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A Dalit poet writing in English, based in Kerala
Foreword to Media Tides on Kerala Coast
Teacher seeks V.S. Achuthanandan's intervention to end harassment by partymen


31 December, 2012

Women's security: Time to establish accountability


Leaderless and unorganised groups of young men and women have been demonstrating demanding women's security and just punishment to perpetrators of the Delhi gang-rape.

They have defied ban orders and braved repressive police action. The death of the rape victim Saturday appears to have strengthened their resolve. But punishment in criminal cases, just or otherwise, comes only at the end of trial and hearing at three levels, which, with the best will to fast-track the process, will take time.
Ensuring security of women calls for toning up of the police machinery and reforming society -- tasks that will take even more time. The protesters cannot be hanging out at Jantar Mantar and in parks in other cities while these processes go on.

Knowing this, the government is resorting to time-tested dilatory measures like constitution of judicial commissions and promises of action. While the protests have been ignited by one incident which received considerable mass media attention, what has also brought young people into the campaign is the feeling that the political system is not responsive to the issue.

Their exasperation is evident from the way they are steering clear of all political elements.

On their part, the ruling parties and the opposition are viewing with deep suspicion the protest movement run by those who are not under the control of any party. Their misgivings are shared by middle class intellectuals who fear the movement may lead to anarchy.

Figures show a crime against women is reported every two minutes. When we take into account the fact that many women do not file complaints and even when complaints are filed, police may not register them, the actual crime rate must be higher.

The nation's concern over the issue, which the protesters are articulating, is therefore justified. The protesters cannot be blamed for their distrust of the political class.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh did not speak out on the issue for days. Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde opened his mouth mainly to defend police action against the demonstrators.

Bharatiya Janata Party leader Sushama Swaraj, who demanded the death penalty for rapists, had been silent on the rape of women during the Gujarat riots.

Communist Party of India-Marxist leader Brinda Karat, who paid visits to India Gate, was an accessory to her party's decision to settle sexual harassment charges against two of its leaders in Kerala and shield them against prosecution.

Jaya Bachchan, who broke into tears at a Mumbai protest rally, is an MP of the Samajwadi Party that has fielded men facing rape charges in elections.

The Bahujan Samaj Party and the Trinamool Congress, two parties controlled by women leaders, too, have put up rape case accused as candidates.

How can such leaders be relied upon to address the issue sincerely?

Former Indian Army chief, Gen V.K. Singh was among those who publicly associated themselves with the protest. While serving as army chief, he showed no sign of concern for rape victims. Army personnel in Kashmir attracted rape charges in his time.

He had no word of sympathy for Irom Sharmila of Manipur, who is on an epic fast seeking lifting of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which provides immunity to servicemen involved in rape cases.
While the record of the politicians and the former officials is not inspiring, protesters must understand we are running a democratic system and such a system cannot be run without political parties. But they are entitled to demand that the politicians remain accountable to the people.

Sonia Gandhi, chairperson of the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA), said on Saturday: "We have heard you".

If she has heard the protesters' voice, why is there no action?

The constitution envisages a government responsible to the Lok Sabha, the lower house of parliament. That body owes its special status to the fact that it is directly elected by the people, who, going by the preamble, are both makers and keepers of the constitution.

In a democratic dispensation, when things go wrong, someone must assume responsibility. Half-a-century ago, Lal Bahadur Shastri assumed moral responsibility for a rail accident and resigned as railway minister.
When a sex crime in the capital awakens the nation's conscience to the vulnerability of women, must not someone assume moral responsibility and bow out?

If no one does so voluntarily, does not the UPA chairperson have a duty to fix responsibility and call for the resignation of the person concerned?

Two persons present themselves as likely candidates: the prime minister, who remained silent when he should be have spoken out and acted; and the home minister, whose words only added insult to injury.

The exit of either gentleman will not bring the government down since it is open to the Congress and the UPA to find a replacement from their own ranks.

29 December, 2012

The Unknown Indian Woman is dead. I hang my head in shame at the brutality of the patriarchal Indian Male and the callousness of the Indian State. Beginning 24-hour silence in this forum.

28 December, 2012

Kashmir parents demand DNA test of all buried in unmarked graves

The following is a press statement issued by the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons, The Bund, Amira Kadal, Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir:

On 30th August 2012, APDP submitted 507 cases of enforced disappearances from Baramulla and Bandipora districts to the State Human Rights Commission (SHRC) for investigations into the causes and circumstances which led to their disappearances. APDP had urged SHRC to investigate whether these people are dead or alive and if they have been killed, then it should be ascertained whether these people have been buried in unmarked graves and mass graves in entire Jammu and Kashmir through DNA tests.

Initially the state government and SHRC showed reluctance to admit these 507 cases of enforced disappearances, but finally on 24th December 2012 the case has been admitted and the notices have been issued to the Director General of Jammu and Kashmir Police and the Deputy Commissioners of Baramulla and Bandipora districts to furnish their reports regarding the disappearance of these 507 persons. The copy of the order is annexed.

