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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
Change of heart? Or stooping to conquer?
Some thoughts on the historic Battle of Colachel

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25 June, 2013

The pain of progress: Torture and India's culture of oppression


by Vivian Ng

The United Nations International Day in Support of Victims of Torture observed around the world on June 26 serves as a sober reminder of the reality that this ugly side of humanity is still very much alive in our contemporary and supposedly civilized society. It is a reality that is even harder to grapple with in democratic societies which preach the ideals of equality of freedom, dignity and justice.

India is often dubbed the world's largest democracy, and it has a remarkable space for civil society engagement. Yet, democratic progress has to be thought of as a process, for which India is still on its way towards the democratic ideals that it speaks of. As the country moves towards democracy, there are still many remnants of undemocratic practices which continue to plague India and hinder its pace of progress. Torture is but one of the many serious problems that plagues India till today.

The culture of oppression stemming from the caste system has perpetuated and infiltrated modern India and its existing institutions, because that system of discrimination has not been completely weeded out and also because that culture reinforced over so many years is deeply ingrained in Indian society. This culture of oppression coupled with a weak institutional set-up has provided the ideal conditions for a practice like torture to grow and even to thrive. Instead of having firm laws in place to prevent and punish such crimes against humanity, torture has been cultivated as a policing tool, as a preferred method in criminal investigation because it is perceived to be most efficient and effective.

With corruption as its political culture, torture is a useful tool for controlling what people say or not. This enables the ruling elite to maintain the power balance and existing power structure. Instead of ruling by law, policy makers choose to rule by fear because there is a perverse belief that a country like India cannot be administrated without torture. There is a lack of adequate training, equipment and facilities for law enforcement agencies, and in its place, high levels of impunity exist to protect criminal police who use torture for extortion and corruption.

India has signed but has not ratified the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment 1984. There is a lack of commitment in addressing this issue even though India has signed the above-mentioned convention in 1997 – there is no official definition against torture, much as a law against torture. The proposed law against torture is still pending in the parliament but without a definition for torture, it is difficult to imagine how such a law may pass and how it may be useful.

As it stands, having no policy against torture seems to be the government policy, which is in fact contradictory to its supposed democratic foundations where the right to life, liberty and security or person is fundamental. On top of that, the right to fair trial is also violated since torture negates all aspects of equality and the presumption of innocence. The Indian judiciary may have come down heavily upon the state for resorting to torture, but it is necessary for the state to be motivated to correct this fallen justice framework and restore the democratic republic that India sees itself as. Only then will the distant dream of reversing this trend be possible, and India can move forward as a country without its people losing their humanity in the process.

Vivian Ng is a student at the Singapore Management University, currently interning at the Asian Human Rights Commission, Hong Kong. She  can be contacted at vivian.ng@ahrc.asia.

PMs in search of a nation

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

The Constitution names the country India that is Bharat. It also has a third name, Hindustan. This was in fact the name of the last Indian state before the British takeover. The letter of credentials which Queen Elizabeth I gave to the first British expedition was in fact addressed to Akbar, Emperor of Hindustan.

There may be many names but there is only one country to govern. Yet, as the country approaches the national elections due in a year’s time, the political scenario is so crowded with prime ministers eager to govern that the intriguing title of Nobel laureate Louis Pirandello’s play Six Characters in Search of a Play comes to mind.

A PM’s post is no doubt up for grabs. The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance, hit hard by multiple scams and double anti-incumbency, has little chance of staging a hat-trick. Even if it pulls off a miracle, the Congress may opt for a younger captain for the team in pace of Manmohan Singh, an octogenarian whose political failures now outweigh economic successes.

Though Rahul Gandhi, heir apparent of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, who was recently elevated as party vice-president, continues to play the reluctant bridegroom, the party is in the happy state of having a readymade prime ministerial candidate.

The Bharatiya Janata Party, which heads the opposition National Democratic Alliance, was not in such a situation. With Atal Behari Vajpayee, who headed NDA governments twice, in retirement and Lal Kishen Advani, his chosen successor, failing to deliver in two elections, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the fountainhead of Hindutva, decided that Gujarat’s Chief Minister Narendra Modi was the best bet and subtly manoeuvred him into the prime ministerial stakes.

