New on my other blogs

"Gandhi is dead, Who is now Mahatmaji?"
Solar scam reveals decadent polity and sociery
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


28 January, 2014

Beyond issue of security

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

As India stepped into its 65th year as a sovereign, democratic republic on Sunday, with the traditional display of military hardware, some relics of the colonial era were still haunting it. Among them is a notorious law which shields men in uniform guilty of atrocities against civilians.

The law was introduced by the British during World War II to crush the Quit India movement of 1942, the last major campaign of the freedom struggle. It permitted security personnel to conduct raids and make arrests without warrant and granted them immunity from prosecution for acts committed in the course of operations.

Free India’s government re-enacted the law as the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) in 1948 to protect security personnel dealing with post-partition riots, and extended it annually till 1957.

A year later the law was revived to deal with tribal insurgency in Assam and Manipur. It is applicable only in an area declared as “disturbed”. Initially the power to declare an area as “disturbed” vested in the state government but later the central government was also empowered to do so.

AFSPA has now been in force in the northeastern states continuously for more than a half-century and in Jammu and Kashmir for close to a quarter-century. Punjab, where it was introduced in 1983 in the wake of the Khalistan movement, was freed from its grip in 1997.

The people of Manipur demanded withdrawal of AFSPA in 2000 after personnel of the Assam Rifles, a paramilitary force which traces its origin to 1835, fired on an unarmed crowd at Malom, near Imphal, killing 10 persons, including a 62-year-old woman and an 18-year-old National Bravery Award winner.

The Centre’s tough stance forced the state government to abandon its plan to withdraw AFSPA. Irom Sharmila, a young poet, began an indefinite fast demanding its withdrawal. More than 13 years later, the fast is still on. She is kept alive through forced nasal feeding in custody.

After five young men were killed in an alleged encounter at Pathribal, near Anantag, in 2000 the Jammu and Kashmir government asked the Centre to withdraw AFSPA or at least curtail its operation.

The Army claimed those killed were mercenaries responsible for a massacre. However, the Central Bureau of Investigation, which probed the incident, concluded it was a case of cold-blooded murder. It charge-sheeted five officers, including a brigadier, a lieutenant colonel and two majors, in a criminal court.

In 2004, the Centre, taking note of the Manipur agitation, appointed a five-member commission, headed by former Supreme Court judge BP Jeevan Reddy, to review the working of AFSPA. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said later the law would be amended to make it “humane” in keeping with the commission’s recommendations. However, there was no action.

The Executive’s helplessness in the face of the Army’s obdurate stand was revealed when Finance Minister P Chidambaram, who was earlier in charge of the Home Ministry, said, “If the Army takes a very strong stand against any dilution or any amendment to AFSPA, it is difficult for a civil government to move forward.”

The Judiciary stepped aside when the Pathribal encounter issue was raised before it. The Supreme Court asked the Army to decide whether the indicted officers should be tried by an army court or the regular criminal court. The Army, which opted for the court martial route, closed the case last week saying the recorded evidence did not establish any case against the officers.

The Army’s self-serving finding, arrived at in closed-door proceedings, has raised doubts about the ability of the system to deal with offenders in uniform.

Chief of Army Staff Gen Bikram Singh recently acknowledged that terrorist infiltration into Kashmir dropped from 1,852 in 2001 to 90 in 2013. However, he said, AFSPA cannot be withdrawn as it is a strategic imperative.

The AFSPA issue is not one of national security alone. It also has a bearing on rule of law. Both in Kashmir and in the Northeast, security personnel have attracted charges of rape. The Justice JS Verma Commission, which looked into the issue of women’s safety a year ago, suggested that armed forces personnel accused of sexual offences should not be given AFSPA protection. The Centre ignored the suggestion.

The National Human Rights Commission and the Supreme Court appointed Justice Santosh Hegde commission, which separately studied many alleged encounter deaths in Manipur, reported that all the cases they examined were fake encounters. Such widespread abuse of power will only make resolution of political problems difficult. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, January 28, 2014.

21 January, 2014

A Twitter tragedy

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

An Indian fairy tale, which was playing out on Twitter, ended abruptly last week on a tragic note. The chief protagonists were Shashi Tharoor, India’s dashing minister of state for human resources, who had been United Nations Under Secretary General and is a successful writer, and his vivacious Kashmiri wife, Sunanda Pushkar, who had been a business woman in Dubai.

When Tharoor made a bid for the post of UN Secretary General in 2007 the Indian government backed him, even though there was little chance of the Big Five agreeing on one of its nationals. After losing to Ban Ki-moon, he quit the UN and returned to India, which he had left as a student. The Congress party welcomed him. He was elected to the Lok Sabha from Kerala, his parents’ home state, and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh appointed him junior minister in the External Affairs Ministry.

An active Twitter user, Shashi Tharoor attracted a large following of more than two million although he himself followed fewer than 450 persons.

