New on my other blogs

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


18 April, 2017

Farmers need more than relief

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

India’s farmers who have lived precariously for ages are paying a heavy price for the rapid growth of the national economy in the era of globalisation. More than 300,000 of them are believed to have taken their lives in distressing circumstances.

Factors that contributed to the worsening of farmers’ condition include credit constraints, cut in agricultural subsidies, rise in input costs and fall in the prices of produce. Many farmers switched from food grains to cash crops expecting higher returns but their hopes did not materialise.

The first steps towards economic liberalisation were taken by Manmohan Singh as finance minister in PV Narasimha Rao’s government in 1991. According to a study report, during 1996-2003, on an average 15,000 farmers committed suicide each year. During 2004-2012, the figure rose to 16,000.

Agriculture is a state subject and the markets are regulated by state laws. Many states adopted a model law drafted by the Centre in 2003 to ensure fair prices to farmers. Middlemen who are able to exert influence on the supply chain defeated its purpose.

The Centre is now in talks with the states to draw up a new model Agricultural Produce Market Committee Act which will provide for a single licence and single-point levy of market fee at the state level. It envisages this as the first step towards a single licence and single-point levy of market fee at the national level.

While procedural reform can take its time, steps to provide relief for farmers in distress cannot wait. Appeals to the Centre by Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi, who has toured affected regions in several states, have so far fallen on deaf ears. Betraying total lack of compassion for the suffering farmers, a leader of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party dubbed Rahul Gandhi a ‘distress’ tourist.

The last time the Centre intervened directly in the issue was when Manmohan Singh’s first government announced a loan waiver and debt relief programme. It is believed to have benefited 42.8 million farmers and cost the exchequer Rs 700 billion. It probably helped the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance to win a second successive term.

Earlier this month, the new BJP government of Uttar Pradesh, the largest state, announced waiver of crop loans of up to Rs 100,000 of small and marginal farmers in fulfilment of the party’s electoral promise. About 21 million people, constituting 92.5 per cent of the state’s farming community, are expected to benefit. The state government also decided to write off bad loans of about 700,000 farmers totaling Rs 56.30 billion.

While these steps will go a long way in relieving the distress of farmers, there is concern over the way they will impact the state’s finances, which were already facing a deficit of about Rs 500 billion.

The Centre allows the states to float bonds to cover the cost of debt relief programmes. However, lately the experience is that they do not attract investors. It thus becomes necessary for the Centre to bear a good part of the burden.

Loan waiver is only a palliative measure. It does not improve the farm economy. A World Bank study has shown that banks tend to move away from areas with high bailout percentages to those with lower percentages. They fear that waivers increase the tendency to default on loans as the borrowers believe a new government will bail them out.

The UP bailout has prompted farmers in other states to press their governments for similar relief measures.

Maharashtra’s BJP government has said it will study the UP scheme to see if the state can adopt it. Opposition parties in the state have been agitating for debt relief measures for some time.

In Tamil Nadu, which has been in the grip of drought for more than a year, the government decided last August to write off the loans that small and marginal farmers had taken from cooperative banks. It cost the state about Rs 58 billion. The big farmers who were left out moved the high court and won a favourable verdict.

The bailout did not end the misery of the state’s farmers. They are now staging demonstrations in New Delhi demanding water for their parched lands.

A large section of the farming community still depends on private money-lenders for their credit needs and the government’s debt relief measures do not benefit them.

Indian agriculture is plagued by chronic problems which call for more than palliative measures. The Centre needs to draw up a comprehensive programme, in consultation with the states, to make farming remunerative and sustainable. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, April 18, 2017.

11 April, 2017

Banking sector problems remain

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

With the State Bank of India absorbing six smaller public sector units on the first of this month, the country now has a banking institution with enough assets to figure in the list of the top 50 in the world.

The merger is part of a plan for consolidation in the banking sector. While consolidation is probably  a necessity at this stage, it is not a complete solution to the banking industry’s problems. 

The SBI’s roots go back to the colonial period. After the East India Company took control of the subcontinent with the help of three largely mercenary armies headquartered in Kolkata (Calcutta), Mumbai (Bombay) and Chennai (Madras), Britain permitted setting up of presidency banks in these cities. In 1921 they were merged to form the privately owned Imperial Bank of India.

A few years after gaining freedom, the government nationalised it and renamed it as the State Bank of India. Banks established by the former princely states were made its associates. All the associate banks and a niche bank for women launched in 2013 have now lost their identity in the SBI.

In 2015 the SBI was at the 52nd place in Bloomberg’s listing of the world’s banks. With the merger pushing up its assets to Rs 550 billion, it moves up to the 45th place.

The SBI now has about 24,000 branches, 270,000 employees and 370 million account holders. Its deposit base is about Rs 26 trillion and advances total Rs18.5 trillion. 

However, it is way behind the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, which, with assets of $3.6 trillion, is the world’s largest bank. There are three more Chinese banks among the top 10.

The idea of merger of the associate banks in the SBI to create a mega bank capable of playing a significant role in the global economy was mooted by the Manmohan Singh government.  It moved slowly as the Left-led employees’ unions were against it. 

Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave it high priority as part of a banking reform plan.  Last year the government provided Rs 25 billion to infuse fresh capital in the public sector banks and made a commitment to provide Rs70 billion more in the next five years.

Basel III (the Third Basel Accord), the voluntary global regulatory mechanism, stipulated that banks must achieve a capital adequacy ratio (ratio of capital to risk-weighted assets) of 10.25 per cent by March 2017 and 11.5 per cent by March 2019. Fresh capital was needed to meet this requirement.

The government and the SBI management have claimed that the merger would result in reduced costs and increased efficiency, leading to recurring savings estimated at more than Rs10 billion in the first year.

Ironically, its immediate impact was increased costs to account holders as the bank raised the minimum balance requirements and fixed fees for transactions above a prescribed minimum. As a mark of protest, a citizens’ group called for observance of April 6 as “no transaction” day. A few thousand customers of the associate banks are reported to have moved their accounts elsewhere.

All that happened on April 1, the day of the merger, was the replacement of the name-boards and stationery of the associate banks with those of the SBI. The databases of the banks are likely to be merged only by the end of May. 

Since the associate banks, like the SBI, had worked on a national basis, there is a need to undertake rationalisation of branches and redeploy staff.  A category of employees of the associate banks, numbering more than 12,000, were given the option to take voluntary retirement, but only about 3,000 used the opportunity.

The government’s plan reportedly also envisages consolidation of the other 20 public sector banks into 10 large units.  Moody’s, the global credit ratings and research agency, has warned that the proposal involves risks that may offset potential long-term benefits. A prudent course will be for the government to study the SBI merger experience over a period of a year or so and recast its plan on a realistic basis.

