Wednesday, 29 May 2013

AFSPA: It’s time J&K was shown some dignity

 Good news, even if a bit belated, can bring smiles and ignite hopes, especially if it comes from Jammu & Kashmir. State Congress chief Saifuddin Soz’s statement that it was time the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) was revoked from parts of the state is one such news. He was addressing an All India Mahila Congress workers meeting in Srinagar. Soz’s statement gains importance as it is the first time the Congress has openly stated willingness to consider revoking the AFSPA. The National Conference, with which the Congress has allied to form the government in the state, has been calling for a rollback of the Act since 2011. J&K chief minister Omar Abdullah has the option of calling the Unified Command Headquarters to take the Army and other intelligence groups into confidence for facilitating such a move. He has assured to take up the matter with the prime minister and home minister at the June 5 internal security meeting in New Delhi. Though security is still a concern in many parts of the state, especially with incursions and disturbances at the border yet to calm, the state government feels that there are many areas in which the draconian law — as it is often referred to because of the unbridled powers it gives the Indian armed forces — can be revoked. This is a sentiment that has found resonance with the people of the state and many human rights organisations.
The Act was invoked in Jammu & Kashmir in 1990 at a time when militancy was at its peak. But with successful elections and greater power given to local bodies, things have changed over the years. With general elections a year away the chorus for revoking the AFSPA from J&K has gained ground and is expected to be an issue that political parties will take up during their election campaign. Omar Abdullah has been a prominent leader who has openly expressed displeasure with the Act not being revoked by the Centre. However, irrespective of whether political parties try to gain mileage from the issue or not, there is a strong case for the Centre, and the Army, to look into the request.
However, New Delhi cannot, and should not, take a call on the revoking of the Act depending on the political situation in Pakistan. The government, both at the Centre and the state level, in consultation with the Army, should take measured steps that will both win the confidence of the people and also ensure that peace and stability is maintained and further strengthened. The partial revoking of the AFSPA from certain areas in J&K will be a step in the right direction. In addition to this, the government should bring development to the state and involve an otherwise disenfranchised youth of J&K to be part of India’s growth story.

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Lone wolf terror: More potent than Al-Qaeda

A video grab of the Woolwich killer
 Just when world nations had thought that they had seen the worst of terrorism and were devising ways to check and tackle it, comes an offshoot of terrorism that is frighteningly hard to detect and contain given its nascent and localised nature. ‘Lone wolf’ terrorism, in which an individual or a small group of people, after being influenced by extremist views, decide to attack, has been on a steady rise over the years. The Woolwich attack, in which two radicalised Britons of Nigerian origin attacked and killed a British soldier, shook the world because of the gory nature of the crime. What came as more shocking was the motive behind the crime: the two ideologically motivated youth were protesting British military action in Muslim countries.

Anders Breivik
Faisal Shahzad
The Woolwich incident is not a one off case. Right from Norway where Anders Breivik gunned down more than 80 youngsters to Faisal Shahzad’s failed attempt to bomb Times Square in 2010 to Fort Hood where Nidal Malik Hassan gunned down 13 people in 2009 till the recent Boston marathon bombings where two radicalised youth to used a pressure cookers to kill three and injure more than 250 people, all these examples prove that these lone wolves can be as potent and dangerous as organised groups. Two main reasons for a sprout of such attacks is the increasing difficulty in organising a 9/11 type of organised, large-scale attacks and a growing access to radical views on different platforms: be it on the Internet, educational institutions, etc.
These developments, though not taking place in India, have a bearing on India and should catch the attention of New Delhi. India is not immune to terror attacks. India has been a victim of the various hues of terrorism and has at times been successful in tackling it. However, New Delhi is yet to come up with a comprehensive strategy to tackle terror. More often than not it has been a piecemeal approach of gathering scattered bits of information after there has been an attack. With Internet and information technology penetration increasing throughout India, the law enforcement agencies must be on top of the job when it comes to surveillance of online activity. More manpower and technology should be dedicated for this purpose. If we fail to heed this wakeup call it will be too late before we get our act together.

