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These little Santa’s are carted to school in cycle rickshaws to celebrate Christmas in Northern India. Christmas is widely celebrated across the nation cutting across religion and culture. The festival also marks the beginning of the annual winter vacation, particularly in the freezing North, which lasts until the middle of January.

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“social crime”

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India state minister on rape: ‘Sometimes it’s right, sometimes it’s wrong’

Home minister in BJP-run Madhya Pradesh state describes rape as a ‘social crime’ in comments playing down rapes

Women in Uttar Pradesh protest against the state goverment after two cousins aged 12 and 14 were raped and hanged. Photograph: Hindustan Times/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

A state minister from Indian prime minister Narendra Modi’s ruling party has described rape as a “social crime”, saying “sometimes it’s right, sometimes it’s wrong”, in the latest controversial remarks by an Indian politician about rape.

The political leaders of Uttar Pradesh, the state where two cousins aged 12 and 14 were raped and hanged last week, have faced criticism for failing to visit the scene and for accusing the media of hyping the story.

A regional politician from Modi’s own Bharatiya Janata party (BJP), said that the crime of rape can only be considered to have been committed if it is reported to police.

“This is a social crime which depends on men and women. Sometimes it’s right, sometimes it’s wrong,” said Babulal Gaur, the home minister responsible for law and order in the BJP-run central state of Madhya Pradesh.

“Until there’s a complaint, nothing can happen,” he told reporters.

Gaur also expressed sympathy with Mulayam Singh Yadav, head of the regional Samajwadi party that runs Uttar Pradesh. In the recent election, Mulayam criticised legal changes that foresee the death penalty for gang rape, saying: “Boys commit mistakes: will they be hanged for rape?”

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Opinion:

This minister should be dismissed and flogged.

Kashmir

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We often hear about Kashmir, some of us even know it is near Pakistan and India. It is often mentioned in terms of terrorism, border skirmishes and the like. But what is Kashmir really?

Here’s a story…

BBC’s Owen Bennett Jones: Three surprises from Kashmir visit

After years of conflict what do these young Kashmiris face in the future?

Anyone who has visited Pakistan will have consumed more than their fair share of news – or perhaps propaganda – about Kashmir. And after 15 years of travel to the country I know the Pakistani version of the Kashmir story backwards.

But now, after my first trip to the Indian side of the Line of Control, I have had the chance to reach my own conclusions about what’s going on in Indian-administered Kashmir.

For the uninitiated, a brief history. When the British left the subcontinent in 1947 the status of Kashmir was unresolved. To cut a very long and contested story short, the Hindu Maharaja or King of Kashmir decided his Muslim majority state would join up not with Pakistan but India. The dispute has led to wars and today Pakistan has around one-third of Kashmir and India two-thirds, including the Muslim majority, and intensely politicised, Kashmir Valley.

Time has not healed the wounds. To keep control India has to deploy as many as 400,000 security personnel. Although all the numbers relating to Kashmir are keenly disputed it is probably fair to say that as many as 100,000 people have been killed in the struggle between Kashmiris and the Indian state.

That’s the history – what’s happening today? If you listen to the Pakistani version then India is repressing the aspirations of the Kashmiri people to join Pakistan or perhaps become independent. If you listen to India, it is defending its territory against jihadi militants sent over the Line of Control by a malevolent Pakistani security apparatus.

Everyday life in Kashmir differs greatly from what the average tourist sees

I arrived in Kashmir with a planeload of Indian tourists. They see a beautiful place. Kashmiri businessmen give them a warm welcome. If they should stray beyond the tourist hotspots then the Indian soldiers on patrol are, for them, a reassuring presence. But for the most part their holidays are untouched by the political conflict. The only minor inconvenience they will experience is that many of their mobile phones don’t work in Kashmir. The Indian state wants to know exactly what people in Kashmir are saying.

Which is one reason why the Kashmiri perspective on life in Kashmir is quite different to that of the tourists. Kashmiris have learnt to live with both political violence and the Indian intelligence agencies. If you are talking politics in a café in Srinagar and a stranger sits at the next table – you stop talking. If a foreign journalist asks you how many people in the Kashmir Valley support union with Pakistan, off the record you say 25% but on the record you adjust the number down to 10%.

The Indian army has been in Kashmir so long, and it has been given such huge resources, that it now has a very tight grip on Kashmiri society. The militants – rumour has it there now just around 100 in the Kashmir Valley – are up against an army that not only monitors all communications but also has a well-developed network of paid informers and that has got to know every nook and cranny of Kashmir.

Kashmir Valley still sees clashes between the Indian army and militants, but violence has fallen

So what has surprised me about Indian-administered Kashmir? Three things.

