About Aaradhana Jhunjhunwala
Aaradhana Jhunjhunwala is a Kolkata-based writer and blogger. She recently graduated from the University of Pennsylvania where she studied History, Economics and Comparitive Literature.
Articles by Aaradhana Jhunjhunwala
In 1861, Thomas B. Macaulay, first Law Member of the Governor-General's Council in India introduced Article 377 to the Indian Penal Code, outlawing all "carnal intercourse", consensual or forced. The law had been introduced in nearly all territories governed by Queen Victoria. The reasons were obvious to British administrators. Homosexuality, they believed, allowed the spread of incurable diseases and hence must be curbed to protect the empire's soldiers and their health in far away shores. Its acceptance posed a threat to Victorian family values and the country's population growth rate. Preventing either scenario became necessary and British governments saw the need to make "carnal intercourse" a punishable crime. In 1950, when an independent India adopted a new constitution, its criminal code continued to include Article 377:
Whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal, shall be punished with imprisonment for life, or with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to ten years, and shall also be liable to fine.
Explanation: Penetration is sufficient to constitute the carnal intercourse necessary to the offence described in this section. (IPC, Art. 377)
Article 377 continued as the code for prosecuting "carnal intercourse" involving any human and remained unchallenged because of its applicability in cases of rape and paedophilia. In a majority of the nations once part of the erstwhile British empire, such a law has since been redirected from a universal edict to one applicable only in cases of non-consensual sex or sex with minors. However, in India, neither the judiciary nor the legislature were concerted in trying to remove the law's applicability to consenting adults. As a result, homosexuals and transvestites have not only faced social prejudices regarding their sexual preferences but, for over 60 years since India became an independent country, they have lived here as criminals.
Many defenders of 377 point out that no court of law has prosecuted an individual on the basis of their private sexual practices with another consenting human. Yet the presence of 377 in India's criminal code is reason enough for members of the "queer" community to feel discriminated against and feel hard-pressed at the sharp end of the law.
The fear of being rounded up and put behind bars has prevented many homosexual men and women from coming out of the closet and has proven to be a stumbling block for agencies working for their safety and rights, working to promote safe sex and prevent the spread of sexually-transmitted diseases including AIDS. The latter is a major cause for concern since India has one of fastest growing number of people infected by the HIV virus.
To provide basic civil rights to individuals who have not harmed
anyone and to prevent a deadly disease from becoming more rampant, the
Naz Foundation and similar NGOs filed a Public Interest Litigation at
the Delhi High Court in 2001, asking it to read down Article 377 and
remove its applicability to consenting adults of the same sex.
On 2 July, a Delhi High Court bench of Justices A.P. Shah and S. Muralidhar announced its decision to read down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, effectively begining the process of decriminalizing homosexuality in the country. The justices ruled that any law making consensual sex between adults of the same sex violates the fundamental rights of equality, non-discrimination and inclusiveness enshrined in India's constitution. They reasoned further that those who wish to retain the aforesaid clause in 377 on moral grounds must realize that no group of persons can be branded as criminal because of the state's moral disapproval. Constitutional approval would be necessary and the Constitution of India was based on the tenets of equality and inclusiveness. Nevertheless, the court very clearly specified that 377 would continue to apply to cases of non-consensual non-vaginal sex and sex with minors.
While the decision brought much joy to its beneficiaries who can no longer be rounded up as criminals because of their sexual preferences, there has been considerable debate regarding its social and cultural impact. Issues of sexuality and sex between heterosexuals are not openly discussed topics in India, hence the High Court's ruling seems preposterous to those who are afraid to allow it to enter public discourse. Religious leaders of Hindu, Muslim, Sikh and Christian denomination have shown remarkable unity in pointing out the moral vicissitudes of the court's judgment.
B.P. Singhal, a retired officer of the Indian Police Services and a Hindutva ideologue lashed out at the court's decision in this interview with Open magazine. He claims he is not against homosexuals but wants 377 to remain as is so it may serve as a deterrent. The argument Mr. Singhal makes is rather convoluted and worth a read, with the veteran making remarks such as, "Lesbians only end up in suicide. Male-to-male breeds diseases. Female-to-female are harming themselves only." Comments such as these relied on a thinly-veiled current of xenophobia, suggesting that homosexuality is a corrupting western introduction to traditional, authentic Indian culture.
Supporters of the High Court decision point out that Article 377, not homosexuality, was an import from the west. Ashok Malik in the Asian Age, Renuka Narayanan in the Hindustan Times both argue that homosexuals have always existed and been part of Indian culture as evidenced in ancient scriptures and sculptures. While homosexuality was not always an approved practice, they claim it was not considered a criminal act unless involving a minor. Antara Dev Sen points out further that India being a secular state, the judiciary need not pay attention to the cries of religious leaders.
Those in favour of the High Court's ruling caution that it will be some time before Indians with alternate sexual preferences can really live as free and equal citizens. Firstly, as many legal experts have analyzed, the Delhi High Court ruling is applicable only to the state of Delhi. The ruling should serve as a precedent for future court cases, yet a judgment from the apex Supreme Court will be necessary to allow it to apply countrywide.
Secondly, India's political class, which has been asked to consider revisiting 377 by parliamentary action, is now scared to voice its opinion on the matter. In 2008, the Home Ministry had rejected any such plea as it claimed that homosexuality "immoral" and against the ethos of Indian culture. However, the Health Minister supported decriminalization of homosexuality in order to provide transparent access to healthcare facilities for all individuals. In June, Law Minister Veerappa Moily promised to consider the scrapping of archaic clauses in 377. Ever since, the minister and his colleagues have chosen to remain silent on the matter. In a country where religion is often a basis for garnering votes during elections, politicians are afraid to anger religious leaders who have come out against the High Court ruling.