Saturday, 25 May 2013

Jessica Lall case: Perjury and witness protection again

The Delhi high court on Wednesday ordered model-turned-actor Shayan Munshi and ballistics expert Prem Sagar Manocha, witnesses in the Jessica Lall murder case who turned hostile, be tried for perjury under Section 340 of the Code of Criminal Procedure. The court observed that Munshi’s backtracking had prima facie amounted to ‘helping the accused’. If found guilty the duo could face up to seven years in prison. The court’s observation is important as it may act as a deterrent for witnesses in future cases. There are previous instances where witnesses have backtracked. In 1999, Sanjeev Nanda driving his luxury car hit and killed six people, including three policemen. Later in court the sole survivor turned hostile stating that it could have been a truck that hit them. In the Best Bakery case, Zahira Sheikh, who was a key witness to the attack that killed 14 Muslims, repeatedly changed her statements prompting the courts to jail her for 15 months in total for perjury.
Shayan Munshi
Another, and important, aspect is the Delhi high court asking the Delhi government to come with a ‘witness protection policy’ within 10 weeks. Such a policy is important because trials prolong over a long period and witnesses, either through threats or inducements, change their stance in court. But this is not the first time the government has been asked by the judiciary to bring in an effective witness protection policy. In 2003, in the wake of the Nitish Katara case, the Delhi high court had issued guidelines for witness protection and in 2012 the Bombay high court, while passing a judgment on the Best Bakery case, pushed for an effective witness protection programme. While the law ministry has expressed its willingness to incorporate a witness protection mechanism into the criminal justice system, tangible action is yet to be seen. And that seems to be the issue stopping an effective witness protection programme — it is a legislative failure which no amount of judicial intervention can address.
Witnesses turning hostile are a setback for any case, but more importantly if trials are to stretch over years and even decades, it can affect the recollection and statements given by the witnesses. A quicker justice system and an effective witness protection programme are essential to ensure that such instances are checked.

Thursday, 23 May 2013

Four years of UPA2: Where's the party tonight?

Photo by AP
The Congress-led UPA, which completed four years into its second term, may not be popping open champagne bottles but it deserves a pat on the back. In an era of coalition politics, where national parties have lost ground and have been confined to regional pockets of power, and where regional parties have had a field day at the national level, it is no mean task to complete nine years in power. Riding on the success of schemes like the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, the Right to Information Act and the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan implemented in its first term, in its second term the UPA continues to keep the momentum. The government has been able to maintain a respectable financial atmosphere at a time when economies around the world are struggling in the red, though a lot more needs to be done to ensure that the economy does not slip any further and improves, like giving a push for industry and opening the economy further. Under the UPA 2 poverty figures have fallen from 37.2% in 2004-05 to 29.8% in 2009-10. By the execution of Ajmal Kasab and Afzal Guru the government has sent a strong message that it is not a soft power and that there is no compromise on national security. On the foreign policy front it is a mixed bag. New Delhi’s handling of Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and the Maldives could have been better. However, in its dealing with China and Afghanistan the government has shown great finesse. India has shown great resolve in maintaining political and economic interests with Myanmar, Vietnam and even Japan, while at the same time not straining its ties with China.
There are many things that the UPA could have done differently to avert the negative criticism it is receiving. A bolder and more aggressive prime minister — much like the Manmohan Singh during the Indo-US nuclear deal — would have helped evade much of this criticism. The government seems to have been plagued by allegations of corruption and just when it tides over one scam it is greeted by another. Also a part of the perceived failure of the UPA 2, and an issue the BJP is highlighting as the government’s failure, comes from the government’s inability to pass important Bills such as the food security Bill and the land acquisition Bill. However, if the UPA government has not been able to table the Bills in Parliament it was mainly because opposition parties, headed by the BJP, resorted to frequent disruption of proceedings. The mulish stubbornness of the opposition saw the last two sessions of parliament going virtually without any business done. The principal opposition is the government-in-waiting — a fact the BJP seems to have forgot. While the BJP has been vitriolic on its attack on the PM and has taken great pains to tar the government black, it has failed to suggest measures it would take in the event of the party comes to power in the next general elections.
While the opposition aided by an alert media have been quick to highlight the pitfalls of the government — and they have rightly done so, the government has failed to go to the people with its positive steps it has initiated over the years.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Khalid Mujahid: Custodial deaths and terror suspects

