New on my other blogs

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

25 November, 2014

On the trail of godmen

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Indian lore is rich with tales of spiritual leaders whom the faithful revere for their noble deeds. That tradition makes it easy for fraudsters to pose as saints or godmen and indulge in criminal activities. It is not easy to decide who is genuine and who is fake.

Last week the police arrested Rampal, a self-styled World Guru, who was evading court proceedings in a murder case, after a massive operation at Barwala in Haryana state, 200 km from New Delhi. The arrest was made after a two-week siege of his ashram, where more than 15,000 devotees raised a human wall to keep the police at bay. Rampal said devotees prevented him from surrendering to the law.

Some saints of the modern period achieved considerable international fame. One of them, Osho a.k.a Acharya Rajaneesh, argued that the more sexual a person is the more intelligent and inventive he is, and he came to be known as Sex Guru. The foreign disciples of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, exponent of transcendental meditation, included the rock band Beatles. Both of them faced legal problems in the US.

Osho and Mahesh Yogi were well educated and spoke fluent English. But lack of English knowledge is no bar to international fame.  Satya Saibaba of Andhra Pradesh, who spoke only Telugu, had many followers abroad, including Spanish-speaking Latin Americans. Mata Amritanandamayi of Kerala, whom foreign media has dubbed the Hugging Saint as she embraces devotees, addresses congregations around the world in Malayalam, and her speeches are translated into English by an aide.

Saibaba used to materialise objects like wristwatches, jewellery and holy ash from the air and present them to devotees. Rationalists demonstrated that a magician can perform such miracles but his devotees, who included the Prime Minister’s Scientific Adviser, judges and army generals, stuck to him.

Many gurus have been caught up in controversies. What differentiates them from the saints of yore is the role sex, money, muscle power and political patronage play in their scheme of things. They are also said to broker business and political deals. Some of them have attracted charges of murder, rape and embezzlement.

Swami Premananda, a Sri Lankan, who ran ashrams in India and Europe, died in a Tamil Nadu prison in 2011 while serving two consecutive life sentences on charges of murder and multiple rape. Delhi Police have charged Shiv Murat Dwivedi, who conducted religious programmes as Swami Bhimamandji, with running a business empire which included real estate, money lending and prostitution.

Dhirendra Brahmachari, Indira Gandhi’s yoga guru, rose to prominence when she was the Prime Minister and was sometimes referred to as the Indian Rasputin. He had a stake in a gun factory in Jammu and was said to be own several properties illegally. He died in 1994 when his private plane crashed in circumstances which have not been fully explained.

Chandraswami, who reportedly impressed Elizabeth Taylor, Margaret Thatcher and other regional personalities with his astrological predictions, was close to Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao. After leaving office, Rao was chargesheeted along with him in a cheating case but they were acquitted. Though his name came up during the investigation of Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination he was not prosecuted.

The Enforcement Directorate instituted several cases against Chandraswami for illegal foreign currency transactions. None resulted in conviction because of the prosecution’s lukewarm approach. The high court rejected its appeal in a 1999 case, stating 13 years had elapsed since the lower court finding and it was too late to start fresh proceedings.

The Bharatiya Janata Party is generally well disposed towards godmen and often defends them in the name of Hindu tradition. When Asaram Bapu, who has over 425 ashrams, was arrested before the parliamentary elections on a charge of raping a minor girl, some party leaders alleged he was being targeted for criticising Congress President Sonia Gandhi. Narendra Modi reportedly advised them to take the line that he should be dealt with according to the law. 

Haryana’s BJP government let the law take its course in Rampal’s case, presumably because it does not see him as a saint of the Hindu tradition. He claims to be a descendant of Kabir, the 15th-century Sufi saint, who, he says, is the Supreme God.

Public exposure of frauds and conviction by courts make little difference to the devotees’ attitude towards godmen. As police took Rampal away from the ashram, reporters heard devotees telling one another, “He will return. He is God.” -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, November 25, 2014.

18 November, 2014

Denigration of Nehru

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

The birth anniversary of Jawaharlal Nehru, officially designated as Children’s Day a half-century ago in recognition of his love for kids and theirs for him, passed without the customary celebrations last week. It indicated the Narendra Modi government’s determination to downgrade the first prime minister, who now ranks next only to Mahatma Gandhi in the national political pantheon.

A year ago the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government set up a committee with prime minister Manmohan Singh as the chairman to organise year-long celebrations to mark Nehru’s 125th birth anniversary from November 14, 2014 to November 14, 2015. Congress President Sonia Gandhi, who is a grand-daughter-in-law of Nehru, resigned from the committee after the change of government.

Modi reconstituted the committee with himself as the chairman. He dropped most of the members considered close to the Nehru-Gandhi family and inducted in their place persons belonging to or acceptable to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.

On November 14 the government launched a National Bal Swachchata (Children’s Cleanliness) Mission, an extension of the cleanliness programme Modi had launched on October 2, Mahatma Gandhi’s birth anniversary.

