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26 January, 2016

Casteism on campuses

BRP Bhaskar
 
The death of Rohith Vemula, a research scholar and activist, who took his own life, has brought into focus widespread discrimination against Dalits in institutions of higher learning and strengthened the marginalised section’s resolve to resist casteism.

Rohith and four students were suspended by the University of Hyderabad on the basis of a false complaint by Sushil Kumar, a leader of the Akhil Bharatiya Janata Parishad, student wing of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, alleging assault by Ambedkarites.

Following prodding by Bandaru Dattatreya, Minister of State for Labour, the Human Development Ministry had exerted pressure on the university to act against them.

The agitating students have demanded the resignation of Dattatreya, HRD Minister Smriti Irani and Vice-Chancellor P Appa Rao whom they blame for Rohith’s death and vowed to continue the stir until they quit.

Initially, Prime Minister Narendra Modi ignored the nationwide protests on the issue. After students showed him black flags at a Lucknow university he expressed sorrow at the “loss of a dear son of India.”

Smriti Irani pointed out that Rohith had said in his suicide note that he was not acting at anyone’s instigation. The irony in the preface to that statement was lost on her. “I forgot to write the formalities,” Rohith wrote. “No one is responsible for my act.”

He also wrote: “I am not hurt at this moment. I am not sad. I am just empty.”

Police found no substance in Sushil Kumar’s complaint. According to hospital records, he was admitted for an appendicitis operation.

Prof Prakash Babu, Dean of Students Welfare, contradicted Irani’s statement that the students were suspended on the recommendation of a committee headed by him. He said he was included in the committee at the last minute and he had opposed the students’ suspension.

In the complaint to the police, the ABVP had named Prakash Babu, who is a Dalit, also as an assailant. He was included in the committee evidently to create the impression that the issue did not involve caste.

Dalit teachers of the university decided to relinquish administrative duties in protest against Irani’s false statement.

As protests snowballed the university revoked the order of suspension against the students. The HRD ministry announced a judicial inquiry. The Vice-Chancellor went on long leave.

The Central government’s strategy, it seems, is to tire out the students. It had used this strategy when students of the Film and Television Institute, Pune, launched an agitation against the appointment of a small-time actor as its head.

Education is an area in which the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the power behind the BJP, is taking a keen interest since the party came to power. Last year authorities at the Indian Institute of Technology, Chennai, had banned the Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle, a Dalit group functioning on the campus, following a complaint by the ABVP. Public protests forced it to withdraw the decision.

The sequence of events at the IIT and the UoH suggests that the ABVP and the HRD minister are collaborating in an RSS project to prevent Dalit student activity in institutions which, though technically autonomous, are under the Central government’s control.

Thanks to the 15 per cent reservation for Dalits in employment and enrolment, there is significant Dalit presence among the faculty and the students on the central campuses. Taking the cue from the RSS, the ABVP alleges that anti-national (read anti-Hindutva) elements are active on these campuses.

To the chagrin of the Hindutva brigade, radical student groups, motivated by the ideals of Dalit icon and chief architect of the Constitution BR Ambedkar, are challenging casteism.

Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi, Communist Party of India-Marxist General Secretary Sitaran Yechury and Delhi Chief Minister and Aam Admi Party leader Arvind Kejriwal rushed to Hyderabad to express solidarity with the agitating Dalit students.

Political observers believe the Hyderabad events may hurt the BJP in the upcoming Assembly elections. But casteism on the campuses is an issue that predates Modi’s arrival on the scene.

Following a spate of suicides by Dalit and other backward class students of Central institutions the Manmohan Singh government had appointed a committee headed by University Grants Commission Chairman Sukhdeo Thorat in 2006. It recommended several measures to end social isolation and oppression of the marginalised sections.

The government failed to act upon the recommendations, and suicides have continued. Rohith’s was the tenth on the UoH campus. At least a dozen suicides have been reported from other Central campuses.

