MAY 18, Saturday

Delhi Edition

* Front Page

Supreme Court lifts stay on arrest of Rajeev Kumar





Supreme Court lifts stay on arrest of Rajeev Kumar

Bengal IPS officer has a week to appeal

Press Trust of India
New Delhi

The Supreme Court on Friday vacated its order granting protection from arrest to former Kolkata Police Commissioner Rajeev Kumar in the Saradha chit fund scam case.

The court said its February 5 order granting interim protection to Mr. Kumar would continue for seven days from Friday to enable him to approach the competent court for legal remedy.

A Bench, headed by Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi, asked the CBI to act in accordance with law.

An advocate appearing for the IPS officer said that as per the court order, Mr. Kumar could not be arrested in the next seven days.

“We have withdrawn the protection given to Rajeev Kumar vide order dated February 5,” the court said while pronouncing the order.



Police end four-year run of train thief





Police end four-year run of train thief

He travelled in AC coaches in T.N., Kerala and stole jewels from women

R. Sivaraman

Shahul Hameed. Jothi RamalingamThe Hindu

CHENNAI

Shahul Hameed calls himself an influential businessman. He has a Master’s degree from the Netherlands, speaks six languages, including Spanish and French, and is a partner in a Malaysian hotel.

He is also a train thief.

For four years, he travelled in air-conditioned coaches in Tamil Nadu and Kerala, mostly targeted women passengers and stole their jewellery in the dead of night. At least on 30 occasions.

Puzzled by the complaints of theft from women travelling in AC coaches in these two States between 2016 and 2019, the Government Railway Police (GRP) constituted a special team, which analysed the details of passengers from the charts and found that Hameed had travelled in all the trains in which thefts were reported.

“We intensified our surveillance in AC coaches. Tracing the suspect on the Blue Mountain Express from Mettupalayam, our men in plainclothes took him into custody,” Railways DIG V. Balakrishnan told The Hindu.

According to him, the 39-year-old Hameed, a native of Thrissur, resisted the police when they arrested him and claimed to be an influential businessman. Sustained interrogation revealed his criminal antecedents, the DIG said. “Before boarding the train, he observed the movement of potential targets — preferably women — on the stations. Between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m., he would stealthily lift their bags and steal valuables — diamonds, gold jewellery, cash and electronic gadgets — and then put the bags back in their place,” the DIG said.

According to GRP officials, Hameed sold the stolen jewellery in Thrissur and Mumbai and flew back to Kuala Lumpur, where he and his second wife Shahana were partners in a hotel. “He needed money to oust a third partner. So he came here again and was caught red-handed. We have recovered 110 sovereigns of gold from him,” R. Rohit Nathan, SP, Railways, said.


* Nation

Sunny approaches HC fearing misuse of official machinery





Sunny approaches HC fearing misuse of official machinery

BJP candidate seeks measures to ensure free, fair polling

Press trust of india

BJP candidate Sunny Deol campaigning in Gurdaspur on Friday. PTI

Chandigarh

Actor and BJP candidate from Gurdaspur Sunny Deol on Friday moved the Punjab and Haryana High Court “fearing misuse of official machinery” by the ruling Congress and sought adequate measures, including deployment of additional paramilitary forces, to ensure free and fair polling.

Mr. Deol also demanded that the Gurdaspur constituency be declared “super sensitive”, claiming it was prone to violence.

He cited the incidents of poll-related violence in the border constituency during panchayat polls which were conducted across the State in December 2018. “We moved the court because we feared the official machinery could be misused in the elections by the Congress,” advocate Pankaj Jain, the counsel for Mr. Deol, told reporters.

He said after they filed the petition before a division Bench of Justices Daya Chaudhary and Sudhir Mittal, the court sought to know from the Election Commission about the measures being taken to ensure free and fair polls in Gurdaspur.

The petitioner’s counsel submitted before the court that the “Gurdaspur Lok Sabha seat is a prestigious constituency as not only the petitioner is a popular figure, he is contesting the election against a candidate who is State president of the Congress.”

EC reply

The counsel representing the Election Commission informed the court that 24 companies of the Central Armed Police Forces would be deployed at 866 polling booths in the parliamentary constituency.

In many booths, multiple security measures, including adequate deployment of State police force, have also been undertaken, the EC counsel further informed the court.



‘Peace pact with Taliban is unlikely before Sept. polls’





‘Peace pact with Taliban is unlikely before Sept. polls’

Afghan official says no compromise on fundamental issues

Kallol Bhattacherjee

Mohammad Umer Daudzai

NEW DELHI

A peace agreement with the Taliban is unlikely to materialise before the September election in Afghanistan, said a leader of the High Peace Council of the country. Addressing a gathering at the Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA) here, Mohammad Umer Daudzai, Chief Executive of the Afghan High Peace Council, said Afghanistan would not compromise on fundamental issues with the Taliban, stating that the rebels would have to come clean about ties with Pakistan.

