Monday, 29 December 2014

The Interview: India can learn from Obama

A still from the movie The Interview
It might not have hit a theatre near you but the Christmas release of Sony pictures’ The Interview is good news for everyone who upholds democratic values and wishes to stand up against cyber bullies.
After hackers (believed to be from North Korea) attacked Sony’s servers in November, leaked sensitive documents and threatened movie theatres that screened The Interview — a satire about an assassination attempt on North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong-un, starring Seth Rogen and James Franco — Sony cancelled its release.
United States President Barack Obama criticised the production company’s decision as a “mistake”, following which Sony decided to have a limited release of the movie. Sony, by releasing the movie, and Mr Obama, by voicing his support, have showed that no matter how big the threat is, bullies must not be entertained.
Shelving The Interview would have set a wrong precedent. As rightly put by Mr Obama, “imagine if producers and distributors and others start engaging in self-censorship because they don’t want to offend the sensibilities of someone whose sensibilities probably need to be offended”. Unfortunately, we, in India, are not alien to such self-censorships.
Be it the release of a book by Wendy Doniger (The Hindus: An Alternative History), or the screening of a war documentary by Callum Macrae (No Fire Zone) or a joint art exhibition by Indian and Pakistani artists in Ahmedabad, the organisers and government have caved in at the slightest hint of protest from fringe groups. Rather than protecting the enshrined right to freedom of expression, the government has often taken the easy — and lazy — option of banning works of art, academia or literature.
There is a lesson New Delhi can learn from the ‘Interview’ saga — when the rights of an organisation or a person are  threatened, it is the duty of the State to step in and ensure that they are protected. It is not enough if Mr Obama is invited as the chief guest for the Republic Day or more H1B visas are granted to Indian techies in the US.
Along with pushing for greater economic ties, New Delhi should also imbibe Washington’s zeal, as seen in this case, to protect free speech. Often India and the US are compared as great democracies, but it is the State’s approach towards these principles that defines the character and depth of a democracy.

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Sundarbans oil spill: A wake up call for India

Mangroves are classified as the most sensitive to oil spills, according to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s environmental sensitivity index. The fragile ecosystem, with its rare flora and fauna, is sensitive to even small accidents that can irrevocably tip the ecological balance in the area. Given this, a December 9 accident between a cargo vessel and a tanker carrying furnace oil is posing a grave threat to the Sundarbans, a Unesco-declared World Heritage Site.
Unfortunately, what turned the tragedy into a catastrophe, whose impact is yet to be assessed, is that Dhaka was woefully underprepared to deal with the situation, the main being how to contain the spill. There was also a delay in the government’s reaction to the accident because of a confusion over the jurisdiction between the forest and shipping departments. It was also ill-equipped to contain and clean up the mess.  In an utter disregard for the safety of the people, the local villagers were asked to mop up the oil using sponges and pans — oil thus collected could be sold back to the company that owns the sunken oil tanker. All of these are irresponsible steps in the extreme. However, the delayed response has resulted in the slick spreading from River Shela, where the accident occurred, to River Passur and other canals clogging over 350 sq kms of the mangrove forest.
Though a bit late in the day the United Nations has sent in its team to assess the disaster and help with recovery, and has asked Dhaka to impose a ‘complete ban’ on commercial vessels in the mangroves. This might not be possible given that these channels are the major lifeline for oil supplies reaching many cities and towns in Bangladesh. But governments need to maintain a delicate — but necessary — balance between economic viability and environmental safety. The oil spill is a wake up call — not just for Bangladesh, but also for India, which shares the Sundarbans with it. Indian officials are on high alert and though the spill has not reached the Indian side of the Sundarbans, India can lend its expertise and help to Bangladesh in its time of need.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