What makes the present situation ominous is the BJP-led government’s open support to caste supremacists on the campuses.--Gulf Today, Sharjah, January 26, 2016

19 January, 2016

Start-up plan raises hopes

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Even as the flagship Make in India programme which sought to attract foreign manufacturers is languishing, Prime Minister Narendra Modi last week launched a “Start-up India, Stand-up India” programme to help domestic entrepreneurs.

The programme, announced last August, has come with a 19-point action plan, which includes a tax holiday, access to new technology and exemption from regulations.

Finance Minister Arun Jaitley said there was no alternative but promotion of domestic entrepreneurship as environmental clearance procedures and other constraints are making it difficult to attract foreign investors. The government, he added, did not want to interfere in the work of entrepreneurs. Its role would be that of an enabler or facilitator.

Under the new plan, entrepreneurs will get a three-year tax holiday on profits, self-certification rights with regard to compliance labour laws and an 80 per cent rebate for patent registration.

The government has committed Rs 100 billion over the next four years for the programme which is expected to create a favourable climate for newcomers to enter the world of business. The Stand-up part is designed to help women and the underprivileged Dalit and Adivasi communities.

Women have reached the top in some private corporations through inheritance and in some public institutions on the strength of their professional record, but they do not figure significantly in the ranks of entrepreneurs. Lack of resources has kept the Dalits and the Adivasis out of the world of business all along. The provisions made for these sections are, therefore, a welcome feature.

However, the programme also has several provisions that will work to the disadvantage of large sections.

The government has already abolished or relaxed legal provisions designed to protect workers from exploitation and prevent destruction of the environment. Given businessmen’s propensity to cut corners to augment profits, the self-certification procedure can harm the interests of the people as a whole and of the working class in particular.

The Harvard Business School used to display on its website a confession by one of its alumni, Rahul Bajaj, who is a third-generation Indian industrialist. In it, he said: “Ignoring a government regulation, I increased my volume (production) by more than the permitted 25 per cent of my licensed capacity.” It has now taken the post off, possibly to protect the image of Bajaj, whom it had honoured as a distinguished alumnus in 2005, as well as its own.

Dhirubhai Ambani, father of Mukesh Ambani, who is at No. 1 in the Forbes list of rich Indians, and Anil Ambani, who is at No. 29, was a first-generation businessman who rose to rival the established industrialists of his time. Such was his clout that journalist Hamish McDonald’s 1998 book The Polyester Prince, which narrated how he negotiated his way around regulations, could not be sold in India.

The Ambanis, however, made no attempt to block a later, revised version of the book, titled Ambani & Sons, presumably because the family is now quite confident about its place.

The Supreme Court has been holding Subrata Roy, a Kolkata businessman, in Delhi’s Tihar jail for about two years to force him to return to small investors about $5.4 billion they had put into a scheme of his Sahara group, which, according to the Security Exchange Board of India, was illegal.

All this raises the question whether the interests of workers will be safe under a self-certification regime.

Enthused by reports of sound industrial growth driven by manufacturing, signs of a pickup in investment and good indirect tax collections, the government claimed last October that the economy might be about to turn the corner. “We are on track. Acceleration switch has been pressed. We are pushing ourselves towards a high-growth trajectory,” said Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion Secretary Amitabh Kant.

However, as the financial year draws to a close, there is little room for optimism. The rupee has fallen below the level at which it was when Modi took office. The stock market is erratic. Exports have declined due to the global slowdown, and the year may well see a record fall of 13 per cent.

In the circumstances, the Start-up programme assumes importance. It has the potential to help in creating jobs, improving skills and boosting production. Many states have evinced keen interest in it, and some have already set up incubation centres for young entrepreneurs. However, they may need time to produce results. -- Gulf Today, January 19, 2016.

12 January, 2016

Exposing chinks in armour

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Security experts are agreed that the Indian response to the daring terrorist attack on the Pathankot airbase close to the Pakistan border on New Year’s Day was ham-handed and showed the authorities have learnt little from experience.

