New on my other blogs

KERALA LETTER
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

വായന

26 August, 2014

Between rhetoric and reality

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

The India-Pakistan peace process, which got a boost when Nawaz Sharif joined other South Asian heads of government at Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s swearing-in last May, has suffered another setback.

The Foreign Secretary-level talks, scheduled for Monday, were cancelled by India in a peevish response to Pakistan High Commissioner Abdul Basit’s meeting with Kashmiri dissidents.

At the weekend, the two sides were counting the dead and the injured after troops exchanged fire across the border and the line of control in Jammu and Kashmir.

Ups and downs have been a regular feature of India-Pakistan relations since they emerged as free nations 67 years ago. The latest developments have not, therefore, caused any great concern on either side. However, there are some worrying elements.

Pakistan’s envoys had met Kashmiri dissidents even when the Bharatiya Janata Party was in power last time without provoking Indian protests. Many, therefore, believe that the Modi administration scuttled the talks for other reasons, and there is intense speculation on what they are.

Former diplomat MK Bhadrakumar has suggested that Modi has no roadmap for proceeding towards the goal of good neighbourly relations and ducked the bilateral meeting to avoid the danger of exposing his cultivated image of being a visionary. He has also raised the question whether Modi ducked on his own or at the instance of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the fountainhead of the BJP’s Hindutva politics.

Ajai Sahni of the Institute for Conflict Management has ridiculed the cancellation of the meeting, saying the government has acted as though it is ready to tolerate Pakistan shooting Indian soldiers but will not forgive its envoy having tea with secessionists.

More than 50 cases of ceasefire violation have occurred so far this year, a dozen of them in the last fortnight. When encounters take place, each side accuses the other of resorting to unprovoked firing, and patriotic citizens readily accept their government’s version of events.

The current spurt in exchange of fire by forces on the border is attributed to Pakistani forces providing cover for militants to cross over to India. Such infiltrations usually take place ahead of the winter months when cross-border movement is not easy. An Indian corps commander recently said that 150 to 200 militants were waiting to cross over.

In last week’s incidents 22 Indian border outposts and 13 villages came under shelling. Both sides reported two civilian casualties on their side of the border. The Indian side said four militants were also killed. Following the incidents, authorities in Jammu moved the residents of a few villages to safer locations.

The cancellation of talks and the ceasefire violations have come at a time when militancy is at a low level and the Kashmir valley is comparatively peaceful.

According to conventional wisdom tension on the border helps the Pakistan army by strengthening its position vis-à-vis the civilian government in place in that country.

It may now be of help, on this side of the border, to the BJP, whose leadership has reportedly formulated an audacious plan to seize power in Muslim-majority Jammu and Kashmir in the Assembly elections due later this year.

The state’s constitution provides for a 100-member Assembly. However, the effective strength of the house is only 87 since the remaining seats are earmarked for the areas now under Pakistan’s control.

Of the 87 constituencies where elections are to be held, 46 are in Kashmir, which has an overwhelming Muslim majority, 37 in the Hindu-majority Jammu region and four in Buddhist-majority Ladakh.

So far the largest number of seats the BJP has won in the Assembly is only 11, all from the Jammu region. However, it believes the highly fragmented polity of the Kashmir valley offers it an opportunity to make a bold bid for power. In the event of a sharp communal division, its leadership feels, it can hope to bag most of the seats of Jammu and one or two from Ladakh, making it the largest single party in the house even if it gets no seat from the Kashmir valley.

Separatist leaders usually call for boycott of elections, and in recent years they have been able to evoke a good response in the valley. If this happens again, the BJP leadership reckons, it may be able to pick up a few seats from the valley too with the votes of the Hindu minority.

Such calculations may well impede Modi’s ability to make an early and smooth transition from the rhetoric of the election campaign, in which Pakistan serves as a good foil, to the ground reality that demands good relations in the best interests of both the nations.-- Gulf Today, Sharjah, August 26, 2014.

19 August, 2014

Modi reform on the way

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whom critics have accused of continuing with the policies and programmes of the previous administration, announced last week a step towards changing the way the government functions. The Planning Commission, set up by the first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, 64 years ago, will be wound up, he said.

Nehru was an admirer of socialist planning since his visit to the Soviet Union in 1927 on the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution. He established the Commission to draw up perspective plans for economic development.

He envisaged a socialistic pattern of society in which the public sector will occupy the commanding heights of the economy. The Commission’s task was to formulate five-year plans with this end in view. Under successive prime ministers it produced 12 such plans, and the last of them is now in the process of implementation.

