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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


25 August, 2015

Back to square one

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

There is no need to shed tears over the aborted meeting of National Security Advisers of India and Pakistan. It could only have produced more rancour.

Pakistan’s Nawaz Sharif was present, along with other South Asian leaders, at Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s swearing-in in 2014. The goodwill his presence generated evaporated when, barely three months later, the government cancelled a scheduled meeting of Foreign Secretaries of the two countries, to show its disapproval of Pakistan High Commissioner Abdul Basit’s consultations with leaders of the Kashmir’s separatist All Party Hurriyat Conference.

The meeting of officials was part of composite India-Pakistan talks, which have a long history. In 1997, a Foreign Secretary-level meeting outlined eight outstanding issues of concern to the two countries and proposed mechanisms to address them in an integrated manner. Over the years the process yielded some small gains but lack of determined political intervention inhibited progress on major issues.

The 2008 Mumbai terror attack derailed the process. It was put back on track in 2011 with a meeting of Home Secretaries at which terrorism was on the agenda. A few rounds of talks followed but there was little to show.

The cancellation of the Foreign Secretaries’ meeting attracted some criticism at home since India had previously overlooked the Pakistani envoy’s contacts with Kashmiri separatists. But Modi was determined to send across a message that they were not acceptable to him.

Last month, Modi and Nawaz Sharif shook hands at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit at Ufa, Russia, and discussed modalities of resuming bilateral talks. A joint statement issued later said they agreed India and Pakistan had a collective responsibility to ensure peace and promote development and that “they are prepared to discuss all outstanding issues”. It spelt out five specific steps, including NSA level talks, and contacts between army officials to improve the situation along the Line of Control which had witnessed continuous exchange of fire.

While the statement conveyed the impression that the composite talks were on again, India’s focus was on the first of the five proposed steps, namely a meeting of NSAs Sartaj Aziz and Ajit Doval in New Delhi to discuss terrorism-related issues.

Back home, Sharif came under attack for the Ufa statement as Pakistanis saw as one-sided inasmuch as it did not mention Kashmir, which, to them, is the central issue. They refused to buy official explanations that Kashmir had come up in the Modi-Sharif meeting and that the term “outstanding issues” covered Kashmir.

The Modi government has been projecting a hawkish image for some time to impress the Hindutva constituency. After Myanmar-based Naga rebels killed 18 security personnel in an ambush in Manipur, the Indian army conducted a retaliatory raid across the border. Official spokesmen said it was a warning to all terrorists operating from foreign soil.

As the scheduled meeting of NSAs approached, Pakistan was ready with a bait set. When India sent a draft agenda with terrorism as the only item, it sent an alternative one listing topics it wanted to be discussed, including Kashmir. Basit invited Hurriyat leaders to meet Sartaj Aziz over dinner.

To prevent the Hurriyat leaders from leaving Srinagar for Delhi, the Centre ordered that they be put under house arrest. As Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, whose People’s Democratic Party rules the state in coalition with Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, remonstrated, the Centre decided instead to arrest the Hurriyat leaders on arrival at Delhi airport.

With the fate of the NSA meet sealed, the two sides played out a long charade in front of television cameras with the singular aim of backing off without having to take the blame. External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj demanded that Pakistan convey by midnight its acceptance of India’s advice not to meet Hurriyat leaders and limit the talks to terrorism. That gave Pakistan the opportunity to pull out saying there could be no talks on the basis of conditions.

Material which has come to light in the past week shows that the two governments spent the last month preparing dossiers the NSAs were to exchange. The meeting having fallen through, they publicised the charges against each other through the media.

After a 15-month-long journey through a convoluted path, Narendra Modi is back at the starting point, so far as relations with Pakistan are concerned. If Sharif has to take into account the Inter Service Intelligence, he has to contend with the Hindutva establishment which is watching his steps. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, August 25, 2015

18 August, 2015

Tales from journalistic folklore

B. Someswar Rao is a journalist with 57 years of experience who closely follows new developments. He hit upon the idea of crowdsourcing and crowdfunding a book on the changing culture of Indian journalism and invited thousands of journalists and mass communication students online to provide inputs, opinion and advice. Few responded. The lack of response did not discourage him. He consoled himself that no one would trust or help a stranger anyway and that they were justified since there were too many fake journalists around. Abandoning the idea of crowdsourcing and crowdfunding, he went ahead and produced the book on his own, and gave it an intriguing title. Actually the title was settled long before the book was thought of. He says, way back in the 1950s, on the basis of an early experience in a newspaper office, he had declared, “If ever I write a book on journalism, it will be called A Town Called Penury”.

