Mohammad Azharuddin: The rise and fall of the Nawab of Hyderabad

Mohammad Azharuddin: The rise and fall of the Nawab of Hyderabad
Photo Credit: Sena Vidanagama/AFP
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There is something about Hyderabad that gives its cricketers their characteristic lazy elegance. When the bat is their hands, cricket ceases to be a power game. It becomes a game of gentleness, joviality and civility.

Before VVS Laxman came another magician from the city of nawabs – Mohammed Azharuddin, a man with a brooding face and permanently furrowed brows.

And those wrists.

With one flick of his wrists, the bat would meet the ball, sometimes in mid-turn, and speed away – never in anger, but in refinement. Like the great Gundappa Viswanath before him, and Laxman after him, Azharuddin was an artist at the crease.

And yet it all fell away. Not many Indian cricketers have the fortune of being the subject of a biopic, but Azharuddin is one of them. This summer will see the release of Azhar, starring Emraan Hashmi and directed by Tony D’Souza. But it is unlikely the movie will focus much on Azharuddin’s cricketing exploits. It will probably dwell on the colourful life of one of Indian cricket’s most enigmatic personalities.

On top of the world

At his peak, there was no equal. Between the ’80s when he made his debut with three consecutive centuries in his first Tests, till the late 1990s, Mohammad Azharuddin had the world at his feet. He received the Arjuna Award in 1986. The English soon noticed his talent. “It’s no use asking an Englishman to bat like Mohammad Azharuddin,” said John Woodcock, the well-known English cricket writer. “It would be like expecting a greyhound to win the Epsom Derby.”

The Sachin Tendulkar era had already started but Azharuddin had marked out his space. For many young cricket fans, Tendulkar was the epitome of perfection, but Azharuddin was the embodiment of elegance. His artistry on the field had an ageless grace no other cricketer had. His stoic, brooding demeanour added to the sense of enigma about him. While others celebrated after India’s on-field victories, he was the battle-scarred veteran who ensured that success and failure were treated the same. Whatever the result, Azharuddin’s expressions hardly changed. His “boys played well” comment after an India win became a standing joke. If cricket journalists today find skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s cryptic comments annoying, they would have perhaps had an apoplectic fit trying to get Azharuddin to talk.

The gossip column

For all his on-field restraint, Azharuddin lived a colourful life off it. India’s staid media was changing after 1991, and he was perfect fodder for tabloids. Columns were devoted to his second marriage, to Bollywood actress Sangeeta Bijlani. Cricket and Bollywood have always made for eye-grabbing headlines but Bijlani’s earlier engagement to a certain Salman Khan made the new couple even more gossip-worthy.

On the field, Azharuddin carried on playing. The Indian selectors have always played musical chairs with the captaincy, and the trend continued with Azharuddin. By the late ’90s, he swapped the captaincy with Tendulkar a few times, but no one expected him to be dropped from the team.

Azharuddin soon neared the elite 100-Test mark. The script seemed predictable – He would play his 100th Test, and announce his retirement.

But that was not to be.

The nowhere man

On June 15, 2000, former South Africa captain Hansie Cronje, facing charges of match-fixing, deposed before the King Commission of inquiry.

As much of the suspicion revolved around the just concluded South African tour of India, many assumed that there would be an Indian involvement, but few believed it would run very deep.

“On the evening of the third day of the third Test against India in Kanpur, I received a call from Azharuddin,” began Cronje. “He called me to a room in a hotel and introduced me to Mukesh Gupta [a bookie], otherwise known as MK. Azharuddin then departed and left us alone in the room.”

And with that short statement, Azharuddin had been clean bowled.

At first, the Board of Control for Cricket in India was guarded in its reaction. But when the Central Bureau of Investigation found Azharuddin guilty of fixing the result of matches, it banned him for life, as did the International Cricket Council.

Azharuddin denied the allegations against him, perhaps making his case worse by claiming that he was being targeted because he belonged to a minority community. But few bought his story.

The cricketer was no longer known for his wristy stroke play. He was seen as a corrupt scoundrel who had desecrated the gentleman’s game. He would remain stranded on 99 Tests, tantalisingly out of reach of the greatness that had once seemed his destiny.

His legacy

It is particularly interesting to compare Azharuddin’s fate with that of his teammate Ajay Jadeja.

Jadeja was banned for five years in 2000 for match-fixing, but the Delhi High Court overturned the ban in 2003. Jadeja went on to become a well-respected cricket commentator and even made a return to the Ranji Trophy. There was no trace of those dark days – it was as if he had never been convicted.