For the RSS, Modi was a logical choice. He had delivered the party three successive electoral victories in Gujarat and built up the image of an able administrator. But the Janata Dal (United), the second largest party of the NDA and senior partner of the coalition government in Bihar state, was unwilling to accept him as he bears the stigma of being the facilitator, if not author, of anti-Muslim riots of 2002.

The RSS calculated that dissident voices within the party could be silenced and the JD(U) mollified by naming Modi, for the time being, as the chief of the campaign committee for the 2014 poll and not the prime ministerial candidate. Advani still sulked. Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar sacked the BJP ministers, and the JD(U) quit the NDA.

The JD(U) pullout testifies to the general unease Modi’s quick ascent in the BJP hierarchy has created. This may make it difficult for the BJP to woo back the regional parties, which were its allies in the previous NDA regimes and whose support appears essential to return to power.

Modi wants to be prime minister of the Hindu rashtra (nation) of the RSS concept. He launched his Kashmir-to-Kanyakumari campaign on Sunday with a massive rally, which, on practical considerations, was held at Pathankot, just outside the Jammu and Kashmir state. Earlier, landing in flood-ravaged Uttarakhand with a team of Gujarat officials and air transport to save an estimated 15,000 trapped pilgrims from his state, he provided a glimpse of the Rambo-like ruler he imagines himself to be.

The attempt to upstage Central and Uttarakhand officials who were engaged in the biggest disaster management operations in memory irked the Congress, which accused Modi of milking political gain out of the human tragedy.

Pollsters have predicted that the BJP does not stand to gain as many parliamentary seats as the Congress is set to lose. This has kindled hopes in the minds of leaders of small parties which dominate several states, some of whom have prime ministerial ambitions of their own. Among them are Nitish Kumar, Mayawati of the Bahujan Samajwadi Party and Mulayam Singh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party, both of whom have been chief ministers of Uttar Pradesh, and Mamata Banerjee, J Jayalalithaa and Navin Patnaik, chief ministers of West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Odisha respectively.

The limited geographical reach of their parties need not inhibit these leaders since favourable circumstances have propelled small-time chiefs to the prime minister’s post in the past. But there is another limiting factor which cannot be lightly dismissed. The concept of the Indian nation embedded in the minds of most of them does not extend much beyond the borders of their own political fiefdoms.  -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, June 25, 2013.

18 June, 2013

Bureaucracy in transfer raj

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Eight months ago Ashok Khemka, a Haryana government secretary, was transferred to the less consequential post of managing director of the Seeds Development Corporation after he cancelled a land deal between real estate major DLF and Robert Vadra, son-in-law of Sonia Gandhi, Congress President and Chairperson of the ruling United Progressive Alliance, holding it illegal.

Five months later, he was transferred again to the even less consequential post of Secretary, Archives department, after he brought to light irregularities in the corporation’s purchase of insecticides from a big private sector corporation.

Khemka’s experience illustrates the plight of officers who dare to look too closely at suspect deals involving politicians and commercial giants.

Recently a media organisation, noting that there are incorruptible bureaucrats, featured on its website some officers who bravely endured many transfers, threats and humiliation.

They included GR Khairnar of Maharashtra, who had invited the wrath of then chief minister Sharad Pawar by moving against illegal constructions in Mumbai, Uma Shankar of Tamil Nadu, a Dalit officer hounded by both Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam Chief Minister M Karunanidhi and All India Anna DMK Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa, Poonam Malakondaiah of Andhra Pradesh, a woman IAS officer who forced Monsanto to reduce the price of BT cotton seeds, and Mugdha Sharma of Rajasthan, who was removed from the post of Collector of Jhunjhunu after she moved against the local mafia.

Politicians are not the only ones who make life difficult for upright officials. Trouble can come from one’s own kind. B Asok of Kerala, an IAS officer serving as Vice-Chancellor of the Veterinary and Animal Sciences University, was removed from the post after he made some uncharitable observations about the ways of senior bureaucrats in a newspaper article. The High Court reinstated him but the government recently decided to penalise him for another article he wrote.

Arun Bhatia of Maharashtra, who was transferred 26 times in as many years, says it is difficult for an officer to survive in a corrupt system as “reporting against a colleague results in the whole system ganging up against you.”

Politicians have no role in the appointment and removal of members of the IAS and other central services who are selected through competitive examinations held by the Public Service Commission. The chief ministers’ ability to control them rests on their power to transfer them and offer rewards for loyalty.

