Saturday, 21 June 2014

Hindi is not India's national language. Mind it!

Did the Union home ministry pass an advisory asking all government departments to use Hindi as the medium of communication while using social media platforms? Is the government, after objections were raised from the South, backtracking on its order? Is the Centre now trying to ease the tension by saying that both English and Hindi will be used on official social media platforms?
At the moment these questions seem irrelevant because even if such an order has not been given, the damage is done and linguistic and regional passions have been fanned in different parts of the country, especially in the South.
If such an order has been given, all that the NDA government has managed to do is flog a dead horse back to life. To quote BJP-ally MDMK’s leader Vaiko: “The government should not indulge in activities that will provoke a sleeping tiger”.
If the order was given keeping in mind the sentiments of the Hindi-speaking population, it is bad politics on the side of a party that has shown great political acumen in the general elections and that has been voted into government on the promise of ‘development for all’. It’ll suffice to say that this needless controversy has managed to open an old wound.
India’s recent history has seen several instances of anti-Hindi protests. From the late 1930s till the 1980s there have been at least three major anti-Hindi protests in Tamil Nadu, when at different times the Centre tried to make the learning and use of Hindi mandatory. The protests in 1965 are by far the most violent, which lasted for more than two months and saw more than 70 people killed. The agitation stopped only after then Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri assured the continuance of English as the medium of Centre-state communication.
M Karunanidhi (File photo)
During the 1986 language riots, many DMK leaders, including M Karunanidhi, were arrested. So charged was the atmosphere, more than 20 people committed suicide by self-immolation.
Events are unlikely to take such a drastic turn today, but nevertheless, such an advisory thickens the air with a discomforting tension.
The fallacy of such a move is clear in the answer to this question: Which was the language used in the Union home ministry advisory sent to a government office in Salem in Tamil Nadu or Guntur in Andhra Pradesh or Thrissur in Kerala?
On Friday evening the government clarified that the advisory was only meant for Hindi-speaking states. The question that then should be asked is: Why only this focus on Hindi? What about the other recognised languages in India?
India has got a rich culture and heritage and even if some see the British rule as an aberration in an otherwise ‘glorious’ past, the fact remains that English — the language used by the British — serves as one of the important medium of communication between different states.
The government could have done without this controversy, especially when there are many other pressing issues at hand.
(This article appeared in Hindustan Times on June 20)

Thursday, 19 June 2014

Iraq: A brief history of ISIS and its brutal ways

The Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) has caught the world’s attention by the pace and brutality of its takeover of many Iraqi towns, especially Mosul and Tikrit over the last week.
But the Sunni terrorist organisation has been around for more than a decade. Earlier known as the al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), it sided with Osama bin Laden and was noticed for its beheadings to rampant bombings all over Iraq. The AQI was instrumental in fanning the Iraqi civil war.
In 2006, because of its extreme violence, a section among Sunnis joined the US forces in defeating AQI. Thereafter, it became the ISIS and focused on Syria until it turned to Iraq.
The aim of the ISIS is to spread a Sunni Islamic state — and a radical one — throughout the Levant (from the southern tip of Turkey to Egypt and from Israel to Iraq).
It has been active in opposing Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and has captured many parts of Syria where it administers its radical form of governance. From the latter part of last year the group was protesting in many towns in Iraq against the ways of the Nouri al-Maliki government.
News that ISIS fighters are being welcomed in many Iraqi towns rings similar to the jubilation that was seen in many parts of Afghanistan when the Taliban took over. However, it will face resistance from a demoralised Iraqi security force and Iran, which is helping the   government protect vital areas close to its border. The Kurds are also attacking the Sunni militants.
The group has used social media and the Internet to spread its message of fear. It released The Clanging of the Swords, a propaganda video series in which soldiers are killed and tanks are destroyed.
For India the concern has been manifold. Other than the upward spiral of oil prices, the Narendra Modi government’s immediate concern is the safety of Indians in Iraq, around 40 of whom have been kidnapped.
(This appeared as an article in the Hindustan Times on June 19)