Earlier on 10th December 2011, APDP has submitted 132 cases of enforced disappearances from Banihal to the SHRC. APDP had urged SHRC to investigate the causes and circumstances which led to the disappearance of these 132 persons from Banihal. Also APDP had expressed that the family members of these victims were willing to cooperate for DNA tests.

Given the fact that so far 639 cases of enforced disappearances have been submitted to the SHRC for investigations and for possible DNA tests, Chief Minister, Omar Abdullah has chosen to lie and confuse the issue of enforced disappearances and unmarked graves. The Chief Minister recently said to some newspapers that so far no one has approached the government for carrying out DNA tests. He also mentioned that the S.P. of the Human Rights Cell of the CID has been made nodal officer for the DNA tests. The government vide its Action Taken Report submitted to the SHRC has laid out the procedure for the families to approach this S.P of CID for DNA tests. The same was also shamelessly reiterated by the Chief Minister recently when he said that family members of the disappeared while approaching the nodal officer for the DNA tests should identify the graveyard and the particular grave in which they suspect that their loved ones have been buried. This is a bizarre statement. How would the family members of the disappeared know whether their relatives are dead or alive and also if they are dead, where they have been buried?

We believe that the DNA tests of all the unmarked graves should be carried out first and only after that the family members should be asked to give DNA samples.

This policy of the present government suggests that Chief Minister is not just callous but also cruel and crude in his understanding about the issue of enforced disappearances in Jammu and Kashmir. Omar Abdullah’s statement is not a surprise for the family members of the disappeared. National Conference has a legacy of siding with tyranny and injustice. The ex-Chief Minister, Farooq Abdullah on 13th January 2001 stated that, “My orders to the police are wherever you find a militant, dispatch him as I do not want to fill jails†, which only further empowered the armed forces to continue their policy of extra-judicial killings.

We urge government to end this policy of lies and obduracy and adopt the principles of justice and fairness, while dealing with issue of enforced disappearances and unmarked graves in Jammu and Kashmir.

Tahira Begum

25 December, 2012

How the Government got the channels to tone down coverage of Delhi protests

On Sunday, the second day of the Delhi protests, the television channels started moderating their coverage. This happened after the Information and Broadcasting Ministry issued a so-called Advisory to the channels.

While the channels toned down coverage the government wasn’t quite satisfied. On Monday channel personnel faced police fury.

Later the channels' OB vans were barred from the vicinity of India Gate.

Here is the text of the Ministry’s Advisory to News and Current Affairs channels, as reproduced by the media blog Churumuri:    

All News and Current Affairs  satellite Television Channels

Ministry of Information & Broadcasting
“A” Wing Shastri Bhawan

New Delhi-110001
23rd December, 2012


Whereas a number of private satellite news TV channels have been showing programmes covering round-the-clock direct telecast of the events relating to public demonstration being held in New Delhi in the wake of the unfortunate and tragic incident of gang rape of a young girl on 16th December, 2012 in a moving bus.
The  channels have been covering the agitation  and the efforts of the law enforcing authorities to maintain law & order, as well as the commentaries of the channel reporters to portray the incidents from their own perspectives.

Whereas this incident and the  public outcry in its aftermath are a very sensitive issue and any inappropriate media reportage thereon is likely to vitiate the law and order situation.

It has been observed that some private satellite news TV channels in their 24X7 coverage have not been showing due responsibility and maturity in telecasting the events relating the said demonstration and such a telecast is likely to cause deterioration in the law & order situation, hindering the efforts of the law enforcing authorities. (emphasis added)

Whereas Rule 6(1)(e)  of the Cable Television Networks Rules, 1994, which contains the Programme Code to be strictly adhered to by all private satellite television channels, provides that no programme should be carried in the cable service which is likely to encourage or incite violence or contains anything against maintenance of law and order or which promotes anti-national attitude.

Now, therefore, all private satellite television channels are advised to scrupulously follow the Progarmme Code laid down in the Cable Television Networks Rules, 1994 and to ensure to telecast the matter in a responsible manner with due care, maturity and restraint.

Any violation of the Programme Code will invite such action as provided for in the Cable Television(Regulation)  Act, 1995 and the Rules framed thereunder as well as the terms & conditions stipulated in Uplinking & Downlinking Guidelines.

Supriya Sahu
Joint Secretary to the Government of India.

Turning outrage into action

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

India has been in a state of rage for more than a week over the gangrape of a young woman in a New Delhi bus she had boarded with a male friend. In the national capital, young people have been staging demonstrations daily and the government is clearly worried.

Gruesome acts of sex crime often provoke angry responses and political parties use the opportunity to their advantage. However, the sense of outrage soon dies down and all is forgotten — until another case brings the issue to the fore again.

The wave of protests in the nerve centre of the central government, which has produced echoes across the country, marks a determined effort by youths to turn the outrage into action. Their demand is that the government must ensure that women are safe in the capital and elsewhere in the country. Repeated use of batons, water cannons and teargas has not deterred them.