The banking industry’s major problem is not the small size of the units but warped policy as also faulty implementation. The gross non-performing assets of 49 commercial banks stood at Rs 6 trillion in June 2016. Of this, the 20 public sector banks’ share was Rs 1.54 trillion. While banks are generally harsh on farmers who default on loan repayments when crops fail, they declare hefty loans of business magnates as non-performing assets and allow them to get away. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, April 11, 2017.

04 April, 2017

Unending wait for justice

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

The vast majority of India’s population suffers from various kinds of disabilities on account of birth. In extreme cases, disabilities take the form of condemnation to eke out a measly living doing the dirtiest of jobs.

The Constitution that India adopted on emerging as a free nation proclaimed that no citizen shall be subjected to any disability, restriction or condition with regard to access to basic amenities and other facilities on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth. It also empowered the state to make special provisions considered necessary to enable the disadvantaged sections to overcome their disabilities and become full and equal citizens.

Accordingly, the Centre and the states have enacted a plethora of laws. However, justice eludes hapless citizens as the authorities are often lax in implementing them.

In 1993, in the fifth decade of Independence, the Centre passed a law prohibiting construction of dry latrines and employment of manual scavengers. It prescribed a year’s imprisonment or a fine of Rs 2,000 or both for breach of its provisions. But no one was convicted under this law in any state.

The Comptroller and Auditor-General in a report in 2003 said Rs6 billion had been spent on the scheme for rehabilitation of scavengers under the law but it had failed to achieve its objectives. Later in the year Safai Karmachari Andolan, an organisation of the community, moved the Supreme Court for a declaration that continuance of manual scavenging was a violation of constitutional rights and a directive to the Central and state governments to implement the law.

While the matter was before the court, the Centre superseded the 2003 law with another one which spelt out measures for rehabilitation of manual scavengers. The Supreme Court closed the case after issuing certain directives to the Centre and the states in the light of the new law.

On October 2, 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched with fanfare an ambitious Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) with the objective of making India clean in five years as a tribute to Mahatma Gandhi on his 150th birth anniversary. It envisages large-scale construction of community toilets, grant of financial aid to build household toilets and making towns and villages free of open defaecation. 

Successful completion of the mission would eliminate manual scavenging. The Urban Development Ministry, which recently undertook a sample survey in three selected districts each in the large states of Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra and Karnataka, found that all three had failed miserably in achieving the targets for building household latrines in the first two years.

Karnataka had achieved a paltry 2.1 per cent, UP four per cent and Maharashtra 14.4 per cent. In many instances the state governments had not even transferred the funds allotted by the Centre to the urban local bodies. The Ministry concluded that the mission was unlikely to achieve the goal of Clean India by 2019.

The SBM websites claim that more than 38 million household toilets have been built in the villages and more than 3 million in urban areas. The Urban Development Ministry’s survey yielded information that casts doubts on these claims. 

For instance, it pointed out that at Akola town in Maharashtra only 85 households sought assistance to build toilets but the website displayed photographs of 2,978 completed units. It also put up photographs of more than 600 toilets said to have been constructed at Bhadohi, Jahanabad and Mathura in UP although not even one application from these towns was verified and approved.

The Socio-Economic Caste Census data released in 2015 put the number of families engaged in manual scavenging at 180,657. The Centre is supposed to provide funds to the states for their rehabilitation. In the 2015-16 budget it made an allocation of Rs 4.7 billion for the purpose but not a rupee was spent.

One reason for the failure of the rehabilitation scheme is the systematic falsification of data by the states. Most of them deliberately fudge the number of manual scavengers to convey the false impression that they had complied with the legal ban. Sometimes this is done in a very crude manner. For instance, the government of Telangana state, which had more than 150,000 dry latrines at the end of 2015/ claimed there were no manual scavengers in the state.

The Central and state governments owe it to themselves and to the people to address the problem of manual scavenging boldly and honestly and put an end to the misery of those who have been waiting endlessly for justice. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, April 4, 2017.

28 March, 2017

Congress still has life in it

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

While the Congress, which spearheaded India’s freedom movement, has had to yield primacy to the Bharatiya Janata Party, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s vision of a Congress-free polity is, as of now, a pipe-dream.

The BJP’s spectacular success in Uttar Pradesh, the largest state, in the recent assembly elections, has somewhat clouded the fact that the party which led the country’s administration for as many as 54 of the 70 years of Independence still has life in it.

In the Sikh-majority border state of Punjab, one of the five that went to the polls, the Congress seized power from the Akali Dal-BJP combine, after a gap of 10 years. It also emerged as the largest single party in Goa and Manipur. 

With the BJP’s cyber propagandists constantly berating the grand old party and running down its leader-in-waiting Rahul Gandhi in the social media and large sections of traditional media readily eating out of the ruling establishment’s hands, a superficial reader is apt to have an unfavourable impression about their recent performance.

However,, a data-driven, public interest journalism portal, after analysing voting figures from 10 states where elections were held after Modi led the BJP to victory in the 2014 Lok Sabha poll, reported that the Congress party has fared better since then.

“The Congress has actually improved its strike rate in terms of number of seats won per seats contested, although it has contested fewer seats,” it said. “Not only that, it has also improved its vote share.”

On the basis of its Lok Sabha poll performance the Congress could only have got 13 per cent of the votes polled and won 194 assembly seats in the 10 states. It actually secured 25 per cent of the votes and secured 258 seats.

The figures show that the Congress is down but not out. However, it has cause to worry. Fortune-seeking politicians turn to rising stars. That explains why small parties and independents in Goa and Manipur jumped into the BJP bandwagon after the assembly elections, leaving the Congress, the largest party, in the lurch.

Many party veterans, assuming that the Congress ship is sinking, are ready to jump out and the BJP is ready to pick up and rehabilitate them. Ahead of the UP elections, Rita Bahuguna Joshi, a former state party chief and daughter of a former Congress chief minister, had walked over to the BJP. She is now a minister in the Adityanath cabinet.

Last week, in Karnataka, the only southern state where the Congress now wields power, former chief minister SM Krishna, who had been a Congressman for half a century, joined the BJP and received an enthusiastic welcome.

In a television interview, Krishna said the Congress did not have a leader who was a match for Modi. That was a reflection of his assessment of Congress President Sonia Gandhi and Vice-President Rahul Gandhi, with whom he did not enjoy as close a relationship as he had with their predecessors, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi.

Modi, no doubt, is currently the country’s most powerful and most successful election campaigner. But he is not the kind of leader one would associate with the Congress which had at its helm charismatic personalities like Gandhi, Nehru and Indira Gandhi.

At this critical juncture in its history, the Congress needs not a politician who can hold people in thrall with slogans but a statesman with a clear vision of the country’s future as one illumined by the ideals of justice – social, economic and political – which constitutes the core of the Constitution.

Many view dynastic burden as the Congress party’s main problem. They forget that it was free from this burden in the 1990s. Sonia Gandhi accepted the party post as Congressmen implored her. She served it well by holding it together for many years. However, she proved unequal to the task of rebuilding the party organisation, which Indira Gandhi did not even take up.

