Aam Aadmi Party leader Shazia Ilmi speaks out
‘Salman Khurshid is behind this attempt to malign me.’
Why does she feel the Foreign Minister is gunning for?
‘Since the Shah Bano judgement days, Khurshid has had this grudge against Arif Mohd Khan. Arif bhai is married to my sister.’
‘On top of that, Arvind Kejriwal took on Khurshid. I spoke against him when the issue of the disabled became the headline story.’
‘Because I supported my brother, Irshad, against whom my two other brothers – Aijaz and Rashid, and my mother are fighting a property case, the family feud began to be used against me just before the election.’
‘The firm that sent a legal notice to Irshad, that firm is Khurshid’s.’
‘My brother, Aijaz, who is spreading these stories against me, is the same guy who accepted before the CBI that he took money from the Jain brothers in the hawala scam.’
‘Aijaz and his wife Kajal are known to be very close to Khurshid. Everyone in Delhi knows that.’
‘My husband asked them (family members), “Why are you all after Shazia? What’s wrong with you all folks?” They said, she should withdraw her candidature.’
‘For all our talk about gender justice, if we can’t provide it in our family, then what’s the point. My sister-in-law was getting harassed and I had to therefore speak out.’
‘The people in slums are actually scared. If they come to us, they are told that they won’t get their BPL card made, that they’d be denied gas subsidies. It is as if people there are being watched all the time.’
‘The democratic space shrinks in constituencies where two parties are deeply entrenched.’
‘The political class is very angry with us, because we are very much out there.’
‘Our challenge is to get the first-time voter, the non-voter, and the cynical voter to come out on the polling day.’
The Aam Aadmi Party has fielded TV anchor Shazia Ilmi from the RK Puram constituency to contest the Delhi Assembly election. With weeks to go before Delhiites turn out to vote, stories have appeared in the media, and pamphlets have surfaced in her constituency, accusing her of mistreating her mother and betraying the family.
In this freewheeling conversation with Ajaz Ashraf, she spoke with candour about the political conspiracy behind the attempts to malign her, the intimidation of voters in slums, her attempts to campaign on the gender issue, the different priorities of the rich and the middle class, and the anger against the system that cuts across all divides.
Excerpts from an hour-long interview with Shazia Ilmi :
You have switched from media to activism to politics. What has been your experience?
It has been great. I have always been involved with people’s issues. As a journalist, I thought I knew enough about what goes on in the country and what happens with its people. But I realize I understand things far better now than what I did earlier, not just as an activist, but as a person engaging with active politics. Aate-dal ka daam pata chal raha hai. (I am coming to grips with the reality) It is not glamorous at all. It is, in fact, the antithesis of what people think it is. Surprisingly, I also find things are actually far worse than what I thought they were.
Worse in what sense?
In Delhi, in South Delhi, next to Vasant Vihar (a posh colony), there are jhuggi-jhopri areas where men and women fight with each other and spend four hours daily to get water. I never knew things were so bad in Delhi. I knew it was so in UP. That there would be brazen goonda-gardi, that people would be stopping us on the way (while campaigning) and threatening us to stop us from going ahead. I hadn’t anticipated it.
Threatened by whom? Political rivals?
Political rivals, some goons of theirs, some local supporters. Suppose we go to a slum area and people get interested. We take out a projector to show them Arvind Kejriwal’s expose on the electricity scam. A local cop would land up and demand to know from whom we had taken permission. This was at a time when no permission was required. Then an Innova full of guys would land up, then another two. They would start abusing, shouting, screaming, and then something crazy would start happening. Once, these scenes happened three days consecutively.
What do you mean by crazy?
In a slum, anything can happen after 7 pm. I could sense we were headed for a scuffle, a riot-like situation, that things were about to turn very ugly. We made a complaint, not that we wanted protection, but we wanted to make sure nobody was beaten up. Some of the people in my team were roughed up. We were stopped at the entrance of a jhuggi-jhopri (JJ) area and not allowed to go in. Whoever helped us – for instance, by providing electricity for the projector – was threatened later on.
