About Richa BansalRicha Bansal recently graduated in Development Studies from the University of Cambridge and has earlier worked as a journalist in India for The Times of India and The Telegraph. She is currently working in the non-profit sector in the UK.
Articles by Richa Bansal
The results of India's month-long election will be released tomorrow. The last phase of polling on 13 May recorded an estimated 62 percent turnout (turnout over all five phases was 60 percent, with an estimated 428 million people casting ballots). Exit polls now dominate the news. Most polls suggest that the Congress-led UPA coalition and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led NDA coalition will run a close race, with the UPA ahead by a nose. It also appears that the Third Front (a coalition of Left and some regional parties) on its own is unlikely to rustle up the numbers to form the new government.
The comprehensive C-Voter poll suggested that a Congress-led alliance would win 193-205 seats, while the BJP-led alliace would win 181-193 seats. Any formation hoping to head up the new government needs to have locked down 272 seats in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of parliament.
Thus the big parties will have to cast their nets wide for allies. How regional parties fare may hold the key to the next government. The states of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh (where regional parties are strong) promise to decide the fate of India. In New Delhi, the scramble for allies (and the often secretive deal-making that entails) has already begun.
The possible game-changers are Jayalalitha of the Tamil nationalist AIADMK party in Tamil Nadu and the Dalit (formerly "untouchable") caste leader Mayawati in Uttar Pradesh. Were Jayalalitha's AIADMK party to edge its rival DMK party in Tamil Nadu, the Congress will likely dump the DMK and attempt to woo Jayalalitha. Her singular aim remains once more to become Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu.
Mayawati had openly declared her ambition to be Prime Minister, while not closing the doors on either of the two big parties. Analysts suspect she is more likely to lean towards the Congress than the BJP.
Meanwhile, the Congress has already contacted Amar Singh of the Samajwadi party in Uttar Pradesh, its erstwhile ally Lalu Prasad Yadav of the Rashtriya Janata Dal in Bihar, Kumaraswamy of the Janata Dal (Secular) in Karnataka and the former film actor Chiranjeevi of the Praja Rajyam Party (PRP) in Andhra Pradesh. Such parties maintain slim national profiles, but such is the importance of regional politics in shaping the next government that Indians will be watching their results very closely.
The BJP, on its end, is keen to net Chandrababu Naidu from Telegu Desam Party in Andhra Pradesh along with Jayalalitha in Tamil Nadu and Mayawati in Uttar Pradesh.
The Congress has also made overtures to the Left and the Janata Dal (United) chief Nitish Kumar in Bihar over the last few days. While the Left maintains its professed commitment to a non-Congress, non-BJP government, sources in the party say that it is much more intent on keeping the BJP out of power. Nitish Kumar did not respond to the Congress feeler and even shared a stage with key BJP leader Narendra Modi, despite having made a statement earlier that he would not do so.
In the event of a hung verdict, as seems inevitable, President Pratibha Patil's role will become crucial as she will have to select a party or formation to call upon to form the new government. Will she choose the "pre-poll" coalition that wins the greatest number of seats or will she wait for the emergence of a "post-poll" coalition that has cobbled together a wider base of seats with letters of support?
The third phase of polling of the 2009 Lok Sabha elections held on 30 April in 107 constituencies spread across nine states and two union territories saw an average voter turnout of 49-50 percent, with Mumbai clocking in at 41.24 percent, a record low since 1977, despite the recent Mumbai attacks.
After the third round, 372 constituencies have completed voting and the remaining 177 will go to the polls in the fourth and the fifth phases to be held on 7 May and 13 May respectively. Although both the big parties claimed to have done well after the third phase, the BJP appeared more buoyant, confidently asserting that it would improve its numbers in Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Gujarat and Bihar.
