal, a bomb went off near a military truck. The Assam Rifles’ unit on board the truck let loose. They shot indiscriminately until ten people were dead. What about them?

“Now I don’t know this precise case, but sometimes, if innocent people die it is collateral damage,” the officer says. “It is an unfortunate event. But what about these illegal acts [committed by the armed groups] that cause collateral damage? They are far more abusive of power.”

“We should not work on repealing the act, but on ensuing it is used properly,” the officer says.

He also says that despite the provisions no law gives the army the power to shoot without cause. It is an argument that Colin Gonsalves of the Human Rights Law Network also makes, “No law actually gives anyone the right to take life. But because of that impression people will not litigate or file cases against the police and the armed forces.”

The controversy over the Act also lies in whether it actually curbs violence or exacerbates it and there are people who speak on both sides. Alhi Ahmed at the Institute for Defense Studies and Analysis, a think tank that advises the Indian government, describes a period of 6 months when the Act was repealed in parts of Imphal, the capital of Manipur. There was an increase in violence, he says.

But those who oppose the act, like Binalakshmi Nepram, a friend of Sharmila’s and head of the Manipur Gun Survivors Network, the act has not helped fight insurgency either.

“It is not getting better, we have had the act for 50 years and there is more insurgency than ever,” she says. In Nepram’s state of Manipur, violence and corruption have sunk into every institution and business relationship. Both Catholic priests and doctors from Manipur told me they had no option but to pay bribes to the armed groups, the police and local authorities – when they stood on principal and refused to pay priests were shot dead and hospitals were bombed. Electricity in the capital, Imphal lasts only 4 or 5 hours a day, HIV rates are the highest in India and no one goes onto the street after 6 pm: it is too dangerous. But even within this context of insecurity Nepram still argues that AFPSA is not the answer and should be repealed. “If innocents are dying then who are you protecting?” she says.

However, in a place where running a school or selling rice requires payment to the local armed groups it is clear that solving tensions here will be tough and the need to reign in the army must be matched by reigning in the military groups.

No single actor, either state or non-state, has a monopoly on atrocities. Four hundred and sixty seven people, 64 of them civilians were killed in military operations in Manipur last year, reported the South Asian Terrorist Portal. Human rights activists, like Babloo Loitangbam of Human Rights Alert say that many of these were innocent people killed by the law Sharmila starves to repeal. Though those who know her well say her act of non-violent protest calls for a holistic notion of peace beyond just the repeal of AFSPA.

A picture of her stares down at me from the wall of a community NGO project in Boroland. A man from Manipur tells me that he thinks Sharmila is a saint, another in Assam talks about her as “a true Ghandian”, a conservative journalist and a member of the Indian government’s official think tank both say she should be given the Nobel Peace price, while Binalakshmi Nepram, a friend of Sharmila’s and head of the Manipur Gun Survivors Network says, “she is one of the most pure people I’ve met in my life.”

It seems Sharmila is not only a person, but also an idea. As Deepti Priya Mehrotra, author of Sharmila’s biographer, “she makes me question myself and what I am doing. Why I am not doing what she is doing.” AFSPA is one tiny cut on a sickened and bleeding body and Sharmila’s fast inspires many activists across the North East of India to work for peace that also looks beyond AFSPA.

She was last released in March this year, for one night, before they returned her to the military hospital to live out another 364 days of detention. She had stopped cutting her nails and hair and in her one day of freedom met with the women who run a daily sympathy fast with her, “look at the birds and the trees, they do not cut their nails and see how free they are,” she said. But as the tenth year of her hunger strike draws to a close, Sharmila’s freedom, just like an end to AFSPA, justice for Khagel Barman’s family or a right to return for the Adivasi, in this corner of a democracy, is still a long way off. The most forgotten conflict in India remains forgotten.

Building the Commonwealth Games

By Elise Craig (class of 2010)

DELHI, India, April 2010In a workers’ camp in Delhi, a little girl of three or four bathes herself out of a child’s plastic bucket. The girl is alone for the day–her parents are working on a construction site several kilometers away. About 400 migrant workers and their families are living here on a site called the Polo grounds as they build a new rugby stadium at Delhi University. The families live in “hutments,” 8×8 wooden structures with corrugated tin roofs that look like box cars laid end to end. Used water runs in a small murky stream between the buildings, there is feces on the ground, and swaths of flies pepper the air. There is no electricity. There is no plumbing. And all 400 families share nine toilets.

Across Delhi, construction is moving at a frenetic pace. Roads are being widened, and bridges and flyovers are being built to ease Delhi’s legendary traffic congestion. As cranes jut into the sky, sewers are covered, slums are dismantled, and construction signs promise that Delhi is on its way to being a “world class city.”