The gangrape victim, a 23-year old paramedical student, who was brutalised and thrown out of the bus with her friend. is now in hospital, fighting for survival. Her six tormentors are in custody.

Sex crimes are universal but their incidence varies from country to country. A recent multi-country World Health Organisation study said 15% to 71% women aged 15 to 49 years had reported physical or sexual violence by someone close to them at some point in their lives. Such violence not only violates human rights but also poses major health problems, it added.

India’s record in this area is dismal. A global survey by the Thomson Reuters Trust found it the fourth most dangerous place for women, after Afghanistan, Democratic Republic of Congo and Pakistan.

Crimes against women are on the rise in the country. Last year 228,650 cases were reported, as against 215,585 in 2010. The offences included murder, dowry deaths, rape and molestation. In 22,549 out of the 24,206 rape cases, the offenders were persons known to the victims such as relatives, including parents and grandparents, neighbours, friends or colleagues. Of the victims, 10.6% were aged below 14 years, 19.0% between 14 and 18 years, 54.7% between 18 and 30 years, 15.0% between 30 and 50 years and 0.6% above 50 years.

Many of the crimes against women are attributable to feudal influence. Rape of Dalit and Adivasi women and so-called “honour killing” of girls who marry outside the caste fall in this category.

The urban sex crime rate is above the national average, which suggests women are more unsafe in the modern cities than in backward villages. Delhi accounted for 13.3% of sex crimes reported from 53 cities, and was way above Bangalore which was in second place with 5.6%. A close look at the statistics reveals that cities where hoodlums enjoying political patronage abound are the most violence-prone.

The society, which is highly paternalistic, nurtures a traditional bias in favour of the male child, which manifests itself in the high incidence of female foeticide. Police officials often refuse to entertain complaints of sex abuse. When a complaint is registered, investigation may be shoddy. Even judges of the highest court sometimes betray lack of sensitivity in handling such cases.

Instead of improving, things are getting worse. Conviction rate in sex crimes has dropped from 43% to just above 20% in the last 40 years. The youth fury in Delhi is a sign of exasperation with the failure of the legal and political systems.

Some political leaders have sought to placate the public with calls for the death penalty and castration of sex offenders. Their words lack sincerity. Their own parties have MPs and MLAs involved in cases of sexual offence. As many as 34 candidates who contested the last parliamentary elections were facing charges of crime against women. They included nominees of West Bengal’s Trinamool Congress and Tamil Nadu’s All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, both which are headed by feisty women.

The Kerala government last week set up a panel headed by a senior woman police officer to supervise investigation of crimes against women. Commendable as the step is, it is worthwhile to remember that the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Senior leaders of both ruling and opposition parties in the state who figured in cases of sex offences in the past have got away without even facing trial.--Gulf Today, Sharjah, December 25, 2012.

18 December, 2012

Price of economic reform

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Encouraged by recent government measures indicating a new resolve to forge ahead with reforms, which were held back under political compulsion, foreign analysts and investment brokers last week held out before India visions of a new phase of rapid economic growth.

In a recorded conversation with JP Morgan Chase International chairman Jacob A Frenkel, Stanford University economics professor Nicholas Bloom said India has the potential to grow at least as fast as China if it sorted out domestic problems like labour regulations, the permits system, restrictions on trade and foreign direct investment (FDI) and “a horribly ineffective court system.”

Arjun Singh, Senior Economist at the India office of a firm which claims to be the world’s leading source of business information, said in a newspaper interview that the country could not leverage its large fundamental growth drivers because of lack of reforms. He expected a turnaround in the economy by the middle of 2013 if the government carried forward the reform process.

While India’s demographics give the best potential GDP growth rate, inability to introduce effective policy change is a persistent source of disappointment, said Golden Sachs Asset Management Chairman Jim O’Neill in a note distributed to the media. Based on signs of change in the government’s approach, he hinted at the country doing better than expected in the coming year. The US National Intelligence Council’s forecast, released on December 10, was music to Indian ears. In the once-in-four-years Global Trends report, it averred that by 2030 Asia, mainly India, would straddle international commerce and dominate the world economy, as was the case before 1500 CE.

With the Chinese economy decelerating and the West in decline, India will have the chance to power the world after 2015, it said. Although China is ahead at present, India will be able to close the gap and forge ahead of it. While China’s working population will peak to 994 million by 2016 and decline to 961 million by 2030, India’s will continue to grow until around 2050. Also, India will have more middle-class consumers than China.

The reports about the bright future that awaits India are apparently intended to goad the government into going ahead with reforms.

World Bank Chief Economist Kaushik Basu, who is a former chief economic adviser to the Indian government, chipped in with an exhortation to keep up the blitz of reforms as it will help the economy, which slipped this year to the lowest growth rate in a decade, to return to the nine per cent growth recorded earlier.

More reform measures will certainly please foreign and domestic investors. But the poor will have to pay a heavy price for it. Not surprisingly, this fact does not figure in the experts’ forecasts.

After years of hesitation, the government recently allowed FDI in multi-brand retail trade and raised the FDI cap on insurance and aviation sectors, overlooking the objections of some of the parties supporting the ruling coalition. When the opposition challenged the retail FDI decision in parliament it had a tough time cajoling these parties to vote with it or stay out.

