New on my other blogs

KERALA LETTER
A Dalit poet writing in English, based in Kerala
Foreword to Media Tides on Kerala Coast
Teacher seeks V.S. Achuthanandan's intervention to end harassment by partymen
Change of heart? Or stooping to conquer?
Some thoughts on the historic Battle of Colachel

വായന

27 December, 2016

Disruption of Democracy

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today
The winter session of Parliament which concluded earlier this month was one of the least productive in India’s 67 years as a democratic republic. Obstructive tactics employed, mainly but not exclusively, by the Opposition stalled the proceedings, and the two houses could transact little business.

The session began on November 16, eight days after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced demonetisation of notes of Rs 1,000 and Rs 500 in a television address. It ended 31 days later, without discussing the government’s action which threw important segments of the economy into disarray and imposed misery on millions of poor.

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and the opposition Congress party blamed each other for the disruption. Modi complained that the opposition did not allow him to address the house, and Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi claimed the BJP prevented him from speaking.

The cost of the short session to the taxpayer is estimated at Rs 33 million. On the basis of the limited legislative business the houses transacted, officials put the Lok Sabha’s productivity 17.39 per cent and the Rajya Sabha’s at 20.61 per cent.

The last time such low productivity was registered was in 2010. The United Progressive Alliance, led by the Congress, was in power at that time, and the BJP was the main opposition. Recent history testifies to the two parties’ readiness to disrupt the proceedings to make small and often illusory political gains.

The loss resulting from Parliament’s inability to transact business is actually much more than what the above-mentioned figures suggest. A law to usher in a goods and services tax (GST) regime was placed before Parliament by the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government in 2011. The BJP held it up. After the change of government, the BJP brought forward a revised bill and the Congress stalled it. Earlier this year the constitutional amendment required to bring GST into force was passed. However, the winter logjam prevented passage of some supporting measures. As a result, GST, which has the potential to boost the GDP by Rs 1,000 to 2,000 billion, may not become a reality for some more time.

Delay in passage of laws often entails social costs which cannot be expressed in monetary terms. Take the case of the Women’s Representation Bill, which seeks to set apart one-third of the seats in the Lok Sabha and the State Assemblies for women who constitute nearly half of the population. It was brought before the Lok Sabha first by the United Front government headed by HD Deva Gowda in 1996. Parties wishing to perpetuate patriarchal ways blocked its consideration by creating a ruckus.

In 2008 the UPA government moved an alternative bill in the Rajya Sabha and the house passed it in 2010 amid unruly scenes. The UPA went out of office without bringing the measure before the upper house. Although the BJP enjoys absolute majority in the Lok Sabha, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has evinced no interest in it so far.

While Parliament was in logjam, in sheer exasperation, President Pranab Mukherjee told the MPs: “For God’s sake, do your job.” For good measure, he reminded them that their job was “debate, dissension and decision”, and the fourth D, disruption, was unacceptable.

Parliamentary institutions are vital limbs of democracy. They are the forums where governments outline their programmes and elected representatives ventilate the grievances of the people. Their becoming dysfunctional is a sure sign of corruption of the democratic system. The President’s warning was, therefore, timely.

However, Democracy – with a capital D – involves much more than holding elections every five years and elected bodies meeting at regular intervals, which happen under other systems too. Thanks to the Constitution, change of government takes place at the Centre and in the states periodically, but the real test of the democratic system is whether the administrations are able to render social, economic and political justice to all citizens.

While farmers unable to repay small loans are taking their own lives, the government has been allowing banks to write off huge sums owed by big businessmen. How can a state which puts the interests of one per cent above those of 99 per cent be called democratic?

Governments are spending billions of rupees on erecting statues of heroes of the past, whose memory has come down to the present on the strength of what they did in their lifetime, while millions are going without food, shelter, medicine and education. That is not the way a democracy functions. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, December 27, 2016.

21 December, 2016

Patriotism made to order

BRP Bhaskar

Are Indians so lacking in patriotism that the Judiciary has to step in and instruct them on how to honour national symbols like the Flag and the Anthem? Two Supreme Court judges think they are, and invoked their judicial power recently to set things right.

Justices Dipak Misra and Amitava Roy ordered that all cinema halls shut their doors and play the national anthem before the feature film starts. At that time the image of the national flag should be on the screen and all present should stand up to show respect. This would instil in them a sense of committed patriotism and nationalism, they said.

India’s Constituent Assembly adopted a modified version of the Tricolour, the standard of the freedom struggle, as the national flag on attainment of freedom in 1947. In 1950 it chose Jana GanaMana, the opening lines of a 1911 poem by Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, as the national anthem.

Some leaders wanted Vande Mataram, which had served as a battle cry during the freedom struggle, to be the anthem. Orthodox Muslims opposed it on the ground it was in the nature of worship of Mother India, and Islam forbade worship of anyone but Allah.

