All posts by Lakshmi Sarah

Why Militant Maoists Are Attacking Mobile Phone Towers in India

Photo courtesy of Kadir Aksoy

Early in the morning on September 19, radical Maoists allegedly set fire to three telephone towers and a bus in rural Bihar, India, continuing a trend of targeting mobile towers. From 2008 to 2013, 245 similar attacks were recorded.

Daily newspaper The Telegraph India reports that 20 to 25 Naxalites, as the far-left Maoist guerrillas are also called, raided Goda and Vitiya village in Bihar. They allegedly fired shots close to a local market in response to the fact that shops had stayed open despite a 24-hour strike the day before. The strike (or bandh) was initiated after an altercation on September 13 in which three Naxalites were killed.

The Naxalite or Maoist insurgency, which leaves hundreds of civilians dead each year, is a complex issue dating back to the late 1960s and early 1970s. The Naxalite movement began in the town of Naxalbari, West Bengal, in which farmers rose up against oppressive land owners. According to an analysis in newspaper DNA India, “While the Naxalite movement thrives on the original spirit of Naxalbari; the Maoist struggle is an outcome of the 1967 uprising.”

In the last 15 years, the Maoists have advocated for a mass revolution by the people. This has mainly focused on farmers, tribals and indigenous people (adivasis). The aim of the Maoists is to “seize political power through Protracted People’s War (PPW) – armed insurrection,” as V. Balasubramaniyan describes in an article for Canadian geopolitical consultancy GeoPolitical Monitor.

According to a Human Rights Watch report, Maoists said they are defending the rights of the poor and marginalized:

They [Maoists] call for a revolution, demanding a radical restructuring of the social, political, and economic order. The Maoists believe the only way marginalized communities can win respect for their rights is to overthrow the existing structure by violent attacks on the state.

The burning of mobile phone towers has been a continuous tactic for Maoists since 2008. They have targeted phone towers on several occasions and in the last four years, Maoists have “blown up” over 200 mobile towers in nine states, according to D. M. Mitra, a former official in the Ministry of Home Affairs and an expert on Indian left-wing extremism. Mitra writes that Maoists alleged that security forces were able to track the location of Maoists with mobile phones.

In an article for Global ECCO (a network for alumni of the U.S. Defense Department’s Combating Terrorism Fellowship Program, which funds anti-terrorism training for military officers from other countries) called “The Relevance of Technology in the fight against India’s Maoist Insurgency,” he discusses Maoists use of mobile phones (or lack thereof) in their operational areas. He writes:

They may even kill people they find using mobile phones, on the suspicion that they are police informers.

In 2013, India introduced the Central Monitoring System (CMS), which is meant to allow authorities to access phone calls and communication for the purpose of national security. The CMS offers the government a way to “lawfully” intercept calls, texts and emails; it is considered to be one way the government has responded to the 2008 Mumbai attacks, during which armed attackers left more than 150 people dead.

Also last year, in a report compiled by the Indian Social Institute, a centre for socio-economic development and human rights, the government states the goal of building mobile towers in “remote and inaccessible Maoist strongholds,” with the aim to bring mobile connections to 987 villages of Jharkhand, with a total of 2,200 mobile towers by the end of the 2013.

According the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (UMHA):

Maoists recognize the threat that an efficient – or even minimally working – cellular network constitutes to their own security and survival, and have systematically attacked isolated mobile towers wherever possible.

Responses and commentary within social media have been sparse, but the “Naxal Movement in India” does have a community page on Facebook and Twitter responses have included:

Other responses have referenced the violence in response to International Day of Peace on September 21. Writer and disarmament activist Binalakshmi Nepram wrote:

In response to the most recent torching of mobile phone towers in Bihar, police raids are being conducted with patrols in place to find the people responsible.

