Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The United Monsters of America

Many a friend of mine or otherwise have questioned my hatred of the US administration or its policies. Many a media magnate and their minions in India are beholden to the US and its policies. Just one bit of news is enough to make these unabashed aficianados of American imperialism atleast think again (if they have the ability): 

This . 

Draft resolution XX on the right to food, approved on 24 November by a recorded vote of 180 in favour to 1 against (United States), with no abstentions, would have the Assembly reaffirm that hunger constitutes an outrage and a violation of human dignity, requiring the adoption of urgent measures at the national, regional and international level, for its elimination.

Vote on Right to Food

The draft resolution on the right to food (document A/63/430/Add.2) was adopted by a recorded vote of 184 in favour to 1 against, with no abstentions, as follows:

In favour:  Afghanistan, Albania, Algeria, Andorra, Angola, Antigua and Barbuda, Argentina, Armenia, Australia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Bahamas, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Barbados, Belarus, Belgium, Belize, Benin, Bhutan, Bolivia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Botswana, Brazil, Brunei Darussalam, Bulgaria, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cambodia, Cameroon, Canada, Central African Republic, Chad, Chile, China, Colombia, Comoros, Congo, Costa Rica, Côte d’Ivoire, Croatia, Cuba, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Denmark, Djibouti, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Egypt, El Salvador, Eritrea, Estonia, Ethiopia, Fiji, Finland, France, Gabon, Gambia, Georgia, Germany, Ghana, Greece, Grenada, Guatemala, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Hungary, Iceland, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Jamaica, Japan, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Latvia, Lebanon, Lesotho, Liberia, Libya, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Madagascar, Malawi, Malaysia, Maldives, Mali, Malta, Marshall Islands, Mauritania, Mauritius, Mexico, Micronesia (Federated States of), Monaco, Mongolia, Montenegro, Morocco, Mozambique, Myanmar, Namibia, Nauru, Nepal, Netherlands, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Niger, Nigeria, Norway, Oman, Pakistan, Palau, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Qatar, Republic of Korea, Republic of Moldova, Romania, Russian Federation, Rwanda, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Samoa, San Marino, Sao Tome and Principe, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Serbia, Sierra Leone, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, Solomon Islands, Somalia, South Africa, Spain, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Suriname, Swaziland, Sweden, Switzerland, Syria, Tajikistan, Thailand, The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Timor-Leste, Togo, Tonga, Trinidad and Tobago, Tunisia, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Tuvalu, Ukraine, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, United Republic of Tanzania, Uruguay, Uzbekistan, Vanuatu, Venezuela, Viet Nam, Yemen, Zambia, Zimbabwe.

Against:  United States.

Abstain:  None.

Absent:  Cape Verde, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Kiribati, Papua New Guinea, Seychelles, Uganda. 

Monday, December 22, 2008

Cash for Votes Sham

The cash for votes scam has turned into a cash for votes sham of an investigation.

The display of wads of cash by opposition members of Parliament (MPs) during the trust vote on 22 July was a shameful moment for India’s parliamentary democracy. The findings of an in-house committee, chaired by Congress MP Kishore Chandra Deo, set up to investigate the allegations of payment of bribes are so poorly constructed and the conclusions so perfunctorily drawn that the dishonour of Parliament remains intact.

The allegation of the MPs from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), who produced the cash notes in the Lok Sabha, was that they were paid by emissaries of wheeler-dealers from the ruling coalition. Much of the bribe-giving business was caught on tape in a sting operation, televised, albeit belatedly (which is another issue for exploration), by the news channel CNN-IBN. The MPS alleged that the bribes were given by Rajya Sabha member Amar Singh of the Samajwadi Party through intermediaries and that Ahmad Patel of the Congress was also involved. The parliamentary committee gave a clean chit to Amar Singh, and Ahmad Patel was also exonerated for want of evidence. The committee recommended investigation by “appropriate investigating agencies” of three (non-MP) individuals associated with the sting. The Lok Sabha Speaker, in turn, has referred the report to the Ministry of Home Affairs for action.

The prima facie conclusion that one can draw from the “sting video” carried out by a news channel on the allegations is that legislators and associated fellow-travellers belonging to the BJP were trying to set a trap for those willing to pay bribes – one of whom, a Sanjeev Saxena, is caught red-handed in the act. The committee saw it fit to recommend further investigation on the role of operators of the sting while showing little inclination to pursue those who were alleged to have used Saxena as the go-between – on the ground that the allegations on bribe payments could not be established.

That a technicality – a member of the Rajya Sabha cannot be summoned for questioning by a Lok Sabha committee – can excuse one of the prime accused, Amar Singh, from being interrogated by the panel points to the casual arguments used to build a case for eventual exoneration. Due diligence in examining the allegations through a study of phone records, investigation of the cash trail and perusal of other evidence has not been carried out. Surely a case can be made that the allegations of bribe-giving could have been better investigated through the aegis of an independent investigating agency, say, the Central Bureau of Investigation, rather than with the process followed and by the reasoning eventually offered by the parliamentary committee.

Two dissent notes were appended to the findings. Mohammad Salim representing the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and Vijay Kumar Malhotra of the BJP pointed out the flaws in the proceedings and the partial nature of the process adopted by the committee. The reasoning that a committee of this nature was not empowered to launch a full investigation into the scandal then calls into question the very purpose of the constitution of this parliamentary committee.

The “cash for votes” scam is one of the many scandals that have shown Parliament in a very poor light. The working of this particular committee will only add to the growing cynicism over the parliamentary system. Graft, corruption, and abuse of public office are serious offences. That the parliamentary committee was so casual in its investigations and showed no serious interest in getting to the nub of the allegations and finding the real culprits brings out the level of nonchalance among those in positions of power towards issues such as corruption.

Only a truly independent investigation that covers all those allegedly involved in the scam/sting will assure a cynical public that Parliament will not brook such dishonour.

Editorial written for the Economic and Political Weekly

Maoists attack Himal media

The Maoists in Nepal came to power by winning an outright (constituent assembly) election, defeating discredited parliamentary opponents and helping in the overthrow of the hated monarchy. They did this by graduating from a guerilla struggle and by debating their every move to enter into a multi-party democratic system. They opened up to the media, built international bridges with civil society and solidarity organisations in south Asia, who were equally enthralled about the removal of a feudal autocratic institution - the monarchy as much as the ordinary Nepali citizen.

There has indeed been a lot of goodwill for the Maoists and for the democratic community to build a fresh, egalitarian constitution. No one expected that process to be smooth as the contradictions between the polity was bound to be laid out to the fore and each of the parties were to undergo a certain transformation in the new political game. If the UML had to adjust to the presence of a larger left party which was slowly but surely hegemonising their constituency, the Nepali Congress had to accommodate sections of the erstwhile monarchist right among its already hotch-potch coalition of liberal, social democrats and feudal sections. The Maoists, on the other hand had some catching up to do in a new liberal polity, where it had to subordinate itself to the rules of the "competitive game". They had "suffered birth pangs", as was seen in the way there was a disconnect between an accommodative leadership which was keen on fostering a broad coalition of democracy, and an assertive and confrontational mass organisation such as the YCL which was intent on building and retaining the hegemonic space, not to mention the more difficult transformation from a guerilla outfit involved in a people's war to a democratic political party.

At times, this disconnect created a rift between the Maoists and other political parties - in particular, the UML. But for the sake of a longer vision of a constitutional republic, these were in a way sorted out. Even then, time and again, the illiberal character of the mass organisations of the Maoists (admittedly in a chaotic socio-political system) has raised heads. One such incident is the simply unacceptable attack of the Himal media premises in Kathmandu where journalists affiliated to the weekly Nepalitimes, the Himal Khabarpatrika and others in Himalmedia were attacked by people who were identified as Maoist members of their restaurant workers union and others related to YCL (again).

