Monday, November 30, 2009

17 Years Since 6 December 1992

There never will be a closure to the black event that was the Babri Masjid demolition

It has taken 17 years for the Justice MS Liberhan commission set up to investigate the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya on 6 December 1992, to arrive at what has been known from the time the mosque was brought down.

The Liberhan Commission report searingly indicts the Sangh Parivar as the primary culprit for the demolition. It also names the "pseudo-moderate" (the Commission’s words) leadership of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) at that time as the secondary culprit and officials of the state machinery and administration as tertiary participants in the horrendous act that stripped altogether India’s claim to be a secular society.

The Liberhan Commission’s report focuses on the ideology, worldview, organising power of the forces of the Sangh Parivar, and the manner in which it single-mindedly attempted to create a frenzy among the masses for the demolition. It details as to how "the inner core of the Parivar" - the leadership of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the Bajrang Dal, the BJP and the Shiv Sena bear "primary responsibility" for the crime. It also points out how the BJP leadership, comprising Atal Bihari Vajpayee, L.K.Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi, were privy to the decisions of the Sangh Parivar on the demolition, but protested innocence in order to project a "moderate" image because they had been tasked to shed the "best possible light" on the plan of the RSS. And last but not least the commission indicts officials of the Kalyan Singh government in Uttar Pradesh for the deliberate collusion with the Parivar elements in the razing of the Babri Masjid.

The one-man commission has done a painstakingly thorough examination of the events that led up to the demolition - the intrigue, the subterfuge, the sabotage of law and order and even the inter-mixing of religion and politics. But did it have to take close to two decades to present its findings? Justice Liberhan’s original brief was to conclude its investigations in three months, but he took 40 extensions to finalise his report. The commission certainly faced many obstacles in its work. The culprits did everything possible to delay and stretch out the proceedings by taking resort to adjournments and appeals to the court. But it has been a long time since 16 December 1992, when Justice Liberhan was appointed head of judicial commission to investigate the events that led up to the destruction of the mosque at Ayodhya.

Justice Liberhan points to the failure of many an institution of the Indian state - including the media and bureaucracy along with the polity - but he reserves his indictment for the Sangh Parivar and is silent on the Congress Party. Indeed, even as the Commission has detailed the conspiracy underlying the demolition, what is intriguing is the clean chit it has given to the then Narasimha Rao government in New Delhi and the silence it has maintained about the role of previous Congress governments in fuelling the "Ramjanmabhoomi" claim. If there is a contemporary marker in the events leading to the demolition it is surely the decision taken by the local administration in January 1986 to remove the “judicial” locks that had been placed on the mosque for nearly four decades. This too is common knowledge, that it was done at the instance of the then Rajiv Gandhi government, which was anxious to “win” Hindu support to compensate for its decision to placate the Muslim clergy after the Shah Bano judgement. The report is also silent about the poor mobilisation of central paramilitary forces at the Ayodhya site even after the demolition, where kar sevaks continued to run riot following the resignation of the Kalyan Singh government.

The aftermath of the Babri Masjid demolition is well known. As much as this incident legitimised communal rhetoric in Indian politics, leading of course to the BJP becoming a major national force, it also hugely damaged public administration, the results of which were immediately evident in the handling of the Bombay riots of January 1993.

Despite indicting 68 individuals as being directly responsible for the demolition and pointing fingers explicitly at the Sangh Parivar and the BJP leadership, the Commission's recommendations are quiet about pressing charges against those individuals and organisations who have escaped arraignment. Nor does it talk about initiating criminal proceedings against the culprits. Instead the report waxes eloquently on the reforms needed in the functioning of the bureaucracy, on regulations for the media and on upholding secularism. The Action Taken Report of the central government also does not suggest the government is thinking of initiating proceedings against those identified as responsible for the demolition. Therefore, despite the painstaking effort in laying out the details of the conspiracy and the failure of the state government of Uttar Pradesh, the recommendations made by the Commission and the responses listed in the Action Taken Report render the entire exercise all the more futile.