Rahul Gandhi’s induction as party General Secretary in 2007 and Vice-President in 2013 were the first steps towards transfer of leadership to him. The coterie that surrounds Sonia Gandhi has sabotaged smooth transition actuated by gross self-interest. If the party wants him at the top the sooner he takes over the better. If what it wants is another leader, it should quickly find one so that he has sufficient time to prepare the party for the parliamentary elections which are just two years away. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, March 28, 2017.

21 March, 2017

Modi’s Mission 2019 on course

BRP Bhaskar

The next parliamentary elections are more than two years away, but Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s election machinery, under Amit Shah, whom he had handpicked for the post of party president, is in an advanced stage of preparation for winning a second successive term for his Bharatiya Janata Party.

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s cadres are the BJP’s sinews. Although, like the Bharatiya Jana Sangh before it, the BJP was its creation, the RSS deployed its men for poll work most extensively only after the party fell in with its desire and named Modi as its prime ministerial candidate ahead of the 2014 poll.

For a long time the RSS, which professes to be a cultural organisation, had clearly demarcated those who were assigned party work from its hard-core functionaries. The dividing line between the two has now been blurred. Lately it has been allowing organisation men to become state chief ministers. The choice of Yogi Aditynath as Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh is the latest instance of this kind.

The BJP’s victory in the last Lok Sabha elections, in which it secured 282 seats in the 543-member house with a vote share of 31.0 per cent, was made possible by its huge success in eight Hindi-speaking northern states and three western states and adjoining union territories. The two regions, which together command 303 seats, provided as many as 243 of its 282 seats. It got only 39 seats from the other states and territories which have a total of 249.

There is little room for the BJP to improve the takings from its northern and western strongholds. In fact, the chances are that it will lose seats there next time. Realising this, the party decided quite early to devote attention to the south and the east with an eye to 2019.

As early as in August 2015, addressing 600 selected party leaders from the eastern states in Kolkata, Amit Shah said he was looking up to them to make up for the expected loss in the north and the west. “You have to build the organisation in such a manner that the party’s “vijay rath” (victory chariot) starts from Bengal in 2019,” he told them.

The south, too, figures prominently in Shah’s road map for 2019. He has been pressing the party’s units in the region to finalise the list of candidates for all the Lok Sabha seats early. He has also asked them to look outside the party ranks for candidates with wide acceptability.

Karnataka is the southern state which has been most hospitable to the BJP so far. It voted the party to power in the state in 2008 and gave it 17 of its 28 Lok Sabha seats in 2014. The three chief ministers it tried were failures and the Congress made a comeback in 2013.

It is making strenuous efforts to better its prospects in next year’s assembly elections and the following year’s Lok Sabha poll by attracting disgruntled Congress leaders to its fold.

Fighting in alliance with the regional Telugu Desam party, the BJP won three of Andhra Pradesh’s 42 Lok Sabha seats in 2014. Since then the state has been bifurcated, and different regional parties are wielding power in Telangana and residuary AP. The party’s plans for the two states are unclear.

In Tamil Nadu, where two regional parties have been alternating in power since 1967, the BJP managed to win one Lok Sabha seat last time. It reckons that conditions are now favourable for it to advance as All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam chief minister J Jayalalithaa’s death has created a leadership vacuum in the state.

In Kerala, which had continuously rebuffed it and its predecessor in national and state elections, the BJP won its first assembly seat last year, fighting in alliance with a newly formed backward class party. Enthused by this success, Amit Shah has asked the state party to make a bold bid for 12 of the state’s Lok Sabha seats.

RSS chief Mohan Bhagat’s visited Bengal and Kerala to galvanise the Parivar outfits and prepare them to play their part in Mission 2019. As these lines are written the RSS is holding its annual conference in Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu for the first time in its 92-year history.
While the BJP is thus busy on the ground, the Congress, the only party equipped to mount a national challenge to it, is still to put its act together. So are the smaller national and regional parties which are locally powerful. --  Gulf Today, March 21, 2017. 

14 March, 2017

Meaning of a poll verdict

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

The Bharatiya Janata Party’s stunning landslide victory in the Hindu heartland state of Uttar Pradesh has boosted Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s image, raising high hopes in the Hindutva camp and deep despair in its foes.

The BJP’s return to power in the state, home of one-sixth of all Indians, after a 15-year gap, confirms its status as the country’s largest party and sets it ahead of rivals in the run-up for the national elections due in 2019.

The BJP’s tally of 312 (not counting 13 seats won by its two small allies) in the new 403-member assembly marks electoral triumph of a magnitude witnessed only rarely – as when the Congress won 388 out of 430 seats in the first assembly elections of 1951-52 and when the people gave 352 out of 425 seats to the Janata Party in 1977 after the end of Indira Gandhi’s Emergency regime.

The UP verdict breaks the spell of electoral drought Modi and the BJP experienced after the sensational 2014 Lok Sabha victory. Delhi state had rebuffed them in 2015 and Bihar, the second largest heartland state, in 2016.

The hopes and fears aroused by it must be moderated with the outcome of the elections in four other states which too went to the polls. Of them, only Uttarakhand, which was part of UP until 2000, gave the BJP a resounding victory.

In Punjab, where the BJP is a junior partner of the Sikh party Akali Dal, the ruling pair lost ignominiously to the Congress, which returned to power after a decade, with 77 of the 117 assembly seats. The Akali Dal’s strength fell from 56 in the last house to 15 and the BJP’s from 12 to three.

The BJP, which was in power in Goa, suffered a setback, its strength in the 40-member assembly falling from 21 to 13. The Congress nearly doubled its strength to 17 and emerged as the largest party.

In the northeastern state of Manipur, the Congress lost power but remained the largest party in the 60-member assembly with 27 seats, against the BJP’s 22.

Acting fast, the BJP managers secured enough support from small parties and independents in both Goa and Manipur to beat the Congress in the race to power.

A conclusion that can be drawn from the electoral verdict is that the people voted against the ruling dispensation in all the states. The BJP’s big win in UP and Uttarakhand is attributable to the communal polarisation promoted by Sangh Parivar associates and Modi’s uncanny ability to derive electoral profit from it, using binaries like graveyard-cremation and Eid-Holi.

There was not even one Muslim among the 403 candidates of the BJP and its allies although the community accounts for one-fifth of UP’s population and BJP vice-president and minority poster boy Mukthar Abbas Naqvi hails from the state. The BJP nominees included Somnath Som, a hate-speech case accused, and Suchi Chaudhury, wife of a riot case accused.

The Samajwadi Party, which draws support primarily from the backward Yadav community, and the Bahujan Samaj Party, the standard bearer of the Dalits, had alternated in power in UP in the last 15 years. This time the SP fought in alliance with the Congress but a rift between party chief Mulayam Singh and his son and Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav botched its chances.

The decline of the SP and the BSP suggests that identity politics is losing its edge.