The city is being torn apart and rebuilt, spruced up and beautified all in the name of the 19th Commonwealth Games.

Migrant workers and their families who have come to Delhi in search of construction work are living in camps on sites and in makeshift tents along Delhi’s streets. The construction is everywhere—at Indira Gandhi International Airport, across the different campuses of Delhi University, on the riverbed, and along the skyline.

On the ground, taxi drivers are being taught English, and service workers are getting lessons in Western etiquette from the Delhi Tourism and Transport Company. Beggars are being arrested and relocated.

The Commonwealth Games are essentially the Olympics of the former British Empire, and the third largest sporting event in the world. The contest is expected to bring an estimated 5 million additional tourists to India, according the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India, and 72 different countries plan to field teams for the games, from Anguilla to Zambia. The contest will be held between October 3 and 14 of this year.

This is the first time that India has managed a successful bid to host the games, and only the second time that an Asian country’s bid has been accepted by the Commonwealth Games Federation. (The first was Kuala Lampur in 1998.)

“We are organizing a major sporting event in the country after a gap of 28 years, after the Asian Games in 1982,” Suresh Kalmadi, president of the Indian Olympic Association told journalists in March. “It’s a big challenge for us. You need to present a world-class event when the whole world is watching. You need to showcase everything on a large scale.”

The games are also a training ground for India to prove to the world that it is capable of hosting a large-scale international sporting event, and push aside fears or bias against holding the games in a developing country. The stakes are also particularly high, as Kalmadi has said publicly that India will be submitting a bid to host the Olympic Games in 2020.

“India and Delhi dedicate themselves to making the Commonwealth Games the best games ever held…one that will inspire goodwill, friendship and unity,” the IOA wrote in its bid to the Commonwealth Federation.

With an Olympic bid on the line, the pressure is on for Delhi to pull off a successful and memorable games, and the IOA originally set a budget of $1.6 billion (79 billion rupees) to cover the cost—not including non-sports related infrastructure like the Metro. That figure would make the 2010 games the most expensive in history–the next closest in cost were the 2006 games in Melbourne, which cost $1.1 billion. But by March, that figure had swollen to nearly $3 billion (ck), and the government announced new taxes on everything from tea to cell phones.

The games are being marketed as Delhi’s ticket to entering the world stage, and an investment in infrastructure that will improve the city for its residents. And many of the city’s residents agree. “It was sold to the middle class in such a beautiful way, most of them say it’s fantastic,” said Krishnendu Bose, a filmmaker who made a documentary on the environmental impact of the games called “Delhi: Work in Progress.”

But in Delhi, environmentalists and human rights activists are asking who will really benefit from the games—the people of Delhi, or the government and business interests who will profit from them?

“It’s a very big question—do we need these games?” said Harsh Bora, 21, a law student at Delhi University.  “It might be a pride issue. But the games are wearing down our self-esteem. Half of our children are malnourished. That money could be used better.”

On the side of a road a few blocks from Delhi University’s School of Economics, migrant workers are living with their families in tents made of blue tarps. The conditions are similar to the Polo Grounds: no access to running water, toilets or electricity. On this particular street, the families have come from poorer states around Delhi to build sidewalks, or footpaths, for the Municipal Corporation of Delhi in preparation for the games.

Ram Khiladi, 30, and his wife Lali, 27, came to Delhi in search of construction work to feed their young family. “We have a piece of land,” he said,” but there is no water.” So when a subcontractor came to his village with offers of unskilled construction work, he and his wife packed up their eight-year-old daughter Priyanka and eighteen-month-old baby Pintu and moved to the streets of Delhi. They plan to continue working until their job runs out in two months, and then, somehow, stay in Delhi.

“It’s okay work, as long as we can get it,” Ram said.

But, when he and his wife go to work, they have to leave Priyanka to baby-sit for her baby brother. There is no crèche, or daycare center, to care for them. In India, the law requires a crèche on construction sites where women work.

“I am scared, but there is no other option,” Lali said, as she breast-fed her baby. “When we leave our kids behind, we just have to leave them with the other kids.”

Priyanka, a small girl with close-cropped hair and a gold stud in her nose, does not go to school, both because she must watch her baby brother, and because they are not registered citizens of Delhi.

“In the village, she used to go to school, but now she can’t,” Lali said. “She misses it, she wants to go.”

According to Ram, he and his wife are paid 250 rupees per day, far above Delhi’s minimum wage for unskilled labor, which is 152 rupees per day. He says they work six days a week, but are paid for seven, as is required by law, and claims that the workers have access to doctors when they need them, and that “injuries are rare.”