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

ISIS in Iraq is bad news for NaMo government

With the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) capturing key towns in northern Iraq, including Mosul and Tikrit, and the democratically elected Nouri al-Maliki government seemingly clueless about what to do, the prospects of peace and normalcy returning to the war-torn West Asian country in the near future are slim. Even though United States’ President Barack Obama has sent in Marines to safeguard its consulate in Baghdad and has ordered the USS George HW Bush to move towards the Persian Gulf, it is doubtful whether he has the stomach to send troops again to Iraq. Washington is mulling air strikes and is in talks with neighbours, like Iran, to overcome this crisis.
India’s concerns lie mainly in two areas: First, the safety of Indians who are working in Iraq, and second, the probable rise in oil prices if the sectarian violence spreads to the rest of the country and if the US steps in. The uncertainty in the country could see oil prices going northward, adversely affecting India’s economy. The ministry of external affairs should use its clout with Baghdad and the neighbouring countries to secure the safe exit of Indians from Iraq. India’s good ties with Iraq date back to the 1950s and since then economic and cultural ties between the two have grown. The good relations between New Delhi and Baghdad helped India especially during the 1990 Gulf War: Indians in Kuwait could safely exit via Iraq.
If the unrest escalates, it will affect the oil prices, signs of which were seen on Monday when crude prices hit a nine-month high after growing speculation of a US strike on Iraq. After Saudi Arabia, Iraq is the largest supplier of oil  to India, with an annual trade of around $20 billion. Reserve Bank of India governor Raghuram Rajan said India was closely monitoring the situation and that the domestic economy is well prepared to face shocks from the external sources. That said, with more than 75% of its oil imported, soaring energy prices will exert pressure on the rupee. A below-average monsoon will affect the summer crops and this will push prices upwards, causing further food inflation. These two factors will have a telling effect on the economy and that’s not good news for the Narendra Modi government, which has made controlling inflation a priority. The Centre, meanwhile, must take all the necessary steps to ensure the safe exit of Indians from Iraq and at the same time figure out ways to tackle a possible rise in oil prices.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Iraq: As the ISIS marches ahead, the US waits and India...

What is happening in Iraq now is essentially the Shia-Sunni war that has gone out of hand. From Saddam Hussein’s death in 2006 and since America’s establishment of a weak government in Baghdad, the sectarian differences between Shias and Sunnis have come to the front.
A Shia Iran’s influence over Iraq has got many of the countries in the region, especially Saudi Arabia, with a Sunni majority, uncomfortable.
Many, especially Riyadh, see Iraq PM Nouri al-Maliki as a Tehran man. The rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), a breakaway al Qaeda faction that has set its goal at establishing a Sunni Islamist state in West Asia and that is anti-Shia should be seen in this context.
The ISIS came to prominence during the takeover of Fallujah in January and the following month Washington recognised ISIS as a terrorist group. Nevertheless, it has been overtly and covertly been supported by pro-Sunni groups in Saudi Arabia and other GCC countries. The funding of radical groups like Jabhat al-Nusra have given the ISIS more firepower.
On June 10, the ISIS captured Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq. It has descended — and at an alarming pace — from the northwest of the country and is taking town after town, reaching about 60 miles from the capital Baghdad. Such has been the pace of its advancement that by the time the international community took notice and condemned it the ISIS had made great progress.
The ISIS has also taken control of Tikrit. Earlier they had taken control of Ramadi and Samarra—two important towns. PM Maliki has failed to bring even a semblance of democracy and governance in Iraq and there are groups that see the advance of ISIS as a reply to his misgovernance. The Mosul takeover has further weakened Baghdad’s influence in the northern regions. This has given the Kurds an advantage in its standoff with the Maliki government.
US President Barack Obama has, in a White House statement, said that the US will not be sending troops to Iraq. He calls it a “wake up call” for Iraqi leaders to iron out their mistrust and sectarian differences and demonstrate a willingness to join hands for the Iraqi people. Obama has said that the US will help only if the local leaders are showing progress. However, in a move that can change the dynamics of the events unfolding in Iraq US aircraft carrier (USS George HW Bush) has arrived in the Persian Gulf.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration has come in for some severe criticism for his ‘responsible withdrawal’. In 2011, then secretary of state Hillary Clinton claimed that the “responsible withdrawal” of the US from Iraq would be replaced by Washington’s biggest diplomatic programme since the Marshall Plan. Nothing actually happened.
Kori Schake, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, recently wrote: ‘The president is so spooked by the prospect of "a third American war in the region" that he has compromised our security to prevent it. He ought to have understood that he wasn't starting a third American war in the region — he needed to finish the first one.’
Unrest in West Asia is bad news for the region and India in multiple ways. First, if the violence breaks out into a full-fledged war it will affect the millions of Indians working in the region (Some estimates say that there are about 18,000 Indians in Iraq).
Second, if the ISIS manages to topple the Maliki government and capture Baghdad it will inspire many splinter groups of al-qaeda in the region and world over.
Third, unrest in the region will affect oil prices and given the economic climate a war is in no one’s interest. Fourth, there are ominous signs of similarities between the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The war on terror brought the US to Iraq and Afghanistan. After giving it a semblance of democracy the US withdrew from Iraq. The local government has not been able to check terrorist organisations. If the same script is seen in Afghanistan, India will have reasons to be concerned.
(This article appeared in the Hindustan Times on June 17)