BSP chief Mayawati has alleged that the BJP engineered the UP victory by tampering with the electronic voting machines. The possibility of hacking of EVMs was first suggested by BJP veteran LK Advani in 2009 and a technician demonstrated how it could be done. A year later University of Michigan researchers claimed they were able to change the results on an Indian EVM by sending messages from a mobile phone.

Many countries have abandoned electronic voting in view of the potential for mischief. Given the Hindutva camp’s poor record as a respecter of laws, Mayawati’s allegation cannot be rejected outright. While not endorsing her charge, the Congress has urged the Election Commission to look into it and dispel misgivings.

Having improved its position in three of the five states which went to the polls, the BJP can now raise its strength in the Rajya Sabha by increasing its representation from these states in the next biennial elections to the house. It can also try to get one from the Sangh Parivar elected as India’s next President. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, March 14, 2017

07 March, 2017

Doubts over GDP growth claim

BRP Bhaskar

Economists and opposition politicians have voiced deep scepticism over the government’s claim that India’s gross domestic product registered seven per cent growth during the third quarter of the current financial year, as against 7.3 per cent during the previous quarter.

The figure suggests that the demonetisation of high-value currency notes, announced on November 8, did not hit the economy as badly as was anticipated. As much as 86 per cent of the currency in circulation had ceased to be legal tender on that date. This resulted in disruption of economic activity in many sectors for several weeks.

The Central Statistics Office put the GDP for the quarter ending on December 31, 2016 at Rs 30,280 billion, as against Rs 28,310 billion for the corresponding period of FY 2015-16. On the basis of these figures, it estimated that the GDP growth for the year ending on March 31, 2017 will be 7.1 per cent as against 7.9 per cent for the previous year.

The Reserve Bank of India and the International Monetary Fund had reckoned that demonetisation would reduce the current year’s GDP growth rate by one per cent.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, addressing an election meeting in Uttar Pradesh, said the CSO data proved that the people of India did not allow demonetisation to hamper the country’s development.

The opposition Congress party’s spokesman debunked the claim, citing figures of decline in bank credit to industry and contraction in industrial production.

Former Jawaharlal Nehru University Professor of Economics Arun Kumar said CSO’s GDP calculation was invalid as it did not take into account data relating to the informal sector which bore the brunt of demonetisation. This sector, he pointed out, accounted for 45 to 50 per cent of the output of the Indian economy.

Some economists expressed doubts over CSO’s finding that private consumption had increased by 10 per cent during the quarter. They said the cash crunch in the wake of demonetisation had actually brought consumption down.

Surveys done by the State Bank of India and trade bodies had indicated that demonetisation had hit the growth of the unorganised sector to the extent of 30 to 40 per cent.

Chief Statistician TCA Anant, while releasing the CSO data, had admitted that in the absence of sufficient data it was difficult to assess the impact of demonetisation. “Policies such as demonetisation are difficult to assess without a lot of data, which is still to come in,” he said.

India calculates GDP primarily on the basis of activity in the formal sector which accounts for only about 15 per cent of the economy. The CSO surveys the grey areas of the economy periodically. Often it interpolates data from old surveys into the GDP calculation.

India has attracted the charge of fudging GDP figures from time to time. In 2015, the government modified the way GDP is counted. As a result that year the GDP growth shot up to 7.3 per cent from 5.5 per cent, and the government declared the economy had turned the corner.

The then RBI Governor, Raghuram Rajan, likened the new methodology to two mothers babysitting each other’s child and paying for the service. “There is a rise in economic activity as each pays the other, but the net effect on the economy is questionable,” he said.

The US State Department’s Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs said that while India’s economy was one of the fastest growing the depressed investor sentiment suggested that the approximately 7.5 per cent growth rate might be an overstatement.

Since the new methodology for calculating GDP was adopted India had appeared to be the world’s fastest growing big economy, outpacing China, “but scepticism about the data is growing even faster,” the Economist wrote. It added, “A cottage industry has sprung up to cater to the sceptics, bending various indicators of economic activity to produce new gauges of growth.”

Reliability of GDP data is a global issue. Two years ago, World Economics, a research firm in London, developed a data quality index to make people aware that GDP means different things in different countries. In its 2016 index, two Asian countries, Hong Kong and Singapore, figure among the 10 countries with the most reliable GDP figures. India is at the 53rd place and China at the 63rd.

Many observers are inclined to wait for the revised GDP estimates, which may come in about six months, to get a correct picture of the state of the economy. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, March 7, 2017.

28 February, 2017

A push to Africa outreach

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Vice-President Hamid Ansari’s visits to Rwanda and Uganda last week marked another step forward in India’s Africa Outreach initiative, designed to place its ties with the countries of the continent on a firm footing after two decades of neglect.

The third India-Africa Summit, held in New Delhi in 2015, was attended by a record number of heads of states and governments, and convinced Prime Minister Narendra Modi of the need to revitalise ties with the continent which is a vast treasure-house of natural resources and is set to emerge as a big market. With its numbers in the United Nations it also has the potential to provide many valuable allies in global affairs.

In the 16 months since the summit, President Pranab Mukherjee, the Vice-President and the Prime Minister have visited more than a dozen countries in the continent. Many Central ministers have also undertaken missions to the continent.

On emerging as a free country, India, under Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, had taken a keen interest in the liberation movements of Africa and vigorously supported them in international forums. Africa had a special place in the minds of India’s freedom-fighters as it was there that Mahatma Gandhi had evolved his unconventional political strategies. Many African leaders who participated in the New Delhi summit acknowledged their debt of gratitude to Gandhi and Nehru.

After Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s time, ties with Africa became a lower priority in foreign policy. But China, as the world’s fastest-growing economy, made much headway in the continent. In 2009 it displaced the United States as Africa’s largest trading partner. India’s current trade turnover of $70 billion is way below China’s $220 billion.

Since 2000 China has provided more than $30 billion in aid to African countries. Its state-owned companies have invested in the energy, mining and infrastructure sectors.

A 745-kilometre-long electric railway line connecting the capitals of Djibouti and Ethiopia, built by Chinese engineers, was opened to traffic earlier this month. It cost $4 billion, and half the money was put up by Chinese banks. “This line will change the social and economic landscape of the two countries,” Ethiopia’s Prime Minister, Hailemariam Desalegn said.

People-to-people contacts have played a big part in Indo-African relations. During the colonial period, Britain had taken Indians to the continent to work. Today there are about 2.5 million people of Indian origin in 46 of the 54 countries of the continent.

Barring the expulsion of Indians by Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, there was no major hostile action against Indian immigrants. That phase is now forgotten and Uganda’s Indian community, which numbers about 30,000, has invested more than $1 billion in its economy.

A scholarship programme for African students, initiated by Nehru, helped the continent’s newly independent countries to find personnel to run the administration. Two years ago 25,000 young Africans were studying in Indian universities, and India decided to push the number up to 50,000. Stray racial attacks in some Indian cities damaged the goodwill generated by this decision. Narendra Modi disappointed the Africans by failing to condemn the attacks.