As a report by Prashant Jha who writes a weekly column with Nepalitimes and is a consulting editor with Himal Magazine points out, it is not the case that the magazines have covered the Maoists favourably or indeed they have been objective about reporting on issues that are dear to the Maoists. But that is not a "grievance" to be addressed in this manner - violent targetting of the media offices and their journalists. Or is any other greivance enough to justify or legitimise a violent attack. After all, the modus operandi reminds this Indian journalist about the fascist attack by Hindu right wing groups in India - the Shiv Sena attack on Outlook magazine or the NCP goons' attack on Marathi journalists.

Clearly the "birth pangs" for the democratic Maoist party in a liberal polity, have continued. And this is untenable. Hegemonising public space by violence and intimidation will only backfire as the international community will obviously react with disgust and so too would other members of the media fraternity in the fledgling constitutional republic.

This writer, who has been sympathetic and supportive of the Nepali Maoist project in Nepal to achieve an egalitarian, developed and constitutional republic of Nepal, free from exploitation and international meddling, unequivocally condemns the violent attacks on the press, orchestrated by elements affilated to the Maoists.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

EPW Commentaries on the Mumbai terror incidents

At a time, when jingoism is the ruling the roost both in the Indian intelligentsia and also predominantly in the rather obtuse television media, EPW offers a set of rational and sane commentaries on the aftermath of the terror attacks in Mumbai.

A Call for Sanity

A catastrophe awaits if the government takes military action against Pakistan.

The Dead of VT

For the 56 working poor who were mowed down by two murderers at VT station in Mumbai.

Manufacturing Confusion

It is clearly time for television news channels to turn the judgmental gaze inward.

Moment of Truth for Pakistan’s Elected Government
Haris Gazdar

To the disadvantage of the elected government in Pakistan, Mumbai has brought forward the moment of truth for the country’s tentative transition to democracy. We may not have long to wait to see which way the matter settles. India too has a role to play. A diplomatic, legal and institutional approach can help pin down the culprits, and may even help the transition in Pakistan.

Terror, Force and Diplomacy
Srinath Raghavan

“Limited war” or “surgical strikes” in retaliation for the Mumbai terror will be a senseless course of action, not the least because they will take India on the path of escalation and rather than achieve any of the desired ends, could have disastrous consequences in a nuclear neighbourhood. The struggle against terrorism requires us not only to keep our nerves but also to keep our heads. A far more productive approach would be bilateral, multilateral and United Nations-sanctioned diplomatic pressures on Pakistan to act on domestic terror groups. How the US and UK followed up on the Lockerbie bombing of 1988 and forced Libya to abandon state-sponsored terrorism is a relevant example. The options offered by UN Resolution 1373 constitute a related approach.

Governance Failures and the Anti-Political Fallout
Kalpana Sharma

The terror attacks in Mumbai that began on 26 November revealed a failure in governance on many fronts. The city has been victim to a string of disasters and crises in recent years, yet the emergency response was once again abysmal. A multiplicity of agencies was handing out information which was often incorrect. The people of Mumbai are very angry, but unlike in the past this anger shows little sign of being channelled into serious debate that will lead to constructive action. Instead the anti-political rhetoric that is being drummed up by the media will have a negative fallout and threatens to open the door for fascist tendencies.

Mumbai, Militarism and the Media
Sukumar Muralidharan

The media has encouraged talk that the Mumbai terror events of 26 November are India’s equivalent of the 11 September 2001 attacks in the United States. There are indeed vital lessons to be learnt by India from the US experience with “9/11”, though not of the kind widely imagined. By stoking the anger of handpicked guests and unsubtly suggesting where the direct responsibility for the Mumbai outrage lies, the electronic news media, in particular, have seemingly predetermined whatever strategic choices may be available to India.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The BJP Worsted

There may have been no clear overall victor in the recent elections to five state assemblies, but there was certainly one clear loser, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The BJP having worsted the Congress in a series of state elections over the past two years was confident that it had the latter on the mat, and saw the elections as a dress rehearsal for its return to power in New Delhi in the Lok Sabha polls that are to be held in the first half of 2009. Inflation and the year-long terror attacks across the country that culminated in the Mumbai horrors appeared to the BJP as the Congress having handed victory on a platter. In the end, the BJP has had to perforce turn humble. It won in only two states while the Congress came on top in three. (The results for a sixth state, Jammu and Kashmir, will be known on 28 December.) More important, the electorate has wisely not fallen for the BJP’s campaign that whipped up the issue of terrorist violence.

The BJP had been in power in three of these six states and it had comfortable majorities in the previous elections, while the Congress was seeking a third term in Delhi. The Congress was able to retain power in Delhi, triumphed in Mizoram and snatched victory in Rajasthan by coming ahead of an unpopular Vasundhara Raje-led BJP. The saffron party retained power comfortably in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.

The Congress won in Mizoram by defeating the Mizo National Front (MNF), which had been in office for 10 years. The MNF’s unpopularity stemmed from its poor handling of the food and famine situation (related to the flowering of bamboo) and the Congress was able to win a two-thirds majority by stressing widespread corruption and mal-governance in the state.

Polling in Rajasthan, Delhi and Madhya Pradesh was held after the terror attacks between 26 and 28 November in Mumbai. The BJP had made terrorism and security a major plank in the polls and had expected to gain leverage in at least Delhi and Rajasthan (states which had suffered terrorist violence over the past year). Yet, the success of the Congress in both these states revealed the failure of the BJP strategy, with the electorate possibly seeing this as a collective problem rather than one that could be put at the doorstep of the Congress.

The perception of Sheila Dikshit’s government in mostly metropolitan Delhi as focusing on development and good governance helped the Congress trump the BJP. In Rajasthan, Vasundhara Raje’s government was seen to have been a failure, hopping from one controversy to another (the handling of the peasant movement for water in northern Rajasthan, the Gujjar agitation, widespread corruption and communalisation of governance). The Congress benefited from this strong antipathy towards the BJP government, which faced criticism from within the BJP as well for Vasundhara Raje’s disastrous leadership.

In Madhya Pradesh, the BJP had to force three changes over the past five years in the chief ministership of the government, after a revolt by Hindutva leader Uma Bharati, who then left the party to start her own Hindutva organisation. Intelligently shifting emphasis from Hindutva to development and giving the appearance of (if not actual) better governance, the low profile Shivraj Chauhan has taken the BJP to victory. Chief Minister Chauhan’s projection of an everyday and down to earth image helped the BJP resist anti-incumbency, even as Uma Bharati’s party tasted heavy defeat with its leader herself biting the dust in the assembly elections. The Congress, divided as is its wont and unable to offer a steady alternative, was not able to narrow the huge gap in the electoral vote in the previous elections.

In Chhattisgarh a populist Raman Singh-led BJP won again on the back of such measures as the subsidised rice scheme for the poor. That the Congress offered no better alternative on the other prominent issue – Maoism in the state – and that both the Congress and the BJP have supported the unpopular Salwa Judum exercise ensured that the opposition party could not supplant the BJP.

In many ways, the results of these elections put paid to the “anti-incumbency” theory, which has been the chant of commentators who are unable to explain the voting out of governments that are unpopular everywhere other than in the TV studios and the editorial pages of newspapers. Development and grass roots work have helped ruling parties overcome the opposition, particularly when the other side is divided, does not offer a credible alternative, is plainly communal or is opportunistic. However, voting behaviour and outcomes are far too complex to be explained even in terms of “good governance”.As the result in Madhya Pradesh shows, even an intelligent packaging of a government that seems to care can swing voters away from the opposition, even if there is no true improvement in people’s welfare. A better understanding is needed of how local, regional and national factors affect election outcomes at all levels.

The Congress and the United Progressive Alliance need not now suddenly turn over-optimistic of their chances in their 2009 Lok Sabha polls. Exactly five years ago, in the same states, the Congress was routed everywhere other than in Delhi. That emboldened the National Democratic Alliance to launch its “India Shining” campaign and call elections a few months earlier than scheduled. The assembly election results of 2003 were no harbinger of the Lok Sabha elections of 2004.