Long process

“Peace talks is a complex and long process which will take some time. But it will not be achieved before the election. There will be some uncertainties but the polling and transition will be completed nevertheless,” said Mr. Daudzai, who held talks with External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj on Friday.

In conversation with the visiting dignitary, Ms. Swaraj conveyed India’s support to peace and stability in the war-torn country. “India expressed its support for sustainable peace in Afghanistan,” said the Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Raveesh Kumar in a social media message.

Areas of concern

Mr. Daudzai explained Kabul’s main areas of concern about the ongoing peace talks between the Taliban and the United States in Qatar.

He pointed out that the U.S. special envoy for the talks, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, and other senior officials have from time to time briefed Kabul about the talks but maintained that they had no way to find out if they were being told the full details. The visit by the key official took place, days after the visit of Mr. Khalilzad to Delhi during which he briefed Indian policy makers.

High profile

However, he said the talks had given the Taliban a higher political profile. He mentioned that the U.S.-Taliban talks were not supposed to treat the rebels as the real representative of the people of the country, saying “People of Afghanistan are optimistic of the future of peace but they are also pessimistic as the real party that is the Government of Afghanistan is missing in the talks.”

“When the right time comes, the Taliban will join the rest of the country,” said Mr. Daudzai, expressing hope for continued peace process in the future.



Varanasi has only one air quality monitoring station





Varanasi has only one air quality monitoring station

It was ranked among the top 3 most polluted cities in world

Jacob Koshy
NEW DELHI

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s constituency Varanasi, which goes to polls on Sunday, continues to have only one air quality monitoring station, despite being ranked as among the top 3 most polluted cities in the world three years ago, a Right to Information request has found.

Zero ‘good-air’ days

The Central Pollution Control Board’s 2015 dataset (made public in 2016) found Varanasi’s air quality to be among the most toxic in the country and that it had only one air quality monitor capable of measuring particulate matter 2.5 and particulate matter 10 levels. Out of 227 days measured in 2015, the city had zero ‘good-air’ days and this was attributed to the heavy levels of industrial pollution. Biomass burning, vehicular emissions, brick kilns and diesel generator sets were also major contributors.

Let Me Breathe, a portal that investigates how people cope with poor air quality, queried the city’s civic officials and the Uttar Pradesh Pollution Control Board with Right to Information requests to check what progress the city had made in improving its air quality.

While the average air quality for PM 2.5 from 2017-2019 had improved to 104 from 206 in 2016, the maximum PM levels breached continued to be above 200, or in the “very poor” category.

‘Serious priority’

“Varanasi is one of the most polluted cities on the planet. Still there is only one monitoring station. While in the last few years the government has done amazing work on the beautification of the city and solar, it’s time to make air pollution a serious priority as well,” Tamseel Hussain, Founder, Let Me Breathe, said.

While Varanasi’s municipal bodies had taken steps to address road dust and curb road-side burning of garbage, no data was provided on the number of violations and the steps taken to reprimand offenders, the RTI queries revealed.

Varanasi is one of the cities that is part of the National Clean Air Campaign, an initiative by the Union Environment Ministry to improve air quality in 100 cities by 20% at least by 2024. One of the commitments under this is to improve air quality monitoring.

In February, a study by IIT Kanpur and the Shakti Foundation showed Varanasi suffered from poor air quality for 70% of the days between October and November 2018 with PM 2.5 levels crossing 170 micrograms per cubic metre against the national average of 60 and the WHO average of 25.



I’ll never forgive Pragya for Godse remark: PM





I’ll never forgive Pragya for Godse remark: PM

Party does not regret giving ticket to her as it is a satyagraha against a fake case filed by the Congress, says Amit Shah

Special Correspondent

Courting controversy: Pragya Singh Thakur addressing a public meeting in Bhopal last week.A.M. FaruquiA.M. Faruqui

NEW DELHI

The BJP initiated disciplinary action against its Bhopal candidate Pragya Thakur and others for laudatory comments on Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin Nathuram Godse amid nationwide condemnation and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s own declaration that he “would never forgive” Ms. Thakur, but drew a line at expressing regret at offering her a party ticket.

The disciplinary action came on a day when Mr. Modi in an interview to News24 TV channel said that he “would never forgive” Ms. Thakur for her comments. “These kinds of statements made about Gandhiji are condemnable and cannot be allowed in a civilised society. She may have apologised, but I shall never forgive her (Ms. Thakur),” he said.

At a press conference at the end of campaigning for the final phase of polling for the Lok Sabha election, BJP president Amit Shah said that he separated the reasons why the party had given Ms. Thakur a ticket from Bhopal and her remarks on Godse. “I don’t regret the decision of offering her a ticket from Bhopal because it is our satyagraha against a fake case filed by the Congress for vote bank politics and attempts to defame the Hindu religion and civilisation for petty political gains,” he said.