Pop-up African home, in an Oakland park, marks Ethiopian and Eritrean New Year

zena artist talkUsing the stories and voices of Ethiopian and Eritrean taxi drivers as inspiration, ten Bay Area artists have created a special pop-up art installation called “Home Away from Home” on a park lawn near Lake Merritt. The show is part of a series of local events honoring the Ethiopian and Eritrean new year.

Ethiopians and Eritreans around the world hold their New Year’s Day on Thursday, marking the end of the rainy season in eastern Africa and the start of that region’s spring. Though Bay Area Ethiopians and Eritreans will not be celebrating the day with a change of weather, one of the highlights of the week here is “Home Away from Home,” a temporary gallery set up in traditional-style circular home— an Ethiopian gojo, or Eritrean adjo—right in Eastshore Park, next to Lake Merritt.

“We wanted the theme to be ‘home away from home,’ and we thought, ‘Why don’t we take a home, away from home?’” said co-organizer Ellias Fullmore, an Ethiopian American musician and artist based in San Jose, California.

The Eastshore Park lawn welcomes curious passers-by. Along the gallery walls, the wood designs in the circular structure cast patterns of shadows on the artwork, and the shadow art seems to take on a life of its own as dusk approaches. A nearby soccer practice and the sounds of cars driving by make it feel less like a museum and more like a home.

Each of the artists who participated was given in advance a recording and a transcript of an interview with an Eritrean or Ethiopian taxi driver. Though not all the artists are Ethiopian or Eritrean, they all have ties to the community. Without meeting or knowing the name of the drivers, the artists then used the taxi cab stories for reflection and inspiration.

The art goes beyond the individual taxi drivers and touches on themes of home, travel, identity and space. Organizers Meklit Hadero, an Ethiopian-American singer, musician and cultural activist, andSephora Woldu, an Eritrean American visual artist and filmmaker, conducted the initial interviews with the drivers, and each of the ten artists created his or her own interpretation through art, music and poetry.

In explaining the importance of taxi drivers, Woldu said theirs are “stories of migration” that “inspired new artwork from artists who wanted to honor their experience.” Many Ethiopian and Eritrean immigrants settle into taxi driving, Hadero said. “Everyone has an uncle or cousin who is a taxi cab driver,” she said.

Zéna, a visual artist and musician who goes by one name, said, “It’s important for people in the world to see their stories on paper.” She added, “Some people’s histories are left out of the picture.”

The Bay Area is home to a large Ethiopian and Eritrean population. While the statistics do not account for people who are originally from Ethiopia, but traveled through other countries, according to Hadero the population is close to 20,000. “It’s huge and it’s growing,” she said. In many cases, working as a taxi driver is also an immigrant experience around the United States. In 2000, a Brooklyn-based consulting company found, nearly 40 percent of taxi and limo drivers in the United States were immigrants.

Zéna happened to be matched with the transcript and audio from a female taxi driver. Her watercolor painting for the show, which she calls “what was lost, what was gained,” has an almost religious feeling. The dominant image is a woman’s face, with bright purples and reds surrounding her. The neck gives way to what appears to be a deer, and hands that hold strings woven into an old-school boombox.

As she listened to the tape recording she had been given, Zéna said, she noticed hip-hop music in the background, and the tone of some of the language favored by her cab driver, “African-American culture and hip-hop had impacted her,” Zéna said. “One of the first things I thought of was her holding a boombox.”

Home Away from Home is part of a larger initiative sponsored by the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and Bay Area Now (BAN7). BAN7 aims to make art more accessible to all people.

BAN7 pairs artists with community members for projects like this, to provide participatory arts experiences in places like parks, neighborhood centers and housing complexes. Other projects include collaborations with artists in SOMA, Mission, Excelsior and West Oakland.

“Mostly I do my art for myself,” said Natasha Shompole, a Kenyan-born visual artist, now living in El Cerrito, whose painting in the show is called “Nara.” The taxi driver Shompole was paired with, she said, had traveled through nine different countries to reach the Bay Area. Shompole’s piece depicts the profile of a face at the bottom left with an elaborate crown of shapes with nine points. The lines from each of the nine points are strung together like a geometrical spider web.