The book can be described adequately in just one word: gallimaufry. In case you are coming across the word for the first time, its dictionary meaning is "a confused jumble or medley of things". The Oxford Dictionaries website traces its origin to a mid-16th century French word meaning “unappetizing dish”.  My generation learnt the archaic word from C.R. Mandy, a talented Irishman who was the Editor of the Illustrated Weekly of India and ran a widely read column in it under that name.

Is journalism just the “political rag-chewing, hack-writing, mass media banalities and high-pressure sales talk” that editor Sham Lal despised? Or is it the mission it claims to be? Or a bit of both? With these tantalizing questions, Someswar Rao entices the reader. He then goes on to present a miscellany comprising his own recollections and stories he heard from others at one time or another. No claim is made that the book is the result of research. If anyone wants proof or evidence, he confesses, he has none to offer. He readily grants the disbeliever the freedom to treat the book as a work of fiction!

Essentially the book is a collection of anecdotes from journalistic folklore. It also provides a fragmented history of Indian journalism, taking in such modern phenomena as paid news and absentee reporting. 

Acme Books, 
Post Box No. 9433,
Bengaluru 560094, India
Price Rs.250.

Two-faced banking reform

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

A seven-point programme to revamp the banking sector, unveiled by the Government last week, has enthused domestic and foreign interests seeking accelerated economic reform but it overlooks the chronic problem of corporate default afflicting the public sector institutions.

Finance Minister Arun Jaitley outlined the programme shortly after the end of the monsoon session of Parliament. The government’s plan to push through some important reform-related legislation had fallen through due to continuous disruption of the two houses by the opposition.

Global rating agencies Standard and Poor’s and Fitch Ratings had recently pointed out that banking reform was necessary to achieve Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s growth targets. Large corporates were holding back new investments pending action by the government, they said.

India’s major banks are government owned. They were brought under the state in stages. The British-owned Imperial Bank, which handled government accounts during the colonial period, was nationalised in the eighth year of Independence. Banks floated by the former princely states were later made its subsidiaries.

With the takeover of 14 private banks in 1969 and six in 1980, as much as 80 per cent of the industry came directly under the central government.

At the government’s instance the public sector banks expanded rapidly into the countryside. They also tuned their lending policies to meet the needs of priority sectors identified by the government. There was political interference in their working even as they played their part in promoting government programmes aimed at inclusive growth.

When the country took the first steps towards economic reform in 1991, it recognised the need for a competitive banking system. The main issues were the small capital base and low profitability of the banks.

The government infused additional capital of about Rs 200 billion and allowed the banks to raise more from the market subject to the condition that the government’s holding should not go below 51 per cent.

New laws were enacted to improve the health of the finance sector and banks were asked to adopt global standards. At that time more than 23 per cent of all bank advances were classified as non-performing assets (NPAs). As a result of the measures that followed NPAs came down to 16 per cent by 1998.

In the wake of the East Asian financial crisis, the government initiated more measures to strengthen the banks. It also brought in a new law to regulate credit information companies.

By 2008, NPAs were down to 2.4 per cent. However, they soon started rising again and stood at 4.5 per cent last year. Also, as much as 12.9 per cent of public sector banks’ advances was classified as “stressed advances,” a term which includes NPAs and restructured standard advances. The corresponding figure for private banks was only 4.4 per cent.

The public sector banks certainly need to bring down NPAs. This is a task which can be accomplished without deviating from the policy of increased financial inclusion.

There is enough material in the public dominion to establish that the rise in NPAs is not a result of policies meant to help the disadvantaged sections of the society.

Public sector banks have been coming under stress from two sources. One is the ever expanding demands of infrastructure development, particularly in sectors like power, steel and transport. The other is wilful default by unscrupulous businessmen.

While announcing the reform programme, Jaitley noted that there was improvement in the highways, steel, power distribution and sugar sectors. He studiously avoided the issue of corporate default.

Last year the All India Bank Employees Association made public a list of 406 defaulting borrowers of 24 public sector banks. It said the top 30 bad loan accounts stood at Rs 703 billion..