Last week the government decided on two more measures to address foreign investors’ complaints of bottlenecks. It set up a Cabinet Committee to grant swift clearance to projects with investment of over Rs10 billion. It also approved the draft of a new land law to facilitate quick acquisition of land for industries.

Besides promising farmers higher prices for their land, the new law will enable companies to buy contiguous property if 80 per cent of the owners agree to sell. In the case of projects involving public-private partnership, the assent of 70 per cent owners will suffice.

With farmers refusing to give up their lands and tribals resisting eviction from their traditional homelands, several big projects have run into difficulties. Since the land issue involves a large number of small and marginal farmers, many political parties will find it difficult to go along with the government.

In the circumstances, the bill to amend the land law is bound to meet with stiff opposition in parliament. This will call for more arm-twisting than on the FDI issue. The parties will have to weigh how their stand will affect their prospects in the parliamentary elections due in 2014. If the government is defeated on a crucial legislative measure like this it will have no option but to bow out.--Gulf Today, Sharjah, December 18, 2012.

11 December, 2012

Towards media accountability

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

The Leveson report on the culture, practices and ethics of the press in the United Kingdom provoked a discussion in India but with media professionals divided and the government indecisive there has been no progress towards ensuring media accountability.

The Indian media presents a complex picture. The print media has a regulatory mechanism that is ineffectual. The electronic media has a self-regulatory mechanism which is even more ineffectual. The provisions of the Information Technology Act put the new media at the mercy of the police.

The constitution is silent on freedom of the press but the state acknowledges it inheres in the freedom of speech and expression, which is guaranteed. In the early years of freedom, newspapers exercised excessive restraint under editors who had experience of war-time censorship and were alive to the grave internal situation caused by post-partition violence. 

The Press Council, set up in compliance with the recommendations of a commission in the 1950s, is headed by a retired Supreme Court judge and includes representatives of newspaper owners as well as journalists, Members of Parliament and eminent persons drawn from different fields. It has no power to punish the wrongdoer. All it can do is to ask the erring newspaper to publish its adverse finding.

During the emergency, when censorship was in force, the government scrapped the council but the next government revived it. The experience of that period brought home to the journalists and the public the importance of press freedom. Their combined opposition forced Rajiv Gandhi to abandon a move to bring in a law to regulate the press.

The Press Council can claim credit for drawing up a code of ethics but over the years it lost such moral authority as it possessed. It remained a mute witness when the Times of India group entered into “private treaty” relationships with corporate entities. It investigated the “paid news” phenomenon but could take no action against the erring newspapers.

Television channels did not exist when the Press Council came into existence and are outside its purview. Five years ago, as the public reacted angrily to a channel’s fake sting operation against a school, the government considered legislation to bring the electronic media within its ambit or set up a separate regulatory mechanism for it. Channel owners immediately announced a code of ethics and set up their own regulatory mechanism styled as News Broadcasting Standards Authority, headed by a retired chief justice of India. The NBSA has eight members, four drawn from within the electronic media and four from outside. 

There are a few hundred news channels in the country but only 40 run by companies owned by the association which set up NBSA come under its jurisdiction. In one of the few cases of successful intervention, NBSA imposed a fine of Rs100,000 on a channel holding it guilty of intruding into the privacy of individuals in a report on homosexuality in Hyderabad.

In a complaint to the police, Navin Jindal, a Congress MP and industrialist, recently alleged that the Zee TV network attempted to extort Rs1 billion from his companies over a five-year period by way of advertisement charges. The network counter-charged that Jindal had offered it advertisement contracts to stop airing adverse reports.The police arrested two senior editors of the network. At the time of writing, several weeks later, they are still in jail without bail. The police summoned the owner of the channel and his son for interrogation.

A secretly taped video released by Jindal clearly shows that the channel editors compromised their journalistic position by entering into negotiations for a long-term advertisement contract. At the same time the editors’ prolonged detention strengthens the network’s charge of political motivation.

The basic issue is one of the media’s accountability to the society it seeks to serve. While the law can step in to deal with criminal conduct, there is a vast area beyond the reach of the law where accepted professional values must be the determining factor. It is here that the regulatory mechanism must play its part.

The concept of press freedom demands the government’s exclusion from the process of regulation. Justice Markandeya Katju, the Chairman of the Press Council, advocates the creation of a statutorily backed professional body for mediapersons similar to those already in existence for doctors and advocates. It is a pity the media fights shy of this eminently practical solution. --Gulf Today, Sharjah, Devember 12, 2012..

04 December, 2012

Brave new subsidy scheme

BRP Bhaskar
India, saddled with an outdated administrative apparatus controlled largely by semi-feudal political leaders at the lower levels, is all set to experiment with a computer-driven scheme for direct delivery of subsidies in cash to entitled citizens.

The government says the scheme, which will come into operation in the New Year, is a game changer. However, many political parties, for their own reasons, do not want any change in the rules of the game.

