New on my other blogs

"Gandhi is dead, Who is now Mahatmaji?"
Solar scam reveals decadent polity and sociery
A Dalit poet writing in English, based in Kerala
Foreword to Media Tides on Kerala Coast
Teacher seeks V.S. Achuthanandan's intervention to end harassment by partymen


26 May, 2015

Strange power games in Delhi

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

A tussle is on in Delhi between the Central government headed by Bharatita Janata Party’s Narendra Modi and the administration of the National Capital Territory headed by Aam Admi Party’s Arvind Kejriwal. 

It was Kejriwal who put an end to Modi’s unbroken run of electoral victories. Modi had led his party to convincing victories in all Assembly elections held after he became Prime Minister except the one in Delhi. 

During the colonial period, Delhi, of which New Delhi, the national capital, is a part, was directly under the British Indian government. Under the Constitution which came into force in 1950, as a Union Territory, it remained under the Central government.

The Union Territory of Delhi had a council of ministers headed by a Chief Minister from 1952 to 1956. Thereafter the Centre ran it with the help of officials. In the 1990s, in response to popular demand for statehood, it was renamed the National Capital Territory of Delhi and given a Council of Ministers responsible to an elected Assembly with limited powers.

Under the new dispensation, the BJP ruled the state for five years. Thereafter the Congress was in power for 15 years, winning three elections in a row. In 2013, the BJP emerged as the largest party in the Assembly but could not muster enough support to chalk up a majority. Kejriwal formed an AAP government with the support of the Congress, which had been pushed down to the third place. The government lasted barely 100 days.

When fresh elections were held last February after a spell of President’s rule, the AAP won hands down: it picked up 67 of the 70 Assembly seats. The resounding victory was the result of a consolidation of non-BJP votes behind it. The Congress vote dropped so low that it could not win a single seat.

Since the BJP had made a clean sweep of all seven Lok Sabha seats of Delhi in last year’s parliamentary elections, it thought it would have an easy victory. Though Modi, as usual, campaigned vigorously, the party could get only three seats. The humiliating reverse apparently still rankles in him.

Kejriwal, who is given to theatrics, had staged street protests during his first term as Chief Minister. He began his second term by expelling from the party activist-lawyer Prashant Bhushan and psephologist Yogendra Yadav, who were his closest associates since he broke away from anti-corruption crusader Anna Hazare to enter politics, saying one had to get into the system to reform it.

Kejriwal did not start the present fracas, and he is not in direct confrontation with Modi. It all began with Delhi’s Lieutenant Governor, Najeeb Jung, appointing Shakuntala Gamlin as Acting Chief Secretary overlooking his wishes.

Kejriwal, who has been trying to pressure the Ambanis and other business groups into reducing power rates, accused Gamlin of siding with the firms. He also relieved the Principal Secretary (Services), who had issued her appointed order, and locked his office.

Jung hit back. He asserted that he alone had the power to appoint officers and cancelled all appointments made by Kejriwal. 

At this stage the Centre intervened and issued a notification vesting full powers over appointment of Delhi state bureaucrats in the Lt-Governor. It also used the opportunity to curb the powers of the Anti-Corruption Bureau which the Kejriwal government had set up. This made it clear that it was motivated by considerations other than posting of bureaucrats.

The BJP was until recently an ardent advocate of full statehood for Delhi. It has now given up that position and is seeking to rule by proxy the state which rejected it convincingly in the elections.

Delhi has a population of about 11 million. There is, no doubt, force in the argument that as the seat of the central government Delhi has to be treated on a different basis from the other states. However, the democratic rights of its citizens need to be protected. It is absurd to suggest that that the Centre’s interests will be in jeopardy if the democratically elected government of Delhi has administrative control over its officers and is able to act against corrupt elements.

Both Jung and Kejriwal have raised the issue before President Pranab Mukherji. Since the issue involves interpretation of the constitutional and legal position, the Supreme Court is the right forum to resolve the issue. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, May 26, 2015.

22 May, 2015

Remembering seeing Pather Panchali with Sathyan

    Above: Satyajit Ray.                     Right: Sathyan 

It has been 60 years since Pather Panchali, the first film of the master, Satyajit Ray, who put India on the world cinema map, was released. The film won an award at Cannes for the Best Human Document in 1956.

I saw Pather Panchali for the first time in Madras. It came to the city after winning the Cannes award, kindling pride in Indians. It was the first time that a Bengali movie was released commercially in the city.