Justice Liberhan has detailed how the Sangh Parivar corroded and shamed the secular image of the Indian state and how officials sworn to the Indian Constitution were brazenly complicit in this huge crime that changed Indian politics and public administration for the very worse. Given how every single institution of the Indian state and polity has pussy-footed around the Babri Masjid demolition, there will never be any closure to this shameful event. The BJP may have been electorally vanquished in two Lok Sabha elections but the virus it nurtured in the course of its campaign to destroy the Babri Masjid remains very much in India’s social and political fabric.

Draft of editorial written for the Economic and Political Weekly

Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Dead of VT

This is the text of an editorial in the EPW last year (dated 6 December 2008). It is available (with subscription) here. I am putting this up in remembrance, one year after the gruesome terrorist attacks on Mumbai. My heart still aches for my (then) fellow Mumbaikars, nearly 185 of whom succumbed to the attacks. I still grieve deeply for the 56 in particular, who were mowed down at the Chattrapati Sivaji Terminus, a location to which I travelled to, everyday for nearly a year of my stay in the city (my father travelled to this station for 11 of his 36 years of service and my brother did travel a year and more as well). The tragedy is therefore very personal. The EPW edit captures the emotions of a VT station-goer very aptly.

They came on the evening of 26 November to the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, still better known as Victoria Terminus (VT), India’s busiest suburban and long distance railway station. They were from India’s working poor – labourers, hawkers and small-time traders – too poor to afford to travel by air or travelling to the hinterlands where there are no airports. They came with their elderly parents, with their children, including a three-month-old infant.

They seem to have been a truly cosmopolitan group – from Maharashtra, Bihar, Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh. Hindus and Muslims, for sure. They were a microcosm of people from across India who came to pursue the dreams Bombay/Mumbai offered.

They gathered in the central concourse waiting for their trains to pull into the platforms. They must have been going to attend weddings, to visit families, to look up sick friends or relatives or just taking a break they may not have been able to afford.

Fifty-six of them, fathers, mothers, children, single men and women, were cut down in a few minutes, just before 10 PM by bullets from AK-47s carried by two deranged, seduced, evil and, perhaps also poor, young men who almost certainly came from across the seas, from neighbouring Pakistan.

The Walliullahs from Nawada in Bihar lost six of their family. Four members of taxi driver Zahur Ansari’s family were mowed down. Janardhan from Jharkhand lost two children to bullets. Shivshankar Gupta, a hawker, died. Ajaz Dalal’s uncle died… And there are the yet to be identified 10 people who succumbed to wounds in St George’s hospital – no phones on them, no identity cards, no one to claim the bodies. Perhaps they were migrant workers whose families may still be waiting for them in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh or interior Maharashtra.

Upendra Yadav, a computer engineer, representative of the young, educated and skilled Indian, was waiting for a train with his wife Sunita and infant daughter Sheetal. Yadav died, Sunita is badly wounded and a week later is still separated from her daughter, whom she cannot breastfeed. Three-month-old Sheetal escaped but the crime that the terrorists perpetrated is embedded in her thighs as sharpnel.
Bharat Naodiya, a hawker of utensils, lost his wife Poonam, while he lies badly injured in hospital. His son, Viraj, and daughter Anjali, are safe but shocked. It is the photograph of three-year-old Viraj, with a bruised forehead and blood (his mother’s?) spattered over the smiling faces on his vest and in the arms of a policeman that was flashed across the world last week. His face is in trauma and would have shocked and made fearful the millions who saw the vulnerability that bullets and deranged human beings can produce.

Twenty-two of the murderers’ victims were Muslims, in whose name the terrorists presumably went about their mission on the evening of 26 November. Twenty-two among 56, 0r 40%, an unrepresentative number since Muslims constitute only 13% of India’s population. But then Muslims number disproportionately among India’s poor.

It is said that in death everybody finally becomes equal. Not so in the India of extreme disparities. The media reported of the families of the poor waiting eight to 10 hours for morgues to release the bodies of the killed, while the waiting saw the bodies of those killed in the luxury hotels released in no time. Such things would not matter to the grieving families.

There were no discussions on TV about the 56 at VT who died. There were no airheads who were called into the TV studios and analysed all that was wrong and gave their ready-made solutions, who shed even a fake tear for the dead of VT.

There are no candles for the dead of VT. No gatherings calling for “change”, no ranting against “those politicians”, no calls for “war” at VT. The dead of VT have been forgotten.

