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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?


29 December, 2015

Modi never ceases to marvel

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

There were no hysterical crowds of Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) chanting slogans and there was no display of histrionics but Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visits to three countries in as many days last week were probably the most productive of the many travels he has undertaken since assuming office 19 months ago. In each country he did or said something to marvel at.

When he set out from New Delhi, only two countries were on the published itinerary: Russia, where he was to meet President Vladimir Putin for the customary bilateral summit, and Afghanistan where he was to open a parliament building, which was India’s gift to that country.

Before leaving the Afghan capital Modi tweeted that on the way back home he would stop at Lahore, Pakistan, to meet Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who was celebrating his birthday.

Media reports said when he called Sharif to convey birthday greetings, the latter suggested that he stop over at Lahore and he agreed. However, some analysts believe back channel diplomacy played a part in the development. An Indian businessman who had facilitated a meeting between them when they were both in Kathmandu for the SAARC summit was said to be in Lahore too.

Travelling frequently to promote India’s political and economic interests, Modi has earned a reputation as a globetrotter and invited barbs like “NRI prime minister” and “Salesman-in-Chief”. His domestic and foreign travels are usually plotted in great detail and official and non-official agencies are pressed into service to make sure that everything goes on as planned. Extensive media coverage guarantees political dividends.

Ridiculing Modi’s frequent travels, Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi recently said uncharitably, “We don’t know where he goes. Maybe he is travelling so much because earlier he was banned and now he has got the freedom to visit foreign countries.”

However, a study by Sanjay Pulipaka of the Indian Council for Research on International Relations shows that Modi is not as great a traveller as friends and foes imagine. In his first year as Prime Minister he visited 18 countries, which was below the average of 20.4 countries visited by heads of governments of major countries.

France’s Francois Hollande visited 27 countries during the year, Japan’s Shinzo Abe 26, Germany’s Angela Merkel and South Africa’s Jacob Zuma 22 each and Britain’s David Cameron and China’s Xi Jinping 19 each.

Modi took with him to Moscow some top industrialists. While he was there India and Russia signed 16 agreements covering vital areas like defence and energy.

One of the agreements provides for joint manufacture of military helicopters. It enlarges the area of military cooperation between the two countries which are already jointly producing ship-based supersonic Brahmos missiles.

Putin indicated they would soon work together on a multi-role jet fighter and transport aircraft too.

India and Russia developed a close relationship during the time of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Soviet Prime Minister Nikita Khrushchev. It gradually evolved into a strategic partnership and was later elevated to the level of “special and privileged strategic partnership” in recognition of their multifaceted bilateral engagement.

Talking to the Russian agency Tass ahead of the visit, Modi traced the origin of Indo-Russian relations to the 17th century when Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich sent an emissary to the court of Moghul emperor Shah Jahan and Russian merchant Afanasy Nikitin toured India.

Modi, who is pursuing India’s nuclear energy programme vigorously, may be pleased with the agreement under which Russia will build 12 atomic plants with the involvement of Indian companies. However, there is strong popular resistance to the expansion of nuclear facilities.

Modi’s visit has set the stage for expansion of Indo-Russian relations. Before leaving Moscow, he said, “India and Russia represent two faces of a multipolar world. We want to work with Russia not just for our bilateral interests but also for a peaceful, stable and sustainable world.

The opening of the parliament building in Kabul underscored India’s abiding interest in the future of war-torn Afghanistan.

It is no secret that Indian and Pakistani interests in Afghanistan are at variance. Some analysts have pointed out that by flying directly from Kabul to Nawaz Sherif’s hometown Lahore to personally greet him on his birthday he has helped to remove Pakistani misgivings about India’s Afghan policy.

India-Pakistan relations are once again warming up. There is no indication how the Pakistan army, which reputedly looks over Sherif’s shoulders, and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Singh, which looks over Modi’s, view the two Prime Ministers’ attempt to fast-forward the political process. - Gulf Today, Sharjah, December 29, 2015

22 December, 2015

Change of master, not of system

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

The Congress which headed the government at the Centre longer than any other party had come under attack frequently on two grounds: misuse of the institution of Governors and misuse of the Central Bureau of Investigation. One and a half years after Narendra Modi led the Bharatiya Janata Party to power there is no sign of change in the situation. If anything, it is getting worse.

Arunachal Pradesh is facing an unprecedented situation with Governor Jyoti Prasad Rajkhowa colluding with a group of Congress rebels and the opposition BJP to oust Congress Chief Minister Nabam Tuki.

The bizarre development began with Rajkhowa, a retired bureaucrat, advancing the date of the State Assembly session on his own. Speaker Nabam Rebia suspended 14 rebel Congress members and locked the Assembly premises to prevent the session called by the Governor without the Cabinet’s recommendation.

The Congress rebels and the BJP members met at a community hall, with Deputy Speaker T Norbum Thongdok, who is one of the rebels, in the chair. The Deputy Speaker rescinded the suspension orders issued by the Speaker. Thereafter the rebel assembly adopted a resolution removing the Speaker.

The rebel assembly later voted to remove Chief Minister Tuki and installed dissident Congressman Kalikho Pul as his successor.

On a petition filed by Speaker Rebia, the Gauhati High Court ordered that all decisions of the rebel assembly be held in abeyance. The court will take up the petition for hearing on February 1, 2016.

The Congress party alleged that Union Minister of State for Home Affairs Kiren Rijiju, who belongs to Arunachal Pradesh, was behind the Governor’s unconstitutional acts. Denying the charge, Rijiju told a reporter that subversion of the Constitution was not in his blood.

Curiously, while admitting the Constitution was being subverted, Rijiju did not condemn it. He blamed the Congress for the situation.

The gubernatorial shenanigans did not attract much political and media attention as Arunachal Pradesh is a remote border state with a predominantly tribal population. A mischievous move by the CBI around the same time received more attention as the scene was Delhi.

While the UPA was in power, annoyed by the revelation that the CBI had made changes in an affidavit in a corruption case at the instance of a minister, a Supreme Court judge had dubbed the agency a caged parrot.

Responding to the criticism, CBI spokeswoman Dharini Mishra said, The CBI conducts all investigations in a free, fair and impartial manner as per the law. However, Vijay Shanker, who had headed the CBI from 2005 to 2008, admitted that the agency did come under political pressure.

The hollowness of the spokeswoman’s claim was exposed when the agency requested the Supreme Court to grant its Director the status of Government Secretary so as to free him from the government’s administrative and financial control.

The agency clarified that it was not seeking enhancement of its legal powers. Even if the Director was granted the powers of a Secretary, superintendence would vest in the Centre and the minister in charge would remain the final authority, it said.

The Supreme Court made a cursory attempt to secure a measure of professional autonomy for the agency. It sought the government’s views on a law to give the CBI functional autonomy and insulate its investigations against outside interference. The government rejected the idea of such a law.

Six months later, the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance replaced the Congress-led UPA in office. The CBI now had a new master but the system remained unchanged.

Soon a change in the CBI’s tune was in evidence. In 2012, it had filed a charge-sheet implicating Amit Shah, who was Home Minister under Modi in Gujarat, along with some senior police officials in two cases of alleged fake encounters. On a petition by Shah, the trial court quashed the charge-sheet last year.

By then Shah had become the BJP’s president. The CBI, which had earlier claimed it had evidence against him, chose not to file an appeal.

Recently the CBI searched the office of Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal ostensibly in connection with a corruption case against his Secretary, Rajinder Kumar, an IAS officer.

Kejriwal, whose Aam Admi Party had trounced the BJP in the Delhi Assembly elections, said the agency was looking for information on movement of files relating to alleged corruption in the Delhi and District Cricket Association when BJP leader and Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley was its president.

If Kejriwal’s allegation is correct, the caged parrot may be turning into a hunting falcon. --Gulf Today, Sharjah, December 22, 2015

15 December, 2015

India-Pakistan talks are on again

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Prime Minister Narendra Modi confounded fans and foes alike when he got off the high horse he was riding and gave the nod for resumption of India-Pakistan talks and their elevation to the level of a “comprehensive bilateral dialogue”.

Modi had assumed office a year and a half ago in the presence of heads of governments of all South Asian nations, including Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan, raising hopes of a new era of good neighbourliness in the region. Things went awry when he called off scheduled Foreign Secretary-level talks between the two countries in New Delhi to demonstrate his displeasure at the Pakistan High Commissioner’s confabulations with Kashmir’s dissident Hurriyat leaders.

