Saturday, September 25, 2010

Who gains from the Games?

If the people and the country have not benefited from the Commonwealth Games, then who are the beneficiaries? We don’t have to look far for an answer to this question.
(What's in it for her? A labourer's child at a CWG venue.)

Delhi is bedecked with huge banners and festoons in garish colours, creating a faux festive atmosphere to mark the Commonwealth Games which begin on October 3. Foreign sportspersons and delegates arriving in India’s capital city to participate in the Games can be forgiven for thinking that the residents of Delhi are celebrating a much-anticipated event which the organisers, in spite of the scandalous manner in which the preparations have been handled, bringing shame to India and all Indians, strangely insist will be ‘better’ than the Olympic Games at Beijing and the Commonwealth Games at Melbourne. Little would they know that the residents of Delhi, as also the vast majority of this country’s population, are seething with rage and do not share the enthusiasm of those who have let India down wilfully, smugly confident that they shall never be held accountable for their sins of omission and commission.

Nor will the foreign visitors get to see the ungainly sights of Delhi. All along the road from the Games Village, built on the flood banks of Yamuna violating all environmental norms and with an eye to the ‘premium’ that can be charged from prospective buyers of these apartments after the event is over, to the various stadia, huge boards have been put up, beyond which lie ramshackle ‘colonies’ that are in reality sprawling urban slums. Ironically, even if the visitors can’t see the ‘other’ Delhi, they will get to smell it: There’s no way the organisers can block the stench that rises from the open sewers of these ‘colonies’.

Yet, despite the last-minute sprucing up and the banners and festoons, India’s most pampered city doesn’t quite look pretty — or prettier than what it looked like till a fortnight ago. If anything, it looks tacky. A fellow blogger’s description comes to mind: It’s like lipstick on a pig. Apart from politicians, bureaucrats and contractors who had their snouts in the trough for the past seven years and have only now been sent scurrying by a Prime Minister appalled by the battering the nation’s image has received in recent days to try and salvage whatever can be salvaged, at this late hour, of the country’s dignity and honour, nobody is celebrating what was supposed to be India’s coming out party.

The banners and festoons are embossed with the seemingly seductive slogan, “Come out and play”. If the organisers thought this would make CWG 2010 a people’s event, like almost everything else to do with the Games, they have got this wrong too. For the people of Delhi, the sub-text of the message reads: Don’t you dare come out of your homes while the Games are on. Such is the apprehension of harassment on the roads, coupled with antipathy towards an event that has fetched abiding national shame instead of unleashing a tidal wave of national pride, that those who can afford to get out of the city have booked their passage. Sensing windfall profits, even low-cost airlines have trebled the cost of tickets.

Offices have offered their staff the option of working out of home. Vendors and kiosk-owners who make an honest living from a hard day’s work, unlike the organisers of the Games, have been banished. Thousands of migrant labourers who have toiled at the Games venues for the past many years, setting up home in hovels, have been told to pack up and leave, just disappear. For all practical purposes, the city will wear a deserted look during the Games.

Which brings us to the question: Whose Common- wealth Games is it anyway? When the NDA Government agreed to bid for the Games in 2003, it was obviously guided by those who sold the ‘India Shining’ lemon to the BJP. Confident that the NDA would win the 2004 election and the one after that too, they saw the Games as a celebration of India’s arrival on the global scene as a major economic player. The NDA, as we all know, did not win the 2004 election and lost further ground in 2009. But its legacy could not be disowned by the UPA Government; the Congress saw the Games as an opportunity to make political capital, at home and abroad: It would mark the triumphant return of the party to the centre stage of Indian politics from the margins to which it had been pushed.

So the Games became a party — and partisan — affair with control over its preparations and conduct vested with the Delhi Government, the Union Ministry of Sports, the Union Ministry of Urban Development and the CWG Organising Committee. Between themselves, they carved up the pie. Institutions became irrelevant as individuals emerged as key players. Understandably, there was neither accountability nor responsibility attached to the planning and completion of projects. And nobody bothered about the escalating cost of the Games as taxpayers, and not the Congress, were funding the extravaganza. From the initial budget of Rs 1,899 crore, the total expenditure now stands at anything between Rs 70,000 and Rs 100,000 crore. Such was the brazenness of the Delhi Government that it did not think twice before diverting funds meant for Dalit welfare to building roads that have already begun to cave in. And such is the disdain towards the people that Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit airily dismissed the import of a showpiece overbridge collapsing like a pack of cards by saying it was not meant for foreign athletes but spectators.

