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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

28 February, 2017

A push to Africa outreach

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Vice-President Hamid Ansari’s visits to Rwanda and Uganda last week marked another step forward in India’s Africa Outreach initiative, designed to place its ties with the countries of the continent on a firm footing after two decades of neglect.

The third India-Africa Summit, held in New Delhi in 2015, was attended by a record number of heads of states and governments, and convinced Prime Minister Narendra Modi of the need to revitalise ties with the continent which is a vast treasure-house of natural resources and is set to emerge as a big market. With its numbers in the United Nations it also has the potential to provide many valuable allies in global affairs.

In the 16 months since the summit, President Pranab Mukherjee, the Vice-President and the Prime Minister have visited more than a dozen countries in the continent. Many Central ministers have also undertaken missions to the continent.

On emerging as a free country, India, under Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, had taken a keen interest in the liberation movements of Africa and vigorously supported them in international forums. Africa had a special place in the minds of India’s freedom-fighters as it was there that Mahatma Gandhi had evolved his unconventional political strategies. Many African leaders who participated in the New Delhi summit acknowledged their debt of gratitude to Gandhi and Nehru.

After Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s time, ties with Africa became a lower priority in foreign policy. But China, as the world’s fastest-growing economy, made much headway in the continent. In 2009 it displaced the United States as Africa’s largest trading partner. India’s current trade turnover of $70 billion is way below China’s $220 billion.

Since 2000 China has provided more than $30 billion in aid to African countries. Its state-owned companies have invested in the energy, mining and infrastructure sectors.

A 745-kilometre-long electric railway line connecting the capitals of Djibouti and Ethiopia, built by Chinese engineers, was opened to traffic earlier this month. It cost $4 billion, and half the money was put up by Chinese banks. “This line will change the social and economic landscape of the two countries,” Ethiopia’s Prime Minister, Hailemariam Desalegn said.

People-to-people contacts have played a big part in Indo-African relations. During the colonial period, Britain had taken Indians to the continent to work. Today there are about 2.5 million people of Indian origin in 46 of the 54 countries of the continent.

Barring the expulsion of Indians by Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, there was no major hostile action against Indian immigrants. That phase is now forgotten and Uganda’s Indian community, which numbers about 30,000, has invested more than $1 billion in its economy.

A scholarship programme for African students, initiated by Nehru, helped the continent’s newly independent countries to find personnel to run the administration. Two years ago 25,000 young Africans were studying in Indian universities, and India decided to push the number up to 50,000. Stray racial attacks in some Indian cities damaged the goodwill generated by this decision. Narendra Modi disappointed the Africans by failing to condemn the attacks.

Some Africa watchers have noted that while China is involved in huge, high-profile projects, India is pursuing a soft-power approach. It is providing essential medicines to African countries by selling generic drugs, ignoring US assertion that such action violates its intellectual property laws.

The India-Rwanda Innovation Growth Programme launched during Ansari’s visit exemplifies the soft-power approach. It envisages the adoption of 20 Indian technologies and innovation in the next two years by joint ventures set up with Rwandan partners.

Ansari said it was a pilot project and would be extended later to seven countries of East Africa and still later to seven other economic zones across the continent.

Talking to Indian correspondents who accompanied him on the African tour, Ansari discounted suggestions by the western media that India and China are involved in a scramble in the continent.
The continent is so big and the current Indian and Chinese engagement so diverse that there is no need for them to step on each other’s toes. India’s main concern is to ensure that China’s pet projects like the “One Belt One Road” initiative do not hurt its interests. -- Gulf Today, February 28, 2017.

21 February, 2017

Twists and turns of blast probes

BRP BHASKAR

A Delhi court’s acquittal of two men who spent more than 11 years in jail, implicated in terror cases, has revealed how shoddy investigation and prosecution are ruining the lives of young people.

Mohammed Rafiq Shah, a MA final year student, was attending classes at the Shah-i-Hamadan Institute of Islamic Studies in Srinagar when a series of bombs exploded in Delhi on October 29, 2005, killing 67 persons. Members of a special cell of the Delhi police and a task force of the Kashmir police picked him up from his home some days later. The Delhi cops said he had planted a bomb in a bus.

The police had two eyewitnesses who gave differing descriptions of the man who planted the bomb. Neither account matched Rafiq Shah’s appearance. The cops got a barber to trim his beard to correspond to one of the accounts.

Three of Shah’s teachers testified before the Delhi court that he had attended classes in the Srinagar campus on the day of the blast.

The judge found several infirmities in the police version and acquitted him and the other two accused, Mohammed Hussain Fazli and Tariq Ahmed Dar, of charges related to the blasts.

Dar was found guilty of having links with a Pakistan-based terrorist group and sentenced to 10 years in jail. But all three had been in prison for a longer period already. Their repeated attempts to secure bail had failed as courts labour under pressure from the state and presumed public opinion in cases linked to terrorism.