Not only did the local pradhans disallow us from entering JJ colonies and mount pressure on people not to interact with us, the RWAs (Residents Welfare Associations) of very fancy colonies were doing exactly the same. They would say you can’t come in, or ask us to take permission for another day to enter the colony. I realised the RWAs have a degree of political patronage. So we just started approaching people directly. We also started going into JJ areas, the slums, telling those opposing us that we will be there, no matter what.
It doesn’t sound like a democratic space.
Yes, it is particularly so in constituencies where two parties are deeply entrenched. For a third party, for a new entrant, things are very, very tough. It is just so difficult to make inroads.
Where do you locate in this scenario the stories about the feuds in your family which have been made public? Is this an extension of the problems you say you have encountered campaigning in the RK Puram constituency?
Absolutely, what is being made out as personal fracas or whatever, it is totally politically motivated. I can give you documents in support of my contention. There is a property dispute. My brother, Irshad, runs the Urdu newspaper Siyasat Jadid. According to the RNI (Registrar of Newspapers for India), he is the printer, publisher and editor. My other brother, Aijaz, who is very close to (Foreign Minister) Salman Khurshid, along with my mother, sent Irshad, the editor, a legal notice two years ago…
Are you saying Salman Khurshid sent you the legal notice?
The firm that sent a legal notice, that firm is Salman Khurshid’s. I don’t have any stake in the dispute whatsoever. I don’t write for the paper, I don’t earn from the paper, I don’t want anything from the property. But only because I supported Irshad, against whom my two other brothers and mother are fighting a property case, this began to be used against me just before the election.
So the fight is over both property and ownership of the newspaper?
That is right. Aijaz wanted to be the editor of the newspaper, which is more than 60 years old; it is in fact the oldest surviving Urdu newspaper which has been published continuously for over 60 years. Its publication hasn’t stopped for even a day. The price you pay for something like this is crazy. Suddenly out of nowhere…
Why were you supporting your brother Irshad?
He lives in Kanpur and runs the paper. Aijaz lives in Delhi and does all this wheeling-dealing. When he wanted to take over the newspaper, I said nothing doing, I’d support Irshad. He is the guy who knows Urdu, lives there.
Aijaz doesn’t know Urdu?
No, not at all, he has had nothing to do with the newspaper. Aijaz lives in Delhi and parties in Delhi. There is something else also – my sister-in-law, Almas, Irshad’s wife, was being treated very badly. Irshad is himself very seedha-sadha (innocent) and self-effacing. Almas and their three kids were being continuously harassed. We didn’t go to the police, but I told Almas to move here with me in Delhi. She and the kids shifted here last year, with bag and baggage. So just because I supported Irshad’s wife and kids…
It must take something to support your sister-in-law against your own mother…
For all our talk about gender justice, if we can’t provide it in our family, then what’s the point. My sister-in-law was getting harassed and I had to therefore speak out. I told her to move over to Delhi. That was the best I could do. I couldn’t go and fight against my mother, but I told my mother that what she was doing was wrong. My mom has been like this for years and years. I have been a rebel and it is an issue. Now, it does not matter because, you see, I am married.
This story they are giving out to Vasant Vihar residents, to RWAs, it is because they couldn’t find a case of corruption against me. It also being played out on the Deepak Chaurasia channel, which is known to be anti-Arvind Kejriwal, and there is some history to that. I know that my brother Aijaz, along with Ashok Singh…
Ashok Singh, who is he?
He is the husband of Barkha Singh (who is the sitting MLA from the RK Puram constituency). About four or five days ago, the same guys who used to harass our team, and against whom we complained to police, they showed up at a rally where Kumar Vishwas and I were speaking. I recognise them. There is, obviously, a Congress hand behind it.
Then the legal notice to my brother Irshad, not to me, was given by Salman Khurshid’s firm. Anyone in Delhi will tell you that Aijaz and his wife Kajal are known to be very close to Khurshid. Even if you google, you will see he has been in the Congress war room and calls himself a strategist. This notice was served two years ago.
Now, for some strange reason, it also happens that Salman Khurshid and Arif Mohd. Khan have a history between them. Arif bhai happens to be on our side.
What is Arif Mohd Khan to you?
