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28 February, 2019

Some Recollections of Wars of My Time  

This appears to be a good time to share some recollections of the wars of my time.

The closest I was to the war front was when I was in Delhi. India fought three wars during that period, one with China and the other two with Pakistan. But my direct war experience did not go beyond hearing sirens on a few occasions.

Dr. Zakir Hussain was the Vice-President during the India-Pakistan War of 1965. According to a fake story which crculated through the Parivar grapevine, he had been caught communicating secretly with his brother, who was an oficer of the Pakistan Army, using a wireless set and was under house arrest. Terms like 'fake story' and 'Parivar' were not in wide use then. We  used archai'c terms like 'rumour' and 'rumour-mongers'. Facebook and Twitter had not been invented, and the rumour-mongers relied upon the good old grapevine.

Newspapers celebrated the wat with reports of the exploits of Gunner Raju of Andhra Pradesh who downed Pakistani aircraft at Amritsar and the capture or destruction of Pakistan's tanks.  

I was self-employed at that time (not to say, unemployed), having resigned from Patriot and not joined United News of India. Abu Syed, who was on the staff of Link weekly, sister publication of Patriot, had been commissioned by the External Affairs Ministry to write a small book on India's relations with the Middle East. He wanted me to edit the manuscript and oversee the production.

Ayub, a native of Hoshangabad in Madhya Pradesh, was staying in the Kingsway Camp area, near the Delhi University, where his wife was working. It is an area where a large number of refugees from Pakistan were accommodated after Pakistan.  The travails of Partition were still fresh in many minds.

Ayub told me his wife was feeling very insecure there. I advised him to move to a safer locationi.  He took the advice and moved to a friend's house in South Delhi.

In 1972, after covering the Pakistan National Assembly session called to ratify the Shimla Pact, I visited Lahore. (All Punjabi friends in Delhi had told me not to come back without seeing Anarkali in Lahore.) A correspondent of the Associated Press of Pakistan introdued me to Rahim, a Steward of the Lahore Race Club whose wife was a Hindu. She was the daughter of a doctor who was also a Steward of the Delhi Race Club.

Rahim told me he was an Assistant Steward of the Delhi Race Club at the  time of the 1965 war. He and his wife experienced much hostility at that time. After the war his father-in-law told them it might be better for them to move to Pakistan.

The lady made one request. She had not been able to write to her father for a long time as all communications between the two countries, including postal communications, had been suspended more than a year ago following the hijacking of an Indian plane to Lahore. Could I carry a letter to her father and pass it on to him on my return to New Delhi?

I was happy to do the errand.

Havaldar Pothu Raju of Andhra Pradesh, shaking hands with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi after the President presented the Vir Chakra awarded to him. The  citation said he had  shot down a Pakistanu Sabre jet. 

26 February, 2019

Saudi pivot to the East
BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman of Saudi Arabia has enlarged the kingdom’s footprints in Asia with his recent visits to Pakistan, India and China.

The visits were part of a long odyssey he embarked upon a year ago, which included an 18-day sojourn in the United States and shorter trips to major European countries besides some immediate neighbours.

Observers around the world have been speculating on the significance of the travels of the prince, who is considered the driving force behind the reforms under way in his country.

Some have linked his travels to Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030, which aims at making the kingdom “the heart of the Arab and Islamic worlds, an investment powerhouse and hub connecting three continents.” Apart from being Vice-President of the Council of Ministers, he is the Chairman of the Council of Economic Affairs and Development, which is implementing the project.

The French news agency AFP quoted Najah Al-Otaibi, a senior analyst at the Arabia Foundation, a Washington-based pro-Saudi think tank, as saying his visits to the three Asian countries point to a pivot to the East.

Both Pakistan and India broke protocol in welcoming the prince. In Islamabad, Prime Minister Imran Khan personally drove him to his residence, repeating a gesture he had made during Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed’s visit in January.

Ahead of the traditional ceremonial welcome at the President’s house in New Delhi, Prime Minister Narendra Modi greeted him at the airport with a warm hug.

Responding to the pleas of the Prime Ministers, Prince Mohammed ordered release of about 2,000 Pakistanis and 850 Indians from Saudi jails.

Memorandums of understanding (MoUs) for Saudi investment of 20 billion in Pakistan were signed when he was in Islamabad.

“It is big for phase one and it is definitely gonna to grow every month, every year, in bigger numbers and will be beneficial to both countries,” he said, adding: “Consider me Pakistan’s ambassador in Saudi.”