It's time the BJP asked Vaiko to leave the NDA

Back then: Vaiko (centre) with Pottu Amman and Prabhakaran
The timing could not have been more off the mark. When the nation was observing the sixth anniversary of the Mumbai terror attacks, some political leaders in Tamil Nadu were celebrating the 60th birth anniversary of Velupillai Prabhakaran.
For those who cannot recall the name, Prabhakaran was the chief of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which was responsible for the assassinations of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa in 1993. It was also behind the deaths of many more government officials and ordinary people caught in the crossfire of its war with the Sri Lankan government. Since 1992, the LTTE has been designated a terror organisation by India and this makes MDMK leader Vaiko’s support to the group and its leader almost treasonous.
Vaiko has often boasted about the rapport he shared with a terrorist like Prabhakaran. It is also not the first time he has openly expressed support to the LTTE and a separate Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka. This chest-thumping, by the likes of Vaiko and other fringe leaders, can be dismissed as nothing else but an attempt to remain relevant in Tamil Nadu politics.
But his party is an ally of the ruling coalition at the Centre. To celebrate the birthday of a terrorist who assassinated a former prime minister is beyond the pale and should be condemned by all political parties. In fact, the BJP should review its ties with the MDMK. It may be in Vaiko’s interest to keep the Tamil Eelam issue on the boil, but the major political parties in the state have, by their silence, shown themselves to be somewhat spineless and prisoners of votebank politics.
Vaiko’s antics are anti-national and political parties should have called a spade a spade. Vaiko has every right to celebrate whatever he wants in his private space. But to make common cause with a terror organisation is unacceptable and the sooner he is told that the better. And in fact, the government of the day should act against this anti-national activity on his part.

TV ban: Dear Govt, Don’t decide for the viewer

For those of us used to our daily fix of sitcoms, the government’s watchful eye could well be trained on you. Recently, English comedy channel Comedy Central was pulled off the air on the grounds that the government found its content unsuitable for young people in the sense that it was obscene and vulgar.
On November 25, the Delhi high court upheld the Centre’s 10-day ban issued in May 2013 on Comedy Central. The channel went off air for four days last year and resumed after an appeal against the ban was filed in court. The high court had ordered the channel to remain off air for the remaining six days. However, the Supreme Court has now stayed the high court’s ban.
The court rulings apart, the government’s argument is flawed on two counts: One, it is shortchanging India’s youth and taking decisions on their behalf. Second, if the government is so concerned about the potential that certain shows “deprave, corrupt and injure the public morality and morals” it should turn its focus to our desi soaps which obviously have a greater reach and connect than the English TV programmes. Many Indian-made soaps, across the vernacular spectrum, show women being victimised and in perpetual suffering, and should catch the attention of the gatekeepers of our ‘culture’.
Soaps, which show women as inferior to men and which reinforce patriarchal norms where the woman is always the underdog do not seem to generate as much opprobrium as they should.  And how can a discussion on showing women as a “commodity of sex” be complete without mentioning the damage cinema, especially Bollywood, does to the Indian woman and ‘culture’. A UN-sponsored global study of female characters in popular films across the world showed that more than 35% women are objectified on screen. Last heard the government has done little to address this anomaly.
While the present government may not have moved for the ban, there is every reason for the present I&B ministry to look into the case and make sure that in future such blackouts and bans come into place only when there is a transgression that warrants severe action. It is also important that such provisions are not misused by those who claim to be the custodians of our collective ‘culture’.
Above all, it is not the government’s business to police the television-watching habits of the people. This is not to argue that all’s well with our entertainment media. There’s plenty of room for improvement and the I&B ministry can play a pivotal role here. What the people want are better and informative content — and not the state policing what they should and shouldn’t watch. Give the people quality content and let them be the masters of their decision. It is simple, if you don’t like something, switch off your TV.

