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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


29 August, 2017

Atavistic forces on the rise

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

The violence unleashed by followers of Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, a cult leader who was convicted by a court last week on rape charges, is a rude reminder of the danger posed by atavistic forces that are gaining ground in the country.

Officials put the toll of the violence in Haryana state at 36 dead. Eight men in uniform, five women and one child were among the dead.

Cult figures, dubbed godmen or godwomen, have risen from time to time and attracted large numbers of people, rich and poor. Several of them have been accused of involvement in crimes like murder, rape and land grab. However, formal complaints against them are rare and serious investigation even rarer. 

Some godmen have thrived on their proximity to those in power. Dhirendra Brahmchari, who was active in Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s time, was characterised by a section of the media as Indian Rasputin. The judicial commission which probed Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam pointed to the possible involvement of Chandraswami, who was close to Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao, in the crime. 

When the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh founded the Jana Sangh, predecessor of the Bharatiya Janata Party, it also set up an organisation of sanyasins, named Ram Rajya Parishad, to create a role for Hindu holy men in politics. Since the RRP did not make headway it was merged in the Jana Sangh.

Sanyasins played a big part in the RSS-affiliate Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s campaign to build a Ram temple at the site of the Babri Masjid. Uma Bharti, a woman in saffron robes who participated in that campaign, is now Minister for Water Resources in Narendra Modi’s government. Another participant, Yogi Adityanath, high priest of the Gorakhnath Mutt, is Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, the largest state.

The Hindu Yuva Vahini, a volunteer force founded by Adityanath, is alleged to have been involved in several communal incidents. The lynching incidents and other acts of violence in the name of cow protection in several states are a direct consequence of the rise of atavistic forces under religious auspices.

Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, head of the Dera Sachha Sauda (meaning True Deal Camp) is a new generation spiritual leader who sings, dances and produces and acts in movies. Charges of rape, murder and castration did not prevent him from raising the cult’s following to 50 million and building scores of Dera centres in India and other countries including the USA.

Political parties sought his support at election time and plied him with money. A long-time backer of the Congress party, he switched support to the BJP in 2014 and is credited with having helped it to come to power in Haryana for the first time.

Gurmeet Singh’s flamboyant ways hid the atavistic character of his cult. One of the two women who admitted to the investigators that he had raped her claimed that in doing so he had purified her.

The case against him arose from an anonymous letter a rape survivor wrote to Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee 15 years ago. The government did not act on it.

Ranjit Singh, a follower who had fallen out with Gurmeet Singh, also levelled similar changes. Ram Chander Chattrapati, a journalist, wrote in a local publication about the complaints. Both of them were shot dead.

The Punjab and Haryana High Court, acting suo motu, ordered the Central Bureau of Investigation to probe the charges against Gurmeet Singh.

Devotees began gathering at the Dera headquarters days ahead of the date set by the CBI court for pronouncing its verdict. The violence that followed his conviction could have been averted if only the Central and state governments had prevented the assembly of a large crowd ignoring prohibitory orders.

The Punjab and Haryana High Court, reacting sharply to the authorities’ failure to act in time for political reasons, reminded them that the Prime Minister and the Chief Minister were holders of constitutional offices, and not party functionaries.

The admonition had a salutary effect. Ahead of the sentencing of Gurmeet Singh on Monday the authorities took strong measures to prevent rioting, including orders to shoot at sight. To avoid recurrence of violence the High Court issued instructions to the trial court to conduct its proceedings in the jail where the convict was lodged. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, August 29, 2017.

22 August, 2017

Reforms slow down economy

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

While the authorities have not come out with the full data, there is enough material in the public domain to conclude that two reforms of the past year, demonetisation of high-denomination currency notes and roll-out of the new goods and services tax (GST) regime, have retarded the growth of India’s economy.

Nine months after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced demonetisation and a time-frame for collecting new notes of Rs 2,000 and Rs 500 in exchange for the invalidated notes of Rs 1,000 and Rs 500 neither the government nor the Reserve Bank of India, which regulates currency flow, has revealed how much money was replaced. The last time RBI Governor Urjit Patel spoke on the subject, he said the notes were still being counted.

One of the proclaimed objectives of demonetisation was to weed out black money. It was believed the authorities were reluctant to reveal data as more money had come in than the RBI had put into circulation. This would mean that those with black money used the opportunity to launder their holdings.

In his Independence Day address last week, Modi confirmed this. He said following demonetisation Rs 3 trillion had come to the banks, including two trillion of black money.

The story has a bright side, though. Scrutiny of the data gathered by the government in the process of exchange of notes has revealed the existence of about 300,000 shell companies used by black money operators.