In sending Afzal Guru to the gallows in the Parliament attack case, the Supreme Court had famously said, “The incident, which resulted in heavy casualties, had shaken the entire nation and the collective conscience of the society will only be satisfied if the capital punishment is awarded to this offender.”

The Chhattisgarh police had accused Binayak Sen, reputed paediatric surgeon and human rights defender, only of maintaining contacts with leaders of the banned Maoist party and not of any act of crime. Yet even the apex court refused him bail when he was facing trial. After his conviction, it granted him bail, pending disposal of bail. Its approach changed presumably because a different kind of pressure worked on it with more than 30 Nobel laureates from different lands deploring the action against Sen.

“It seems I am being victimised only because I am a Kashmiri Muslim,” Rafiq Shah had told the court when charges were being framed against him. But, then, young men in other states, too, have been through such bizarre experience. Nine persons implicated in the Malegaon blast case in Maharashtra and five in the Mecca Masjid blast case were acquitted by courts after trials that went on for several years.

Muthiyur Rahman Siddiqui, a Bangalore journalist, who was picked up with 10 others for plotting terror, was lucky to regain freedom in a few months as the investigating agency admitted it had found no evidence against him. He said later media reports of the arrest had denied him the presumption of innocence and many had assumed he was guilty.

The most famous victim of vexatious prosecution is Abdul Naser Mahdani, founder of the People’s Democratic Party in Kerala, who was acquitted after he had spent nearly 10 years in a Tamil Nadu jail as an accused in the Coimbatore blast case. Later the Karnataka police arrested him in connection with a blast in Bangalore. Police in Gujarat and Rajasthan are ready with reports implicating him in blasts in those states.

Muslims are not the only victims, as Binayak Sen’s experience shows. Kobad Ghandy, a 68-year-old Parsi, whom the police describe as a Maoist ideologue, was acquitted by a Delhi court last year in a case under the dreaded Unlawful Activities Prevention Act. He is still behind bars as 14 cases against him are pending in different states.

Some bomb blasts in which Muslim youths were implicated were later found to be the work of Hindu extremists. Thereafter investigation slowed down, indicating political considerations are at play.
The twists and turns of the blast probes have damaged the credibility of the investigating agencies. The government needs to initiate measures to strengthen them professionally to ensure that they do not target innocent people. It must also take steps to rehabilitate the young people whose lives have been wrecked by wrongful prosecution on terror charges and consequent stigmatisation. --Gulf Today, Sharjah, February 21, 2017.

14 February, 2017

A chilling message to litigants

BRP Bhaskar

The Supreme Court sent a chilling message to public interest litigants last week by imposing fines on two persons for filing frivolous petitions and asking a third one to establish his bona fides or face similar action.

Ravindra Singh, a member of the Bihar Assembly, had approached the apex court with a petition questioning the veracity of an article published in a Hindi publication in the 1990’s after being turned down by the Patna High Court. It threw out the petition and asked him to pay a fine of Rs 1 million.

Chief Justice JS Khehar who pronounced the judgment apparently took into account the fact that Ravindra Singh had declared assets of more than Rs 9.34 million when he filed nomination papers in the 2015 Assembly election.

Justice Khehar imposed a smaller fine on a retired teacher from Maharashtra who had challenged a Gujarat government circular on reservation in school jobs. A car mechanic of Madurai, who filed a petition about a hospital in Thanjavur building an additional floor, was told to establish his locus standi in the matter at the next hearing to avoid penal costs.

“Every day we waste precious judicial time by going through voluminous frivolous petitions. These busybodies must be stopped,” the Chef Justice said.

The Supreme Court has on its roster about 61,000 pending cases and Justice Khehar is keen to bring the number down. Elimination of frivolous petitions will surely help to achieve the goal. But the court must take care not to scare away those who approach it genuinely concerned about a bad situation.

Under the system left behind by the British, only an aggrieved person had the right to approach the courts for a legal remedy. This limitation was overcome four decades ago when the Supreme Court allowed Kapila Hingorani, a lawyer, to take up the case of Hussaianara Khatoon and other undertrial prisoners rotting in jails in Bihar. Her effort resulted in the release of not only Hussaianara Khatoon but about 40,000 undertrial prisoners across the country, and a grateful society hailed her as the Mother of Public Interest Litigation.

The Supreme Court witnessed a phase of judicial activism when VR Krishna Iyer, who was a judge in the 1970s, and PN Bhagwati, who was the Chief Justice in the 1980’s, widened the scope of PIL to render justice to the poor who lacked the resources to approach the court directly.

There were occasions when courts treated complaints received on postcards as writ petitions or took suo motu action on the basis of newspaper reports.