Azharuddin was not so lucky. His case dragged on, and though the Board of Control for Cricket in India revoked his ban in 2006, he remained an outcast.

Politics came calling soon after, and the former Indian captain became a Member of Parliament on a Congress ticket from Moradabad in 2009.

After his electoral victory in Moradabad, his personal life continued to draw attention as reports of his divorce with Bijlani emerged. In 2011, his youngest son Ayazuddin was killed in a bike accident in Hyderabad.

Azharuddin got some relief in 2012 when the Andhra Pradesh High Court set aside his life ban. But he was 49 at the time and too old to get back on the pitch.

Azharuddin will undoubtedly merit a chapter in the history of Indian cricket, but his portrayal won’t be flattering. The man who commodified the gentleman’s game, the man who sold his country out, are just some of the descriptors likely to be attached to his legacy.

But one image can never really be erased. A scowling, much-younger Azharuddin – head bent, brows furrowed, bat at an angle – observing the red ball scoot to the mid-wicket boundary.


Harsh Mander: If JNU union leader is tried for sedition, I too should be charged with the same crime

Harsh Mander: If JNU union leader is tried for sedition, I too should be charged with the same crimePhoto Credit: IANS
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It was a stirring evening of resistance, solidarity and hope.

On Saturday, I joined several thousand students, teachers and political leaders outside the office of the Vice Chancellor of Jawaharlal University in Delhi, to protest the arrest of the JNU Students’ Union President Kanhaiya Kumar, and the presence of the police on the campus. Armed security forces were visible everywhere on the campus. The university had begun to resemble a cantonment under siege.

The university management had turned off the electric power connections at the meeting site to prevent the use of the loudspeakers, in a ham-handed attempt to foil the protest. The students used makeshift battery-operated mikes instead, and the voices of the speakers still carried far because the large crowd of students was disciplined and quiet. Intermittently, students cheered each of the speakers, raised their clenched fists in slogans, and celebrated their unity and defiance. It has been a long time since I felt surrounded by the heady optimism of youth, camaraderie and idealism as I did this evening.

The campus has many students’ unions, reflecting a wide range of ideological opinion, from many shades of the Left, socialist, centrist and right-wing politics. There is usually sharp rivalry and competition between these various student groups. But after Kumar’s arrest, all these student unions came together at this protest, except the student wing of the BJP – the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad. What was also unusual about the protest was that large section of the JNU teachers’ union also joined and supported the students’ protest.

In a corner of the massive student gathering, a small number of students of the ABVP raised slogans and black flags supporting the police action against the student leaders. Their numbers were too small to drown out the speeches from the podium. The ABVP students’ counter-slogans formed only a kind of background score to the evening’s events, which in a strange way I did not find discordant (except when the students assaulted one of the speakers).The exercise by this small minority of students of their right to protest only further reinforced the larger student demand to defend the spaces for democratic dissent and debate inside the campus of all shades of political opinion.

Many speakers celebrated the unique place that JNU has carved out for itself in India’s public and intellectual life, and indeed in nation-building. Every tongue spoke in the vast and diverse land of India could be heard somewhere in the hostels of this university. Every community from every corner of the country has contributed students to this campus. Every colour of political opinion would find its adherents in this campus. Democratic debate is central to the university’s ethos. I have often been invited by JNU students from diverse unions for after-dinner debates, and each time I accept, I am struck by the numbers of students who voluntarily gather for these meetings, listen carefully, and engage and passionately debate with me and other speakers late into the night.

The right to dream

When my turn came to speak during Saturday’s protest, it was late into the evening. I began by declaring that a country is infinitely poorer if its young people are prevented from their free right to dream and dissent, because throughout history and across the planet, the journey of creating a more just and humane world has begun always with the dreams and also the challenges and disagreements of its young people. If Kanhaiya Kumar, the JNU Students’ Union President, is anti-national, and before him, if Rohith Vemula of the Hyderabad Central University was anti-national, then I declared that I too am anti-national.

By all credible accounts, the meeting of February 9 that set off this storm had been organised not to uphold separatist politics but to protest against the principle of the death penalty awarded to Afzal Guru, convicted for his role in the Parliament attack of 2001. I recall my own writings at the time he was marched to the gallows. At that time, I wrote in the Hindu: “The hanging of Afzal Guru on 9 February, 2013 raises a thicket of debates – ethical, legal and political – about justice, law, democracy, capital punishment, and a strong state. What is the quality of true justice? Is it enough for it to be lawful, fair and dispassionate, or must it also be tempered with mercy?”

