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28 June, 2012

The Emergency: Where were you?

“Where were you when America was attacked?” asks an American website

It is a site which "exists to gather the thoughts and emotions of people to the events on and after September 11, 2001," the day terrorists brought down the World Trade Center.

Wouldn’t it be a good idea for Indians to record their experience of the Emergency?

I was in Srinagar, staying at the Circuit House, at that time. On arrival there as chief of the UNI bureau, the Jammu and Kashmir government had allotted me a government bungalow, to which I was entitled as an accredited correspondent. One night when I reached home one of two men who were hiding in the dark pounced upon me. After the attack which resulted in a week’s hospitalization, I gave up the bungalow and moved into a room in the Circuit House.

Correspondents of the national media usually began their working day with a visit to the India Coffee House in the heart of the city, where they would hang out for an hour or two. Since there was nothing much to do before the 10 a.m. Coffee House rendezvous – there were no newspapers to read as there was no English newspaper in the state and the Delhi newspapers did not arrive until noon – I generally got out of bed only after listening to AIR’s 8 a.m. bulletin, which was my primary source of information on what had happened around the world after I left my office the previous night.

On the morning of June 26, 1975, as usual, lying in the bed, I switched on the transistor to listen to the news. The bulletin began without the customary opening words, “This is All India Radio. Here is the news.” Also, the news reader did not give her name. “A state of Emergency has been declared,” she said.

I suddenly realized the voice was Indira Gandhi’s, not that of any AIR news reader. I was listening not to a news bulletin but to the Prime Minister’s broadcast to the nation announcing the proclamation of the Emergency.

UNI’s Srinagar bureau, like most other state bureaus, remains closed from 3 a.m. to 9 a.m. As soon as the Prime Minister’s broadcast was over I got ready and left for the office to be there when the teleprinter line opens and the news flow begins.

The day’s transmission began with repeat of a series of flashes about the declaration of the Emergency, clamping of press censorship, arrests etc, which the Delhi office had sent out after 3 a.m.

Soon several friends dropped in to get the latest information. Among them was Shamim Ahmed Shamim, the young editor of Aina and Srinagar MP. Around 10.30, Blitz editor R K Karanjia came in. He and his wife were holidaying in Gulmarg. On learning of the Emergency he decided to cut short the holiday and return to Bombay. He stayed with us until it was time to leave for the airport to catch the Delhi flight.

With Karanjia and Shamim around, there was animated discussion on the dramatic developments.

While Central government officers were designated as Censors all over the country, Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah, whom Indira Gandhi had installed as Chief Minister the previous February after a gap of 22 years, persuaded her to let the state government handle press censorship in Jammu and Kashmir.

Mrs. Gandhi offered the press the option of self-censorship on the basis of the guidelines the government issued but the Indian and Eastern Newspapers Society, the organization of newspaper owners, chose to submit to official censorship

Since UNI’s Srinagar bureau did not release any material to newspapers directly I decided not to submit any report to the state censors for clearance. I informed UNI’s Delhi Desk, which edits and releases material filed by the Srinagar bureau, accordingly. I suggested that if they had doubts about any report and wanted it to be cleared by the authorities they should send it to the censors in New Delhi.

On the first Friday after the Emergency proclamation, I received a phone call from a Deputy Director of Information, who was also a censor. He told me the speech Awami Action Committee Chairman Mirwaiz Mohammed Farouq was to deliver that day had been censored.

Maulvi Farouq, who was Sheikh Abdullah’s chief political opponent in the Valley, made all important pronouncements while addressing the Friday congregation at the Juma Masjid.

I told the officer that I did not consider his directive a valid order from the censor. Maulvi Farouq was yet to speak. His order had no legal validity as it was issued without any knowledge about the contents of the speech. Any court would quash it saying it had been issued without application of mind.