The death of terror suspect Khalid Mujahid, on Saturday, while being escorted by police from court to Lucknow jail has turned the heat on the state police and administration by a few notches. Mujahid, along with Tariq Qasmi, was arrested for allegedly being involved in the bomb blasts that took place in the Lucknow and Faizabad courts in 2007 and in the Gorakhpur blasts the same year. Right from the time of the arrests there has been allegations of police highhandedness and targeting of the minority community. The Samajwadi Party had promised in its election manifesto to review the cases against ‘innocent’ Muslim youth lodged in jails on terror charges. Accordingly it moved the Barabanki court in April seeking a withdrawal of the cases against Mujahid and Qasmi. The court rejected the plea.
While an FIR has been filed blaming 42 police personnel for the death of Mujahid, including a former DGP of Uttar Pradesh, the state has asked for a probe by the Central Bureau of Investigation into the circumstances surrounding the death. Relatives have alleged that there were signs of torture on Mujahid’s body. One of the things the death of Khalid Mujahid points to is the indifferent attitude shown by the Akilesh Yadav government to the RD Nimesh Commission report. The commission, constituted by the Mayawati government, had submitted its report in August and is believed to have found a lot of discrepancies with the police version of the arrests of Mujahid and Qasmi. It still isn’t clear as to why has the state government not acted upon the suggestions by the commission. This also leads to the greater question of why do governments fail to act on the recommendations put forward by enquiry commissions. Such inaction leads to public discontent and loss of faith in the government’s commitment towards the people.
Khalid Mujahid’s death is not the first instance of custodial death and unless there are serious changes in the way the police function and in the way cases are handled this might not be the last. All cases, especially terror-related, need to be handled swiftly and the officials investigating the case need to be held responsible for undue delays.

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

The Dutt case highlights the need for better conditions in Indian jails

Film actor Sanjay Dutt going to prison has highlighted an aspect of our jails in the country that seldom get mention —they are unsafe places to end up in. Many prominent people have come out demanding that Dutt be provided better conditions in the jail, where he will be serving the remaining part of his five-year sentence for possessing illegal weapons during the 1993 bomb blasts in Mumbai. The narrative, much in Bollywood style, goes that Dutt’s life is in danger while in prison and that he should be given better facilities as he is a reformed person. While there might be an inkling of truth in these fears given that our prison safety records are poor, it should not be used as an excuse for preferential treatment towards a select few because of their status in society. Giving select privileges to certain prisoners should be stopped. A crime, irrespective of who does it, is a crime and this principle should be meted out in prisons. Entitlements — like special food, greater freedom in the prison, comfy beds and air-conditioners — rob the purpose of serving a sentence and diminish the fear of committing a crime.
On the contrary, the fear of unsafe prisons should be used as a case for improving the conditions in the thousands of jails that dot the topography of the country. Overcrowded jails where both under-trials and convicted criminals share the same space — which is a human rights violation — is a common sight in most of the prisons in India. Overcrowding often leads to bad management of inmates by prison authorities and this leads to crimes inside the prison and also leads to appalling hygienic conditions. The Tihar jail, the largest in South Asia, is also frighteningly overcrowded and it was here that Ram Singh, a main accused in the December 16 gang rape case, was attacked and found dead in his cell. By not improving the conditions in prisons across the country, India is violating the UN Human Rights Committee norms (and norms of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights). According to a March 2011 report of the Asian Centre for Human Rights, more than 12,000 people have died in Indian prisons over the last decade — that’s an alarming three people a day.
Our overcrowded prisons and poor living standards need to be looked into and changed if jails should actually be centres for reform and not dungeons from which there is no escape.