Also, as many as 1.8 million people were found to possess assets not commensurate with their known sources of income. One-fourth of them had accepted the finding, Modi said.

Figures released by the Finance Ministry last week show that the number of persons who file income tax returns now stands at 28.2 million. This is 5.6 million more than a year ago.

The government has said the new GST regime, introduced on July 1, has eased the logistics of businesses, and brought in 1.35 million new commercial tax payers.

Financial analysts are not inclined to take the claim that the reforms have led to increased revenues unquestioningly. Some of them have pointed out that, as of August 2017, there is no significant increase in the number of taxpayers or direct tax collection.

It is, of course, too early to dismiss the government’s claim as flow of information through official channels is notoriously slow. Assuming that demonetisation and GST have yielded financial benefits to the government, the question whether adequate preparations were made before the two measures were introduced is still relevant. Both measures had caused considerable dislocation of economic activity and imposed enormous hardship on the people, particularly the poor.

Figures for the first quarter of 2017 put the economic growth rate at 6.1 per cent as against earlier expectations of 7.1 per cent. This was the lowest growth rate since the last quarter of 2014. The fall was the result of the drop in consumer spending and investment following demonetisation.

Falsifying recent history to serve his political interests, Modi often accuses the Congress, which ruled the country longest, of not doing enough on the development front. Many young people, disillusioned with the state of the country, readily swallow such claims.

Statistical data shows that in the 65 years since Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru launched the first five-year plan in 1951 India’s GDP grew at an average annual rate of 6.1 per cent. The lowest growth rate of minus 5.2 per cent was recorded in the last quarter of 1979 under Charan Singh who was Prime Minister for nearly six months after the collapse of the Janata government headed by Morarji Desai. The economy recorded the highest growth of 11.40 per cent in the first quarter of 2010 under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

Earlier this month the government, which, as usual, placed before Parliament an annual economic survey in February, took the unusual step of presenting a revised mid-year survey highlighting factors adversely affecting the economy. It said services sector growth, which was highly resilient even during the global financial crisis, was showing moderation. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, August 22, 2017

Putting on a brave face, the government’s chief economic adviser, Arvind Subramanian, told an interviewer that the medium term outlook looked good but there were worries for the near term as the economy, which was decelerating, was heading towards deflation. That sounds like a warning to fasten the seat belts.

15 August, 2017

Rise of the nationalists in India

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

It was on this day, the 15th of August, 70 years ago that the British, unable to get the main political forces of their largest colony to come to an agreement, brought forth upon the subcontinent two states – Pakistan, conceived on the basis that the Muslims constitute a separate nation, and India, committed to the idea of common nationality of people of all faiths.

Mohammed Ali Jinnah, who had forcefully articulated the Pakistan demand, rejected arguments in favour of national unity based on the subcontinent’s common history. History may be the same but our heroes are different, he said.

What proved decisive in the end was not the soundness of the arguments of either side but the sick hurry of all concerned.

Britain, weakened by the war, was in a hurry to quit as it was in no position to hold on to the colony after the loyalty of the military became suspect. Soldiers who fell into the hands of the Japanese had joined Subhas Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army and naval personnel in Mumbai had mutinied after the war.

Jinnah, who was fighting a disease, was in a hurry as he feared the British might pull out without an agreement, leaving the Muslims at the mercy of the Hindu majority.

“Over my dead body,” Gandhi said when Britain announced the Partition plan but his lieutenants accepted it even as they continued to reject the two-nation theory. Some theorists have postulated that Jawaharlal Nehru and other senior Congressmen agreed to Partition as they were in a hurry to come to power.

But there were possibly other considerations too. If the British pulled out without waiting for an agreement, as Jinnah feared they would, given the prevailing highly charged communal atmosphere, a civil war was certain. The Congress, wedded to non-violence, was not equipped to face it.

The winners of the civil war would have been the extreme Right or the extreme Left. On the Right was the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, whose chief had been advising the flock not to fight the British but conserve their energies to take on the “real enemies”, the Muslims and the Christians. On the Left were Communists who thought time was ripe for revolution.

While India and Pakistan inherited armies and bureaucracies with the same colonial traditions they moved in different directions. Jinnah’s death and Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan’s assassination within five years of Pakistan’s birth paved the way for the emergence of the army and religious forces as political players.

Although Hindu fanatics eliminated Gandhi within six months of Independence, India did not slip into the hands of the army or religious forces, thanks to Nehru’s 17-year stewardship during which the country was set on the path of secular democracy.