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

The social way to create unrest in India

Social media sites are gaining popularity in India at an exponential pace and attracting people from every sphere of life — among them are also those with nefarious designs. Cyberspace, for long, has been misused for various forms of crime — from hacking into government sites to spreading hatred and terror. The vast and immediate reach of social media platforms has made it the preferred vehicle for miscreants to spread lies and communal hatred. While terrorists and anti-social elements have been quick to misuse the Internet to their advantage, the government has woken up very late to the danger. The unrest that erupted in Pune over the last fortnight, after derogatory pictures of Chhatrapati Shivaji and Bal Thackeray were uploaded on a social media website, saw a Muslim techie brutally killed. Tension again rose when distorted pictures of BR Ambedkar were uploaded on the Internet.
This is not the first time a social media platform has been used to fan disharmony. In both these cases the police have been able to block the offensive posts but not before the damage was done. Many cyber cells, like the Social Media Lab of the Mumbai Police, are doing a commendable job of detecting derogatory posts and blocking them before they lead to unrest. But often it is a case of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted. Moreover, rather than going after people who ‘like’ a post — like the Nanded Police — the focus should be on tracing its source and taking necessary action. This is difficult given that Internet companies often refuse to part with user information and also such messages are uploaded using proxy servers. This is where the challenge lies and it is here that the police should focus. In its eagerness to stop people from sharing or liking a post the real culprits should not escape.
The police cyber cells around the country need to pull up their socks. To tackle these crimes the police should first understand social media and its contours. It’s a thin line that separates freedom of speech and State-imposed censorship. The easiest — and definitely not the most effective — way to tackle such crimes is to block websites and use Section 66(a) of the IT Act (punishment for sending offensive messages through communication service, etc) against innocent Internet users.

Thursday, 5 June 2014

Bergdahl deal: Obama wins in the US, lets down the world

The Bergdahl's with President Obama
Over the weekend the United States struck a deal with the Taliban for the release of Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, who was held a prisoner of war (POW) since 2009. While the return of a POW is always a joyous occasion, has Washington set a bad precedent? Also, has it paid a heavy price? The answer to both is yes. For Bergdahl’s release five senior Taliban militants have been released from the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba. This includes Khirullah Said Wali Khairkhwa, a former Taliban interior minister and Abdul Haq Wasiq, who was the deputy chief of intelligence for the Taliban. The swap deal, without doubt, will embolden terrorist groups and will make it hard for Kabul to tackle the menace. On Monday, an Indian air worker was kidnapped from a school in Herat, Afghanistan. A few days ago the Indian consulate in Heart was attacked in which four terrorists were killed. The White House hopes that this deal will help it open a channel with the Taliban. It also hopes that the five men are unlikely to be as dangerous as they were. Only the naïve can buy this argument after about 30% of the total released Gitmo detainees have returned to terror activities.
Kandahar 1999
After the IC-814 hijacking in Kandahar in 1999, India released three terrorists — Maulana Masood Azhar, Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh and Mushtaq Ahmed Zargar — for the safe passage of more than 170 passengers. All three went on to commit deadly acts of terror — Azhar found the Jaish-e-Muhammed, which was behind the 2001 Parliament attack; Sheikh was involved in beheading Daniel Pearl; and Zargar has been training terrorists in camps in PoK. At the best of times deals with terrorists leave the negotiating government a Hobson’s choice. But this deal, especially when there are reports that Bergdahl was ‘delusional’ about the US mission in Afghanistan and that he ‘walked away from his unit’ raises disturbing questions.
It’s an irony that the US, while leaving Afghanistan, struck a deal with the Taliban — the same group it vouched to overthrow 13 years ago. President Barack Obama has managed to ‘leave no man behind’ and is thus a hero in the US. But as the leader of a global superpower he has let down countries in the region, India one among them.

Monday, 2 June 2014

It’s a fresh start for Telangana and Seemandhra

N Chandrababu Naidu
The creation Telangana brings to end a tumultuous chapter in Indian politics. If the previous BJP-led NDA government had shown how to efficiently go about with carving out not one but three states, the Congress-led UPA 2 government mishandled the creation of Telangana right from 2009 when it made the announcement about starting the process of creating a separate state. The Congress failed to gauge the mood of the people and take them into confidence. After dithering over the decision for four years, the UPA government in the last lap of its term decided to accelerate the bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh. But so miscalculated was its approach that even its chief minister, N Kiran Kumar Reddy, opposed the move. Such was the resentment of the people of the state that in this general election, of the total 42 seats in undivided Andhra Pradesh, the Congress managed to get only two. It is expected that the BJP-led NDA government, now in power, will handle the situation better and till now have made the right moves.
K Chandrashekar Rao
While the Telugu Desam Party, under the leadership of N Chandrababu Naidu, has won 102 of the 175 assembly seats in Seemandhra, K Chandrashekar Rao’s Telangana Rashtra Samiti has won 63 of the 119 assembly seats in Telangana. The majority gives both the leaders a free hand to lead stable governments, which is important for the new states. Mr Naidu — who in his previous tenure as chief minister of Andhra Pradesh ushered in considerable development and turned the state into one of the IT hubs in India — appears to be the right person to head Seemandhra at this point of time. Mr Rao is a seasoned politician who has spoken up for the people of Telangana and has got the people’s mandate.
The challenge for the Centre will be to address the needs of both the states in a fair manner. Sectors like power, education, industry, irrigation need to be prioritised and resources need to be divided equitably. Every decision taken will have a lasting impact on the states and there’s no room for error. Both Mr Naidu and Mr Rao get off to a fresh start and their vision will go a long way towards setting the course in which each state will move in the coming decades. For the two leaders to deliver it is important that the Centre assist them at all steps. And given the equations at the moment, this should not prove too difficult.