The Mumbai turnout shocked officials and consultants alike as there was expected to be an upsurge in voting after the Mumbai attacks and the numerous star-studded campaigns urging people to vote. Analysts say that the four-day weekend could have played spoiler or perhaps it was Mumbai's way of warning politicians that they had to deliver in order to expect votes - irrespective of apprehensions over terrorism. On the face of it, however, it seems that the apathy of the average Mumbaikar remains unchanged.
CBI withdraws Red Corner Notice against Quattrocchi
The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) came in the line of fire once again this week after it removed the Red Corner Notice against Italian businessman Ottavio Quattrocchi, bang in the middle of the elections, in the Rs 640,000,000 Bofors payoff case. The decision drew heavy flak from the BJP, which questioned the independence of the CBI, while the Congress claimed that the BJP was "flogging a dead horse".
The decision was challenged in the Supreme Court on Tuesday by advocate Ajay Agrawal and the court deferred the hearing till 8 September after the CBI sought two months to decide further on its course of action.
This is the second time the CBI's credibility has been questioned in these elections (earlier it gave a clean chit to Jagdish Tytler in the 1984 Sikh riots). The Indian Express, which broke the Quattrocchi story, has run consistent editorials on Congress's "unsavoury baggage: its capacity to wreck institutions" (Pratap Bhanu Mehta) and its misplaced "arrogance" in doing so, which will cost it politically. With the "waning credibility" of independent investigative institutions like the CBI, says Justice J S Verma in another editorial in the Express, people resort to extra legal means to vent their frustrations such as the "shocking" incident of a journalist throwing a shoe at the Home Minister.
These tactics prevent the Congress from capitalising on the opposition's weaknesses, says Mehta in his piece, stressing that the party needs to realize that, "in politics, it is not issues, but trust and credibility that are central. If politicians have credibility, they can survive horrendous mistakes; if they don't have credibility, there is a cloud even over their good deeds. An allegiance to strengthening institutions adds to trust and credibility."
SIT to investigate Modi's role in Gujarat riots
The Gujarat riots are under the scanner again. The Supreme Court on Friday rejected the National Human Rights Commission's (NHRC) plea to shift riot cases outside Gujarat, but instead ordered the setting up of six fast-track courts to hear nine major 2002 riots-related cases in Gujarat on a day-to-day basis and demanded that witnesses be given protection. A bench of Justices Arijit Pasayat and Asok Kumar Ganguly ordered the setting up of courts in Ahmedabad, Anand, Sabarkanta, Mehsana and Gulbarga districts, while the Special Investigation Team (SIT) was asked to ensure witness protection.
Earlier this week, the Supreme Court had also asked the SIT to investigate Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi's role in the 2002 post-Godhra communal riots. The SIT was asked to look into the complaint by Jakia Nasim Ahesan, wife of the former Congress MP, Ehsan Jafri, and submit its report in three months.
Anil Ambani chopper sabotage
In an almost Bollywood-style incident this week, a plot to sabotage Reliance chief Anil Ambani's chopper unfolded as aircraft technician Bharat Borge discovered pebbles and mud in the fuel tank. Complicating the mystery, Borge's body was found on the railway tracks a day later, carrying a suicide note, while his family have demanded a CBI probe. Several people have been questioned including Reliance officials. Joint Police Commissioner (Crime) Rakesh Maria claims that a "breakthrough" will come very soon as the investigations are at an advanced stage. Meanwhile, the Reliance Anil Dhirubhai Ambani group (ADAG) cancelled its four-year-old maintenance contract with Air Works Indian Engineering that maintains the chopper used by the Reliance group chief.
Varun gets parole till 14 May
The Supreme Court on Friday extended Varun Gandhi's parole till 14 May, the day after polling ends for the five-phase Lok Sabha elections. Varun, who had been earlier given a parole for two weeks on grounds that he would not make hate speeches against any community, had challenged the invocation of the National Security Act (NSA) by the Uttar Pradesh government against him. He had been arrested for making an inflammatory speech caught on tape against the Muslim community at Pilhibit in Uttar Pradesh, a charge he later denied claiming that the tapes were doctored.