With Jawaharlal Nehru’s stout support Jana GanaMana won the day but it too was not acceptable to all. Some pointed out that when Tagore sang it at a durbar during George V’s visit to the subcontinent British newspapers had said he was the one whom it hailed as the “dispenser of India’s destiny”. However, the poet’s choice of words suggests the reference is to the Almighty.

Some others pointed out that the poem mentions Sind, which is now part of Pakistan. Supporters of the anthem justified its retention, saying India is home to many people of Sindhi origin.

With myriad forces fuelled by regional and even religious sentiments competing for loyalty, fostering a sense of nationalism during the colonial period was no easy task. But the leaders of the freedom movement achieved remarkable success, guided by the ideals of democracy and secularism. They had faced the fiercest opposition from the proponents of Hindu nationalism, as distinct from Indian nationalism. Chief among them was the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, ideological mentor of the Bharatiya Janata Party, which now heads the central government.

The RSS wanted the saffron banner of Hinduism to be the national flag and Vande Mataram to be the anthem. Explicit acceptance of the Tricolour as the national flag was one of the conditions imposed by the government to lift the ban imposed on the RSS following Gandhi’s assassination.

Early this year RSS General Secretary Bhayyaji Joshi declared that Vande Mataram was India’s real national anthem, though Jana GanaMana was the constitutionally mandated one. He also claimed the saffron flag could be honoured as the national flag as the Tricolour was no different from it. It was a palpable attempt to blur the distinction between Hindu nationalism and the Indian nationalism fostered by the freedom movement, of which the RSS was not a part.

As Joshi’s statement attracted criticism, the RSS clarified that he had not demanded any change in the national flag or national anthem.

Ironically, RSS cadres, who are half-hearted converts to Indian nationalism, are the loudest champions of the judicial order, which has restored a practice the government had tried and given up on practical considerations.

From time to time the government has issued guidelines outlining when the anthem can be played or sung. Schools generally begin the day with collective singing of the anthem.

In the 1960s, after the disastrous China war, the government ordered that the anthem be played in theatres after the film show to strengthen national sentiments. The order was scrapped later to avoid disrespect to the anthem by movie-goers who were in a hurry to leave. The judges have ordered closure of doors to prevent people from leaving. This direction runs against the government’s stipulation that the anthem should not be played in a closed room.

Justice Misra first held forth on the national flag in a judgment he delivered as a judge of the Madhya Pradesh high court, which the Supreme Court overruled. Thirteen years later, as a judge of the apex court, he has in effect revalidated the views his predecessors had rejected.
Egged on by Hindu nationalists, the police have arrested about 20 persons in two states for not standing up when the anthem was played in theatres. Their conduct appears to be more a protest against what they consider an arbitrary court order than wilful display of disrespect to national symbols. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, December 19, 2016

13 December, 2016

A reform gone awry

BRP Bhaskar

The disruption of normal life caused by the abrupt cancellation of 86 per cent of the money in circulation, announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi five weeks ago, continues to wreak havoc. What was presented as a cure for endemic corruption is proving to be worse than the disease.

Ground realities are compelling the government’s stoutest supporters to moderate their enthusiasm. Deepak Parekh, Chairman of HDFC, the country’s third largest bank, who had hailed demonetisation earlier as the biggest of all big-bang reforms, said last week it had derailed the economy in the short run.

Initially, there was wide support for the decision to withdraw high-denomination currency notes as people believed the government’s claim that it was directed against corrupt elements. Now, there is growing realisation that it acted without due diligence and that its actions are hurting honest citizens, particularly the poor, more than the corrupt.

Modi and a small team are said to have charted the demonetisation plan in utter secrecy. A sudden jump in term deposits in banks and large-scale acquisition of property by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party in some states just before demonetisation suggest that some had prior knowledge of the decision.

Black money holders quickly found ways to beat the government plan. In the three and a half hours between the telecast in which Modi announced the decision to invalidate currency notes of Rs 1,000 and Rs 500 and the time set for its implementation, jewellers in several cities did roaring business. A temple in Kerala reported record sale of gold lockets.

Religious institutions were allowed to accept donations in old notes. This concession enabled unscrupulous priests to help their rich patrons to launder black money.

The bank accounts the poor had opened under a scheme lunched by Modi in his first year as Prime Minister suddenly started swelling. Evidently the rich were taking the help of the poor to turn black into white.

The government found it necessary to issue new regulations almost daily to plug the loopholes ingenious black money holders were using to legitimise their hoard. But the crooks managed to remain one step ahead of the government at all times.

Following complaints that the limit on withdrawals from bank accounts affected planned weddings, the government directed that one member of a family may be allowed to withdraw up to Rs 250,000 to meet marriage expenses. Soon there were massive withdrawals on the strength of fake wedding invitations.

Amid the cash crunch, Modi’s Cabinet colleague Nitish Gadkari, mining king and former Karnataka minister G Janardhan Reddy and Kerala liquor baron Biju Ramesh reportedly spent tens of millions on daughters’ weddings.

