New on my other blogs

"Gandhi is dead, Who is now Mahatmaji?"
Solar scam reveals decadent polity and sociery
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


30 January, 2018

Focus on SE Asia and beyond

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

The presence of leaders of all 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations at the 69th Republic Day celebrations in New Delhi last Friday signalled renewed emphasis on the Narendra Modi administration’s Act East policy. 

Customarily India hosts one foreign head of state or government at the Republic Day celebrations, the highlight of which is a spectacular display of its growing military might. This time the guest list was lengthened to accommodate all the ASEAN leaders who were coming for a summit-level meeting to wrap up the year-long celebrations of the 25th anniversary of India’s association with that body.

To underscore the importance it attaches to ASEAN, India also included one distinguished person from each of the 10 countries in the Republic Day honours list. 

A coordinated behind-the-scenes effort by Indian diplomats resulted in the simultaneous appearance of an op-ed written by Modi in 27 newspapers in these countries. In it he noted that India’s relationship with ASEAN nations is “free from contests and claims”. 

ASEAN, which began as a five-nation group in 1967, now has 10 members: Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, the Philippines, Brunei, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. Starting as a sectoral partner of the group in 1992, India became a dialogue partner in 1996 and summit-level partner in 2002. 

India is also one of the six partners with which ASEAN has free trade agreements, the others being China, Korea, Japan, Australia and New Zealand. It is already India’s fourth largest trading partner, but in ASEAN’s trade chart India is at the seventh place. Both sides are eager to expand their two-way trade.

Five years ago ASEAN and its six partners agreed on the establishment of Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) to broaden and deepen their mutual engagement and enhance their participation in the economic development of the region. Negotiations are still on to put it in the form of a treaty.

RCEP is an initiative with immense significance since the 16 countries hold about one-half of the world’s population and more than a quarter of the annual world exports.

Like India, ASEAN has gone beyond Look East and is pursuing an Act Asia policy. Therefore, political and security factors are also now in the picture. Since 1996 India has been attending meetings of the ASEAN Regional Forum, which discusses security matters.

ASEAN handles security issues in a broad framework. The biannual meeting of its Defence Ministers is attended by their counterparts from not only the six partners but also Russia and the United States.

Since 2009, India and ASEAN have been holding a Delhi Dialogue each year to discuss politico-security and economic issues.

A question that comes up naturally is how the US plan to draw India, along with Japan and Australia, into a Quad, conceived as a phalanx against growingly assertive China, will impact its multi-level ties with ASEAN. 

ASEAN is a grouping of nations with differing backgrounds. In the Cold War era some of them were aligned with the US, some were part of the Communist bloc and some were members of the Non-Aligned Movement. Driven primarily by economic considerations, they are in the process of coming to terms with the new global realities.

China began liberalisation before India did and also established formal relations with ASEAN before India did. ASEAN does more trade with China than with India. Some ASEAN members have territorial disputes with China. Against this background, members of the group generally view strong ties with India as a means of increasing their foreign policy options. China-ASEAN

China’s Belt and Road Initiative, from which India is staying out, aims at establishing secure sea routes from its coast to the Mediterranean and developing land routes which will serve as an alternative if the maritime path is blocked. Some ASEAN countries have joined BRI but they are believed to be open also to connectivity proposals from India. 

India is already working on a highway from its northeastern border to Myanmar and Thailand. It is expected to be completed by 2020 and may be extended later to Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. 

Territorial disputes between China and other countries, including some belonging to ASEAN, make South China Sea a hotspot. It is witnessing militarisation with China increasing naval patrols and the US sending naval vessels in the name of freedom of navigation. 

India and ASEAN too have interest in free navigation but they must avoid getting embroiled in the Chinese and American adventures. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, January 30, 2018

23 January, 2018

Modi-Netanyahu bonhomie

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Less than four weeks after reaffirming its traditional support to Palestine by voting against the United States decision to shift its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, India gave a rousing welcome to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi was determined to give Netanyahu as warm a reception as was given to him when he visited Israel last July. The red carpet was rolled out at Delhi airport and Modi, setting aside protocol, greeted him with a hug. Both leaders participated in a spectacular road show in Gujarat, Modi’s home state.

Does the bonhomie witnessed during the Netanyahu mark a tectonic shift in the relations between the two countries which were extremely cool during most of their seven decades? 

The media in both countries played up the visit. In a Mumbai despatch under the headline “India, where Israel’s image is positive,” the Jerusalem Post said Modi received Netanyahu with such warmth as he wanted to send a message to India’s massive population that Israel is a friend.