Three leading English dailies, The Indian Express, The Hindustan Times, and The Times of India ran comment pieces last week on the decision of Sajjad Lone, a former separatist Kashmiri leader, to contest Lok Sabha polls from the Baramula constituency, welcoming the move as a positive development but at the same time viewing it with caution.
Renuka Chowdhary, in a piece in the Indian Express, said that Lone's decision to contest the polls stemmed from the massive turnout of people for the 2008 Assembly elections. "Not only did they defy the boycott call given by the separatists, but also showed sufficient enthusiasm towards the electoral exercise. This, despite the fact that just a couple of months earlier they had demonstrated their strong separatist sentiments during the Amarnath land row."
She added that another influencing factor was the "static nature of separatist politics at the moment. With global attention shifting from Kashmir to Afghanistan and the internal troubles of Pakistan multiplying on an every day basis, the movement in the peace process has been stalled and the separatists have nothing to offer or deliver to people."
She explained that Lone's party, "The People's Conference", with its roots in the power politics of the pre-militancy era and a well-knit cadre as well as a mass base, was best suited to test itself against changing popular responses. However, she also warned that Lone's entry "should not be misread as the decline of separatism in Kashmir"; Lone insistedthat he had changed his strategy and not his ideology, leaving little room for doubt that he was still working within the separatist paradigm.
On a more optimistic note, Neelesh Misra in The Hindustan Times said that "Sajjad Lone's decision to contest is the most audacious breakthrough to come out of Kashmir in a very long time" - a land where "nothing out-of-the box has emerged for years".
He conceded that Lone's claim that he was shifting his strategy and not his ideology would be considered hypocritical by those outside Kashmir and condemned as a "sellout" within the state. Nevertheless, with this step he had come to "represent the new aspirations of young Kashmiris".
These young Kashmiris, according to him, may harbour discontent against India but at the same time they wished to move on and not be caught forever in a political stalemate. The overwhelming turnout of voters in the last assembly elections in Kashmir was proof of this. The Kashmiris had not voted for India or for its rule in Kashmir, but had sought the elections as a means to demand good governance.
Misra added that the separatist leaders of Kashmir have been fighting "a battle against Indian rule, based on nothing beyond that" for so long now that they have run out of ideas. They have "said and done nothing new in two decades."
Misra said that if Lone won (and hopes that he does), it would be a unique opportunity to bring about much-needed change in Kashmir. It would be Lone's responsibility to raise in New Delhi "all the uncomfortable questions that have long been pushed aside in Kashmir and never raised in the Indian Parliament, starting with accountability". At the same time, he would also have the chance to turn to Srinagar (the capital of Kashmir) and ask the separatist leadership to review their ideas and not remain stuck in a directionless war. If he failed to do that, then it would be an opportunity lost amounting to both hypocrisy and sellout, said Misra.
The Times of India took a neutral stand on Lone's candidature, carrying editorials both lauding and questioning his decision to contest in the polls.
The supportive view stated that Lone had taken a "welcome cue" from the Kashmiri electorate and had bowed to popular sentiment by throwing his hat into the electoral ring. "As the first separatist to join the poll fray, Lone has crossed the political if not ideological Rubicon. His decision is an inadvertent tribute to Indian democracy, despite his assertions to the contrary."
It further said that Lone's
shift in strategy was an expression of his desire to represent Kashmiris
at a "bigger platform" and this, by itself, was an admission of
the fact that "secessionist non-cooperation and violence have had
The counterview was less enthusiastic, arguing that Lone was playing "hide-and-seek" with the separatists and warned against getting carried away "by this latest twist in Kashmir's famously faction-ridden and byzantine separatist politics"-especially since Lone had not forsaken his commitment to separatism.
It added that Lone had been "flirting" with the idea of representative politics for a while, having fielded his party candidates in earlier assembly polls as well. Hence, his decision to contest the Lok Sabha polls this time around did not cause any stir.