My friend M T Antony, who was teaching at the Madras Christian College, and I planned to see the film on the very first day. As we were leaving for the theatre, Antony asked me, “How about calling Sathyan?”

Sathyan (1912-1971) was the lone star of Malayalam cinema in those days. He came to Madras often as Malayalam producers used the facilities of film studios in the city. Sathyan used to stay in Swamy’s Lodge  at the intersection of General Patters Road and Woods Road when he was in the city. On reaching the lodge, we found that he was back after the day’s shoot. He was quite happy to join us.

Pather Panchali was being screened at Chithra, on the banks of the Coovum. The crowds that one usually saw outside theatres on a Friday were not there. When the show began, apart from the three of us, there was only one other small group of three or four persons in the Balcony. There were fewer people in the Stalls. 

A scene from Pather Panchali 

The film demanded close attention. The sights and the sound, which was interspersed with silence, kept us fully occupied and there was little conversation during the show. There was in the film a noisy scene depicting a village drama. Sathyan told us Ray has put it in to show how cinema is different from drama.

As we were leaving the theatre, Sathyan said, “I know why you wanted me to see the film. You wanted to tell me this is cinema!”

He then explained why there can’t be a film like Pather Panchali in Malayalam. He pointed out that all the characters were going about doing things without looking into the camera. "If I do that, my director will tell me to look at the camera.” 

The international acclaim that Pather Panchali had already received did not impress film-goers of Madras. The theatre withdrew the film after just three days on view of the poor popular response.

Yesterday I reminded Antony, who now lives in New York, of our Pather Panchali adventure. He immediately wrote back: “I still very vividly remember, Sathyan, sitting next to me, was crying.” He added, “Let me dwell on the Satyajit.Revolution. Started with Mahabharath. Then came Kalidasa, then Tagore, and then Ray.”

21 May, 2015

Right Livelihood Award winners condemn death threat to Swami Agnivesh

Swami Agnivesh, the Arya Samaj leader and well-known activist, made an appeal for inter-faith unity while visiting Kashmir last month. Hindu Mahasabha members in Haryana responded with a public call to murder him. He also received two threatening phone calls from a group in Maharashtra.

Swami Agnivesh had received the Right Livelihood Award in 2004, along with the late Asghar Ali Engineer, “for promoting over many years in South Asia the values of religious and communal coexistence, tolerance and mutual understanding.”

In a statement, fellow winners of the Right Livelihood Award, and the Right Livelihood Award Foundation said:

We, the undersigned Laureates of the Right Livelihood Award, and the Right Livelihood Award Foundation, are deeply alarmed by reports published in Punjab Kesari, Dainik Bhaskar, Dainik Jagaran, Navodaya Times, and ABP News Channel on 24th and 25th, stating that Hindu Mahasabha members from Haryana have offered a reward of Rs. 5,00,000 to anyone who beheads Swami Agnivesh.

We join Adama Dieng, Special Advisor on Genocide Prevention to the UN Secretary General, and other international civil society leaders in condemning this brazen incitement to commit violence, and we express our fullest solidarity with Swami Agnivesh.

We urge that the Haryana police investigate this threat as a case of abetment to murder and criminal intimidation under Sections 108, 115 and 503 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), and hold the perpetrators accountable.

We also note with deep concern that the aforementioned media organizations have reported this grave threat in a manner that glorifies and incites violence. Article 19(2) of the Indian Constitution clearly states that the freedom of speech does not include the freedom to incite a criminal offence.

We have written to the Editors of the media organizations requesting a full apology, and intend to request the Press Council of India to investigate this serious breach of journalistic ethics if the media organizations do not respond. Further, we call upon the police to investigate these media organizations for abetment to murder under Sections 108 and 115 IPC.

The following are the Right Livelihood Award laureates who have signed the statement:

Dr. Maude Barlow, National Chairperson, Council of Canadians, Canada (RLA 2005)
Prof. Dr. Anwar Fazal, Director, Right Livelihood College, Malaysia (RLA 1982)
Basil Fernando, Asian Human Rights Commission, Hong Kong SAR, China (RLA 2014)
Dr. Hans Herren, Founder of Biovision Foundation, Switzerland (RLA 2013)
Dr. SM Mohamed Idris, Sahabat Alam Malaysia (RLA 1988), Consumers Association of Penang and the Third World Network, Malaysia
Asma Jahangir, Pakistan (RLA 2014)
Bianca Jagger, Founder and Chair, Bianca Jagger Human Rights Foundation, Nicaragua/UK (RLA 2004)
Ida Kuklina, The Committee of Soldiers' Mothers of Russia, Russia (RLA 1996)
Birsel Lemke, Turkey (RLA 2000)
Helen Mack Chang, Fundación Myrna Mack, Guatemala (RLA 1992)
Prof Dr. h.c. (mult.) Manfred Max-Neef, Director, Economics Institute, Universidad Austral de Chile, Chile (RLA 1983)
Prof. Dr. Raúl A. Montenegro, President, Fundación para la defensa del ambiente, Argentina (RLA 2004)
Frances Moore Lappé, Co-Founder, Small Planet Institute, USA (RLA 1987)
Nicanor Perlas, Center for Alternative Development Initiatives, Philippines (RLA 2003)
P K Ravindran, Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad, India (RLA 1996)
Dr. Sima Samar, Chairperson, Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, Afghanistan (RLA 2012)
Mycle Schneider, Germany (RLA 1997)
Dr. Vandana Shiva, Navdanya, India (RLA 1993)
Prof. Michael Succow, Founder, Michael Succow Foundation for Nature Conservation, Germany, (RLA 1997)
Suciwati, widow of Munir, Indonesia (RLA 2000)
Dr. Hanumappa Sudarshan, Karuna Trust & VGKK, India (RLA 1994)
Shrikrishna Upadhyay, Executive Chairman, Support Activities for Poor Producers of Nepal, Nepal (RLA 2010)
Prof. Dr. Theo van Boven, The Netherlands (RLA 1985)
Martín von Hildebrand, Founder and Director, Fundación GAIA Amazonas, Colombia (RLA 1999) 
Chico Whitaker Ferreira, Brazil (RLA 2006)
Alla Yaroshinskaya, Russia (RLA 1992)
Angie Zelter, Trident Ploughshares, United Kingdom (RLA 2001).

The below-named members of RLA Board and Jury have also signed the statement:

Jakob von Uexkull, Co-Chair, Board of the Right Livelihood Award Foundation, UK
Dr. Monika Griefahn, Co-Chair, Board of the Right Livelihood Award Foundation, Germany
Ole von Uexküll, Executive Director, Right Livelihood Award Foundation, Sweden

For more information, please contact:
Sharan Srinivas, Right Livelihood Award Foundation 
Phone: +46 8 702 03 35

19 May, 2015

Modi’s record is good in parts

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

As Prime Minister Narendra Modi completes one year in office, opinion on his performance is sharply divided. Fans affirm he has redeemed India but opponents say he is ruining the country. Then there are observers who wonder whether there has been a change of administration at all.

Modi, like Muhammad Ali, believes he is the greatest. So do his loyal followers. According to BS Yeddyurappa, Vice-President of his Bharatiya Janata Party, Modi is running a clean, efficient pro-people government. For the first time in many years there is a government that is scam-free, he says.

Yeddyurappa ran a corrupt administration in Karnataka and does not have the right credentials to issue a certificate of integrity. There are other reasons too for not taking his statement at face value.

Scams generally surface years late, when reports of the Comptroller and Auditor-General become available. The cases instituted against some members of Manmohan Singh’s second government were based on what they did as members of his first government. Modi’s acceptance of a custom-made suit, reportedly worth Rs1 million, from a businessman and the windfall gains his corporate financiers are making cast doubts on Yeddyurappa’s claim.

Political opponents who were alarmed by Modi’s emergence on the national scene in view of the Hindutva-engineered riots in Gujarat under his watch cite the rabid outbursts of some BJP MPs and the attacks on churches and reconversion campaigns in some states as evidence of the regime’s communal agenda. However, there is reason to believe he is trying to restrain the hotheads, though belatedly, since their activities are giving his government a bad name at home and abroad.

Modi is on the verge of setting a globe-trotting record with visits to 18 countries in 12 months. The travels were planned with the twin objectives of improving bilateral and multilateral relations and securing investments to make India a manufacturing hub. They have provoked the good-humoured comment that he is the first Non-Resident Indian prime minister.

The Make-in-India programme is Modi’s main employment generation scheme. Several countries, including China and the United States, have evinced interest in it. Since big projects necessarily take time to materialise, it is too early to decide how successful the programme is.

Meanwhile, Modi has some hurdles to cross at home. Several measures he has initiated to ease the way for domestic and foreign investors – these include relaxation in laws relating to land acquisition and employment of children – have met with opposition.