Thereafter, falling back on the traditional Bharatiya Janata Party position, Modi insisted that the two sides should talk about terrorism first. A statement issued after Modi and Sharif met during the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit at Ufa, Russia, said National Security Advisers of the two countries would meet in New Delhi to discuss terrorism.

Sharif came under heavy attack at home for agreeing to a statement which did not mention Jammu and Kashmir, which Pakistan considers the core issue. Islamabad called off the meeting after India placed Hurriyat leaders under house arrest to prevent their travelling to New Delhi to meet Pakistan’s NSA, Sartaj Aziz.

With the two sides standing firm on publicly stated positions under domestic compulsions, an early end of the stalemate appeared unlikely. But, then, the NSAs met secretly at Bangkok, along with the Foreign Secretaries, on December 6 and announced they had discussed “peace and security, terrorism, Jammu and Kashmir and other issues, including tranquillity along the line of control”.

The breakthrough followed an unscheduled meeting between Modi and Sharif, who were in Paris for the Climate summit. There they agreed on a formula which accommodated the wishes of both sides. The NSAs met and discussed terrorism and the Foreign Secretaries met and discussed Kashmir, and the stand-off ended.

One-upmanship has been an essential part of India-Pakistan relations in the recent past. Observers on both sides sought an answer to question as to who had blinked first.

Indian analysts were of the view that New Delhi showed more flexibility than Islamabad. A report quoted former Foreign Secretary Lalit Mansingh as saying India had given up the stand that it would only talk terrorism and nothing else. Modi wanted to take a tough line on terrorism and at the same time prove to the world that he was more pragmatic than dogmatic, and in the process he was sending confusing signals to the Indian public, he said.

Alluding to the way the BJP, while in the opposition, had obstructed efforts at normalisation of relations with Pakistan, former ambassador MK Bhadrakumar observed it was some natural justice that the party was forced to eat its own vomit, ironically, with Modi as the master of ceremonies.

Another former ambassador TP Sreenivasan wrote that Pakistan had won this round. Modi fans attacked him in the social media.

The fact is that Pakistan, too, took a step or two backward. It went back on the repeatedly articulated position that Kashmir is the primary issue and agreed to resumption of talks at the level of NSAs.

A host of factors, including some whose roots lie beyond the subcontinent, appears to have contributed to the softening of the attitudes of the Indian and Pakistani governments which made the breakthrough possible.Sushma Swaraj

External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj visited Islamabad on December 10 for the annual meeting of the 14-member Heart of Asia conference on regional cooperation in Afghanistan. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is committed to attend the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation summit in Islamabad next year. Strained relationship with Pakistan does not bar Indian leaders from attending regional meetings held in that country, but it is sure to limit their interactions.

Observers believe the United States exerted pressure on India and Pakistan to start talking as good relations between the two countries is critical to its plans for Afghanistan.

Some link Islamabad’s changed stance also to the emergence of Army chief General Raheel Sharif as a key player in Pakistan’s foreign relations. An army officer close to him, Lt-Gen Nasir Khan Janjua, replaced Sartaj Aziz as NSA recently.

While resumption of dialogue is a welcome development, optimism over its outcome has to be tempered by the fact that the peace process is in the hands of security experts with limited diplomatic experience.-Gulf Today, December 15, 2015.

08 December, 2015

Tragedies waiting to happen

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

It was a tragedy waiting to happen. A torrential downpour, the heaviest in a century, submerged large areas of India’s fourth largest city, Chennai (formerly Madras), a week ago, snapping power and water supply as well as transport and communication facilities.

“It is not an exaggeration to say that Chennai has become an island,” Home Minister Rajnath Singh told Parliament. After an aerial survey of the flooded city, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said the devastation pained him and announced a relief package of Rs10 billion in addition to Rs9.40 billion sanctioned earlier.

The city, with a population of nine million, had received 490 mm of rain on December 1. Low-lying areas were inundated and hundreds of thousands of poor rendered homeless. As swelling lakes and rivers breached their banks, floodwaters rose up to the second floor of apartment buildings in newly developed suburbs, trapping an equally large number of flat-dwellers.

At least 325 persons died and about 1,000 were seriously injured.

In mid-October, a month before the northeast monsoon set in, the Meteorological department had forecast unprecedented rainfall this season. If the authorities had immediately cleaned up the clogged drains the flood might not have been so severe.

Not that the devastation was avoidable. Its primary cause was not the clogged drains but the unregulated and unscientific urban development of the recent past.

Chennai is the country’s fastest growing urban agglomeration. During 2001-2011, it recorded a growth of 32.5 per cent, as against 20.3 per cent during the previous decade. The three larger cities had witnessed a decline in the growth rate during the period: Mumbai’s fell from 30.5 per cent to 12.1 per cent, Delhi’s from 52.2 per cent to 26.7 per cent and Kolkata’s from 19.6 per cent to 7.0 per cent.

Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar blamed the deluge on global warming caused by the industrial activity of the developed world over the past century and a half. Environmental activists said the role of climate change was yet to be established through studies but there was enough material to establish the role of unplanned urban development.

Sunita Narain, Director-General of the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), pointed out that intense construction activity had destroyed water bodies in all cities, including Chennai. Professor Saswat Bandopadhyay of the Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology, Ahmedabad, attributed the devastation to “complete disrespect of basic urban planning and hydrological cycle”.

Chennai had become an information technology hub at the turn of the century. The rapid expansion that followed led to fourfold growth of the city area. According to the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, built-up and paved areas increased from 29.5 per cent in 1991 to 64.4 per cent in 2013, resulting in drastic curtailment of open areas. The city with 2,847 km of road has only 855 km of stormwater drain.

A CSE study found that only a fraction of the more than 600 water bodies which existed in 1980 were in a healthy condition in 2008. The area of 19 major lakes shrank from 1,130 hectares to 645 hectares during the period. The drains that carried surplus water from tanks to wetlands were encroached upon.

Builders find it easy to get around legal restrictions. City officials identified more than 150,000 illegal structures during a survey but there was no action.

The state itself is guilty of ignoring environmental regulations. Some important institutions stand on marshlands which were allotted to them by the government. The extended runway of the Chennai airport, the country’s fourth busiest, traverses the Adyar river.

In the last decade the country has witnessed several disasters which are rude reminders of the dangers of unregulated development. However, there has been no effective measure to prevent such tragedies.

About 500 persons died in Mumbai in July 2005 in the deluge caused by heavy rainfall. Following this, the authorities drew up a plan to widen drains, clean waterways and build pumping stations. It is yet to be implemented.

More than 5,700 people were presumed dead in floods and landslides in Uttarakhand after a cloudburst in 2013. A Utah State University study team linked the heavy precipitation to climate change.

Environmentalists said the heavy loss of lives and property was the result of obstruction to flow of water caused by debris left after construction of dams upstream and of mushrooming of resorts in the Himalayan pilgrim centres.

Last year floods in Srinagar, capital of Jammu and Kashmir state, took a toll of more than 200 lives.

The authorities have failed to rethink policies despite recurrent disasters. What’s worse, they are ready to relax the rules further to speed up developmental activity.

With the Centre planning to build 100 “smart” cities across the country, environmentalists fear more tragedies are waiting to happen. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, December 8, 2015.

01 December, 2015

Modi in tactical mode

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Parliament, which could not transact much business at its sessions earlier this year due to the acute hostility between the government and the opposition, began its winter session last week with both sides coming together to hail the Constitution and pay homage to its chief architect, BR Ambedkar.

The occasion was a two-in-one celebration: the 66th anniversary of the adoption of the Constitution, and the 125th birth anniversary of Dr Ambedkar, who rose from the ranks of the so-called untouchables to be revered by the nation as the Father of the Constitution.

The debate revealed that the Bharatiya Janata Party, which heads the National Democratic Alliance government, is trapped in the inherent contradiction between the core constitutional values, which it is sworn to uphold as the ruling party, and the Hindu Rashtra (nation) concept of its ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

In an attempt to dispel doubts about his party’s commitment to the constitutional ideals, Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared that the nation would only be run according to the Constitution. India was a diverse nation, and the sanctity of the Constitution which bound together all the citizens had to be maintained, he said.

He alluded to the bitter controversies in which the ruling front and the opposition parties are involved and made a pointed reference to the way the great leaders of an earlier era had worked together to frame the Constitution.