The piece also criticized Lone's attitude towards the Indian constitution as he had said that he would have to take oath under it with a "heavy heart". "That's not the kind of attitude we want to promote among MPs towards the Constitution." Neither did it rule out the option of Lone turning back to separatist politics should he fail, of which, the author felt there was a "strong possibility".
Following the flinging of a shoe at the Home Minister P. Chidambaram by a Sikh journalist and massive protests by Sikhs across Punjab spilling over to the streets of Delhi, the Congress was forced to ask Jagdish Tytler and Sajjan Kumar to withdraw their candidatures on Thursday.
Both Kumar and Tytler are implicated
in the 1984 anti-Sikh riots. The recent outrage occurred when the Central
Bureau of Investigation (CBI) gave a clean chit to Tytler, who had
been fielded by the Congress as a candidate from northeast Delhi.
On Thursday, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh summoned the CBI Director reportedly for an explanation of the circumstances leading to the clean chit given to Tytler. The Congress was cornered into taking a decision when the Karkardooma court in Delhi - due to decide on Tytler's CBI report the same day - deferred the decision till 28 April.
The CBI report on Tytler had also drawn sharp criticism from opposition parties in the past week. The IANS reported that Amar Singh blamed the CBI for creating roadblocks for Mulayam Singh (in a disproportionate assets case) and Sanjay Dutt (challenging Dutt's plea to stay his conviction to fight the Lok Sabha polls) while letting Tytler off the hook. The BJP accused the CBI of being the "Congress Bureau of Investigation", stating that it would clear anybody who was with the Congress.
The media also raised the issue of political double-speak as NDTV ran a debate on the Congress and BJP both being guilty of double-speak in the 1984 anit-Sikh riots and the 2002 Gujarat riots or the Varun Gandhi hate speech respectively.
Veteran journalist Tavleen Singh, a panellist on the NDTV show, pointed out that the real issue of "justice being denied" was getting lost in this polarization of the debate. This, according to her, was a worrying trend for a democracy, which must safeguard its principles and institutions.
Meanwhile, stepping up the strong separatist rhetoric this election season, Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) leader Vaiko warned the Tamil Nadu government of a bloodbath if the LTTE leader Prabhakaran was harmed. He even said that India's unity as a country was threatened if it did not intervene and stop the war against the LTTE.
At a protest meet of the Sri Lankan Tamils Protection Movement on Wednesday, Vaiko said, "India also consists of 7 crore (70 million) Tamils. All Tamils support Prabhakaran. If anything happens to Prabhakaran, a river of blood will flow in Tamil Nadu. Then the police and their guns will not matter. If you don't stop the war, India won't be one country." PMK founder S Ramadoss and CPI state secretary D Pandian also took part in this protest.
Chiranjeevi and the Fourth Front
On a different note, the hysteria that Telegu superstar Chiranjeevi's entry into the political arena has whipped up amongst the masses could play spoiler for both YSR Reddy and Chandrababu Naidu in Andhra Pradesh. It is now clearly poised to be a three-way battle between the Congress, the Third Front comprising Naidu's TDP, TRS, CPI and CPI-M, and Chiranjeevi's Praja Rajyam party, which joined the Fourth Front this week.
Chiranjeevi announced his move to join the Lalu Prasad Yadav, Ram Vilas Paswan and Mulayam Singh Yadav led Fourth Front following a meeting with Amar Singh and his "good friend" Sanjay Dutt on Monday. Dutt is now the General Secretary of the Samajwadi Party (SP).
India's security concerns:
Reports that the Taliban have infiltrated into Jammu and Kashmir to step up violence in the state in the run up to the Lok Sabha polls have been doing the rounds. However, the army remained non-committal on the identity of the infiltrators saying that the ongoing encounters in Gurez and Kupwara have been mostly with Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) terrorists. On Thursday, Jammu was put on high alert following suggestions that large batches of militants had managed to infiltrate the state.