Govt must rethink its Maoist strategy

They have been lying low for a while. But when the Maoists struck again, it was with venomous fury, killing 14 CRPF personnel and injuring more than 15 at Sukma in Chhattisgarh. This shows that the Maoist threat is clear and present. It was only the other day that Chhattisgarh chief minister Raman Singh had said that the Maoists ‘would soon be finished’.
Monday’s attack was the second ambush in the area in the past 10 days and contrary to the government’s view the insurgents seem to be growing in confidence. In the last two years more than 70 people have been killed in Maoist ambushes, including the May 2013 attack in Bastar that killed 25 state Congress leaders.
This attack comes at a time when there are reports that the Intelligence Bureau and the CRPF are at loggerheads over a botched-up operation to nab a top Maoist leader in early November.
Clearly, there seems to be a lack of communication among various government departments and the attack in Sukma, which shares its border with Odisha and Telangana, shows that when it comes to inter-state co-operation there are far too many loopholes.
Incidentally, on Friday, the Raman Singh-led BJP government will be completing 11 years in power in the state. The BJP came to power at the Centre and many states promising development and ‘achhe din’, but there are still development lacunae in the state that are exploited by the Maoists.
According to the ‘India Human Development Report 2011’, by the Planning Commission, Chhattisgarh’s Human Development Index was 0.278, which was the lowest in India and below the national average of 0.467. According to the Tendulkar Committee Report 2009, almost 70% of the state’s population is poor. It is this deprivation and neglect by the state that the Maoists thrive on.
The Sukma attack yet again proves that the Maoists are India’s ‘biggest internal security threat’ but to rely heavily on force to ‘smoke them out’ is not the best solution. There is a need for a policy mix that entails a demonstrable improvement in state capacity aligned with a vigorous push for inclusive development in Maoist-affected areas.

Thursday, 20 November 2014

The Jerusalem synagogue attack should not be the tipping point

World leaders, including US President Barack Obama, have condemned Tuesday’s attack in the Kehilat Bnei Torah, at Har Nof, in West Jerusalem where two Palestinian cousins killed five people — four Jews who were praying and a police officer — and injured eight others.
Daniel Carmon, Israeli ambassador to India, too condemned the attack saying: “Incitement and the glorification of terrorists by the Palestinian leadership is a fast track to violence and terror itself...We must take every effort to delink religion and terrorism, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi said himself in the Australian Parliament on Tuesday.”
This spike in attacks against Jews in Israel should be of concern to all who hope to see an end to the tension in the region. Tension has been brewing for some time now after news spread that Israel had plans of altering the present arrangement of prayers at the Temple Mount, revered by both the Muslims and Jews. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has denied any such plans and said that Hamas has been spreading these “lies”.
It is encouraging that Mahmoud Abbas, President of the state of Palestine and chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), has condemned the “acts of violence no matter their source”, but as Netanyahu has said it “is not enough”. To bring any semblance of peace back to the region Abbas has to do more than express shock and regret, especially at a time when such acts of terror are pushing the holy city to the brink. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which is the second largest PLO member, has claimed credit for Tuesday’s attack further putting pressure on Abbas.
If the recent attacks in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem can be attributed to lone wolf attacks by disgruntled Palestinians, Tuesday’s attack stands out for the planning that seems to have gone behind it. The Kehilat Bnei Torah in Har Nof is in a Jewish locality and unless there was extensive planning the cousins could not have attacked the synagogue.
While Netanyahu has promised to “settle the score with every terrorist” both sides must be careful to not let Tuesday’s attack set off a string of attacks on worshippers — as in February 1994, when a US-born Jewish doctor killed 30 Palestinians in a mosque in Hebron and in March 2002, when a Palestinian suicide bomber killed 30 civilians and injured more than 140 during a Passover seder in Netanya.
(This appeared in the Hindustan Times on November 20)