Waving an olive branch to the opposition, which has stalled his reform programmes in Parliament, Modi offered to address its concerns. “The government is ready to debate all issues,” he said.

Modi made no reference to the bitter national debate on the issue of growing intolerance, which assumed ugly proportions when Hindutva hordes began hounding celebrated film star Amir Khan who had spoken of the growing sense of fear, insecurity and despondency in the country and disclosed that his wife, film-maker Kiran Rao, a Hindu, had wondered whether the family should think of re-locating elsewhere.

He said they should focus on how the Constitution could help the Dalits, the marginalised and the poor. This appeared to be an image makeover attempt, prompted by Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi’s refrain that he was anti-Dalit and anti-poor.

Modi, who habitually adopts a highly partisan tone, tried to sound statesmanlike, but there was no condemnation of the scattered acts of violence by Hindutva elements across the country and the public statements by governors, central and state ministers and MPs which run counter to the ideals of the Constitution.

Two quick steps that followed conveyed the impression that the government may be willing to turn a new leaf. One was the decision to accept the opposition demand for a debate in Parliament on the issue of growing intolerance. The other was Modi’s invitation to Congress President Sonia Gandhi and former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for talks to sort out the differences on the Goods and Services Tax Bill, a reform measure which the opposition has held up in the upper house of Parliament in which the NDA is in a minority.

However, it soon became evident that Modi’s new stance is tactical and does not signify any change in the government’s basic approach.

Home Minister Rajnath Singh, who spoke immediately after him, reiterated the BJP’s traditional positions on several issues.

He said secularism was a much misused word and claimed its misuse was creating problems in ensuring social harmony. Secularism should mean not neutrality towards religions but neutrality towards sects, he added.

This was a throwback to the position articulated by the RSS all along, which equates Hinduism with India and treats other faiths as sects.

Both Modi and Rajnath Singh, in their speeches, recalled that Ambedkar, who, as a Dalit, had suffered much humiliation in his lifetime had harboured no grudge against the country. They both conveniently ignored the fact that shortly before his death he had left the caste-ridden Hindu fold and embraced Buddhism.

The BJP’s new-found love for Ambedkar is suspect. Ambedkar’s legacy was almost forgotten by all but the Dalits, who look upon him as their liberator, until the VP Singh government (1989-1990), organised nationwide celebrations to mark his birth centenary and bestowed on him the nation’s highest honour, Bharat Ratna, posthumously. A few years later, Arun Shourie, who was a minister in the first BJP-led government, wrote a whole book to denigrate him.

In the book, titled “Worshipping False God: Ambedkar and the Facts that have been Erased”, Shourie portrayed him as a self-centred, unpatriotic, power-hungry, anti-national and a stooge of the British. He even sought to belittle Ambedkar’s contribution as the chairman of the committee that drafted the Constitution. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, December 1, 2015.

24 November, 2015

Regrouping to face Modi

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Early intimations of a grand alliance at the national level to check the advancing Hindutva forces, which pose a threat to secularism and democracy, were visible when leaders of political parties of varying hues gathered in Bihar’s capital, Patna, last week for the swearing-in of Nitish Kumar as the Chief Minister.

Nitish Kumar had taken oath as the Chief Minister four times previously – twice as leader of the Samata Party and twice as leader of the Janata Dal (United). But this was the first time that leaders of many national and regional parties and chief ministers of many states were at hand to greet him.

In the recent Assembly elections, Nitish Kumar had led a grand alliance, comprising his JD(U) and his long-time rival Lalu Prasad Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal as equal partners and the Congress party as an add-on, to a sensational victory, dashing Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s bid to bring the state under the Bharatiya Janata Party.

That gave Nitish Kumar a national stature high enough to make him a possible future Prime Minister. Former Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah, who was in Patna, said, “Nitishji should now get ready to move to Delhi as the next Prime Minister.”

The Congress was represented at the swearing-in ceremony by President Sonia Gandhi and Vice-President Rahul Gandhi. The party also ensured the presence of all its Chief Ministers to underscore the importance it attaches to the coalition experiment in Bihar.

Other Chief Ministers present included Delhi’s Arvind Kejriwal, whose Aam Aadmi Party had inflicted a crushing defeat on the BJP in this year’s Assembly elections, and West Bengal’s Mamata Banerjee, whose Trinamool Congress brought to an end more than three decades of Left rule in her state.

Other present included former Prime Minister HD Deve Gowda (Janata Dal-Secular), former Union Minister Sharad Pawar (National Congress Party), former Tamil Nadu Deputy Chief Minister MK Stalin (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) and Communist Party of India (Marxist) General Secretary Sitaram Yechury.

To avoid the impression that the swearing-in had been turned into an anti-BJP jamboree, Nitish Kumar extended an invitation to Narendra Modi too. Since he was leaving on a scheduled foreign tour, Modi deputed two of his Cabinet colleagues to attend the ceremony.

The way Modi stormed into Delhi last year, pulverising the Congress party and the corruption-hit United Progressive Alliance government it headed, the popular impression was that he and the BJP were well set for a long innings. That impression was strengthened when, in state after state, Modi personally led the BJP’s campaign and led it to victory.

Arvind Kejriwal, Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad Yadav having blown up the myth of Modi’s invincibility, the opposition, as a whole, has regained self-confidence and is getting ready to offer a stiff challenge to the BJP at both national and state levels.

But there are many hurdles to cross before a grand alliance at the national level can emerge. The two tallest leaders of Uttar Pradesh, the country’s largest state, Mulayam Singh Yadav, whose Samajwadi Party is in power in the state, and former Chief Minister Mayawati of the Bahujan Samaj Party, were conspicuously absent at the Patna event.

Assembly elections in West Bengal and Assam in the east and Tamil Nadu and Kerala in the south are due next year. The BJP and its ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), are already busy evolving suitable strategies to enlarge the party’s presence in these states where Hindutva elements are weak.

In Assam, the BJP did well in the Lok Sabha election, campaigning on the issue of illegal migration from Bangladesh. It can be expected to milk the issue again in the Assembly elections.

In West Bengal and Kerala, the BJP is pinning its hopes on sections disillusioned with the Left parties. There are indications that some of their “upper caste” supporters may be willing to switch allegiance to the BJP. The political traditions of the two states rule out the possibility of a secular front to stop the BJP’s advance.

In the recent local body elections in Kerala, the BJP made big advances, especially in the urban areas, raising hopes in its ranks that it may be able to establish its presence in the Assembly in the next elections. RSS supremo Mohan Bhagwat was in the state recently to energise cadres.

Politics in Tamil Nadu revolves round two Dravidian parties. The BJP may not find it easy to work out a respectable deal with either of them but smaller regional parties will be happy to do business with it.

To get a fair idea of the line-up ahead of the 2019 parliamentary elections we have to await the outcome of the UP Assembly elections of 2017 which will witness a confrontation between the BJP and the non-BJP parties. - Gulf Today, November 24, 2015

17 November, 2015

Wrong way to fight communalism

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Karnataka’s Congress Chief Minister S Siddaramaiah has just shown how not to fight communalism. His decision to celebrate the birth anniversary of Tipu Sultan, the 18th century ruler of Mysore, holding him up as a secular hero, provided Hindutva elements in the state, whom his party had defeated in the Assembly elections two years ago, an opportunity to whip up communal sentiments.

Tipu was the theme of the Karnataka government’s float at this year’s Republic Day parade in New Delhi. It provoked some protests in the state but was well received in the national capital. This encouraged Siddaramaiah to organise state-level celebrations to mark his 265th birthday.

Tipu, who came to be known as the Tiger of Mysore, inherited the kingdom from his father Hydar Ali, an army commander who seized power as the Wodayar dynasty’s hold weakened. The father and the son enlarged the kingdom, and posed a challenge to expanding British colonialism. The British fought four wars against them. They killed Tipu in 1799 and reinstalled the Wodayars, who ruled thereafter under British protection.

While launching the Indian National Army’s campaign against the British and allied forces during World War II, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose identified Tipu as an early freedom fighter who had taken up arms against the British, like Tantia Tope and Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi.

Tipu was the only Indian ruler of the time who never sought British protection. Impressed with his prowess as a military leader, Napoleon had sought an alliance with him in the fight against the British.

The British hated Tipu intensely. They took delight in naming their dogs after him. Many Indians named their dogs Tiger.

