Running in the Indian election? Get an armored car

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Sunchit Sobti’s factory in Jalandhar has already retrofitted four SUVs for political bigwigs since the upcoming poll was announced a few weeks ago. (AFP)
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The outlay is considerable for reinforcing a vehicle, costing anywhere between $7,000 and $70,000. (AFP)
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Mechanics fit an SUV with blast-resistant doors and bulletproof windshields in a Punjab garage. (AFP)
Updated 02 April 2019

Running in the Indian election? Get an armored car

  • It is a pattern that repeats itself every election season in India
  • ‘You can’t even trust your friends, forget about enemies. I can’t compromise on my safety’

JALANDHAR, India: The mechanics retrofitting cars with blast-resistant doors and bulletproof windshields in a Punjab garage have been flat out of late — elections are looming, and politics can be a dangerous game in India.
In the past, prime ministers were assassinated, political motorcades ambushed and party officials attacked, and some candidates aren’t taking any chances.
Orders for specialized armored cars have been piling up at Sunchit Sobti’s factory in Jalandhar, where his crew have already retrofitted four SUVs for political bigwigs since the upcoming poll — the biggest election in history — was announced a few weeks ago.
It’s a pattern that repeats itself every election season, said Sobti, whose father started supplying armored cars for politicians and other VIP clients in the 1980s when an armed insurgency was raging in Punjab.
“This one is the mother of all elections,” he said, as sparks flew from welding equipment on the factory floor.
“Like all big events, there are bigger risks involved and leaders want to ensure they are safe. We have been working on orders for months.”
It was not just political candidates keen to bullet and blast-proof their cars but party bookkeepers and backroom heavyweights too, he added.
At least seven rival companies contacted by AFP, in northern Punjab, neighboring Haryana and also Maharashtra state in the west, have also experienced a spike in election-related orders for armor-plated vehicles.
The market for such cars in India is worth $150 million a year and growing by double digits, industry representatives said. Companies like Mahindra & Mahindra, and Tata Motors, also offer a small range of pre-made armored vehicles for civilian use.
The outlay is considerable for reinforcing a private vehicle, costing anywhere between $7,000 and $70,000.
It can take weeks to bolster a car with imported ballistic glass and steel plates able to withstand grenade fragments and gunfire, and even longer for the permission needed to put the car on the road.
But for some, it is a price worth paying.
“Success and jealousy knock at you together,” said one Punjabi state lawmaker who last year had his SUV armor plated. He declined to be named.
“You can’t even trust your friends, forget about enemies. I can’t compromise on my safety.”
India has a history of political violence, with particular bloodshed around election time as competition intensifies between the country’s hundreds of registered parties, who field thousands of candidates at state and national polls.
More than 100 politicians or party officials were murdered in 2016 alone, the latest figures from India’s National Crime Records Bureau show.
Armed insurgencies simmer in at least nine Indian states, from Kashmir in the snowy north to the jungles of the country’s interior, creating risky conditions for party officials and their candidates on the hustings.
Twenty-five Congress politicians were murdered in an ambush on their convoy in 2013 by Maoist rebels in Chhattisgarh, as the restive central state prepared for regional elections.
Even in regions free of rebel uprisings, feuds between political rivals can turn deadly.
In February a regional lawmaker in West Bengal was shot dead by unidentified gunmen in the country’s east.
More than two dozen political figures from warring parties have been killed in Kerala, a southern state and one of India’s most developed, in the past three years.
Sometimes politicians themselves have violent records, with two dozen winning candidates in the last general election in 2014 possessing murder or attempted murder charges.
As campaigning gets under way for the 2019 contest — voting starts April 11 and spans nearly six weeks, with 900 million Indians eligible to cast ballots — security is again a central concern for the monumental poll.
In trouble spots, candidates are escorted by police as they drum up support.
But former Delhi police chief Maxwell Pereira said the overwhelming majority of politicians never faced any danger, and it was the state’s responsibility to ensure protection for at-risk officials.
“Only police should make a call on whether they require personal protection or armored cars, after assessing if there is a credible threat,” Pereria said.
That is not stopping candidates from taking matters into their own hands and turning their cars into tanks as polling day draws near.
“We want our customers and leaders to be safe,” said Narinder Singh, a mechanic at Sobti’s workshop in Punjab.