He is married to my sister. Then, on top of that, Arvind Kejriwal took on Khurshid. So it became Salman and Aijaz on one side, and me, obviously, on (the other side, against them).
Are you saying that Khurshid’s problem with you is because of the Aam Aadmi Party?
I have spoken against the Congress almost all the time, against the BJP as well, against corruption, and also against Khurshid when the issue of the disabled became the headline story (Salman Khurshid’s trust for the disabled was alleged to have siphoned off Rs 71 lakh). We had documents to substantiate our claims.
In other words, you feel the stories against you are being instigated by Khurshid?
Yes, absolutely. Nobody would believe it, but the legal notice (served on her brother Irshad) says a lot. I have had it cross-checked. The notice that was served was from Chamber 011 of the Setalvad Lawyers’ Chambers. 011 is the address of Khurshid’s firm. It is a fact. In fact, it was an issue in our family that why Khurshid’s firm is being used for this domestic issue.
Then something crazy happened last month. One, Aijaz prevailed upon the RNI and tried to get the registration of Siyasat Jadid cancelled. Now, even on the ground of sedition, no old newspaper’s registration has been cancelled. The ownership issue is not to be judged by the RNI, which is entitled to merely give the title. The ownership issue can only be decided in court. And the court case is going on, the pressure on the RNI is on, and then to suddenly try to take over the newspaper. I am being harassed. It actually fits in well.
Two, my mother is being used by Aijaz and senior Congressmen to speak against me. They have been saying, “Isne parivar ko dhoka diya hai. (She has betrayed the family.)” When a daughter gets married, she gets married. The fact is that I am now married. They are not my family. They can’t say “parivar ko dhoka diya (I have betrayed the family).” only my husband can say that.
What’s this parivar ko dhoka diya?
They are putting up posters in RK Puram to say that. It is a price you have to pay, because you are not with goondas at home, but with your decent brother and his wife, who is a simple woman. That all this would be used in politics, it is a shocker, really. I never expected it, that they would come down to this level. The fact is that those people who were harassing us two months back, who were telling us that we had no business coming to RK Puram are the same people who are involved in all this. It shows the Congress is indeed involved.
I don’t get the connection.
Two months back, we wrote a complaint to the SHO saying we were being harassed, three days in a row. On the third day, it became quite ugly, some of us were roughed up. The same people who were involved in that are the same people who are carrying around my mother’s photograph everywhere. This shows the Congress is involved.
Then, the same brother (Aijaz) who is doing all this is also sucking up to Barkha Singh on her Facebook page. It is all so ugly. For instance, I had gone to Anand Niketan (a residential colony) for a private meeting with the Delhi Civil Society, an NGO which is there. There were about 30 people there and they were all talking about this pamphlet. Personal attacks of this kind –they wouldn’t have done this if it were a man. If I had been a guy, they wouldn’t have gone around saying, “isne ma ke saath kaisa kiya. Iska character kaisa hai. (Look, how she has behaved with her mother. Her character is bad.)” Why is this business of character talked about vis-à-vis women? Why should they be bothered about my character? They even tell people to inquire about my character from my husband. This has made the situation very, very tough for me. It has left me with no choice but to talk. I have never spoken against my mother. She is my mother, after all.
I have seen on the internet TV clips of your mother speaking against you, and another one in which you are there and…
In that clip I am just sitting there. But my voice is not there. Even ammi (mother) is not there in it. I haven’t met her for two years, ever since the legal notice. It is very weird.
Didn’t you try to reach out to them?
My husband did. I won’t do it, because it has become so ugly. The brother who is saying all these things against me had worked in my husband’s firm for two years. The three surgeries that my mother has undergone, it was I who had got them done. The car my mother uses in Kanpur is my car. So my husband asked them, ‘Why are you all after Shazia? What’s wrong with you all folks?’” They said, she should not contest. He told them if you want the newspaper, if you want money, I will ask Irshad to give it. They said, no, she should withdraw her candidature. When they say it like that, when they say they will contest against me, then you can’t but think that there is a game being played, that it is all politically motivated.
What’s this game about?
All kinds of blackmailing and pressure tactics are being used so that I give in and withdraw my candidature.