Mohammed Ali Jinnah, while campaigning for the creation of Pakistan, once said that Hindus and Muslims of the subcontinent had a common history but their heroes were different. The Hindutva school has proved him right. From the history books they have fashioned Hindu heroes like Maratha ruler Shivaji and Muslim villains like Moghul emperor Aurangazeb and Tipu Sultan.

Siddaramaiah invited leaders of all political parties and leading intellectuals to the Tipu birthday celebrations. The Bharatiya Janaa Party boycotted them. Its Hindutva associates organised violent protests, leading to three deaths. They said Tipu was a tyrant who committed atrocities against the Hindus.

Led by eminent litterateur Girish Karnad, writers and academics participated in the celebrations. Karnad described Tipu as the greatest Kannadiga of the last 500 years. If Tipu were a Hindu he would have enjoyed the same status as Shivaji, he said.

Shivaji, who carved out an empire by snatching areas from the declining Moghul power, is today revered as a Hindu icon and a Maratha hero. However, in his time, he had difficulty finding Brahmin priests to anoint him as emperor because he was born in a supposedly low caste.

Interestingly, Hindutva ideologues, who accuse British historians of manufacturing events like Aryan invasion to divide the people of India, have no qualms about accepting their accounts of Tipu’s atrocities.

Hindu or Muslim, no medieval ruler was a respecter of human values and virtues, particularly in times of war. However, guided by sectarian considerations, Hindutva propagandists pick and choose from historical accounts and glorify one and demonise the other.

In the public dominion there is plenty of material to establish that Tipu was not the bigot Hindutva campaigners make him out to be. According to one document, he had granted tax exemption to the Sringeri Mutt, one of four religious establishments set up in the ninth century in different parts of India by Sankaracharya, who is given credit for the Hindu advance after the decline of Buddhism.

When the Maratha army ransacked the mutt, its head appealed to Tipu for help and he responded by releasing gold and paddy to meet the cost of its restoration. He also made a personal gift of ornate costumes for Sarada, the goddess of learning.

Facts will not deter the Hindutva elements from pursuing their project of falsifying history with a view to promoting their communal interests. Their efforts need to be countered but the task is best left to unofficial agencies, particularly academic bodies – unless there are law and order issues.

Karnataka is the only southern state where the BJP has been in power. During the five years it was in power, it tried out three Chief Ministers, all of whom were failures. This helped the Congress to regain power in 2013.

Studies have shown that the BJP benefits from communal polarisation. Secular parties and governments under their control must, therefore, take care not to give Hindutva forces the opportunity to stir the communal cauldron. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, November 17, 2015

10 November, 2015

Bihar rolls back Hindutva

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

By registering a convincing victory in the Assembly elections in the Hindi heartland state of Bihar, a “mahagatbandhan” (grand alliance) led by Chief Minister and Janata Dal (United) leader Nitish Kumar has shown that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindutva bandwagon is not unstoppable.

In the hard-fought elections, the alliance, which includes former Chief Minister Lalu Prasad Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Congress party, bagged a total of 178 seats in the 243-member Assembly. The Bharatiya Janata Party ended up with only 53 seats, which was less than its pre-Modi tally.

As is his wont, Modi had personally led the BJP’s election campaigns, with his lieutenant and party president Amit Shah by his side. He made several trips to the state and addressed more than 30 rallies. Divisive and communally sensitive issues like cow slaughter and reservations, which Hindutva elements raked up, resonated in the state. Shah added grist to the communal mill by declaring crackers would go up in Pakistan if the BJP lost. 

The grand alliance was the result of the decision of the JD (U) and the RJD, traditional rivals in the state’s politics, to form a secular front to check the advancing Hindutva forces. The Congress joined it as a junior partner. 

The alliance partners readily accepted Nitish Kumar, who acquired a good image as an administrator over the past 10 years, as their chief ministerial candidate.

Lalu Prasad Yadav, who is a man of ambition, was in no position to offer himself as a candidate as he is currently disqualified from contesting elections, following his conviction in a corruption case.

The voting figures reveal there was a consolidation of secular forces behind the grand alliance. The Communist Party of India, the CPI (Marxist) and the Samajwadi Party, which formed a separate secular front, failed to make an impact.

The All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen of Asaduddin Owaisi, a three-time Member of Parliament from Hyderabad, set up a few candidates in the Muslim strongholds in pursuance of its plan to extend its activities across the country. It came a cropper as the bulk of the Muslim voters rallied behind the secular parties.

Modi had come to power at the Centre last year in circumstances which created an impression that his Hindutva bandwagon was unstoppable. That feeling strengthened as he led his party to success in one state after another until Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Admi Party stopped the victorious march in the Delhi state elections. No firm conclusions could be drawn from the Delhi experience since it is a small, almost entirely urban state, unlike any other. 

The rolling back of Hindutva forces in one of the backward Hindi states is significant for more than one reason. It shows that Modi is not the invincible hero that his admirers imagine him to be. It shows that secular forces have the inherent strength to roll back the Hindutva forces he is riding.

The Hindutva forces had been kept at bay by the administration and the Congress party which led it during the communal riots of the Partition period. They made headway in the recent past primarily due to a weakening of the secular forces’ resolve to check them on account of mistaken electoral considerations.

A question that naturally now is whether Bihar can be repeated elsewhere. Ground conditions differ from state to state. Conditions in Assam, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, where Assembly elections are due next year, offer a variegated scenario. It may, therefore, be necessary to evolve suitable alternative strategies.

The BJP had no significant presence in these states at the time of the last Assembly elections. However, it was able to bag seven of Assam’s 12 Lok Sabha seats, capitalising on the issue of illegal immigration from Bangladesh.

The political traditions of West Bengal, Kerala and Tamil Nadu had blocked the BJP’s efforts to build a Hindu vote bank until now. However, in the recent elections to local bodies, the party was able to make inroads at the cost of the Congress in several parts of Kerala, including the state capital.

The BJP secured a parliamentary majority on its own last year with its impressive victories in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, which together account for 120 Lok Sabha seats. Assembly elections are due in UP in 2017. Ground conditions there are comparable to those of Bihar. However, the Bihar experience can be repeated only if Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mayawati, leaders of the Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party respectively, sink their differences and work together as Nitish Kumar and Lalu Yadav did. --Gulf Todayy, Sharjah, November 10, 2015.

03 November, 2015

Befriending Africa again

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

In what has been described as India’s biggest diplomatic outreach to Africa, Prime Minister Narendra Modi played host to governmental leaders from more than 50 countries, 41 of them heads of state or governments, in the last week of October.

The occasion was the third Africa-India Forum Summit. The two previous summits were small affairs as the African Union had limited the number of participants to a maximum of 15. With the ceiling off, India went all out to ensure the widest participation in the five-day meet.

Libya was the only African country which was unrepresented. It was not invited as it was in turmoil when the preparations began and there was no effective government to deal with.

In the one and a half years he has been in office, Modi has visited many countries, big and small. One of the objectives of his foreign travels has been to enlist the support of UN members for reform of the world body, giving India a place in an expanded Security Council. In his address to the summit, he pointed out that India and Africa, which together account for a third of the world’s population, do not have adequate say in the powerful Security Council.

Animated by a clear vision of world history, India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, had placed great emphasis on development of close relations with all Asian and African countries. Most of them were still under colonial rule at the time, and he vigorously championed the cause of their freedom.

Even before Independence, as head of the interim government set up by the departing colonial regime, Nehru convened an Asian Relations Conference in New Delhi. He was also the prime mover behind the Afro-Asian Conference held at Bandung, Indonesia, in 1956. As they became free, almost all the countries of the two continents joined India, Egypt and Yugoslavia in the Non-Aligned Movement.

Nehru instituted a scholarship scheme for African students. By the 1960s, the beneficiaries of the scheme were in influential positions in several newly independent countries of the continent. The scheme is still in place, and it brings about 22,000 African students to India each year.

The ties with Africa weakened in the 1990s as the Indian government embarked upon economic liberalisation and rearranged its priorities. By 2000, China, which had prospered after it switched to market economy, stepped in to fill the breach.

Modi, who has a pathological aversion to the memory of Nehru, who had held Hindutva forces at bay during the communally charged days of Partition, avoided mention of his name in his prepared address, which listed six African winners of the Nobel Prize. Much to his discomfiture, several African leaders, in their speeches, made warm references to Nehru and Indira Gandhi and their contributions to Africa’s cause. “The Prime Minister listened, then swivelled back and forth on his chair and finally left for bilateral meetings,” wrote one correspondent.