Within hours the floors of the main concourse of the 121-year-old Indo-Sarcenic structure – once the symbol of British economic power in colonial India – were scrubbed clean of blood and flesh. And they have been walked over already by tens of millions of people going to work, returning home or waiting to catch the 2115 Down Siddheshwar Express for Solapur at 10:20 in the night, or the 2141 Down Rajendranagar Express for Patna at 11:25 PM or the 1093 Down Mahanagari Express for Varanasi at 10 minutes past midnight…

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Bt Brinjal debate

Many questions crop up even as an expert committee gives clearance for cultivation of Bt Brinjal

The approval given to cultivation of genetically modified (GM) Bt Brinjal crop by the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) would pave the way for entry of the first GM food crop to be grown in India. Considering that the Bt Cotton transgenic crop's introduction earlier yielded a mixed and worrying bag of results - high yield in many areas but offset by the high prices of both the seeds and the continued dependence on non-Bt specific pesticides, not to mention the adverse effects of pests developing resistance to the gene, the introduction of Bt Brinjal has received a lot of opposition.

Presence of pesticidal toxins, thereby increase in pest resistance and therefore increased yield is the much touted advantage of the Bt variety of Brinjal. While much of the claims of opposition to the introduction to Bt Brinjal crop has also involved a rejection of GM crops in general- GM crops are widely grown in many countries, while they are banned in others - there are indeed some valid concerns. The well known reservations with agro-biotechnology - the introduction of desired traits within plants through recombinant DNA technology, concerns about the "accuracy" of trangene introduction into parent genome - have come into play vis-a-vis Bt Brinjal as well. The expert committee set to evaluate the introduction of Bt Brinjal does not say much about the possible after-effects in the food chain, and considering that concerns remain about genetic instability and other biological problems in consumers, this is a major misgiving.

Another major concern with Bt Brinjal introduction remains the monopolisation of GM crop techniques by large private corporations. The seed production of Bt Brinjal is limited to Mahyco-Monsanto and the Bt Cotton precedent of seed companies' cartelisation should be cautionary. The cost of license fees for Bt Brinjal and its seed pricing have to be scrutinised before its introduction. Bt Cotton introduction, contrary to its promise, did not necessarily increase yield through pest resistance immediately; and the high cost of the seeds affected many cotton farmers. Mahyco-Monsanto was indicted and forced to lower prices of Bt Cotton seed under the Monopoly and Restrictive Trade Practices Act (MRTP) in 2006. The Bt variety of GM crop had been marketed by corporations for its "high yield" and "pest resistance". Taking recourse to the Bt Cotton precedent again, it is not clear whether pests could develop resistance to the Bt variety thereby defeating the very purpose of its use. Mahyco-Monsanto's recommendations for mitigating such a situation - growing non Bt and Bt crops by interspersing them and to prevent development of resistance in pests - are not conducive for small holding based farms in India.

It has to be said that enough has not been done to protect interests of farmers against the threat of monopolisation of seed sale. Very little has been done about breaking the monopoly held by select multinationals over Bt technology, either by developing alternative low cost Bt technologies through research or by invoking licensing provisions of the patents act. Generically, more important characteristics of crops that need to be targeted for Indian conditions of farming, include drought and salinity resistance, and cold/heat tolerance. These and other necessary characteristics can be achieved with transgenic crops or with genetic marker assisted breeding which are "non-invasive" compared to GM technology. The presence of a national biotechnology regulatory authority which would look into these and other aspects of the GM technology being introduced, its after-effects and relevance to the specific nature of Indian farming, is much needed. Also required is greater emphasis on public sector research in biotechnological solutions to crop use to lessen dependence on monopoly profit-focused vendors. The idea for a regulatory authority was mooted way back in 2004, but beyond publishing a draft of the enabling bill for the authority, very little has been done on this front as the initiative has been caught up in bureaucratic wrangle.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Shankar Raghuraman on the Koda and the mining lobby

Interview with Times of India senior journalist Shankar Raghuraman on the influence of the mining lobby in Karnataka and the Madhu Koda affair in Jharkhand.