If anybody stands to gain from CWG 2010, an orgiastic celebration of everything that is venal and abhorrent about public life in India, it is the organisers and their political patrons. The sorry plight of India’s sportspersons will remain unchanged; they have gained nothing from this event whereas they should have been the focus of attention. In any case, the Common- wealth Games is not considered a major sporting event and is rated lower than the Asian Games. Yes, Delhi will have more flyovers and underpasses, but that’s a small consolation for a city turned upside down and whose people will now have to live with the ravages of the Games for years to come.

The question we should really ask is: What has India gained from the Games? The gross mismanagement, the discomfiting questions raised by auditors, the shocking disregard for financial integrity and the embarrassment of overshooting deadlines not by days and weeks but by months have caused enormous damage to India’s image abroad. More important, it has shaken the confidence of Indians at home — they are no longer too sure that their country can take on the world; for them, “Come out and play” is not a challenge but a taunt.

When CWG 2010 begins with the promised gala opening ceremony (provided it doesn’t rain and the organisers don’t make a hash of it) with dancers in sequined dresses gyrating to AR Rahman’s music (never mind the silly lyrics which, like everything else about this colossus scam, do not make any sense) and a spectacular fireworks display, millions of Indians will be left wondering whether what Sports Minister MS Gill calls a “big fat Punjabi wedding” is justified in a country where 37 per cent of the people live below the poverty line and children go to sleep hungry. If the people and the country have not benefited from the Games, then who are the beneficiaries? We don’t have to look far for an answer to this question.

[This appeared as my Sunday column Coffee Break in The Pioneer.]

Corrupt rulers, cynical people

The filthy underbelly of Delhi, best described in Kipling’s words as a ‘packed and pestilential town’, has been exposed by the CWG mess.
(Toilets at CWG Village. Organisers said hygiene is not an issue! - BBC)

August 24, 1690. This day at Sankraal, I ordered Captain Brooke to come up with a vessel to Chuttanuty, where we arrived about noon, but found the place in a deplorable condition, nothing being left for our present accommodation, the rains falling day and night.” The “deplorable condition” of ‘Chuttanuty’ (Sutanuti), laid to waste by the Nawab of Bengal three-and-a-half years ago, would have dampened the spirit of any other official, but Job Charnock, no stranger to Bengal, had set his mind on building the headquarters of East India Company at this place and remained undeterred. His persistence paid off when Calcutta was born of the union of three villages — Sutanuti, Gobindapur and Kalikata. Much later, it was to become the Empire’s Second City, the centre of British affairs in India.

Yet, for all its economic, political and social importance, Calcutta was not free of blots and blemishes. Two centuries after Charnock landed in Sutanuti, the celebrated chronicler of British India and for a while Assistant Editor of this newspaper, Rudyard Kipling, visited Calcutta and was not impressed either by its magnificent buildings that symbolised the power of the Raj or the splendorous lifestyle of the ‘White nabobs’ who controlled trade and commerce. Rather than lavish praise on the city and its residents, Kipling caustically wrote:

Thus the midday halt of Charnock — more’s the pity! —
Grew a City
As the fungus sprouts chaotic from its bed
So it Spread
Chance-directed, chance-erected, laid and built on the silt
Palace, byre, hovel — poverty and pride —
Side by side;
And, above the packed and pestilential town,
Death looked down.

Kipling was accused of being cynical and allowing his antipathy towards Hindoos who, though restricted to native quarters, shared the city with their colonial masters, get the better of his judgement. In retrospect, Kipling was just being prescient in his own inimitable style. Even before the Union Jack fluttering atop Governor House was replaced by the Tricolour at Raj Bhavan and the last British official, trader and fortune-seeker-turned-boiler operator at Victoria Jute Mill left Calcutta, the city had begun to crumble. Garbage and poverty, hunger and disease, death and decay enmeshed to become the leitmotif of Calcutta, compared to which Delhi, Bombay and Madras were small towns.

As Calcutta’s collapse gathered speed, Delhi — or rather New Delhi — emerged as free India’s First City, pampered at the expense of every other urban centre. Over the decades, Delhi has grown, “As the fungus sprouts chaotic from its bed; So it (has) Spread; Chance-directed, chance-erected”, but it has never had either the glitz and glamour of Bombay or the sedate respectability of Calcutta. It’s a city of ghettos, both real and of the mind, where the elite live in what are referred to as ‘posh colonies’ while politicians and bureaucrats occupy sprawling bungalows in Lutyens’s Delhi. Then there is another Delhi where people live in festering urban slums and ‘unauthorised’ colonies of various kinds. The chrome-and-glass malls, bridges and underpasses are an alluring distraction from the city’s filthy underbelly. If Calcutta was India’s ‘pestilential city’ in the 19th century, Delhi best fits Kipling’s description in India of the 21st century. For evidence, look at the alarming outbreak of dengue and swine flu. Neither class nor cash serves as a protective barrier in this “packed and pestilential town, (where) Death looks down.”