Since the Commission was a brainchild of Nehru, some have interpreted Modi’s decision to do away with it as part of the process of burying his legacy, the main political asset of the Congress Party which was in power for most of the years of Independence.

During this year’s parliamentary elections Modi had campaigned for a Congress-free India. His lieutenant, Amit Shah, who was recently elected president of the Bharatiya Janata Party, has adopted the same slogan for the upcoming Assembly elections in some states.

The fact is that planning in India predates Nehru’s days as prime minister. As Congress President, Subhas Chandra Bose set up a national planning committee in 1938 to formulate a plan for establishment of industries after the country gained freedom. A group of economists and industrialists made another non-official effort in the same direction in 1944. In the last years of colonial rule, the British established a planning board to rebuild the war-ravaged economy.

From the second plan onwards, the Planning Commission followed an economic model developed by internationally reputed statistician PC Mahalanobis, who laid emphasis on industrialisation with key areas under state control. Market reforms of the era of globalisation rendered that model irrelevant. 

The United Progressive Alliance government, which pushed globalisation during the past 10 years, recognised the need to reform the Commission in the light of new realities. It set up an Independent Evaluation Office (IEO) attached to the Commission to initiate the process. However, there was not much change.

Montek Singh Ahluwalia, who ran the Commission under Manmohan Singh, made it a laughing stock by fixing the poverty line at the abysmally low level of a monthly consumption of Rs859.60 in urban areas and Rs672.80 in rural areas. He also came under criticism for spending Rs3.5 million on renovation of toilets in the Commission’s headquarters.

Justifying the decision to scrap the Commission and go in for a new institution, Modi said, “Sometimes it costs a lot to repair an old house. It gives us no satisfaction and we have a feeling that it is better to construct a new house.”

The IEO, in a report submitted to Modi in June, immediately after he took office, had recommended abolition of the Commission. It suggested that a think tank be created in its place to advise the states on developmental plans. Modi has not indicated what the shape of the new body will be. Some media reports have suggested that he has in mind something like China’s National Development and Reforms Council.

But China, which started revamping its Planning Commission in 1998, still does not have an institution which its rulers consider satisfactory. The NDRC is a leviathan with 30,000 bureaucrats spread across the country. The new leadership of the Communist Party of China is reportedly planning to clip its wings.

According to some other reports, the think tank will consist of eight members, of whom five will be central ministers or serving or former state chief ministers and the remaining three will be drawn from industry.

The crucial issue is not the size and composition of the body but the procedures it will follow. In all likelihood, the Finance Ministry will take over the task of fixing annual outlays of state plans and providing the requisite funds. This may not be conducive to strengthening of federalism, which Modi has mentioned as a key element of his developmental policy, along with optimum use of the country’s young population and promotion of the public-private partnership.-- Gulf Today, Sharjah, August19, 2014.

15 August, 2014

Memories of 1947

Jawaharlal Nehru saluting the National Flag at the Red Fort in New Delhhi on August 15, 1947

August 15, 1947, was a Friday. The prospect of a long weekend was not the only factor that prompted me to travel from Thiruvananthapuram, where I was a college student, to Kollam and join the family the previous evening. I wanted to listen to the live broadcast of the midnight ceremony in Parliament House.

The booming voice of Melville de Mellow, All India Radio’s commentator, streamed into our living room through the 11-valve Westinghouse radio which my father had brought home when he returned from a visit to Bombay a few years earlier.

Jawaharlal Nehru making the famous Tryst with Destiny speech in Parliament House

After listening to Jawaharlal Nehru’s Tryst with Destiny speech we children climbed to the rooftop to hoist the new Tricolour which father had bought from the local khadi shop the previous day.


In that famous speech, Nehru had said, “At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom.



Highly evocative as these words are, in later years I have wondered if they were not far removed from the reality. India was awaking to freedom but how many Indians were awake?
       
Not many peasants and workers could have heard the promise of freedom and opportunity that the Prime Minister held out to them, for few among them were within hearing distance of a radio, which was rare and expensive in those days. As India awoke to life and freedom, most Indians were in fact asleep in their modest settings, as on other nights.

The next day’s newspapers presented colourful accounts of the grand celebrations in New Delhi and other cities. It is not possible to glean from them how ordinary people, especially those living in myriad far-flung villages, greeted freedom that midnight.