Modi, who was on a 10-day three-nation tour, limited his tribute to Nehru to a tweet, just as he had done on May 27, his death anniversary.

The national pantheon consists of heroes of the freedom movement. Across the country there are many institutions which bear their names. The Congress, while in power, enlarged it to include Nehru’s daughter, Indira Gandhi, and grandson Rajiv Gandhi, who too are former prime ministers.

The BJP, while listing the leaders of the freedom struggle in its 2014 election manifesto, omitted Nehru’s name and impliedly accused him of abandoning the spirit and vision of the movement. Modi, in public speeches, repudiates Nehru’s contributions with demagogic declarations that in 60 years of freedom the Congress had given nothing but misrule.

Denigration of Nehru is only one part of Modi’s scheme. Another part involves boosting the image of Vallabhbhai Patel, the first deputy prime minister, to make him look greater than the first prime minister. Last year, as chief minister of Gujarat, Modi sanctioned the construction of a 182-metre Statue of Unity near Vadodara at a cost of Rs29.89 billion as a memorial to Patel, who, as Home Minister, oversaw the merger of about 600 princely states in the Indian Union after the British withdrawal.

The Modi scheme is rooted in the thinking of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh which has reasons to love Patel and hate Nehru. In 1947 Patel praised the RSS for its patriotism, while Nehru criticised it for its communal outlook. It was Nehru’s strong pitch for secularism that prevented the RSS from reaping the benefits of the communally charged post-partition atmosphere.

Patel lifted the ban imposed on the RSS following Gandhi’s assassination after securing an assurance that it would stay out of politics. He was reportedly planning to draw RSS cadres into the Congress but died before this could be done.

Modi’s approach is in sharp contrast with that of the first BJP prime minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, who, in a lyrical tribute to Nehru on his death, said, “Mother India is mourning for her beloved prince”. On becoming External Affairs Minister in the Janata government, he ordered reinstallation of Nehru’s portrait which bureaucrats had removed following the fall of the Congress government. As prime minister, he drove to Shanti Van, Nehru’s last resting place, on his birth anniversary and offered flowers.

Home Minister Rajnath Singh, who inaugurated the scaled-down official commemoration of the 125th birth anniversary, said Nehru’s integrity, his love for the country and his contributions as a maker of modern India were unquestionable. RSS loyalists, fed on Modi’s anti-Nehru rhetoric, swarmed Twitter, pouring scorn on him.

Realising that Modi is seeking to either destroy or appropriate Nehru’s legacy, the Congress party quickly drew up an alternative commemoration programme under its own auspices. Its highlight is a two-day international seminar on Nehru’s worldview, which opened on Monday.

Caught between the declining Congress, to which Nehru is an electoral mascot, and the rising BJP, which views him as a continuing obstacle in the way of a Hindu India, his place in history is under challenge. But his record cannot be wished away. When the clouds of partisan warfare dissipate, the nation is sure to recognise his contributions as one who laid a firm foundation for the country’s orderly development within the framework of democracy. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, November 25, 2014.

11 November, 2014

The Make-in-India mantra

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Will India be the next big manufacturing hub of the world? The question is being discussed at home and aboard following the launch of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Make in India programme and its vigorous marketing.

Modi, who took office in May, outlined the programme first in the traditional Prime Minister’s address to the nation on August 15, Independence Day. “Be it plastics or cars or satellites or agricultural products, come, make in India,” he told the world. When he visited Washington he sought support for the programme from the US administration and industrialists.

In September the government launched the programme with fanfare. A website set up to market it features its logo — a stylised figure of the lion on which is imposed the mantra “Make in India”.

The government describes it as a new national programme, designed to facilitate investment, foster innovation, enhance skill development, protect intellectual property, and build best-in-class manufacturing infrastructure. “There’s never been a better time to make in India,” it proclaims.

The website lists 25 sectors, from Automobiles to Wellness, in alphabetical order, where the government is looking for investment. These include Defence Manufacturing, Media and Entertainment, Oil and Gas, Ports, Railways and Space. Some of these are areas where the previous government was proceeding with caution in view of their sensitive nature.

Doing business just got easier, it proclaims, and mentions a series of steps which the government has taken or is contemplating for this purpose. India is at the 134th position in the World Bank’s most recent Ease of Doing Business list. Modi reportedly has set a modest goal: raising the country to the 85th place.

Modi’s programme is modelled on the one which made China the biggest manufacturing hub of the world. China had to pay a heavy price in terms of environmental degradation for its phenomenal success. It redeemed itself somewhat by launching, under strong international pressure, an ambitious clean-up programme ahead of the Beijing Olympics.

China began reforms under Deng Xiaoping in 1978. By the time India embarked upon reforms hesitantly in 1991 it had already made much progress in manufacturing by attracting investments from overseas Chinese businessmen as well as others. It is generally believed that with the Communist Party holding the reins China could move ahead faster than India which was struggling with unstable democratic governments.