Despite the huge sums of money that are spent every year to make Delhi a “world class city” — a phrase popularised by Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit — there really is little to show by way of public services that are in any manner better from those provided in India’s other, and lesser, cities. A corrupt administration supervised by venal politicians who believe glib talk is a substitute for governance cannot be expected to perform any better. Delusions of grandeur no different from those that clouded the mind of the last Mughal Emperor whose writ did not run beyond the walls of his serraglio prompted Delhi’s rulers to believe they would be able to stage the “best-ever Commonwealth Games” and stun the world.

In the event, the preparations for the Games, which have cost India’s honest tax-payers upwards of `70,000 crore, have turned out to be no more than the Great Indian Rope Trick. Initial audit reports suggest limitless loot by those entrusted with the task of creating new and refurbishing existing infrastructure; a final assessment would reveal the enormous scale of the thievery that has taken place in the name of hosting the Games.

It would, however, be dishonest to blame politicians, bureaucrats and contractors alone for fetching such ignominy and abiding shame: India is being laughed at by the entire world; this nation has been reduced to an object of ridicule and pity. More than politicians and organisers, bureaucrats and contractors, it is the people of Delhi who are to blame. There is a certain callous disregard for values and ethics that sets apart the elite of Delhi from their counterparts in other cities. So long as their lives are not adversely affected, they are reluctant to take a stand on behalf of others, leave alone the nation. Scrutiny of Government’s actions that involve spending taxpayers’ money by citizens is an alien concept in Delhi.

Nor are the elite of Delhi easily moved by the horrific realities of life to which others are subjected in this city — poor sanitation, non-existent civic services, corrupt babus, rationed water, endless power cuts, ill-equipped hospitals and a criminally indifferent police force. It is amusing that there should be widespread anger over Games Organising Committee secretary-general Lalit Bhanot insisting that excreta-encrusted toilets and bathrooms at the CWG Village (which Ms Dikshit says is better than the one built for the Melbourne Games) are “clean to both you and us” but “may not appear so to some others”. If only newspapers had published, equally prominently, the bathrooms and kitchens at All-India Institute of Medical Sciences, we would have known that accepting filth and squalor as ‘normal’ is a way of life, and not an exception, in India’s “world class” capital city.

By this time next month the Games will be history; what will remain are the leftovers of an orgiastic feast at the taxpayers expense: Bridges that are badly designed and poorly built, roads that are no more than a layer of asphalt and stadia with leaking roofs nobody will use. Life will go on as usual. The slums will become more squalid than before. Yamuna will once again be reduced to a fetid drain. And we will still be ruled by the same lot who have let India down. As for the guilty men and women, none of them will be either shamed or shunned.

[This appeared as Edit Page Main Article in The Pioneer.]

Sunday, September 19, 2010

History and faith are beyond law

Belief is independent of who owns the disputed land in Ayodhya and is manifested in the unshakeable faith that a Ram Mandir shall rise again where it once stood.
(Babri Masjid, built by Babar after demolishing temple at Ram Janmasthan.)

James Tod joined the Bengal Army as a cadet in 1799, presumably looking for a life of adventure in the heat and dust of India. He swiftly rose through the ranks and, as a Lieutenant-Colonel, provided valuable service to the East India Company. His uncanny ability to gather information helped the early colonisers smash the Maratha Confederacy. Later, his assistance was sought during the Rajputana campaign. Colonel Tod, as he was known, was a natural scholar with an eye for detail and a curious mind. He was fascinated by the history of Rajputana and its antiquities as much as by its palace intrigues and the shifting loyalties of its rulers and their factotums. That fascination led to his penning two books that are still considered mandatory reading for anybody interested in the history of the Rajputs, although latter-day scholars of the Marxist variety would disagree with both the contents and the style, neither leavened by ideological predilections. The first volume of Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan was published in 1829 and the second in 1832, nearly a decade after he returned to Britain.