The Supreme Court of India notified the government regarding a Special Leave Petition filed by two citizens challenging the Delhi High Court's decision. The next hearing for the petition is on 20 July, before which the government will have to take a stance on 377. It has been reported that due to a lack of consensus and the sensitivity of the matter, the government is likely to ask the apex court for an extension to "study" the high court's judgment.
The process of recognizing homosexuality and making provision for openly homosexual couples in the country's institutions will be a complicated one. India's military institutions have traditionally been closed to the idea of including homosexuals. In general, people prefer to not talk about homosexuality. In fact, columnists in some "vernacular" dailies argue that there is no need for any debate on the subject at all and unnecessarily certain individuals have chosen to make it a cause for concern. The "queer" community is delighted by the judgment. Some even went on to marry their same sex partners in the state of Punjab, despite the fact that the court announced no changes to marriage laws.
However, after the initial euphoria, there is much ground to be covered in allowing ordinary men and women to freely embrace their sexuality. The government and the Supreme Court's mettle will be tested over the coming weeks as they must decide how to keep the promise of equality and inclusiveness alive without any serious backlash from those who see changes to Article 377 as an attack on religious and cultural values.
A battle rages on in the Indian state of West Bengal, between Maoist guerillas called the Naxalites (Naxalbari is the name of a village in West Bengal where the movement was born in 1967) and national and paramilitary forces. The Naxalites, a banned outfit deemed as "a terrorist organization" by the central government, had proclaimed the Lalgarh area of West Midnapore district in Bengal, with its 44 villages, a "liberated zone" on 16 June 2009.
Since then, state and national security personnel have been sent to flush out the Naxals and bring Lalgarh and its adjoining areas under the government's control. In the 20 days since the Special Forces were deployed, not a single Maoist leader has been arrested in the area, besides the group's spokesperson in the city of Kolkata, some 200 kms from Lalgarh. The fear is that the guerilla fighters have retreated to jungles along West Bengal's border with the neighbouring state of Jharkhand and may return once the forces currently in Lalgarh withdraw.
Prelude to the siege
On 2 November 2008, West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya traveled with 3 ministers of the central government in a high-security convoy through the south-west region of his state after inaugurating a steel plant. On its way to Kolkata from West Midnapore, the convoy narrowly missed being blown to bits by an improvised explosive device. When senior members of the government travel by road, a careful "sanitization" of the route is carried out. The fact that a crude bomb was triggered from a kilometer away through a wire running across open fields and narrowly missed the minister's cars, was a blatant reminder of the deteriorating law and order situation in West Bengal.
The current crisis in Lalgarh is seen as a direct fallout of this attempt to blow up the ministers' cars. The West Bengal police, shamed by the audacity of the attack, allegedly arrested innocent young men and women in the Lalgarh area, accusing them of having links with Naxalites who had already claimed the bomb to be their handiwork. The police's repressive tactics and the unwillingness of local leaders to intervene on behalf of the people was the tipping point of the population's anger, which had built over years of similar experiences with the state's security officials.
Thereafter, the people of Lalgarh have been agitating both peacefully and often violently against policemen and politicians alike, leading up to the 16 June declaration of a liberated zone.
India's Maoists are not a newly formed group and do not have any direct links with Maoist movements in neighboring countries such as Nepal. They are a domestic organization, although it remains unclear where contemporary militants purchase their weaponry from. Ever since the first Maoist uprising in Naxalbari in 1967, the movement has grown in size and covers one third of the country's districts, across 9 states. They are considered a major security threat to the country as acknowledged by successive national and state administrations and yet no concrete strategy to combat them has been undertaken.
The Maoists have spread across regions in central and eastern India where some of the country's poorest and most marginalised population is concentrated. Pratik Kanjilal writes in the Hindustan Times that a map marking some of the least developed districts in the country would easily overlap those with Naxal activity.
A failure of governance and development
The current case of West Bengal is a little out of the ordinary. When the Communist Party of India (Marxist) first received a mandate to govern the eastern state in 1977, it was after the last remaining Naxalbari activists had been driven out of the state by the then chief minster of West Bengal, Siddhartha Shankar Ray of the Congress Party. The Marxists introduced land reforms benefiting many in rural Bengal who for generations had worked as landless laborers on farms owned by "zamindars", landlords.
Today, the Marxists take credit for rooting out Maoists from West Bengal, instead of acknowledging Ray's role and it is this imaginative history that contributed to the government's arrogant and complacent attitude to the renewed Naxal threat.
Falling behind on promises to develop rural infrastructure, to create jobs for people (the Indian governments National Rural Employment Guarantee Program is yet to be implemented in the district) and to provide basic healthcare and education facilities are the root causes for disenchantment with the ruling government in West Bengal. Yet, as many commentators in the media point out, the West Bengal government could have saved these territories from falling in to the hands of the Maoists if they had woken up from their slumber when reports of Naxal activity began trickling in around 2004.
A South Asia Intelligence Review report from 2004 warns of a possible "Naxalbari Redux" in Bengal and points out how the administration, including Chief Minister Bhattacharya were aware of growing discontent and violence in West Midnapore and its surrounding districts, yet chose to ignore them as minor, local protests. In an assessment of the ongoing stand off in Lalgarh, KPS Gill, one of the country's most well-respected police officers, blames the "state denial, appeasement and progressive error; paralysis in the face of rising Maoist violence," which allowed the group to spread its operations further in to Bengal. He also faults the lack of a comprehensive strategy to root out the Naxals; since the start of paramilitary operations, the rebels seem to have simply melted away into adjoining forests and even neighboring states.