But Bora, the Delhi University student, says that workers’ answers to questions about safety and payment have changed since India’s High Court appointed a committee to go through the labor camps and investigate claims that contractors were violating labor laws.

“It’s as if they’ve memorized everything,” he said. “Before the committee came through, they told the truth about what they were being paid, and the doctors. This, this is what they have to say.”

In January, a civil liberties group called the People’s Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR) filed public interest litigation with the High Court of Delhi. They presented information from a fact-finding report they had written months earlier that said workers were not being paid minimum wage, they were not being paid on time, they were not being paid equally, and other violations of labor laws. They were also concerned that injuries and deaths from accidents were being under-reported.

PUDR had filed a similar piece of litigation with the Supreme Court in 1982, when Delhi hosted the Asia Games.

“In the Asia [Games] judgment, we were not able to provide relief for any workers, because they had left,” said Moushumi Basu, secretary of PUDR and a professor of international politics. “This time, we’re trying to ensure that workers will benefit.”

PUDR chose to file to the High Court instead of the Supreme Court so that they would have a chance to appeal if the court dismissed the case. Instead, the court ordered a new committee to go into the labor camps and issue its own report on the laborers’ working and living conditions.

The Committee’s visits confirmed what PUDR had alleged in its report—that in many cases, construction workers lacked basic safety equipment like construction boots, hard hats and gloves. And the committee confirmed that 49 people have been killed in accidents on construction sites, while officials for the games had previously put the count at 6 or 7 deaths. (In comparison the total number of construction-related deaths in the U.S. in 2009 was 3.) Conditions in the camps were not up to legal standards.

The complicated structure of labor in the games also makes it easier for subcontractors to take advantage of workers, according to PUDR member Paramjeet Singh. Though the government is footing the bill for all of the projects, each project is awarded to a contractor. Each contractor has many subcontractors, and in many cases, even subcontractors who go to the villages and recruit workers. Contractors pay subcontractors by check, subcontractors pay the subcontractors who work under them, and eventually workers are paid in cash. In most cases, the committee found, there were no records of how much workers were actually being paid.

“It’s a chain of subcontractors,” Singh said. “By the time the rupee gets down the chain, there is nothing left for the workers.”

The committee issued its report on March 17, and what they found was, in the words of former India’s outspoken former U.N. representative Arundathi Ghose, “grim.”

“By and large,” Ghose said,” the situation was horrible, except for one site—the airport. We were not satisfied [the workers] were receiving minimum wage, which the contractors assured us they were.”

According to Ghose, contractors at many of the sites could not prove they had paid their workers wages, because they hadn’t kept records, registered their workers, or given them identification cards, all of which are required by law.

“The living conditions of people working on the flyovers, these people are being treated very badly,” Ghose said. “And we have called for exemplary punishment.”

The four-person committee, which included Delhi’s Secretary of Labour, Shri R. D. Srviataya, made a list of recommendations to the High Court, which specified necessary changes to living conditions and safety conditions, and ways to streamline labor laws and make punishments for contractors commensurate with their crimes. They also noted the importance of registering workers.

Registration of workers with the Labour office is particularly important, because under the Builders Act of 1990, contractors are required to pay one percent of the cost of every project into a welfare fund for workers. Given the cost of the games project, there is a significant amount of money available to workers, but only those who are registered.

“It’s a fine law on paper,” said Anjali Alexander, a volunteer at the Commonwealth Games Citizens for Workers, Women and Children. “If you ask me out of $11 million, how much has reached workers? No more than $34,000–$11 million is still sitting in the coffers of the fund. Hardly any workers know of the welfare fund.”

Sheila Dikshit, the third-term chief minister of Delhi, did not respond to multiple requests for comment by this reporter. Neither did Srviataya. Dr. Lalit Bhanot, organizing committee secretary did not respond to questions after he requested them in writing.

Even though the committee was presented with a “grim” view of conditions for workers, Ghose agreed with Bora—she believed that some workers were still not responding truthfully to the committee’s questions.

“We felt the workers in some sites were clearly being intimidated by workers crowding around us, ” she said.

Bora had been in the labor camps talking to workers before the Committee went in, and during some of their visits. He says that workers’ responses about wages and conditions changed between when he first went in and the Committee’s visit, and he thinks that the contractors were warned about what was supposed to be a surprise visit in advance.

Bora is a member of “Perspectives,” a student group at DU that goes on fact-finding missions and issues reports on social issues like displacement, farmer suicides and the agrarian crisis. In early 2009, the group decided to look into labor practices at CWG construction sites where the university was the main employer.