Over a period a large body of non-governmental organisations and individuals specialising in PILs arose all over the country. Not all of them were actuated by considerations of public good. Some were seeking personal glory through the publicity they could attract. This prompted some judges to argue that judicial activism had gone too far.

The Supreme Court should take care to avoid throwing the baby with the bathwater. A fair assessment of the working of PIL will show that it has had a salubrious effect on the working of the democratic system.

A PIL by Sheela Barse, a freelance journalist, who took up the issue of custodial violence against women in prisons led to a court order for setting up of separate lock-ups for women. The first court directive on cleaning up of the Ganga came on a PIL filed by MC Mehta, a lawyer, who raised the issue of contamination of the river by tanneries located on its banks in Kanpur. The 2G scam cases in which politicians and bureaucrats figure as accused were also the result of a PIL.

When the court fines a petitioner for wasting its time it may actually be punishing him for its own failing. Take, for instance, the case of the MLA who has been slapped with the fine of Rs1 million. He had approached the Supreme Court after losing in the high court. Why was his petition entertained when its frivolous character was so evident?

Under the Constitution the Supreme Court need entertain an appeal only if the case involves a substantial question of law relating to interpretation of its provisions. The court can reduce its burden by strictly applying this criterion instead of entertaining every matter brought before it in the form of an appeal or special leave application.
In this matter, it can profit from the example of the US Supreme Court which only takes up as much as it can handle. That court receives each year 7,000 to 8,000 petitions. It grants and hears oral arguments only in about 80 of them. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, February 14, 2017

07 February, 2017

Steps to limit poll expenses: a cosmetic exercise

BRP Bhaskar

The Bharatiya Janata Party, which now heads the government at the Centre and in many states, has been for long an advocate of state funding of election expenses. Since the idea has not found favour with other political parties, it is not in a position to initiate any measures in this regard.

The enormous cost which the contesting parties and candidates have to bear is one of the factors responsible for rampant political corruption. There is no limit on the amount a party can raise and spend. However, there is a ceiling of Rs 7 million on the expenses of a Lok Sabha candidate and of Rs 2.8 million on those of an Assembly candidate in all but nine very small states where the limits are lower.

In the big states a parliamentary constituency may have more than two million voters. Many candidates are believed to exceed the set expenditure limit and falsify the statement of accounts given to the Election Commission to hide the breach of the law.

The political parties can accept donations from individuals as well as private companies. Until now they were required to file statements every financial year giving details of contributions of more than Rs 20,000 which they have received from individuals and companies. To qualify for tax exemption they had to provide names and addresses of those who donated more than Rs 20,000 but most of them are lax in following this rule.

There is no scrutiny of the accounts submitted by the political parties. Although the Election Commission has the power to de-recognise a party if it is not in full compliance with the rule, it has never invoked it.

The Association for Democratic Reforms, a reputed non-government organisation, which studied available data, found that as much as 63 per cent of the donations received by the seven national parties during the 11-year period from 2004 to 2015 were in the form of cash.

It is said that during the last financial year they received Rs 1.02 billion from 1,744 donations of more than Rs 20,000. The BJP which received Rs 760 million from 613 donors was the major beneficiary. The Congress which received Rs 200 million from 918 donors was a distant second.

The ADR concluded that the relatively small number of donations above Rs 20,000 disclosed by the parties indicated that they got most of their funds from unknown sources.

In last week’s budget speech, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley announced reduction of the limit on anonymous donations from Rs 20,000 to Rs 2,000 and introduction of electoral bonds for the benefit of those who wished to make large donations anonymously.

Under the new scheme, donors can buy bonds from designated banks and present them to parties of their choice, which can redeem them through the Election Commission or a regulatory body set up for the purpose. This will not make for transparency, as the government claims.

If the government is serious about ensuring transparency in political donations it should evolve a foolproof scheme after discussions with the major parties on the basis of the recommendations the Law Commission made two years ago.

The Commission did not consider state funding feasible. It proposed amendment of the Companies Act to vest the power to decide on political donations in the annual general meeting of shareholders instead of the board of directors.

At present, candidates are required to furnish information on expenditure incurred by them after filing of nomination papers. The Commission suggested that they should be made to account for all expenses incurred from the date of notification of the elections.

To ensure transparency it asked the Election Commission to make available at its website or on file for public inspection all contribution reports submitted by the political parties. In the same way the election officer of each district should make available to the public the expenditure reports submitted by the contesting candidates.