Friday, 31 October 2014

Kiss Day: Kerala's not ready for this

'We have the freedom to kiss' - from the Kiss of Love Facebook page
Protesting against an attack on a café in Kozhikode (in north Kerala), a group of youngsters has pledged to assemble at the Marine Drive in Kochi on Sunday (November 2) to celebrate ‘Kiss Day’. The Facebook page of the group, Kiss of Love, has got more than 20,000 likes but that’s about it. It would be tricky to read too much into this. Social media responses are seldom a barometer for change. A one-line description on the page reads: Moral Policing is a criminal activity. Most of political parties and religious organizations tries [sic] to do that.
So come Sunday evening, will Kochi witness a desi version of a kiss-a-thon of sorts? Probably not. The group has its heart at the right place but not its head (or in this case its lips). And that’s because Kerala is not ready for such a change. For all its high rates of literacy and health indices, the social Kerala is still conservative, highly patriarchal and stuck in an era where women are not considered equals and are not respected. Religious institutions will not be comfortable with such a move and are likely to oppose such a public display of affection.
Irrespective of whether Kerala will muah-muah on November 2 or not, one thing is certain — this is not going to change the social and cultural fabric of God’s Own Country. For so deep are the roots of patriarchy in Kerala. A good reflection of this is Kerala’s attitude towards women, especially the way it treats its women celebrities. As long a woman celebrity works within the defined boundaries of ‘culture’ she is seen as an embodiment of virtue. The moment she breaks from that norm, she is ridiculed and her fall from grace is accompanied by aspersions on her moral character. The average Malayalees change in attitude towards Ranjini Haridas, a famous stage-show host, is a case in point.
However, the protest will have political repercussions. The ‘Kiss Day’ gives political parties with a religious leaning an opportunity to further their role as protectors of ‘Indian culture’.
Generally women who speak their mind in Kerala are seen as outspoken — and that’s no pat on the shoulder. The Malayalam term used to describe ‘such’ women is 'ahangaari' — when translated it means arrogant and carries a lot of spite and venom.
Kerala, just like many other states in India, needs to fight against the growing menace of moral policing, but this Sunday is unlikely to start that much-needed revolution. Kerala will not kiss and tell — at least not this Sunday.
(This appeared in the Hindustan Times on October 29)

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Million March: Bilawal Bhutto’s desperate attempt to revive his party backfires

Bilawal Bhutto
Kashmir is always a nice fallback issue for politicians of all hues in Pakistan especially if they are not doing too well at home. So it was no surprise to see the non-starter Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) chairman Bilawal Bhutto trying to pull out this hoary old chestnut on Sunday in London. In what was billed as the ‘Million March’, Mr Bhutto tried to rouse a crowd of people by raving about India’s ‘human rights violations’ in Jammu & Kashmir. But the drama did not go according to script as the crowd pelted him with eggs and tomatoes. In September, in a desperate attempt to revive the PPP, the young Bhutto vowed to reclaim every inch of Kashmir. Not to be left behind, former army chief and president Pervez Musharraf also came out boasting of the Pakistani army’s capabilities of attacking India. In a country where its all-powerful army’s raison d’être is its enmity towards India, ‘India-bashing’ is the best way for politicians to remain relevant. The recent sabre-rattling by these discredited politicians must be seen in this light.
From 1947, Pakistan has repeatedly tried to raise the ‘Kashmir issue’ and fought three wars over Kashmir. The anger against Mr Bhutto could also have been a result of political rivalries within Pakistan. But the moot point is that Islamabad refuses to accept reality. Instead, it has turned a blind eye to the terror factories operating in PoK and the ISI, Pakistan’s intelligence service, is aiding and abetting terror groups, like the LeT and JeM, etc, to spread terror in India. Its repeated attempts to internationalise the ‘Kashmir issue’ have failed, with the United Nations and many countries stressing that India and Pakistan must resolve the issue at a bilateral level.
Pakistan must conduct itself with dignity if it wants to earn the respect of other nations. Its leaders would do well to talk about the real issues affecting the country, like its economy and security. Jammu & Kashmir will hold assembly elections in the next two months and it is expected that the people of the state will repose faith in India’s democratic system as was done in 2008. Pakistan has wasted more than six decades of its existence trying to foment unrest in the Valley. Meanwhile the terror groups it has nurtured have come back to bite it. The Kashmir issue is one of diminishing returns as hapless Bilawal’s experience showed.