Heading the defaulters’ list was an airline company floated by a liquor baron which owed the banks Rs 26.73 billion. Two jewellery firms in the list had a combined loan liability of Rs 31.57 billion.

The AIBEA said the public sector banks had written off Rs 2,040 billion in 13 years, restructured loans to the tune of Rs 3,250 billion, and run up fresh bad loans of Rs 4,950 billion. Demanding that the government release the names of the major defaulters and lay down stringent loan recovery norms, its general secretary, CH Venkatachalam said, “If there is a political nexus, let it come out. The people should not be punished for corporate default.”
The government has decided to bring in personnel from the private sector to head some public sector banks. The theory promoted by some circles that the private sector banks are good commercial models stands on questionable grounds. One or two of the successful private banks are known to have been involved in illegal transfer of funds to foreign locations. - Gulf Today, Sharjah, August 18, 2015.

11 August, 2015

Flip-flops also have their uses

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Acting stealthily and in haste and covering up quietly at leisure has become a disconcertingly familiar feature of the Narendra Modi administration. The latest example is the failed crackdown on internet pornography.

Towards the end of July, the Department of Telecommunications handed over to internet service providers a 17-page letter which contained a list of 857 allegedly pornographic websites and “advised” them to “control free and open access” to them in the interests of morality and decency.

The ISPs, knowing they are vulnerable, treated the advice as a command and started blocking the sites even as they pleaded they had limitations since the sites were hosted by servers based outside the country.

Neither the government nor the ISPs announced the imposition of censorship. But it did not remain a secret. Indians are reportedly the fourth largest consumers of internet porn, after the USA, the UK and Canada, and those who found they could no longer access these sites immediately raised a hue and cry in the social networks. Some Bollywood celebrities and well-known Indian writers in English backed them.

There was more humour than anger in their criticism. Alluding to other restrictions imposed by Bharatiya Janata Party governments, like the Maharashtra ban on beef, some critics circulated tongue-in-cheek suggestions with the hashtag #NextBanIdea.

Many pointed out that Kamasutra, the ancient treatise on sex, and the erotic temple sculptures of Khajuraho were Hindu India’s contributions. There was also a more pointed attempt to embarrass the BJP by reminding the party that some of its legislators were caught on television camera while they watched pornography inside a State Assembly.

Pranesh Prakash, Policy Director at the Centre for Internet and Society, Bengaluru, noted that the directive to block 857 sites was the largest single order of its kind, and said, “We need to do away with unaccountable, non-transparent censorship.”

Recognising the futility of the exercise, the government soon started backtracking. First, it tried to explain away the action as a temporary measure, taken in the light of a Supreme Court directive. Later, Information and Technology Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad announced a partial withdrawal of the ban. “Sites that do not promote child porn will be unbanned,” he said.

The unbanning exercise was as opaque as the ban. It is now presumably the responsibility of the Indian ISPs to identify child porn sites and bar access to them. In this context, Pranesh Prakash raised a tricky question: wouldn’t ISP personnel viewing child porn before blocking it be culpable under Section 67B of the Information Technology Act?

It appears the list of porn sites which the Department of Telecommunications provided to the ISPs was prepared not by the government but by an Indore lawyer, Kamlesh Vaswani. He had submitted it to the Supreme Court along with a petition seeking an order banning them.

While considering the matter, the court said it was for the government to take a call, and wondered why it was not blocking even child porn sites. This did not amount to a directive to the government.

If the observation about the government’s role gave the impression that the court was inclined to accept the petitioner’s demand, there were also remarks which conveyed quite the opposite.

Declining the petitioner’s plea for an interim order, Chief Justice HL Dattu, who is presiding over the bench, said, “Such interim orders cannot be passed by this court. Somebody can come to the court and say, ‘Look, I am an adult and how can you stop me from watching it within the four walls of my room. It is a violation of Article 21 (right to liberty) of the Constitution.’ Yes, the issue is serious and some steps need to be taken.”

The court then asked the Home Ministry to file within four weeks an affidavit outlining the government’s stand. In the circumstances, the prudent course was for the government to present its views before the court and await its verdict.

As it happened, the government’s flip-flop gave an immediate push to internet pornography. A website reported that Google Trends recorded a jump in search for porn sites by Indians. Keyword search using the name of an Indo-Canadian porn star registered an increase of 2050 per cent.