It is not simply underdevelopment that lies at the heart of people's distress. Aditya Nigam points out in the Tehelka magazine that the Left Front government has been nothing short of a totalitarian regime that allows no room for dissent and complaint. The party's cadres have been accused of high-handedness, bearing illegal arms, siphoning off state funds and preventing citizens from speaking out against the party. Their activities are unchecked by West Bengal's police force, which remains hijacked by the Left Front's leaders.
It is in this vacuum of a law and order system and out of fear of cadre violence and police brutality that the people of rural Bengal turned to groups such as the People's Committee Against Police Atrocities (PSBJC), formed after last November's police brutalities in Lalgarh and eventually the Maoists, who claim to support the populace in its uprising against the state's hubris and complacency.
Playing politics with the Maoists
Bengal's main opposition party the Trinamool Congress and its leader Mamata Banerjee picked up 19 seats in the recent national elections and is part of the coalition ruling at the centre. In her agitations against state brutality in Nandigram in 2007 and against poor land acquisition policies in Singur in 2008, Banerjee is accused of receiving help from local Maoist groups. The PSBJC's convener, Chhatradhar Mahato was once a member of her party and his older brother is a high-ranking Maoist operative sought by the police. Hence, the Left Front has been quick to accuse Banerjee of allowing the Maoists to penetrate Bengal.
However, in an interview with Livemint, Koteswar Rao, head of guerilla operations for the CPI (Maoist) dismisses the claim that his group had been receiving support from the main opposition party in the state. The Maoists claim to support only the people, and in particular the adivasis or tribals in Lalgarh and its adjoining areas. However, CNN-IBN has Rao on record saying that Banerjee should refrain from allowing the central government to send paramilitary forces to West Midnapore, as she would lose the people's support.
Whether Banerjee was seeking help from Maoists during her earlier agitations at Nandigram and Singur is unclear, yet many in Bengal's administration are more than convinced and accuse her of bringing the guerillas into the state's internal politics. Banerjee, now the Minister of Railways in Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's cabinet, denies allegations of collusion with the Maoists for her own political gains. She points out the Left Front's poor governance and the poor behavior of its cadres as the primary reasons behind the unrest in Lalgarh. For the moment, she is happy to let the state government deal with the Maoists as she doesn't want either side to use her as a pawn to blame the consequences of their decisions on.
"Good" or "evil"?
The nature and organization of people's groups such as the PSBJC has been a matter of great debate in the Indian media. The Hoot, a media watchdog traces the different representations of the PSBJC in newspapers, blogs and magazines from across the country. Some commentators assume that the PSBJC is a front for the Maoists, but several others have been skeptical of such assumptions as they point to reports of the organization undertaking small-scale relief projects in West Midnapore since it began its agitation against the state police. While mainstream newspapers and news channels are sticking to the former line, bloggers have written out against such an oversimplification.
Some extend this argument to the media's treatment of Maoists as well and claim that they cannot be labeled "terrorists" all that easily. Writer and activist Arundhati Roy has also warned the media and population at large of such a simplification of the Maoist movement in a recent article for Outlook magazine.
Nobody's battle, everyone's troubles
From being a bastion of the Left Front, Lalgarh has become the centre of a complicated battle involving a state government, its opposition, paramilitary forces, an elusive and banned guerilla group and most tragically, the local populace. The Left Front and its opposition continue to blame one another for resurgent Maoist activity in West Bengal; an elite paramilitary force tries to hunt down the Maoists with out any real action plan; and the state administration has still not acknowledged its poor governance record in West Midnapore or even announced any long term program of reform.
In the cross-fire between all these groups, the people of Lalgarh and its surrounding districts seem to have no one trustworthy to turn to who will deliver job security, roads, schools and hospitals along with access to a really democratic space where they may express their grievances freely without fear of being literally shot down. Simply flushing out the Maoist guerillas is no long term solution. The law of the land seems to have fled from the district some years ago, and no one has a roadmap for bringing it back.
With one of the more stable coalition governments in recent years coming to power, the Indian media has turned its focus to analyzing which sectors of public policy require a fresh approach. The sectors that have generated most debate in the media, besides the overall economy, are education and national security. Not only do both require massive investment to expand and update infrastructure, but their governing bodies are in dire need of systemic overhaul. The new government's ability to deliver on both sectors will require perseverance and courageous decision-making.
Education: reforms to harness the demographic dividend
In an interview with the Business Standard newspaper, Kapil Sibal, Minister for Human Resource Development, the ministry in charge of drafting India's education policy, acknowledged the existing "statutory constraints along with government control to set up institutions." He said that in order to set up a countrywide educational system that is expansive, inclusive and excellent, "We need to re-energize the education system by attracting investment without diluting excellence and equity." Approximately eight million more students are estimated to seek enrollment in Indian universities by 2015. A Knowledge Commission set up by the Prime Minister's Office had estimated that 1,500 universities would have to be set up to meet such a requirement. If India really wants to harness the talent of it's youth, its policymakers will have to chart out a sustainable education policy that is implemented without being eaten away by corrupt and complacent bureaucrats. It will also have to allow private investments in the education sector, which has always been a matter of controversy.
Acknowledging the Indian government's goal to provide basic education to 200 million women in the country by 2013, Neeraj Kaushal outlines the poor performance of public education programs in a guest column in the Times of India. If the government sincerely wishes to keep its promise, then it must look at reforming current, poorly functioning programs such as the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan (Elementary Education For All) and formulate a plan to expand quality educational infrastructure through partnerships with the private sector. Along with building more and better schools, the government must address problems such as high rates of teacher absenteeism in public schools where salaries are higher than private schools, yet low risk of job loss makes teachers complacent. World Bank surveys indicate low reading, writing and math skills amongst students who do attend schools in India. A lack of accountability and poor implementation of public school programs are possible reasons for this failure and pose a grave threat to India's progress.