I went on to say that the High Court’s reference in its 2003 judgment to “the collective conscience of the society” being satisfied by awarding the death penalty to Guru caused me great unease, because the only legitimate reason for a court to award any punishment should be the fair application of the law to the evidence placed before it, not the appeasement of alleged majoritarian public opinion. I also expressed my anguish at the distressing failure of official compassion and public decency in denying Afzal Guru’s wife and teenaged son the chance to meet him for the last time before his execution. The haste and secrecy of the execution also unconscionably denied him his last available legal resource, affirmed by the Supreme Court in the Kartar Singh case, to seek judicial review of the rejection of his mercy petition.

I had concluded: “Many believe that the belated execution signalled a strong and decisive state, especially to the ‘neighbouring country’. One glance at the daily reality of this neighbouring country will reflect the brutalising wages of years of “decisive” politics of militarism and public vengeance. It is not a weak, but a stable, mature and confident democracy which can display compassion even to those we may believe have most wronged the country.”

Unsurprisingly, I was attacked savagely on social media by trolls of a particular political persuasion, casting me to be “anti-national” for months. But at least I was not booked for sedition. It worries me deeply that today this same debate – that raises most fundamental questions of public ethics and law – initiated by students in a university, instead of being welcomed, is treated as criminal sedition, for which the principal organiser is at the time of writing in police remand.

A mischievous claim

There is little doubt that Kanhaiya Kumar could not have either raised or supported slogans against the Indian nation, because these were never part of his politics, or those of AISF (the All India Students’ Federation) of which he was a member in JNU or the Communist Party of India, of which AISF is the student wing. The charges against him are transparently a mischievous attempt to use untruths to stoke popular majoritarian and hyper-nationalist sentiment against both him and the university that had elected him to lead its Students’ Union.

However, it is important to add that even if there were some Kashmiri students who did raise slogans expressing disaffection against India and in support of independence for Kashmir, the fitting response to this would only have been open public debate in which students and teachers heard their views and challenged these, not to charge these students with the grave colonial crime of sedition that could result in their imprisonment for up to 10 years. Universities are places where young people must feel free to challenge the received wisdom of the times they live in. Their minds and hearts must be freed of the fetters of fear and the obligation to conform to powerful or dominant opinion. It is in universities that students the world over have fought colonialism, unjust wars, tyranny, hate and unequal social orders. Governments and indeed majority opinion may be pitted powerfully against their views, but a democracy requires the stout defence of their right to profess and debate these ideas, even by those who are opposed to these ideas. Universities in a democracy cannot be allowed to become places where the institution’s leadership allows police to walk in and arrest students at will, and where dissent by students or indeed teachers is demonised and criminalised.

It is for these reasons that I declared that if Kanhaiya Kumar is charged with sedition, I demand that I be tried for the same crime. And I know that I am not alone in this demand.


We feel cheated by BJP’s communal politics, say Patel leaders in Gujarat

We feel cheated by BJP’s communal politics, say Patel leaders in Gujarat
Photo Credit: Sam Panthaky/AFP
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On August 25, 2015, even as Rahul Desai joined thousands of Hardik Patel supporters in a rally demanding caste-based reservations for Patidars, he could never have imagined that he would be spewing venom against the Bharatiya Janata Party one day.

But six months after the infamous Patel rally, which led to rioting and vandalism in Ahmedabad and reported police atrocities on Patidars across Gujarat, Desai cannot contain his bitterness against the party ruling both the Centre and the state. The 31-year-old Desai is the Ahmedabad West convenor of Hardik Patel’s Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti, and has been actively mobilising community members ever since Hardik Patel and other leaders of the organisation were arrested on sedition charges in October.

“In all my speeches, I remind people that we Patels have supported the BJP for years, not just through votes but also through notes,” said Desai, speaking to on a busy street in Ahmedabad’s Bapunagar suburb. “Patidar money helped BJP rise to power, and now look how they are treating us. We cannot let them win in the state election next year.”

Rahul Desai, a convener for the Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti in Ahmedabad
Rahul Desai, a convener for the Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti in Ahmedabad

Police atrocities unpunished?

Like many of the Patels around him, Desai’s grouse isn’t merely that the BJP is refusing to grant Other Backward Class status to the Patidar caste. The more immediate complaint, he says, is that the state government of Anandiben Patel has so far allowed the Gujarat police to get away with impunity with the many crimes it allegedly committed in the days after August 25, 2015.