Editorial written for the Economic and Political Weekly

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Attack on "Everyday India"

This is a draft I wrote for EPW on the terror attack at VT (CST), Mumbai.

Attack on "everyday India"

The tragic deaths of victims of the terror attack at Mumbai's busiest railway station gets scarce coverage by an elite-driven media.

The senseless and horrific carnage at the Chattrapati Sivaji Terminus (CST) on November 26th , which killed 56 people (and counting) and injured scores of others, preceded the 62 hour siege of the Taj, Oberoi and Nariman House in the terrorist attack saga in Mumbai. Even as visuals in the mass media were focussed at the dramatic siege and military action in the hotels, many attacked at the iconic CST were dying of bullet wounds in hospitals, joining the ranks of others who died instantly at the location.

CST is an iconic structure that serves as a major landmark and junction for the arterial local (central) railway system in the city. CST is also the station where most people entering or leaving Mumbai disembark/embark. The first blast of bullets from the terrorists' guns - AK-47s, were fired at hapless passengers waiting to embark onto many of the long distance trains leaving Mumbai such as the Mahanagari Express leaving at midnight, the Siddheshwar Express at 2220 and the Husainsagar Express at 2150. Following this was indiscriminate firing at waiting passengers, railway workers, poorly equipped security guards, ticket counters and shops in the station.Grenades were also lobbed at the structures in the station. A bomb was also set up, but which failed to go off and was defused by the police a week after it was kept in the station.

The time of attack, peak travel hours for the citizenry of Mumbai, was chosen to inflict maximum damage. The targets were picked to massacre the people of “everyday India”- office goers, workers, day-labourers, traders, migrants, shopkeepers and all of whom who have made Mumbai the cosmopolitan hub that it is today. Among the many victims were the Walliullah family from Nawada in Bihar, who lost six of their members and computer engineer Upendra Yadav who is survived by injured wife Sunita and infant daughter Sheetal, still being treated for greivous wounds. Shivshankar Gupta, a hawker, four members of taxi driver Zahur Ansari's family, the yet to be identified people who succumbed to wounds in St.George's hospital, Janardhan's (of Jharkhand) two children, Ajaz Dalal's uncle, home guard Mukesh Jadhav, were also victims of the horror. Utensils seller Bharat Naodiya who ensured that his children, Viraj and Anjali were safe, even after he was shot and was bleeding profusely and who lost his wife Poonam, and many others; all of them were gunned down by bullets which were fired at them randomly, but deliberately. They joined the scores of other randomly targetted victims of bomb blasts which blew up trains and buses in Mumbai in the past in 2003 and 2006, for the simple fault that they were going about their daily lives.

The investigators of the terror attacks, the security and ruling establishments have claimed with certainty that the attackers were Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) trained terrorists. The LeT claims itself to be a jihadi organisation that endeavours to establishing Islamic rule over south Asia and for whom therefore the secular Indian state is a professed enemy. That its intended targets included many who professed their beliefs in Islam (atleast 22 of the 56 people confirmed dead in CST were Muslims) points out to the farcical fanaticism of the radical jihadi groups claiming to act in the name of religion. The terrorists who attacked CST went on to inflict more horror and deaths at the Cama hospital and nearby the Metro cinema, killing more defenseless and innocent people in the process.

The world was outraged at the acts of terror, but seemingly the focus was kept on the more spectacular attacks in the luxury hotels and the siege on Nariman House, where a hapless Jewish family was murdered. The victims at the CST were more or less afterthoughts - surely this is because the media (particularly the hysterical television media) were more concerned for the elite than the everyday Indian. The prominent coverage of the attacks and the victims at CST was reduced to flashing the images of terrorists - later "revealed" to be Mohammad Ajmal Amir Kasab (the lone terrorist in custody) and Abu Dera Ismael Khan, captured by circuit television camera installed at the station. Indeed, the lack of adequate coverage of the travails of those affected by the attacks at CST, points out to the indifference to the ordinary Indian for the mass media today, a stigma that has been much commented upon already.

The incidents slowly coming to light from the CST saga are heart-rending - brave policemen battling with inadequate weaponry, the presence of mind of the railway announcer Vishnu Zende and constable Jullu Yadav who prevented the deaths of even more people by warning them to stay inside the trains and not to alight when the station was being attacked and people acting as shields to save their kin and dying in the process. There could have been even more deaths - precisely what the terrorists wanted, but lives were saved and who would go on to tell more about the tragic incidents at "everyday Mumbai's hub". They may have been ordinary people who never caught the eye of the flash-bulbs or subjected to thrust microphones, but they were witness to probably the worst terrorist attack in India's cultural melting pot - Mumbai.

The terrorist attacks at the CST, the Taj, the Oberoi-Trident, Nariman House were following up a sequence of such attacks and bombings that has maimed the citizenry of Mumbai for the past few years. All of them were aimed at tearing up the communal fabric in the country. That those who died themselves belonged to various communities and identities, points out to the tragedy and farce of identity and communal politics, which are the basis and wellspring of terror committed in the name of identity.

A much modified but more poignant version of this was published as an EPW editorial here .

Friday, December 05, 2008

Some sane and rational voices from Pakistan

even if I dont' fully endorse what is being said in these articles; there is a lot of sense being made in these voices from Pakistan:

The above is a video featuring Prof. Tariq Amin Khan in The Real News Network.

And here is an article by Haris Gazdar in The Hindu.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Obama and his "changed" imperialist team..

I am leaving it to Pepe Escobar to say it best:

"There is not a single certified anti-war personality in the Obama's natural security dream team"

"Exit the megalomaniac neocon dream and enter the hawkish pragmatists! Take your pick - Empire Classic or Empire Lite"

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Terror in Mumbai and responses

Fight against terrorism is one for the long haul, even as the perennially terror affected Mumbai citizens say, “Enough is Enough”.

The recent terror attacks in Mumbai, a city that has been subject to bomb blasts, riots and underground violence for years now, mark a qualitative difference in the scale, magnitude and the modus operandi of the operations. If bomb blasts in unsuspecting civilian areas, particularly crowded ones – suburban trains, bus stations, market places was the order of the previous attacks, this one featured a full scale urban guerilla attack, schemed and planned to precision and to invite maximum attention and exposure.

The targets chosen by the attackers revealed much about their inclinations and ideology. The symbolism of Chatrapati Sivaji Terminus – a hub for nearly every working Mumbaikar (Mumbai resident) is apparent; CST represents secular and working India, a point where people of all classes and sections confer for their daily travel purposes. The choice of the Taj, Trident-Oberoi hotels were made to ensure that foreign tourists from the United States and Britain could be targeted, while the attack in Nariman House was on Israeli citizens and Jews. Other structures of everyday Mumbai and India – Metro Cinema, Cama Hospital were targeted to make the point that India is as much the hated enemy and part of the axis that features the US, Britain and Israel.

That these attacks were carried out by terrorists acting in the name of radical Islam is very clear, from the inputs and findings of the security agencies engaged in investigating the attacks. These terrorists were brainwashed and fed on propaganda based on millenarian ideologies and religious fundamentalism which feeds on discontent in the Islamic community about the happenings in Palestine, Kashmir and other parts of the world. The viciousness of the attacks and the randomness of the murders point out to how dangerous is the propaganda that has been fed into these attackers. From all indications, most of these attackers seem to have come from Pakistan, trained by the fanaticist Lashkar-e-Toiba, it is speculated. The co-ordination and material help came from erstwhile or present state actors in the security set-up of Pakistan, it is suggested. The terrorists had used the sea route from Karachi, by hijacking a mother ship in the waters and using rubber dingies to reach Mumbai's shore, before branching off to various targets. That India's coastal security is lax is for all to see, but the security agencies' excuse is that the coastline is too large to be manned and made non-porous. We shall get to the security and policing part later.

