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A Dalit poet writing in English, based in Kerala
Foreword to Media Tides on Kerala Coast
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Change of heart? Or stooping to conquer?


25 July, 2017

Doublespeak on cow protection

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke up against cow vigilantism last week for the third time in a month. On all three occasions he said too little and failed to carry conviction.

Modi spoke on the subject for the first time in his home state of Gujarat towards the end of June, ten months after pro-government gangs killed at least a score of people, mostly Muslims and Dalits, in different parts of the country alleging cow slaughter or beef eating.

He said, “Killing people in the name of gau bhakti (cow worship) is not acceptable. No person has the right to take the law in his or her own hands in this country.”

That statement came after the violent phase of cow vigilantism had invited strong criticism from within the country and outside.

He returned to the theme twice subsequently.

In the last speech on the subject, he said, “Some anti-social elements have incited violence in the name of cow protection. Those engaged in disturbing the harmony in the country are trying to take advantage of the situation.”

He went on to point out that lynchings were tarnishing India’s image. He also claimed some people were settling personal scores in the name of cow protection.

This response came immediately after a spate of “Not in My Name” protests across the country against the lynchings.

Interestingly, there was no word of condemnation of violence in the Prime Minister’s statements. He merely distanced himself from the violent incidents by declaring they were “unacceptable”. He sought to distance his party and its affiliates also from them by insinuating that the violence was the work of some people who had scores to settle. To him, the issue was not the killings but the bad name they brought to the country and to his government.

Simultaneously, Modi sought to reinforce the Hindutva position on the cow. In a series of tweets in Hindi, he said, “People see cow as a mother. Their sentiments are attached to it. We have to see that there are laws to protect cows and breaching them is not an option.”

In Parliament, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, standing in for Home Minister Rajnath Singh, replied to Opposition criticism of the violence by cow vigilantes along the same lines as the Prime Minister.

In a bid to turn the tables on the Opposition, Jaitley, who is a reputed lawyer, pointed out that cow slaughter ban was not Modi’s idea. It was written into the Constitution by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and BR Ambedkar when the BJP was not in the picture.

He was alluding to the mention of ban on cow slaughter in the Constitution as one of the Directive Principles of State Policy. He glossed over the fact that Nehru and Ambedkar had reluctantly agreed to the inclusion of the relevant article in the legally non-enforceable chapter as a compromise in democratic compliance with the wishes of several Congress members of the Constituent Assembly who wanted cow slaughter to be banned respecting Hindu religious sentiments.

The Constitution gives the states the power to ban slaughter of cows and calves and other milch and draught cattle, not on religious grounds but in the interests of organisation of agriculture and animal husbandry on modern and scientific lines. Invoking this provision, a majority of the states have already banned cow slaughter without disrupting social harmony.

Thus there is no situation warranting cow vigilantism in the country. The Hindutva elements have deliberately activated the issue with a view to targeting the Muslims and the Dalits. The beef vigilantes claimed to have caught generally turned out to be goat or buffalo meat.

The issue before the nation now is really not cow protection but the life and security of people engaged in occupations like cattle trade and skinning of dead animals. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee put it succinctly when she said gau rakshaks (cow protectors) have turned gau rakshasas (cow demons).

Even as Modi and Jaitley were trying to deflect attention from the core issue with specious arguments, Pravin Togadia, President of the Vishva Hindu Parishad, one of the largest affiliates of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, said in speeches in Uttar Pradesh that his organisation would raise, train and equip an army of gau rakshaks. This shows the VHP is preparing for more violent interventions.

The contrary messages emerging from the government and the VHP appear to be part of a well-thought-out strategy. The Indian Express quoted Sanjay Subrahmanyam, Professor of History at the University of California, Los Angeles, as saying in an interview it was all based on doublespeak. “There is an occasional, pious public message to say the authorities disapprove of certain actions, but then there is the dog-whistle by which people are also being relayed the opposite of what the official message is,” he said. --Gulf Today, Sharjah, July 25, 2017. 

18 July, 2017

Confrontation on the Himalayas

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Memories of the border war of 1962 came alive briefly during the past month as armies of India and China faced each other at Doklam, at their trijunction with Bhutan, nestling at a height of 8,000 feet in the Himalayas.

The standoff has not ended but after some acerbic exchanges, mostly through the media, the two sides have toned down the rhetoric and voiced readiness to resolve the issue through talks. However, the talks may not come any time soon as China, which has settled its border disputes with all other neighbours, appears to be in no hurry to demarcate its borders with India and Bhutan.

The India-China border is about 4,000-kilometres long. Of this, only the 220-km Sikkim-Tibet segment is free from dispute. While rejecting the McMahon line that separated Tibet from India’s northeast as a British imposition, China had accepted the Anglo-Chinese Convention of 1890 which defined the Sikkim-Tibet border.

In an agreement concluded in 1996 India and China committed themselves to peaceful resolution of the border dispute. So far there have been 18 rounds of talks, with little to show.