Monday, November 09, 2009

The marriage of money and politics

Like never before, rentier capital dominates politics in Jharkhand and Karnataka

Money and politics has never been separate in India. Many political parties have relied upon and have included richer interests and sections to garner political power through patronage. But what is being seen of late, as evidenced by the marriage of money and politics in several states is the dominance of rich sectional interests of a very high order, so much so that traditional polity or the "political class" lacks a complete autonomy from and is very much subordinate to such interests. This is particularly the case in Karnataka -where a crisis is now underway in the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party - and in Jharkhand, where former chief minister Madhu Koda is being investigated for fraud and ill-gotten wealth of a massive scale.

The state of Karnataka is, even at the time of writing, reeling under the impact of floods that have affected several districts in the state. But legislators of the ruling party, far from mobilising and organising relief work, are busy elsewhere, hiding in resorts in neighbouring states to avoid being "poached" by rival factions. The farcical situation was triggered by a revolt of a set of legislators led by the moneyed mining lobby section- the Bellary brothers as they are called - of the BJP. The rising prices and demand for iron ore, particularly from China has seen a major boom in the iron ore industry in Karnataka centered in and around Bellary and has made a few mining contractors and owners tremendously rich. A share of such incomes has been pooled back into garnering political support to be in power, as the assembly elections in 2008 in the state demonstrated.

The "Bellary brothers - Karunakara Reddy and Janardhana Reddy have made it big by partaking from the flourishing iron ore mining business in Bellary. They have been a tremendous "asset" for the BJP, helping the party garner support of independents and orchestrate the so called, "Operation Kamala" - a "scheme" to induce opposition legislators to resign and re-contest from the BJP ticket. Apparently, since the chief minister B.Yeddyurappa has "challenged their supremacy" in Bellary by making administrative transfers of officials in the area, the Bellary brothers have cried foul and have orchestrated this unsavoury mutiny.

Factionalism and "rebellions" are endemic to India's liberal democratic polity, where most parties are "big tents" of individualistic, opportunistic "leaders" and this has been much discussed upon. What is saliently contemporary is the tremendous dominance of money power and such interests. These interests such as the Bellary brothers' do no longer control politics and politicians outside its competitive realm, but operate from within and for good reason. Politics and staying in power - rather than being close to it - helps these moneyed interests attain administrative writ that help their businesses by garnering very high rentier incomes. Any perceived challenge to the writ, as the Bellary brothers construe from the administrative changes in the local institutions in the area brought about by the panchayat minister who is close to the chief minister, is therefore seen as a threat to the overweening power and interests. The BJP's response has been typical - loath to giving into such blatantly opportunistic claims, but resisting a loss of these moneyed "assets". The "Bellary brothers", after all have supported the BJP ever since the close and high profile electoral battle between Congress supremo Sonia Gandhi and BJP leader Sushma Swaraj in 1999 and the symbiotic relationship was the main reason for the successful formation of the BJP government last year despite the party not winning an absolute majority.

Such congruence between moneyed interests and politics is visible from the Madhu Koda affair in Jharkhand as well. An independent legislator, Koda was pitchforked to the seat of chief minister from a hung assembly due to a quirk of circumstances. Koda made the "best" of his tenures - as minister in charge of panchayati raj and later mining in the Babulal Marandi and Arjun Munda led governments and as chief minister himself between 2006 and 2008. He has from many definitive accounts, revealed during investigations by the Enforcement Directorate recently, played a major role in securing lucrative mining contracts for friends, associates and companies. He is also alleged to have involved in several illegal money transfer transactions, money laundering and diversion of state funds during his tenure. And the murky link between corporates interested in exploiting the natural resources in Jharkhand and politics is not limited to the Madhu Koda affair alone, as the nomination of senior corporate managers as Rajya Sabha members of parliament from the state, despite tenuous connections with the state, attest to.

There is many a similarity between the Karnataka and the Jharkhand affairs, a phenomenon which has transcended the mere nexus between crony capitalism and politics to the marriage of both. Incidentally, both the district of Bellary and the state of Jharkhand have abysmal human development indicators, pointing to the "resource curse" that these places suffer from. While their natural resource wealth engenders corrupt rentiers and speculators who make a killing of the profits that these resources generate, the owners of the wealth - the people themselves are left to fester in poverty and difficult livelihoods. Among all the distortions that persist in India's formalist democracy, the influence of money power, rentier capital and the "resource curse" are the most damning.