In the early general elections, three parties subscribing to the Hindutva ideology challenged the Congress – the Hindu Mahasabha, the Jana Sangh and the Ram Rajya Parishad, the last two founded at the instance of the RSS. They hoped to benefit from the communal feelings generated by the riots of the Partition period but Nehru faced them frontally and beat them off.

It was only after the declining Congress, under his successors, went soft on communalism that the Hindutva forces were able to make headway. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, who was accused of appeasing Muslims in the Shah Bano matter, sought to overcome it by appeasing Hindu communalists. Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao let RSS cadres pull down the centuries-old Babri Mosque to build a Rama temple.

The Jana Sangh was a part of the Janata Party cobbled together by freedom-fighter Jayaprakash Narayan to take on Indira Gandhi’s Emergency regime. When Socialists raised the issue of RSS membership, the Sangh pulled out and started functioning under the name of Bharatiya Janata Party.

Since Narendra Modi led the BJP to victory in the 2014 elections, the RSS has been pursuing its concept of Hindu Rashtra (nation), which liberal opinion views as a kind of Hindu Pakistan, through a two-pronged strategy. While RSS affiliates indulge in violence targeted at Muslims and Dalits, hard-core leaders in the Central and state administrations have been pushing the Hindutva ideal in the guise of promoting nationalism.

Modi lacks a two-thirds majority in the two houses of Parliament, which is needed to amend the Constitution and declare India a Hindu Rashtra. But, then, much can be done without going through that formality. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, August 15, 2017.

08 August, 2017

A story of official callousness

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

The long-running struggle by poor villagers displaced by the multipurpose Narmada Valley project has entered a new phase with the arrest of renowned social activist Medha Patkar and a few others who have staked their lives to pressure the callous administration to fulfil the promise to rehabilitate them.

The project, under which 30 major dams, 135 medium ones and 3,000 small ones, were to be constructed on the 1312-kilometre-long river Narmada, was one of the largest of its kind. It was promoted as one that will irrigate two million hectares of farm land and provide drinking water to 30 million people, besides generating electricity to meet the needs of agriculture and industry.

The biggest of the dams, Sardar Sarovar, was to be in Gujarat, which was the project’s main beneficiary. Successive governments of that state exerted considerable pressure on the Centre for its implementation, arguing it was necessary to irrigate the parched lands of Kutch and Saurashtra regions.

The promoters of the project hid the fact that it would inundate 37,000 hectares of forest and agricultural land in Madhya Pradesh and deprive hundreds of thousands of people, most of them tribes living in the forests, of their homes and livelihood.

Medha Patkar visited the project area in MP in 1985 to gather material as a research scholar. Moved by the plight of the people threatened by the project, she gave up her PhD ambition and committed herself to their cause.

The Narmada Bachao Andolan (Save Narmada Movement) which she founded has been spearheading the campaign for their rehabilitation since then.

During the last three decades the NBA mounted many mass agitations, and Medha Patkar undertook two indefinite fasts, one of which lasted 22 days, and fought a long court battle. They could not stop the project but they chalked up many victories not only for themselves but also for people elsewhere in the world who were under the shadow of mega dams.

Acting on Medha Patkar’s petition, the Supreme Court ordered that the height of the Sardar Sarovar dam must be raised in stages and that work on a new stage should be taken up only after rehabilitation of those affected by the previous stage was completed. It is another matter that the authorities circumvented this restriction by submitting false reports stating that the rehabilitation work had been completed.

In 1985 the World Bank agreed to provide $450 million towards the Narmada project’s originally estimated cost of $6 billion. After the NBA drew attention to the enormous social and human costs involved, it set up an independent committee, headed by former UN Development Programme chief Bradford Morse to review the project.

The committee said the project was flawed, resettlement of the affected people was not possible under the prevailing conditions and environmental impacts had not been adequately addressed.

Following this, the World Bank withdrew its offer of funds.

The NBA’s heroic resistance inspired groups in several countries to take a fresh look at big dam projects. This prompted the World Bank and the International Union for Conservation of Nature to set up the World Commission on Dams with a mandate to draw up comprehensive guidelines on dam building. Medha Patkar was a member of the committee.

Many of the fears voiced by critics when the mammoth project was taken up have proved to be true. The water flowing into Gujarat is used mostly in the southern regions, which already had the benefit of irrigation, and very little was reaching Saurashtra and Kutch.

Available data suggests that the benefits accruing from the project are not commensurate with the huge investment.

Recently the Centre permitted Gujarat to close the gates of the Sardar Sarovar dam. This will raise the water level in Madhya Pradesh and submerge the homes of an estimated 40,000 families in four districts of the state. The current agitation is to press for their rehabilitation.