Modi, who heads a stable government, is making an-out bid to attract global investors as rising costs and an appreciating currency are making China increasingly unattractive. If he succeeds, India’s share of manufacturing, which is now only about 12 per cent of the GDP, will go up to 25 per cent by 2022. Also, part of the labour now in the primary sector may shift to the secondary sector.

To make things easy for investors the government is planning to remove all hurdles in their way and provide in a maximum of 72 hours the clearances needed to start or do business.

It is likely to take a favourable view of the proposals placed before it by the Confederation of Indian Industry and the global financial and business advisory group KPMG to create conditions conducive to large-scale manufacturing. These include streamlining approval procedures, speeding up land acquisition proceedings, creating a proper labour development system, facilitating easy cross-border transactions and rationalising the taxation regime.

While there is a strong case for speeding up the process of clearance, the three-day time-frame cannot be achieved without relaxing legal provisions which safeguard the interests of the workers and protect the environment. Such steps may invite the hostility of the working class movements and involve the risk of ecological disaster.

According to Janice Bellace, professor of legalstudies and business ethics, at Wharton, poor infrastructure, crony capitalism and corruption have done more to dissuade investment than labour laws. She wants Indian labour law reform to focus on ‘decent work’, an International Labour Organisation term which includes security, adequate remuneration and freedom of association.

KPMG has given a boost to the Make in India programme by featuring it in its 100 Most Innovative Global Projects as “one of the world’s most innovative and inspiring infrastructure projects”. Another hopeful development is that Standard and Poor’s, which had lowered India’s credit rating to “negative” in the wake of the economic downturn of the last few years, has now raised it to “stable”.

Last week Home Minister Rajnath Singh, on a visit to Israel, asked that country to set up industries in India in the defence sector. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded favourably. --Gulf Today, Sharjah, November 11, 2014.

04 November, 2014

Unending black money chase

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Prime ministers come and go, chief justices come and go, but the Indian black money chase goes on for ever.

The Supreme Court has been seized of the black money problem for several years. The pace of the proceedings is so slow that a final outcome cannot be expected for many more years.

The Bharatiya Janata Party raised the black money issue in its parliamentary election campaign, and Narendra Modi vowed to bring the money hoarded abroad back within 100 days if he became the prime minister.

As the deadline he had set passed with no new development, the government came under attack for dragging its feet the way the previous Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government had done.

Responding to the criticism, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley said the Congress party would be embarrassed when the names of the account holders came out. Later the government revealed three names, whose foreign accounts were under investigation.

The Modi government, like its predecessor, claimed that the double tax avoidance agreements signed with other countries prohibited it from disclosing names of holders of foreign accounts except in connection with legal proceedings. As investigations progressed, more names would be released, it said.

This, coupled with leaked reports that a former Congress minister was under investigation, led to speculation that the government planned to disclose information selectively to derive political benefit.

Hopes rose momentarily when the Supreme Court directed the government to give all the names to it in a sealed cover within 24 hours. On receiving the list, the court turned it over to the special investigation team (SIT) headed by two retired judges chosen by it earlier this year.

SIT chairman MB Shah, who opened the cover, found it was the same list the government had given to it directly earlier. It contained the names of 627 Indians who had accounts in the HSBC Bank in Geneva. The list, extracted from the bank’s records by an employee in 2006, was turned over to India by the French government in 2011.

The SIT chairman said investigation of those figuring in the list would be completed by March 31, 2015, as directed by the apex court.

When information about secret foreign bank accounts is received, the Indian government’s standard practice is to collect tax on the concealed income and close the case. There is no prosecution.

The HSBC list, which contains no big names, is already several years old and the account holders may have taken out all the money by now. According to Income Tax officials, the average amount in the accounts was about Rs500 million, and the government can at best hope to get about Rs30 billion by way tax and penalties.

A fair estimate of the extent of wealth hoarded abroad can only be made when details of accounts in other banks in Switzerland as well other tax havens become available.

Early this year the Swiss National Bank said Indian entities held over two billion Swiss francs (Rs140 billion) in 283 banks in that country. All of it may not be unaccounted money.

Switzerland has said it is ready to provide details of individual accounts if the information is required in connection with any investigation but there can be no ‘fishing expedition’. Obviously due diligence is needed to get information on the black money accounts.

Three years ago, the Washington-based research group Global Financial Security estimated that Indians held $644 billion in tax havens.

Professor Arun Kumar of Jawaharlal Nehru University, who once estimated Indian black money, circulating at home and parked abroad, at $2 trillion, rubbishes the government’s claim that the double taxation avoidance agreements hinders pursuit of money held abroad. He commends the example of United States courts which forced the Swiss to reveal the names of about 4,500 American account holders.

In a broadcast on Sunday, Modi said no one knows how much black money is stashed abroad. Sensing that people doubt the government’s ability to bring the money back, he asked them to trust him.

Incidentally, two of the three persons whom the government named publicly as holders of illegal foreign accounts said they had done no wrong. One of them had made substantial donations to both the Congress and the BJP — more to the BJP than the Congress. There lies the crux of the matter.

It is widely believed that black money in secret foreign accounts flow into the country at election time. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, November 4, 2014.