Banks and ATMs often lacked enough cash to pay out even the small sums which account holders were entitled to draw. Yet many people were able to change their stock of old notes into new ones. Cash seized in stray raids in nine states during the past month included at least Rs 2.4 billion in newly introduced notes of Rs 2,000.

Fraudulent transactions of such high order would not have been possible without the cooperation of bank officials. Two managers of a leading private bank in Delhi were arrested on charges of helping crooks to open fake accounts using forged documents and launder about up to Rs 4.5 billion. Some public sector bank employees too are facing action.

Sensing that things were getting out of hand, Modi kept changing the narrative. A commentator, who analysed eight speeches he made between November 8 and November 27, said that during the period the objective of the demonetisation exercise shifted from elimination of black money to promotion of cashless economy.

According to the Reserve Bank of India, as much as Rs 11,500 billion out of Rs 14,500 billion which were in the hands of the people when demonetisation was announced have already reached the banks though the deadline for depositing old notes does not expire until December 30. The exercise is, therefore, unlikely to result in the extinction of an estimated Rs 4,000 billion of black money, as the authorities initially claimed.

Why did the government impose needless pain on the people, especially poor, in the name of eliminating black money? Ashish Nandy, well-known social theorist and political psychologist, has offered a plausible explanation. He says, “Modi has been pushed by his intense desire to do something but he does not have the imagination or wherewithal to do it.”

06 December, 2016

What the terror balance sheet says

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

India has just missed consciously an opportunity to initiate steps to put its troubled relations with Pakistan on an even keel.

When Pakistan’s Foreign Affairs Adviser Sartaj Aziz landed in Amritsar a day ahead of Sunday’s Heart of Asia conference on Afghanistan there was speculation that there might be informal talks to improve the relationship between the two countries which touched a new low after militants from across the line of control attacked an army base at Uri in Jammu and Kashmir and India retaliated with surgical strikes on terror launch pads on the other side. However, the Indian government said no talks were possible while acts of terrorism continued.

Terrorism figured prominently in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s address to the delegates to the Amritsar conference, who included representatives of a score of countries including the United States, China and Russia. He said it was necessary to end terrorism to foster stability, security and development in Afghanistan and in the region as a whole.

The year witnessed an escalation of militant activity in Kashmir and a corresponding deterioration in the relations between the two neighbours. In the very first week there was a daring attack on an air force base at Pathankot.

In his Independence Day address, Modi raised the issue of Pakistani human rights violations in Baluchistan as a counter to Islamabad’s harping on Indian rights violations in Kashmir.

The killing of Burhan Wani, a young home-grown militant leader, by the security forces led to youth unrest which paralysed life in Kashmir valley for nearly four months.

Eighteen soldiers were killed in the Uri attack which took place during a rotation of units. The surgical strikes, which occurred a few days later, marked a departure from the policy of strategic restraint which the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance governments had followed. It boosted Modi’s sagging macho image but failed to make any appreciable difference to infiltration across the LoC and terror attacks. The year appears set to end as one of the bloodiest in recent years.

The worst year of the decade was 2007. As many as 311 militants crossed into India that year and 121 uniformed personnel were killed and 336 injured in terrorist attacks. According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), which collates information relating to terrorism, 164 civilians and 492 militants were also killed that year.

The following years saw a decline in militancy in Kashmir and infiltration across the LoC. Casualty figures of security personnel fell continuously and stood at only 17 in 2012 before starting to climb again.

This year, there has been only a marginal increase in the number of violent incidents but casualties among men in uniform have risen dramatically. On September 30, the toll stood at 63 security personnel killed and 181 injured. The latest available tally is 77 dead, as on November 27.

Parliament was told recently that 105 terrorists from across the LoC entered Kashmir until September 30 this year, as against only 33 last year. This, again, is the highest figure since 2007.

The security forces can perhaps draw some comfort from the fact that this year they have been able to impose heavier penalties on the terrorists than in the recent past. Their toll stood at 119 at the end of September.

Casualty figures at the SATP website show that since 1988 terrorism has taken a toll of 49,315 lives across India, 44,119 of them in Jammu and Kashmir. The number of terrorists killed was 24,101, including 23,121 in J&K. A total of 9,854 security personnel were killed. 7,688 of them in Kashmir. Civilians bore the brunt of the attacks: 17,526 killed, including 14,735 in Kashmir. 

The hope raised by the surgical strike was shattered when three terrorists, wearing police uniform, broke into the Nagrota base in Kashmir last week and launched an attack in which seven military personnel, including two Army majors, were killed. They are believed to have entered India through a tunnel and reached the base travelling 85 kilometres evading army checkpoints.

Retiring Northern Army Commander Lt-Gen DS Hooda said later the Kashmir conflict was a long war requiring a long-term approach. It is just another way of saying it is a problem that requires a political solution. The terror balance-sheet also says the same thing. --Gulf Today, Sharjah, December 6, 2016.