“I am hoping people will see, or at least think about, how the small components make a whole,” Shompole said.

She might just as easily have been describing the Ethiopian and Eritrean community in Oakland.

5 Things You Should Know About India’s New Prime Minister Narendra Modi

This article originally appeared in Global Voices.

Narendra Modi expressing his happiness to voters and the media. Photo by Aviral Mediratta. Copyright Demotix (17/5/2014)

Indians have chosen Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in a historic landslide victory that unseated the ruling Indian National Congress party and signifies the return of a single-party majority.

Modi will soon be at the helm of the world’s largest democracy and an economic powerhouse. He has received criticism from many people, including writer Salman Rushdie and Harvard University professor Homi Bhabha, among others, in a joint statement against his candidacy.

But who is this charismatic but polemic leader? What does he stand for? There are things that are important to know, and not all of them bad.

1. He is controversial for his role in the 2002 Gujarat riots

Modi was chief minister of the state of Gujarat in 2002 when riots broke out in the city of Godhra after a train carrying Hindus was burnt down as it was coming from the holy city of Ayodhya in North India. In the ensuring Hindi-Muslim violence, between 900 and 2,000 people were killed, predominantly Muslim.

Modi, a Hindu nationalist, reportedly expressed satisfaction after the dismal events of 2002. His only regret was that he did not handle the news media better, according to the New York Times.

Though he has been cleared by the courts of India, some still believe he allowed the Gujarat riots to rage on. Senior police officer in the Gujarat intelligence bureau Sanjiv Bhatt alleges that Modi told officials that the Muslim community needed to be taught a lesson.

2. He may prove to have a positive impact on the economy

Modi’s win is expected to improve trade with the United States and boost the Indian economy. After interviewing 68,500 voters before and after the elections, a group of researchers from the University of Pennsylvania, Carnegie Endowment and India’s Lok Foundation reported that 57 percent of interviewees mentioned economic issues as “most important.”

As chief minister of Gujarat, he oversaw the rapid industrialization of once sleepy areas, a feat he says he wants to replicate elsewhere in India. Modi has used his successes in Gujarat as election leverage, holding up the “Gujarat model” to differentiate himself, as news site Live Mint reported.

If the 2002 riots hurt his campaign, the economic angle helped boost him back up. As Rajeev Malik, a Singapore-based economist, said in a Financial Times column:

It is not as if the 2002 [Gujarat riots] blot has been wiped out; it is just that the broader current urgency of economic well-being has overtaken a dated tragedy.

3. His track record on women’s issues may be lacking

Will the role of women improve under a Modi lead government? In an article for the Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy, Hardeep Dhillon criticized both candidates for seeing women through the lens of safety, security and education. She argued Modi specifically sees women as passive:

women are imagined to behave, think, and perform in uniformity and their politics are established prior to their emergence on the political landscape. As a result, Indian women are stripped of the very political agency Mr. Modi claims to advocate for, rendering them as passive – rather than active – political actors.

The author also raised concerns about the contrast between Modi’s vocal condemnations of the “rape culture” that led to the 2012 Delhi gang rape and his silence on the treatment of Muslim and minority women in his state. His “secret wife” – Modi had presented himself as a bachelor until this election cycle – has also caused some to question his treatment of women.

4. He maintains an anti-immigrant stance

significant number of Bangladeshis have migrated to India in the past decade to reunite with family members, for job opportunities, and to escape environmental crises, among other reasons. The wave of people has prompted India to step up security along its border with Bangladesh, including installing barbed-wire fences.

If Modi has his way, he would send all the undocumented Bangaldeshi immigrants back. In a speech on April 28, 2014, Modi threatened:

I want to warn from here, brothers and sisters write down, that after May 16, will send these Bangladeshis beyond the border with their bags and baggages.