For two days after the rally, in Bapunagar, Naroda, Ranip and other Patel-dominated neighbourhoods of Ahmedabad, army and Gujarat police personnel reportedly assaulted residents in their homes, vandalised their windows and cars, and made sexualised threats towards women. Similar allegations were made by Patidars in Surat, Mehsana, Patan and other parts of Gujarat.

Six months on, hundreds of Patel men have been slapped with what Desai calls “predominantly false” charges of looting, rioting, murder and attempt to murder. “But not a single FIR has been lodged against the police for breaking into our homes, beating innocent men and women, and destroying so much of our property,” he said. “We have gone to file complaints several times in the past few months, but none of it gets formally lodged as an FIR.”

The only case filed against the police so far has to do with the custodial death of Shwetang Patel, a 30-year-old from Bapunagar, and it was lodged only after the Gujarat High Courtordered the Criminal Investigation Department to take over the case. “All these months later, the CID’s investigations are going nowhere,” said Desai, one of the many Patidar Samiti members who pursued the registration of the First Information Report in Shwetang Patel’s case. “Only two policemen have been suspended so far, and they are both constables with desk jobs who could not have been involved in the beatings that led to Shwetang’s death.”

‘Congress did well because of Patels’

For many Patels, the outrage at such police “harassment” and the lack of media sympathy for their plight has led to a compounded frustration with the BJP government and its leaders.

The Patidar demand for OBC reservation was born out of growing unemployment, corruption in higher education and the alleged failure of Narendra Modi’s famed Gujarat model of development. Six months ago, the criticism of the BJP, which has ruled the state for 20 years, was guarded and hesitant. Now, as Patels struggle to cope with a newfound fear of the police and the perceived indifference of the state and Central governments, the anti-BJP sentiment has been pouring out.

When Gujarat had its local body elections in December 2015, the Congress won an unprecedented 21 district panchayats out of 31, even though the BJP retained its hold on civic bodies in urban areas. “The Congress did so well in rural Gujarat because of us Patels,” said Maheshbhai Patel, a diamond polisher from Bapunagar. “We could have made the BJP lose in urban areas also, but the names of at least five lakh Patels were taken off the voters list.”

Despite these allegations, Maheshbhai Patel is relieved that in India Colony, a neighbourhood within Bapunagar, all four civic corporators who won the election are from the Congress. In Mehsana, the local Patidar Samiti president Lalbhai Patel states with pride that the new chairman of the Mehsana municipal corporation’s town planning department is a Muslim woman from the Congress – Allahrakhi Belim. “This is the first time in years that a Muslim has held a post of authority at the municipal level in Mehsana, and the Patels are in a way responsible for that,” said Lalbhai Patel.

‘Godhra train burning was a BJP plan’

Six months ago, Patidars were uncomfortable bringing up the obvious parallels between the police atrocities they faced and the Muslim victims of the 2002 communal riots in Gujarat. But today, Patidar Samiti leaders like Rahul Desai and Lalbhai Patel are candid enough to raise the communal question themselves as they lash out against the BJP.

“The BJP is fundamentally a communal party that has been planting its ideology of fearing Muslims for years now,” said Desai. “I can tell you with certainty that Modi would never have been re-elected as the chief minister in 2002 if it had not been for the Godhra train burning.”

In February 2002, a mob at Godhra railway station killed 59 commuters of the Sabarmati Express by setting fire to its coaches. Thirty one Muslims were later convicted. The arson was followed by intense communal riots across Gujarat in which more than a thousand people died. Desai, who was in school at the time, remembers being shown videos of the Godhra train burning in class.

“They were doing it to propagate the idea that all Hindus need to come together or else the Muslims would kill us,” said Desai. “I don’t know if the men who burnt the train were Muslims or not, but I know that the Godhra train burning was a pre-planned political stunt by the BJP to win the state election later that year.”

When communal thinking takes root, says Desai, it is very difficult to get rid of. “Because of the BJP’s propaganda, all of us began to think communally, and I feel kind of cheated now,” he said. “Even today, people are afraid that Muslims will riot against them, but honestly, even if they don’t, the BJP will get it done.”

‘Such politics leads to Naxalism’

Desai acknowledges that he may not be speaking for all Patidars in Gujarat, but he is certain that all other members of the Patidar Andolan Samiti share his views.

In Mehsana, Lalbhai Patel could not agree more. “Of course, Godhra and the 2002 riots were orchestrated by the BJP. It is obvious to us now, but back then it wasn’t,” said Lalbhai Patel. “Last time they targeted Muslims. Now they are allowing the Patels to be persecuted. This is exactly the kind of politics that leads to the creation of Naxals.”