Bhutan, the world’s only remaining Buddhist kingdom, is a small country with an area of 38,394 square kilometres and a population of less than 800,000, which took to the path of democracy a decade ago.  While other nations seek to raise their gross national product, it seeks to boost gross national happiness.

Bhutan has an undemarcated 470km-long border with China’s Tibet region. Kuomintang China had claimed a part of Bhutan’s territory and Communist China chose to keep the claim alive. After more than 20 rounds of talks the border dispute remains unresolved.

When Britain ruled India, Bhutan and Sikkim were its protectorates. After gaining freedom India readjusted its ties with them.

Sikkim was made a state of India in 1975 at the instance of the Sikkim National Congress which came to power in the elections held the previous year.

Under an agreement with Bhutan in 1949 India virtually took over the role performed by the colonial regime and undertook to assist it in foreign relations. A friendship treaty signed in 2007 recast the relations on a new basis. In it the two countries pledged to cooperate closely on issues where their national interests are involved and not allow the use of their territories for activities harmful to each other’s national security.

While Bhutan has maintained close ties with India since the colonial period, it has avoided establishing diplomatic relations with China. After joining the United Nations in 1971 it established diplomatic relations with more than 50 countries but it has not allowed China and the four other permanent members of the Security Council to establish missions in its capital Thimpu.

It hurts Beijing’s pride that this tiny neighbour rebuffs its pleas for diplomatic relations. Also, along with India, it has kept out of China’s One Road, One Belt scheme.

Doklam, the scene of the stand-off, is a plateau which the People’s Liberation Army occupied as it swept through Tibet after the Revolution. In 2000 Thimpu belatedly pointed out that the place belongs to it.

The standoff is the result of the Indian army’s stepping in to challenge the building of a new road which will give China easy access to the miniscule Bhutan army’s base and – from New Delhi’s standpoint, more importantly – to the Siliguri Corridor, the chicken’s neck that connects India’s northeastern states with the mainland.

When Chinese troops poured down through the mountain passes in 1962, India had feared they would cut off the northeast, and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had voiced his anguish on that score in a broadcast.

In the recent past India and China had made a series of moves leading to cooling of the ardour witnessed during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s early meetings with President Xi Jinping. China is wary of India’s growing relations with the United States and India is wary of China’s hegemonic ambitions.

At one point the Chinese side reminded India of its painful 1962 experience. Defence Minister Arun Jaitley said India of 2017 was not India of 1962. The remark invited a retort from Beijing that China of 2017 was not China of 1962.

After Chinese troops swooped down the hills in 1962, forcing Indian soldiers to retreat, Beijing had announced a quick unilateral withdrawal of forces. The pullout was dictated not so much by altruistic factors as by logistical considerations. The Himalayas are no place to fight a prolonged war but offer pressure points that can be activated in case of need. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, July 18, 2017.

11 July, 2017

Waltzing through the Middle East

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Narendra Modi, who has set a few globe-trotting records, last week became the first Indian prime minister to visit Israel. “We have waited 70 years for you,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said as he embraced him.

The Israeli authorities extended to Modi the kind of welcome that was given previously only to the Pope and the President of the United States, and the world media has since been trying to unravel the meaning of what one writer described as his “public love fest” with Netanyahu.

When the United Nations proposed carving the state of Israel out of Palestine in 1948, India had pleaded in vain for a two-state solution. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru said Zionists had offered bribes to win India’s support and held out threats to his sister, Vijayalakshmi Pandit, who was the leader of the Indian delegation to the UN.

When the state of Israel became a reality India recognised it but refrained from establishing full-scale diplomatic relations with it in a gesture of solidarity with the Palestinians. However, Israel was allowed to establish an honorary consulate in Mumbai to look after commercial and cultural matters.

During the 1962 border war with China, Nehru turned to Israel for small arms and it readily helped. Today India, the world’s largest importer of arms, buys about 40% of Israel’s arms exports.

The Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, the fountainhead of the Hindutva ideology which is the driving force behind Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, was initially an ardent admirer of Hitler and Mussolini. After World War II, impressed by the high-handed measures Israel took for survival in an extremely hostile environment, it switched its admiration from Fascism to Zionism.

Over the last four decades, relations with Israel have grown steadily, more rapidly under non-Congress governments than under those led by the Congress, which is more alive to the sensitivities of the Arab world and of India’s own Muslim minority.

When the Janata Party was in power and AB Vajpayee was the External Affairs Minister, Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan visited India secretly. That government fell before it could take any meaningful step to boost bilateral relations.

In 1988, the Rajiv Gandhi government granted recognition to the state of Palestine and four years later the Narasimha Rao government raised diplomatic relations with Israel to ambassadorial level.

While improving relations with Israel, the Indian government reiterated its commitment to Palestine. It also extended continued support to the Palestinian cause in international forums. Indian leaders visiting Israel included the Palestinian Authority headquarters at Ramallah also in their itinerary.