Netanyahu hailed India-Israel relations as a “marriage made in heaven”. That, an Indian scribe pointed out, was not an original statement. Last March, while in Beijing, he had told the Chinese that Israel could be their perfect junior partner in the Middle East and “I believe this is a marriage made in heaven”. 

No doubt there is a good deal of affinity between the ideologies of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party and Netanyahu’s Likud party, which are based on a kind of religious nationalism. 

The members of the BJP’s cyber force, dubbed Internet Hindus, are ardent admirers of Israel and its high-handed actions against the Palestinians. But large sections of the population remain sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. There were anti-Netanyahu demonstrations during all the six days he was in India but the media ignored them. 

When the United Nations was considering the Anglo-American resolution to create the state of Israel, India had unsuccessfully batted for a two-state solution. Once the Israeli state became a reality, India recognised it but did not enter into diplomatic relations with it.. Israel was, however, allowed to establish a consulate in Mumbai to take care of commercial interests. 

In 1977, Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Dayan secretly visited India and held talks with government leaders but establishment of diplomatic ties had to wait until 1992 when PV Narasimha Rao was the Prime Minister. 

Lack of diplomatic relations did not stand in the way of cooperation between India and Israel in times of need. A few weeks ago India had cancelled a $ 500-million deal to buy anti-tank guided missiles from Israel because of dissatisfaction over lack of technology transfer arrangements. Netanyahu tried to win back the contract, and told Israeli media it was back on track. There was no definite word on this from Indian officials.

One factor that makes defence deals with Israel attractive is that they often make it possible to acquire technology which the US is unable or unwilling to transfer directly. 

Apart from the areas of security and defence, India is interested in Israel’s expertise in water management and agriculture. There is an agreement for cooperation in these areas.

Nine new agreements were signed during the Netanyahu visit. They envisage cooperation in such areas as oil and gas sector, space technology, solar thermal technology, cyber security, research in homeopathic medicine and joint film production.

Some sections in both India and Israel are eager to read ideological affinity into the growing relationship between the two countries but it is essentially pragmatic and transactional. This will be clear when India’s political and diplomatic engagements of recent years in the Middle East and Israel’s wooing of China are viewed in their totality.

Some of Israel’s enemies have been India’s good friends since long. Aware of the factors that bind the country with them, Modi has taken care to nurture the ties. He visited Saudi Arabia and Iran in 2016 and the UAE, Turkey and Qatar in 2017. He is due to visit UAE again next month as keynote speaker at the World Government Summit. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, Kanuary 23, 2017.

16 January, 2018

Judiciary faces a crucial test

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

India’s Supreme Court, ostensibly the world’s most powerful judicial institution, is in the grip of a crisis following its four senior-most judges’ public disapproval of the manner in which Chief Justice Dipak Misra distribute work among the judges.

When the Constitution came into force in 1950 the Supreme Court had only seven judges and they sat together to hear cases. As the workload increased and the number of judges was raised, they began sitting in benches of two or more judges to hear and decide cases. 

The Constitution vests the power to appoint judges of the Supreme Court and the High Courts in the President. Since he acts on the advice of the council of ministers, the Executive enjoyed primacy in the process, although it was mandatory to consult the Chief Justice of India in making appointments to the apex court and the Chief Justice of the high court concerned in making appointments to that court.

Between 1982 and 1998, the Supreme Court, through three judgements, arrogated the right to select judges to a collegium comprising the CJI and his four senior-most colleagues. The deep division in the polity having weakened the Executive and the Legislature, they had no option but to accept the situation. The Executive’s role in the appointment and transfer of judges became one of passing on the collegium’s decisions to the President as its own recommendations. 

In the process India earned the dubious distinction of being the only country where judges appoint judges. Several eminent jurists said this was not a happy situation but successive CJIs and their senior colleagues were keen to preserve their newly acquired clout.

The Manmohan Singh government planned to amend the Constitution and enact legislation to abolish the court-mandated collegiums and create a National Judicial Appointments Commission to select judges. However, it could not complete the process. 

After the change of government in 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi picked up the thread and Parliament passed the NJAC Act. However, the NJAC could not be brought into being as the CJI, who had a key role in it, refused to cooperate. 

The Supreme Court subsequently struck down the NJAC Act as unconstitutional by a 4:1 judgement and restored the collegiums. Justice J Chelameswar, the lone dissenter among the five judges who heard the matter, criticised the collegium system for its lack of transparency. Later he stayed away from collegium meetings. That held up judicial appointments and forced the Court to reform the system. 

Last November a bench headed by Justice Chelameswar heard a petition seeking the setting up of a special team to conduct court-monitored investigation of alleged bribery involving the Medical Council of India. The Central Bureau of Investigation arrested a retired Odisha high court judge in one of the MCI scam cases.