For now, Patidar leaders are in no mood to support the party they were once loyal to in the state Assembly election next year. But even as the community accepts help from the Congress to fight various cases against Patidar men, Desai and Lalbhai are firm that Patel allegiance will not blindly bend towards the Congress this election.

“We will vote for whoever gives in to our demands – both reservations and justice for the police atrocities,” said Lalbhai Patel. “The Patidars are already now building connections with OBC Thakors and Miyas [Muslims], so you never know – even a third front might come up.”


The Independent newspaper dies as it was born – in the white heat of technology

The Independent newspaper dies as it was born – in the white heat of technology
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Sunday, bloody Sunday: things began to go wrong for The Independent when the decision was made in 1990 to publish a Sunday edition. From the outset, it haemorrhaged money. And Murdoch dealt a second debilitating blow when he cut the price of competitor The Times. Revenue evaporated, and the Indy titles never truly recovered.

Perhaps the British media’s most regular topic of idle speculation in recent years, the question of how long the Independent newspapers could soldier on for has been answered emphatically by the news that the papers are to cease printing in March and become an online-only operation, with the loss of many jobs.

I was one of the journalists that launched the Independent in 1986 and worked there until 1995. As the dust settles, the autopsy will identify a sequence of events that turned the greatest Fleet Street success story of modern times into a protracted tragedy.

The Independent was perverse, smart, irreverent, sceptical – and very well written. It began without much idea of where it was going. Early news content had rather too many stories about what was “set to” happen, too much about what people said and too little about what they did. But the editors, sub editors and reporters hit their stride. They were encouraged to find stories and project vividly what was unearthed; if the Press Association news agency was covering it, then let’s take their coverage and have Indy reporters out finding unique content.

And they did. Tony Bevins in politics, for example. Heather Mills in home affairs. Paddy Barclay in football. John Carlin in South Africa. John Price’s news editing. Photographers were encouraged to eschew conventional picture composition. And their striking images were used imaginatively.

But the paper’s greatest virtue from was perhaps its copy tasting, the process of decision-making about what should be published, what prominence it should be given, and what should be discarded.

One typically compelling splash revealed the high number of babies born in New York to mothers who were HIV-positive. It was a story that had been buried in copy filed by a news agency. But the Independent’s curiosity was aroused, the story developed and competitors were left baffled by what they had missed – just one example of the paper’s independent streak.

Some of the distinctive journalism that characterised the papers was lost as ownership shifted. By the mid-1990s the Mirror Group had a stake. In the early 2000s it moved to a compact (tabloid) formatm and more recently it launched a successful cut-price spin-off, the i, which is being sold on to to Johnston Press.

The i was born under the Lebedevs who bought the titles from Independent News & Mediain 2010. In recent decades there have still been traces of the paper’s original voice, but only a shadow of that early élan.

Saved by Thatcher

Readers responded, but slowly. One month, not long after launch, the company only narrowly found the cash to pay wages. Its saviour was probably Mrs Thatcher. Her governments polarised opinion, in Fleet Street as well as among the electorate. So theIndependent’s boast of neutrality – “It is, are you?” – was suited perfectly to attract readers to its coverage of the 1987 general election.

Other ingredients merit mention. It was Murdoch, paradoxically, who made theIndependent possible: excellent reporters and editors on The Times and The Sunday Timesopted not to cross picket lines at the paper’s union-busting printers at Wapping, and were promptly recruited by the Indy’s founders, especially editor Andreas Whittam Smith.

Whittam Smith, the son of an Anglican clergyman and known by his staff as “the saintly one”, was a thoughtful, slightly detached figure. For humble reporters, it was hard to discern the essence of his ability. But he created in the City Road offices an atmosphere in which staff felt they had a proprietorial and emotional stake in their paper, a compelling incentive to do what they loved to do: good, serious and (also importantly) occasionally frivolous journalism. As circulation climbed, narrowing the gap with the Guardian, theDaily Telegraph and The Times, there were more reasons to be cheerful. This was the place to work on Fleet Street.

It was also Whittam Smith’s decision to launch the Independent on Sunday, something that puzzled those members of staff who recalled him not that long before denying any intention to enter the Sunday market. Perhaps it was an attempt to stymie the Sunday Correspondent, which had just launched.

From 1990, after Murdoch fired the first shots in the price war, energy levels dipped. The papers were never without flair, without imagination. But there were increasingly without money. But for those four or five years, it hardly seemed to matter. We were masters of the newspaper universe.