In his election speeches, Modi had accused the previous governments of wasting nearly six decades. He is now reassessing the past more realistically. Last week, at Shanghai, he spoke of a backlog of only three decades when he took over. That means he has exonerated all prime ministers up to PV Narasimha Rao, including his bete noire, the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty.

Manmohan Singh, who headed the two United Progressive Alliance governments, is still on Modi’s list of defaulters, but observers are finding it difficult to differentiate between the economic policies of the two. Much of the economic legislation Modi has pushed through Parliament so far, such as the insurance, coal and general sales tax bills, are measures initiated by Manmohan Singh. As one scribe puts it, “Modi has achieved the impossible: he has given us another year of UPA.”

However, Modi has reason to be happy. The global downturn had slowed down economic growth during Manmohan Singh’s second term. With the US and other major countries on the path of recovery, the pace is picking up again, and the International Monetary Fund has forecast that India will register an expansion of 7.2 per cent, outstripping China’s 6.8 per cent.

Indian and foreign business interests are hopeful that Modi will be able to keep his promise and make changes of the kind they wish to see. The Associated Chamber of Commerce gives him only seven marks out of 10. But the global consultancy firm PwC’s 2015 survey says Indian CEOs are the most optimistic in the world.

Modi has not been able to infuse the same degree of optimism in the poor who constitute one-fourth of India’s population. Economic distress continues to drive peasants to suicide. Sensing trouble on this front, the BJP has drawn up a campaign plan designed to give him a pro-poor image.

Modi’s progress card for the year, like the curate’s egg, is good in parts. Opinion polls indicate that his personal popularity is still high. He will face a field test when some states go to the polls later this year. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, May 19, 2015.

12 May, 2015

Some are more equal than others

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

When a Mumbai court found film celebrity Salman Khan guilty in a hit-and-run case at the end of a protracted trial and gave him a five-year jail term last week, a leading British daily saw in it a message that India’s elite are not above the law. Few in India share that view.

In fact the speed with which the normally slow-moving judicial machinery granted Khan interim bail within hours of his conviction has provoked a national debate on the vaunted principle of equality before law.

The cause of action took place in September 2002. Salman Khan was returning home from a bar late at night when his car jumped the kerb, killing a man sleeping on the pavement and wounding four others. The trial dragged on for nearly 13 years. The usual practice of one party or the other seeking adjournment, non-appearance of witnesses and disappearance of evidence contributed to the delay.

Salman Khan, who was on bail, did not have to go to jail immediately as his lawyers rushed to the Bombay High Court and obtained an order giving him two days’ time to surrender to the law. That gave him enough time to file a formal appeal and secure regular bail till its disposal.

Considering that the charges were serious enough to fetch up to 10 years in jail and that normal procedures required him to give himself up immediately, Salman Khan got off cheap. While the High Court was considering his plea, lawyers were standing by in New Delhi to move the Supreme Court if its decision was unfavourable.

Khan’s buddies and fans, however, were not pleased. Their anger spilled out in the social media in the form of quaint arguments. “Roads are meant for cars and dogs, not for people sleeping on them,” singer Abhijeet Bhattacharya tweeted. Jewellery designer Farah Khan Ali said the accident was the result of the government’s failure to provide housing. If no one was sleeping on the road, Salman would not have driven over anybody, she wrote.

Such arguments infuriated many. Cars are supposed to ply in roads and not on pavements, one tweeter pointed out. In Muzaffarpur, Bihar, a court, acting on a complaint by a local advocate, directed that a first information report be filed against Abhijeet and Farah Khan for various offences including attempt to promote riot and enmity between different groups.

Film stars and politicians poured into Salman Khan’s residence in a show of solidarity. According to industry circles, those who have already invested around Rs 2 billion will be in serious trouble if Khan is unavailable to complete the films under production.

Salman Khan commands a measure of sympathy among sections of the population by virtue of his identification with various public causes. However, he has to contend with a few negative factors too. The hit-and-run case is the third in which he has been convicted. Ten years ago a Rajasthan court sentenced him to a year in jail on a charge of poaching protected animals. At the moment he faces a combined sentence of 11 years but has so far spent only six days in prison.

The High Court judge who granted him instant interim bail offered this justification: “Since the appellant was on bail throughout the trial and since a copy of the judgement of conviction has not yet been furnished to him, it would be proper to protect the appellant for some time in the interest of Justice.”