Saturday, 18 May 2013

Modi: The virtual is more powerful than the real

Narednra Damodardas Modi is an interesting phenomenon. I say phenomenon, and not person, owing two reasons: not much is being talked about Modi the person. While the media, along with other political parties, lose no chance to amplify and dissect the lives of other politicians, little is discussed about Modi’s life. The second reason is that there seems to be a conscientious effort to project Modi as a larger-than-life person. The latest effort in this direction was Modi’s virtual addressing of overseas Gujaratis in 20 cities in the United States on the occasion of Gujarat Divas. The subject of his talk was more or less on predictable lines — the prosperity Gujarat has seen under him, his vision for development and the peril the country is under the leadership of the Congress-led UPA. Interestingly, he also sought contributions for a statue — twice the size of the State of Liberty — of Sardar Patel.
This is not the first time Modi has made news for being the Lawrence of Arabia among Indian politicians for being the pioneer to use the World Wide Web to connect with the people. From 2005 Modi has been addressing the Gujarati community in the US on Gujarat Diwas. Modi became the first — and probably the only — Indian politician to address a rally using 3D hologram projection technology. His 3D virtual show that was simultaneously telecast at 53 places in December 10, 2012, using the Pepper’s Ghost Illusion technology entered the Guinness Book of World Records. News is that the BJP is all set to go bigger with the 3D show that in the next few months more such virtual appearances are expected where the Gujarat strongman will address people in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. The NaMo Gujarat TV, a cable network channel that was launched prior to the Gujarat elections, is dedicated to highlighting the achievements of the BJP and it is all set to cater to a national audience.
On March 21, Modi spoke to thousands of netizens using Google+ Hangout on how IT technology has been used for better governance. Modi also has a very strong presence on social networking sites. When last checked he had more than 16 lakh followers on Twitter. That is a little shy of 17 lakh 70 thousand followers minister of state for human resource development Shashi Tharoor commands. Modi also has an active presence in Facebook, Youtube and Google+. This is an achievement not many chief ministers in India can boast about.
While in his virtual avatar Modi seems to be a towering edifice, in reality there appears to be chinks in the armour. Modi makes it a point to highlight the prosperity and development Gujarat has achieved under his leadership. The industry houses rushing to set shop in the state are proof of this. However, there is also the other side of the story where Gujarat has high levels of malnutrition and very poor social indices. Despite his juggernaut victories in the assembly polls in Gujarat, he has not been able to replicate that victory in any of the other states. His campaign speeches and visits during the 2012 Uttar Pradesh polls and the recent Karnataka elections seem to have a damp effect given that the party did not fare well in both the states. In the recent Karnataka debacle the party got such a thorough hiding that the effect of his campaign visits in the south is being questioned.
The allies in the NDA, of which the BJP is the principal party, are also not keen on projecting Modi as the coalition’s prime ministerial candidate. Nitish Kumar, Bihar’s chief minister and JD(U) leader, in April made it clear that his party was not for Modi. There is also an element of doubt surrounding the acceptability of Modi as the party’s candidate within the BJP. The party’s dilly-dallying in naming him as its candidate reflects this difference of opinion within the party and the RSS.
As of now, going by the results in Uttar Pradesh and Karnataka, among others, it seems that Narendra Modi has a virtual presence outside Gujarat. He has proved, three times in a row, his stature in the state, but beyond the state borders it is not as luminous as projected or perceived to be. However, there is a lot of time between now and the 2014 elections and it is hard to predict how things will shape up by then.
For now, the shrill cry of the thousands of Modi followers (fans) is akin to the fans of an Upendra or Mohanlal strongly pushing for their superstar to have dominance in Bollywood.