The best picture I have come across is a fictional account of events in a Kerala village, provided by eminent Malayalam writer Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai in his mammoth novel “Kayar”. It runs like this:
 

All lights were out. All homes fell asleep. The Party should have celebrated this day.
       The last Britisher boards the steamer to go home at midnight tonight. Isn’t that something? Isn’t  the working class getting any rights tonight?
         Surendran walked. He felt heavy inside. All working class homes were asleep. Did they not know that India was becoming free tonight?
          He walked through the lanes. People were awake in some houses here and there. Maybe they habitually sleep late. Decoration was going on in two or three houses.  Festoons were being put  up in the village office.
            Surendran thought of going up to the police station. In the darkness he  saw a figure moving in the oppose direction. It was Manikantan.  Surendran recognized Manikantan. And Manikantan recognized Surendran.     
             Manikantan said rather excitedly: ‘Large-scale decorations are going on at the police station’.
             That was big news. Surendran said, ‘At 12 the Tricolour will go up there.’
             ‘Yes, yes, the cops will salute the flag at 12.’   
             Manikantan moved away, walking hurriedly as though there was urgent work to do.  And
Surendran walked towards the police station. As the clock ticked towards freedom, two men were moving about in that village. They were full of enthusiasm. The freedom which generations had dreamed of was becoming a reality. Could those who lived a hundred years ago have known that after sunset on the night of August 14, 1947, at 12 o’ clock sharp, India’s flag will be fluttering in the sky? They might have inquisitively wondered when that day would come. This generation had waited impatiently for this day. It was we who had the good fortune to decide that moment.         
            Time was not moving. So Manikantan felt. There was still time left. Fat, unmoving moments.   
             From where should one watch the National Flag go up? The biggest preparations were at the police station. It would be fun to watch uniformed, gun-wielding policemen salute the flag.  Might as well see how they salute the flag. Once they had ripped a Tricolour with bullets. It was  from that flag that the present one had come.           
             Yes, that was the place. Some people had already gathered there. Shouldn’t the whole village be there -- men, women and children? Why aren’t they all there? 
 



Challenge of divisive issues

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

There is cause for disquiet. Some parties are stirring the pots of language and religion, hoping to gain from the divisive sentiments they generate.

Gandhi recognised the divisive potential of these factors when he was working among Indians in South Africa. On his return home, he devised strategies to overcome them and unite the people in the cause of national freedom. Some of them worked. Some didn’t.

His language strategy worked. He kept differences under wraps by reorganising the Congress party on a linguistic basis and promising reorganisation of states also on a linguistic basis after Independence. After his time linguistic divisions started haunting governments.

Failure to honour the commitment to reorganise states on a linguistic basis provoked violent agitations and governments were forced to redraw the political map several times. Strong regional sentiments recently compelled the Centre to divide the Telugu-speaking state of Andhra Pradesh into Telangana and Seemandhra.

As the deadline of 1965 set by the Constitution for replacing English with Hindi as the official language of the central government approached, the Tamil people’s fear that it would work to their disadvantage precipitated violent protests. The government amended the Constitution to retain English as associate official language. It also held out an assurance that English would stay as long as the non-Hindi states wanted.

A three-language formula was proposed to promote understanding and good feeling among the different linguistic groups. It envisaged compulsory study of Hindi by students in the non-Hindi states and of a southern language by students in the Hindi states. The formula failed as most states did not implement it sincerely.

Now Hindi-speakers are up in arms against English. They want the Union Public Service Commission, which conducts competitive examinations to select the members of the administrative services, to scrap the aptitude and English language comprehension skills tests which were introduced in 2011. These, they claim, adversely affect candidates from rural areas of Hindi states.

Pending a final call on the issue, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government, which owes its majority in the Lok Sabha to its remarkable success in the Hindi-speaking states, has asked the UPSC not to count the marks awarded for English language skills while grading the candidates. It has also agreed to the agitators’ demand that the unsuccessful candidates of 2011 be allowed to sit for the examinations again next year.

In Parliament, members from non-Hindi states protested against the decision. They demanded that examinations be held in all the major languages of the country so that there is no unfair advantage to candidates from any region.

The issue has split the English-educated. One group, which includes many retired bureaucrats, argues that devaluation of English will affect the quality of the administration. Another, which includes some intellectuals, wants the elitism of the English-educated to be countered.

The government has said it will consult all political parties before taking a final decision on the subject. If the parties do not handle the issue with due regard for the sensitivities of the different sections irreparable damage may be done.

In Uttar Pradesh, the BJP and other Sangh Parivar outfits have seized upon an alleged case of abduction, rape and forced conversion of a young woman at Sarawa village, located 60 kilometres from New Delhi, to launch a campaign against what they have dubbed as ‘love jihad’.