Thousands of people, Indians and foreigners, Muslims and non-Muslims, visit Ajmer every day to offer a chaadar at Dargah Sharif of Hazrat Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti, a shrine where all are welcome and every prayer is answered, or so the pious choose to believe. Many stay on to visit the other antiquities of Ajmer, among them a magnificent mosque complex which bears little or no resemblance to its name: Adhai Din Ka Jhonpra. People gawk at the columns and the façade intricately carved with inscriptions from the Quran in Arabic. They pose for photographs or capture the mosque’s ‘beauty’ on video cameras and carry back memories of Islam’s munificence towards its followers. Don’t forget to visit Adhai Din Ka Jhonpra, they will later tell friends and relatives visiting Ajmer. As for Indian Muslims who travel to Ajmer and see Adhai Din Ka Jhonpra, they would be tempted to wonder why similar mosques are no longer built, a wonderment that is only partially explained by the fact that sultans and badshahs no longer rule India. The crescent had begun to wane long before Bahadur Shah Zafar was propped up as Badshah of Hindoostan by the mutineers of 1857.

Such speculation as may flit through troubled minds need not detain us, nor is there any need to feel sorry for those who wallow in self-pity or are enraged by the realisation of permanent loss of power. Hundred and fifty years is long enough time to reconcile to the changed realities of Hindustan. So, let us return to Adhai Din Ka Jhonpra in Ajmer. Few who have seen and admired this mosque complex would be aware of Colonel Tod’s description of it in the first volume of Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan: “The entire façade of this noble entrance … is covered with Arabic inscriptions … but in a small frieze over the apex of the arch is contained an inscription in Sanskrit.” And that oddity tells the real story of Adhai Din Ka Jhonpra.

This is no place of worship built over weeks and months for the faithful to congregate five times a day, it is a monument to honour Shahabuddin Muhammad Ghauri who travelled through Ajmer after defeating, and killing, Prithviraj Chauhan in the second battle of Tarain in 1192 AD. Stunned by the beauty of the temples of Ajmer and shocked by such idolatory, he ordered Qutbuddin Aibak to sack the city and build a mosque, a mission to be accomplished in two-and-a-half days, so that he could offer namaz on his way back. Aibak fulfilled the task given to him: He used the structures of three temples to fashion what now stands as Adhai Din Ka Jhonpra. Mindful of sensitivities, his men used their swords to disfigure the faces of figures carved into the 70 pillars that still stand. It would seem India’s invaders had a particular distaste for Indian noses portrayed in stone and plaster.

The story of Adhai Din Ka Jhonpra is not unique. Hindustan’s landscape is dotted with mosques built on sites where temples stood, often crafted with material from the destroyed places of worship. Quwwat-ul Islam, the first mosque built in Delhi, bears testimony to the invader’s smash-and-grab policy, as do the mosques Aurangzeb built in Kashi and Mathura, or the mosque Mir Baqi built at Ayodhya on the site Hindus believe to be, and revere as, Ram Janmasthan. The pillars and inner walls of Babri Masjid, as the structure was known till it came crashing down on December 6, 1992, were those of a temple that once stood there, a fact proven beyond doubt. Somnath was fortunate: It was sacked repeatedly, but no mosque came to occupy the land where it stood — and still stands — in Gujarat.

By next Sunday, we will know who owns the land where Babri Masjid stood and a Ram Mandir now exists. Unless something extraordinary happens between today and Friday, the Lucknow Bench of the Allahabad High Court is all set to give its judgement on the title dispute that has been pending in various courts for more than six decades. It is anybody’s guess as to what shall be the verdict of the three-judge Bench; what is for sure is that the claimant who loses the case will immediately appeal to the Supreme Court and it will be quite some time before the issue is resolved beyond further legal dispute. Hence, there is no need for either celebration or mourning, with its attendant consequences, at this stage.

In any event, we must bear in mind that courts can at best decide on who owns the land, not the sanctity or otherwise of the land. Similarly, court judgements can neither rewrite history nor controvert historical facts. Faith and history are not subjects of legal scrutiny, nor do they require to be constrained by the narrow interpretation of law. Hindus believe Maryada Purushottam Ram was born at the spot where the Babri Masjid was built in 1528 by Babar’s army of invaders as one of the many mosques that came to symbolise, over hundreds of years, Islam’s conquest of Hindustan. That belief is independent of who owns the piece of land today and is manifested in the unshakeable faith that has sustained the hope for five centuries that a magnificent temple shall rise again where it once stood on the banks of Saryu.

[This appeared as my Sunday column Coffee Break in The Pioneer.]

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Time for Hindus to leave or perish?

Is it time again for Hindus to leave or perish ‘in the flames of fanaticism’? If yes, where will they flee to? Isn’t India their land too?
(A Kali Mandir desecrated by rioting Muslims in Deganga.)