To express their displeasure at Modi’s insult to Nehru’s memory, Congressmen stayed away from the dinner he hosted for the African leaders. South African President Jacob Zuma set aside protocol and drove to Congress President Sonia Gandhi’s residence to meet her.

Such irritants notwithstanding, the summit carried forward the effort to put India’s relations with Africa on a firm footing once again, initiated by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at the 2008 summit. On that occasion he offered a line of credit of $5.4 billion. At the next summit in 2011, he added $5 billion more to it. Also, India wrote off the debts of Mozambique, Ghana, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia.

Modi followed it up with an offer of $10 billion in concessional credit over the next five years and $600 million by way of fresh grants. While this is a step forward, much more needs to be done to improve economic relations and to regain the high standing India once had in Africa.

China had replaced the United States as Africa’s largest partner in 2009 and its trade with the continent now stands at $222 billion. India’s trade with Africa, which was only $1 billion in 1995, has grown to $71.5 billion. There is clearly vast scope for further improvement.

The summit showed that the enormous goodwill generated by India’s support to the liberation struggles is still intact. This offers a firm basis for expanding cooperation in varied fields as envisaged in the India Africa Framework for Strategic Cooperation which was drawn up during the summit and the Delhi Declaration which was adopted at the end of it. --Gulf Today, Sharjah, November 3, 2015.

30 October, 2015

We the People Have No More Say on the Constitution

Last year the Lok Sabha, whose 543 members were elected on the basis of universal adult suffrage and thus directly represent India’s 1.2 billion people, unanimously approved a bill to incorporate in the Constitution a provision to set up a National Judicial Appointments Commission to pick judges for the superior courts. The next day the Rajya Sabha, all but 12 of whose 245 members were elected by the elected members of state Assemblies and thus indirectly represent the 1.2 billion people, approved the bill, again unanimously.
Within five months a majority of the state Assemblies ratified the bill. Thereafter the President, who was elected by an electoral college comprising members of both houses of Parliament and the Assemblies, signed the bill into law. With that, the procedure laid down to make changes in the Constitution was complied with fully, and the provision to set up the National Judicial Appointments Commission became a part of the Constitution.

Last week, four learned judges, who represent none but themselves, said it is not part of the Constitution. Judges must continue to appoint judges, they declared. Anywhere else it would have been put down as judicial arrogance. In India, it is supposed to be affirmation of judicial independence.

The separate judgments of the five judges who examined the validity of the Constitution (99th Amendment) Act and the National Judicial Appointments Commission Act is notable for several observations that militate against common sense.

Take, for instance, the assertion that the Judiciary can be independent only if judges appoint judges. There are several constitutional bodies, besides the Judiciary, which are required to function independently of the Executive. The Election Commission, the Comptroller and Auditor General and the Union and State Public Services Commissions are among them. Must they also not then become self-perpetuating?
No evidence that marginalised benefited

One judge argued that Executive participation might lead to exclusion of persons on grounds of sexual orientation. There is nothing on record to show that any member of the LGBT community – or for that matter any other marginalized group — came into the Judiciary through the judges-appoint-judges system, which has been operating for two decades. 

Actually, there is no evidence to believe that even the Scheduled Castes, the Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes, for whom special provisions exist in the Executive and Legislative branches, fared better in the Judiciary under the judges-appoint-judges dispensation than earlier. There is no need to dispute the widely held belief that under the original constitutional scheme, in which the Executive had primacy, the best candidates were not always picked for the posts of judges. But isn’t this true also of the judges-appoint-judges system?

Justice U.L. Bhat, who was Chief Justice of the Guwahati and Madhya Pradesh High Courts, writes in his autobiography that M. N. Venkatachalaih, the first Chief Justice of India to enjoy primacy in appointments, told him that his junior, Justice K. S. Paripoornan, was being elevated to the Supreme Court, bypassing him, since “my colleagues feel that you are irreverent to them”.

Justice Venkatachalaiah is one of the most highly respected former CJIs. Justice Bhat’s revelation suggests that even under him merit was not the first consideration. One of the judges on the bench, which heard the NJAC case has, in his judgment, referred to a couple of more recent and far worse choices.

Wrong choices are often the result of human fallibility, and the system cannot be blamed for them. An objective study will probably show that their incidence went up under the judges-appoint-judges system. This may have nothing to do with the system itself, and may be the result of the general deterioration in the standards of society.

Members of the Executive and the Judiciary come from more or less the same sections of the society. Any deterioration in the standards of society will naturally reflect in the composition of these institutions. If the Executive appears in poorer light than the Judiciary, it may be because politicians come under greater public scrutiny than judges.

Judiciary’s dismal record

The Judiciary has a dismal record in dealing with acts of misdemeanour in its ranks. Judges of a High Court whom the local Bar dubbed as corrupt and boycotted remained on the Bench without hearing any case until they retired. Even some CJIs have attracted serious charges but did not have face any action. Former Supreme Court judge Markandey Katju, in a recent Facebook post, said he had with him a dossier on Justice H. L, Dattu, the present CJI, and was ready to give it to any one willing to file public interest litigation. It is not clear why he wants someone else to bell the cat.

All the four judges who joined hands to throw out the NJAC agreed that the judges-appoint-judges system had problems which need to be set right. After throwing out the NJAC, the bench decided to sit again on November 3 to deal with what the presiding judge described as the “surviving issue of grievances as to working of the pre-existing system”. What the bench plans to do is not a judicial function, but one of law-making – more precisely one of further amending the constitutional provisions regarding appointment and transfer of judges.

The Constitution, in its original form, was prepared by an Assembly with 305 members. They were not elected representatives of the people. As many as 229 of them were elected by provincial Assemblies of British India, whose members were elected on the basis of limited franchise. Seventy represented the princely states. Many of these states had no Legislatures and their representatives were nominated by the ruler. Only seven members – six from Travancore and one from Cochin – could claim to truly represent the people, because their Assemblies were elected on the basis of adult suffrage.

The Constituent Assembly members assumed theirs was a fully representative body and enacted the Constitution in the name of the People of India. They did not hand over the Constitution they had enacted to the President or the Executive or the Legislature or the Judiciary. They entrusted it to the People. Note the words of the Preamble:  “We the People of India ….hereby adopt, enact, and give to ourselves this Constitution.”
We the People were thus the makers of the Constitution as well as its custodians. But not any more.

We the People in our Constituent Assembly, who enacted the Constitution, laid down that We the People in our Parliament will make changes in it whenever necessary. The Constitution worked in that manner for two decades, during which period the Judiciary, when called upon to interpret its provisions, upheld Parliament’s unfettered right to amend it.

Then, the Judiciary changed its tune. It ruled that Parliament could not make changes in the Fundamental Rights chapter. Later, it changed its stand. It said Parliament could amend any part of the Constitution, including the Fundamental Rights chapter, but not in such a manner as to alter its basic structure.

With the basic structure remaining undefined, the Judiciary – more precisely, a bench of three to nine judges — has the unfettered right to say not only what the Constitution is but also what it should be. This is a perversion of parliamentary democracy and it is time to think of ways to restore the role of We the People as makers and keepers of the Constitution.

27 October, 2015

Hindutva’s two-fold strategy

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

While Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been going around talking about development, shadowy groups have been conducting murderous campaigns to overawe and silence the society.

The violence is directed not against political opponents but against writers, Dalits and Muslims. The game plan, it appears, is to clear the way to declare India a Hindu Rashtra (nation), the proclaimed goal of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, fountainhead of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s Hindutva ideology.

An atavistic element is discernible in the choice of targets. Hindu texts testify to violent attacks on Buddhist centres of learning by proponents of the Vedic religion in the medieval period. Dalits who were outside the Vedic society came under duress after Buddhism declined and a casteist society emerged.

Muslims were the ‘other’ whose presence helped the Vedic community to posit a Hindu society. According to VD Savarkar, originator of the Hindutva concept, a life-and-death struggle began the day Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni, who had raided the subcontinent 17 times, first crossed the Indus.

Three eminent thinkers have been killed under a plot which was hatched before Modi came to power. Narendra Dabholkar of Maharashtra, a campaigner against superstition, was shot dead in 2013 when there were Congress-led governments at the Centre and in the state. Govind Pansare, also of Maharrashtra, and MM Kalburgi, of Karnataka, were killed after BJP-led coalitions took office at the Centre.