The reaction to Modi’s speech on social media showed people are listening. Posts under the #deportbangladeshis hashtag made it to at the top of Twitter’s trend list in India.

5. His past religious fervor sets a questionable example for a secular India 

Modi was a youth member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a right-wing, volunteer Hindu nationalist group, and describes himself as a Hindu nationalist. In contrast to his youth as an RSS member, Modi has recently said he does not believe in dividing voters along religious lines.

Yet some still worry his election doesn’t bode well for religious tolerance. AsSunny Hundal wrote in an opinion piece for CNN:

The broader context is that India is seeing a rising tide of intolerance whipped up by Hindu nationalist groups that have forced books to be bannedintimidated journalists and threatened people for criticizing their leaders.

French Political Scientist Christophe Jaffrelot, in an interview with, alleged:

Plan A for Modi is to succeed on the economic front, and if that does not work then emphasising on Hindutva politics may be an important Plan B.

Indian author Pankaj Mishra painted a particularly dark picture in The Guardian, saying Modi’s election means “a new turbulent phase for the country – arguably, the most sinister since its independence from British rule in 1947.

For his part, Modi has maintained he speaks to all of India, regardless of religion:

For the nation my mantra is 125 crore Indians. Hindu, Muslim, Christians… The country had enough of all these terminologies. The new terminologies will be youth, poor, farmer, village, city, education.

Time will tell if he means that.

India: Mapping Street Harassment and Promoting Safe Cities

It may be a challenge to find an Indian girl who has managed to avoid being harassed on the street. Elsa Marie D’Silva is one of the founding members of Safecity, a crowdbased mapping service to “pin the creeps.” When asked if she’d ever experienced street harassment, D’Silva responded, “I haven’t met a single Indian girl who hasn’t faced street harassment.” Most women are trained to walk off quietly without creating a scene.

Safecity strongly believes all women We strongly believes that 'all women have the right to live safely"

Street harassment is pervasive in India and around the world, prompting many organizations to take action in order to combat this problem. In India, some of these include Freeze the Tease, andHollaback India. Safecity takes a different approach, the focus is not just to ask for people to respond to the harasser, but to “pin” the location of the incident on a map.

Part of a Safecity Bystander Campaign, courtesy of Safecity's Facebook page

Safecity (also on Twitter and Facebook), inspired by a similar project in Egypt calledHarassmap, began as a response to the massive protests after the now infamous Delhi gangrape in December 2012. The creators aimed to establish a platform and forum to address harassment on a long term basis. Safecity is an information aggregation platform to help identify hotspots in a city where abuse has been reported. To create a safe space for all people, Safecity asks users to “Pin the creeps!” sharing stories, photographs and/or videos and, most importantly, the location of where the event happened.

Thus far, there have been over 2700 reported incidents. While the focus is on larger trends, rather than individual cases, Safecity has been working with police in two states to see how this information might be used in coordination with law enforcement.

A poster for schools available on the Safecity website

Safecity may also be a prevention tool. In one case, referred to as the “Shakti Mills Case” the accused confessed that they had raped four women at the same spot. According to the organizers this means other attempts could have been made, as D’Silva and Saloni said, “If a few people had reported the spot as a harassment prone area, different action could have been taken.”

The founders of Safecity are a small group of like-minded citizens who believe in the right to live in a safe society. “We also believe that a woman should be able to move around without fear or distress; without having to calculate which road she has to travel on so that she will be safe; without having to worry about the clothes she wears or the people she is with.”

As D’Silva and fellow founder Saloni Malhotra wrote via email, “People who harass do so in their own comfort zones. Silence on the part of victims and bystanders makes them more confident and the harassment only grows.” Instead of feeling hopeless, the organizers ask, “What can we do as ordinary citizens to change the situation? Isn’t it the society that created this problem in the first place? What can we do to make change?”