In 1946 there was no ‘Right-wing media’ and ‘Left-liberal media’ in Bengal (or, for that matter, in India as it existed then). There were newspapers and journals that were clubbed together as the “Hindu Press” because they did not blindly echo the Muslim League’s raucous demand that all of Bengal must go to (East) Pakistan, and there was the “League Press” comprising dailies, weeklies and monthly magazines, of which there was a surfeit those days, all of them virulently anti-Hindu and hence pro-Pakistan — with the notable exception of The Statesman which was then edited by Ian Stephens who was pro-Pakistan and hence anti-Hindu.

Curiously, newspapers and journals opposed to the League’s politics, policies and programmes were labelled as “Hindu Press” by Bengal’s blatantly communal Government led by the Muslim League and headed by Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy as well as the Province’s British administrators who were never quite comfortable with the “Hindoo baboo” although he had proved to be an invaluable ally in first setting up and then managing the colonial enterprise after the sepoy mutiny of 1857 which left the Mussalman out in the cold, to be tolerated but not to be trusted. Newspapers like The Star of India, which wielded considerable influence among Muslims, and The Statesman, whose columns were brazenly used by Ian Stephens to try and sway official policy and public opinion in favour of Pakistan, were just referred to as the “League Press”, as were Urdu and Bengali rags that openly called for murder and worse if Hindus stood in the way of their ‘homeland’ — or the “land of the pure” as the name selected by the League, which was to become the core of separatist propaganda, promised its supporters.

Six decades later, newspapers and news channels that, as a matter of editorial policy, intentionally gloss over Muslim communalism which is no less sinister and debilitating for our national life as was the fanatical hatred towards Hindus preached and practised by the Muslim League, are strangely referred to as the “secular media”. Measured by the same yardstick, the “League Press” was the “secular media” of 1946, although Ian Stephens would have protested at the suggestion, not least because he would have considered it antithetical to Muslim interests which were then represented by the politics of Muslim separatism about which there was nothing secular.

But we digress. The polarisation of the media, pitting the “Hindu Press” against the “League Press”, became starkly noticeable before, during and after the ‘Great Calcutta Killing’ of August 1946. A month before that ghastly blood-letting on the streets of Calcutta by mobs owing allegiance to and instigated by the Muslim League, the self-appointed ‘sole spokesman’ of India’s Muslims, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, had dropped all pretensions of being a moderate constitutionalist: He had rejected both the Constituent Assembly and the British offer to transfer power to an interim Government in which the Muslim League would be a partner of the Congress. It was either Pakistan or ‘Direct Action’, he threatened; the Muslims, he declared at a Press conference, were ready to “launch a struggle (for which they) have chalked a plan”. Asked what he meant by ‘Direct Action’, an incandescent Jinnah, who never relished answering questions, caustically replied, “Go to the Congress and ask them their plans. When they take you into their confidence I will take you into mine. Why do you expect me alone to sit with folded hands? I also am going to make trouble.”

It is tempting to wonder whether Jinnah had any idea of the ‘trouble’ that he threatened to make on ‘Direct Action Day’, August 16, 1946. If he knew that the League’s rage boys would run riot across Calcutta and mercilessly butcher men, women and children, he did nothing to prevent it. And, if Jinnah was repulsed by the gruesome sight of corpses piling up faster than they could be removed by a paralysed city administration, he never expressed his regret nor did he castigate Suhrawardy, who sat in the police control room during the killings to ensure the police did nothing to stop the ‘direct action’. Records of the time are not entirely reliable. The “League Press” played down, if not entirely glossed over, the murder and mayhem let loose by Muslim League activists; the “Hindu Press” was accused of inflating the numbers of those killed and injured. The official inquiry report would put to shame white-wash jobs done by latter day official inquiries, for instance the one into the 1984 genocide of Sikhs in Delhi. Subsequent literature places the death toll at anything between 5,000 and 10,000. We will never really know the truth.

The story, however, does not end with the harrowing days and nights of August 1946 when vultures descended in large numbers on the roads, streets and gullies of Calcutta, feasting on corpses rotting in the sweltering post-monsoon heat. In a sense, ‘Direct Action Day’ was a curtain-raiser, the prelude to another ghastly massacre. The minority Hindu community of Ramganj in Noakhali district had no inkling of the “organised fury of the Muslim mob” that was unleashed on October 10, 1946. Within days, nearly all of Noakhali was engulfed by communal violence — Hindus were slaughtered like so many sheep; those who tried to flee were waylaid and killed. The “Hindu Press” reported thousands lost their lives; the “League Press” incredibly not only downplayed the violence but insisted there was no loss of lives. Ashok Gupta (no relative of mine and a Gandhian to boot) who accompanied Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi on his Noakhali sojourn prepared a report on the riot in which he recorded tales of Hindus being killed, forced to embrace Islam, and Hindu women being abducted or coerced into marrying Muslims. Such details are missing in official records which merely mention that the riots led to the loss of 200 lives.