Police investigating the cases have said all three were killed by members of a Goa-based outfit called Sanatan Sanstha, founded 25 years ago to provide education in Dharma. A trial court had found six of its members guilty of planting bombs.

Atrocities against Dalits have been reported from several states. The BJP or its associates have not been implicated in any of the incidents but the party’s caste supremacist approach and failure to condemn the gruesome killing of two children and a youth in two separate incidents in Haryana, where it is in power, put it in the dock.

To make things worse, Union Minister of State VK Singh callously likened the killing of children to stoning of street dogs. Public outrage forced Singh, who is a retired Army chief, to tender an apology.

According to the National Crime Records Bureau, last year 47,064 crimes against Dalits by non-Dalits were reported. This was 19 per cent higher than the previous year’s figure. More than half the cases were reported from the socially and economically backward BIMARU states – Uttar Pradesh (8,075), Rajasthan (8,028), Bihar (7,893) and Madhya Pradesh (4,151).

Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi, who visited the family of the deceased children, linked the incident to the Prime Minister’s attitude and accused the BJP-RSS combine of crushing the weak and the poor. However, his party bears as much blame, if not more, for the current situation in Haryana.

Based on official data, the National Confederation of Dalit Organisations recently said 3,198 cases of atrocities against Dalits were registered in Haryana during the 2004-2013 decade, which was 245 per cent more than in the previous decade. From 2005 to 2014 Haryana was under Congress rule.

The most ominous part of the Hindutva project aims at accentuation of Hindu-Muslim polarisation through campaigns on the sensitive issue of cow slaughter. After the lynching of a man at Dadri in UP on false allegations of killing a cow, a truck driver was set upon by a gang at Udhampur in Jammu and Kashmir state, where the BJP is the junior partner in a coalition government headed by the People’s Democratic Party.

The driver died in a Delhi hospital a few days later. A protest by dissidents paralysed life in the Kashmir valley. In Jammu, members of the RSS held a route march, openly displaying firearms.

RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat said the small incidents which had taken place would not dent the country’s prestige, which, he claimed, had gone up under Modi’s prime ministership. However, Modi himself found it necessary to break his long silence and talk of the diversity which was India’s beauty.

What rattled the government was the spirited protest of scores of writers in different languages who returned the awards they had received from the state or its agencies. Most of them pointedly referred to Modi’s silence on the Dadri lynching and the official literary establishment’s failure to condemn the murder of writers. It was protest of a kind with no parallel in living memory.

Some observers are of the view that the violent activities of small Hindutva groups are hurting Modi’s development agenda. But, then, Hindu Rashtra is also part of his agenda. --Gulf Today, October 27, 2015 

20 October, 2015

A law unto themselves

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Will the Executive meekly submit to the Supreme Court’s decision quashing the National Judicial Appointments Commission Act or will it seek to override it? 

India is the only country where judges appoint judges. The Constitution makers did not envisage such a system. It was willed into existence by the Judiciary itself through two verdicts in the 1990s, in exercise of its right to interpret the Constitution.

The Constitution empowers the President to appoint judges of the superior courts in consultation with the Chief Justice of India. Since the President is required to act on the advice of the council of ministers, the Executive enjoyed primacy in the process. .

The system worked on that basis for more than 40 years, until the Supreme Court, in a 1993 judgment, created a collegium of judges, headed by the CJI, to decide on judicial appointments. Five years later, in response to a Presidential reference, it vested the right to choose judges exclusively in the collegium and reduced the Executive’s role to that of a postman carrying the CJI’s recommendations to the President.

Quashing of the NJAC Act designed to restore a reduced role for the Executive in judicial appointments is the latest act of aggrandisement which has virtually made superior court judges a law unto themselves. The process began with the Golaknath case judgment that overruled previous verdicts upholding Parliament’s unfettered right to amend the Constitution and said it could not make changes in the Fundamental Rights chapter.

Significantly, every forward step by the Judiciary came when the Executive and the Legislature were weak.

The Golaknath judgment came after the 1967 elections which, for the first time, left the ruling party without the two-thirds majority needed to amend the Constitution. On several earlier occasions, when the Supreme Court ruled a law unconstitutional, the Executive had got around by making suitable changes in the Constitution. 

In the 1971 elections the Congress under Indira Gandhi received a strong mandate and the Executive and the Legislature were once again powerful. At that time the Supreme Court stepped back a little. In the Kesavananda Bharati case, it said Parliament could amend the Fundamental Rights chapter but not in such a way as to alter its basic structure.

The 1993 judgment came when PV Narasimha Rao became Prime Minister without majority support in the Lok Sabha and was busy buying up MPs to keep his position. The 1998 judgment came when AB Vajpayee was heading a coalition with more than a score of parties. 

Since the ‘basic structure’ conjured up by the Judiciary remains undefined, the last word on the Constitution now rests with it. Predictably, Justice JS Khehar, who headed a five-member bench, invoked it to invalidate the 99th constitutional amendment and the NJAC Act.

The main argument of supporters of the collegium system, which the four judges who gave the majority verdict echoed, is that its continuance is necessary to ensure the independence of the judiciary. The lone dissenter, Justice J Chelameswar, countered the argument by drawing attention to lack of transparency in the collegium system and to specific instances of inappropriate exercise of power by the court-mandated body.

Justice Madan B Lokur and Justice Kurian Joseph, while agreeing with Justice Khehar that the new measures were unconstitutional, shared Justice Chelameswar’s views on the shortcomings of the collegium system. Accordingly, the bench decided to sit again on November 3 to hear the parties’ views on ways to improve it.

The claim that the presence of the Law Minister in the Judicial Commission will compromise the independence of the judiciary is questionable. The Law Minister was part of the selection process of judges from the time the Constitution came into force and it was through that process that those who decided the Golaknath, Kesavananda Bharati and Judges cases reached the apex court.

Many distinguished jurists like former CJI JS Varma have expressed themselves against the collegium system. The decision to set up a national commission to replace it was based on a recommendation of a Law Commission headed by MN Venkatachalaiah, who too is a former CJI.

The Congress, with whose support the Modi government enacted the NJAC law, has said it would not back any new move on the subject. This severely limits the government’s legislative options.

Shorn of legal and political rhetoric, what the country is witnessing is a power struggle among the three limbs of the state. It may have to go through a long and painful process to restore the system of mutual checks and balances, a basic feature of the Constitution which judicial overreach has destroyed. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, October 20,  2015.

13 October, 2015

The ironies of cow politics

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Two weeks after a man was lynched in a village near Dadri in Uttar Pradesh, no more than 56 km from the national capital, New Delhi, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s role in the duplicitous beef war stands exposed.

A mob attacked Mohammad Akhlaq’s house after a priest of the local temple announced over the loudspeaker that he had killed a calf which had been missing. Some Hindu neighbours went to the family’s rescue but not before Ashlaq was killed and his younger son was seriously injured. The women were unharmed. The older son, who works with the Indian Air Force, was away at Chennai, where he is posted.

The police arrested a few persons, including a local BJP leader’s son and the priest who made the loudspeaker announcement, in connection with the crime. BJP leaders claimed UP’s Samajwadi Party government had picked up innocent persons to placate the Muslims. Forensic examination of meat collected from Ashlaq’s house revealed it was mutton, not beef.

The lynching invited widespread condemnation. BJP leaders played it down and called for a Central law prohibiting cow slaughter in deference to the sentiments of Hindus who consider it a sacred animal.

Last week Ashlaq’s family moved to a house in Delhi for its own safety. The IAF arranged to shift his injured younger son to a military hospital.

A committee of academicians from the Jawaharlal Nehru University and Delhi University, which conducted a fact-finding study, said the lynching did not happen on the spur of the moment but was pre-planned. It demanded investigation of the role of Hindutva groups in the incident. It also deplored justification of the event by several BJP leaders, including Union Minister Mahesh Sharma, and asked Prime Minister Narendra Modi to break his “shameful” silence on the subject.

Modi finally spoke at an election meeting in Bihar state but there was no condemnation of the lynching or the violent speeches of his partymen.

He merely appealed to Hindus and Muslims to stop fighting each other and join hands in the war on poverty. The seemingly statesmanlike appeal reinforced the BJP’s electoral objective of consolidation of Hindu votes by setting the event firmly in a religious context.