The Maulvi usually spoke in high flown Urdu. I had, therefore, made it a point to talk to him directly and get a gist of his major pronouncements. I called him and asked whether something important could be expected from his speech that day. He said he planned to condemn the Emergency and welcome the Prime Minister’s 20 point programme.

After the Maulvi had spoken at the Juma Masjid I called him again. He confirmed he had condemned the Emergency and welcomed the 20 point programme.

I filed a report which highlighted his welcoming the 20 point programme. His condemnation of the Emergency was mentioned in the second paragraph.

AIR in its afternoon bulletin made the Maulvi’s speech a headline item. It said he had welcomed the 20-point programme. It did not mention his condemnation of the Emergency.

After Sheikh Abdullah inducted Mohammed Sayeed Malik, Patriot's Special Correspondent, as Director of Information, the journalists had the satisfaction of having one among them as the Chief State Censor.

In 1976, the Emergency regime forcibly merged the two English news agencies, PTI and UNI, and two Hindi news agencies, Samachar Bharati and Hindustan Samachar, and formed Samachar. Two senior journalists of PTI were named No. 1 and No. 3 in the new organization and two senior journalists of UNI were named No. 2 and No.4. PTI’s Srinagar bureau chief, C.P. Maniktala, was moved to Delhi. UNI’s Deputy General Manager, V. P. Ramachandran, was shunted off to Ranchi as Industrial Correspondent. Two PTI journalists close to Sanjay Gandhi played a key role in the placements.

A committee headed by G. Kasturi, Editor of The Hindu, was set up to manage Samachar and Wilfred Lazarus, who had earned a name as PTI’s correspondent in Egypt and Congo in times of crisis, was appointed Chief Editor. But effective control was in the hands of Mohammed Yunus, a Nehru family hanger-on, and K. N. Prasad, an IPS officer from Bihar, who was Additional Secretary in the Information and Broadcasting Ministry.

Lazarus issued a circular asking all UNI correspondents to report to the local PTI bureau chief who would be head of the integrated Samachar bureau. I telephoned him and said I would not report to the PTI bureau since, after Maniktala’s departure, there was no one there who could claim to be senior to me. He told me since I was the seniormost person I would be in charge in Srinagar and asked me to go to the PTI office and take charge immediately. I told him not to expect me to go to PTI office and stage a coup. If he wanted me to take charge of the Samachar bureau and operate from the PTI office he should issue instructions to that effect.

While the Emergency led to denial of basic freedoms elsewhere in the country, in Kashmir the situation was quite different. With Sheikh Abdullah, who had been heading the opposition, back at the helm, there was near-normalcy in the state after a long period.  

When the Tribune’s correspondent, Makhan Lal Kak, a Kashmiri, was detained by the Haryana government, the Srinagar press corps urged Sheikh Abdullah to intervene. The Sheikh spoke to Indira Gandhi and she accepted his request to shift him to a Srinagar jail. On transfer to Kashmir, he was released on parole.

The IENS was publishing a journal, named Indian Press, at the time. Its Editor, S. Venkat Narayan, asked me for an article on I and B Minister V.C. Shukla’s claim that censorship would improve the quality of the press. In the article, I said censorship was a prophylactic device and it could not make any difference to the quality of journalism.

When the government promulgated the Prevention of Publication of Objectionable Matters Ordinance, I wrote another article in that journal. In it I argued that PPOMO was an obnoxious measure and should be allowed to lapse and not enacted as PPOMA.

During the Emergency, I made it a point to visit the Indian Express office on Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg every time I was in New Delhi and spend some time with the Editor, V. K. Narasimhan, who was bravely standing up to the Emergency regime. “This is a solidarity visit,” I would tell VKN, who was an Assistant Editor in The Hindu when I worked there as sub-editor in the 1950s. After Kuldip Nayar was released from jail and started attending office again, a call on him also became part of the solidarity visit. It was Kuldip Nayar who had recruited me in UNI a decade earlier.