The New York Times, reporting on Noakhali, published an AP despatch from New Delhi: “Mohandas K Gandhi, who has been attempting to insure communal peace in the Bengal and Bihar areas, said religious strife in the troubled Noakhali section of Bengal seemed to call for Hindus to leave or perish ‘in the flames of fanaticism’... He released telegrams from Congress workers in Noakhali, which is predominantly Moslem, in which they described attempts to burn Hindus alive.”

Sixty-four years later, areas of West Bengal which have witnessed a tectonic shift in their demographic profile due to unrestrained illegal immigration from Bangladesh, are slowly turning into volatile ‘Noakhalis’. Last week we had a glimpse of the communal belligerence that is building up when the minority Hindus in Deganga faced the “organised fury of the Muslim mob” led by Haji Nurul Islam, a Trinamool Congress MP. Is it time again for Hindus to leave or perish ‘in the flames of fanaticism’? If yes, where will they flee to? Isn’t India their land too?

[This appeared as my column Coffee Break in The Pioneer.]

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Targeting the Armed Forces

Manmohan Singh is believed to be working on an ‘Eid Package’ to appease separatists in Kashmir Valley. Will AFSPA be diluted?
(Pakistani flag hoisted by separatists at Lal Chowk, Srinagar, on Eid-ul-Fitr, 2010.)

The Union Government, according to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, is “groping for a solution” to the current unrest in the Kashmir Valley where separatists, with the help of their rage boys whom they pay to pelt the police and security forces with stones, have been virtually holding the administration to ransom for the past couple of months. Just in case people expect the Government to act firmly and restore the authority of the state without allowing the situation to worsen any further, Mr Singh has let it be known that “we are not dealing with an easy problem… The country and the people must be patient”. After all, a problem that has been allowed to fester for 60 years cannot be solved in six years; that would be an unfair expectation.

Yet, the need to do something, or at least to be seen to be doing something, in response to the worsening law and order situation in the Kashmir Valley and arresting the slide into separatist violence and chaos reminiscent of the late-1980s and early-1990s, cannot be entirely wished away. The Prime Minister, therefore, has called a meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Security to “discuss the Kashmir issue threadbare”. It’s amazing that he should have waited till now to do so. But, as the cliché goes, better late than never.

However, the manner in which the Prime Minister has phrased the agenda of the CCS meeting should cause disquiet and discomfort, at least among those Indians who still passionately believe that Jammu & Kashmir was, is and shall remain an integral part of the Union of India; that instead of conceding even an inch to the Pakistan-sponsored separatists, we should focus on governance and restoring law and order; and, that the best option at the moment is to ride out the storm while minimising collateral damage.

It is, in a sense, alarming that Mr Singh, given his penchant for ‘thinking out of the box’, should propose to “discuss the Kashmir issue threadbare” along with his colleagues in the CCS. That would imply discussing the entire range of issues raised by the separatists, including azadi, the demand for “autonomy” voiced by the National Conference (articulated in the voluminous report that was drafted and approved by the State Assembly when Mr Farooq Abdullah was Chief Minister) and the People’s Democratic Party’s insistence on “greater autonomy” (a delightfully undefined and vague concept which includes accepting Pakistani currency as legal tender in the State).

However, we can seek comfort in the fact that it is unlikely the CCS, after “discussing the Kashmir issue threadbare”, will come to any definitive conclusions. For instance, it is unimaginable that the Government would be authorised to use its executive powers to grant either ‘autonomy’ or ‘greater autonomy’. Apart from the fact that this cannot be done with a note being sent out by the PMO or a notification being issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs, the political backlash would be too strong for the Congress to risk, leave alone weather. India’s corrupt, cynical and self-seeking urban middle-class may have become indifferent to the nation’s unity and integrity, but the masses still carry the vote on polling day.

Any changes in the existing arrangement through amendments to the Constitution can similarly be ruled out. The BJP may not have sufficient votes in Parliament to force the deletion of Article 370, but it can block the strengthening of this debilitating Article through further amendments to the Constitution. The Government is presumably mindful of this simple arithmetical fact and will not make a promise that it will later regret having made to the separatists (and their masters in Pakistan).

But something is cooking, of that we can be sure. Or else Chief Minister Omar Abdullah would not have been summoned by Mr Singh for discussions, nor would a meeting have been convened to “discuss the Kashmir issue threadbare”. We are told that the Prime Minister is keen on announcing an ‘Eid Package’ to restore peace in the Kashmir Valley. If there is any truth in it, then we should expect a dramatic gesture of capitulation — nothing less than that would make the separatists feel they have won half the battle and ask their rage boys to take a break — amounting to appeasing those who repudiate India’s sovereignty.