College golfer in hijab out to blaze trail for Muslim girls

Updated 19 April 2019

College golfer in hijab out to blaze trail for Muslim girls

  • One of the top junior golfers in Northern California coming out of high school, Ahmed was a starter in her first year at Nebraska and the No. 2 player most of this spring
  • She is believed to be the only golfer at the college level or higher who competes in a hijab

LINCOLN: Noor Ahmed outwardly lives her Muslim faith, and even growing up in a state as diverse as California she says she encountered hostility on the street, in school and on the golf course.
One of the top junior golfers in Northern California coming out of high school, Ahmed was a starter in her first year at Nebraska and the No. 2 player most of this spring. She is believed to be the only golfer at the college level or higher who competes in a hijab, the headscarf worn in adherence to the Muslim faith.
Arriving in Lincoln two years ago, Ahmed sensed hesitancy from teammates mostly from small Midwestern towns and unaccustomed to seeing a woman in a hijab. She didn’t feel embraced until an unfortunate yet unifying event roiled the campus midway through her freshman year.
A video surfaced of a student claiming to be the “most active white nationalist in the Nebraska area,” disparaging minorities and advocating violence. The student, it turned out, was in the same biology lecture class as Ahmed.
Teammates offered to walk with her across campus, and one who would become her best friend, Kate Smith, invited Ahmed to stay with her. She didn’t accept but was heartened by the gesture.
“That,” Smith said, “was when she realized how much each and every one of us care for her on the team, that it wasn’t just like, ‘Hey you’re our teammate.’ No, it’s ‘We want you to be safe, we want you to feel at home here.’“
Having grown up in the post-9/11 era, Ahmed, like many Muslims in the United States, has been a target for bullying and verbal abuse. She began wearing the hijab in middle school.
On the course, in an airport or even walking across campus she can feel the long stares and notices the glances. She said she has never been physically threatened — “that I know of” — and that most of the face-to-face insults came before she arrived at Nebraska.
Much of the venom spewed at her now comes on social media. She has been the subject of several media profiles, and each sparks another round of hateful messages. She acknowledges she reads but doesn’t respond to messages and that an athletic department sports psychologist has helped her learn how to deal with them.

Hijabi golfer Noor Ahmed. (AP)

“I’ve been called every racial slur in the book,” she said. “I’ve been told explicitly that people who look like me don’t play golf, we don’t have a right to exist in America, you should go home. It would definitely faze me a little bit, but it never deterred me. I’m really stubborn, so I’m going to prove you wrong, just wait. When people think they’re dragging me down, it kind of fuels the fire in me that I’m going to be a better golfer, I’m going to be a better student, I’m going to keep climbing up the ladder.”
The daughter of Egyptian immigrants is from a close-knit family in Folsom, California, and she steeled herself for the cultural adjustment she would have to make at Nebraska.
She dealt with loneliness and anxiety, especially her freshman year. She had difficulty finding a support network. There is a small Muslim community on campus, but she didn’t immerse herself in it. The demands on athletes are great, and they are largely segregated, eating and studying in facilities separate from those used by regular students.
Nebraska coach Robin Krapfl said she was initially concerned about how teammates would react to Ahmed. Krapfl remembered meeting with her golfers and telling them about her.
“I could tell by a couple of the looks and maybe even a comment or two that they weren’t 100 percent comfortable with that,” Krapfl said. “A lot of our girls come from small-town communities that are very limited in their ethnicity. It’s just the fear of the unknown. They had just never been exposed to being around someone from the Muslim faith.”
Krapfl said she saw a golfer or two roll their eyes, another shook her head. “I overheard, ‘Why would Coach bring someone like that on the team?’ “
“Luckily when she got here people could see her for who she was and the quality of person she was,” Krapfl said. “It took a while. It really did. You’ve got to get to know somebody, who they really are and not just what they look like.”
Smith said she sometimes cringes when she and Ahmed are in a group and the conversation turns to politics, immigration or even fashion, like when someone innocently or ignorantly tells Ahmed that she would look good in a short dress or a certain hairstyle.
“She can never wear a short dress, so why would you want to depict her as that?” Smith said. “You have to respect her beliefs and why she’s doing it. Also, I think a lot of things are connected to women’s beauty standards and how people don’t think she can look beautiful when she’s covered. I think she’s a really beautiful girl no matter how much skin she’s showing.”
For all the challenges Ahmed faced, there have been positives. Some people have complimented her for living her faith as she sees fit, a Muslim teen who golfs in a hijab and lives in the United Kingdom wrote to says she draws inspiration from her, and a player for another college team approached her at an event to tell her she recently converted to Islam and just wanted to say hi.

She started playing golf at 8. (AP)

“I remember going and crying and, wow, I’m not alone out here,” she said.
Ahmed said she’s naturally shy and a bit uncomfortable with the attention, but she hopes Muslim girls coming up behind her are watching.
“I grew up never seeing anyone like me,” she said. “Honestly, I didn’t realize how much grief I was carrying, having never seen an image of myself or someone who looked like me in popular American culture. It’s a big deal.
“Why are basketball and football so heavily African American? If I were black and I saw people who looked like me competing in that sport, that’s probably the sport I would choose. I think it’s really important when we’re talking about trying to make golf and other sports and other areas in American culture diverse, how important it is to see someone who looks like you and how it will fuel other people’s interest.”
Ahmed started playing golf at 8, and her parents encouraged her to take the sport to the highest level possible. Wearing the hijab has never interfered with her game and she has never considered not wearing it on the course.
“I think Muslim women who choose to observe it or choose not to observe it have the right to exist in any space they want to be in,” she said, “and I would feel like I would be sending a message that the hijab doesn’t exist in this place or it shouldn’t, and I don’t feel comfortable with that.”