India, a large importer of oil, buys only one-fifth of its needs from Saudi Arabia, making it the third major supplier after Iraq and Iran.

Last year Saudi oil giant Aramco and the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company announced plans to set up a $44 billion petrochemical complex at Ratnagiri in Maharashtra, in collaboration with Indian companies. Saudi Arabia is to supply half the crude to be refined at the plant. That will raise Saudi’s share of India’s oil imports.

As the oil boom of the 1970’s spurred intense economic activity, Saudi Arabia, like the other Gulf States, welcomed Indian workers. Currently, about three million Indians, from management experts to engineers and unskilled labour, are serving the Saudi economy. 

The Indo-Saudi joint statement said the two sides had agreed to cement their strategic partnership with the creation of a high-level monitoring council led by the Prime Minister and the Crown Prince.

MoUs signed during the visit envisage a potential Saudi investment in excess of $100 billion in areas such as energy, petrochemicals infrastructure, agriculture, minerals, manufacturing, education and health.

The prince invited Indian companies to invest in his country to access domestic and regional markets.

The statement dwelt on the need to create conditions for resumption of comprehensive dialogue between India and Pakistan. However, as it came after the Pulwama bomb attack, Indian officials laid stress on the appeal to all countries to renounce the use of terrorism as an instrument of state policy and to deny access to weapons to commit terrorist acts against other countries.

In China, the prince said his government supported Beijing’s fight against terrorism. The China visit was the most important leg of the prince’s itinerary as that country is now Saudi Arabia’s largest trade partner.

An immediate gain for Saudi Arabia was a $10-billion oil deal. Other deals included one between Aramco and two Chinese firms to build a $10-billiom petrochemical complex in northeast China announced in 2017.

Saudi Energy Minister Khalid Bin Abdulaziz said this was just a beginning. Saudi Arabia had a lot of money to invest and China was a great place to invest, he added. --Gulf Today, Sharjah, February 26, 2029.

19 February, 2019

Opposition to citizenship bill

India’s northeast is in turmoil over the Modi government’s bid to amend the Citizenship Act in keeping with the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Hindu state concept.

The Constitution, which came into force in 1950, provided for grant of citizenship rights to a person who migrated from Pakistan before July 19, 1948 if either of the person’s parents or one of the grandparents was born in pre-partition India and he or she has been residing in India since then.

The Citizenship Act, as amended in 1955, allowed an immigrant to apply for citizenship if he or she has lived in India for 12 months immediately before the application, and for 11 of the previous 14 years. Religion was not an issue.

The army crackdown in East Pakistan in 1971 led to the inflow of an estimated 10 million refugees into India. After the birth of Bangladesh, they were repatriated to that country. Later there were reports of illegal immigration from Bangladesh, mostly to the state of Assam, due to economic hardship.

Since the colonial period, there had been large-scale migration from Bengal to neighbouring states. Reports of fresh immigration kindled in the minds of the Assamese fear of loss of their linguistic and cultural identity.

In 1979 the All Assam Students Union (AASU) and the All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad (AAGSP) launched a massive agitation, marked by recurrent violence. It raged for six years, disrupting the working of educational institutions. It ended in 1985 with the signing of the Assam Accord on the initiative of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.

The Accord provided for grant of citizenship to those who entered Assam before 1966. Those who entered between January 1, 1966 and March 24, 1971 were to be identified and disfranchised for 10 years. Those who came in still later were to be expelled.

Although migrants from Bangladesh included both Hindus and Muslims, the BJP, in keeping with its ideological predilection, focussed its attention on the latter. After Narendra Modi came to power the Centre started differentiating between immigrants on religious basis.

By two notifications issued in 2015 and 2016, it exempted Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi and Christian immigrants from Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan who came to India before December 31, 2014 from the provisions of the Foreigners Act and Passport Act. These enabled the non-Muslims to remain in India without fear of eviction.

It also brought forward in 2016 a bill to amend the Citizenship Act of 1955 to permit non-Muslim immigrants to apply for citizenship if they have lived in India for 12 months immediately before the application and for six of the previous 14 years. The Lok Sabha referred the measure to a joint parliamentary committee.

When the committee visited the northeast last May to elicit public opinion, protests against the bill erupted in the Brahmaputra Valley of Assam. In the Barak Valley, which has a heavy concentration of Bengalis, there were demonstrations in favour of the bill.