And this is most likely to come in the form of the Government announcing its decision to amend the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. Separatists and their stooges among jholawallahs masquerading as human rights activists want the Act to be repealed. Since the Government wouldn’t dare do that, it will seek to dilute the law that makes life difficult for the lawless. While it is anybody’s guess as to what those amendments, which will probably be introduced through an Ordinance and then ratified by a Bill that will require a simple majority in Parliament (and hence cannot be blocked by the BJP), will be, but a fair guess can be attempted on the basis of the discussions that have taken place so far between the Government and the Armed Forces.

The amendments are likely to focus on three clauses in the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. First, the right of Army personnel to search premises and arrest individuals believed to be guilty of terrorism and separatist violence without warrants will be sought to be curtailed. The Army has rightly asserted that without this power its counter-insurgency operations will be rendered futile.

For, it’s frightfully stupid to expect the Army to deliver results without the element of surprise that is necessary to raid a hideout or arrest a terrorist. In Jammu & Kashmir, where the civil administration has been infiltrated by the separatists and their sympathisers, information about the Army seeking and securing warrants to raid a particular house where terrorists may be hiding or arrest a suspect will not remain a secret. Indeed, it will be communicated within minutes and the Army will be left looking silly; its men will become objects of ridicule and worse.

The second amendment that is being proposed will make it mandatory for the Army to hand over those who have been arrested to the police or a magistrate within 24 hours of the arrest. Given the terrain of operations and the logistics involved, this will prove to be virtually impossible. If implemented, this amendment will force the Army to abandon mopping up operations; jawans will have to rush to the nearest police station or magistrate’s court instead of sanitising the area and ensuring there are no more militants hiding there. This is a patently absurd proposition and is designed to raise obstacles for the security forces rather than make their task easier.

The third amendment which the separatists and their jholawallah friends are pushing for is a sinister move to tarnish the reputation of the Indian Army and a devious ploy to prevent it from fearlessly performing its duties. The UPA Government, which has a pronounced bias towards jholawallahs, has apparently agreed to the demand for setting up ‘grievance cells’ in every sub-division.

This would be a perfect recipe for disaster. The right to file a complaint will be merrily misused and there will be a flood of allegations, dealing with which will become the main occupation of the Army instead of conducting counter-insurgency operations. Even without such a mechanism, the Army has been repeatedly accused of ‘violating’ human rights, more often than not with the sole purpose of tarring the dignity and honour of our men in uniform.

Along with financial sops at the tax-payers’ expense, these and other amendments to the Armed Forces Special Powers Act would make a perfect ‘Eid Package’ for the separatists: They can celebrate a big victory in the proxy war they have been waging against the nation with the help of its foes. But the ‘peace’ such abject surrender may bring will be a prelude to another offensive for azadi which will be timed to coincide with US President Barack Hussein Obama’s November visit. Make no mistake about that.

[This appeared as Edit Page leading article in The Pioneer.]

Sunday, September 05, 2010

It’s India’s land that China occupies

Gilgit-Baltistan is part of Jammu & Kashmir
(The Karakoram Highway linking China and Pakistan)

While Prime Minister Manmohan Singh waxes eloquent on the need to bridge the “trust deficit” in relations between India and Pakistan, infusing fresh enthusiasm among mombattiwallahs on both sides of the border, the Government he heads faces a severe crisis of ‘trust deficit’ of a different kind. The confused response of the Government over the presence of Chinese troops in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir — what Beijing describes as “northern Pakistan” — demonstrates this point. It appears that the Ministry of External Affairs is now virtually out of the loop on crucial matters, starved of vital intelligence input necessary for a coherent response to issues that have a direct bearing on foreign affairs and policy. It is impossible that R&AW, which is well-clued into what’s happening in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir despite depleted ‘assets’, should not have been aware of PLA soldiers being flown into what were earlier known as Northern Areas and since 2009 are referred to by Pakistan as Gilgit-Baltistan after the recent floods caused massive destruction of strategic infrastructure, including the Karakoram Highway.

Yet, the Ministry of External Affairs commented on it only after Selig S Harrison, director of the Asia Programme at the Center for International Policy and a former South Asia bureau chief of The Washington Post, wrote about the “quiet geopolitical crisis ... unfolding in the Himalayan borderlands of northern Pakistan, where Islamabad is handing over de facto control of the strategic Gilgit-Baltistan region in the north-west corner of disputed Kashmir to China” in The New York Times. Even after the article was published, presumably placing in the public domain information that had already been secured and processed by R&AW, all that the Ministry of External Affairs could (or would) say is, “We are seeking an independent verification... If true, it would be a matter of serious concern and we would do all that is necessary to ensure the safety and security of the nation.”