I once asked VKN how he was able to get away with the things he was doing. He said before being eased out of the Editor’s chair, S. Mulgaonkar had written to V.C. Shukla seeking clarifications about press censorship. Shukla, in his reply, said the purpose of censorship was not to cut out criticism but to protect national interests. VKN opened a draw, took out Shukla’s letter and said, “I am holding on to this.”

Kuldip Nayar paid a handsome tribute to VKN in an article in Deccan Herald last April. “An editor like him should have been honoured in public for the service he rendered to the press,” he wrote.

On one visit, VKN asked me: “Babu Bhaskar, do you still have your Samachar job?” The question was prompted by the Indian Press article criticizing PPOMO.

I gathered from N.N. Omchery, a senior I and B official and censor, that he was asked to scrutinize that article. He suggested that since the article appeared in a professional journal which did not reach a wide circle it was best to ignore it.

When the 1977 Lok Sabha election results came in, the state government was functioning from the winter capital, Jammu. The outstation correspondents, who were camping at the Circuit House, gathered at the office of the Director of Information to follow the election results flowing in on the new agency printer. There were loud cheers as news of the defeat of the Emergency regime was received. It was followed by a Flash which read: CENSORSHIP LIFTED.

I walked up to Sayeed Malik, gave him my accreditation card which had not been renewed after 1975 and said, “Now that you have ceased to be Chief Censor, I want to submit this for renewal.”

“You did not renew it all this time?” he asked   

“No,” I said. “I didn’t want to carry a card issued by the Chief Censor.”

26 June, 2012

Falling between two stools

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

The buglers are proclaiming a victory for India at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, held in Rio de Janeiro, last week but non-government organisations campaigning on the issue of sustainable development are unimpressed.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh flew into Brazil from the G-20 meeting in Mexico where, playing Santa Claus, he had pledged $10 billion towards the $73 billion committed by the BRIC nations to recapitalise the International Monetary Fund to enable it to bail out crisis-hit Europe.

At Rio, he appeared like a mendicant rather than a philanthropist. He complained there was little evidence of industrialised world helping the developing nations to find the resources and technology they need to reduce the intensity of emissions.

The conference, dubbed Rio+20 as it was taking place two decades after the Earth Summit held in that city, brought together leaders from more than 180 countries. India was a key player at the 1992 conference as the chief spokesman of the developing world. A major achievement of that meet was the Climate Change Convention, which led to the Kyoto Protocol.

Rio+20 took place in vastly different circumstances from what prevailed at the time of the first meet. The average annual global temperature was up by 0.32 degree Celsius, global carbon dioxide levels were 10 per cent higher and primary forests had dwindled by 300 million hectares. What is more, the rich nations’ interest in protection of the environment had waned as their economies declined.

India appeared to be not too sure where exactly it stood. As Sejal Worah, World Wildlife Fund’s project director in Delhi, put it, India was straddling both sides — the rich as well as the developing nations. “We have not heard of India being on any side,” she told reporters at Rio. “It is losing its leadership edge. It is always riding on someone else. We don’t stand for anything.”

Environment Minister Jayanthi Natarajan said India was happy that no specific goals and targets had been agreed upon. Environment journalist Daryl D’Monte termed her comment astonishing.

India’s diminished role at Rio II is a reflection of the dichotomy in the government’s approach to developmental problems. Its record in upholding the principles laid down at Rio I is less than satisfactory.

“Human beings are at the centre of concern for human development,” the first Rio declaration had said. “They are entitled to a healthy and productive life in harmony with nature.” An agreement concluded at that time directed governments not to carry out any activities on the lands of indigenous people that would cause environmental degradation or be culturally inappropriate.

Yet all across India the government is endangering the lives and livelihood of the indigenous people, who live in subhuman conditions, by permitting domestic and foreign corporations to grab their lands for industrial projects. In Orissa, for seven years tribesmen have been fighting an unequal battle with the South Korean giant Posco, which wants to set up the world’s largest steel plant in their homeland.