In theory all citizens of India are equal but in practice some are more equal than others, to borrow Orwell’s famous expression. The time-consuming and costly judicial process puts the rich in an advantageous position in courts of law. There have been occasions when counsel for affluent litigants went to judges’ residences after working hours and obtained instant relief. That is a privilege the poor cannot hope for.

Arrest, trial and conviction of the high and the mighty, which occur rarely, are exceptions, not the rule. The odds are stacked in their favour from the moment investigation of a case begins. It is not unusual for ministers to stay put in their jobs while officials serving under them go through the process of investigation.

Not long ago a posh car belonging to a company of Mukesh Ambani, the richest Indian in the Forbes list, was involved in an accident which resulted in two deaths. Some eyewitnesses said Ambani’s son was in the driver’s seat. But the police accepted the driver’s claim that he was at the wheel. Salman Khan’s driver also came forward with a similar claim but that was years after the accident, and the court wasn’t impressed. --Gulf Today, Sharjah, May 12, 2015.

05 May, 2015

Half-hearted anti-graft measures

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

The largest single factor that contributed to the resounding defeat of the 10-year-old Congress-led government in last year’s parliamentary elections was the corruption scandals that engulfed it. Some Congress party leaders and a former minister belonging to coalition partner Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam were facing criminal charges when the country went to the polls.

A Gandhian movement led by Anna Hazare and backed by civil society groups raised the issue of corruption high up in the national agenda, and Narendra Modi, as Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate, cashed it in his vigorous election campaign.

Last week, nearly a year later, the Modi government announced a set of proposals to tackle the issue of corruption. It provides for enhancement of the minimum term of imprisonment for corruption from six months to three years and the maximum term from five years to seven years.

The higher penalties will raise corruption to the level of a heinous crime. However, some of the proposed changes may render the legal framework weaker than at present. For instance, there is a proposal to extend the protective umbrella of prior sanction for prosecution of public servants to those who have retired or resigned.

Under the Prevention of Corruption Act 1988, a public servant is guilty of criminal misconduct and liable for punishment if “he while holding office obtains for any person any valuable thing or pecuniary advantage without any public interest.” Bureaucrats have long been unhappy that this provision as it renders them liable for action even when they have not derived any pecuniary benefit from their actions. One of the contemplated changes seeks to vest the power to grant prior sanction for investigation in such cases in the Lokpal or Lok Ayukta instead of the government.

On an average, trial proceedings in a case under the Prevention of Corruption Act last more than eight years. The government plans to fix a two-year time-frame for completing the proceedings. The cumbersome legal procedures and dilatory tactics employed by either of the parties involved may defeat the objective.

In the Transparency International’s global corruption index, India ranked 85th among the 175 countries surveyed last year. The authorities were pleased with the finding as the previous year the country was in the 94th position.

The licence raj which flourished under the restrictive economic policy which the country followed in the early years of Independence was widely believed to have bred corruption at the political and administrative levels. The 2G scam case in which the former DMK minister and several high-ranking bureaucrats are involved indicates that under economic liberalisation the situation has become worse. Not better.

Under the law, the bribe-giver and the bribe-taker are both liable for prosecution. A company official who bribes a bureaucrat can be prosecuted but not the company on whose behalf he makes the payment. An amendment under consideration envisages prosecution of the company as well.

Corruption takes place at the lower levels as well as the higher levels of the administration. At the lower levels, it takes the form of demanding or accepting illegal gratification to provide services which officials are bound to provide anyway. This hurts the poor. At the higher levels, it takes the form of payment of consideration for doing a favour. This benefits the rich.

When prosecution is rare and conviction even rarer, enhancement of punishment is an exercise with little practical significance. Except in rare instances like the 2G case, which, incidentally, was the result of exertions by constitutional functionaries like the Comptroller and Auditor General and the Supreme Court, only small fry are caught in the net.

Corruption is an affliction that affects many sectors. Studies have identified defence sector companies, all of which are government-owned, and the health care system, which is dominated by the private sector, as areas where ethical practices are extremely weak. 

The proposed changes are, at best, half-hearted measures. They cannot make any material difference since they do not address the core issue of political corruption, arising from the parties’ growing need for funds to fight elections. On the face of it, the BJP, which is now the main beneficiary of corporate munificence, and Narendra Modi, who used a business tycoon’s private aircraft for campaign tours and accepted a custom-made suit reportedly worth Rs 1 million presented by a businessman, are unlikely agents of change in this crucial area. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, May 5, 2015.