Raman Roy, a pioneer of the Indian BPO industry, wrote in the Wall Street Journal urging the government to not simply focus on increasing the number of colleges and universities in India. He outlines how very few Indian higher education institutions produce graduates who have the skills to be directly employed by industry. Most universities provide education and a skill set that either requires further polishing by large companies or are simply not sufficient enough to land a respectable job. Such "paper degrees" are a serious waste of young talent and add to the grievances of the youth. Hence, the government must partner with private companies and foreign educational institutions in order to provide quality higher education to its citizens.
Setting up new institutions and formulating a new education bill will not be enough to tackle India's requirements. Pratap Bhanu Mehta outlines the institutional challenges the Human Resource Development Ministry itself faces. The ministry has to deal with the largest number of institutions in the country ranging from public elementary schools to universities and their governing bodies and it will have to engage each one of them in detail and with patience to bring a systemic change in India's education sector. Since it is in charge of appointing individuals who frame overall and individual institutional policy, the ministry must do so with subtlety and by provide an enabling environment free of red tape or cronyism.
The task cut out for the education minister and his department is Herculean and these are only few of the areas within the sector that have received comment thus far. Another major policy concern is providing equal access at educational institutions for Indians belonging to historically marginalized groups without antagonizing any others.
National security: getting it right, doing it alone
Shekhar Gupta of The Indian Express warns Indians that a lack of debate on domestic security issues may lead to complacency on the matter by the newly elected government. The previous Congress-led government neglected internal security that culminated in to the Mumbai attacks last November. India cannot afford such assaults once again as its affect would be a dilution of any achievements on the development front. To make India truly secure, the government must be watchful against any spillover effects of political turmoil in the country's neighborhood, it should increase spending on defense for the next five years in order to upgrade security systems and it must formulate and act upon an exhaustive plan to root out internal insurgent groups such as the Naxalites in central and east India.
Another worried commentator wrote in The Asian Age that the responses to terror threats and attacks have been "too slow and too soft" under previous governments, allowing militants to strike Indian cities, towns and institutions again and again. Hence, the newly elected government requires a more disciplined and active approach to national security to ensure the "nation's survival". The first task at hand would be to note the threats India is facing and then understand and acknowledge them. Secondly, the police and intelligence services need more recruits, reforms and upgrades. On the defense front, long-pending procurements must be freed from bureaucratic red tape, made transparent and prioritized.
Both authors emphasize the need for a long-term strategic plan to ensure better domestic security and to achieve it three different ministries must work cohesively, namely home affairs, foreign affairs and defense. They also see India fighting alone for her security, in a neighborhood currently seen as hostile towards India's ambitions and in a larger world that has its immediate interests aligned more closely with countries on the other side of the Indian border. Hence, improving internal and external security infrastructure are seen as muscle-building measures that would help India negotiate better and keep its citizenry and investments better protected.
The Indian Army captured Syed Moinullah Shah, a militant of Pakistani origin, after an encounter two Saturdays in the Kashmir valley. Hailing from Pakistan's North West Frontier Province, Shah is only the second militant of Pakistani origin to be captured alive by Indian armed forces. The other, Ajmal Amir Kasab, was taken in to custody during the attacks in Mumbai last November and is now facing trial at a special court in India.
Shah's capture is significant as he revealed vital information regarding militant training camps and procedures in Pakistan-administered Kashmir. There has been a recent surge in infiltration of militants belonging to banned outfits such as the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, Lashkar-e-Toiba (the group thought to be responsible for the Mumbai attacks), Jaish-e-Mohammed and the Pir Panjal Regiment, into Kashmir. Being allowed to speak at a press conference in Srinagar, Shah explained that about 120 people had crossed over the Line of Control that separates Indian-administered Kashmir from Pakistani-administered Kashmir, out of which 30 were terrorists and the rest were guides.
The captured terrorist insisted thatthe Taliban were not involved in operations related to Kashmir. He told members of the press that no commanders of the above mentioned terrorist groups had crossed over in recent months. He and his peers were meant to receive details of future operations from commanders already in Kashmir or in India's hinterland. In the last week some forty militants have been killed in encounters along the Line of Control, claimed the Indian Army. The killing and capture of these operatives led the army to discover and confiscate a large cache of weapons from militant hideouts. The list of weapons uncovered included 48 AK-47 rifles with 13,000 rounds, a rocket-propelled grenade launcher with 14 shells, 445 grenades for under barrel grenade launchers, 6 Chinese grenades and 32 kilograms of explosives.
A surprising and significant message from Syed Moinullah Shah came when he revealed why he had chosen to co-operate with the Indian Army. The 24-year old who underwent intensive training at a militant camp in Pakistan remarked, "I was told by Kashmiri preachers who come there (Pakistan) that they are being tortured by the Indian Army. Their houses have also been taken away besides not being allowed to do the namaaz. They also said their women were being raped. When I came here, I did not see any kind of torture. Everybody was busy doing their own work. I felt there was no need of jihad in Kashmir and hence wanted to go back."
Reports of the recent surge in infiltration from across the Line of Control pose a serious challenge to domestic security concerns in not just Kashmir, but all across India. Yet, the above declaration by a militant claiming to have been recruited for jihad in the Kashmir valley will hopefully add a new dimension in the efforts to bring peace to the region after decades of violent conflict.
A grand election with no agenda
Harsh Pant laments how frivolous elections in India have become in his opinion piece in The Outlook magazine. What is being celebrated as the largest democratic exercise the world has ever seen is "one of the most banal exercises the country has undertaken", according to him. A comical show on the outside, the worry is that this is really a very important election for the country.