Modi encountered black flags, a nude demonstration and go-back slogans when he landed in Assam’s capital, Guwahati, for a campaign tour of the northeast during the weekend. The demonstrators demanded scrapping of the Citizenship Amendment Bill.

The Prime Minister sought to assuage the feelings of the people by offering a slew of development schemes and assuring them that the proposed law would not harm the interests of the northeast. The BJP has been able to make much headway in Assam proper in the recent past with its policy of promoting division on religious lines. But the tribal population views the issue not in terms of religion but in terms of protection of indigenous culture.

The government claims that the objective of the bill is to extend protection to religious minorities facing persecution in neighbouring countries. The claim is dishonest. The government is pushing back Rohingya Muslims who came to escape persecution in Myanmar. AASU’s resolute opposition to the proposed law stems from the realisation that it undermines the Assam Accord which is still in the process of implementation.

Assam is the only Indian state which prepared a National Register of Citizens on the basis of the 1951 census, the first since Independence. Updating of the NRC in terms of the Assam Accord has been on since 2013 under Supreme Court monitoring. The final draft of the updated NRC was released last July and objections are being examined.

The Modi government has thrown a spanner in the NRC works. It has introduced religion as a citizenship criterion and shifted the cut-off date to qualify for citizenship.

The changes may yield the BJP some electoral dividend but the unease they have caused may take a long time to settle.
Beyond the threat of militancy
bRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

In a refreshing display of solidarity, the opposition parties, which were in parleys to forge alliances to block the Bharatiya Janata Party’s return to power in the elections due shortly, closed ranks behind the government last week in the wake of the suicide bomb attack at Pulwama in the Kashmir valley.

More than 40 security personnel were killed in the attack, the worst in more than a decade. Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed claimed responsibility for the attack. Congress President Rahul Gandhi said, “I will support the government and jawans at this difficult time.” He refused to discuss political matters for the time being.

His sister and party general secretary Priyanka Vadra, who was due to address a press conference jointly with another general secretary, Jyotiraditya Scindia, cancelled it after observing two-minute silence. The Central government in a statement vowed to give a fitting response. Prime Minister Narendra Modi said the time and place of the response would be decided by the army.

The government revoked an order issued years ago granting Pakistan most-favoured-nation status and hiked the duty on Pakistani goods. Since the volume of its trade with India is small, the step is unlikely to cause Pakistan hardship.

A flurry of diplomatic activity resulted in the US condemning the bomb attack and asking Pakistan to do more to check the activities of militants. China, too deplored the attack but it refused to drop its opposition to the UN branding J-e-M chief Masood Azhar as a terrorist.

After Hindutva elements attacked Kashmiri students in some northern states, the Centre directed all state governments to ensure the security of Kashmiris. Across the nation, many people offered shelter to Kashmiris who felt insecure. The Central Reserve Police Force set up helplines for those in distress.

In Jammu city, the winter capital of Jammu and Kashmir, curfew was imposed after protesters went on a rampage in Muslim localities. The local Sikh community accommodated the affected people in a gurdwara and provided them food.

Even after political opponents closed ranks social media activists continued partisan warfare. BJP campaigners posted a fake picture which they claimed showed Rahul Gandhi with Adil Ahmad Dar, the suicide bomber. Another fake picture purportedly showed Priyanka Vadra laughing after the attack.

A fake story alleging that Priynka Vadra had met the Pakistan army chief in Dubai earlier this month was also in circulation. BJP opponents posted clips of Modi’s critical comments on the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government’s handling of a militant attack in 2012, juxtaposing them with Rahul Gandhi’s statesmanlike response to the latest strike.

The Modi years have seen a hardening of the government’s attitude towards militancy as well as a rise in violent protests in the valley. Jammu and Kashmir has been without an elected government since People’s Democratic Party Chief Minister Mahmooda Muft resigned last June following the BJP’s withdrawal from the ruling coalition.

When Satya Pal Malik, a politician, was appointed Governor in August there were reports that he would begin talks to restore normalcy. However, he took no steps in that direction. Officials exploring possible political and military responses to the bomb attack found that the current state of India-Pakistan relations and the ground situation in the valley offered few options.

Former Union Home Secretary GK Pillai told a newspaper that war was not an option as it would be hard to get international support for such a step at this point. “Pakistan gets its strength from disgruntled Kashmiris,” he said. “There is hence a need to reach out to the people of Kashmir. That is where this government has failed.”