Instead of approaching the issue from a humanitarian point of view, the state government let loose a reign of terror on the protestors. The police attacked and arrested school children who had come from different parts of the country to show their solidarity with the affected villagers.

Medha Patkar and her associates had decided to hold a rally at Rajghat where there was a Gandhi statue and a memorial to the Father of the Nation before beginning their indefinite fast on July 27. The police removed the statue and the memorial the previous night.

The Madhya Pradesh government’s representatives have met Medha Patkar in an effort to persuade her to end the fast. But they have not made any meaningful proposal regarding the rehabilitation of the affected villagers.

The state must realise that it is playing with the lives of people.-- Gulf Today, Sharjah. August 8, 2017

01 August, 2017

Gaining power by other means

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Prime Minister Narendra Modi brought India’s second largest state, Bihar, under his belt last week, 20 months after its voters had decisively rejected his Bharatiya Janata Party in the Assembly elections.

The Constitution provides for change of government through elections. But change of government can also result from realignment of parties in the legislature.

In its heyday, the Congress party had seized power in states on some occasions by engineering defections from other parties. Now Modi does it.

Bihar is the fourth state where the BJP seized power after losing the elections. The others are Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur and Goa, all comparatively small states.

In Arunachal Pradesh a majority of the Congress legislators broke away and joined first a regional party and then the BJP, making it the ruling party. Union Minister of State for Home Affairs Kiren Rijiju, who belongs to this state, is credited with masterminding the palace coup.

Though the Congress lost its majority in the Manipur Assembly in this year’s elections, it remained the largest party. But the BJP, which had fewer seats than the Congress, seized power by enlisting the support of the small regional parties. It justified the manoeuvre by pointing out that the electoral verdict was against the Congress, which was in power.

It conveniently overlooked this logic in Goa when it lost its majority in the Goa Assembly. Here, again, the Congress was the largest party but the BJP won the support of regional parties and seized power.

Political manipulations are not the only stock in trade of the BJP which has set its mind on acquiring the dominant position the Congress once held as the party that had spearheaded the freedom struggle.

Soon after Modi took office, government agencies like the Central Bureau of Investigation, which is entitled to look into corruption charges against public servants, the Enforcement Directorate, which has the power to investigate money laundering cases, and the Income Tax department, whose mandate is wide enough to track black money transactions, initiated investigations targeted at opposition leaders.

The agencies have not been able to pin any major crime on anyone yet, but reports indicate that some investigations are in an advanced stage. They include allegedly fraudulent transfer of the shares of the National Herald by Congress President Sonia Gandhi and her son and party Vice-President Rahul Gandhi, and alleged money laundering by Karti Chidambaram, son of former Union Minister P Chidambaram.

It was a case registered by the CBI against Deputy Chief Minister Tejaswi Yadav for allegedly accepting bribes for some deals of the time when his father and Rashtriya Janata Dal chief Lalu Prasad was the Railway Minister that presented Bihar’s Janata Dal (United) Chief Minister Nitish Kumar with the opportunity to break the alliance with the RJD and form a government with the BJP as the partner.

All the indicted leaders have denied the charges and claimed they are victims of political vendetta. Tejaswi Yadav has said he was a 14-year-old kid when he allegedly took bribes.

Nitish Kumar was heading a JD(U)-BJP government when the BJP chose Modi as its prime ministerial candidate. He broke up the coalition citing the communal carnage in Gujarat under Modi’s watch. He justifies his return to the BJP camp saying secularism cannot be a cover for corruption.

It is disingenuous to project the choice before India as one between corruption and communalism, which are not mutually exclusive anyway. Many BJP chief ministers have attracted charges of corruption. Modi himself is no paragon. He parted with a costly suit presented by a diamond merchant only after he was widely criticised for donning it. Several BJP leaders are among those from whom large sums of unaccounted money have been seized.

One of the states now on the BJP radar is Tamil Nadu where two Dravidian parties have alternated in power for four decades. Modi espies an opportunity in the vacuum created there by the death of Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa last December. Her All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam has split into two. Both factions are vulnerable to pressure from the investigative agencies and both have shown readiness to align with the BJP. Modi is trying to unite them before they align with his party.

The next parliamentary elections are due in 2019. As the poll approaches the investigating agencies may come up with more cases against opposition leaders. There are reports that the BJP is trying to revive the long-dead Bofors scandal of Rajiv Gandhi’s time to embarrass the Congress.

The cases may eventually fail but they can be of use to the BJP at election time. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, August 1, 2017.