Pant's reasons for calling the ongoing elections banal are numerous. Firstly, it seems like the next government will be formed by default, depending on which group of parties reach the desired halfway mark. A simple adding up of numbers rather than a coming together of ideas is dangerous for the world's largest democracy as it prevents innovative policies from taking shape and makes governing difficult. Secondly, every crisis is used by rival parties to hurl blame and abuses at those in power. No serious debate on national issues exists and no leader can be seen on any side who has stood up with clear policy ideas. Thirdly, political parties are closed up to opinions from the outside and governed as fiefdoms rather than platforms for national or ideological discourse. The lack of an open, democratic, party set-up stifles fresh policy debates.
Pant analyzes why the two major national parties, the Indian National Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party, have failed to excite the Indian voter and in turn allowed regional parties with no national agenda or perception to hold an important say in general elections. In such a dark hour for Indian politics, the only solution seems to be the rise of a strong leader who can galvanize the country. However, as Pant points out, there seems no one of such caliber in sight.
Disappointing voter turnout in Mumbai
The city of Mumbai had witnessed large-scale voter awareness campaigns in the run up to this year's election. NGOs tied up with private corporations, the media and celebrities to push "get out the vote"-style campaigns in India's premier metropolis. Rising public frustrations with the government, especially after the city's elite were targeted last November by LeT terrorists, indicated that a city usually apathetic to elections and electioneering would see its educated classes coming out to vote. On 30 April, when Mumbai went to the polls voter turnout was not just disappointing; it was recorded at 40.33% in south Mumbai (the focus of voter awareness campaigns and where terrorists struck in November). In 2004, a larger percentage of eligible voters turned up to exercise the franchise.
The Indian media has been abuzz with debates over the continued apathy of the citizens of Mumbai. P. Sainath wrote in the Hindu that it was futile to expect a high voter turnout in the first place. Firstly, the election date coincided with a long weekend. Hence, better planning on the part of the Election Commission could have prevented people from choosing a holiday over standing in line to cast their vote. Secondly, voter awareness campaigns were noble but did not have any clear agenda to keep voters motivated. Simply asking people to get out and vote with celebrities in tow was not enough.
Rahul Bose, a popular actor, wrote an opinion piece in the Hindustan Times expressing his disappointment at the continued apathy of fellow citizens. He recalls the outrage in Mumbai after last November's attacks and how the subsequent low voter turnout represented a missed chance to harness that outrage.
On Saturday, Sajjad Lone, a leader of the separatist movement in Kashmir and head of the People's Conference, announced his decision to contest the upcoming parliamentary elections in India as an independent. Newspapers reported him as being the first separatist leader from the region to join electoral politics. After the Kashmiri public rejected the separatist boycott of assembly polls in the region last December, coming out to cast their vote in large numbers, some former dissidents have been contemplating turning to democratic politics.
At a press conference however, Lone clarified that his decision represented "a new method of the same ideology." The end of greater autonomy or even independence from India, he said, would not be lost simply because the the means of its achievement had changed . He reiterated that the Kashmiris' decision to come out and vote in the assembly elections was not tantamount to approval of Indian rule and governance, but a mandate for better development.
Lone promised that he would not become "a poster boy of the Indian Parliament in Kashmir" and, instead, would truly represent Kashmiri aspirations in the Indian Parliament. His decision can also be seen as a criticism of the current leadership of the separatist movement in Kashmir. Lone has called leaders of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (an alliance of 26 separatist and separatist-leaning organizations in Kashmir) "out of sync" with the needs of the Kashmiri people. He admitted that a change in tactic was necessary if the Kashmir dispute is to be resolved as per the aspirations of its people.
While Mr. Lone's decision is ground-breaking, Reuters India reports that not everyone is happy with it. Some Kashimiris look upon his decision as shameful and are labelling him a "traitor".
Kerala's reverse migration woes
India's southern-most state, Kerala, is dealing with the problems of reverse migration, as thousands of native workers employed in the middle east are being laid off due to the global economic downturn. Kerala's economy depends heavily on remittances from abroad (approximately 30 percent of annual remittances have been coming from outside the state).
NDTV reported that some 50,000 workers have already come back in recent months and 200,000 more are expected in coming weeks. Finding employment for these men and women returning to Kerala is going to be challenging for the state's public officials. Trade unions maintain a fairly strong hold on in the Communist-run state, preventing many of these returning expatriates from starting their own businesses. Workers also complain that until now, no political parties have presented a plan for dealing with the problems that a massive reverse migration may create.
India's immediate neighborhood comprises of countries that are becoming increasingly politically unstable. While the problems of Pakistan and Afghanistan make it to the headlines of newspapers worldwide, these two countries are not the only ones witnessing serious internal turmoil.
The Sri Lankan state is in the midst of a massive military operation against the banned Tamil guerrila outfit, the LTTE - an operation that has carried on far longer than imagined and taken the lives of many civilians. Bangladesh recently witnessed an attempted mutiny by its border security guards. Meanwhile, domestic instability and political uncertainty continue to simmer in Nepal and Myanmar.
With countries at its periphery becoming more and more unstable, a clear and definite foreign policy agenda is needed from New Delhi. Commentators in the Indian media have been urging for innovation and direction from the Foreign Ministry, especially with regard to policy within South Asia. (While it aspires to be a global player, India has never fashioned a sufficiently directed and determined foreign policy within its region.)
At the start of the G-20 summit in London last week, C. Raja Mohan wrote in the Indian Express that India must try and play an active role in helping solve the global financial crisis. He sees the crisis and India's role in mitigating it as an opportunity to secure good relations with the new Obama administration. Close ties with the United States are seen as essential for India, with growing instability to its north-west. If it wishes to see a stable Pakistan, India must reiterate to the US its commitment to ensuring peace in the region.