Tharoor ran into trouble in 2009 when he tweeted he would use “cattle class” in aircraft in solidarity with “all our holy cows”. Technology-illiterate Congressmen raised a hue and cry and a party spokesperson said, being new to politics, he was perhaps not conscious of the sensitivities of people.

The following year it came to light that a Kerala company bidding for a place in the Indian Premier League cricket, with Tharoor’s support, had given sweat equity of Rs700 million to Sunanda Pushkar, whom he was courting. Two senior ministers who looked into the allegation that she was a proxy for Tharoor concluded that his explanation was not satisfactory. He was asked to resign.

Shortly afterwards he married Sunanda Pushkar. It was the third marriage for both of them. The couple thereafter divided their time between New Delhi and Thiruvananthapuram.

When Manmohan Singh reconstituted the Cabinet in 2012 Tharoor was brought back as minister of state for Human Resources Development.

Everything appeared to be going well and he was preparing to seek re-election in the parliamentary elections due in May when all of a sudden things started falling apart.

Last Wednesday Tharoor’s followers were bombarded by a barrage of tweets purportedly sent by him to Mehr Tarar, who describes herself in her Twitter profile as a mom, former Op-Editor of the Daily Times, Pakistan, and a columnist. While they were trying to make sense out of them, Tharoor informed his account had been hacked.

Sunanda Pushkar announced that she was the one who had sent out tweets from his account. She told media persons who contacted her that the Lahore-based Mehr Tarar had been stalking her husband. Responding to a tweet from a friend, she wrote an incoherent, unpunctuated line: An Indian womans place apparently SHE is a nobody as someone said “a politician should not be married.”

Apparently she posted the tweets from Thiruvananthapuram. The next day she flew to Delhi with Tharoor. From the airport, he went home and she checked into a luxury hotel. The next evening she was found dead in her hotel bed.

“Murder by Twitter,” cried shocked users of the site. Television channels, celebrating the news, kept up a continuous flow of information, verified and unverified, throughout the weekend as the family cremated the body and the official machinery began grappling with medico-legal angles. Politicians belonging to rival formations, barring stray exceptions, began moves to cash in on the tragedy.

Under Indian law, a magisterial inquiry into the death is mandatory since the couple had been married for less than seven years. A preliminary post mortem report said death was sudden and unnatural and the body bore injury marks. The police is waiting for the final report of the surgeons and the magistrate to decide whether or not to register a case and on what charges and against whom. In a case of suicide by a married woman, the husband can attract the charge of abetment.

Twitterati can probably draw a moral from the tragedy: pouring out one’s woes in social networks does not necessarily help. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, January 21, 2014.

14 January, 2014

Linking with disparate Diaspora

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

For 12 years the Indian government has been trying to strengthen bonds with the Diaspora. However, its engagement with overseas Indians remains skewed on social and economic lines.

Since 2003 the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs has been celebrating Pravasi Bharatiya Divas (Overseas Indians Day) on January 9 each year. It was on that day in 1915 that Mahatma Gandhi returned to India ending life as an expatriate in South Africa.

This year’s celebrations, spread over three days, were held last week. The theme, “Engaging Diaspora: Connecting across Generations”, reflected the government’s desire to attract young people of Indian origin in other lands.

Overseas Indian Affairs Minister Vayalar Ravi said partnerships between young Indians at home and those residing in other lands in the industrial and social sectors would lead to job creation and prosperity.

About 22 million Indians, living in 205 countries, constitute the second largest Diaspora after the Chinese community of about 50 million. In 1978, the year in which Deng Xiaoping launched market reforms, Beijing set up the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office to engage with overseas Chinese who are important players in the economic life of many countries. Specific areas along the mainland’s long coast were allotted to Chinese communities in different countries to make investments.

Bharatiya Pravasi Divas celebrations were initiated by the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance government in 2003 at the instance of Hindutva elements in the US. The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance, which came to power after the 2004 elections, set up the Overseas Indian Affairs Ministry. It also instituted a scheme of honouring distinguished overseas Indians.

Overseas Indians fall in two categories: Non-Resident Indians, numbering more than 10 million, who are citizens of India living abroad for work, education or other purposes; and Persons of Indian Origin, numbering about 12 million, who, by definition, are foreign citizens of Indian origin or ancestry.

The latter category is a mixed lot which includes recent migrants in search of a better life who have taken up foreign citizenship as well as descendants of people who were shipped abroad by the British colonial regime as convicts sentenced to transportation for participation in revolts or as indentured labourers.

The Gulf States have the largest Indian community of more than 5.69 million, of whom about 1.79 million are in Saudi Arabia and 1.75 million in the UAE. All but a small number of them are NRIs who have to return home when their job visas expire. Beneficiaries of the economic boom triggered by oil price rise, most of them make modest earnings. However, among them there are also a few successful businessmen who figure in the Forbes list of the rich.