After indiscriminate firing at CST and other public places, which killed among other civilians, three prominent police officers, the scene of action was at the hotels, where hostages were held captive by the terrorists. This in turn was greeted by a security response intent upon neutralising the terrorists and regaining control over the hotels. Admittedly, the security forces – police and later special commandos of the National Security Guard and Marine commandos were left with little choice with the scrutiny that were subjected to and they bravely went about extinguishing the threat by killing the terrorists and flushing hostages as many as were possible. But the question remains if all the steps in the counter-terrorism manual for hostage situations were followed. The terrorists took a number of people hostage in the hotels, prominently foreign tourists with British, American and Israeli nationalities and most definitely that hostage taking was intended for negotiation. The ideal strategy for the counter-terrorist forces should have been to exhaust the terrorists while engaging in negotiation and keeping avenues open for safe exit of many of the hostages, but the way things panned out, the losses were heavy as more than 100 tourists (the count is still on) died in the process even as most of the terrorists were killed in the special operations.

Why was it that the security forces had to go on the offensive from the word “go”? Was it because the administrative structure – the Maharashtra government and the Indian central government, both led by the Congress– felt that anything less than decisive action would have been a sign of weakness, an allegation about the ruling parties that has been used time and again by the rightist opposition led by the Bharatiya Janata Party? As events pan out, we would certainly come to know about this. Having said that, the unremitting hostility and fidayeen nature of the attack perhaps was part of the terrorists' gameplan. It could have been part of their calculus to engage in a protracted siege, and that the killing of their hostages would attract maximum attention, an exposure that would force the Indian public to demand immediate retribution and accept strict laws in order to minimise the risks of yet another catastrophic terrorist attack. The terrorists' game plan therefore was to force the Indian government to adopt hard-line measures, and draconian laws targeted at cutting down of civil liberties and public rights, which would invariably have focused on the minority community and revealed the fissures between them and the state and at worst, leading to increased communal violence.

That leads us to the response of the government. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh pointed the needle of suspicion to Pakistan indirectly, having been convinced of the latent evidence. He also talked about stricter laws and penalties, paving the way for what the terrorists exactly had in mind. Surely, this must be playing into the hands and the intent of those who have managed this terrible saga. We all know where draconian laws such as POTA and TADA led to – repression, unfair targeting and miscarriage of justice. These laws sowed more seeds of discontent than ever before and gave a lifeline to the growth of fundamentalist and radical ideologies that mirror the terrorists' intentions and beliefs, within India itself. In other words, the government would be scoring an own goal by doing exactly what these terrorists wanted. The question then to be asked is what is to be done to prevent such attacks again?

It leads us to two aspects – strengthening the security, policing and intelligence infrastructure that can predict and nip such threats in the bud. And the other focusing on destroying the seeds that lead to the sprouting of the millenarian ideologies that are represented by such fundamentalist groups. One may ask as to how much the levers the Indian government can have against an international menace that persists in Pakistan and in west Asia under the umbrella denominations of Al Qaeda, the Lashkar-e-Toiba, the Jaish-e-Mohammad and other myriad groups.

Pakistan is also bearing the brunt of the regular terrorist violence (the recent Marriot Hotel attacks in Karachi were very much the precursor to the incidents in Mumbai), which was the consequence of years of patronage to radical Islamic and fundamentalist sections by the Pakistani ruling classes and establishment. There is an elected government in Pakistan today, after perhaps the most free and fair elections in the country after decades. There is greater pressure from the international community which sees Pakistan as the wellspring of terrorist violence with the presence of fundamentalist groups in north-west Pakistan (in Waziristan) and the sprinkling of terror camps all across the country, which were responsible for many a catastrophic event such as the Lal Masjid incident, the assassination of Benazir Bhutto and most recently, the Marriot bombings. There is great hatred for these groups among the Pakistani public themselves, who have become tired of the years of patronage provided by the ruling establishment under the control of the Army and that explains the resounding defeat of Pervez Musharraf's supporters in the recent elections.

It is a ripe enough moment for the Indian government to engage with the democratically elected government in Pakistan, with added impetus from the international community to purge the radical, fundamentalist and crazy elements that are entrenched in its security apparatus – in the ISI and in the Army. The Indian government can now force the new Pakistani government to act immediately and tough against the radical outfits such as the LeT and JeM which operate under various names impudently, as the gaze of the international eye is fixed firmly upon Pakistan.

At the same time, domestically, Indians should repudiate the very basis that forms the ideological thrust of the radical jihadis – that the Indian state and its citizens are the enemy of people of their basic faith and that the Indian state is an appendage of the imperial world. The re-affirming of the secular nature of India's democracy and the strengthening of the edifices of welfare democracy will serve as a strong answer to any fundamentalist questioning of the partiality of the Indian state. The solidarity of the Indian state toward anti-imperialism will break the backbone of any reasoning that ties up the Indian state within the imperial axis. That means that the Indian state should repudiate any intention that serves imperial interests in south, west and central Asia; meaning that the occupation of Iraq and Palestine should be unequivocally condemned and India should desist from acting for imperial interests in Afghanistan where discontent against NATO bombing and American actions is very high.

As for the short-term and immediate ways of handling the menace, there are enough ways of intercepting and quelling plans for sabotage and terrorism. From surveillance of financial transactions, creation of a central co-ordination body against terrorism, extensive databases about sleeper cells of terrorist outfits operating in the country, effective penetration and neutralisation techniques, better border security, there are quite a few security avenues available for such action.

The people of Mumbai in the meantime have had enough. Bomb blasts in 1993 following religious riots, a long spell of underground violence which took years for the police to control and eradicate, blasts in the Ghatkopar suburb and more blasts near the Gateway of India in 2003, the serial bomb blasts in trains in 2006 and now these attacks in November 2008; all of them have been conducted to destroy the spine of India's most populous city. More than any other, these attacks stand out. The people of Mumbai showed resilience in returning back to their quotidian lives, rejecting attempts to foment communal divides and more violence in the past. But this time around, the wounds have scarred them enough to make them fear about the unknown. Mumbai was not back to normality after the sieges.

Traffic was still loose on the normally busy streets and many offices were still shut. Anger is slowly engulfing the public, who have chosen to blame the broad polity for their travails. There is also enough anger against Pakistan for being the source of this recent menace and it is clear that any lowering of commitment toward ensuring justice for those affected by these incidents by both the Indian and Pakistani governments will not go down passively with the people of the city.

Regional exclusivist and chauvinist groups such as the MNS and the Shiv Sena have already held Mumbai to ransom with violent acts against north Indian citizens of the city. The ruling parties have been no better in fanning the waves of chauvinism. That security personnel drawn from all parts of India led from the front in sanitising the city's terror affected locations from marauding terrorists, is a slap in the face of these chauvinists. The popular sentiment among the citizens of Mumbai is a sense of gratitude for the bravery of the security persons who risked their lives in ending the sieges and a sense of angst and anger against the failed right wing politics in the city. There would be no non-chalant return to the quotidian for the average Mumbaikar anymore, but the determination remains to dispel any attempts to destroy the fabric of this remarkable “Maximum City”. One sincerely hopes that this continues to remain the case, for that would be a fitting reply to those terrorists and their ideology of fanaticism.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Guest post..: My brother writes

My brother, Srivathsan Ramani, works for the Indiabulls Group and his office is based out in Colaba, south Mumbai. He couldn't go to work yesterday and the day before yesterday, because of the chaos owing to the terror attacks in that area. Today, he managed to go to work and he has this to say of what he saw in the area:

After two days i went to office today. The curfew was lifted from the area where my office is..My office is in colaba, very very near to the Taj and Nariman House. The office was empty.. i thought now i had a chance to go and look at the Taj.. I went there... When i went near the place i could feel the smell of taj burning... i saw the top of Taj fully black... smoke still billowing out of the roof... I couldnt go any further because the policemen there didnt allow me too... I always go through the taj and the gateway to catch a taxi from office... this was the first time i saw such a ghastly sight...