A similar view of going along with the US's policy direction
in Afghanistan and Pakistan to dispel its own fears, is shared by Siddharth Varadarajan of The Hindu. With the release of the Obama
administration's new Af-Pak policy, India has gone back to the days
of not just being referred to in hyphenation with Pakistan, but is falling
victim to a "dual-hyphenation" theory that links the military instability
on the Durand Line with the jittery relationship between New Delhi and
Islamambad. Hence, the best option for India is to stick with the American
plan, reinforcing New Delhi's commitment to peace and ensuring that Pakistan
disallow any terrorist groups from using its territory. (Richard Holbroke,
President Obama's special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan underlined
for India's involvement in solving issues like Afghanistan as the neighbors face a common threat from
extremist militant forces, at a press conference in New Delhi on April
Differing in opinion is Harsh Pant in the foreign affairs magazine, Pragati. According to Pant, Indian foreign policy continues to drift without any sense of direction as domestic politics does not concern itself with India's roles and ties abroad. In the absence of a coherent national grand strategy, India is in danger of losing its ability to safeguard its long-term peace and prosperity. Hence, a more pro-active and less defensive stand in foreign affairs, especially in the context of its immediate neighborhood is required. An intellectual renaissance in the foreign ministry to come up with a grand strategy for the long run is the need of the hour according to Pant.
Sanjaya Baru also calls for a new foreign policy strategy, especially one keeping competition with China in mind. Baru recommends India start engaging with smaller and larger nations in order to build long term ties with them, similar to the manner in which China has tied its economy to those of many other nations, making the downfall of one a threat to the stability of the other. While good relations with the US are a must, Baru recommends India maintain warm ties with Washington, but not at the cost of its ties with other major powers like Russia, Europe and Japan.
P. D. Samanta of The Indian Express is skeptical of India's dependence on the United States to clean up the mess in its immediate neighborhood. He observes that too much reliance on the US is making India compromise on the issues that are really central to its own stability. The foremost issue is the threat from terrorists operating out of Pakistan. To gain any traction on disbanding these outfits, India first needs to emphasise that the threat it faces from terrorists is not of the same kind faced by Pakistan. Hence, it cannot simply co-ordinate with the efforts made by Pakistan in this realm. India needs to have its own separate policy to combat the threat posed by terrorism.
In a recent interview published in The Hindu, India's foreign minister, Pranab Mukherjee also emphasized the need to deal with terrorism as a separate issue, aside from improving bilateral ties with Pakistan. He pointed out that people-to-people exchanges between India and Pakistan can continue alongside the effort to bring the latter to commit seriously on curbing militant activity from its soil that is directed at India. While the foreign minister's claim seems noble, India is finding it increasingly difficult to pursue its agenda with Pakistan independently. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, realizing so, said in The Financial Times, "The world has a responsibility in ensuring Pakistan lives up to its promises."
In the mean time, it remains to be seen how India's Foreign Ministry and diplomats come up with an agenda for their country to play a more active and constructive role in its neighborhood and beyond.
Eight people were killed and over twenty injured when twin blasts occurred in the eastern Indian city of Guwahati and the town of Dhekiajuli in the eastern state of Assam. The blasts occurred at 2:00 PM local time on Monday, 6 April. News agencies report there was complete chaos after the explosion took place in Guwahati and many residents clashed with the police, as a mark of their displeasure with the frequency of such incidents in the area.
The Indian Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh is scheduled to visit Assam on Tuesday to campaign for the upcoming general election. Guwahati is the largest commercial hub in Assam, from where Singh was elected in 1995 to the Rajya Sabha - the upper house in India's parliament.
Authorities claim that the banned militant outfit, United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), is behind the blasts, although no confirmed reports were available till about two hours after the incident. ULFA will celebrate the 30th anniversary of its formation on Tuesday. Similar blasts disrupted Guwahati last week when India's foreign minister, Pranab Mukherjee, was in the city, also campaigning for his party.
While ULFA historically stems from an indigenous, nationalist movement, Indian officials increasingly suspect that the militant group has established ties with Pakistan's notorious ISI intelligence agency, the body thought to be behind several terrorist attacks in India in recent years.
Carnage in Pakistan
Meanwhile, Pakistan continues its descent into chaos. Gunmen entered and opened fire in a police training academy in Lahore in Pakistan last Tuesday. Between Saturday and Sunday, three suicide attacks struck inside the troubled country, one at a mosque in the country's north-east and two aimed at security posts.
(Read more about the violence in Pakistan in today's security briefing)
Moral-policing the Indian politician
The Election Commission of India has been busy policing the campaigns of political leaders and aspirants in the run up to the national polls. Indian newspapers and the electronic media are abuzz with reports of politicians, many of them veterans and party leaders, consistently and brazenly defying the model code of conduct. Ironically, parties whose own leaders continue to defy the poll's moral code are the ones lodging complaints with the Election Commission against their rivals.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) lodged a complaint against current Home Minister P.C. Chidambaram, senior leader of the Indian National Congress (INC), for bringing up issues that could be seen as "poll sops" at a security review meeting in the state of Rajasthan. The Commission has asked the Home Minister to respond to the allegation by Monday evening.
On the other hand, veteran BJP politician Jaswant Singh, a former cabinet minister, was caught on camera handing out money to electors in his son's constituency. The INC filed a complaint at the Election Commission regarding Singh's conduct, to which he responded, "The law is an ass", and recommended the law be reviewed.
Another senior politician, Mulayam Singh Yadav was sent a notice from the Election Commission after his remarks threatening the District Magistrate of his constituency for confiscating firearms in possession of his party workers. The leader of the Samajwadi Party, an important party in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, has come under the Commission's scrutiny previously for distributing cash as bribes to voters. His reply to the allegation was that the money was not a bribe, but part of a traditional gift his party distributed each year.