So you essentially think Salman Khurshid is behind it?
Definitely Salman Khurshid, Ashok Singh who is an old Congress hand himself, some Congressmen, Barkha Singh who is the sitting Congress MLA of the RK Puram constituency from the Congress party, they are…
And you think they are doing all this because of Khurshid?
So you do feel Khurshid is behind this attempt to malign you.
Oh, absolutely. I will tell you why I am saying absolutely. I have so many friends who go back and forth (between us). He has been extremely ugly and nasty about it. Since the Shah Bano judgement days, he has had this grudge against Arif Mohd Khan (because they took opposing stance on the judgement). It is an old story. Both at home and abroad, he wrote against Arif Mohd Khan. Arif bhai is no longer in the picture. But Khurshid picked up Aijaz, who, by the way, is the same guy who accepted before the CBI that he took money from the Jain brothers in the hawala scam. It is all linked, it is all in the public domain.
When I met Barkha for the first time, she actually told me…
You met her?
I have met her several times. I met her for the first time when we from the Aam Aadmi Party went to gherao her, as the party was gherao-ing all MLAs on the high electricity bills issue. This was in June. I asked her what had she done about it. Barkha said this and that. Her husband, Ashok Singh, said, what about your brother Aijaz? He is so corrupt. I told him, it is your government, fix him if he is corrupt, fix me if I am corrupt. Do something, fix people who are corrupt. I am ok with that.
This refrain has been coming back to me. Now, Aijaz lives in Vasant Vihar and his wife Kajal, who works for DLF’s KD Singh and was earlier with Anil Ambani, are known to be very close to Khurshid. So, it is now coming full circle, the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle seem to be falling together.
My issue is that if wherever I go, my brothers will come, my mother will be used, then I have to definitely defend myself. I never wanted my bhabhi Almas and three kids to be used. We could have gone to the cops. Nobody does these things. But I am going to do it now to defend myself, and Prashant Bhushan has sent on my behalf a legal notice.
Anybody can say anything against anybody. The stuff you have seen or read has no basis, no evidence. My job as a TV anchor is a visible one, I can’t possibly be taking a flight to Kanpur every day, beating up my mother and coming back. It’s so hilarious. But to employ all this, it is so ugly, it is so sad. They go around saying in my constituency that ‘kis tarah ki ladki hai, iska character kharaab hai. (What kind of woman is she? Her character is bad.)”
Have people in your constituency quizzed you about this?
They keep receiving these pamphlets, you see. Yes, they have asked.
Have you been able to explain to them why you had to pit yourself against your mother?
I have. But also my sister-in-law, who is working with me, tells them, ‘Shazia is being punished for looking after us. She gave us a safe house when we didn’t know where to go.’ It is a very difficult situation for me. If I talk about it, then I give credence to it. If I don’t talk, they feel that there is perhaps something in it. Legal notices have been served but to no avail. In India I guess people can get away with it.
Switching to another track now, why did you choose RK Puram to contest from?
When the Damini rape case happened last December, I thought a lot about gender politics. I felt something should be done to make it an issue. It is a tall order, it is tough, because people can’t even think about it. But there should be space for the politics of gender justice. I have this idea that when you look at the track-records of not only MPs and MLA, but also of sarpanches or representatives at the corporate level, you should be able to assess their gender-sensitivity and orientation. Law-makers, law-enforcers, and those in public life can’t just say they are victims of patriarchy. Sorry, you can’t say our society is like this. If you are there in (public life), you had better follow certain things. I do feel just as you have carbon-rating, you should have gender-rating.
Since RK Puram was the place where the rape took place and where some rapists worked and lived in (Ravi Das Camp), I therefore chose RK Puram. Interestingly, Barkha Singh was with me on many panel discussions and she didn’t seem to have any understanding about gender-parity. It is something I have worked on, thought about, and I felt I wanted to speak about it. Barkha Singh is also the head of the Delhi Commission for Women. So it seemed an appropriate place to start the gender-talk from. I did not think about demographics at all: how many Jats are there, how many Muslims, how many OBCs. In fact, after the Muzaffarnagar riots, because it is believed Jats are going off Muslims, it is being said in the constituency that “yeh to Musalman hai. (I am a Muslim.)” But this is exactly what we want to change. We want to work on civic engagement, we want to work on citizen’s identity. If I fall prey to the same sentiments (of vote-bank politics), then why join a new party. I might as well go to the Congress or the BJP.