Next i went to Nariman House... I thought it might be a posh area or something which wasnt to be.. it was very near to the market.. I went quite close to the building and saw that the building was demolished to a great extent.. I saw the neighbours still crying in there... Suddenly i heard a blast... and then another... i was taken aback... i crouched and to my amazement saw people near me werent reacting at all... then i came to know that the terrorists had left some bombs and the NSG was defusing them.. sigh of relief for me...

From there i went to Leopold Cafe where the cowards first struck.. this again was in the next road to my office... it was closed... i saw some blood and bullet marks in that place.. the wall with lots of holes... Suddenly a women came to me and showed me a photo and asked me whether i had seen the person in that...she was crying ... a chill ran down my spine...i didnt know what to say... a simple answer was no.. but i couldnt say it.. i just couldnt... i just stood there...She took it as a no and went to another person asking him the same

From there i went to Oberoi Hotels...I just saw the building from a distance so cannot say much....

after that i decided to go home.. boarded the train.. reached our station and just was about to go to the road where i had parked my bike when to my amazement the road was totally empty!! policemen all around that road!! the road was totally barricaded.. i asked a policement standing there and he said that there has been a bomb kept there and they dont know whether its a hoax or not....unbelievable!!

i have heard bomb blasta which had taken place in our area but this was horrible... Lets pray for the departed. May their soul rest in peace...

Friday, November 28, 2008

More thoughts on Mumbai Terror

Even as the Mumbai terror saga has slowly started to come to an end with the closing down by force of the sieges by terrorists at major hotels such as the Taj and the Oberoi Trident and at Nariman House, reactions to the horror have started registering in the media from civil society (well..if one could call spiel by advertisors, cine-actors and others such as that). And apart from the understandable anger at the failure of intelligence agencies, government and law enforcement to anticipate an attack of this scale, calls have been made for stricter laws, restriction of rights, and for an "appropriate" and hostile response to the neighbouring country, Pakistan - which is seen as the wellspring of all this horror.

While there is no question that in the immediate steps must be taken to strengthen intelligence gathering, co-ordination and to prepare responses for such horrific contingencies, the other "recommendations" which pertain to curtailing of rights and the talk of silencing the critique of law agencies' misuse of power are very much misplaced.

Let us assume that the current theory of terrorists being trained in Pakistan and sent across to Mumbai is indeed true. The apt and proper response of the Indian government is to co-ordinate with the Pakistani establishment to take prompt and palpable action against elements in both their security apparatus as well as their polity which have nurtured ties and links with the radical terrorist groups. Pakistan has also seen the brunt of terrorist violence and continuing impact of radical jihadi groups in the country. By exerting pressure on the Pakistani government to act tough and decisively against the rotten elements of their security setup as well as other non-state actors through international co-ordination and dialogue, the Indian government can help prevent a situation where any jingoism will only strengthen the hands of the very same elements that the government wishes to be curbed and eliminated. As I write this, I hear that the ISI head from Pakistan has been summoned by the Indian prime minister and thats good news in the sense that they are striking a right note about what is to be done about engaging the Pakistani establishment (democratically elected, it must be said) to act on radical terrorist elements ensconced in the country.

Domestically, such crisis and horrific terror moments are used as levers to establish stringent laws, which more often than not - owing to the nature of the predominant right-wing polity- are misused to wreak havoc on innocents. Examples such as the Hyderabad detentions and torture and other incidents of misuse of draconian acts such as POTA and TADA are there for all to see. One can actually make a case that such misuse and branding of innocents have resulted in further alienation and indignation, creating even more a fertile ground for breeding terror within India. Vis-a-vis the acts of law and provision of justice, investigation and punishment (if necessary) must be based on fairness and the pursuit of truth. There are enough instruments that a state can use without recourse to violence and prejudice to adjudigate guilt and there requires no suspension of rights of those who are accused of guilt.

The solution lies therefore in handling the situation not only from a security ground but also on political grounds. The Indian government should have to re-assert that the civil conduct of affairs, rule of law, secular governance and amity among communities will be the order of the day. Beyond symbolism, agencies of the Indian state should ensure that it would work toward removing any grievance that may exist among disgruntled sections among whom seeds of radicalism are sown.

That would mean that all prior acts of violence perpetrated and all pending acts of delivering justice such as those still left to implement - the Srikrishna Commission's findings, the Gujarat Pogrom cases should be pursued with alacrity and determination. This should be done side-by-side with investigations into the multiple bomb blasts that have wrecked the nation in the past few months.

More than that, there is also the need for a political response to the menace of radical terror. The nature of such a political response has to be oriented toward the goal of inclusion and rejection of the notion of the 'other' that seems to have permeated the consciousness of the ordinary citizen due to the relentless driving of the communal agenda by various political outfits which include the Sangh Parivar. Mere lip-service to secularism and rejection of a broad political agenda of progressivism is the response that the mainstream polity has offered to counter the threat of communalism. Of what use is the slogan of secularism, if the issuers of that slogan are corrupt and have sold their souls at the altar of opportunism? For example, the Congress can go about bandying its commitment to secularism, but their pandering to big capital at the cost of the poor or continuing poor administration will not help in defeating communalism.

A political battle against terrorism is one for the long haul. It is centered on the notion of "inclusion", dedicated to defeating the stigma of marginalisation and is situated in the edifices of the modern welfare state. This means that all alienated minorities, marginalised identities are provided not just representation but rights and dignity; valued as contributing citizens in society. This requires dedicated action in addressing the problems of poverty, skewed development, and inequality irrespective of community, by an increased role of the state in this endeavour. In essence the fertile grounds for breeding terror are made barren.

I had written two and a half years ago, that the best way of fighting terror was to focus on two strategies- one for the short term and the immediate and one for the long term - both at the same time. The short term strategy involved preparation for prevention and the long term involved destruction of the structures that gave grounds for terror as a means of registering protest. Neither of them have happened in the years gone by since I wrote about it.

In the past two years, by openly praising and seeking the strategic friendship of fiends such as George W. Bush, the Indian central government has invited the antipathy of many a citizen (including those from the minority community) against it. By refusing to prosecute those adjudged guity in the Bombay riots cases via the Srikrishna commission, the Maharashtra government has help nurture the grounds of even more discontent and anger against the partial law enforcement of the state. Despite much improvement in relations with neighbouring countries, there has been no attempt to demand from the Pakistan government, a commitment to act upon the promises to eradicate dangerous radicalism, through concerted engagement with the Pakistani civil society and the establishment. In India, meanwhile the communal opposition has kept up the festering politics of exclusion and exclusivism.

Intelligence gathering, policing and security co-ordination still lies in tatters. What has changed so much that such an attack could not have happened again? Nothing much and the attack did happen.

There is only the sincere hope that we as a secular society will have the gumption to act now.

Terror in Mumbai - Quick Thoughts

Mumbai has been attacked..and has faced perhaps the most audacious attack against secular India. There is much to be written or said about it. I will definitely do that, but for later. When I get the fullest details and when the siege of hotels end and when un-falsifiable information filters in. But for now, I want to focus on what can be easily gleaned from the mode, method and targets of the terrorists. 

First things first. This is out and out a fidayeen attack involving terrorists acting in the name of radical Islam. Why can't it be radical Hindutva extremists, one would ask, considering that ATS chief Hemant Karkare was killed, barely a few days after he was threatened for probing a high profile investigation of the Malegaon blasts involving Hindutva extremists? One look at the targets and the evidence is enough to disprove the theory that it can be Hindutva extremists. 

The targets have been Taj Hotel, Trident Hotel, Nariman House apart from Metro Cinema, Cama hospital and good old CST (it pains me terribly to think about the scores of people being killed while being completely defenseless). 