Screenshot of the Safecity map

With this in mind, Safecity is working on a series of videos discussing the importance of women knowing how to keep themselves safe. Some of the suggestions Safecity has compiled include: avoid traveling alone, never accept food or drinks from a person you don’t know, and always get your own drink at a party, among others. Let’s hope it won’t be long before these lists are no longer needed.

Becoming a Community Photographer: A Window Into the “Real India”

This article originally appeared in Global Voices


“Until I came to Ranchi in 2012 for the first workshop, I had never held a camera in my life. My hand shook, and I really wasn’t sure I could do it.”

Deena Ganwer, from Chhattisgarh (quoted online at the workshop’s blog), was one of the participants in a recent series of photography workshops organised by Video Volunteers in partnership with Magnum Foundation.

Video Volunteers – based in Goa, India – aims to train and empower grassroots media producers to express their own stories about their local communities. Video Volunteers helps people to advocate for concerns which might otherwise never make it into the media. Magnum Foundation focuses on production and distribution of in-depth documentary projects; it is the charity arm of the acclaimed photography cooperative Magnum Photos founded by Robert Capa and Henri Cartier Bresson in 1947.


Usha Patel photographs milk cooperatives run by women in Uttar Pradesh.

Usha Patel photographs milk cooperatives run by women in Uttar Pradesh.


The “Storytelling Through Photography” workshops were comprised of a selected group of 20 community correspondents, all of whom had participated in earlier training with Video Volunteers, and who have been consistently producing videos about their communities. This network of community reporters is a Video Volunteers program called IndiaUnheard, training community correspondents to explore unreported stories – and in turn feeding this community-produced content to national and international outlets, whether mainstream television channels or social networking sites.

From the Video Volunteers website:

These Community Correspondents represent India’s most marginalized perspectives, including Dalits and tribal people, as well as religious, lingual and sexual minorities… Through IndiaUnheard, Video Volunteers offers the global audience a clear window into the real India. Every day, video reports on key issues such as caste, conflict, identity and education are gathered from across the country.


Sunita Kasera photographs a family in Gadiyanwal who lives out of a cart.

Sunita Kasera photographs a family of the Gadiyanwal tribe who lives out of a cart.


Building on the IndiaUnheard project participants, the workshops were taught by trainers from Magnum, photographers Olivia Arthur and Sohrab Hura.

Attendees were primarily female, said Kayonaaz Kalyanwala, Program Coordinator for Video Volunteers:

We wanted mostly women candidates and selected those who we felt would have the most potential to take up photography and also those for whom this would be an incentive to make more videos… Our CCs [Community Correspondents] are strong at activism but sometimes less skilled at visuals, and we knew photography was a great way for them to develop a better eye.

From these workshops, each participant created a mini-series, documenting their community. The photo stories feature a range of topics, including alcohol abuse, local superstition, disability, and environmental concerns.


Babita Maurya photographs local schools.

Babita Maurya photographs local schools.


The community correspondents attending the class worked with subjects in their communities, documenting local stories and lives. For some reporters, their subjects were merely acquaintances, while others knew their subjects well – allowing for a close insight into their daily lives. One photographer, Saroj Paraste, chose a disabled girl as her subject, getting to know her by staying with her family for a week, earning trust before even taking out her camera. Saroj was quoted on the Video Volunteers websiteas saying, “Since the girl was at first not keen to be photographed, I spent a lot of time making her feel comfortable. In the end she grew very fond of me and was happy to be a part of the project.”


Xavier Hamsay photographs a blind girl in his community.

Xavier Hamsay photographs a blind girl in his community.


Kayonaaz noted that the workshops are a way to introduce the correspondents to another medium through which they can tell their stories. Equipped with simple cameras, they are required to send a set of photographs back to Video Volunteers every few months. As she said in an email interview,

We want to make sure that once trained, they continue to use photography as a tool. At the same time VV is trying to get their work out there through exhibitions and other media platforms.

You can see more photographs are available on the projects’ blog, and Video Volunteers will present on the work of the Community Correspondents during theDelhi Photo Festival in October of 2013.