First I had no idea how sharply reduced the insurgency is. For more than 20 years – as Pakistani TV showed at great length – there was intense violent conflict between separatists and the Indian army. There are still clashes today but so few that it is now possible to walk through Srinagar after sunset in relative safety. There are now more checkpoints in Peshawar or even Islamabad than in Srinagar

Secondly, the Indian state has been remarkably unsuccessful in winning over the residents of the Kashmir Valley. Even the pro-India National Conference seems to accept Indian a rule as an unavoidable reality rather than a desired outcome. Whether they come from political traditions that look to Delhi or to Islamabad there are very few residents of the Kashmir Valley who would not embrace independence with relief and enthusiasm.

Many students in Srinagar are adamant: Indian rule is oppressive and they are willing, if necessary, to live their whole lives in resistance.

Cricket is a popular sport passionately followed in Kashmir

And the third surprise? I have often read that Kashmir has an unusually tolerant political culture. Given the levels of violence and division it seems an implausible claim. But I have never been anywhere where people are so tolerant of each other’s different political positions and religious beliefs. Just think of the genuine anger felt by liberals and conservatives about the relatively minor issues that define the political divide in the United States. Well in Kashmir you can hear a fairly hardline separatist describe the Indian army chief in Kashmir as a nice man.

Many Kashmiris disagree with each other. But for the most part they do so with grace and goodwill.

It’s an approach that is, in part, a survival strategy. Everyone knows India is unlikely to make any compromises over Kashmir for the foreseeable future. While a post-imperial power such as the UK is willing to offer an independence referendum to the Scots, emerging powers don’t give up territory. If there is the slightest chance that the Kashmiris would opt for independence, then they won’t be given a vote on it.

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India’s elephant girl takes on the herds

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Nirmala walked several miles to lead the herd away from the city

Fourteen-year old Nirmala Toppo has become something of a minor celebrity in the eastern Indian state of Orissa.

In June, panic gripped the industrial city of Rourkela one night when a herd of wild elephants entered residential areas from dense forests nearby.

Nirmala, forest department officials say, acted as a real-life “pied-piper” when she managed to drive the herd back to the forest, much to the relief of the residents.

She walked many miles with the herd, guiding it out of town, in the process getting blisters on her legs which later turned septic.

“The infection is now gone and my wound has almost dried up,” she told BBC Hindi from her hospital bed where her treatment was organised by the local Red Cross Society.

Pitch invasion

State forest department officials sought help from Nirmala, who is originally from the neighbouring state of Jharkhand, when they could not get the elephants to leave the city.

Forest official PK Dhola says: “When the herd entered the city, we tried our best to contain its movement. There were 11 of them, including two calves. We managed to make the herd go into the local football stadium, but we were not sure how we could drive them back to the forest. It was a difficult task.”

Mr Dhola says that was when the department decided to seek Nirmala’s help.

“We knew of a tribal girl who lived in Jharkhand, who talked to elephants and was able to drive them back. We called up her father and she arrived along with some other tribal people from her village.”

The herd was made to go into the local football stadium in Rourkela

The state government paid the girl for her services, he added.

Nirmala says she talks to the herd in her local tribal dialect – Mundaari – and persuades the animals to “return to where they belong”.

“First I pray and then talk to the herd. They understand what I say. I tell them this is not your home. You should return where you belong,” says Nirmala who is a Roman Catholic.

Her mother, she says, was killed by wild elephants and that was when she decided to learn the technique to drive them away.

In her work, she is assisted by her father and a group of boys from her village.

“We surround the herd. Then I go near them and pray and talk to them.”

‘Lady Tarzan’

But some are not convinced by Nirmala’s methods.

However, others explain such behaviour by saying that tribal people and elephants – or for that matter, other wild animals – have been cohabiting in the forests for ages.

Niel Justin Beck, a member of the district council in Jharkhand’s Simdega area, where Nirmala comes from, says due to their co-existence with the wild animals, the tribal people know how to deal with them.

“In Jharkhand, we call Nirmala a lady Tarzan. Whenever marauding elephants enter a village or destroys crops, the local forest department officials never turn up.

“It is then that the villagers approach Nirmala for help. And she is able to successfully drive away the herd after talking to them.”

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India’s undiscovered gem:

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…the hills of Meghalaya

In Meghalaya, north-east India, women own the land, Christianity dominates and the landscape is straight out of The Hobbit. Our writer visits a most unusual state

Two-lane traffic … one of the living tree bridges in Meghalaya, India. Click on the magnifying glass icon to see a larger image. Photographs: Nick White

“I’m the supreme power in my house,” declared Dave the shopkeeper. “That is certain.” Behind him his wife and female relatives giggled. He turned and glared until they agreed that he was definitely the boss.