Politicians in India come up with creative excuses for handing out money to voters in their constituencies. Whether the excuse is an annual offering made in the name of charity or tokenism under the garb of tradition, direct money transfers remain commonplace, as the Election Commission struggles to stringently implement its code of conduct.
Varun Gandhi's inflammatory, anti-minority speech in Uttar Pradesh last week opened up the debate for a need to bring the words and deeds of all politicians under greater public scrutiny. The Election Commission of India recommended the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) to remove Gandhi - the great-grandson of Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister - as its party's candidate from Pilibhit in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. The young Gandhi, who joined the BJP in 2004, was taped making anti-Muslim remarks at a political rally. Priyanka Gandhi, the daughter of Congress Party leader Sonia Gandhi, chastised her cousin for speaking against the "traditions and principles of the family."
The Election Commission (EC) cannot legally remove him from contesting the elections unless his act is proven guilty of flouting campaign moral codes in the courts. Meanwhile, the BJP has rejected the EC's suggestions and remains defiant in fielding Gandhi as its candidate.
While critical of the young BJP politician's brand of vitriol, Rajdeep Sardesai, an anchor on the popular news channel CNN-IBN, insisted that the tendency to flout moral codes of conduct set by the EC were routine in Indian politics. The right-wing BJP has not been the only practitioner of hate-based rhetoric. In 1984, the Congress did not hesitate to campaign using anti-Sikh slogans in the aftermath of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's assassination at the hands of her own Sikh guards. Sardesai and Pratik Kanjilal, in the Hindustan Times, recommend the judiciary, media and public at large remain vigilant and critical of remarks by political leaders that hurt the sentiments of any population group in the country.
"People's" car launched
The world's cheapest car was launched commercially today in India, by Tata Motors. Promising to provide a four-seater car within Rs. 1 lakh (approximately US$ 2,000-2,500), Tata Motors chairman, Ratan Tata hoped the "Nano" will usher in a new era of car-making and that users of two-wheelers in populous countries like India will switch to his company's new offering. While the Nano was unveiled in January 2008 it is only going to be seen on Indian roads this summer.
While Indians are welcoming the car as a means to revolutionize transportation in the country, observers in the west remain wary of the Nano's safety and environmental standards. The no-frills car, they claim, will need some serious reworking to capture markets outside of India and the developing world.
26/11 militant admits he hails from Pakistan
The lone terrorist caught by Mumbai's police after the 26 November attacks has admitted to being a citizen of Pakistan. On the first day of his trial by a special court, Mohammad Amir Ajmal Kasab admitted that he had received the charge sheet filed against him for taking part in implementing the Mumbai attacks with his associates.On admitting that he hailed from Faridkot in Pakistan, he demanded a defense lawyer from the Indian government. The trials are being held under very tight security and its result may play a vital role in shaping India's relations with its neighbour Pakistan. [Video below]
Last week, Indian politics saw the attempt to create an
anti-Congress and anti-BJP Third Front for the upcoming elections. Ten regional
and leftist parties huddled near the southern city of Bangalore to discuss alliances, policy
directives and possibly the prime minister's post. The basics
India is a constitutional democracy with two houses of parliament, the directly-elected House of the People or Lok Sabha, and the Council of States or Rajya Sabha, elected by the legislators of each Indian state.
The President is the head of state and appoints the Prime Minister, who governs the country according to the make-up of the Lok Sabha.
The ten parties included, the Janata-Dal (Secular) led by former Prime Minister H. D. Deve Gowda, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Communist Party of India, the Revolutionary Socialist Party, the Forward Bloc, the Telegu Desam Party, the AIADMK, the Telengana Rashtra Samiti, the Bahujan Samaj Party (its leader Mayawati was conspicuous by her absence) and the Haryana Janhit Congress. Currently these parties have approximately 90 seats in the Indian Parliament's Lower House. The number is far short of the 272 half-way mark, prompting skepticism from the media and the major national parties.
However, by Sunday 15 March, it became clear that no formal alliance would be entered in to by these ten parties before the elections. Mayawati, leader of the BSP, confirmed at a press conference that all the Third Front parties would contest the elections individually on an anti-UPA, anti-NDA secular platform and consider forming a government together only after the elections.
Indian Express reported that such an alliance may prove difficult given the numerous, often conflicting agendas each of the regional parties. For instance, while Mayawati
(who is hailed as a leader of India's lower castes) promised reservations (positive discrimination) for the upper
castes were she to become prime minister, the
CPI(M) promised to reverse the course of liberalizing the economy.
Considering the fragmented nature of their appeal, The
Telegraph called this ambitious effort anything but "the third front", but rather an
open-door platform at best.
around three major coalitions:
the governing United Progressive Alliance (UPA) dominated by the Congress Party;
the opposition National Democratic Alliance (NDA) dominated by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP);
and the Third Front, an informal group made up of parties opposed to both the Congress and the BJP.
The UPA has been in power since 2004.
Vir Sanghvi, editor of The Hindustan Times, felt confident that Indians were not having sleepless nights worrying about the consequences of one of these regional party leaders becoming their next prime minister. He argued that Mayawati, for example, "represents a certain political venality based on nothing more than an ability to leverage caste-based voting" and sheer greed for power and wealth.
Like Sanghvi, Outlook magazine was pessimistic regarding the prospects of the Third Front. While quoting the enthusiastic CPI (M) chief Prakash Karat as saying that "the future of this country does not lie either with the Congress or the BJP. We represent the diversity of India. We want a federal state. We are against the centralization of powers in Delhi," it wondered if anyone was really listening to his call for a strong anti-Congress, anti-BJP coalition.