When India wraps up its fifteenth general elections in mid May, Dr. Binayak Sen will be completing two years in jail in a cruel inversion of democracy. Held on charges of suspected involvement with Maoist insurgents under the heavy-handed Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act (CSPSA), his guilt has not yet been proven.
Why is this award-winning doctor - who for thirty years worked tirelessly for the tribal poor of Chhattisgarh - still imprisoned?
Sen dared to speak out against the atrocities of Salwa Judum, a controversial state-backed militia group, which armed local tribal people and pitted them against the Maoist insurgents in Chhattisgarh, an impoverished state in central India. He led a fifteen-member fact-finding team in December 2005, which published the first in a series of damning reports about the excesses of the Salwa Judum.
The evidence he produced of police involvement in the killing of innocent
tribal people in Santoshpur cost him his freedom in late March 2007. The state moved deliberately to silence him. He was detained
under the CSPSA and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) on charges
criminal conspiracy, making war against the nation, and knowingly using the
proceeds of terrorism. Both these laws allow for arbitrary detention without
any right to appeal. Also in openDemocracy on the Maoist insurgency in India:
Suhas Chakma on the excesses of the state government and the Salwa Judum
Ajai Sahni on the massacre of policemen in Chhattisgarh in March 2007
The flimsy "evidence" for his arrest - that Sen allegedly passed on letters from a jailed senior Maoist leader to an aide - is not fully substantiated. Sen had visited the Raipur jail as the state general secretary of the People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) to provide legal and medical assistance to prisoners including the said Maoist leader. His request for bail has been consistently rejected at all levels of judiciary since his arrest.
A paediatrician by profession and a gold medallist from the prestigious Christian Medical College in Vellore, Sen turned down lucrative career options to work in the field of community health. After helping set up a worker's hospital, owned and operated by a mine worker's organization, he later founded the NGO Rupantar with his wife. The couple have worked through Rupantar for the last eighteen years in training village health workers to provide basic health care in nearly twenty villages in the state.
Sen inevitably got drawn into social advocacy in Chhattisgarh, one of the states that has been particulary affected by the strengthening Maoist insurgency in recent years. The rise of the Maoists has been abetted by the acute governance vacuum in these areas, which are inhabited primarily by impoverished rural and forest-dwelling people, known within India's complex socio-economic taxonomy as "tribals".
To counter the Maoists, Chhattisgarh state launched in 2005 a paramilitary force called Salwa Judum that armed underage tribal boys ostensibly to fight the Maoist insurgents in the area. The move resulted in pushing the region into a fratricidal war. Caught in the fray were the poor tribal villagers trapped between the Maoists, on the one hand, and the state-supported Salwa Judum cadre on the other. The combined vested interests of the state and an industrial sector keen on the mineral rich land further fuelled the violence.
Since its inception, the Salwa Judum has emptied 700 tribal villages. The villagers have been forced into temporary roadside camps robbing them of their livelihood of farming and minor forest horticulture. It comes as a saddening surprise that some of the evacuated land is earmarked for Tata Steel and Essar Steel's proposed steel plants and mining projects.
Sen's open criticism was an impediment that the state government decided it could not afford. Despite intermittent media outrage and strong condemnation by international human rights organizations at his farcical arrest and trial, Sen continues to remain behind bars. With the second year of his imprisonment now coming to a close, a number of organizations from different parts of India, including the PUCL, have launched the Raipur Satyagraha to step up the campaign for his release.
The Satyagraha - echoing Mahatma Gandhi's belief in nonviolent resistance - will be a sustained movement, in which leading human rights activists, civil society organizations, lawyers, women's groups and other supporters will walk every Monday to the Raipur Central jail, where Sen is being held, and court arrest.