Some Africa watchers have noted that while China is involved in huge, high-profile projects, India is pursuing a soft-power approach. It is providing essential medicines to African countries by selling generic drugs, ignoring US assertion that such action violates its intellectual property laws.

The India-Rwanda Innovation Growth Programme launched during Ansari’s visit exemplifies the soft-power approach. It envisages the adoption of 20 Indian technologies and innovation in the next two years by joint ventures set up with Rwandan partners.

Ansari said it was a pilot project and would be extended later to seven countries of East Africa and still later to seven other economic zones across the continent.

Talking to Indian correspondents who accompanied him on the African tour, Ansari discounted suggestions by the western media that India and China are involved in a scramble in the continent.
The continent is so big and the current Indian and Chinese engagement so diverse that there is no need for them to step on each other’s toes. India’s main concern is to ensure that China’s pet projects like the “One Belt One Road” initiative do not hurt its interests. -- Gulf Today, February 28, 2017.

21 February, 2017

Twists and turns of blast probes


A Delhi court’s acquittal of two men who spent more than 11 years in jail, implicated in terror cases, has revealed how shoddy investigation and prosecution are ruining the lives of young people.

Mohammed Rafiq Shah, a MA final year student, was attending classes at the Shah-i-Hamadan Institute of Islamic Studies in Srinagar when a series of bombs exploded in Delhi on October 29, 2005, killing 67 persons. Members of a special cell of the Delhi police and a task force of the Kashmir police picked him up from his home some days later. The Delhi cops said he had planted a bomb in a bus.

The police had two eyewitnesses who gave differing descriptions of the man who planted the bomb. Neither account matched Rafiq Shah’s appearance. The cops got a barber to trim his beard to correspond to one of the accounts.

Three of Shah’s teachers testified before the Delhi court that he had attended classes in the Srinagar campus on the day of the blast.

The judge found several infirmities in the police version and acquitted him and the other two accused, Mohammed Hussain Fazli and Tariq Ahmed Dar, of charges related to the blasts.

Dar was found guilty of having links with a Pakistan-based terrorist group and sentenced to 10 years in jail. But all three had been in prison for a longer period already. Their repeated attempts to secure bail had failed as courts labour under pressure from the state and presumed public opinion in cases linked to terrorism.

In sending Afzal Guru to the gallows in the Parliament attack case, the Supreme Court had famously said, “The incident, which resulted in heavy casualties, had shaken the entire nation and the collective conscience of the society will only be satisfied if the capital punishment is awarded to this offender.”

The Chhattisgarh police had accused Binayak Sen, reputed paediatric surgeon and human rights defender, only of maintaining contacts with leaders of the banned Maoist party and not of any act of crime. Yet even the apex court refused him bail when he was facing trial. After his conviction, it granted him bail, pending disposal of bail. Its approach changed presumably because a different kind of pressure worked on it with more than 30 Nobel laureates from different lands deploring the action against Sen.

“It seems I am being victimised only because I am a Kashmiri Muslim,” Rafiq Shah had told the court when charges were being framed against him. But, then, young men in other states, too, have been through such bizarre experience. Nine persons implicated in the Malegaon blast case in Maharashtra and five in the Mecca Masjid blast case were acquitted by courts after trials that went on for several years.

Muthiyur Rahman Siddiqui, a Bangalore journalist, who was picked up with 10 others for plotting terror, was lucky to regain freedom in a few months as the investigating agency admitted it had found no evidence against him. He said later media reports of the arrest had denied him the presumption of innocence and many had assumed he was guilty.

The most famous victim of vexatious prosecution is Abdul Naser Mahdani, founder of the People’s Democratic Party in Kerala, who was acquitted after he had spent nearly 10 years in a Tamil Nadu jail as an accused in the Coimbatore blast case. Later the Karnataka police arrested him in connection with a blast in Bangalore. Police in Gujarat and Rajasthan are ready with reports implicating him in blasts in those states.

Muslims are not the only victims, as Binayak Sen’s experience shows. Kobad Ghandy, a 68-year-old Parsi, whom the police describe as a Maoist ideologue, was acquitted by a Delhi court last year in a case under the dreaded Unlawful Activities Prevention Act. He is still behind bars as 14 cases against him are pending in different states.

Some bomb blasts in which Muslim youths were implicated were later found to be the work of Hindu extremists. Thereafter investigation slowed down, indicating political considerations are at play.
The twists and turns of the blast probes have damaged the credibility of the investigating agencies. The government needs to initiate measures to strengthen them professionally to ensure that they do not target innocent people. It must also take steps to rehabilitate the young people whose lives have been wrecked by wrongful prosecution on terror charges and consequent stigmatisation. --Gulf Today, Sharjah, February 21, 2017.

14 February, 2017

A chilling message to litigants

BRP Bhaskar

The Supreme Court sent a chilling message to public interest litigants last week by imposing fines on two persons for filing frivolous petitions and asking a third one to establish his bona fides or face similar action.

Ravindra Singh, a member of the Bihar Assembly, had approached the apex court with a petition questioning the veracity of an article published in a Hindi publication in the 1990’s after being turned down by the Patna High Court. It threw out the petition and asked him to pay a fine of Rs 1 million.

Chief Justice JS Khehar who pronounced the judgment apparently took into account the fact that Ravindra Singh had declared assets of more than Rs 9.34 million when he filed nomination papers in the 2015 Assembly election.

Justice Khehar imposed a smaller fine on a retired teacher from Maharashtra who had challenged a Gujarat government circular on reservation in school jobs. A car mechanic of Madurai, who filed a petition about a hospital in Thanjavur building an additional floor, was told to establish his locus standi in the matter at the next hearing to avoid penal costs.

“Every day we waste precious judicial time by going through voluminous frivolous petitions. These busybodies must be stopped,” the Chef Justice said.

The Supreme Court has on its roster about 61,000 pending cases and Justice Khehar is keen to bring the number down. Elimination of frivolous petitions will surely help to achieve the goal. But the court must take care not to scare away those who approach it genuinely concerned about a bad situation.

Under the system left behind by the British, only an aggrieved person had the right to approach the courts for a legal remedy. This limitation was overcome four decades ago when the Supreme Court allowed Kapila Hingorani, a lawyer, to take up the case of Hussaianara Khatoon and other undertrial prisoners rotting in jails in Bihar. Her effort resulted in the release of not only Hussaianara Khatoon but about 40,000 undertrial prisoners across the country, and a grateful society hailed her as the Mother of Public Interest Litigation.

The Supreme Court witnessed a phase of judicial activism when VR Krishna Iyer, who was a judge in the 1970s, and PN Bhagwati, who was the Chief Justice in the 1980’s, widened the scope of PIL to render justice to the poor who lacked the resources to approach the court directly.

There were occasions when courts treated complaints received on postcards as writ petitions or took suo motu action on the basis of newspaper reports.