Nirmala Ekka photographs waste collectors' daily lives.

Nirmala Ekka photographs waste collectors’ daily lives.


All photographs are used with permission from the Magnum Foundation.

Emerging powers and the Indian elephant

This article originally appeared on Al Jazeera opinion

India is in the red colour zone with a ranking of 105 in the international ranking on the gender gap [AFP]
As Superman once said, and it has since been quoted by President Obama, “With great power, comes great responsibility”. Looking at the emerging power of the BRICs – Brazil, Russia, India and China – what are the responsibilities?

In the wake of the Delhi gang rape and news of the Swiss woman’s rape, I propose the BRICs – with India as a leader – take steps to act responsibly when it comes to women’s rights and violence against women.

The BRICs have gained attention since 2001, when the term was initially coined. From 2000 to 2008, the BRICs’ share of GDP rose from 16 to 22 percent. The Times (London) has quoted a financial adviser predicting that by 2050, the BRICs nations will “dominate the globe”. Each BRIC country has its own view of power and responsibility. Each BRIC country also has its own record when it comes to human rights and women’s issues.

International Ranking on the gender gap ranks Brazil 62nd out of 135. Russia comes in at 59 and India is in the red colour zone with a ranking of 105 and China still makes it into the orange zone at number 69.

Gender violence is a global human rights concern and should be considered an even greater concern for the BRIC countries to continue to be competitively responsible economic leaders. According to Nicholas D Kristof:

“Women worldwide ages 15 through 44 are more likely to die or be maimed because of male violence then because of cancer, malaria, war, and traffic accidents combined.”

In addition, the World Health Organization estimates that domestic and sexual violence impacts 30 to 60 percent of women in most countries. A new film, Girl Rising, highlights some of the issues that young women face, arguing that the key is to invest in girls and women.

As co-author of the Gender Gap study, Laura D Tyson, SK, and Angela Chan, Professor of Global Management, Haas School of Business, University of California at Berkeley, say:

“Gender gaps can be closed with the right policies. As countries experiment with policy choices in this area, they should share the lessons from their experience to accelerate progress.”

Of the 635 rape cases reported in the first 11 months of 2012 in New Delhi, there was only one conviction. There is something seriously wrong with this. A wide range of policies and actions should be put in place to ensure that rape and violence against women do not continue to be accepted in society.

 Swiss tourist ‘gang-raped’ in India

Are the BRIC countries responsible stakeholders? Looking at the case of India, we see it is both an awkward elephant in its own desire for a stable region and a responsible partner in creating world order.

In contrast to Pakistan, India sides with the West and has cooperated in the “war on terror”, especially after 2008 Mumbai attacks.

India is set to be the fourth largest economy in 2025. The high-tech industry is booming along with its growing population. It is already a nuclear power, in addition to being a force for soft power through its Bollywood movies and music.

While it would like a place on the UN Security Council, India still struggles with human rights abuses, as evidenced by reports from the Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. India has not signed the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, but of course, it has not been ratified by the US either.

In addition, India serves as home to the Tibetan government in exile – which along with domestic disputes, regarding Naxalites and Maoists in the Northeastern provinces, threaten its ability to work in conjunction with China.

Still, India is not a permanent member of the UN Security Council, nor does it receive a plethora of preferential treatment through any global institutions. Despite Bollywood, the tech industry and a diaspora that covers much of the globe, for India to be a power player, it must be given greater responsibility and it must take action to eradicate violence against women.

Here there is a challenge. If India has to take on a greater role, it needs to be given greater responsibilities. But, if the global community has to give it greater power, India has to demonstrate that it can use the power responsibly.

Given India’s history, these greater roles and responsibilities will not be able to come from the West or the rest of the world. It must come from an Indian desire, in an Indian way and perhaps at an Indian time to speak up and speak out.

If the BRICs want to continue collaborating in a way that makes a difference beyond economic policy, they should start with acting to stop global violence against women.