The women had good reason to snigger. The shopkeeper does not own the shop – it belongs to his wife. He has four children – three sons and one daughter. But none of them went by his family name: they all had his wife’s surname, and the daughter would inherit the shop.

The couple live in the Indian state of Meghalaya, one of the few places in the world with a matrilineal system, where women own land and property – and men put on a brave face.

Never heard of Meghalaya? Don’t worry, you’re not a wannabe Ukip member. It’s in the far, far north-east of India and is one of the Seven Sisters, the seven states of India sandwiched between Bangladesh, Bhutan and Burma. The sisters are linked to the rest of India by a sliver of land just 14 miles wide at its narrowest point.

Meghalaya is also overwhelmingly Christian – European missionaries having swarmed here on a souls-grab from the mid-19th century onwards.

It sounded like an intriguing corner of India, and one visited by few foreign tourists. You’ll struggle to find a package tour there – but it is easy to put together your own trip. My friend Nick and I flew to Kolkata and took the 18-hour sleeper train north, along the border with Bangladesh, hanging a sharp right as the Himalayas came into sight, then pulling into Guwahati, in the state of Assam.

As soon as we got a taxi out of Guwahati and crossed into Meghalaya, the people we saw around us changed, becoming lighter-skinned and almond-eyed. We were in tribal territory, the land of the Khasi people. The colourful signs on the lorries tearing past us on the twisting road appealed to Jesus, not Shiva, for good luck or salvation.

As the road climbed into pine-covered hills dotted with pretty lakes, the Europeans’ nickname for the area, the Scotland of the East, started to make sense. We changed taxi in Shillong, the state capital, and made for the town of Cherrapunjee. Pressing on, along an impossibly narrow road with terrifying drops, we finally got to our hotel, more than 24 hours after leaving Kolkata.

The Cherrapunjee Holiday Resort sits at nearly 1,000m, with hills in every direction except the south, where the slopes fall sharply away to the plains of Bangladesh. Clouds were building up over these plains, a clue to Cherrapunjee’s big claim to fame: it is the wettest place in the world, with 12m of rain a year, 20 times what London sees. The annual monsoon makes the British summer of 2012 look like a toddler’s teary temper tantrum.

Posters with meteorological facts covered the walls of the dining room, explaining how, from June to October, clouds would march from the south towards the hills where they would unceremoniously dump their load. Years of ridiculous rainfall figures were listed like a badge of honour. There were also slightly sniffy references to a village, Mawsynram, a few miles away which in the past couple of seasons had posted higher rainfall.

I don’t own a pair of wellies, let alone a Kevlar-reinforced brolly, so we had timed our visit for the dry months.

I woke up jet-lag early the next day and walked to the nearby village just as the sun was rising and households were stirring. A teenager, crucifix around his neck, was on his knees on the roof of his home murmuring his prayers, while his younger sisters, already in school uniform, were in the courtyard reciting their times tables. They lost their way when they saw me and shyly said good morning. I wandered past a stall as a man sleepily lifted its shutters. This was Dave (Phanbuh), who introduced himself and explained that his great-grandfather had been a British soldier stationed here in the 1920s. He fielded my questions about the matrilineal system, and continued to insist he was the master of the household, despite the laughter from the women.

“It is good for the women, but not for the men,” he finally admitted, ruefully.

I struggled to stifle a snigger when he said his wife’s name was Fullmerry. Crazy names rule here, a legacy of the missionaries’ work. I was told that children now are just as likely to be named after the latest gadget as a saint, but though I asked the names of people I met across Meghalaya, I sadly never came across a toddler called iPad mini.

Children in one of the villages below Cherrapunjee

By mid-morning we were on a walk to the valley floor, led by our young guide, Don. Five hundred steps into our 2,000-step descent he revealed he had a girlfriend, Jubilee. By 1,000 steps he said he wanted to marry her. By 1,500 steps he was asking my advice about how to ask her father for permission. Villages we passed often had fewer than a dozen homes but most had a simple church, either Catholic or Protestant, sometimes one of each.

By the time we reached the valley floor I had been convinced that Don would make a great son-in-law. We had reached a small stream. Of course, come monsoon, this would become a torrent. How to cross it? How to trade? How to find a wife? Marrying within your clan is strictly prohibited. The Khasis invented a spectacular solution to the problem.