The demand for a central law banning cow slaughter was disingenuous since it is already banned under local laws all over the country except Kerala, West Bengal and the tribal northeastern states.

Cow politics abounds in ironies. Muslim-majority Jammu and Kashmir has the oldest law banning cow slaughter. It was promulgated by a governor of the Sikh empire in 1819 at the request of the Pandit community.

The Pandits, who are Brahmins, cook and serve meat, chicken and fish on Shivratri, the most important festival on their calendar.

Some state laws prohibit killing of all cattle and some others ban only killing of cows and calves. The jail term for cow slaughter varies from six months in Andhra Pradesh and Telengana to 10 years in Jammu and Kashmir.

Hindus constitute an overwhelming 78.35 per cent of India’s population but vegetarians are a minority. Surveys have put the number of vegetarians at 31 to 40 per cent. A 2006 survey, conducted by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, found that all-vegetarian families constituted only 21 per cent.

The CSDS found that even among Brahmins, legatees of the Vedic tradition, only 55 per cent were vegetarians. The Lingayats, a Hindu sect which rejects the authority of the Vedas, and the Jains had a higher percentage of vegetarians. At the bottom of the vegetarian table were the Adivasis (12%), Christians (8%) and Muslims (3%).

Incidentally, the Vedas testify to ritual sacrifice of cows and consumption of beef by early Aryans.

While non-vegetarians constitute a majority, frequency of meat consumption is low. Many non-vegetarians avoid beef for religious or sentimental reasons.

Last year India became the world’s leading exporter of beef, accounting for 23.5 per cent of the global trade, pushing Brazil (19.7%) down to the second place. Carabeef (buffalo meat) makes up the bulk of the exports under this head. To make sure that exporters do not ship beef labelled as carabeef the BJP government plans to set up a lab in Mumbai.

India earned $4,781.18 million from beef exports last year. The export business is mostly in the hands of Hindus. Documents published by the media show that Sangeet Som, BJP member of the UP Assembly, who stoutly defended the Dadri lynching, was a founder director of an Aligarh firm which describes itself as a leading producer and exporter of halal meat. -- Gulf Today, October 13, 2015.

06 October, 2015

End of black money chase

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Why did Indians holding secret accounts in foreign banks contemptuously reject the corporate-friendly Narendra Modi administration’s generous offer to them?

During the Lok Sabha election campaign, Modi had declared he would bring back the money stashed abroad within 100 days of taking office. He would then have enough money to pay out Rs1.5 million to each citizen, he said.

When the deadline passed without any action, critics taunted him. The government then framed a law prescribing stiff penalties for holding undisclosed income and assets abroad, and offered a three-month window, from July 1 to September 30, to disclose black money accounts without attracting its harsh provisions.

In his Independence Day address, on August 15, Modi said the government had already received disclosures to the tune of Rs65 billion. However, when the time set for voluntary disclosure ended, only hoardings worth Rs37.70 billion had come to light.

That reduced the notional share of each citizen from 1.5 million to a measly Rs37. More taunts followed.

India has been living with the problem of black money, generated at home and abroad, since long. Businessmen are known to create black money abroad by under-invoicing exports and over-invoicing imports. Politicians and officials also park ill-gotten money abroad. Ahead of elections, money hoarded abroad flows into the country.

Modi’s was the fourth voluntary disclosure scheme in 40 years. About 260,000 persons disclosed concealed income of Rs15.90 billion in the first one in 1975. The second one in 1985 brought out Rs29.40 billion held by about 150,000 persons. The third in 1997 was the most successful one: about 470,000 persons disclosed concealed income of Rs330 billion.

The latest scheme, limited to foreign account holders, evoked the poorest response. There were only 638 disclosures. In absolute terms, the income disclosed is the second largest but it has to be viewed against the growth in the size of black money accounts since 1991 in the wake of economic liberalisation.

Modi, who is a prolific communicator, has not spoken or tweeted on the collapse of the scheme. The formal official response came from a bureaucrat who said, “We will now start taking action against those who have not declared their concealed income.”

If caught, a black money holder faces the prospect of a 120 per cent tax penalty and a 10-year jail term. The way the illicit account holders have ignored the scheme suggests they are supremely confident of their ability to evade the law.

There are no large industrial houses or tycoons among the 638 who made disclosures. Most of them are medium-sized industries or businessmen. It is possible that some made partial disclosures to avoid further scrutiny. Having made disclosures, they are immune from prosecution.

The government has no information about the assets held abroad by Indians. In a 2013 report, the Washington-based Global Financial Integrity put illegal outflow from India in the previous 10 years at about $440 billion. It ranked India third in illegal overseas money transfers, after China and Russia.

In 2006, Switzerland’s Banking Association revealed that Indians topped the list of secret account holders in that country with deposits totalling $1,456 billion. This was higher than the combined deposits of nationals of Russia ($470 billion), the UK ($390 billion), Ukraine ($100 billion) and China ($96 billion).

As Switzerland initiated steps to live down its reputation as a parking station for illicit wealth, Indian clients started moving their money elsewhere. By 2011, Indian deposits slid to the 61st place and stood at less than $2 billion. The 2014 figure is $1.98 billion.

The government’s hope of black money recovery now rests mainly on the multilateral automatic exchange of information system due to come into force in 2017. But those with undisclosed funds have enough time to move the money to countries which are out of it.

There is reason to doubt if the government is serious about unearthing black money. How can politicians who need black money to finance election campaigns crack down on black money?

Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party is now the biggest beneficiary of corporate funding. Published accounts show that it received more than Rs12 billion from big companies last year. The Congress party’s share of corporate donations was only about $480 million. It is reasonable to assume that black money holders are actuated by the same considerations as the corporate since their interests coincide.

Finance Minister Arun Jaitley virtually proclaimed the end of the chase of foreign account holders when he wrote on Facebook on Sunday that the bulk of the black money is within India. He also bailed them out with the observation that the high tax regime of the past was to blame. --Gulf Today, Sharjah, October 6, 2015

29 September, 2015

Nepal ties under strain

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Ten mnths ago, visiting Nepal, Prime Minister Narendra Modi signed more than 10 bilateral agreements, demonstrating his government’s readiness to go the extra mile for this small neighbour. Alluding to the efforts to frame a new Constitution, he warned that if the statute failed to reflect the aspirations of all communities, including Madhesis, Pahadis and Maoists, Nepal could face difficulties.

Nepal is facing those difficulties now.

On September 20, President Ram Baran Yadav promulgated the new Constitution, rejecting India’s plea to postpone it to provide time to make it acceptable to the largest number of people.

Madheshis, Tharus and Janjatis living in the Teria region, who have close ties with the people of the bordering Indian state of Bihar, were up in arms even before the Constitution was promulgated. They say it denies them a legitimate share in the political system. About 50 persons have died in the violence and repression in the region so far.

Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar, who visited Nepal as Modi’s special envoy, conveyed India’s concern to leaders of all parties. He argued that the Constitution was not acceptable to nearly 40 per cent of the population and it should not be introduced while there was widespread unrest.

Nepal took up the task of making a republican constitution following abolition of the monarchy in 2008. As the fractious constituent assembly could not complete the task in the allotted time it was dissolved and a new one elected. Acute differences among the parties hampered its working too.

Early this month, the mainstream parties agreed on a Constitution which proclaims Nepal a secular democracy.

Many Nepalese leaders told Jaishankar they were aware that the document was imperfect but they wanted to move forward, and were ready to make suitable amendments later on.

Officially, India’s objections to the new Constitution are based on the discontent among the Madhesis and others who have familial links with India. The Modi administration’s hostile position may also be related to unhappiness over Nepal becoming a secular republic.

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the fountainhead of the Hindutva ideology of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, has long been of the view that India is a Hindu nation. Its top leaders have publicly demanded scrapping of the reference to secularism in the Preamble of the Indian Constitution.

Nepal is the only other Hindu-majority country in the world, and the RSS views its endorsement of the secular ideal as an act of betrayal.

Nepal, with a population of 27 million, is a land-locked country. It has borders with India on three sides and with China on the fourth. It gets most of its requirements of essential supplies from or through India. It relies exclusively on the state-owned Indian Oil Corporation for petroleum products.

The violent agitation in areas close to the Indian borders has brought vehicular traffic between the two countries to a halt. Hundreds of trucks carrying supplies to Nepal are reportedly stranded at Indian border checkposts.