Friday, 24 October 2014

Jaya should not encourage Tamil Nadu's 'suicide frenzy'

AIADMk followers crying outside the party office, Chennai (IBNLive photo)
Taking one’s own life because of the misfortune suffered by a political leader or a public personage is nothing new in Tamil Nadu, or even Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. So it came as no surprise when, according to the AIADMK, 193 people committed suicide on hearing of then Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa’s brief incarceration in a Rs. 66-crore disproportionate assets case. But in what seems like a gesture condoning these deaths, the AIADMK leader has announced a cash relief of Rs. 3 lakh to the families of those who died. It does not end here. She also announced a payment of Rs. 50,000 to the three who tried to commit suicide. Attempted suicide is a criminal offence under Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code and so in effect Jayalalithaa is supporting a criminal act. To be rewarded for showing such ‘devotion’ to a leader will only encourage this pernicious trend.
When former TN chief minister MG Ramachandran died in 1987, around 30 of his followers were alleged to have committed suicide. When Kannada actor Rajkumar died in 2006 there were rumours that many of his followers had taken their lives. When the then Andhra Pradesh CM YSR Reddy died in a helicopter crash in 2009, there were reports that more than 100 people died of ‘shock’. In a sub-culture where the popularity of a leader is measured by the vandalism his/her followers indulge in or by the number of followers who either hurt themselves or commit suicide when their leader suffers a setback or has died, the AIADMK’s gesture may seem perfectly rational to the faithful. The move appears to be an attempt by Jayalalithaa to exploit the sentiments of the people. More dangerously, her ‘generosity’ comes across as a reminder to her followers that mindless devotion will be compensated.
Jayalalithaa is a popular leader who enjoys enormous support in Tamil Nadu. As a progressive leader, she should have no truck with this practice and should take steps to end this trend. She is an able administrator and has done commendable work for the disadvantaged. But this is a blot on her copybook which she must erase without delay.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

'Europe asked Assad to make sure its citizens don't return after jihad in Syria'

It's been more than three years since the civil war broke out in Syria. Opposition groups of more than 100,000 rebels with over 83 nationalities have been fighting the Bashar al-Assad government.

In an interview to Viju Cherian, Syrian ambassador to India Riad Kamel Abbas claims that Britain, France and Germany asked the Syrian government to 'take care' of its citizens who have been radicalised and fighting in Syria. If Abbas' claims are true, the David Cameron government, along with François Hollande's and Angela Merkel's, has asked a foreign government to execute its citizens.

Abbas also claims that US interest in controlling the supply of oil in West Asia has led to the civil war, that the US encourages Boko Haram to keep a tab on Russia, and that it was the Qatar emir and Saudi Arabia's Bandar bin Sultan who were behind the two chemical attacks in Syria in 2013.

Riad Kamel  Abbas
Over the past few years, Syria has been in the news for a civil war and resistance forces have been attacking the Bashar al-Assad government. According to the government, what's happening in Syria?

The protests in Syria have got so many aspects - cultural, political, social and, mainly, economical. The primary problem started after the discovery of huge gas reserves in Syria in 2010, both offshore and on land. Another reason was the United States' plan to have a gas pipeline from Qatar through Syria to the Mediterranean to economically fight Russia by exporting gas and oil to European countries. The US also wants a similar pipeline from Iran through Iraq and Syria to the Mediterranean. Syria is against the US project and the US and its allies have created unrest in Syria to topple the current regime. They want to install a government in Damascus that favours their plans in the region. The US wants to control the oil market.

Was there social tension between different religious or sectarian groups within Syria before 2010?

Syria is the only Arab secular country in the region. The US and their regional allies are trying to create a sectarian divides in Syria. But they will not be able to do so because the people of Syria are against Wahhabism. Sunnis are a majority in Syria but they, along with other sects and religious groups, are supporting the government.

If the people of Syria are with the Assad government as you say, then who are the people who are fighting the civil war?

Most of them are foreign nationals. Many of the Syrians who are part of the resistance are people wanted in Syria for breaking the law. We are fighting more than 100,000 mercenaries from across 83 nations. These people have support from the US, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

How is the Assad government addressing this problem?

How can we talk democracy to the Europeans, Pakistanis and West Asians who have come to fight in our country? We are talking to them by using force.

What is Qatar's interest in toppling the Assad government?

Qatar does not have an independent policy - they listen to what the US says. As far as Syria-Qatar ties go, years ago there were cordial ties. But ties broke when President Assad refused to join hands with Qatar to support US' attack on Libya. The Qatar emir personally called on President Assad in Damascus to request his support, but Assad refused.

…and Syria's ties with Turkey?