With large sections of the population too poor to fend for themselves, the government has instituted various welfare measures for them and sanctioned subsidies on items such as food, fuel and fertilisers. The measures, conceived and funded mainly by the Centre, are implemented by the state governments.

Taking into account the burden the globalisation process has cast on the poor, many new schemes have been taken up in the past two decades, pushing up the cost of subsidies from about Rs80 billion in 1994 to an estimated Rs3,200 billion next year. All the money does not reach the intended beneficiaries.

In the absence of prompt scrutiny of accounts, there is no way to ascertain the extent of leakage. It is well known that in Kerala, now one of the richest states, few buy grains from the ration shops. The unsold grain is diverted to rice mills. The shopkeepers and the millers thus become the actual beneficiaries of the subsidy. A pilot study at Alwar in Rajasthan showed that more than half the subsidy on kerosene meant for the poor is appropriated by others. The new scheme envisages payment of subsidy direct to the beneficiaries through banks, eliminating intermediaries. They can open bank accounts with the unique identification numbers allotted to them under the Aadhar project, managed by the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAD).

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh last week asked Central officials to assist the states, which hold most of the information relating to beneficiaries of welfare measures, to digitise the databases and seed them with Aadhar numbers to ensure smooth flow of cash from January 1. He said direct transfers, made possible by innovative use of technology and spread of modern banking across the country, will eliminate wastage, reduce leakages and benefit the poor.

One reason why opposition parties dislike the scheme is that they suspect the United Progressive Alliance government has conceived it with a view to deriving an electoral dividend. The National Rural Employment Guarantee Act of 2005, which assures employment for a minimum of 100 days in a year to at least one member of every rural family, is believed to have helped the UPA to earn a second five-year term in 2009. The opposition fears that direct cash transfers will do for it in 2014 what NREGA did in 2009.

The Bharatiya Janata Party has written to the Election Commission alleging the scheme violates the code of conduct which bars policy announcements while the poll process is on. The national elections are one-and-a-half years away but the BJP argues the scheme cannot be launched now as Assembly elections are under way in some states. The Commission has sought a response from the government.

The Communist Party of India and the CPI-Marxist view the scheme as part of a strategy to cut down subsidies. The CPI says it will hurt the poor, and the CPI-M fears the Centre will use it to lower subsidies and undermine the public distribution system.

A fall in government spending can certainly be expected — not because of cuts in the size of subsidies but because of the elimination of ineligible persons from the list of beneficiaries.

The Asian Development Bank has endorsed the scheme for direct payment of subsidy as a step that will plug leakages in welfare spending, which, it estimates, is about five per cent of India’s GDP. It says the Philippine government’s scheme of direct cash payments to mothers with school-going children, introduced three years ago, has proved cost-effective.

If successful, the cash transfer scheme will help the poor by freeing them from the clutches of intermediaries who wield political power at the state and district levels. If it fails, it will take the Congress and the UPA down with it. Aware of the risks, the Centre has decided to move cautiously. To begin with, it proposes to introduce the scheme in selected districts across the country and to bring under it only pension and scholarship payments, which can be easily managed. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, December 4, 2012.

02 December, 2012

The Church’s quest for non-white saints

 With the beatification of Devasahayam Pillai (picture above), whom the Vatican has recognized as a martyr to the Christian cause, at a function at Nagarkovil in Kanyakumari district of Tamil Nadu today, there is one more prospective Indian candidate for sainthood.   

Saint Alphonsa (1910-1946), who was canonized in 2008, is the first Indian saint, and also the first one belonging to the Syro Malabar Catholic Church, one of 22 eastern churches “in full communion with Rome”.

The process of declaring a deceased Christian a saint is a long one which usually takes many years. It starts with a group of people from the candidate’s church and community making a request to the local bishop. The decision rests with the Pope.

Sister Alphonsa’s transition to sainthood was one of the fastest. With the beatification of Devasahayam Pillai (1714-1757) there are now four Indians in line for possible sainthood, the others being Father Kuriakose Elias Chavara of Kainakari (1805-1871), who was beatified along with St Alphonsa in 1986, Sister Euphrasia Eluvathingal (Rosa) of Kattoor (1877- 1952), who was beatified in 2006 and Maria Theresa Chiramel of Puthenchira (1876-1926), who was beatified in 2000.

The quest for non-white saints and the elevation of more and more non-white prelates as cardinals mark a new phase in the evolution of the Catholic Church.

Like the story of the visit of Thomas the Apostle to Kerala, the story of the martyrdom of Devasahayam Pillai is riddled with questionable facts.

The Vatican considers Thomas the patron saint of India, but does not accept the tradition of the eastern churches, including those in communion with Rome, that the Apostle reached Kodungallur through the sea route in 52 AD and spread the gospel. Another tradition has it that St Thomas reached  a north Indian kingdon through the land route.

According to a 2004 document of the Catholic Bishops Council of India, Devasahayam Pillai converted to Christianity in 1745 under the influence of Captain Eustachius De Lannoy, a Dutch naval commander, who was captured by the forces of the Maharaja of Travancore after defeating the forces of Holland in the Battle of Colachel in 1741. He was persecuted for embracing Christianity and killed.