But have you talked to the people in your constituency about gender politics?
All the time. Even the examples I give are like that. For instance, I tell them we want our daughters to get married into good families – we are looking at a situation where most people do have arranged marriages – we want our daughters to be loved and respected there. Then I tell them, till now you have had two marriage proposals, and you know wherever you give your daughters in marriage, they will get beaten, they will not be respected, and they will not get an equal share. Now you have a third proposal where your daughter will be respected and she will get an equal share. That is the Aam Aadmi Party. Your vote to you is what your daughter is to you. This is how I bring out the third option for them.
At gatherings, I say women will sit in front. In our political context, men speak on woman, but women themselves sit in the corner, scared. We are not concerned how a woman will come to a meeting and go back. I make sure nobody is pinching her, groping her, harassing her. I make sure we discuss whether we do think of these issues or are we only bothered about our wives and sisters. I also ask: is our identity only of mother or sister or wife? Can’t we be revolutionaries? I make it a point to discuss these issues. I tell them that this country chalta hai (functions) only because of women. I tell them that politics has the biggest impact on women.
What is their response?
Wherever I go, whether in slums or government colonies, women are much angrier than men.
Angry about what?
Angry with the system. When they express their angst with the system, and also their cynicism, they are far more vocal than men. Men remain quiet, ponder, analyse, but women express their anger – What will you do about this? You too will not be able to do anything about it, so go away. When women come around to supporting you, you can see it is an actual conversion.
You constituency has some of Delhi’s plush colonies and slums. Aren’t the reactions of people to issues therefore remarkably different?
In plush colonies, people argue more. They ask questions on water-harvesting. The questions they ask are many. Some of them are even bothered about the quality of our pamphlets. They are also far more cynical. The best reaction we get are from the Sectors.
They are government colonies. The affluent are very scared Arvind will come and turn around the privatization of water. They say they are at least getting proper water supply, that they feel they are paying their electricity bills and getting power supply. We tell them the cost of electricity is very high. Their problem is not the high price.
So you mean the rich are very apprehensive about the Aam Aadmi Party’s anti-privatization programme?
Yes. But having said that, many of them are also very impressed by the work the Aam Aadmi Party has been doing. They tell us they will like us to address their concerns, and they are also helping us financially. They also say they want a change, that they want a better India. Our zonal prabhari, as we call them, is a guy who studied from IIT Kharagpur, he is 68 years old, he was a CEO of a multinational, he says he doesn’t want anything from anyone, that he is disgusted with the way our politics is, that he wants a better India; he and his wife have called on 300-400 houses. So we can’t brush away the rich and affluent as people who don’t care. They too are looking for answers. It is that their list of priorities is different. For instance, they would be bothered about high-level corruption or about the image of India abroad. The other lot wants a better life, they want reduction in electricity prices, and, obviously, inflation bothers them a lot.
The only place where I face problems is the slum. The people there are actually scared. If they come to us, they are told that they won’t get their BPL card made, that they’d be denied gas subsidies. It is as if people there are being watched all the time.
What’s the percentage of slum votes in your constituency’s electorate?
Almost 35 per cent.
It is quite huge, isn’t it?
Yes, the voting is very high here, almost 60-to-70 per cent. In the Sectors, it is barely 30-to-40 per cent, and in affluent colonies about 10-to-20 per cent. So our challenge is to get the first-time voter, the non-voter, and the cynical voter to come out on the polling day. The thing is everybody across the spectrum – from the rich to the poor – seems to be angry about something or the other. They all want a change. We tell them that if they are promising you jobs, they are lying. We tell them we are not going to lie. We tell them honestly what we can do. We use facts and figures, it is not just rhetoric. We talk about CAG audits, transformer prices, the MLA local area development scheme. So it is not just about asking for their votes. This is why the political class is very angry with us, because we are very much out there.
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