Nepalese media allege that India has imposed an unofficial blockade to force the country to accept its demand. The Indian government refutes the suggestion and claims the goods movement has stopped because of the violence on the Nepalese side.

It is in India’s interest to delink the issue of goods movement from the political problem. Some elements in the Madhesi community may want to hold up movement of goods as a strategy to put pressure on Nepal’s mainstream parties to pay attention to their grievance. India should not play into their hands.

There are reports that the Nepalese authorities are turning to China to tide over the difficulties arising from the tense situation in the areas close to the Indian border.

“Nepal has never bowed down to anyone and will not bow down even now,” Deputy Prime Minister Bamdev Gautam told an Indian newspaper. “We will establish contact with China through land and with other countries through air to get essential supplies.”

Nepal has urged China to restore immediately the road links which were snapped by a devastating earthquake earlier this year.

Meanwhile a chink has appeared in the solid phalanx the mainstream parties presented so far with former Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai, who is supportive of Madhesi sentiments, quitting the United Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) and resigning from Parliament, amid speculation of an Indian hand in the development.

As the Indian government has pointed out, the problem Nepal faces is a political one. Essentially, it is an internal problem of Nepal, and its political system must be able to resolve the outstanding issues without meddling by powerful neighbours. --Gulf Today, Sharjah, September 29, 2015.

22 September, 2015

A legend that will live for ever

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

With West Bengal’s Trinamool Congress government declassifying files relating to Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, the charismatic freedom-fighter who reportedly died in an air crash at Taihoku in Taiwan at the end of World War II, the Centre has come under pressure to reveal the information in its possession about him.

Successive Central governments, including the present one, have refused to publish documents relating to Bose on the ground that it may adversely affect relations with foreign countries.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has offered to meet members of Bose’s family and persons engaged in research on his life next month. His office has asked them to intimate in advance what kind of information they are seeking.

Bose’s family and ardent followers have all along refused to believe that he died in the accident. They are of the view that the accident report was concocted to facilitate his escape. If caught, he was sure to be arraigned before the war crimes tribunal along with the Japanese leaders.

Subhas Chandra Bose lived a life full of stuff that legends are made of. After qualifying to become a member of the coveted Indian Civil Service he refused to serve the colonial regime and joined the freedom movement. Elected President of the Indian National Congress in 1938, he won a second term against Gandhi’s wishes.

While under house arrest in Kolkata, he slipped out in disguise and travelled to Kabul, capital of Afghanistan, hoping to challenge the British militarily with foreign help. Rejected by the Soviet Union, he went to Germany. From there he reached Japan after a perilous submarine journey.

He took charge of the Indian National Army, which comprised officers and men of the British Indian Army whom the Japanese had taken prisoner, and expanded it by recruiting Indian expatriates, who hailed him as Netaji (leader).

Heeding his Dilli Chalo (Onward to Delhi) call, the INA marched to the border state of Manipur and laid siege to its capital, Imphal. A turn in the tide of war forced the Japanese and the INA to retreat.

Though the military campaign ended disastrously, Netaji had an opportunity to set foot on free Indian soil. As head of the Azad Hind (Free India) government, he had flown to the Bay of Bengal islands of Andaman and Nicobar, which the British abandoned during the war, and renamed them Shaheed and Swaraj.

After the war, the British arraigned three Indian army officers who had switched loyalty to the INA before a military court. The Congress engaged a team of lawyers to defend them. Massive protests against the trial raged across the country.

The military court found all three officers guilty and sentenced them to death. However, the British Commander-in-Chief commuted the sentence to cashiering.

The spontaneous manifestation of public support to the INA officers and the small mutinies that broke out in the three wings of the military convinced the British that they could not hold on to the Indian colony much longer. They made a policy shift: from ‘divide and rule’ to ‘divide and quit’.

A British military officer, John Figgess, who investigated the Taihoku crash in 1946, concluded that Bose was in the plane and had died of burns in a hospital after it crashed. The body was cremated and the ashes taken to Tokyo, he said.

As reports that Netaji had been seen at various places surfaced from time to time, the Indian government ordered inquiries in 1956, 1970 and 1999 to unravel the mystery.

Shah Nawaz Khan, one of the three INA officers who had faced court martial, headed the first inquiry. He and another member of the inquiry committee upheld the air crash story, but Netaji’s brother, Suresh Chandra Bose, who was the third member, dissented.

G.D. Khosla, a former high court chief justice, who conducted the second inquiry, too, endorsed the air crash story. He said the motives of those who propagated alternative theories were not altruistic.

The third inquiry was by MK Mukherjee, a retired Supreme Court judge. He said the evidence of those who supported the air crash theory was not reliable. The ashes kept in Tokyo were a Japanese soldier’s, not Bose’s, he added.

The Bengal government papers have not settled the controversy. In all probability, doubts will persist even after all pertinent facts are in the public domain.

Legends like Subhas Chandra Bose are rare in the history of any nation. Such legends live for ever. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, September 22, 2015.

15 September, 2015

Modi in campaign mode

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

With Bihar, the second most populous state, going to the polls to elect a new Assembly, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is in campaign mode again.

Under the rules laid down for ensuring that the elections are free and fair, once the poll dates are finalised the Central and State governments cannot take any policy decisions which may influence the voters’ choice. Modi, therefore, flew to the state before the Election Commission announced the poll schedule and offered the state a bonanza of Rs 1,250 billion in the form of a special development package.

The state government had been asking for a special package, but when it came Chief Minister Nitish Kumar said Modi had merely repackaged development projects which had been announced earlier. Some of them were already under implementation for as long as six years while some others, like a new airport for the state capital, Patna, were yet to take off, he added.

He also pointed out that the package meant nothing as it lacks budgetary support.

The Bihar elections are important for Modi personally since Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United), which was a constituent of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance, had broken away from it in protest against the party’s decision to name him its prime ministerial candidate.

Modi devoted special attention to the state in his tempestuous Lok Sabha campaign and the NDA earned a rich reward. The BJP got 22 out of the state’s 40 seats and its allies, Lok Janshakti Party and Rashtriya Lok Samta Party, picked up six seats and three seats respectively. The JD(U) got only two seats.

Following the debacle, Nitish Kumar resigned and installed Jiten Ram Manjhi as the chief minister. After a while he ousted Manjhi and became the chief minister again. Manjhi then floated his own party, Hindustani Awam Morcha, which the NDA happily accommodated as an ally.

The JD(U) has forged a Grand Alliance with former Chief Minister Lalu Prasad Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Congress. The attempt to bring former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party into the alliance failed as he was not satisfied with the seats offered to the party.

According to early opinion polls, the NDA has a slight edge over the rival alliance at the moment. The final lineup of candidates was not known and the campaign was yet to pick up when the survey was conducted. The fight is still open. Nitish Kumar wants to come back to power.

In all the Hindi heartland states, the BJP had done exceedingly well in the Lok Sabha elections. In Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan its main opponent was the Congress. The BJP was in power in both the states. That explains the BJP’s good performance there.

In Uttar Pradesh, the most populous state, the Congress is not a major factor now. The Bahujan Samaj Party and the Samajwadi Party had overtaken both the Congress and the BJP in the state and reached a stage where they could come to power on their own. Yet, in the Lok Sabha poll, the BJP and its local ally took 73 of the state’s 80 seats, wiping out the BSP totally, and limiting the SP to five seats and the Congress to two seats respectively.

Voters often back different parties in the Lok Sabha and Assembly polls. The Bihar elections will show if endorsement of Modi at the national level will translate into support for the BJP at the state level. It will also provide answer to the question whether Delhi state’s big rebuff to Modi and the BJP after their triumph in the parliamentary elections was just an aberration or an indication that the Modi magic was over.

The BJP will face a similar test when UP goes to the polls next year. Among the other states where Assembly elections are due next year are Tamil Nadu, Kerala and West Bengal, where historical factors have kept the Hindutva forces at bay. A good showing in Bihar and UP can boost the BJP’s chances in these states, especially among voters who tend to incline towards the winning side.

Judging by Modi’s performance so far, his strength lies in campaign skills, not in governance. In Parliament, the opposition has held up his plans to speed up work on development projects. He is yet to demonstrate the political sagacity to tackle the problem. His administration is pursuing, with single-minded devotion, vindictive measures against individuals and voluntary organisations seeking to uphold democratic values, viewing them as his real enemies.