Hindutva extremists will not dare to touch the symbols of big capital in India. There is too cosy a link between Hindutva forces and big capital in the country and there is no contradiction between these. Whereas, radical Islam and jihadi forces always had a problem not only with secular symbols but also had a great problem with the market as represented by neoliberalism and even modernity. The siege of the Taj and Trident clear points out to the antipathy that is already established in jihadi terror against big capital. 

Nariman House with its Jewish linkages is another planned and selected target by the jihadis. While the other areas attacked are simple symbols of secular India's day-to-day existence, a complete antithesis of the jihadi outlook of the non-separation of the ummah and the nation-state. 

The picking and choosing of British and American tourists/ businessmen in the Taj/Trident are pretty much evidence of the anger of the radical jihadis against the "imperialists". 

Just as 9/11 was all about targetting the radical jihadis' most hated symbols (American capitalism  represented by WTO and American military power represented by the Pentagon), these targets in India are all symbols that are the most abhorred by these elements. 

Now who are these jihadis. Are they home-grown? Are they recruits from the radical Islamic outfits based in Pakistan and which have been nurtured by rogue elements of the erstwhile Pakistani establishment such as the ISI? These will be revealed by investigation. But the symbols and the answers to what were the motives and reasons for the targetting are very much clear. 

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

EPW Special Issue on 30th anniversary of the Alma Ata Declaration

The following is the set of articles we published in the latest issue in EPW on the 30th anniversary of the Alma-Ata declaration on Primary and Universal Health.


Reflections on Alma-Ata

C Sathyamala

Upon an examination of the development of health services in India, it is evident that the primary health care strategy was a logical outcome and justification for health policies that were (and are) antithetical to the principle of social justice. Thirty years down the line, the village health worker has metamorphosed into the Accredited Social Health Activist, but the health situation cannot be significantly improved without challenging the exploitative social structure.

C Sathyamala (csathyamala@gmail.com) is an epidemiologist and public health scholar based in New Delhi

Thoughts on Alma-Ata and Beyond

Binayak Sen

It is possible today to voice a proposal to take the idea of primary health care, stated in the bold language of the Alma-Ata declaration 30 years ago, forward and work towards making it a reality.

Binayak Sen, a paediatrician, public health professional and national vice-president of the People's Union for Civil Liberties, is the recipient of the tenth annual Jonathan Mann Award for Global Health and Human Rights.

The Complex Truth

George Thomas

A government which believes that medical education and healthcare are best provided by the private sector is deliberately starving government hospitals of funds. Until a clear plan to ensure health for all is in place and the poor demand medical care as a fundamental right, public health services will remain skewed and unjust.

George Thomas (george.s.thomas@gmail.com) is chief orthopaedic surgeon at St Isabel's Hospital, Chennai and editor, Indian Journal of Medical Ethics.

Role of the World Health Organisation

Indira Chakravarthi

The Alma-Ata Declaration of 1978 on Primary Health Care together with the slogan of Health for All by 2000 AD is considered one of the most significant public health initiatives of the 20th century. The 30th anniversary of the declaration provides an opportune time to revisit its history and arrive at some fresh perspectives. This article examines the role of World Health Organisation in developing countries as a directing and coordinating authority on international health, and in providing impartial, evidence-based technical information.

Indira Chakravarthi (indira.chakravarthi@yahoo.co.in) is a public health researcher based in Delhi.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Transition to Multiparty Democracy

There is widespread optimism as a pro-democracy activist is elected president in the Maldives.

After a prolonged 30-year rule by former president Abdul Gayoom, the Maldives elected prominent opposition leader Mohammad Nasheed (“Anni”) in the country’s first truly democratic presidential elections. Nasheed won the run-off presidential elections by capturing 54% of the votes.

Gayoom’s iron-fisted rule, marred by corruption, nepotism, cronyism, and stifling of any political dissent had remained unchallenged until these elections. Nasheed was at the receiving end of Gayoom’s actions against political dissidents in the country. An activist who had been sentenced to prison 23 times, was 18 months in solitary confinement and underwent torture in prison, Nasheed had founded his opposition party, the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) overseas in Sri Lanka only in 2003. This was in the aftermath of a civil demonstration in the capital Male against Gayoom, which resulted in riots and unrest.

Generous political help followed from international actors as Nasheed was given refuge in the United Kingdom, where he and his party colleagues built up support for their “cause” – ushering in genuine democracy in Maldives. After his return to the Maldives, Nasheed consolidated his support base by engaging in campaigning across the nation’s islands. Facing continual unrest due to anger against his rule, and relentless demonstrations for a democratic Maldives, Gayoom tried to use repressive measures to stem the discontent against his regime. But, adverse international opinion mounted after the international community’s involvement in tsunami relief in 2004.

All this pressure eventually forced Gayoom to accept a relatively peaceful transition to political pluralism which paved the way for the recognition of the MDP as an opposition party in 2005. Later, Gayoom had to allow the enactment of a new democratic constitution in August 2008 and schedule presidential elections in October 2008. Parliamentary elections are also slated for February 2009.

The new democratic constitution, for the first time, brought about a separation of powers in the Maldives, with the powers of the judiciary statutorily demarcated from those of the head of state. The constitution gives importance to the tenets of Islam which is the State religion, while at the same time guaranteeing a regime of rights and freedoms, apart from the separation of powers as between institutions such as the Majlis (parliament), the presidency and the judiciary. Under popular pressure, Gayoom’s otherwise autocratic political legacy gave way to permitting a transition to a constitutional, democratic republic.

Mohammad Nasheed inherits a Maldives whose economy has been relatively prosperous in terms of per capita income, largely due to high returns from tourism and foreign investment. But, this record is marred by high levels of inequality and youth unemployment buttressing crime. Nasheed’s immediate challenge remains mitigating the negative impact of the global financial crisis on the economy which is over-reliant on tourism and its associated sectors. He had campaigned on a platform of diversification of the economy beyond tourism and fishing, and this would be a priority task for his government. The other challenge that president Nasheed faces is the effect of global warming on the Maldives. Practically the entire population of the country, living in its chain of atolls, is threatened by the rise of sea water level.

The transition to multiparty democracy and the election of Mohammad Nasheed, a pro-democracy activist, to the post of president, one who has shown no rancour against his former tormentors and political rivals, should facilitate the task of addressing the many challenges facing the country.

Editorial written for the Economic and Political Weekly

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Bihar Floods Special Issue on EPW

Floods are a perennial problem in Bihar. The very same water source that acts as the life-blood for the agriculture-dependent population in the state, turns into an avalanche of death and misery every year. And every year, as this natural disaster strikes, it evokes temporary attention to the plight of the victims and soon to be forgotten government commissions and helicopter visits by the bourgeois polity. But once the shock value of the images fades away, all is forgotten even if misery is compounded and the people are made to brace up for the next year's natural fury. Such is the case of floods in Bihar. The Kosi river- a dynamic, sediment carrying water body is particularly driven to course-changes and therefore to put paid any plans to tame the river (through the embankment strategy that has been adopted for years). That the fact that this river originates across national borders in Nepal makes the problem even more complicated. Four experts - whose intros are provided in the post- with substantial understanding of the problem through different forms of expertise weigh on the Kosi tragedy and the perennial woes of river management and floods. They even venture to offer solutions. Following are the links to these articles published in the Economic and Political Weekly.


Floods, Himalayan Rivers, Nepal: Some Heresies
Ramaswamy R Iyer

The strategy of building embankments to constrain river flow and to prevent floods in north Bihar has proven to be questionable and flawed. Reliance on a dam-and-reservoir system for that purpose only offers limited protection and even greater risks of flooding in case of damage. Learning to cope with floods and managing a transition to a system that does not rely upon the embankments any more seems to be the rational course of action.

Ramaswamy R Iyer (ramaswamy.iyer@gmail. com) is with the Centre for Policy Research and has written extensively on issues related to water.

Management of Floods in Bihar
C P Sinha

A combination of short- and long-term measures that gives importance to both structural (traditional) means and non-structural techniques is required to solve the perennial flood problem in north Bihar.