Indian universities have not undertaken worthwhile studies on issues such as the relationship between politicians and bureaucrats and the effect of cronyism in the bureaucracy on the level of corruption and the quality of governance. However, there are a few studies by Indian researchers attached to foreign institutions.

Lakshmi Iyer of the Harvard Business School and Anandi Mani of the University of Warwick, UK, studied the career histories of 2,800 IAS officers who were in service between 1980 and 2004 and delineated the contours of the “transfer raj” over the bureaucracy.

They found that officers are subjected to frequent transfers and that their average tenure was only 16 months. When a new chief minister takes over the probability of an officer’s transfer rose from 53 per cent to 63 per cent, and he orders most of the transfers within four months of assumption of office. If he belongs to a party other than that of his predecessor the transfer probability doubles.

Explaining the significance of the findings, Lakshmi Iyer said “transfer raj” means key positions go not to those who are most qualified and competent but to those who cultivate close links with political parties or develop a reputation for being malleable. Officers are more likely to be chosen for important jobs if they belong to the same caste as the chief minister’s party base.

Ritwik Banerjee of Aarhus University, Denmark, and Tushi Baul of Iowa State University designed an experiment to find out the job preferences of those who are likely to be corrupt. They reported that in India the corrupt are more likely to opt for the bureaucracy than the private sector.

A few years ago the Centre drafted a Public Service Bill which sought to give bureaucrats a minimum tenure of two years in all posts. It was dropped after half the states objected. Civil society needs to press for such a law as it will free officials from undue political influence and help tone up the administration.--Gulf Today, Sharjah, June 18, 2013

11 June, 2013

Impunity in age of democracy

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Is impunity a necessary or desirable component of governance? The Indian government asserts it is. The impunity question has surfaced again in the wake of the report of Christof Heyns, United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial and summary or arbitrary executions. He has called for an end to the impunity the country’s armed forces enjoy but the government is unwilling to take a fresh look at the colonial legacy.

Heyns was in India last year and visited several states, including Jammu and Kashmir, and talked to officials as well as civil society representatives. In his report, he noted that there has been a drop in unlawful killings in recent years but suggested that the government appoint a credible commission to investigate allegations of violations of the right to life and to work out a plan of action to eradicate extrajudicial executions altogether.

He identified impunity as the central problem of human rights violations and asked India to repeal the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which protects security personnel who commit illegal acts during anti-insurgency operations, or at least limit its use.

Enacted in 1958 to deal with Naga insurgency in the tribal northeastern region, the AFSPA is a new avatar of the law promulgated by the British in 1942 when Gandhi launched his last campaign against them. Japanese forces were advancing westward at the time.

The AFSPA is region-specific. It applies only in “disturbed areas” declared as such by the state governments on account of insurgency. The law limits the validity of such a declaration to six months but there is nothing to prevent indefinite retention of the “disturbed” tag by re-issuing it.

Manipur was the first state to come under the AFSPA. The law was subsequently extended to the other northeastern states. It was extended to parts of Jammu and Kashmir in 1990 when the state was under governor’s rule.

According to the Civial Society Coalition on Human Rights in Manipur, between 1979 and May last year 1,528 people, including 31 women and 98 children, had been killed in fake encounters in the state. Irom Sharmila, a young poet, has been on an indefinite fast demanding withdrawal of the AFSPA for more than 12 years. She is kept alive through forced nasal feeding in prison and has been repeatedly prosecuted on charges of attempted suicide.

Protests against the AFSPA, led by women, swept Manipur in 2004 after security personnel picked up a woman, Manorama Devi, from her house and raped and killed her. Rashida Manjoo, UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, who was in India recently, broke down when Manorama Devi’s mother narrated to her the events of the period.

Heyns’s report came up before the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on May 22, the 55th anniversary of the AFSPA. Neena Ningombam, Secretary of the Extrajudicial Execution Victim Families’ Association of Manipur, made a presentation to the Council on behalf of her own association as well as the Hong Kong-based Asian Legal Resources Centre.

The Indian government’s response was a vigorous defence of impunity, citing its responsibility to protect the people. “Governments have to be realistic and effective in fulfilling their responsibility of providing protection,” it said.