We followed the path, turned a corner and entered Middle Earth. There before us was something from the set of The Hobbit, a bridge made out of a living tree. Its twisted roots formed the base, sides and supports of the 20m span across the river. It looked completely natural and completely insane at the same time, as if the tree had decided one day to go on an unexpected journey. I half-expected to see Bilbo Baggins scuttle across on his way to Rivendell.

In such a wet world a wooden bridge would soon rot, so for hundreds of years villagers have trained the roots of rubber trees across rivers. It could take 10-15 years for the bridges to become strong enough to be used.

This bridge was particularly ambitious because it was a double-decker, one span above the other. I gingerly stepped on to the lower crossing, about 5m above the river bed, but the lattice-work of roots was solid. There were even big flat rocks laid on the base to make a smoother walking surface. My biggest fear was that one of the sinuous roots I was using as a handhold might turn out to be a sinuous snake.

The bridges are still used – I watched as a tiny elderly woman carrying a giant basket walked nimbly across. We crossed more bridges but none was as impressive as the double-decker. It was a shame to see a new wire suspension bridge beside an old and dangerous root bridge in a couple of places.

I stripped off for a swim in a pool before the long, sweaty climb back up to the hotel as Don explained that the matrilineal system was changing, and some sons would now inherit a share of the family wealth. I wished him well with his Jubilee plans.

A Catholic church in a valley

But if that Khasi tradition is weakening, one foreign import is going from strength to strength. The Welsh Presbyterians spotted a gap in the proselytising market when they looked about the British empire in the 1830s. These hills had been largely untouched by other missionaries when the Reverend Thomas Jones arrived in Cherrapunjee in 1841.

Legend has it that the Khasi lost their written language – in a great flood, obviously. Once Jones had got over the shock of finding a place wetter than mid-Wales, he learned to speak Khasi and compiled an alphabet and a dictionary in Roman script – choice examples are slap (rain) and shit (hot).

Presbyterianism thrived and the Khasis got back their written language, which prompted a flourishing of writing that continues today. Unfortunately Jones’s story did not end happily. Weakened by fever, his wife died in childbirth. He fell out with the church elders after marrying a 15-year-old and was forced to leave the hills. He died of malaria in 1849, aged 39.

Around 500,000 Khasis are now Presbyterians, 20 times more than in Wales itself. Nick and I headed into Cherrapunjee to find Jones’s church. It was market day, and the biggest section of the market was devoted to betel nut and leaves. The mouths of men, women and children were stained red and there was spat-out juice splattered up walls everywhere.

I wandered into what looked like a Presbyterian church. It took a passing taxi driver, Aloysius, to gently explain that I was in a Catholic church and to offer to take me to Jones’s church. It stood on the outskirts of town, as simple as the churches I’d seen on our walk. I tried to imagine Jones at the lectern, preaching to the Khasis, telling them to give up their local firewater or face damnation.

Aloysius delivered me to the home of a church elder. I knocked uncertainly and an elderly woman waved me inside. Forget Middle Earth – this time I’d entered middle Wales. The elder, Willis Knight, sat me down in the front room, antimacassars and all. There was a coffee table book of Welsh landscape photographs and a display case full of Welsh ephemera – a snow globe of Cardiff, a pair of sunglasses emblazoned with the Welsh flag, photographs of missionaries in stiff collars.

Mr Knight explained sadly that he had never been to Wales. “I almost went many years ago, but something happened,” he said quietly. “I’m an old man and I won’t go now.” He and his wife offered us tea, but Aloysius, a Catholic, was hovering.

Market day in Cherrapunjee

He dropped us back in town, where a series of booths had now opened, each with a man behind a counter, and numbers scrawled on a blackboard. Crude, 18-inch wooden arrows with clunky metal heads were for sale in a shop on the marketplace. The owner explained that the local sport was archery, and betting on the big contest in Shillong was the local passion.

The next day, back in Shillong, I placed a quid on 9 and 19 for that day’s shootout and, with odds of 80/1, was looking forward to a slap-up meal in Shillong’s finest restaurant that night.

In a street of car repair workshops we were pointed down an unpromising alley and through a gate. The archers were already in a semi-circle and one explained that there would be 50 archers who each had four minutes to shoot 30 arrows into a drum about 15m away. On a signal they were off, dozens of arrows thwacking into the target. I soon realised there was little or no skill required. The archers looked bored, stopping to have a fag or send a text message between arrows.

The drum looked like a porcupine after the time was up. Game over? Nope, this was where the real point of the affair became clear. The arrows were pulled from the target, placed in bunches of 10 in front of an earnest panel of men and counted. The last two digits of the total would be the winning number. There were 902 arrows in the target, so 02 was the winning number. Dozens of men got on to their mobiles and relayed the number to betting booths around Meghalaya and beyond.