The Turkish Prime Minister called on our President in 2010 and told him that following the developments in Tunisia and Libya, he would advise Assad to allow the Muslim Brotherhood to join the Syrian government. Our President refused the idea stating that there was no place for a religious party in Syria.
 When Qatar's and Turkey's requests were turned down, they started creating problems.

You had said that al Qaeda is a US creation. Could you explain?

Armed opposition appeared in Syria after the US took a stand against Damascus. Where the US moves al-Qaeda follows. The US moved to Iraq, al Qaeda followed, and now the US is focusing on Syria and suddenly we have the organisation in Syria.
Similarly, Boko Haram in Nigeria is funded by the US. Russian oil giant Gazprom signed a deal with Nigeria for extracting and transporting oil. Right after this deal was struck, Haram gained strength and has created unrest in the country. This cannot be a coincidence.

You had also mentioned that ISIS is a US creation.

ISIS is a branch of al Qaeda which was created by the US. Al Qaeda is under different names in Afghanistan, Iraq and other countries. It's like the Muslim Brotherhood which goes in one name in Turkey, another in Tunisia and yet another in Egypt.

You had mentioned that European countries had approached the Assad government to 'take care' of Europeans who have been radicalised.

Intelligence chiefs of some European countries like France, Germany, Denmark and Britain had approached the Syrian government with a deal that if the Syrian government would 'take care' of radicalised Europeans fighting in Syria, Europe would not press charges of human rights violation against Syria. But our government said no to the offer. Out government said that if anyone was ready to surrender, he would be given amnesty and sent back to his country. Some of them who had surrendered were sent them back the way they came into Syria - through Turkey.
A handout image released by the Syrian opposition's
Shaam News Network after the Damascus attack
Has Syria's chemical weapons programme and the two attacks on civilians that took place in 2013 created a fear among its neighbours?

There have been two chemical attacks on Syrian civilians - one in Aleppo (March 2013 Khan al-Assal chemical attack) and the other in Damascus (August 2013 Ghouta chemical attack). The Aleppo attack was carried out by Qatar and Turkey. US President Barack Obama had said that Syria was not supposed to cross the 'red line' of using chemical weapons on its people. So the Qatar emir sent two of his intelligence officers to Yugoslavia to procure Sarin gas - as both Syria and Yugoslavia got their chemical weapon know-how from the erstwhile Soviet Union. Damascus had informed Moscow about Doha's plan. The Qatari agents handed over the gas to Turkish intelligence who trained al Nusra rebels how to use it. The rebels carried out the attacks in Aleppo.

The Damascus attack happened the day UN inspectors were supposed to visit the Aleppo attack site. It was later found that the second attack was carried out by Saudi Arabia. Bandar bin Sultan, who was the then director general of Saudi Intelligence Agency, had given this to jihadi fighters in Syria to use it on senior officials and accuse the Syrian government for the attack.


'ISIS is an American myth'

Many European countries — including France, Germany, Denmark and Britain — have asked the Bashar al-Assad government to ‘take care’ of Europeans who have been radicalised and are fighting in Syria.
These startling revelations were made by the Syrian ambassador to India, Riad Kamel Abbas, on Wednesday. “Intelligence leaders of many European countries came to Syria to meet officials”, Abbas said, and offered to not press charges of human rights violation on the Assad government if Damascus made sure that they (European citizens fighting in Syria) did not return to Europe. They fear that these fighters might return to their countries and radicalise more people at home.

Speaking at an interaction with the media arranged by the Indian Women’s Press Corps in New Delhi, Abbas was critical of the role of Turkey, the US and its West Asian allies. “ISIS is an American myth, which gets direct support from Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey and is funded by Saudi Arabia and Qatar”.
“Al Qaeda appeared in Syria after the US invaded Iraq. Before that there was no al Qaeda in Syria. It is clear that al Qaeda was created by the US and it is supporting ISIS.” Abbas also said that the UN was not helping Syria and is under the US’ control.
As fierce fighting is underway in Kobane, Abbas expressed little hope in the government in Ankara.
The ambassador, however, appreciated the Modi government’s stand of not joining the US’ coalition against ISIS.