Over a period a large body of non-governmental organisations and individuals specialising in PILs arose all over the country. Not all of them were actuated by considerations of public good. Some were seeking personal glory through the publicity they could attract. This prompted some judges to argue that judicial activism had gone too far.

The Supreme Court should take care to avoid throwing the baby with the bathwater. A fair assessment of the working of PIL will show that it has had a salubrious effect on the working of the democratic system.

A PIL by Sheela Barse, a freelance journalist, who took up the issue of custodial violence against women in prisons led to a court order for setting up of separate lock-ups for women. The first court directive on cleaning up of the Ganga came on a PIL filed by MC Mehta, a lawyer, who raised the issue of contamination of the river by tanneries located on its banks in Kanpur. The 2G scam cases in which politicians and bureaucrats figure as accused were also the result of a PIL.

When the court fines a petitioner for wasting its time it may actually be punishing him for its own failing. Take, for instance, the case of the MLA who has been slapped with the fine of Rs1 million. He had approached the Supreme Court after losing in the high court. Why was his petition entertained when its frivolous character was so evident?

Under the Constitution the Supreme Court need entertain an appeal only if the case involves a substantial question of law relating to interpretation of its provisions. The court can reduce its burden by strictly applying this criterion instead of entertaining every matter brought before it in the form of an appeal or special leave application.
In this matter, it can profit from the example of the US Supreme Court which only takes up as much as it can handle. That court receives each year 7,000 to 8,000 petitions. It grants and hears oral arguments only in about 80 of them. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, February 14, 2017

07 February, 2017

Steps to limit poll expenses: a cosmetic exercise

BRP Bhaskar

The Bharatiya Janata Party, which now heads the government at the Centre and in many states, has been for long an advocate of state funding of election expenses. Since the idea has not found favour with other political parties, it is not in a position to initiate any measures in this regard.

The enormous cost which the contesting parties and candidates have to bear is one of the factors responsible for rampant political corruption. There is no limit on the amount a party can raise and spend. However, there is a ceiling of Rs 7 million on the expenses of a Lok Sabha candidate and of Rs 2.8 million on those of an Assembly candidate in all but nine very small states where the limits are lower.

In the big states a parliamentary constituency may have more than two million voters. Many candidates are believed to exceed the set expenditure limit and falsify the statement of accounts given to the Election Commission to hide the breach of the law.

The political parties can accept donations from individuals as well as private companies. Until now they were required to file statements every financial year giving details of contributions of more than Rs 20,000 which they have received from individuals and companies. To qualify for tax exemption they had to provide names and addresses of those who donated more than Rs 20,000 but most of them are lax in following this rule.

There is no scrutiny of the accounts submitted by the political parties. Although the Election Commission has the power to de-recognise a party if it is not in full compliance with the rule, it has never invoked it.

The Association for Democratic Reforms, a reputed non-government organisation, which studied available data, found that as much as 63 per cent of the donations received by the seven national parties during the 11-year period from 2004 to 2015 were in the form of cash.

It is said that during the last financial year they received Rs 1.02 billion from 1,744 donations of more than Rs 20,000. The BJP which received Rs 760 million from 613 donors was the major beneficiary. The Congress which received Rs 200 million from 918 donors was a distant second.

The ADR concluded that the relatively small number of donations above Rs 20,000 disclosed by the parties indicated that they got most of their funds from unknown sources.

In last week’s budget speech, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley announced reduction of the limit on anonymous donations from Rs 20,000 to Rs 2,000 and introduction of electoral bonds for the benefit of those who wished to make large donations anonymously.

Under the new scheme, donors can buy bonds from designated banks and present them to parties of their choice, which can redeem them through the Election Commission or a regulatory body set up for the purpose. This will not make for transparency, as the government claims.

If the government is serious about ensuring transparency in political donations it should evolve a foolproof scheme after discussions with the major parties on the basis of the recommendations the Law Commission made two years ago.

The Commission did not consider state funding feasible. It proposed amendment of the Companies Act to vest the power to decide on political donations in the annual general meeting of shareholders instead of the board of directors.

At present, candidates are required to furnish information on expenditure incurred by them after filing of nomination papers. The Commission suggested that they should be made to account for all expenses incurred from the date of notification of the elections.

To ensure transparency it asked the Election Commission to make available at its website or on file for public inspection all contribution reports submitted by the political parties. In the same way the election officer of each district should make available to the public the expenditure reports submitted by the contesting candidates.

The ADR has proposed bringing party finances under the purview of the Right to Information Act so that the members of the public can seek information about the donors and the amounts donated. This will make it possible for the voters to find out who are financing a party and ascertain if the party is returning the favour in any form.
Unfortunately, political parties wish to operate in secrecy. They are, therefore, unlikely to go beyond cosmetic measures. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, February 7, 2017

06 February, 2017

Billionaire Newspapers Go Under The Knife To Make Up For Being Late Bloomers In Adopting Technology