Disappointed with the draft of the declaration prepared for adoption at the summit meeting, Indian NGO representatives gathered at Rio issued an open appeal to Manmohan Singh to display bold leadership and rescue the conference. They asked him to advocate strong fundamental principles for the world and make basic changes in economic and other policies back home.

It turned out to be a cry in the wilderness. “We are reiterating the mistakes of the past while the crisis has worsened,” Ashish Kothari of Pune-based Kalpavriksh said later.

The official claims of victory rest primarily on a few passages in the platitudinous declaration, grandiloquently titled “The Future We Want.” It says all countries, especially the developing nations, need additional resources to ensure sustainable development and unwanted conditionalities on development assistance must be avoided.

The declaration asks all countries to prioritise sustainable development and allocate resources based on national needs. It also talks in vague terms about giving assistance to the developing countries to ensure long-term debt sustainability.

The G-77 countries and China sought $30 billion a year for assisting the developing nations but the document makes no firm financial commitment. Instead, it suggests that additional resources be mobilised on a voluntary basis through innovative financing mechanisms.

In a joint letter to the UN, a group of international civil society organisations said: “The Future We Want is not what resulted from the Rio+20 negotiation process.” -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, June 26, 2012.

19 June, 2012

Black money is piling up

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

There was a spurt in money stashed by Indians in secret accounts in Switzerland last year. The last time a big jump occurred was in 2006. The gap of five years is significant.

According to Swiss bank data, Indian deposits increased by one million Swiss francs in 2006 to touch a peak of 6.5 billion francs (about Rs400 billion). Thereafter the deposits started falling and were as low as about Rs93 billion at the end of 2010. Last year fresh inflow of funds raised the total to Rs127 billion.
It is not unreasonable to draw a link between the swelling of Swiss bank deposits and national and state elections in India, normally held at intervals of five years. The fall in deposits since 2006 can then be explained in terms of repatriation of funds to meet the expenses of the elections of the last five years, including the parliamentary poll of 2009. And the recent spurt can be seen as part of the preparations for the upcoming elections, including the Lok Sabha poll due in 2014.

The Association for Democratic Rights, a non-governmental organisation monitoring election malpractices, estimated that campaign expenses during a five-year period could be anywhere between Rs350 billion and Rs810 billion. It reckoned that one-fourth of the estimated Rs100 billion spent during the 2009 Lok Sabha poll was black money. 

Reacting to the Swiss disclosure, Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee said all the money parked abroad by Indians was not black money. Businessmen and business houses could have legitimate deposits abroad.

If the public tends to view all deposits in foreign banks with suspicion, the blame rests entirely with the government, which has been unwilling to gather full facts and publish them. A month ago, the government placed before Parliament a white paper on black money. The voluminous document did not name black money holders or reveal the extent of their holdings. Overlooking the political connection, it blamed foreign investment, corporate activity and the stock markets for generating black money.

India could not get information on tax evasion from the 77 countries with which it had signed double taxation avoidance agreements since the pacts did not provide for exchange of information on tax evasion. New agreements have been negotiated with 37 countries in the last three years. However, no information obtained from them on illegal wealth of Indians has come into the public domain so far.

A few years ago Germany made available information about the bank accounts of 15 Indians and three foreign-registered trusts with Indian connections in the tax haven of Liechtenstein, contained in stolen database which it had bought paying $7.4 million. The government said it was investigating the matter but there was no action against any of the account holders.

Speaking at the first Interpol Global Programme on Anti-Corruption and Asset Recovery in New Delhi in February this year, Central Bureau of Investigation director AP Singh put the illegal money held abroad by Indians at $500 billion. He said some recent CBI investigations had revealed that money reached Switzerland and other tax havens through Singapore and Mauritius.

In the white paper the government talked of setting up fast-track courts and awarding deterrent punishment to check black money. However, it has not come up with a concrete plan in this regard.  It is widely believed that the government is reluctant to act because powerful political, bureaucratic and business elements are involved.   