It claimed that the country’s active and watchful judiciary was upholding the fundamental rights of the citizens, including the right to life. It had vainly advanced the same argument more than two decades ago to deny the demand for setting up human rights commissions at the national and state levels.

While the judiciary has intervened effectively in many instances of rights violations, there have also been occasions when it failed to do so. During the Emergency of 1975-77 the Supreme Court had said it could not intervene as fundamental rights had been suspended. More recently, in the case of alleged terrorist Afzal Guru it unwittingly acknowledged that he was awarded the capital sentence to satisfy the public conscience.

Last week Communist-ruled Tripura state decided to limit the area of operation of the AFSPA in view of the improvement in the ground situation. Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah wants its withdrawal on the same ground but the Centre is not willing to oblige.

India’s constitution upholds the principle of civilian supremacy over the military but the government has virtually surrendered to the armed forces the right to decide on the operation of the AFSPA.--Gulf Today, Sharjah, June 11, 2013.

04 June, 2013

Economy: Hope and despair

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

India’s $1.9 trillion economy is showing signs of slow recovery but the big rebound which the recession-hit countries are looking for, in their own interest, is still not in sight.

Data released by the Central Statistical Organisation last week shows that the economy registered a growth of five per cent during the financial year which ended on March 31. Growth in the previous year was 6.2 per cent.

The new figure is in line with the CSO’s previous estimate which Finance Minister P Chidambaram had discounted, saying it was based on outdated data. Clearly the minister and his advisers are out of tune with ground realities. 

The current growth rate is the lowest in a decade. Many challenges have to be overcome to push it back to the previous best of nine per cent and fulfil the expectation of becoming a major driver of global economic recovery.

All sectors of the economy declined last year. In agriculture the growth rate was down from 3.6 per cent to 1.9 per cent, in manufacturing from 2.7 per cent to one per cent and in the services sector from 8.2 per cent to 7.1 per cent. The mining sector witnessed a drop of 0.6 per cent for the second successive year. There was, however, a slight all-round improvement during January-March, the last quarter of the financial year, raising hopes of a turnaround.

One factor, which retarded the growth rate during the year, was the cut-down on public spending. The government deliberately held down expenditure to prevent a slide in the country’s investment-grade sovereign rating. Incidentally, this did some good to the economy by reducing the fiscal deficit to 4.9 per cent of the gross domestic product from 5.8 per cent last year.

Another factor which kept the growth rate down was the inflationary pressure which reduced private spending. Capital investment was also low.

Foreign and domestic business interests have been pressing for acceleration of the reform process to attract more investment. The government, which opened up retail trade and the aviation and insurance sectors to foreign direct investment last year, is ready to do more but the political climate is not conducive to quick forward movement.

The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance is in a minority in parliament and is surviving on the goodwill of several parties which are not supportive of reforms. It is keen to make changes in the law to make it easy to acquire land for mega projects and grant environmental clearance. The Bharatiya Janata Party, the main opposition, is in agreement with the government on these issues but foiled its efforts to pass the necessary legislation during the last session of parliament by repeatedly disrupting the proceedings on the issue of corruption.

Even if the government has its way, it will have to overcome widespread popular sentiments against alienation of land and destruction of the environment. Many big projects are in trouble because of stiff opposition from the people, not because of inadequacy of laws. Repressive measures are not an easily exercisable option when elections are less than a year away.

Notwithstanding the current low growth rate, the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development reckons that India may have already overtaken Japan, which has been in the doldrums for many years, and become the world’s third largest economy after the United States and China.

The OECD’s Economic Outlook report, released last week, says China is likely to overtake the US and emerge as the world’s largest economy in the next few years. It expects China to continue to record the highest growth rate among major countries till about 2030 before experiencing a slowdown which will enable India to get ahead of it. 

It adds, “Between now and 2060, GDP per capita is seen to increase more than eight-fold in India and six-fold in Indonesia and China.”

Can this rosy forecast come true while poverty dogs the nation’s footsteps? A World Bank study released in April said India accounts for one-third of the world’s poor. Many of the measures the government is contemplating to promote economic growth will directly hurt the poor and make their lives more miserable.

The mowing down of 27 Congress leaders of the predominantly tribal Chhattisgarh state by ultra-left guerrillas in a daring attack on May 25 is a bloody reminder of the dangers of pushing ahead with reforms, ignoring the widening gap between the rich and the poor. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, June 4, 2013.