Some Hindu spokesmen like Bharatiya Vichara Kendran director P. Parameswaran and the well-known historian A. Sreedhara Menon questioned the CBCI report. They pointed out that there was no evidence of persecution of Christians in Travancore at that time, and said the charge against Devasahayam Pillai was sedition, not conversion. The CBCI countered this argument with the claim that conversion by those in the service of the Maharaja was not tolerated.  

The epitaph on De Lannoy’s tomb within the Udayagiri Fort on the Thiruananthapuram-Nagerkovil highway records that after his capture he had “served Maharaja Marthanda Varma and Travancore faithfully for three decades”. It is difficult to believe that the Maharaja who held the Dutchman in such high esteem would have allowed someone close to him to be persecuted and killed.

According to a report in Malayala Manorama, there are documents to establish that Devasahayam Pillai was subjected to severe torture in the Anchuthengu (Anjengo) Fort. That fort was built by the British and under their control at the relevant time. It is most unlikely that the British would have tormented a local man for converting to Christianity.

All India Secular Forum condemns attack on Swami Agnivesh

The following is a statement issued by the All India Secular Forum:

 We strongly condemn the attack on Swami Agnivesh by communal forces in a meeting organized by Garima Abhiyan in Bhopal. The meeting was called to make the members of Balmiki community take a pledge that they will not be carrying the night soil (human excreta) on their heads. Swamiji was attacked when he came forward to touch the feet of an old lady from Balmiki Community. The gesture was to recognize the dignity of all the humans being equal. In a way it was to challenge the prevalent practices which derive their origin from caste system. The government has already come with legislation banning this dehumanizing practice, which takes away the dignity of section of society.

This attack was done by communal forces, led by VHP. This again shows the real agenda of VHP associates, the one of preserving the caste hierarchy and keeping the large section of dalits in their present subhuman conditions. VHP and affiliates, under the garb of protecting Hindu religion want to maintain the graded hierarchy of caste and so this attack on Swamiji, as he staunchly opposed this practice.

It also shows the failure of BJP led state Government’s to contain the communal forces. In MP communalism is being promoted through various schemes introduced by government. We condemn the act of VHP led forces and demand that the culprits should be punished as per the process of law. We express our solidarity with Swami Agnivesh’s continuing campaign to get dignity to dalits and Balmiki community in particular and to abolish the practice of carrying night soil on head.

We also urge upon the Indian government to ensure that the carrying of night soil should be eliminated all through the country.

Asghar Ali Engineer, L.S. hardenia, Ram Puniyani, Irfan Engineer

All India Secular Forum
C/o CSSS Santacruz Mumbai

27 November, 2012

Fight for cyber freedom

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

When the Indian government pushed the Information Technology Act through Parliament in 2000 its main aim was to regulate e-commerce. During the Mumbai terror strike of 2008, the attackers continuously received encrypted messages from their handlers in Pakistan. This prompted it to amend the law to assume more powers. In the emotionally surcharged atmosphere, Parliament approved the loosely worded amendments without even a debate.

The law covers not only public postings on social networks but also private email messages which may cause “annoyance or inconvenience.” Section 66A, incorporated in 2008, makes it a crime to communicate digitally “any information that is grossly offensive or has menacing character.” Anyone found guilty can be fined and jailed for up to three years.

Section 69 allows the government to intercept, monitor or decrypt information conveyed through digital media and Section 69A empowers it to direct the networks to block access to any information through any computer.

Cyber law experts say these provisions bear the influence of two British laws, the Malicious Communications Act of 1988 and the Communications Act of 2003. The colonial hangover which still afflicts the state 65 years after Independence and the police’s propensity to act in the interests of their political masters render such provisions far more dangerous in India than in Britain.

The police often tag provisions of the Indian Penal Code, drawn up by the British rulers in the 19th century, to cyber law cases. Although IPC has undergone a few revisions since the country gained freedom, it retains its character as an instrument of oppression. State governments routinely invoke its provisions regarding sedition against critics of the government. Cyber giants like Google and Facebook have blocked access from India to hundreds of web pages, responding to requests from the government which alleged they contain objectionable material. While it claims the material violates IPC provisions, most of it is critical of prominent politicians rather than of the central and state governments.

When the Communist Party of India (Marxist) was in power in Kerala, the police lured back a young immigrant from a Gulf State who had forwarded to friends a photograph of a mansion which was wrongfully presented as state party secretary Pinarayi Vijayan’s house. Puducherry police recently arrested a small businessman for alleging in a tweet that Union Finance Minister P Chidambaram’s son Karti has amassed more money than Congress President Sonia Gandhi’s son-in-law Robert Vadra, whom anti-corruption campaigner Arvind Kejriwal has accused of profiting from dubious land deals.

The Maharashtra police hauled up Aseem Trivedi, who posted at his website his own cartoons critical of the state of the nation. The sedition charge against him was dropped following a nationwide uproar, but he still faces charges under the IT Act. The West Bengal government arrested a Jadavpur University professor for circulating material lampooning Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.