The HT editions that have closed down are the ones at Kolkata, Bhopal, Indore and Ranchi and the bureaus those at Allahabad, Kanpur and Varanasi.  Media managements rarely tell their readers or even the staff the reasons for closures. HT Media has reportedly mentioned two reasons for the latest closures.  One is the massive investments it has made in its digitization programme and the other is the impact of demonetization. 
On the digital front, too, HT Media has an erratic record. It entered the dotcom business early with a website dedicated to the south, which was beyond the reach of its newspapers. Unable to sustain it, the company pulled out quickly.
If demonetization has impacted the media adversely, it should have hurt the less resourceful newspapers more than HT Media, a listed media company which had an income of over Rs 24.57 billion in 2015, the last financial year for which data is available.  But there is no report of any small or medium newspaper closing down as a result of the currency curbs.
Election time is a good time for all media.  Newspaper circulations keep rising as the political scene hots up and the trend continues until the votes are counted and a new government is installed. Yet HT Media has chosen to close three bureaus in UP when the state goes to the polls, along with neighbouring Uttarakhand which was its part not too long ago.
All these call into question the rationale behind the HT Group’s move. But, then, in the current phase of technology-driven changes our newspapers, especially those in the big league, have not exactly crowned themselves with glory.  They have been slow in taking to new technology.
While in the US to attend a seminar organized by the American Press Institute in 1970, this writer spent a week at the Associated Press’s newly computerized Atlanta bureau and the Minneapolis Tribune which had switched over from hot metal and rotary printing to cold metal and offset printing. On my return I tried to impress upon the management of United News of India, with which I was then associated, the need to go in for computerization.  “Who will put in the money?” asked G.G. Mirchandani, the Editor and General Manager. “No newspaper will pay us a penny more because we have computerized,” he added. He was right. I could only tell him, “If we fail to upgrade technologically, we will become a back number”.
I assumed the Government’s highly restrictive import policy was the main stumbling block in the way of modernization of newspaper production. The Registrar of Newspapers for India was the designated officer on whose recommendation the Commerce Ministry gave licences for import of newspaper machinery.  I told the RNI, who was a personal friend, about the changes taking place in the newspaper industry elsewhere.  “You are killing our newspapers by not letting them get new machinery,” I said. He laughed off the allegation and narrated his experience. The Commerce Ministry referred to him two applications for licences to import phototypesetting machines. Both were from commercial printers, not newspaper companies. He held on to those applications and contacted the managements of The Hindustan Times, The Times of India, The Statesman and The Indian Express and asked whether they did not want these machines. None of them wanted them.
 He explained his understanding of why they were not interested in new technology. They were chains with many units. Simultaneous switch-over at all centres would mean a huge investment.  They felt no compelling need to embrace new technology at a heavy cost.
 K.P.P. Nambiar, who headed the Kerala State Electronic Corporation in the 1970's, learnt about the work on newspaper pagination in the West and toyed with the idea of developing a system for Indian newspapers at a much lower cost than the imported product. He placed the idea with great enthusiasm before the leading newspapers. There were no takers.
 The Electronic Corporation of India, Hyderabad, developed a machine which can transmit photos over telephone lines. The big newspapers showed no interest in it. The Rajasthan Patrika bought a set and used it to transmit photographs from its New Delhi bureau to the newsroom in Jaipur.
 If the media had evinced an interest in the offerings of ECIL and Keltron and the Government had the vision to support them on the research and development side, the newspaper industry, the electronics industry and the country may well have benefited.
 The big newspapers adopted the new technology only when they found that small and medium newspapers had taken to it and improved their competitive ability. Udayavani, a new Kannada daily launched by the Pais of Manipal in the early 1970's, was the first Indian newspaper to typeset matter using phototypesetting machines and print by offset process.
In the next stage, that of computerization, too, small and medium enterprises took the first steps. All newspapers, big and small, have now got on to the digital platform but a close study will show that they are not making optimum use of the immense possibilities the new technology has opened up. And the technology is still evolving.
 According to published reports, the HT Media closures have rendered about 1,000 persons, journalists and non-journalists, jobless. There are reports that the Bennett Coleman and Co Ltd, publishers of The Times of India – with a reported income of Rs 87.78 billion in FY2015 it is the country’s largest media company – has frozen recruitment and is planning salary cuts.  In 2009 it had effected salary cuts in the name of the global meltdown. Now there is a handy excuse in demonetization.   
 HT Media’s website statement on career prospects adds insult to the injury caused to those who have been thrown out of job. “Media is the sunrise sector and is poised for growth,” it says. “The brand HT Media is a force to reckon with. With a growth rate of 39 per cent, HT Media is the place to avail opportunities and add dimensions to one’s career spectrum.”

31 January, 2017

Deepening strategic relations

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

India’s relations with the United Arab Emirates are evolving into a wide-ranging strategic partnership which, if nurtured carefully, can have a salutary effect on a region which has the potential to play a decisive role in the global economy.

The joint statement issued at the end of the visit of Sheikh Mohamed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed forces, who was the chief guest at India’s 68th Republic Day celebrations in New Delhi last week, laid emphasis on the deepening of the relationship between the two countries in the past two years.
India’s ties with the Gulf region go back to a remote past. “We knew India and Indians long before we knew anyone else,” a leading functionary of a Gulf state had told this writer while on a tour of the region 36 years ago.

Colonial intervention disrupted the ties. We are now witnessing their re-establishment on a new basis in the light of current realities. Within five years of the founding of the UAE, the first President, Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan visited India and had talks with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Among the agreements the two governments signed on that occasion was one to foster the age-old cultural relations between the peoples of the two countries.

India’s President Fakhruddin Ahmed visited the UAE the following year and Indira Gandhi in 1981. At that stage, bilateral relations were defined largely by India’s need for oil and the Gulf States’ need for labour. Indians, skilled and unskilled, made their contribution to the phenomenal growth of the region after the oil boom, and remittances from expatriates boosted India’s economy.

Two years ago the United Nations estimated that about 2.8 million Indians working in the UAE send home $13 billion in a year.

Vastly altered conditions in the two countries and in the region and the world as a whole have dictated a qualitative change in India-UAE relations in recent years. An investment protection agreement, signed in 2013, paved the way for infusion of Dh7.34 billion in India’s infrastructure project.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the UAE in 2015 and Sheikh Mohamed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan’s visit to India last year underscored the two countries’ determination to carry forward the good work of their predecessors and redefine bilateral relations in keeping with the needs of the time.

India is now the UAE’s third largest trading partner after China and the US, and the two countries are committed to increase bilateral trade, which stood close to $50 billion last year, by 60 per cent by 2020, when Dubai is due to host World Expo.

During 2015-16 India received foreign direct investment of $1 billion from the UAE. Investment by Indian companies in the UAE also increased. The UAE is now a favourite destination of Indian start-ups.

During Modi’s visit the two countries signed agreements to set up the UAE-India Infrastructure Development Fund of $75 billion and to establish petroleum reserves in India as part of a strategic partnership in the energy sector.

The Crown Prince’s visit saw an expansion of the area of strategic partnership. One of the 14 bilateral agreements signed on the occasion specifically mentions a comprehensive strategic partnership. The others envisage, among other things, cooperation in varied fields such as defence industry, cyberspace, energy efficiency services, maritime transport and road transport and highways as also partnership in agriculture and allied sectors.

In the joint statement, India and the UAE reiterated their strong condemnation of terrorism “in all its forms and manifestations, wherever committed and by whomever”. Earlier this month the UAE had lost five of its diplomats in a dastardly terrorist attack when they were at Kandahar in Afghanistan to open a slew of humanitarian, educational and development projects.

A UAE contingent of 149 personnel drawn from the land, navy and air forces led this year’s Republic Day parade, along with the President’s Bodyguard, and a UAE military band in attendance. Its participation is indicative of the importance India attaches to its expanding relationship with the UAE.

Bilateral defence interaction between the two countries has been on for some time with exchange of high-level visits and a meeting of National Security Advisers of the two countries every six months. Significantly, elevation of relations to the level of strategic partnership is taking place at a time when the UAE is playing an increasing role in regional affairs. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, January 31, 2017.

24 January, 2017

An empty political gesture

BRP Bhaskar

The Jammu and Kashmir Legislative Assembly last week adopted, with a lone abstention, a resolution calling for the return of the Pandits who had fled the valley in 1990 after militants targeted members of the community.

The resolution was passed even as Pandits, living as refugees outside Kashmir, were marking the 27th anniversary of their forced exit from the valley. They had left as they felt insecure. In the absence of any steps to guarantee their safety, the resolution is an empty gesture.

Though a small minority in the population, Pandits, who form the Kashmiri cadre of the Brahmin order, wielded influence in many administrations by virtue of their educational attainments and ownership of land and faced hardship under rulers who promoted conversion to Islam.