Yoga guru Ramdev, who recently fasted in New Delhi, along with anti-corruption campaigner Anna Hazare, has demanded steps to recover black money hoarded abroad. Several national and regional parties have endorsed his demand. However, few regard him and his backers as credible agents of change.

The Election Commission, a statutory body with wide powers to ensure free and fair polls, has taken several steps since 2010 to check the use of black money in campaigns. Last year it seized more than Rs1.2 billion of unaccounted money in election-time raids. When five states went to the polls early this year, it deployed more than 200 income tax officials to check the flow of black money. They hauled in Rs470 million in cash and large quantities of liquor and drugs.
The Election Commission has the power to disqualify a candidate found guilty of electoral malpractices. However, in the absence of political will to unmask the evildoers, getting a guilty verdict is no easy task.--Gulf Today, Sharjah, June 19, 2012.

12 June, 2012

Quest for a new President

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

India is looking for a successor to President Pratibha Patil, whose five-year term ends next month. Although the office of the head of state is largely ceremonial, the current quest has special significance since the new president may be able to influence the choice of the next prime minister.   

The main contenders for power at the national level, the Congress, which heads the ruling United Progressive Alliance, and the Bharatiya Janata Party, which heads the opposition National Democratic Alliance, are, therefore, moving warily.

Nominations will open on June 13 and close on June 20 but the UPA and NDA are yet to choose their candidates. The BJP has said it will take a position only after the Congress reveals its mind.

The electoral college that chooses the president comprises elected members of the two houses of parliament, who number about 800, and elected members of the legislative assemblies of the states, whose number runs into several thousand. The values of the votes of the MPs and MLAs differ widely since they are pegged to the number of people they represent.

In the early years of the republic, the Congress could get its nominee elected smoothly as it dominated both parliament and the state legislatures.  With the political spectrum highly fragmented, it now needs the support of not only its coalition partners but also a few more parties to see its nominee through.

There have been occasions when the major political rivals joined hands to facilitate smooth election, as when a wide consensus emerged in 1997 in favour of KR Narayanan, a diplomat-turned-politician, making it possible for the distinguished Dalit to become the first member of that marginalised community to adorn the nation’s highest office.

Five years ago, Pratibha Patil’s candidature generated much enthusiasm across the political spectrum as it provided an opportunity to install the first woman president. At that time the Left parties, who were backing the UPA government from outside, extracted from the Congress a promise to consider a person of their choice for the post of vice-president. They picked retired diplomat Hamid Ansari.

Some vice-presidents have been elected president. The BJP blocked serious consideration of Ansari’s candidature for the office this time by making known its opposition in advance. Apparently to stave off charges of communal motivation, the Hindu right-wing party floated the name of former president APJ Abdul Kalam.

The BJP’s fondness for Kalam rests on his reputation as the man who headed the country’s missile programme. Its proposal that he be brought back had no takers. Barring the first president, Rajendra Prasad, no one has had a second term so far.

The constitution mandates that the president must act on the advice of the council of ministers headed by the prime minister. But the appointment of prime minister is a decision he has to take on his own.

When a party or combination of parties commands an absolute majority in the Lok Sabha, the President has no option but to invite its leader to form the government. However, recent parliamentary elections have invariably thrown up ‘hung’ houses.

Since the Left parties withdrew their support to the first Manmohan Singh government on the issue of civil nuclear agreement with the United States, the UPA has survived in office with the support extended from outside by a host of parties like the Bahujan Samaj Party, the Samajwadi Party and the Rashtriya Janata Dal.

State Assembly elections of the last five years point to a weakening of the Congress and its allies like Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam of Tamil Nadu. In the circumstances, the strength of the UPA may well be depleted in the Lok Sabha elections of 2014. The Congress, however, can derive comfort from the fact that the BJP and its NDA allies are also not on a strong wicket. In several states, the Congress and the BJP are already minor players.