Early this month Information Technology Minister Kapil Sibal had brushed aside criticism of the IT Act saying the fault lay with law enforcers, not the law. Offences under Sec 66A are bailable and cops had jailed the accused due to ignorance, he said. “Just because some people act improperly the law cannot be scrapped,” he added.

Netizens reacted angrily to the arrest of Shaheen Dhada, who wrote in Facebook that Mumbai had shut down on the death of Shiv Sena founder Bal Thackeray out of fear, not respect, and her friend Renu Srinivasan, who “liked” the comment. They considered Shaheen’s assessment fair and contrasted it with the news channels’ fawning coverage of the funeral of Thackeray, whom a judicial commission had found guilty of inciting mob violence. Sibal conceded the arrests were illegal.

The public outcry encouraged two Air India employees, who were held in custody for 12 days in May for allegedly making insulting comments about politicians, to come out with the story of their humiliation.

Sibal has convened a meeting on Thursday to review the working of the IT Act. But the fight for cyber freedom may well be long drawn out. While civil society groups want the government to amend the law to protect privacy and legitimate criticism, Sibal appears inclined to stop with writing to the state governments to ensure that cases are initiated only after clearance by designated officers of the rank of Inspector General of Police. This may not improve the situation. Several of the reported cases of misuse of the law were in fact initiated with the knowledge and concurrence of high-ranking officers.--Gulf Today, Sharjah, November 27, 2012.