Friday, 17 May 2013

The premium bad boys pay in the league

Cricket lost its innocence in the summer of 2000 when Saleem Malik and later Hansie Cronje were found guilty of match fixing. Ever since then when any team or player in form suddenly underperformed it was thought to be a ‘fixed’ performance. So when S Sreesanth, Ajit Chandila and Ankeet Chavan were picked up by the police for their alleged involvement in spot-fixing of matches in which the Rajasthan franchise of the T20 tournament was part, it did not surprise many. The spot-fixing allegation levelled against the trio points to a greater malice in the handling of the tournament and certainly robs billions of its fans the enjoyment with which it is savoured. The Dubai-Karachi-Mumbai betting nexus that is suspected to be involved in fixing many matches in the tournament points to a larger network behind this illegal activity. The presence of such betting rackets have not only turned the game into a farce but has also led to consequences outside the stadium like when a 13-year-old boy was kidnapped by his cousin after he lost money betting on the game. The Delhi Police, which has been at the receiving end of the flak recently, and rightly so, should be appreciated for bringing to the fore the dark underbelly of the Indian Premier League (IPL).

That the three players have been named a day after a one-year ban was lifted on three other players — Mohnish Misra, Amit Yadav and Abhinav Bali — shows that it is not the first time betting and cricket have found mention together. One of the problems is that the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) has not done enough to ensure that such events are prevented. This is not the first time the taint of match-fixing, and the various forms of it, is being alleged with the game. The IPL, right from its inception in 2008, has been under the scanner for different financial irregularities. The income tax department has been investigating cases of tax evasion by certain team franchises, the CBI had taped conversation between bookies and IPL officials in 2010, teams have been accused of money laundering by sending funds through tax havens, etc. 
The BCCI has been quick to suspend the three players. The question is: Will more names come out in the open or will the trio be the fall guys while the actual rot in the system remains unmasked only to later appear at a convenient time and place? Will the ongoing domestic T20 tournament, or even cricket for that matter, be ever seen just as a game and continue to enjoy popular support? A lot of it depends on the fate of the current investigation. A thorough probe with proper action is essential to ensure that there is still love and respect for the ‘gentleman’s game’.

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Who’s responsible for the damage of public property?

More often than not it is public property that becomes the prime target and is the worst hit during a protest or riot, irrespective of whether it is called by a political party or any two-paisa outfit looking for its five seconds of fame. The ongoing protests and violence in Rohtak, in Haryana and Villupuram, in Tamil Nadu reflect this dangerous trend where it is considered alright to vandalise public property and cause inconvenience to public life when grievances are not met. Tension in Karontha village, in Rohtak over the ownership of the Satlok Ashram turned violent when police, present to give protection to the ashram as per court orders, stopped protesting members of the Arya Prathinidhi Sabha from entering the ashram. In the ensuing violence three people were killed and hundreds were injured. Public transport vehicles were torched in addition to traffic being blocked on major roads. Similarly, the protests by the PMK claimed three lives, saw 16 vehicles torched, more than 800 vehicles damaged, two bridges damaged by explosives and more than 150 trees felled or torched. Whatever be the perceived injustice the aggrieved groups feel, there is no justification for violence and violence of this scale by no stretch of its meaning can be called a protest. This is simply a macabre display of highhandedness or goondaism.
The right to freedom of expression, with reasonable restrictions, and the right to assemble peacefully is a fundamental right enshrined in our Constitution. Peaceful protests were a tool used by our leaders to fight the colonial British to win our freedom. However, this right has been misinterpreted, misused and abused by all and sundry. Vandals ransacking the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in Pune in 2004, right wing groups vandalising paintings of MF Husain and other artistes, the quota protests by Gujjars blocking the Delhi-Jaipur highway, etc, show that protests for many mean to give the other party a bloody nose and destroy public property. What protesting groups fail to realise is that their right to protest does not supersede the right of someone to peaceful living.
While political parties and other groups are quick to highlight the deplorable condition of public transport and other public services, they are also the first ones to vandalise them. This should stop — now. Stronger laws, and its effective enforcement, need to come in place to ensure that public property is protected. Punishment in the form of fines and jail terms depending on the severity of the damage caused, need to be enforced. In this light Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa has rightly stated that the government will claim the damages from the PMK responsible for the mayhem using the Tamil Nadu Public Property (Prevention of Damage and Loss) Act, 1992. It is to be seen if Haryana chief minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda will take such a stand.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