C P Sinha (c_p_sinha@rediffmail.com) headed the Second Bihar State Irrigation Commission and was also associated with Indian Institute of Technology, Roorkee.

Kosi: Rising Waters, Dynamic Channels and Human Disasters
Rajiv Sinha

The recent Kosi floods have proved once again that inadequate control measures have been responsible for the recurring disasters. Typically flood control and riverine studies focus on hydrological information, whereas a much more integrated approach that pays attention to specific morphological factors is required. Since Kosi is a dynamic river with a unique morphology and because it is a river which has always carried high sediment loads, flood management strategies must be attuned to such specific parameters of the river, besides being much more than mere “river control” through embankments.

Rajiv Sinha (rsinha@iitk.ac.in) is with the Department of Civil Engineering, Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur.

The Kosi and the Embankment Story
Dinesh Kumar Mishra

The Kosi afflux bundh breached in Kusaha in Nepal on 18 August 2008. This was the eighth incident of its kind and the first time did a breach occur upstream of the Kosi Barrage. The ones in 1968 and 1984 were no less disastrous but this year’s breach has generated the most concern and its international dimension has added an edge. In an effective life of 45 years, the embankments have remained intact for 37 years. What happens to the people who have suffered the wrath of the river nearly five times more than those in the areas protected by the embankments?

Dinesh Kumar Mishra (dkmishra108@gmail.com) has been working on water-related issues in Bihar for many years and is the convenor of the Barh Mukti Abhiyan, a civil society organisation working with the people living in flood-prone areas in the region.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Telangana Demand

The demand for Telangana state has new takers as the Telugu Desam Party changes tack on the issue.

The decision of the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) to support the creation of a separate Telangana state is a volte face. The decision is also significant because the TDP is the principal opposition party in the state and has hithero vociferously opposed such a move. It is clear that the TDP’s moves are aimed at attracting support in the Telangana region. The TDP had always positioned itself as a party with a base in all the Telugu-speaking regions of Andhra Pradesh.

The TDP split in 2001 leading to the formation of the Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS), which renewed the agitation for a separate state but with no returns so far. The TRS alliance with the Congress in the last assembly elections in 2004 had hurt the TDP and the latter’s recent change in position has brought it closer to the Telangana party, thereby creating the possibility of an alliance against the ruling Congress Party in the assembly elections in 2009.

Political calculations apart, the TDP’s about-turn means that the idea of a separate Telangana state now enjoys currency among almost all of the major political parties in the state except for the non-committal Congress, and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) – CPI(M). Even the newly formed Praja Rajyam of the actor Chiranjeevi has recently suggested that it is open to the idea of a separate Telangana.

More than five decades after the state of Andhra Pradesh was constituted by merging the Telugu-speaking areas that were part of the Nizam of Hyderabad’s dominions with the linguistic coterminous areas of Madras Presidency, grievances over lopsided development remain. The Telangana region suffers from inadequate irrigation, higher rates of poverty, poorer health facilities and higher unemployment in comparison to other regions in the state. One of the reasons for underdevelopment is the fact that Telangana inherited a feudal political and economic structure from the days of the Nizam, other reasons relate to the failure by successive governments to implement promised measures in the state.

The persistence of these grievances among the populace of the region has resulted in many a political party eventually coming to support the demand for a separate state. Even the Congress Party, following a Congress Working Committee resolution that was adopted before the 2004 assembly elections, had promised to take up the issue, through the aegis of a second state reorganisation commission to look into the formation of new states. Inaction and indifference by the Congress forced the TRS to break its alliance with the party and withdraw from the United Progressive Alliance. The CPI(M), on the other hand, has consistently rejected the formation of a new state, arguing that the neglect of the region can be rectified by focusing on prioritised development of the backward areas in Andhra Pradesh.

The formation of Andhra Pradesh after a concerted movement marked the beginning of the linguistically determined federal reorganisation process. The coherent division on a linguistic basis has, contrary to the fears expressed in the mid-1950s, helped strengthen the democratic federal framework. Yet, the political institutional set-up and the mode of development (primarily capitalist) within several states have created intra-state disparities. The opposition to the demand for a Telangana state is posited on the logic that the creation of such a state would open a Pandora’s box for other intrastate regional areas to stake their claims for separate states as well. This argument underestimates the alienation of backward regions.

Many grievances gather emotive steam through appeals to cultural differences. That is when the logic of “linguistic coherence” inevitably loses appeal. It is obvious that only a focus on removing disparities can prevent such situations, but it requires political will to address structural inequalities. In the case of Telangana, for example, land reforms and other socio-economic measures to address poverty and semi-feudalism should be the immediate remedy. But with the political leadership more interested in a model of development that is decidedly urban-centric, private investment-driven and engaged only in token welfarism, is it possible to prevent the demand for a new state?

Editorial written for the Economic and Political Weekly

"Spindian Express"

Vijay Prashad's article in Counterpunch last week about Sonal Shah's participation in Hindu right-wing activity in the United States (she was national co-ordinator of the dreaded Vishwa Hindu Parishad's America wing in 2001), created a furore. The noise generated after the publication of article at Counterpunch and here, was directly proportional to the hype surrounding Shah's nomination into Barack Obama's advisory transition team - a phenomenon that generally sees chest-thumping at any expatriate Indian's coming to prominence in the United States.

Prashad's article drew a few responses among India's own self-styled "liberal" community. Political Scientist Pratap Bhanu Mehta along with CII mentor Tarun Das and others came up with a response that went in essence, thus - Sonal Shah has impeccable credentials, she has never espoused Hindu right wing views, and those who are raising questions about her past "associations" are basically committing an act of witch-hunting.

Nowhere in the statement is it mentioned that Shah was the national co-ordinator and an active member of the VHP-A in 2001. Shah, herself in this statement, asserted that she had nothing in common with the VHP or the RSS, but she did not repudiate the fact that she had worked for the VHP-A (for earthquake relief, for which she expressed her pride). She also called the allegations of her associations with the VHP-A, false and baseless in her statement.

Vijay Prashad in turn came up with a further riposte that elucidated clearly that the allegations against Ms Shah were not on the basis of "mere association" but on the sound basis of "guilt by participation".

So much for the context. Interestingly, the decidedly right-wing paper in the country today (someone would ask me which paper is not, in India today), the Indian Express editorialised on the issue thus.

The funny statement in the editorial is this:

Her participation in collecting Gujarat earthquake relief and an organisation’s invitation to her to speak at its event have been transformed into apparently inarguable evidence of her identification with illiberal politics. This is shocking.
To the dudes at Indian Express, the "an organisation" for which Ms Shah collected relief and acted as co-ordinator was the Vishwa Hindu Parishad-America, which co-ordinates activities for its parent organisation in India today for fund-raising -- money which is used to build the hate network that today operates with non-chalant disgrace and monstrosity in Orissa (Kandhamal), Karnataka and elsewhere (Gujarat circa 2002.. do you remember? ). Is this tangential??! And the organisation which invited her to speak was yet another of the RSS' many front organisations - the Ekal Vidyalaya .

Notice the clever use of "an organisation" instead of VHP-A or the Ekal Vidyalaya, by the Spindian Express. Don't you easily fail with a grade of F on accuracy, dudes?

And more:

But in diverse, robust democracies like India and America, judgment calls, especially about potential holders of public office, require a real appreciation of what it means to be a liberal: oppose all witch-hunts.
Oppose all Witch-hunts! That is rich, coming from the Witchhuntian Express! Remember Pratibha Patil's nomination to the post of President? And the daily saga of front page reports claiming her guilt in the failings of the co-operative banks she helped set up in Maharashtra? Here , here , and the best of all, here - Shekhar Gupta makes a case for the application of " due diligence " to vet the process of selection of India's highest constitutional post.