23 November, 2012

PUCL renews call for abolition of death penalty

The secretive and stealthy hanging of Ajmal Kasab in Pune’s Yerwada Prison yesterday, 21st November, 2012, brings to an end the legal process involved in trying Kasab for the brutal assault by trained terrorists from across the border on Mumbai, the commercial capital of India which left 166 persons dead.
The Mumbai carnage of November 2008, more popularly abbreviated to a single term `26/11,’ constitutes one of the most heinous and deliberate attempts in recent years to cause mass mayhem and terror in India. Kasab was the only member of the terrorist team sent from Pakistan apprehended alive; he was caught on film diabolically using his modern automatic weapon in a cold blooded fashion, killing numerous people. The hanging, and the trial and legal proceedings which preceded it,  admittedly  complied with existing laws which permit death penalty, and cannot be faulted as such.  While it may be argued, as many do  that the hanging will help in an `emotional closure’ to the families of victims of 26/11, there are others who point out that other key issues still remain to be addressed.  Families of victims in specific, as also other concerned citizens, have pointed out that Kasab was only a foot soldier and not the mastermind, who still remain at large.
We cannot also lose sight of the fact the  reality that the backdrop of the 26/11 incidents is also the festering and unresolved internal conflict inside Kashmir, which provides an easy emotive tool for demagogues to indoctrinate and turn youth to become cold blooded `jihadi’ killers. To them, the execution will not be a deterrence.   
The extensive legal process  ending with the hanging of Kasab is pointed out as a triumph of the of `rule of law process’ in India. In the same breath this is also contrasted to the lack of such situation in neighbouring Pakistan.  This discourse is however very worrisome; it borders on `triumphalism’ on the one hand, and on the other, it amounts to an attempt to `avenge’ or seek `vengeance’, and `eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth’ mentality, which worldview has been rejected as dangerous amongst a majority of 110 countries worldwide which have prohibited death penalty in their countries.
Such triumphalist discourse is also worrying for it hides behind emotive terminology very harsh truths of failure and miscarriage of justice in other incidents of mass killings that have occurred in India. The `cry for justice’ still remains a silent pouring of helpless anger in the hearts and souls of thousands of families of victims  in incidents like planned and cold blooded slaughter of over 3000 Sikhs during the anti-Sikh riots of 1984, the massacre of hundreds of Muslims in the wake of the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992-93 (which ironically occurred in Mumbai also), the 2002 post-Godhra anti-Muslim carnage in Gujarat which saw over 2,000 Muslims killed and thousands more rendered homeless and more recently in Kokrajhar in Assam. A stark reality is the cynical manipulation and subversion of police investigation by ruling political parties and the executive  to help masterminds and perpetrators escape the clutches of the law.
In the surcharged emotional atmosphere in the wake of Kasab’s hanging,  even raising questions about the usefulness of hanging Kasab is considered to be `traitorous’, unpatriotic and anti-national.  We in the PUCL nevertheless feel that this is a moment in our nation’s history when we need to pause and ponder, and reflect on the values that we, as a nation, should uphold, particularly relating to crime and punishment, justice and equity. We need to be conscious of the fact that a nation consumed by outrage and filled with a sense of retribution easily confuses “punishment and revenge, justice and vendetta”. We, as a nation, need to begin a dispassionate public debate on the death penalty without judgmental, indignant, righteous or moralist overtones.
PUCL has always taken a principled stand against the death sentence as being anti-thetical to the land of ahimsa and non-violence, as constituting an arbitrary, capricious and unreliable punishment and that at the end of the day, the type of sentence that will be awarded depends very much on many factors, apart from the case itself. PUCL and Amnesty International have published a major  study of the entire body of judgments of the Supreme Court of India on death penalty between 1950-2008 which unambiguously shows that there is so much arbitrariness in the application of `rarest of rare’ doctrine in death penalty cases that in the ultimate analysis, death sentence constitutes a `lethal lottery’.
It may not be out of context to highlight that just two days before Kasab was hanged, on 19th November, 2012, the Supreme Court of India pointed out to the fact that in practice, the application of `rarest of rare cases’ doctrine to award death penalty was seriously arbitrary warranting a rethink of the death penalty in India.
It is also well recognised now that there can never ever be a guarantee against legal mistakes and improper application of legal principles while awarding death sentences. Very importantly, the Supreme Court of India in the case of `Santosh Kr. Bariar v. State of Maharashtra’, (2009) has explicitly stated that 6 previous judgments of the Supreme Court between 1996 to 2009 in which death sentences were confirmed on 13 people, were found to be  `per incuriam’ meaning thereby, were rendered in ignorance of law. The Supreme court held that the reasoning for confirming death sentences in theses cases conflicted with the 5 judge constitutional bench decision in Bachan Singh v. State of Punjab (1980), which upheld the constitutionality of the death sentence in India and laid down the guidelines to be followed before awarding death sentence by any court in India.
It should be pointed out that of the 13 convicts awarded death sentence based on this per incuriam reasoning, 2 persons, Ravji @ Ramchandra was hanged on 4.5.1996 and Surja Ram in 5.4.1997. The fate of the others is pending decision on their mercy petitions. In the meantime a group of 7 - 8 former High Court judges have written to the President of India pointing out to the legal infirmity in the award of death sentences to these convicts and seeking rectification of judicial mistake by commuting their death sentences to life imprisonment. A very troubling question remains: how do we render justice to men who were hanged based on a wrong application of the law?
It is for such reasons, amongst others, that PUCL has long argued that it is extremely unsafe and uncivilised to retain death penalty in our statutes.
It will be useful to refer to the stand on death penalty taken by 3 of India’s foremost leaders of the independence struggle.
Mahatma Gandhi said,
“I do regard death sentence as contrary to ahimsa. Only he takes it who gives it. All punishment is repugnant to ahimsa. Under a State governed according to the principles of ahimsa, therefore, a murderer would be sent to a penitentiary and there be given a chance of reforming himself. All crime is a form of disease and should be treated as such”.  
Speaking before the Constituent Assembly of India on 3rd June, 1949, the architect of India’s constitution, Dr. Ambedkar, pointed out,
“... I would much rather support the abolition of death sentence itself. That I think is the proper course to follow, so that it will end this controversy. After all this country by and large believes in the principles of non-violence, It has been its ancient tradition, and although people may not be following in actual practice, they certainly adhere to the principle of non-violence as a moral mandate which they ought to observe as dar as they possibly can and I think that having regard to this fact, the proper thing for this county to do is to abolish the death sentence altogether”.
Jayaprakash Narayan wrote more poignantly that,
“To my mind, it is ultimately a question for the respect for life and human approach to those who commit grievous hurt to others. Death sentence is no remedy for such crimes.  A more humane and constructive remedy is to remove the culprit concerned from the normal milieu and treat him as a mental case ... They may be kept in prison houses till they die a natural death. This may cast a heavier economic burden on society than hanging. But I have no doubt that a humane treatment even of a murderer will enhance man’s dignity and make society more humane”. (emphasis ours).
PUCL calls upon all Indians to use the present situation as a moment of national reflection, a period of serious dialogue and discussion on the values and ethics which we as a nation of Buddha and Ashoka, who epitomised humane governance, dharma and ahimsa, should accept and follow. The best tribute we can pay to the 166 persons who lost their lives due to the 26/11 Mumbai carnage is to rebuild the nation in a way that equity and justice, dharma and ahimsa prevails; in which there is no soil for discrimination and prejudice, and in which all Indians irrespective of caste, community, creed, gender or any other diversity, can live peacefully and with dignity.
We firmly believe that mercy and compassion are key values of a humane society, which are also recognised in the Indian Constitution. We also hold that abolishing death penalty is not a sign of weakness. Rather it is a stand which arises from a sense of moral authority. It is when law in tempered with mercy that true justice is done. Bereft of mercy our society would be impoverished and inhuman; mercy is quintessentially a human quality, not found elsewhere in the natural world. Excluding a fellow human being from the entitlement to mercy will make our society more blood thirsty, unforgiving and violent. We owe a duty to leave a better and less vengeful world for our children by curbing our instinct for retribution. That way we become a more humane and compassionate society. Recalling Rabindranath Tagore’s vision in the `Gitanjali’, let us re-make India into a `haven of peace’ in which future generations of Indians will rejoice and flourish.

Prof. Prabhakar Sinha                                               Dr. V. Suresh,
National President, PUCL                             National General Secretary (Elect), PUCL