Professor Ilina Sen, the wife of the jailed doctor, and Kavita Srivastava, National Secretary of PUCL, have also been raising international awareness about the injustice of his arrest by giving a series of public talks at leading universities around the UK. The talks have also launched a public petition to the Indian Home Minister demanding Sen's release. The following is a brief interview with Professor Ilina Sen and Kavita Srivastava when they visited the University of Cambridge on 6 March.
In discussion with Professor Ilina Sen, wife of Dr. Binayak Sen:
Do you feel the media has done enough to generate a sustained campaign through its coverage for Dr. Sen?
The media is sensitive to particular events. It has a very short memory span. So when something happened, it would generate interest. For instance when he received the Jonathan Mann Award last year, there was coverage. [Dr. Sen received the Jonathan Mann Award in 2008 for Global Health and Human Rights from the Global Health Council]. The Award was also a serious embarrassment (for India) because it was the first time a South Asian was given this Award and he was not able to receive it but was in prison on the charge of sedition.
How many times has Dr. Sen's bail been rejected? And are you planning on trying for bail again?
The bail had first been denied by the Chhattisgarh High Court in July 2007. Then on 10 December, 2007, which is the International Human Rights Day, the Supreme Court dismissed the bail petition without any reason. After that, the trial started, charges were framed. But once the material witnesses had failed to substantiate any of the charges, the bail application was put once more to the Chhattisgarh High Court as there was a change in circumstances now with the charge-sheet having been filed and a lot of evidence run through, but nothing proved. Yet, once again in December 2008, the High Court dismissed the application stating that there were no fresh grounds for bail. We are now in the process of going to the Supreme Court once more for bail.
Now that a second year in jail seems to be drawing to a close, have you any other plans to expedite Dr. Sen's release?
We are now focussing a lot of our campaign activity in Raipur itself. And the shape it is taking is in the form of the Raipur Satyagraha. Large numbers of activists and supporters will walk every Monday through the city of Raipur in Chhattisgarh to the jail where he is being held. Then they will court arrest. We plan to sustain it over a long time now - till he is out. People from mass organizations, writers, activists will support it. It will start on 16 March. We already have the support of organizations like the Asha Pariwar, Paschim Banga Khet Mazdoor Samity, NBA (Narmada Bachao Andolan), lawyers associations and people like Nandita Das, Mahasweta Devi, Sandeep Pandey, Kuldip Nayar, and maybe Mahesh Bhatt.
Could you tell us something about the Christian Medical College's support through all this?
They have been very, very supportive. They are doctors from the highest positions in the world. They have been active in writing letters, arranging meetings, supporting the cause and our movement as well as bearing the legal costs of the case.
In discussion with Kavita Srivastava, PUCL:
How is Dr. Sen holding up at the jail?
His spirits are well but his health is not well. He has lost 25 kgs. They had kept him in solitary confinement for some time but now he is back with the lifers. There is nothing much to write about Indian jails, except that he has a bed - a cemented one.
Have you approached the central government in New Delhi and requested its intervention?
We met the Home Minister P. Chidambaram on 23 December. He was very sympathetic but told us, "What can we do?". [The state government in Chhattisgarh is a BJP government, which has just been re-elected to power for another five years.]
What will you talk about this evening?
I will be talking about the use of draconian laws and how in the name of national security, there are two groups of people in India today, who are being targeted. First are those who are fighting intolerant policy, they are being targeted in the name of nationalism and held under draconian laws on charges like sedition or supporting banned organizations. The Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act criminalizes "intent". This is against any kind of criminal jurisprudence. It is "intent", not an "act". The second group are the Muslims, who are being targeted in the name of terrorism. Legislating laws like this in the name of national security represses civil dissent and prevents people from holding views.
What do you hope will be the outcome from your talks at the universities in the UK?
We have come to the UK to build awareness about Dr. Sen's unjust arrest. We want to highlight that Binayak is a "prisoner of conscience". His arrest has nothing to do with territorial boundaries. It is about the subjugation of human freedom - freedom to think, dream and have hope.