According to the first information report filed by the CBI the ex-judge had assured the management of a private medical college, which had been barred from making fresh admissions as its facilities were substandard, that the Supreme Court would settle the matter in its favour. Justice Dipak Misra had headed the bench which heard all MCI scam cases.

Against this background the petitioner pleaded that Justice Misra should not be part of the bench which hears the matter. Justice Chelameswar referred the matter to a five-judge Constitution bench. 

The next day Justice Misra asserted that as the CJI he was the master of the roster and it was his sole prerogative to decide which bench should hear a case. He nullified Justice Chelameswar’s order and constituted a new five-judge bench to hear the petition.

Another issue that prompted Justice Chalameswar and the other senior judges to air their differences with Justice Misra publicly was his practice of bypassing them and referring sensitive political cases to benches headed by junior judges. At a press conference one of them conceded that the assignment of a petition seeking probe into the death of CBI court judge R H Loya to a bench headed by Justice Arun Mishra, a comparatively junior judge, triggered their protest. 

Loya was hearing a fake encounter case in which Bharatiya Janata Party President Amit Shah was an accused. His sister said that before his death he had told her of a bribe offer of Rs 1 billion for an order favouring Shah.

The differences between the CJI and his colleagues have a bearing on the administration of justice. The way it is resolved will determine whether the apex court can function without external influences.

Stunning Dalit assertion

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

A sudden Dalit assertion which disrupted life in several cities of Maharashtra, including the commercial metropolis of Mumbai, last week stunned the authorities and caste supremacists across the country.

Dalits from far and near had descended on the village of Bhima Koregaon, about 30 kilometres from Pune, on New Year’s Day to celebrate the 200th anniversary of a decisive victory of an East India Company regiment, comprising members of the Mahar community, over a much larger army of the Peshwas who ruled over the Maratha region at the time. 

Peshwas were Brahmin prime ministers who usurped power from the Maratha rulers. Mahars are one the erstwhile “untouchable” communities who now prefer to be known collectively as Dalits, meaning “broken people”.

Dr BR Ambedkar, the chief architect of India’s Constitution, was a Mahar. His father, Ramji Sakpal, and grandfather, Maloji, had both served in the Company’s army. 

According to an early military history, in 1795 the Company maintained three separate armies at Calcutta (Kolkata), Bombay (Mumbai) and Madras (Chennai). Their total strength was 46,000, of whom 33,000 were Indians. The Mahar regiment was part of the Bombay army. The Calcutta army included Brahmins and Muslims and the Madras army had several non-Brahmin communities. 

The names of the Mahar soldiers killed in the Bhima Koregaon battle are engraved on a war memorial the British erected there. Ambedkar, who visited the memorial on the 109th anniversary of the battle, told his followers how 800 infantrymen, of whom 500 were Mahars, under the command of 12 British officers, had defeated the Peshwa’s army of 28,000. The memory of the battle became a rallying point for Dalit pride. 

Ambedkar had viewed the event in the context of the iniquitous social order imposed by the Brahminical code of Manu. Today Marathas, and not Brahmins, are socially and politically the most influential community of the region. 

Under the Peshwas, the Mahars had suffered much indignity. In 2005 Dalits formed an organisation to pay homage annually to the Mahar soldiers who had redeemed the community’s self-respect at Bhima Koregaon. Since then a few thousand Dalits have been assembling there each New Year’s Day. 

This year the number swelled to a few hundred thousand. Large contingents came from Bharatiya Janata Party-ruled Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat and from the southern state of Karnataka, where that party is making a bid for power in the elections due this year. 

Jignesh Mevani, who had led Dalit protests after some members of the community were flogged at Una in Gujarat and was elected to the State Assembly last month with Congress support, Radhika, mother of Osmania University scholar Rohit Vemula who was driven to suicide by pro-BJP elements in the campus, and Umar Khalid, a leader of the anti-BJP campaign in the Jawaharlal Nehru University, were among those joining this year’s celebrations. 

Dalits, who have been targeted, along with Muslims, by Hindutva goons in several states since the BJP came to power in 2014 viewed the event as an occasion to demonstrate their solidarity. Hindutva groups stoned the Bhima Koregaon-bound Dalits and they retaliated. One person was killed.

As news of the trouble reached Mumbai, Prakash Ambedkar, former MP and grandson BR Ambedkar, called for a strike in Maharashtra the next day. Several Dalit organisations endorsed the call. The huge response the call evoked surprised the aggressive Hindutva forces, including the BJP’s coalition partner, Shiv Sena, which rules the metropolis. The BJP-led state government instructed the police to exercise restraint. 