A year ago India abstained on a UN Human Rights Council resolution critical of Israeli actions against Palestinians. Some observers have interpreted this and Modi’s failure to go to Ramallah as clear signs of a pro-Israeli shift in India’s position in tune with the RSS thinking.

International media quoted a Palestinian official as saying India’s relationship with Israel appeared to be developing at the cost of its moral, humanitarian and historic commitment to Palestine.

Indian officials, however, maintain that decoupling of Israel and Palestine does not make any material difference to India’s traditional policy. They point out that Modi had received Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in New Delhi in May. On that occasion he had reaffirmed India’s unwavering support to the Palestinian cause and expressed the hope “to see the realisation of a sovereign, independent, united and viable Palestine coexisting peacefully with Israel”.

Modi has waltzed through 49 countries so far. He has chosen his destinations with due regard for traditional ties as well as new realities. 

Hindutva’s ideological affinity apart, military and economic considerations are driving India and Israel closer together. Since Modi came to power, India has reportedly bought $662 million worth of arms from Israel. It has also signed several defence deals, including one for the purchase of a missile defence system costing $2 billion.

India, which is facing the prospects of acute water shortage, hopes to benefit from Israel’s farming and water technology innovations. One of the agreements signed during Modi’s visit envisages the setting up of a $40 million fund for joint research and development projects.

Israel appears to be looking to India for a political dividend in the form of greater respectability for itself. --Gulf Today, July 11, 2017.

04 July, 2017

Indian common market is born

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

With the catchy slogan “One Nation, One Tax, One Market”, the Indian government ushered in a new national tax regime at a midnight ceremony last week.

Unlike demonetisation of high-value currency, undertaken eight months ago without adequate preparations, the tax reform was launched after long deliberations.

The new tax regime is essentially a continuation of the reforms initiated by Manmohan Singh as Finance Minister in PV Narasimha Rao’s government a quarter-century ago. It will benefit foreign firms setting up facilities in the country by providing a uniform tax structure regardless of where they are located.

The first step towards introduction of a national goods and services tax (GST) scheme was taken by Prime Minister AB Vajpayee in 2000 when he set up a panel to design a suitable model. Strong opposition from state governments, which feared loss of revenue as well as limitations on their taxation powers, made the going tough.

Modi, who, as Chief Minister of Gujarat state, had stood against the Manmohan Singh government’s bid to introduce GST, changed his stand on becoming the Prime Minister and decided to push it as part of his economic reform package. Replying to Opposition taunts about the shift in his position, he said he had some misgivings about the scheme. As a Prime Minister who had been a Chief Minister he could address the states’ concerns on the issue, he added.

In 2015 the Modi government set April 1, 2016 for rolling out GST. The Constitution needed to be amended to introduce it. The ruling coalition could easily get the amending bill through the Lok Sabha, where it has a majority. It was not until August 2016 that it could enlist the support of the Congress which was necessary to push the bill through the Rajya Sabha.

The Centre still had to conduct tricky negotiations with the states to work out details of the new tax regime. It is entitled to credit for completing the process speedily and making GST a reality by July 1.

Conceived as a multi-stage, destination-based tax, GST is levied on every value addition. The final consumer, it is claimed, will bear only the GST charged by the last dealer in the supply chain.

Does that mean the consumer will pay less for goods and services? Or will he end up paying more? There is no simple, straight answer to the question.

Contradictory trends are already in evidence. Some items now cost more and some others less. The biggest automobile producer announced a three per cent cut in the prices of some models, supposedly to pass on GST benefits to the customers, but hiked the prices of some other models by Rs 100,000.

With an estimated population of 1.34 billion, India constitutes a big market. As the national economy is growing rapidly, the market bids fair to be even bigger. But the “one nation, one tax” bit is not quite true.

There are actually three GSTs – a Central GST, a State GST and an Integrated GST – levied by the Centre on inter-state supply of goods and services. Also, there is wide variation in the tax rates.

There is no levy on several items and bullion attracts a low three per cent tax. Four slabs, of five per cent, 12 per cent, 18 per cent and 28 per cent, have been fixed for other goods and services. There is also a cess to raise money to compensate the states for revenue loss.

No other country with a GST regime has so complex a tax structure and such high rates as India has opted for. The rate is six per cent in Malaysia, seven per cent in Singapore, seven and a half per cent in the US, 15 per cent in New Zealand, 17 per cent in China and 19 per cent in Germany. Brazil has two rates: seven per cent and 12 per cent.

Economic analysts have said that the GST scheme is full of imperfections. One of them is the compromise with the states which has resulted in the exclusion of petroleum products, liquor and real estate development from GST.

The coming weeks will show if the preparations made for the switch to the new tax regime were adequate or will bring needless suffering to the people, as happened with the demonetisation programme. It did not yield the anticipated benefits but caused immense hardship to the people, especially the poor. --Gulf Today, July 4, 2017.