In the circumstances, the smaller national parties and the regional parties will be able to play a critical role in the next Lok Sabha. The leaders of some of these parties are known to entertain ambitions of emerging as prime ministerial candidates.

If there is room to doubt the majority claims of the rival contenders, the president will be required to exercise discretion based on his/her assessment of who is in a position to garner majority support in the house. Many small parties may be inclined to go with whoever is given the first opportunity to form a government. The situation demands the president must be a person with mature political judgment. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, June 12, 2012.

05 June, 2012

Changing security scenario

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

The United States administration’s decision to shift the bulk of its naval vessels to the Asia Pacific region, announced last week, heralds a significant change in the security environment as China and India prepare to play their role as emerging economies. However, neither country appears to view it as a major concern, at least for the time being.

While making drastic cuts in the defence budget in the light of the difficult economic situation, the US administration had sought to reassure the Asian countries that look up to it for protection that the military, though leaner, would be more agile.

Currently the US naval assets are divided 50:50 between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. The decision to change the ratio to 60:40 by 2020, announced by Defence Secretary Leon Panetta at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, is in line with that promise.

The annual Shangri-La Dialogue brings together defence ministers from countries of the Asia Pacific region. China’s defence minister, Gen Liang Guanglie, attended it for the first time last year as part of the process of wider engagement with the rest of the world in keeping with its status as an emerging global power. However, he stayed away this year pleading domestic preoccupations.

Lt-Gen Ren Haiquan, who headed the Chinese delegation in his absence, responded coolly to Panetta’s speech. A Hong Kong television channel quoted him as saying, “We should not treat this as a disaster. I believe this is the US response to its own national interests, its fiscal difficulties and global security developments.” He added that China would intensify its vigil but there would be no lashing back.

India’s Defence Minister AK Antony, who was at Singapore, confined himself to the prepared text, which touched upon matters of immediate and direct concern to the country such as Afghanistan, Middle East and maritime security. Outside the conference hall, too, he did not comment on the US plan.

Antony, however, voiced India’s concern over the rise in China’s military spending, which touched a record $106 billion in this year’s budget. Obliquely justifying the hike in India’s own military spending, he said it was “building its capabilities to protect its national interests”.

The mature Chinese response to Panetta’s speech reflects the country’s growing self-confidence and increasing understanding of the concerns of other nations.

As early as 1998, the US, taking note of China’s economic growth and the growing trade between the two countries, had decided on comprehensive engagement with it. The primary objective of the exercise was to gain insight into the working of the Chinese military and minimise misperceptions and miscalculations. There was also a faint hope that military-to-military engagement would lead to strategic relations that may persuade China to go slow on modernisation of its military machine and back away from assertive action in maritime disputes.

Most US strategic experts believe the objectives of military-to-military engagement could not be achieved. Some even argue that it helped China to gain a good understanding of the military thinking of the US, which it considers a potential adversary. While strategic ties are no longer on the cards, there is agreement that engagement must continue though not with the same degree of transparency, reciprocity and consistency as before.

Some China experts in the US believe there are differences in the perceptions of the Chinese government and the military. They point out that while President Hu Jintao, in two joint statements with President Barack Obama, accepted the USA as an Asia Pacific nation that contributes to peace, stability and prosperity in the region, there is nothing to show that the Chinese army shares these sentiments.

It is well known that US interest in strategic relations with India grew after hopes of such ties with China faded. In 2010 the Chinese army criticised fresh US arms supplies to Taiwan, suspended many military contacts and postponed exchange of visits.

Even after establishing diplomatic relations with the Beijing regime, the US has remained committed to the defence of Taiwan, which China considers an integral part of its territory.  It also has commitments to protect Japan and South Korea.

A trilateral meet of India, Japan and the US, held last year, was seen by some in China as part of an attempt to encircle it. The Communist Party newspaper People’s Daily distanced itself from that line. Its website carried an article which said, “India has been pursuing an independent foreign policy and mainly considers its own interests.” -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, June 5, 2012.