When Mr. Modi was asked a question at the same press conference on whether he would welcome Ms. Thakur to Parliament if she won on May 23, he redirected the question to Mr. Shah who said that the party was awaiting her response to the show cause notice and action would be taken.

Notices sent

Ms. Thakur, Union Minister Ananth Hegde, and MP Nalin Kateel have been sent show cause notices by the disciplinary committee of the party, and BJP’s Madhya Pradesh media cell chief Anil Saumitra has been suspended from the primary membership of the party for terming the Mahatma as the “father of Pakistan”.

Mr. Hegde, who is also a Minister at the Centre, blamed hacking for his tweets lauding Nathuram Godse. He said that this had happened earlier too to his Twitter account.



‘I am willing to be anything my party wants me to be’






Interview | Priyanka Gandhi vadra

‘I am willing to be anything my party wants me to be’

‘Our PM’s obvious inability to face questions, refusal to accept dissent and blatant attempts to silence all detractors are signs of tremendous political cowardice’

Amit Baruah , Sandeep Phukan

Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra says that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is one of the least decisive leaders that India had seen in recent years. She gave written responses to questions submitted by The Hindu, which was followed by a brief interaction.

As the seven-phase elections are coming to an end, what is your assessment?

My focus is primarily in U.P., so I have a clearer picture about U.P. In U.P., I see a lot of public anger, people have suffered tremendously in the last five years and I believe that this suffering is going to directly impact the elections. I think what applies to U.P. applies to the rest of the country as well. The government has acted as the creator of problems rather than the resolver of problems. Whether it was demonetisation, the complex structure of the GST (Goods and Services Tax), the government’s refusal to address the crisis in the agricultural sector or their dismal performance on job creation — they contributed consistently towards increasing the everyday struggles of the common man. I believe the BJP will be held accountable for its failure to deliver on the promises it made to the public five years ago.

The BJP has made this election about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decisive leadership versus none in the Opposition to take him on. Isn’t that a disadvantage?

I believe this is a myth built by the media and the BJP together, and of course it suits the BJP. The truth is that our Prime Minister is one of the least decisive leaders India has seen in recent decades, both in terms of his political leadership and in terms of leading India as a nation in the larger geopolitical sphere.

He has shown tremendous weakness in his responses to the problems that the common man has faced. He did not even have the courage to meet thousands of farmers when they marched to Delhi asking for justice. His weakness is most evident in his insistence on surrounding himself only with crony capitalists and fawning colleagues and isolating himself from the public. In addition, his obvious inability to face questions, his refusal to accept dissent and his blatant attempts to silence all detractors is a sign of tremendous political cowardice.

In several public meetings, you said Mr. Modi never visited the villages of Varanasi even once. Do you think you could have seriously challenged him if you had contested from Varanasi?

Firstly, have you ever seen a photograph or videos of Mr. Modi at any event where he is interacting directly with the public? All we see are events that look like rock concerts: massive LED stages on which huge amounts of money is spent, and people are brought in by the truckload. He is always talking at them, telling them what he believes, never once does he ask them what they believe. I bring up his absence from the lives of the common man in Varanasi in my speeches to emphasise that the leader of a country like India cannot lock himself up in a bungalow in Race Course Road and imagine that he truly represents the people of India. He has to move among them, he has to meet them, he has to listen to them and he has to make himself available to them. Secondly, if I had fought him in Varanasi, I would have given it my best; whether that would have been a serious challenge or not would have been for the people to say.

What do you think of the BJP decision to field Pragya Thakur? What signal are they trying to send?

I think the signal is very clear. They are fielding candidates who have extremely radical and destructive views which only means that the BJP supports those views. They have not categorically said what their view on Nathuram Godse is. The Prime Minister said ‘I can’t forgive Pragya Thakur from my heart’ what does this mean? You are fielding a political candidate, nobody is interested in what you feel in your heart. People are interested in you as a political party, as the Prime Minister of India, they are interested in your actions, in who you are supporting and why you are raising such people to the public platform as their representatives.

How will the Congress fare in U.P.? How many seats do you think you can win?

I’m not in the habit of making predictions on the number of seats, but what I can say is that the Congress has fought this election well on its own strength. I expect our vote percentage to increase and am hopeful of improving on the number of seats we win as well. Our focus this election has primarily been to defeat the BJP. In many constituencies where our base is weak, we have ensured that our candidates do not hurt the prospects of the alliance candidate.

Is Rahul Gandhi facing a serious challenge in Amethi?

I don’t believe so at all.

What is your assessment of SP-BSP alliance? How will they perform?

I really can’t say how well they will do, it’s for the people to decide.