“Since we are all part of Delhi University, this is happening to us,” he said.

Perspectives went into the camps around the University and talked to 52 workers, and reported much of the same findings as the committee—workers were underpaid, it sometimes took months to get wages, there were no crèches or schools, no health facilities, and employees were not being paid a double rate for their overtime hours. They also reported similar safety violations.

But, Bora says, when he went with the Committee to a site that had previously not had a school it suddenly had one. Workers claimed higher wages. But, when he returned to the same site a week later with journalists, the school was empty, and there was no teacher.

Bora’s fellow Perspectives member, Shikha Pandey, experienced the same thing.

“One day before the inquiry, we met the workers and they started saying that they made 250, 300, or 350 rupees a day,” she said. “I knew some of the workers personally, and they told me they had been told to say that.”

Back on the side of the road by DU, a few tents down from Ram, a woman who would only give the name Khargi said the workers laying the footpaths were not being paid minimum wage—men were making only 120 rupees per hour, while women were making only 110. She also claimed that the contractors had told the employees to lie about their wages and living conditions, but that she didn’t care because she had to return to her village to care for a sick relative.

“I know I’m supposed to get more, but someone is taking a cut in the middle,” she said. “I know I’m not being treated fairly, but I don’t have the education to do anything about it,” she added.

Allegations of poor adherence to labor laws haven’t been the Commonwealth Games’s only criticism. The games have had other troubles as well.

Environmentalists like Ravi Agarwal, director of ten NGO Toxics Link have expressed concern about what the massive construction projects are doing to the city of Delhi.

“Land that you hitherto could not build on will now be commercialized, Agarwal said. “This land was something you could not build on. It was almost impossible. But the games have forced all rationality to fall by the wayside.”

Agarwal points specifically to the brand-new Commonwealth Games Village, where athletes will be housed. The facility is being built on a riverbed that was previously protected land. Permission was given to build on the site through the courts, so long as the facilities were temporary. But now, Agarwal says, the builders have already put out advertisements encouraging citizens to buy the flats after the games end.

“They wanted to make a Manhattan on the river,” Bose said. “And there is money to be made.”

Advocates of the games point to the new infrastructure the Games are bringing to the city—renovation of domestic and international new airports, sidewalks where there have been none, more flyovers to help people move more efficiently and brand new stadiums. But Bora and Devika Narayn, 23, a graduate student in sociology, say that these improvements are only in the neighborhoods where the wealthy middle class live, and that the stadiums aren’t a necessity. Neither student is excited about the brand-new rugby stadium going up on DU’s campus.

“No one knows what rugby is,” she Narayn. “If you ask anyone on the road, no one can tell you.”

Environmentalists are also concerned about the estimated 250,000 trees the city is cutting down for the construction, as well as the new concrete being poured throughout the city. Agarwal fears that more concrete—with holds more heat than earth—and fewer trees will adversely affect a city that is already sweltering in the summer and has a significant amount of air pollution.

“Tree have been an essential part of the city, and if you cut them off, the city changes,” he said. “The character, the temperature, the groundwater.”

Beyond construction, the government of Delhi is bringing other changes to the city to manage the games more efficiently. During the 12 days of the games, there will be no school in the city to help ease traffic. Students in the men’s hostel, or dorm, at Delhi University will have to move out for the duration of the games so that the hostel can host foreign athletes. The city is making efforts to get auto rickshaws off the streets, to get food stalls to close, and to allow only authorized “hockers” selling merchandise on the streets. And advocates fear that the same migrant workers who live on the streets while they build the infrastructure for the games will be removed from the city once they begin.

Agarwal is dismayed that Delhi is becoming what he considers an “antiseptic city.”

“Why do tourists come to Delhi? We don’t want to be a second-hand London. We want to be a first-hand Delhi. They want to make us London.”

Others have criticized the government for providing foreigners with things it does not provide its citizens—like “first-world drinking water” and food testers. Currently, 50 percent of the city’s residents don’t have clean water.

“The games have been converted into such a thing of prestige, like the Olympics sin Beijing, but are the citizens of Delhi–forget India–benefiting from it?” asked Alexander.

Despite the problems, Ghose believes they are. The problems, she says, are not with the games, but with construction standards in India, and the huge scale of construction in India’s capital is bringing attention to abuses that have so far gone unnoticed. And they are also bringing construction jobs to workers who have been pushed out of farm work by the agrarian crisis.

“I think it they’re giving jobs, [the games are] good for the country,” she said. “ But the Commonwealth Games are not going to put the country on the map—our growth rate is. It’s our overall geopolitical and economic strength that will put us on the map.”