Draft of editorial written for the Economic and Political Weekly

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Winning by default

The Congress emerges strongest after assembly polls in three states

The Congress emerged the winner in the three elections held in Maharashtra, Haryana and Arunachal Pradesh in late October. In spite of doing everything wrong by delivering poor governance in Maharashtra, the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party alliance has retained power - yet again –and in the process has marginalised the right wing Shiv Sena- Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) combine. The Congress Party has also done much better than its coalition partner, NCP. The Congress emerged the single largest in Haryana and won Arunachal Pradesh convincingly. Following the victories, all the chief ministers of the states were retained in power by the “High Command”, though the squabbling between the alliance over ministries and sharing of power in Maharashtra had not ended, at the time of writing, and even a week after the elections a new government had not been sworn in.

The Maharasthra Navnirman Sena (MNS) - an outfit that broke away from its parent Shiv Sena - hurt the BJP-Shiv Sena combine by garnering 5.6% of the votes and indirectly helping the Congress-NCP combine to win outright (144 of the 288 seats) because of the fragmented opposition in many seats. Yet, too much must not be made of the MNS factor, for the opposition suffered because of its poor performance in the Vidarbha region where the Raj Thackeray party was not present.The Congress-NCP combine itself registered a marginal decrease in overall vote-share, but managed to win despite what was uniformly perceived as lacklustre performance in the previous two terms. That the main opposition never managed to raise the relevant issues of the day - widespread agrarian distress, high levels of inequality, inadequate power and water, and livelihood stress -- helped the ruling combine. The lack of interest among the voting population was also visible, with just about half the electorate turning up to vote in an election dominated by money power, dynastic politics and rebellion by disgruntled "ticket" seekers. Voters continued to display a sense of fatigue with the hard right politics of the Shiv Sena, the BJP and even with the virulent MNS, which ended up with 11 seats. The newly formed Republican Left Democratic Front fared badly as well, with the Republican Party of India (Athavale) coming a cropper losing all its contested seats. The winning vote for the Congress-NCP combine most certainly can not be attributed to any positive wave for the ruling alliance. But the Congress in particular would be satisfied with the retention of one of India's largest and economically most important states. It can also be suggested that the ruling combine's strategy of regularly changing the chief minister at the helm helped it stem an anti-incumbency current.

In Haryana, the results were not fully on expected lines. The Congress far from sweeping the polls, as forecast, emerged the largest party but fell short of a majority. It could form a government only with the support of independents. The previous Bhupinder Singh Hooda government had called for elections much earlier than its stipulated completion of term, expecting to continue to ride the wave that helped the party garner a large chunk of Lok Sabha seats in the national elections in May 2009 in the state. The fate of the Congress would have been worse if the Indian National Lok Dal (INLD), led by former chief minister Om Prakash Chautala, had not broken its alliance with the BJP before the elections. The Bahujan Samaj Party, still trying to make a dent elsewhere in India beyond Uttar Pradesh failed yet again, winning only a single seat and its vote share fell to half of what it garnered in the Lok Sabha elections. Again in Haryana, the Congress' performance was nothing much to talk about, only seen as more favourable compared to the INLD rule in the past. The Congress' reliance on social engineering rather than performance to extend its rule did not generate the expected dividends. Its strategy of weaning away Jat voters from the INLD did not deliver as the latter was able toretain the community’s support and the latter in fact added a few seats to its previous tally and won an impressive 31 seats. The scrape through should serve as a wake up call for the complacent ruling party.

In Arunachal Pradesh, the Congress managed to retain its absolute majority, against the splintered opposition featuring some former legislators of the party representing the NCP and the Trinamul Congress. The Congress had earlier held a super-majority after legislators in the opposition deserted their parties to join the ruling party. Hampered by a lack of choice - the opposition was a cluster of former ruling party legislators and offered no specific alternative agenda to that of the Congress - the voters preferred the ruling party, which been at the helm in the state ever since its formation except for a single term.

The winning run for the Congress is a boost for the party and demonstrates a further weakening of the rudderless and feuding BJP, whose patron, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, has even suggested “chemotherapy” to save the party! The RSS chief, Mohan Bhagwat, later denied making such a remark and in any case he may be unaware that such treatment is no guarantee for medical recovery.

Draft of an editorial written for the Economic and Political Weekly