Meanwhile, Pankaj Vohra at the Hindustan Times offered a more cynical approach to the latest development. As factionalism trumps ideology, he sees no political bloc being able to achieve the required majority. Hence, a "Fourth Front" will emerge post elections in which the BJP and the Congress will be forced to forge alliances with more regional parties. More controversially, he suggests that one of the major parties may have to give up the prime minister's post to an important ally.
A thorny road ahead for the giants Over 700 million people will vote in the 2009 elections, in what is the world's largest exercise in democracy. Elections will be held in five phases between 16 April and 13 May. The final result is expected to be announced on 16 May.
If the inability of smaller parties to form a sustainable coalition against the national giants (BJP and Congress) seem convoluted, the giants themselves are on no clear ground with regard to the number of candidates they will be fielding or even coherent campaign strategies.
After scrapping with its ally the Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh over seat sharing, the Congress is facing a similar crisis in the state of Bihar. Local leaders Lalu Prasad Yadav of the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and Ram Vilas Paswan of the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) agreed on a seat-sharing arrangement for the state that would leave their ally the Congress with only three seats to contest in Bihar.
The Indian Express reported that the Congress called this arrangement "not acceptable" while RJD chief Lalu Yadav declared he and Paswan had "strengthened the Congress more than its own workers" and ruled out any secession from the Congress-led UPA. It remains to be seen how the Congress central command will react to being sidelined in the populous state by its allies.
The BJP on the other hand faced trouble from within its organisational ranks. Coming after the exit of NDA partner, the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) last week, infighting at the top of the BJP's command is being seen as a stumbling block in the preparations for a nationwide campaign. Reports in The Times of India of a continued cold war between party president Rajnath Singh and chief campaign strategist Arun Jaitley have exposed the cracks in the party's order. Jaitley has refused to attend party meetings until the appointment of a Singh confidante as head of the campaign in northeast India is revoked. The spat is preventing the BJP from announcing its list of candidates for the Lok Sabha polls, hence delaying the launch of a full-scale nationwide campaign.
Developments in the last couple of weeks indicate what are the real determinants of any political outcome in the upcoming national elections. Firstly, smaller regional parties will continue to hold the national parties hostage to their own political ambitions. Secondly, within the larger parties, it seems factionalism and favoritism will take up too much negotiation time, leaving any deliberation of a coherent national agenda an idea whose time seems to never come.
The game of political marriages and separations is in full sway as India prepares for general elections next month. The three major national parties, the Indian National Congress (INC), the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Communist Party of India (CPI-M) have started courting smaller, regional parties for pre-poll alliances to bolster their prospects at forming the next central government. In this game of mixing and matching, foes turn friends easily, ideologies remain on the back burner and real ground issues hardly take centre stage.
Wrestling over Uttar Pradesh
In the populous northern state of Uttar Pradesh, the Samajwadi Party (SP), a member of the ruling INC-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) has been in a deadlock with the INC regarding seat-sharing. The SP is dictating the terms of their pre-poll alliance as it decides which seats it will allow the INC to contest. After fighting assembly polls in Uttar Pradesh as a rival, the SP supported the INC during a crucial vote in Parliament last year, on the matter of India inking a nuclear deal with the United States.
Intending to claim its pound of flesh, the SP continues to keep the INC on its toes in Uttar Pradesh. On Sunday, the SP chief, Mulayam Singh Yadav announced he would only leave six seats for the INC to contest in Uttar Pradesh, ending all hopes of an alliance. The Indian Express and the Times of India wrote on Monday, quoting a senior INC leader, that the party would continue to remain open to a last minute poll alliance with the SP, signaling again why tactical political match-making may be more important than focusing on real issues in the run up to the elections. The Hindu seemed skeptical of any alliance between both parties as the INC wished to field as many as 24 candidates from Uttar Pradesh, many more than the six that the SP has agreed to set aside (the state elects 80 MPs to the Lok Sabha, India's equivalent of the United Kingdom's House of Commons).
A divorce in Orissa?
An eleven-year long coalition in the eastern state of Orissa came to an end after the local Biju Janata Dal (BJD) headed by Naveen Patnaik broke off ties with the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA). The Indian Express reported on Monday that while the BJD had severed ties with the BJP, it continued to mislead political parties by claiming that it was still part of the NDA. The Livemint says Patnaik's claims are really empty words, but the right-wing Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the BJP's ideological mentor, has already started calling the BJD "anti-Hindu" and "minority-appeasing". Orissa was last year the scene of bloody clashes and riots, in which Hindu-chauvinist mobs targeted Christian villages.
The Times of India gave a similar report from Orissa and also said that the BJD was going to remain silent on whom it would ultimately ally with at the national level. The Telegraph seemed confident the BJD would swing towards favoring the CPI-M. Orissa elects 21 members of parliament to India's 545-strong Lok Sabha in the general elections, of which currently eleven are from the BJD. The Hindustan Times reported that the populist Nationalist Congress Party (not to be confused with the INC, from which it split) was also courting the BJD, a move that may imply an ultimate alliance with the UPA. BJD dumping the BJP will be costlier to the latter as it continues to fall behind the INC in its seat count in the run up to the elections.
Political scientist Pratap Bhanu Mehta summed up in his weekly column that the coming elections would not be about people or issues. Despite some talented politicians, the next elections, like the previous one, would succumb to the calculating game of forging alliances by hook or by crook. We're unlikely to see the development of a sound campaign platform, which focuses on the many challenges that lie ahead for the Indian state. In Mehta's words in The Indian Express: "It will be the peculiar dignity of this occasion that the voters will have the last word. Whether they will have the last laugh is another matter."
This week's editor
Heather McRobie is a regular contributor to 50.50
Heather McRobie is a regular contributor to 50.50