It is difficult to believe that the government could not imagine that its blanket porn ban order will not pass muster. It may have gone ahead with the limited purpose of diverting people’s attention from developments that reflect poorly on its performance. After all, flip-flops also have their uses.-- Gulf Today, Sharjah, August 11, 2015

04 August, 2015

Vengeance in garb of justice

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

The hanging of Mumbai serial blasts convict Yakub Memon last week has brought to the fore the issue of administration of justice, with particular reference to use of the death penalty.

“Ultimately, justice has been delivered to all the victims of the 1993 Mumbai blasts,” said Bharatiya Janata Party Secretary Shrikant Sharma. Congress party spokesman PC Chacko echoed his sentiments but added “full justice” would come only when Tiger Memon and Dawood Ibrahim, the prime accused, were punished.

“Justice according to law has been done,” said former Supreme Court judge BN Srikrishna, revealing an understanding of the concept of justice which was missing in the politicians’ comments. The cases relating to the blasts and those relating to the communal riots that occurred earlier were “dealt with disparately, depending on the communal inclinations of the state apparatus,” he added.

Justice Srikrishna who held a judicial inquiry into the riots had found a causative link between the two events. The Memon family had suffered extensive damage in the riots.

The justice-has-been-done refrain of the ruling BJP and the opposition Congress seeks to camouflage the cycle of violence and vengeance of the past quarter century in which the former was an active participant, along with its Hindutva ally Shiv Sena, and the latter was an ex post facto accessory.

The chain of events started with the demolition of Babri Masjid at Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh by Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh cadres on December 6, 1992 in the presence of BJP chief LK Advani.

Justice Srikrishna said a spontaneous peaceful protest by incensed and leaderless Muslims in Mumbai quickly degenerated into riots. He attributed part of the blame to the provocative slogans raised at celebratory rallies organised by Shiv Sena and BJP. Later, Hindu mobs, influenced by the communal propaganda of Shiv Sena leaders, including its supremo Bal Thackeray, resorted to large-scale violence. 

Sudhakarrao Naik of the Congress was the Chief Minister when the riots broke out. The blasts occurred after Sharad Pawar took over from him.

When the SS-BJP combine came to power, the government disbanded the Srikrishna Commission. BJP Prime Minister AB Vajpayee asked the SS Chief Minister to reinstate it.

The riots and police firings to quell them left 900 dead. Of them, 575 were Muslims and 275 Hindus. While in power neither the SS-BJP combine nor the Congress pursued the riot cases vigorously.

In the only riot case that resulted in conviction, three SS men, including Madhukar Sarpotdar, MP, were given one year’s rigorous imprisonment. Sarpotdar was immediately granted bail and died two years later without going to prison.

The 13 explosions left 257 dead and more than 700 injured. Damage to property was estimated at Rs 300 million. The prosecution said the blasts were plotted by underworld don Dawood Ibrahim and carried out by his associates including Tiger Memon.

The entire Memon family slipped out of Mumbai to Karachi, where Dawood is believed to be living under ISI protection. Tiger’s brother Yakub returned later, professing innocence, and provided the authorities with information on the roles of Dawood, Tiger and the ISI.

Members of all communities suffered in both the riots and the blasts. The media identified blast victims of one community who kept asking for justice. No riot victims of any community were paraded. Thus, in public discourse, justice became synonymous with vengeance.

In 2006, the trial court awarded the death penalty to 12 persons, including Yakub. As the case moved to higher courts, the others got relief and Yakub became the only one to be hanged.

Yakub’s final hours were marked by high drama with three Supreme Court judges sitting twice, the last time around 4am, three hours before the time set by the trial court for his hanging, to dispose of petitions filed by him or by others, including some eminent citizens, on his behalf. They really did not have to go without sleep. They could have followed the standards practice of staying the execution until the petitions were disposed of.

Unable to view the last acts of the drama as triumph of the rule of law, Anup Surendranath, Deputy Registrar (Research) at the Supreme Court quit the job to focus on the Death Penalty Research Project at the National Law University, of which he is the Director.

Why did the apex court judges feel so bound by the time-frame set by the lower court that they sacrificed sleep to honour it? There is no ready answer to the question. -- Gulf Today, August 4, 2015.