That would have been reassuring had the Ministry, which is part of the national security structure, not been so woefully ill-informed. For, by then there was confirmation of the presence of PLA troops by Pakistani officials who said the Chinese were in Gilgit-Baltistan for “relief work”. Last week, China, while denying the presence of 11,000 of its soldiers in Gilgit-Baltistan, has confirmed that it is ‘helping’ Pakistan with men and material to cope with the disaster. India’s feisty Ambassador to China, Mr S Jaishankar — he should have been sent to Beijing long ago — has subsequently conveyed our ‘concerns’, but whether these have been taken seriously is anybody’s guess.

Two inter-linked facts are now abundantly clear and indisputable. First, China has crafted a Jammu & Kashmir policy that is apparently heavily loaded in favour of its ‘all-weather friend’ Pakistan and is inimical to India’s interests. In reality, it is designed to serve China’s strategic interests more than anything else. The main elements of this policy are: Delegitimise India’s sovereign right over Jammu & Kashmir by treating the State as ‘disputed territory’ (hence the stapled visas for Indians living in that State); legitimise Pakistan’s claim to all of Jammu & Kashmir and thus treat Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (including Gilgit-Baltistan) as Pakistani territory or ‘northern Pakistan’ (visas are stamped on Pakistani passports used by residents of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir); and, thereby seek to convert Pakistan’s patently illegal act of ceding 5,180 sq km of occupied Indian territory, known as ‘Trans-Karakoram Tract’ (virtually all of Gilgit-Baltistan) to China in 1963 into a legal transaction.

A resurgent China, having raced ahead of Japan and secured for itself the status of the world’s second largest economy and tamed the US into playing second fiddle (recall President Barack Hussein Obama paying obeisance in the Chinese court), now feels confident of pushing its strategic frontiers beyond geographical boundaries. This is where the second factor of China’s deftly-crafted Jammu & Kashmir policy comes in: It wants to assert its hold over the Northern Areas and make its presence felt to both Pakistan and India, albeit for different reasons. This precedes the planned expansion of China’s strategic infrastructure through and beyond the ‘Trans-Karakoram Tract’ by building a rail link between Kashgar in Xinjiang province and Havelian near Rawalpindi. With Gwadar Port providing it access to the Persian Gulf and an amplified land route across the Karakoram range in place, China would have vastly secured its strategic interests, trouncing those of India. That’s called pursuing a robust policy of enlightened self-interest which underpins both national security and strategy in the shifting sands of 21st century’s geo-politics.

Of course, duplicity laces this policy which is often articulated with a forked tongue. “As a neighbour and friend of both countries, China believes that the (Kashmir) issue should be left to the two countries so that it could be properly handled through dialogue and consultation,” Ms Jiang Yu, the spokesperson of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, told mediapersons in Beijing last week, insisting that China “has no intention to interfere in the Kashmir issue” which “we believe is an issue left over from history between India and Pakistan”. Such pious declarations of China’s ‘non-interference’, however, fly in the face of Beijing’s actions. Asked whether China would review the policy of issuing stapled visas to Indian passport holders of Jammu & Kashmir, Ms Jiang Yu said, “Our visa policy towards inhabitants in the Indian-controlled Kashmir region is consistent and stays unchanged”.

It would be easy to attribute such deliberately un-nuanced — some would say belligerent — articulation of how Beijing views New Delhi’s concerns to a rising China’s arrogance. But the belligerence of those with whom India does business, literally and metaphorically, is not entirely divorced from Indian realities. We cannot escape from the twin facts that our own Jammu & Kashmir policy is stuck in a grey zone of self-doubt, self-pity, self-flagellation and self-recrimination, and our political class is deeply divided on how to deal with an ever recalcitrant minority (that’s what the separatists in Kashmir Valley represent) in a State we insist is inseparable from the Union of India. The all-party resolution that was adopted by Parliament to stop then Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao from persisting with his “anything short of azadi” approach at the behest of a certain Robin Raphel (who now oversees American aid to Pakistan), restating India’s sovereign right over all of Jammu & Kashmir, including Pakistan-occupied Kashmir of which Gilgit-Baltistan is an integral part, is now a forgotten document. If only successive Governments since then had premised their foreign policy on that resolution and aggressively sought to reclaim India’s territory from Pakistani — and de facto Chinese — occupation, we would have been spared the humiliation that is being heaped on us today.
[This appeared as my column Coffee Break in The Pioneer.]