Visiting the airbase on Saturday, a week after the strike by Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammad, Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressed satisfaction over the handling of the situation.

While security forces were able to prevent damage to military assets, critics have pointed out that the authorities failed to act quickly on intelligence input about an imminent attack.

The terrorists sneaked into India unnoticed by those guarding the border, carrying with them assault weapons, 50 kg of ammunition and 30 kg of grenades. They kidnapped a high police officer, seized his beacon-fitted vehicle and roamed in it for hours before scaling the 11-foot high wall of the airbase. The officer’s role is now under scrutiny.

Seven security personnel were killed and 22 others injured in the attack. Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar disclosed that only one death was an operational loss. Five defence service guards were killed even before the counter-terror operation began. A lieutenant colonel died in a blast during the combing operations.

Retired Lieutenant General HS Panag, who was once in charge of the Indian army’s northern command, said the counter-terror operation was a disaster from the word go. “We were not only slow to respond but were caught with our pants down,” he added.

He attributed the colonel’s death to failure to follow the standard operating procedures.

Gen Panag as well as other experts were critical of the primacy accorded to the National Security Guard in the counter-terror operation. Defence analyst Rahul Bedi said the NSG was given command to keep the operation under the control of National Security Adviser Ajit Doval, arguably the most influential person in the Modi administration.

Doval sent 150 NSG commandos into Pathankot from a camp near Delhi when about 50,000 soldiers with fair knowledge of the terrain and experience of handling terrorists were available in the immediate vicinity.

The NSG is under the Home Ministry. The Defence Minister justified its use saying the NSG’s expertise was needed to ensure the safety of about 3,000 civilians in the family quarters at the airbase. The argument did not impress Gen Panag. Time is not far when the army may have to take orders from the Home Minister, the National Security Adviser or the Police, he quipped.

On the second day, after four terrorists were gunned down, Twitter-happy Home Minister Rajnath Singh announced completion of the operation. Soon shots rang out again, necessitating renewal of the counter-terror operation. It took two more days to liquidate all the terrorists.

“Four days to neutralise no more than five or six militants is unacceptable in a confined open space where there is little or no scope for any civilian collateral damage,” said retired Maj Gen Sheru Thapliyal.

The National Investigation Agency has begun a probe into the attack. Analysts believe a high-powered commission of inquiry is needed to bring out the truth and formulate proposals to avoid a repetition of mistakes.

The Pathankot attack and the Gurdaspur attack of last July by Lashkar-e-Taiba have been valuable learning experiences for Modi and his colleagues who are ardent admirers of Israeli tactics.

Ironically, as they are coming to terms with ground realities, the Congress, which has the most experience of dealing with the Pakistan government and terrorists based in that country, is acting the way the BJP did when it was in the opposition.

The terrorists’ aim was to disrupt the dialogue process which received a boost when Modi, on his way back from Afghanistan, stopped at Lahore on Christmas Day to meet Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

Foreign Secretaries of India and Pakistan are scheduled to meet on January 15. Sharif has said terrorists will not be allowed to disturb the peace process but Indian sources have said the talks may be called off unless Islamabad acts upon evidence of the Jaishe-e-Mohammed’s involvement in the attack.

Reports indicate that Nawaz Sharif has asked the Pakistan army to follow up on the leads India has provided.

The US administration is said to be exerting pressure on Pakistan to save the dialogue process.

Goof-ups of the kind witnessed recently cannot cloud the fact that the strategy followed by India since Rajiv Gandhi’s days with regard to Kashmir-related terrorism has yielded results. Civilian casualties in Kashmir have come down from more than 1,000 a year in the 1990s to just about 20 last year. The terrorists have shifted attention to Punjab precisely because cross-border operations in Kashmir have become difficult. --Gulf Today, Sharjah, January 12, 2016.

05 January, 2016

Congress needs to do more

BRP Bhaskar
 
One and a half years after Narendra Modi led the Bharatiya Janata Party to power, imposing a crushing defeat on it, the Congress party is still without an action plan to revive its fortunes.