A Hobson’s Choice on Energy

The Supreme Court on Monday gave its go-ahead for the operationalising of the first unit of the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Project (KNPP) in Tirunelveli district, Tamil Nadu. The court was of the view that the plant is safe and its functioning was essential for the larger interest of the nation and its economic growth. The apex court’s view, keeping the economic growth of the nation in mind, is a welcome step. However, as also noted by the court, it is essential that there is no compromise when it comes to ensuring safety and monitoring the operations of the plant.
The KNPP deal was struck in the ’80s between the USSR and India but only took momentum since 2011. The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant disaster in 2011 and the Rawatbhata nuclear plant leak in 2012, in addition to the earlier accidents in Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, have eroded public trust in nuclear energy. Developed nations in the West are gradually switching to other sources for meeting their energy requirements. However, given that the nation needs to produce energy to fuel its growth trajectory, India is left with a Hobson’s choice when it comes to nuclear energy. That the reliance on alternate sources of clean energy has fallen woefully short of meeting the ever-growing energy need tilts the balance more in favour of nuclear energy.
A great deal of the suspicion and fear that the KNPP will be detrimental to the people’s lives and livelihoods in and around the plant is because, as put by M S Swaminathan, ‘there was a greater need for communication between scientists and local communities’. That the governments, both the State and Centre, have failed to win the confidence of the local people is evident from the strong protests that have been going on for two years now. There is also a need to check that the reactor does not have substandard equipment. This fear gathers momentum as allegations of corruption have been levelled against Zio-Podolsk, which is a subsidiary of the Russian firm Rosatom involved in building the KNPP. Based on Russian media reports that Zio-Podolsk was involved in supplying products for reactors in China and India, China has started a quality check on its nuclear reactors. There is no reason why India should not do a similar check. Various issues like the disposal of nuclear waste, discharge of hot water from the plant into the sea, its impact on marine life, the displacement of nearly one lakh people in a 16-km radius of the plant, etc, need to be satisfactorily addressed. Meeting India’s growing energy needs and ensuring environment safety is a tightrope walk for the government. The challenge is in succeeding in this delicate balance act.

Monday, 6 May 2013

The Price to Pay for Good Looks

Omar Borkan Al Gala (photo from open source)
History has it that the abduction of Helen of Troy by Paris was the reason for a thousand ships to be launched, which eventually led to the Trojan Wars. Faustus in Christopher Marlowe’s famous novel waxes eloquent about Helen’s beauty: “Was this the face that launched a thousand ships…” A lot has also been sung about the captivating beauty of Cleopatra. Perhaps in a fear that history might repeat itself — albeit with a gender twist this time — authorities in Middle East kingdom of Saudi Arabia deported three men who were attending the annual Jenadrivah Heritage & Cultural Festival in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. First reported in the online Arabic newspaper Elaph, the news soon caught the interest of the international press and the fascination of people — especially women — around the world. Of the three men, the identity of one is known: Omar Borkan Al Gala, who is an actor and poet. If the hysteria surrounding Omar’s facebook page is anything to go by, the moral police in Saudi have turned Omar into an international sensation.
Though doubts can be raised questioning the veracity of such news, one is tended to believe it, especially since it comes from a country where intolerance towards mingling between the sexes is sky high. The Elaph reported that ‘…three Emiratis were taken out on the grounds they are too handsome and that the Commission members feared female visitors could fall for them’. More than anything the actions of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vices, which sent the three Emiratis pack back to the UAE, is an indictment against women and a statement that suggested Saudi women are too weak-kneed that they would “fall” for good looks. What else could one expect from a regime that still deems its women unfit to drive cars and where its religious police get into a tizzy when women interact with men?
It’s not that we in India are alien to this concept of ‘moral’ policing. Come February 14 and the ‘save-Indian-culture’ band goes about trashing boys and girls at the slightest of an excuse. But even by their standards we are yet to hear someone targeting a man for being ‘too handsome’. Being too handsome, it seems, is a crime in certain parts of the world.

(An edited version of this appeared in the Hindustan Times on May 6)