The USA accounts for 2.25 million Indians, a fair proportion of them professionals who have climbed high in corporate ladders. The UK follows with 1.5 million. Other countries with significant Indian presence include South Africa (1.22m), Mauritius (0.88m), Trinidad and Tobago (0.55m), Australia (0.45m), Guyana (0.32m) and Fiji (0.31m).

While recent migrants have carried with them regional and religious and caste prejudices from the homeland, in places like the West Indies and Fiji the Indian communities have largely overcome them through inter-marriage over a period of more than a century.

The government has failed to take note of the differing character of overseas Indian communities and devise suitable schemes to meet their requirements which range widely. India, the world’s largest recipient of foreign remittances, got $69 billion from NRIs in 2012. Nearly half of the money came from the comparatively low earners in the Gulf region who send all their savings home. Yet the government has not been sufficiently attentive to their needs. The Pravasi Bharatiya registration fee of $250 blocks their effective participation in the annual get-together.

Two years ago the government granted the NRIs’ demand for voting right. However, in the absence of facilities to vote online or at the Indian missions abroad, few are able to exercise the right.

NRIs in the Gulf region have long-standing grievances against Air India, the national flag carrier, which, they say, charges high fares, especially at times of festivals. Also, their children have to pay heavy fees for admission to colleges under NRI quota.

The political class’s involvement with nouveau riche NRIs is evident in the way selections are made for the annual awards. Critics have said the only qualification of one person who was honoured this year is that he is the son-in-law of a billionaire.

The annual Diaspora gathering needs to be saved from degenerating into a ritual. The government must devote serious attention to improving the quality of the interaction.--Gulf Today, Sharjah, January 14, 2013

07 January, 2014

A spanner in presidential works

BRP Bhaskar
The signs of a presidential race in the making have dissipated somewhat and the parliamentary elections, due in a few months, may now follow the conventional pattern. The credit for this goes primarily to the new kid on the block, the Aam Admi Party.

With regional parties and small national parties gravitating towards the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance or the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance, before or after the elections, India has been going through a phase of coalition governments for some years.

In the elections of 2004 and 2009 the combined vote share of the Congress and the BJP was below 50 per cent. This meant that a majority of the voters were already with regional parties and small national parties. With their vote share expected to go up in this year’s elections, ambitious leaders of some of the parties began eying the prime minister’s chair.

Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, whom the BJP picked as its prime ministerial candidate, altered the political scenario with a bold campaign in the recent assembly elections in four northern states, which the media had dubbed as a semi-final. He succeeded in creating an impression that the final will be a presidential kind of race between him and Rahul Gandhi, the Congress party’s presumptive prime ministerial nominee.

The BJP’s success in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh and its emergence as the largest single party in Delhi state appeared to confirm pollsters’ forecast that the BJP will emerge as the largest single party in the next Lok Sabha and earn the right to form the government. Modi sought to boost his prospects further by setting the goal of an absolute majority for his party.

As the implications of the Delhi verdict sank in, political observers found it necessary to reassess the situation. The AAP, which blocked the BJP’s return to power, was able to form the government in the state with the Congress extending support from outside. It has now announced plans to contest the Lok Sabha elections, raising an alarm in the coteries of the established parties.

Many imagined the AAP will confine itself to urban constituencies where it can hope to replicate the Delhi story. But the party has said it will field as many candidates as possible, the only restricting factors being its organisational limitations and the availability of suitable candidates.

As in the Delhi state elections, the AAP hopes to cash in on the people’s disgust with the corrupt ways of the mainstream parties. In Yogendra Yadav, its ideologue, the party has a valuable strategic planner. He has been studying Indian electoral behaviour for many years and is possibly more knowledgeable than anyone else in the country on the social dynamics of the polity at both the national and regional levels.

Yadav recently spoke of AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal as an alternative prime ministerial candidate. Kejriwal quickly dismissed the suggestion, which had the potential to bolster Modi’s bid to reduce the elections to a one-to-one fight for the top post, glossing over the complex problems for which the people are looking for solutions. 

The Modi juggernaut was already slowing down when Kejriwal threw a spanner in the presidential works. It will be back on the road again after a re-jig but it remains to be seen whether it can regain the lost momentum.

Tamil Nadu Chief Minister and All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam leader J Jayalalithaa has set before her party the ambitious target of grabbing all 39 of the state’s Lok Sabha seats as well as Puducherry’s lone seat so as to give her a big role in national politics. Other state party leaders are sure to follow her lead with a view to maximising their bargaining power.

The Congress party, whose image is tarnished by corruption scandals, is yet to put its act together. Its governmental and organisational wings inspire little confidence. The party’s rank and file view Rahul Gandhi as its prime ministerial face, even though there has been no formal announcement to that effect.

He recently forced the Centre to abandon a proposed law to protect tainted legislators and got the Maharashtra government to re-examine its decision to reject the probe report on the Adarsh scam. Such stray interventions are not enough to convince the people that he can be the agent of change they are looking for. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, January 7, 2014.