Recent election results indicate that the Modi wave of 2014 has abated. In that year’s Lok Sabha poll campaign Modi had called for a Congress-free India. He repeated the call while campaigning in the Assembly elections too.

Under Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, the Congress party had held in check the Hindutva flag-bearers, the Jana Sangh and the BJP, for decades. Modi’s antipathy towards it is, therefore, understandable. But the grand old party’s disappearance can only weaken India’s democracy, not strengthen it.

In last year’s elections to legislatures and local self-government institutions in several states, the BJP did not do as well as was expected. What’s more, the Congress showed distinct signs of recovery in the Hindi-speaking states where the BJP had pushed it down to the second place.

In Madhya Pradesh, the Congress snatched a Lok Sabha seat from the BJP in a by-election. It made impressive gains in local body elections in MP, Rajasthan and Gujarat, all at the expense of the BJP.

In the rural areas of Gujarat, the Congress wrested control of many district and taluk panchayats from the BJP. However, in the urban areas the BJP held its ground.

In Gujarat, the Congress had been declining continuously since 2001, when Modi became the Chief Minister. It was revealed recently that the party’s state leaders felt so intimidated by the anti-Muslim riots under Modi’s watch that they did not let Congress President Sonia Gandhi visit the wife of former party MP Ehsan Jafri, who was hacked and burned to death by Hindutva goons.

The BJP’s success in the urban areas testifies to its continuing hold on towns. But about 68 per cent of the people of Gujarat live in villages. The new electoral mood reflects the villagers’ growing disenchantment with Modi’s development model which helps the rich and hurts the poor, especially villagers engaged in agriculture.

Apparently the BJP is vulnerable even in the urban areas. In local elections in Chhattisgarh, the Congress outperformed it in several towns.

Modi doesn’t talk of a Congress-free India any more. One reason may be that there is no election around the corner. Another is that the Congress has blocked some legislative measures which are crucial to his reform agenda and he knows that while that party is around he has to deal with it. He, therefore, reached out to Sonia Gandhi and party Vice-President Rahul Gandhi, the ma-beta (mother and son), whom he had berated in election speeches.

While the ground situation is turning favourable to the Congress, the party apparatus remains moribund. The old guard and the coterie that surrounds Sonia Gandhi have defeated Rahul Gandhi’s attempts to introduce a measure of democracy in the party.

In Kerala, one of the few states where the Congress has a functioning apparatus, rival factions led by Chief Minister Oommen Chandy and Home Minister Ramesh Chennithala came together to scuttle organisational elections. They also defeated the efforts of VM Sudheeran, whom Rahul Gandhi had installed as head of the state party, to put an end to factionalism.

West Bengal and Kerala are among the states where Assembly elections are due this year. Mamata Banerji’s Trinamool Congress had ended three decades of Left rule in West Bengal in 2011. A coalition led by the Communist Party of India-Marxist and a rival alliance headed by the Congress have been alternating in power in Kerala for several decades.

Both states have been traditionally hostile to the Hindutva ideology. Keen to take advantage of the decline of the Left and the Congress, the BJP, aided by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, has drawn up plans to storm the two states.

At the recent CPI-M plenum in Kolkata, the West Bengal unit mooted the idea of an alliance with the Congress to check the growth of Hindu communalism. The Kerala unit shot it down.

When Sonia Gandhi named Rahul Gandhi as the party’s Vice-President, it was believed he would soon replace her as the President. However, the transition is getting prolonged because the old guard is not quite ready for it.

Lampooning by critics of dynastic succession notwithstanding, Rahul Gandhi appears to be the best bet if only because there is no one in the party with better credentials than him. In the last few years he has made a conscious effort to identify himself with the rural poor.

If Rahul Gandhi is to succeed Sonia Gandhi, the sooner the transition the better for the party. --Gulf Today, Sharjah, January 5, 2016.