Alok Asthana, a retired Army colonel, felt that the core issue was being ignored. He added, “Why are local Kashmiris, many of them relatively well off and educated, ready to lay down their lives in this manner? If this is addressed even moderately, everything will fall into place.”

Former Navy chief Admiral Arun Prakash said India had lost its advantages in many domains because of the authorities’ myopic vision and blinkered outlook. It now needed a national security policy, not reaction, he added.

Election eve is not an opportune time for a new political initiative. Nor is it an opportune time for an adventurous course. In the circumstances the government needs to restrain hotheads whose activities can exacerbate the difficult situation.

India cannot afford to lose sight of the fact that beyond the challenge of militancy in Kashmir lies a political problem which demands a political solution. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, February 19, 2019

06 February, 2019

Dismal failure on job front

BRP Bhaskar

Prime Minister Narendra Modi strode into office in 2014 with the slogan of Development and promised the people achche din (good days). As he prepares to seek a new mandate, he is troubled by bad news from the economic front.

His predecessor, Manmohan Singh, had moved slowly on economic reforms despite pressure from the World Bank and international business interests. Modi pulled the plugs, and in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business index India jumped up from the 142nd place in 2014 to the 77th last year. 

The World Bank was pleased but some measures the government took hit the economy badly. One of them was introduction of Goods and Services Tax, on which the Manmohan Singh government had been dragging its feet. Another was demonetisation of currency notes of the value of Rs 1,000 and Rs 500.

In both cases, action was initiated without adequate preparations. This became evident when the government repeatedly revised GST rules and rates and offered various explanations for demonetisation. That the ill-planned measures had caused damage to the economy was known for some time, but the extent of the damage has come into view only now.

The unravelling began with the resignation of two non-official members of the National Statistical Commission, PC Mohanan and JV Meenakshi. Mohanan was also its acting chairman

The NSC, with a chairman and six members, two of them officials, was set up by the Manmohan Singh government in 2005 with a mandate to ensure data collection without bias so as to restore the people’s confidence in the figures released by the government from time to time.

The non-official members were unhappy with the Modi administration’s tweaking of figures, sometimes with retrospective effect, to show its own performance in a better light than that of its predecessor. When non-official members quit, the government did not fill the vacancies. After the departure of Mohanan and Meenakshi, it is just a rump with only two official members.

When Mohanan and Meenakshi left the NSC was holding on to the report of the first Periodic Labour Force Survey conducted by the National Sample Survey Organisation.

The Business Standard reported that the survey had shown that the unemployment rate had shot up from 2.2 per cent in 2011-12 to 6.1 per cent in 2017-18, the highest in 45 years.

It also revealed that joblessness was higher in urban areas (7.8 per cent) than in rural areas (5.3 per cent).

Jobless growth has been a feature of development in several countries in the age of globalisation. The most disturbing aspect of growth under the Modi dispensation has been loss of jobs in several sectors. Critics linked this directly to demonetisation and GST roll-out.

Congress President Rahul Gandhi said the unemployment rate was a national disaster. Modi had failed to keep his 2014 promise to create 20 million jobs and it was time for him to go, he added.

Government spokesmen immediately began a damage control exercise. Amitabh Kant, CEO of Niti Ayog, the policy formulating body of which the Prime Minister himself is the president, said that since the labour force survey had been conducted on the basis of a new methodology it would not be proper to compare its findings with earlier data.

The Prime Minister’s Economic Advisor, Bibek Debroy, indicated the government had plans to tweak the employment figures. He said the National Sample Survey Organisation would come up with a new report on employment which would show “a substantial increase” in jobs. 

Cornell University Professor of Economics Kaushik Basu, who is a former Chief Economic Advisor to the government of India and Chief Economist of the World Bank, quipped, “The government can hide data but not the truth.”

To add to the government’s worries, economic inequality is also on the rise.

In a report released ahead of last month’s World Economic Forum meeting at Davos, Oxfam, the international NGO, said, “India’s top 10 per cent of the population holds 71.4 per cent of the total national wealth. The contrast is even sharper for the top one per cent that holds 51.53 per cent of the national wealth, while the bottom 60 per cent, the majority of the population, own merely 4.8 per cent of the national wealth.”

Popular perception on issues like jobs and economic disparity is likely to be determined by felt experience rather than official statistics. 

In the budget presented in the Lok Sabha last week the government offered a number of sops to those hit by its schemes. Critics dubbed the budget the Bharatiya Janata Party’s election manifesto. --Gulf Today, February 5, 2019.