The ADR has proposed bringing party finances under the purview of the Right to Information Act so that the members of the public can seek information about the donors and the amounts donated. This will make it possible for the voters to find out who are financing a party and ascertain if the party is returning the favour in any form.
Unfortunately, political parties wish to operate in secrecy. They are, therefore, unlikely to go beyond cosmetic measures. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, February 7, 2017

06 February, 2017

Billionaire Newspapers Go Under The Knife To Make Up For Being Late Bloomers In Adopting Technology

The HT editions that have closed down are the ones at Kolkata, Bhopal, Indore and Ranchi and the bureaus those at Allahabad, Kanpur and Varanasi.  Media managements rarely tell their readers or even the staff the reasons for closures. HT Media has reportedly mentioned two reasons for the latest closures.  One is the massive investments it has made in its digitization programme and the other is the impact of demonetization. 
On the digital front, too, HT Media has an erratic record. It entered the dotcom business early with a website go4i.com dedicated to the south, which was beyond the reach of its newspapers. Unable to sustain it, the company pulled out quickly.
If demonetization has impacted the media adversely, it should have hurt the less resourceful newspapers more than HT Media, a listed media company which had an income of over Rs 24.57 billion in 2015, the last financial year for which data is available.  But there is no report of any small or medium newspaper closing down as a result of the currency curbs.
Election time is a good time for all media.  Newspaper circulations keep rising as the political scene hots up and the trend continues until the votes are counted and a new government is installed. Yet HT Media has chosen to close three bureaus in UP when the state goes to the polls, along with neighbouring Uttarakhand which was its part not too long ago.
All these call into question the rationale behind the HT Group’s move. But, then, in the current phase of technology-driven changes our newspapers, especially those in the big league, have not exactly crowned themselves with glory.  They have been slow in taking to new technology.
While in the US to attend a seminar organized by the American Press Institute in 1970, this writer spent a week at the Associated Press’s newly computerized Atlanta bureau and the Minneapolis Tribune which had switched over from hot metal and rotary printing to cold metal and offset printing. On my return I tried to impress upon the management of United News of India, with which I was then associated, the need to go in for computerization.  “Who will put in the money?” asked G.G. Mirchandani, the Editor and General Manager. “No newspaper will pay us a penny more because we have computerized,” he added. He was right. I could only tell him, “If we fail to upgrade technologically, we will become a back number”.
I assumed the Government’s highly restrictive import policy was the main stumbling block in the way of modernization of newspaper production. The Registrar of Newspapers for India was the designated officer on whose recommendation the Commerce Ministry gave licences for import of newspaper machinery.  I told the RNI, who was a personal friend, about the changes taking place in the newspaper industry elsewhere.  “You are killing our newspapers by not letting them get new machinery,” I said. He laughed off the allegation and narrated his experience. The Commerce Ministry referred to him two applications for licences to import phototypesetting machines. Both were from commercial printers, not newspaper companies. He held on to those applications and contacted the managements of The Hindustan Times, The Times of India, The Statesman and The Indian Express and asked whether they did not want these machines. None of them wanted them.
 He explained his understanding of why they were not interested in new technology. They were chains with many units. Simultaneous switch-over at all centres would mean a huge investment.  They felt no compelling need to embrace new technology at a heavy cost.
 K.P.P. Nambiar, who headed the Kerala State Electronic Corporation in the 1970's, learnt about the work on newspaper pagination in the West and toyed with the idea of developing a system for Indian newspapers at a much lower cost than the imported product. He placed the idea with great enthusiasm before the leading newspapers. There were no takers.
 The Electronic Corporation of India, Hyderabad, developed a machine which can transmit photos over telephone lines. The big newspapers showed no interest in it. The Rajasthan Patrika bought a set and used it to transmit photographs from its New Delhi bureau to the newsroom in Jaipur.
 If the media had evinced an interest in the offerings of ECIL and Keltron and the Government had the vision to support them on the research and development side, the newspaper industry, the electronics industry and the country may well have benefited.
 The big newspapers adopted the new technology only when they found that small and medium newspapers had taken to it and improved their competitive ability. Udayavani, a new Kannada daily launched by the Pais of Manipal in the early 1970's, was the first Indian newspaper to typeset matter using phototypesetting machines and print by offset process.
In the next stage, that of computerization, too, small and medium enterprises took the first steps. All newspapers, big and small, have now got on to the digital platform but a close study will show that they are not making optimum use of the immense possibilities the new technology has opened up. And the technology is still evolving.
 According to published reports, the HT Media closures have rendered about 1,000 persons, journalists and non-journalists, jobless. There are reports that the Bennett Coleman and Co Ltd, publishers of The Times of India – with a reported income of Rs 87.78 billion in FY2015 it is the country’s largest media company – has frozen recruitment and is planning salary cuts.  In 2009 it had effected salary cuts in the name of the global meltdown. Now there is a handy excuse in demonetization.   
 HT Media’s website statement on career prospects adds insult to the injury caused to those who have been thrown out of job. “Media is the sunrise sector and is poised for growth,” it says. “The brand HT Media is a force to reckon with. With a growth rate of 39 per cent, HT Media is the place to avail opportunities and add dimensions to one’s career spectrum.”