Dalit power having been demonstrated convincingly, Prakash Ambedkar withdrew the strike in the afternoon. 

There were solidarity demonstrations elsewhere in the country too.

“Dalits are saying we aren’t a polite, manageable community,” Rahul Sonpimple, a student leader of the community, said. 

The week’s developments were laced with irony. The youth killed in the stoning was a Maratha, not a Dalit, and his family said he had not joined the anti-Dalit protest. 

Media reports suggested that extreme left-wing Naxalites had planned the Dalit protests. The reports originated not in the national or state capital but in Nagpur, where the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the fountainhead of Hindutva’s hate politics, has its headquarters. A rare, formal RSS statement attributed the troubles to a Breaking India Brigade which “wants to divide the country on religious and caste lines”. 

Prime Minister Narendra Modi maintained studied silence on the incidents. It remains to be seen whether he and the RSS will draw an appropriate lesson from the events and restrain their supporters. --Gulf Today, January 9, 2018

02 January, 2018

Limits of personal camaraderie

BRP Bhaskar

For seven decades leaders of India and the United States have harped on the common interests of the two countries as the world’s largest democracies but the affinity between their political systems has not manifested itself in bilateral relations. This is not surprising since political, economic and other factors play a far greater role in shaping relations between nations than forms of government.

In the Cold War era, India’s refusal to align itself with either of the power blocs was the main stumbling block. The Soviet Union proved smarter in negotiating around it and the resulting close relations with it only added to US suspicions about non-alignment. 

After the collapse of the Soviet Union the way was clear for re-setting relations with the US, the sole superpower, but at that time India was passing through an uncertain phase under coalition governments headed by weak Prime Ministers. 

One of the first acts of Bharatiya Janata Party’s Atal Bihari Vajpayee on coming to power in 1998 was to order a nuclear test. India had conducted a test when Indira Gandhi was the Prime Minister and was quietly working on a weaponisation programme for some years. The nuclear establishment took just two months to carry out Vajpayee’s order. 

On the 15th day of the second Indian test, Pakistan, which too had been pursuing a nuclear programme secretly, conducted its own test and achieved parity of status as a nuclear power. 

The US responded to India’s blasting its way into the nuclear club by imposing sanctions. It took four years of negotiations by the Manmohan Singh government with the US and international agencies to shake off the sanctions. India undertook to separate its civil and military nuclear programes and place the former under International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards. 

Thereafter the US and India began earnest efforts to improve bilateral relations. An early outcome of the exercise was an agreement on civil nuclear cooperation. The US was keenly interested in it as it would open up the Indian market to its nuclear equipment suppliers. But several factors continued to inhibit the growth of bilateral relations.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave high priority to improvement of relations with the US, which had earlier denied him visa on account of the anti-Muslim riots that took place in Gujarat under his watch. At the end of their first meeting in Washington he and President Barack Obama released a roadmap to raise bilateral relations to a higher level. 

After the change of government in the US, Modi went to Washington again, declaring “the logic of our strategic relationship is incontrovertible.” He established an even warmer friendship with President Donald Trump than he had with Obama. 

Trump and his administration laid it on thick to draw India into the US plans to contain China. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson held out the tantalising prospects of a 100-year alliance against China. Trump while travelling in the region repeatedly referred to Asia Pacific as Indo-Pacific to underline the importance he attaches to this country. His National Security Strategy (NSS) proclaimed India a “global power”.

That was a big promotion. In George W Bush’s 2006 NSS India was a regional and global “engine of growth”, in Obama’s 2010 NSS a “21st century centre of influence” and 2015 NSS a “regional provider of security”. 

Those who consider a US testimonial the very last word exulted. But some serious observers cautioned Modi against walking into Washington’s trap. They pointed out that India has had long-standing good relations with Russia and Iran, two countries the US has identified as enemies, the others being China and North Korea. 

The NSS, they added, was designed to safeguard and promote US interests, and Indian interests did not necessarily coincide with them. 

The limits of a common commitment to democracy and personal camaraderie between leaders in determining foreign policy issues became evident within a few days of the motivated US overtures to India as the United Nations considered Trump’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

After the US vetoed the Security Council resolution disapproving Trump’s action more than 100 countries came together in the General Assembly under the unite-for-peace rule. India did not join the group that sponsored the General Assembly resolution, but voted for it despite dire warnings that the US would penalise those who voted against it. Modi’s friendship with Trump and the BJP’s fondness for Israel’s hardline could not override the considerations that have made India a long-time supporter of Palestine. -- Gulf Today, January 2, 2018.