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

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.
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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

10 January, 2017

Lack of democratic sensibility

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

When the Constitution of India was adopted its makers included in it, as an emergency measure, provisions to enact legislation through promulgation of an ordinance when Parliament or the state legislature is not in session. Governments at the Centre and in some states are now using these provisions to bypass legislative bodies.

The Constitution stipulates that the ordinance must be placed before Parliament or the state legislature, as the case maybe, when it reassembles. It lapses automatically if a law to replace it is not passed within six weeks of reassembling. There is no provision expressly prohibiting re-promulgation of a lapsed ordinance. The Centre and the states are taking advantage of this lacuna.

Bihar is the worst offender. Petitions challenging repeated re-promulgation of three ordinances in the state came up before the Supreme Court in the 1980s. It found that successive governments in the state had re-promulgated a total of 256 ordinances. One ordinance was kept alive through repeated re-promulgation for as long as 14 years and three others for more than 11 years.

Two of the three ordinances were enacted into law while the matter was before the court. Observing that courts could invalidate re-promulgated ordinances, it struck down the third.

The Supreme Court’s scathing remarks on Ordinance Raj had no effect on the Bihar government. Only two years after that judgment the state took over privately managed Sanskrit schools through an ordinance. Instead of regularising the takeover through a legislative enactment, the ordinance was kept alive for three years through re-promulgation. After the ordinance lapsed, the teachers of these schools approached the Patna high court seeking protection of their status and salaries as government teachers.

The high court held that re-promulgation of the ordinance was illegal and ruled that after the takeover the teachers are entitled to government pay scales.

The state appealed against the verdict. At the Supreme Court the appeal was first heard by a division bench in 1998. Since the two judges on the bench differed, it went to a five-judge bench, which wanted it to be heard by a still larger bench. The seven-judge constitution bench, which heard the matter eventually, last week declared that repeated re-promulgation of an ordinance was a fraud on the Constitution. For some reason, it left the question whether obligations and liabilities would survive on the lapse of an ordinance, which was pertinent to the issue raised by the school teachers, to be determined in a separate proceeding.

“The danger of re-promulgation lies in the threat which it poses to the sovereignty of Parliament and the state legislatures which have been constituted as primary law-givers under the Constitution,” the court said. “Open legislative debate and discussion provides sunshine which separates secrecy of ordinance-making from transparent and accountable governance through lawmaking.”

The majority judgment also ruled that it was mandatory for the government to place an ordinance before the legislature when it reassembled.
The Centre did not resort to re-promulgation of ordinances until 1986. But lately there has been an increasing tendency to do so. The first United Progressive Alliance government re-promulgated only one ordinance, but UPA II re-promulgated four. The present government, which is in its third year, has re-promulgated four ordinances already – two of them four times, one thrice and one twice.

While the court has condemned re-promulgation of ordinances in harsher language than before, it remains to be seen whether it will have a salutary effect on the governments at the Centre and in the states. If a government chooses to re-promulgate an ordinance instead of placing it before the appropriate legislative body, the only remedy open to an aggrieved citizen is to initiate contempt proceedings against it in the Supreme Court.

It is not an easy process. The first question that arises is who will be the opposite party. Customarily, the government is represented in legal proceedings by officers. It will be a travesty of justice to drag officers to court for failure to place an ordinance before the legislative body since they have no role in the process.

Contempt comes under both civil and criminal law. Action under the criminal law can be initiated only with the written consent of the Attorney General. There is no question of his granting permission for action against the Central government. If he grants permission for action against a state government, it can only be on political considerations.


In the final analysis, the issue is one of democratic sensibility, which is grossly lacking in the political system. --Gulf Today, Sharjah, January 10, 2017.

03 January, 2017

Banks rescued at cost of poor

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Was demonetisation of high-value currency notes, which inflicted much pain on honest citizens in the last days of 2016, intended to eliminate black money, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi claimed on November 8? If so, it was a colossal failure.

Notes of Rs 1,000 and Rs 500 worth more than Rs 14,000 billion were in circulation when they were demonetised. Out of this, the government expected about Rs 10,000 billion to come back. So it told the Supreme Court. The rest, it assumed, was black money and would go out of circulation.

By December 13, the Reserve Bank of India received demonetised notes worth Rs 12,440 billion and the deadline set for their surrender was still 17 days away. After that there has been no word from the RBI on the subject. Modi, who dwelt on the aftermath of demonetisation in an address to the nation on New Year’s eve, too avoided it.

Dashing the government’s fond hopes, smart criminals converted their black money into legal tender. Misuse of the Jan Dhan accounts which had come up under Modi’s scheme to give the poor access to banking services was one of the tactics they employed.

After demonetisation the number of Jan Dhan accounts went up from 255.1 million to 262.0 million. Deposits in these accounts swelled from Rs 456.37 billion on November 8 to Rs 746.09 billion on December 7 before falling to Rs 710.37 billion. The rise in deposits was 112 per cent in Karnataka and 111 per cent in Gujarat. Evidently crooks laundered black money using the poor as cover. The government has now ordered a scrutiny of the Jan Dhan accounts.

The demonetisation decision came immediately after the government received voluntary disclosure of concealed incomes to the tune of Rs 673.82 billion. It was followed by income-tax raids in several states in which Rs 30 billion in undisclosed incomes was detected. The cash seized included Rs 860 million in new notes issued since November 8.

Modi’s demonetisation differed from similar exercises undertaken by his predecessors. It amounted to virtual impounding of people’s money, at least for the time being, as there were severe curbs on withdrawals from bank accounts. Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called it organised loot.

With more money than anticipated coming in and withdrawals subject to restrictions, the commercial banks are flush with money. In his New Year’s eve speech, Modi said the situation represents a golden opportunity for the banking system. To understand the significance of that observation one has to look at the highly vulnerable state of government-owned banks.

The banking system has a large public sector created since Independence with the takeover of large private banks at different times. The largest one is the State Bank of India, created by nationalisation of the British-owned Imperial Bank of India in 1955. Seven banks of former princely states were made SBI’s associates in 1960. The 14 largest private banks of the time were nationalised in 1969. The next six big private banks were taken over in 1980.

Imprudent financial management under political influence endangered the health of most public sector banks during the past few years. RBI data shows that in the financial year ending March 2016, the country’s banks added Rs 4,400 billion of fresh non-performing assets (NPA), defined as “loans or advances of which principal or interest has been overdue for 90 days”. Public sector banks accounted for about 86 per cent of this – the SBI group 20 per cent, and others about 66 per cent.

Between 2006 and 2016, the public sector banks wrote off loans totaling Rs 2,510 billion. As on December 3, 2015, the commercial banks listed more than 7,000 account holders who together owed them Rs 7,054 billion as wilful defaulters.

According to information the government provided to Parliament, in June 2016 the top 20 NPA accounts of the public sector banks stood at Rs 1,450 billion. They urgently needed funds to tide over the situation. The Centre infused Rs 229.15 billion by way of capital into 13 of them last July. They wanted more.
There is reason to suspect that the government went ahead with demonetisation, overlooking its limitations as a measure against black money, to channelise funds into the floundering banking system. It certainly had a duty to rescue the banks but it was immoral to do it at the cost of the honest poor. --Gulf Today, January 3, 2017