Police investigation has yielded no evidence of forced conversion. Yet a Sangh Parivar outfit has said it will hold anti-conversion rallies throughout the state from August 23 to September 15, and organise two separate programmes in December for conversion of Muslims and Christians to Hinduism.

UP has witnessed several communal incidents in recent weeks and the state’s Samajwadi Party government has so far failed to stem the rot. If the Parivar campaign results in deterioration of the law and order situation, the Central government can oust the state government, citing that as the reason. The BJP, which bagged most of the state’s Lok Sabha seats in this year’s election, can reasonably expect to seize power if fresh Assembly elections are held.

Jayati Bharatam, a little-known organisation, moved the Supreme Court last week for the constitution of a special investigation team to probe alleged instances of conversion of Hindu girls. A bench headed by Chief Justice RM Lodha refused to entertain the plea. “This is a secular state,” the Chief Justice told the petitioner. “Don’t try to bring religion into the court.”

Ominously while regional functionaries make such provocative statements the bigwigs of the Parivar are remaining silent. So is Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

05 August, 2014

Trade not at cost of the poor

BRP Bhaskar
The Gulf Today

India’s refusal to endorse the Trade Facilitation Agreement, concluded at the ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organisation held at Bali, Indonesia, last December, has put the measure on hold.

July 31 was the date by which members were required to give the final nod to put it on the WTO rulebook. India withheld its consent since the negotiations at Geneva did not yield a solution to its demand for protection of its food security law.

At WTO, decisions are taken by consensus, and TFA will not go into effect until India also consents.

Two US ministers, Secretary of State John Kerry and Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, who were in New Delhi ahead of the July 31 deadline, pressed the Indian government to fall in line. They assumed that Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is keen on economic development, could be brought around.

Kerry told Modi that not allowing the Bali agreement went against his message to the world that India was open to business. Modi told him his first responsibility was to the poorest people of India. He believed TFA was good for India but he also believed the needs of those living on the margins of society, not only in India but also elsewhere in the world, must be addressed.

Western leaders and media have unleashed a propaganda barrage to make it appear that India went back on the Bali agreement and this may be the beginning of the end of the WTO. This is a deliberate misrepresentation of the facts.

The WTO has been in existence for 19 years but it has not been able to conclude a single agreement so far to improve the trade regime. It has missed 27 deadlines on various issues, but has survived.

At the root of the conflict between India and the developed world is the provision in the WTO agreement on agriculture which requires the country to limit food subsidy to 10 per cent of the value of the produce, worked out on the basis of international prices of 1986-88. This poses a threat to the food security programme under which 800 million poor people receive subsidised grains.

A third of the world’s poor live in India. No government, whatever its political complexion, can afford to throw them to the tender mercies of the market.

In pre-Bali negotiations at Geneva, the developed countries had given India two years’ time to bring subsidies within the ceiling. To secure an agreement at Bali, they extended the grace period to four years. Now they are accusing India of going back on the Bali commitment.

India had not made any commitment of the kind alleged by the West. While accepting TFA in principle at Bali, Commerce Minister Anand Sharma said the four-year concession was only an interim solution. What India wanted, he asserted, was permanent immunity from farm subsidy breach. An interim solution should hold good until a permanent solution was in place, he added.

In the seven months since the Bali meet the developed countries made no effort to address the issue.

Failure to meet the July 31 deadline does not mean TFA is dead. When WTO delegates reassemble in Geneva next month after the summer break they can take up the issue again and hammer out a formula which meets India’s needs.

The TFA provides for streamlining of global customs procedures. Advocates of globalisation claim it will cut delays at ports, giving a $1 trillion boost to the world economy, and create 21 million jobs, mostly in developing countries.

WTO Director General Roberto Azevedo has described the TFA hold-up as a setback to multilateralism. According to him, rich nations have options to tide over the situation but poor nations will suffer. Trade experts say in the absence of a global mechanism more countries may go in for regional agreements.

The Western breast-beating is part of a scheme to go ahead with the TFA without India. At the instance of the International Chamber of Commerce, the US, the European Union, Australia, Japan, Canada and Norway recently discussed this possibility.

It is not an attractive option. For one, it means a growing economy and a market of 1.2 billion people will be outside the global regime. For another, India cannot be denied benefits flowing from the TFA, such as faster cargo movement, without hurting other nations in the process. --The Gulf Today, Sharjah, August 5, 2014