It was a lottery! Pulling a number out of a hat would have achieved the same result – but without the spectacle and definitely with more allegations of cheating. No slap-up meal for us. Nick and I had to make do with a beer in a dodgy Chinese-run bar straight out of Indiana Jones, with regulars quickly drinking themselves into oblivion with whisky after whisky. Clearly 02 wasn’t their lucky number either.

We flew back to Kolkata, where I had one final place to visit. The Scottish cemetery is a forlorn place. Thieves have stripped the marble from the graves of soldiers and East India Company men. Only one was pristine. The grave had recently been refurbished by Khasi Presbyterians. He was a long way from his birthplace, and from the place he made his home, but the Rev Thomas Jones had not been forgotten.

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How has India affected English?

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  • Flora: “While having tiffin on the veranda of my bungalow I spilled kedgeree on my dungarees and had to go to the gymkhana in my pyjamas looking like a coolie.”
  • Nirad: “I was buying chutney in the bazaar when a thug who had escaped from the chokey ran amok and killed a box-wallah for his loot, creating a hullabaloo and landing himself in the mulligatawny.”

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Small Country Shifts the Paradigm

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While the world measures a countries wealth by the GDP, i.e. how much money a country makes; one small nation has shunned this idea and moved on.

Bhutan measures its richness by the Gross National Happiness.

Now it’s a safe bet that most of you have no idea that Bhutan exists, or where it is.

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It was one of three countries sandwiched between India and Tibet (although most maps say China, I do not recognise China’s sovereignty); the largest, Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan. Sikkim has since become a part of India.

Gross national happiness in Bhutan: the big idea from a tiny state that could change the world

Bhutan measures prosperity by gauging its citizens’ happiness levels, not the GDP. Now its ideas are attracting interest at the UN climate change conference in Doha

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The principles of Bhutan’s gross national happiness system are spelled out for pupils at a secondary school in Paro, a largely agricultural region.  Photograph: Jean-Baptiste Lopez

A series of hand-painted signs dot the side of the winding mountain road that runs between the airport and the Bhutanese capital, Thimphu. Instead of commands to cut speed or check mirrors, they offer the traveller a series of life-affirming mantras. “Life is a journey! Complete it!” says one, while another urges drivers to, “Let nature be your guide”. Another, standing on the edge of a perilous curve, simply says: “Inconvenience regretted.”

It’s a suitably uplifting welcome to visitors to this remote kingdom, a place of ancient monasteries, fluttering prayer flags and staggering natural beauty. Less than 40 years ago, Bhutan opened its borders for the first time. Since then, it has gained an almost mythical status as a real-life Shangri-La, largely for its determined and methodical pursuit of the most elusive of concepts – national happiness.

Since 1971, the country has rejected GDP as the only way to measure progress. In its place, it has championed a new approach to development, which measures prosperity through formal principles of gross national happiness (GNH) and the spiritual, physical, social and environmental health of its citizens and natural environment.

For the past three decades, this belief that wellbeing should take preference over material growth has remained a global oddity. Now, in a world beset by collapsing financial systems, gross inequity and wide-scale environmental destruction, this tiny Buddhist state’s approach is attracting a lot of interest.

As world leaders prepare to meet in Doha on Monday for the second week of the UN climate change conference, Bhutan’s stark warning that the rest of the world is on an environmental and economical suicide path is starting to gain traction. Last year the UN adopted Bhutan’s call for a holistic approach to development, a move endorsed by 68 countries. A UN panel is now considering ways that Bhutan’s GNH model can be replicated across the globe.

As representatives in Doha struggle to find ways of reaching a consensus on global emissions, Bhutan is also being held up as an example of a developing country that has put environmental conservation and sustainability at the heart of its political agenda. In the last 20 years Bhutan has doubled life expectancy, enrolled almost 100% of its children in primary school and overhauled its infrastructure.

At the same time, placing the natural world at the heart of public policy has led to environmental protection being enshrined in the constitution. The country has pledged to remain carbon neutral and to ensure that at least 60% of its landmass will remain under forest cover in perpetuity. It has banned export logging and has even instigated a monthly pedestrian day that bans all private vehicles from its roads.

“It’s easy to mine the land and fish the seas and get rich,” says Thakur Singh Powdyel, Bhutan’s minister of education, who has become one of the most eloquent spokespeople for GNH. “Yet we believe you cannot have a prosperous nation in the long run that does not conserve its natural environment or take care of the wellbeing of its people, which is being borne out by what is happening to the outside world.”

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Opinion:

Wouldn’t it be nice to be happy…

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Bhuddist Monastries perched on the mountain sides

Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan

Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan

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