Call it "witch-hunting" or the press' right to explore the past of a public official, depending on where you stand.. there is always going to be questions raised on accountable public officials. If Pratibha Patil (deservedly, in my opinion) can be subjected to this amount of scrutiny for founding co-op banks which later (after 30 years) went bankrupt.. by the newspaper; how can it deny the same due diligence that goes about establishing credentials of a public official in the United States- Ms Shah, who was incontrovertibly, the member of the foreign wing of one of India's most dreaded medieval outfits - the VHP?

Double Standards, anyone? "Illiberalism", no? Well. that comes with the territory of Indian Express, no doubt.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Anandasangaree and the diminished voice of reason in Sri Lankan politics

Of all the commentators, news analysts and academicians who are writing about embattled Sri Lanka and the long drawn out ethnic conflict in the country, I find the most truthful, progressive and humane analysis coming from two sources - one a fearless Tamil expatriate journalist named DBS Jeyaraj and the other an intrepid Sinhalese political scientist, Jayadeva Uyangoda.

Both Jeyaraj and Uyangoda show the ability to think beyond their ethnic confines -something that is a rarity in the ethnic jaundice that has characterised the decades-long war ravaged Sri Lankan country. Both favour a just solution to the conflict and recognise the weaknesses of "identity" based claims of exclusivity that determines the charter on both sides of the conflict. Thus, Jeyaraj fearlessly raises his voice against the authoritarianism of the intransigent and violent LTTE while Uyangoda fiercely critiques any unitarian impulse in the increasingly militant and exclusivist Sinhalese ruling classes. Jeyaraj writes in a host of Sri Lankan and other newspapers (his most recent articles are archived here ), while Uyangoda's incisive pieces appear regularly as part of the "Letter from South Asia" in the Economic and Political Weekly .

Unfortunately very few in the Sri Lankan polity have shown this ability to think beyond the confines of "ethnic exclusivism" in articulating a solution to the conflict or provide a political line during the same. The Sinhalese polity for e.g. is now comprised of the ruling SLFP which, by all accounts, seems to be a family controlled ethnic majoritarian enterprise for all its lip-service to a political federal solution "after" the military defeat of the LTTE. The other parties in the picture include the even more hawkish JVP whose shameless ethnic nationalism belies the party's "left" orientation, the communal Jathika Hela Urumaya, a Buddhist monk party whose politicians are the exact antithesis of Buddha's bhikkus; and the now-hawkish, now-dovish UNP, whose political positions on the conflict change with the wind.

On the Tamilian side, whatever is left of the rump of the polity apart from the LTTE's minions, are all in more ways than some, beholden to the diktats of the Sri Lankan ruling classes.

Among all this morass, one figure stands out. Veerasingham Anandasangaree, of the nearly defunct TULF. Jeyaraj has this well written profile of Anandasangaree. Anandasangaree's remains the only legitimate voice in Sri Lanka which articulates a just federal solution to the conflict and that which bases itself on a regime that rejects the authoritarian and exclusivist impulses as characterised by the above mentioned sections of the broad polity.

It is just plain unfortunate that the TULF is hardly any kind of force in Sri Lanka today though. But fierce articulation of the federal agenda by Anandasangaree should eventually force the violent and muddled heads in Sri Lanka today, it is hoped.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Us versus them

Article written for the newspaper, "Mid-day"... Linked here. The nice cartoon courtesy the paper is also reproduced here. All credits to Mid-day.

Us versus them

How does the recently-concluded US electoral campaign compare to the on-going one in India?

Barack Obama's election as the 44th president of the United States marked a seminal moment in American politics. It was a symbolic victory for the historically traumatised African-American population in the United States to have one of their "own" elected to the highest executive post in their country.

The question that is much asked in India's chattering discussion circles in the media is whether there is going to be an Indian version of an Obama and an Obama-like victory based on the message of "change". Only the political systems and processes of the two democracies have so many contrasts as of today that it is too simplistic to expect a similar outcome in the upcoming Indian Lok Sabha elections as in the US presidential elections.

It is clear that the American public have risen above the latent expressions of fear and hate that have jaundiced their past, to move their country away from the woeful legacy of George W Bush and his neoconservative administration. It took an inspired campaign based on strong volunteer activity, networking technologies and innovative "messaging" for Obama to achieve the victory in the US electioneering system that is highly media-driven and which relies on portraying differences in "image" and "packaging of messages".

The socio-politico-economic situation in the USA compares well with what is going on in India today. There is a rejuvenation of hate for the "other", as terror attacks (in many urban centres) and communalism (in Orissa and Karnataka) has ravaged all corners of the country. The agrarian economy has been stagnant and farmers are still under duress, despite concessions by the government. The boom time in the services economy that lasted a few years threatens to come to a screeching halt, as India faces as much of a financial and economic downturn as the global economy. Long time wounds in India such as Kashmir are festering up again. Demands for statehood based on ethnic identity (Gorkhaland) and socio-economic discrimination (Telangana) have reared up again. Competitive regionalism and chauvinism have threatened to disrupt normal life in Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh and in Bihar.

The government of today is hard-pressed to address all these effectively, owing to a mixture of reasons from incompetence, misplaced priorities, leadership and sheer lack of will. Just like in the US, India will also go for elections soon, with the "hope" that the next elected dispensation will address the issues. Only four years ago, the people had given a mandate all across India against the NDA alliance for its handling of the agrarian crisis, growing inequality and support to communalism.

There is therefore a similarity with the American situation, but the contrasts between the political systems in these countries are stark. In a presidential system like the US, political differences get personalised and issues get subordinated to image and character of the candidates. There is also the preponderance of the two major parties, the Democratic Party and the Republican Party, whose candidates crowd out other "third" party candidates in funding, media coverage and ballot access.

This was what precisely happened in the current presidential elections. The concurrent Congressional elections to the Senate and the House of Representatives were also influenced by the larger show of the Obama-John McCain fight, as the theme of "change" helped the Democratic Party win a majority of the Congressional seats over the Republican party.
In India however, the polity is not restricted to a two party system. India is a strongly federalised union of many states with deeper and wider, linguistic and identity differences than the US. The multiplicity of various parties, both regional and national therefore complicate the process of elections, with issues and factors at the national level having outcomes based on regional equations which depend on factors such as caste alliances. Thus, coalition politics rules the roost in this country as various parties converge upon bigger alliances. This has taken the shape of three broad entities: the UPA led by the Congress, the NDA led by the BJP and the Third Front including the Left and the BSP.

To a great extent thus, the Indian political system offers a higher number of choices for different constituencies; for peasants, the urban middle class, the dalits, the small landowners, the businessmen and the workers and of course the category of "castes". In the US however, the predominance of the two party system meant that voters had no choice but to choose the better of the two options or for some, the least worse off of them. For example, in economic policy; McCain and Obama differ on regulation of financial markets, but ended up favouring a taxpayer funded bailout of failed financial firms, restricting their solutions to the financial crisis to mere liquidity injection. In contrast, there is wider choice for the Indian voter in economic policies — for some parties support greater liberalisation and privatisation, some are dead opposed and some prefer a regulated approach. Except that being a third world country, not all Indians are aware about such differentiation in policy and merely vote on the basis of issues of identity — their caste, religion or regional pride.

Similar to the US, issues and agendas do converge into abstract qualities such as leadership; and no wonder, each alliance is keen to project its best face as the prime leader. And just as Barack Obama's win was seen as much as any African American's win, Mayawati of the BSP would want to win as the Dalit representative. But while Obama highlighted his personality and demeanour to win over support which transcended skin colour, Mayawati would have to pitch her party's slogan of "sarva-samaj" by stitching together a larger caste alliance.

Both democracies therefore have their strengths and their deficiencies, but the redeeming factor remains the voter. If in the US, Americans rose above their partisan divisions to vote Obama as the alternate to Bush's legacy, in India too, voters need to rise above mere "restrictive identities" to elect their representatives who are capable and offer value as policymakers and executives. Using Obama's words, the challenge is to achieve a "more perfect union" and there is no other means but the ballot box.

The writer works for the editorial board of Economic & Political Weekly