When communal violence engulfed the northern parts of the subcontinent on the eve of Independence the state was calm and the slogan “Hindu Muslim Sikh unity” raised by Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah’s Jammu and Kashmir National Conference reverberated in the valley. Muslims and Pandits worked together in the resistance against the 1947 tribal attack to force the state’s accession to Pakistan.

The idyllic atmosphere was shattered when militants shot dead Tika Lal Taploo, a lawyer and vice-president of the state Bharatiya Janata Party unit, in September 1989. Migration of Pandits in search of security which began as a trickle after this incident turned into a flood four months later with militants ordering them, on pain of death, to convert or quit.

Chilling accounts of the night of January 19, 1990 when loudspeakers blared out threats and youths wielding Kalashnikovs roamed the streets of Srinagar have been provided by some who lived through the nightmare. “By morning,” Tej Kumar Tikoo, a retired colonel, wrote, “it became apparent to Pandits that Kashmiri Muslims had decided to throw them out from the Valley.” According to Rahul Pandita, a journalist, in the next few months hundreds of Pandits were tortured, killed and raped, and by the end of the year all but a few families had left the valley.

There is no authentic figure of the Pandit population in the valley at that time since there has been no mention of caste in the state census since 1941. Pandita put the number of migrants at about 350,000.

When the developments of the period are viewed in a wider perspective, it will be seen that the militants terrorised the Muslims too, targeting members of the community whose conduct they did not approve of.

VP Singh’s government at the Centre and Farooq Abdullah’s in the state also share the blame for the Pandit exodus. In the summer of 1989 militants had started serving notices asking prominent Pandits to quit Kashmir. On January 4, 1990, the Urdu daily Aftab published a press release of the militant outfit Hizbul Mujahideen asking all Pandits to leave immediately. Neither the Centre nor the state acted to protect the threatened minority.

The VP Singh government, in which Mufti Mohammed Sayeed was the Home Minister, had a disastrous start with the J and K Liberation Front kidnapping his daughter Rubaiya in Srinagar, obliging the government to free five jailed militants to secure her release.

The fateful January 19 saw more ominous developments. The Centre sent Jagmohan, a former bureaucrat with a dubious Emergency rule record, to the state to serve a second term as Governor and he took over the administration following Farooq Abdullah’s resignation. Many Kashmiris suspect he facilitated the Pandit exodus.

There are 60,452 registered Kashmiri migrant families in the country, according to the Centre. Of them, 38,119 are in Jammu, 19,338 in Delhi and 1,996 in other states. The Jammu figure includes 2,168 Muslim and 1,749 Sikh families, who too left the valley following threats from militants.

The state government gives to each member of 17,428 “eligible” families in Jammu Rs 1,650 (subject to a maximum of Rs 6,600 per family) and specified quantities of rice, wheat flour and sugar. The Centre bears the cost of Rs 1.36 billion a year. Other states provide similar assistance to the Pandit refugees at their own cost.

This is not the first time that the Pandits fled to escape forced conversion. The last such migration occurred under an Afghan ruler in the 15th century. A later ruler allowed those who were forcibly converted to return to their original faith. He also sent emissaries as far away as Maharashtra to bring back those who had fled.
The return of the Pandits and ensuring their security cannot be divorced from the wider issue of restoration of normalcy in Kashmir and creation of conditions in which the entire population feels secure. That calls for a meaningful political process. --Gulf Today, Sharjah, January 24, 2017.

17 January, 2017

Conflicting pulls and pressures

BRP Bhaskar

As Prime Minister Narendra Modi is trying to fast-forward Indian society into the digital era, scattered groups across the country are striving to hold it back, if not drive it back to the medieval ages.

Ironically, in the forefront of the onward-to-the-past movement are numerous shadowy outfits set up by followers of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, fountainhead of the Hindutva ideology of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party.

After Modi led the BJP to power following a sensational victory in the 2014 elections, these groups unleashed a wave of violence across the country raising divisive religious and cultural issues in a bid to recreate an imagined homogenous Hindu India. Arson and lynching have been part of their campaign, and most often Dalits, Adivasis and minorities were the victims.

Their activities adversely affected Modi’s developmental plans for the country. Yet he made no public condemnation of the acts of violence for fear of offending his supporters.

But misguided Hindutva foot soldiers are not the only ones trying to drag the country backward in the name of religious or cultural practices. Those who were most actively engaged in that effort last week were political parties of Tamil Nadu who have no affinity with the Hindutva school.

Under the leadership of these parties people in many parts of the state organised the ancient game of “jallikattu” in which able-bodied men strive to bring under control trained bulls, defying court decisions banning it. In some places the police intervened and foiled their plans.

References to jallikattu in ancient Tamil literature show that the game is at least 2,000 years old. Some scholars push its history back to 5,000 years ago on the strength of some images in the Indus Valley seals. There is increasing evidence that the Indus Valley civilisation was the work of the Dravidians who inhabited the northern region before the arrival of the Vedic Aryans.

However, the term jallikattu is only a few hundred years old. It is said to have originated during the time of the Madurai Nayak dynasty (16th to 18th century) when a small bag with gold coins (jalli) was tied (kattu) to the bull’s horn and the villager seeking the prize had to untie it even as he held on to the animal’s hump.

During the colonial period, some British officials tried to discourage the sport because of the danger involved but in keeping with the policy of not antagonising the people they avoided a formal ban.

Villagers organised jallikattu with great enthusiasm during the harvest festival of Pongal until 10 years ago when a woman judge of the Madras high court, R. Banumathi, who heard a petition seeking permission to hold the traditional “rekla” (bullock cart) race, banned oxen races and jallikattu, holding them violations of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act.

An NGO, People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) took the issue to the Supreme Court and it upheld the ban in 2014.

Both the Central and state governments framed rules to ensure safety in jallikattu, hoping they would help overcome opposition to the sport. But the critics were not mollified. PETA and the Federation of Indian Animal Protection Organisations challenged the rules before the apex court.

Ahead of last week’s Pongal celebrations, supporters of jallikattu made a vain bid to secure an interim ruling from the court but it refused to oblige. Even as political parties mounted campaigns in support of jallikattu in the name of tradition, the state government urged the Centre to promulgate an ordinance.

Reports from New Delhi said an ordinance was ready but it did not see the light of the day. Credit is due to Modi for resisting the temptation to go ahead with the ordinance which may have earned some political support for his party, which is extremely weak in Tamil Nadu.

Protests against the ban on jallikattu raged all over the state. The police arrested scores of people and used force in some places to disperse law-breakers.

All supporters of jallikattu do not base their arguments on tradition. According to some, the sport sustained people’s interest in livestock and its disappearance may lead to extinction of indigenous breeds. It is for the state to evolve scientific methods to protect local breeds and not fall back on archaic practices.
The role played by political parties in fanning the flames over this issue for electoral gains suggests that Indian society must witness many intense struggles before feudal-era practices become things of the past. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, January 18, 2017