Your brother Rahul Gandhi had talked about how you are now in politics for a long innings. Are you willing to be the face of the Congress party in the U.P. Assembly election in 2022?

I’m willing to be anything that my party wants me to be.

Your detractors say you delayed your formal entry into politics because you were worried about the corruption cases against your husband Robert Vadra. How do you respond to such charges?

This is a completely baseless charge. My family has borne the brunt of malicious political campaigns for generations. I am not in the least “worried” about such things. The more they attack us, the stronger we become.

Of late, there had been several references to your father late Rajiv Gandhi, and his visit to Lakshadweep onboard INSVirat by Prime Minister Narendra Modi…

The interesting thing about this election campaign has been that Mr. Narendra Modi has spoken more about my family than he has spoken about his policies and plans for the next five years. His focus has been to distract the public from real issues because he knows that his record on delivering on his false promises is abysmal. Our focus has been to speak about job creation, strengthening the agricultural sector, increasing expenditure on education, improving healthcare, and other matters that we feel concern the nation.

There are inevitable comparisons between you and Rahul Gandhi. How do you deal with it?

I don’t. Frankly, I feel that the comparison between Rahul and me has been a politically motivated exercise right from the beginning. It is part of the vicious propaganda campaign that has been carried out against my brother.

The truth is that there is no comparison. He has been in politics for 15 years and I have entered politics 15 weeks back. He has massive experience, he has travelled all around the country, he understands this country, its religions, the forces that are at play within and outside it, better than most politicians I have come across do. He is far wiser than I am, and I learn from him every minute. So, to me this is a manufactured comparison.

Also, people often talk about your striking resemblance to your grandmother Indira Gandhi. What emotions do they evoke in you?

I am her granddaughter, it’s natural that I should look like her. Sometimes, when I see older people waiting for me and greeting me with so much affection, I can see that they are reacting to me so emotionally because of her work and her commitment to our country. It makes me even more aware of what a formidable and courageous woman she was. So many years after her death, she is still remembered with love. It says a lot for the life she lived.

As children, we all want our parents to take it easy after a certain stage. Is that the reason why we have seen very little of Sonia Gandhiji in this election?

No, it’s not to do with what her children feel. She herself felt the need to be less engaged in politics than she was before. She had been in politics for two whole decades and been totally committed to it. She now spends her time doing things she enjoys and likes to spend time with my children. It was her choice entirely.

If your children express their desire to enter politics at some stage, how would you react, especially since the Congress is accused of encouraging dynastic politics?

I have made every effort to keep my children away from politics and encouraged them to do anything they would possibly want to do, other than politics! That has been my effort as a mother but, as we all know, sometimes children end up doing exactly what their parents have vehemently discouraged them from doing. I have no illusions about the fact that they will choose their own paths as adults and I am not the kind of mother who would force them to do what I want them to do.



Legacy confronts ‘local’ in Sasaram





Legacy confronts ‘local’ in Sasaram

Meira Kumar, daughter of Jagjivan Ram, is pitted against BJP MP Chhedi Paswan

Amarnath Tewary

Meira Kumar

Chhedi Paswan

Sasaram

In southwestern Bihar’s (reserved) constituency, Meira Kumar, the daughter of former Deputy Prime Minister and eight-time MP Babu Jagjivan Ram, is battling to overcome not just her opponent — the BJP’s sitting MP Chhedi Paswan — but also the perception of being “an outsider”.

While the former Lok Sabha Speaker, contesting as the Congress candidate representing the mahagathbandhan (grand alliance), invokes the legacy of her father on the campaign trail, Mr. Paswan pitches the contest as a fight between “Dilli ki beti versus son of the soil”.

A former diplomat from the Indian Foreign Service and the first woman to become Speaker of the Lok Sabha, Ms. Kumar represented Sasaram in 2004 and 2009, while Mr. Paswan won in 1989, 1991 and 2014. BJP’s Munnilal was elected in 1996, 1998 and 1999.

“Meira Kumar is a good candidate but most of the time she lives in Delhi and at other places,” said Sridhar Chaudhury, a sexagenarian farmer of Chainpur. “She has no home in Sasaram and she hardly visits to interact with voters, while Chhedi Paswan is a local and we can approach him at any point of time,” he asserted.

However, Balram Tiwari of Mohania countered him. “Meira Kumar is a daughter of Sasaram… She doesn’t need a domicile certificate to prove her and her family’s connection with Sasaram,” he said. “It’s all Opposition parties’ dirty gameplan to declare her an outsider to gain electoral benefit. Didn’t she win elections twice from here?” asked Mr. Tiwari.

While voters voiced exasperation with Mr. Paswan’s performance, ease of access to their representative appeared to override the disappointment. “If you ask me about works done by the local MP in the last five years, I would say a big zero,” said Abhishek Singh, a resident of Sasaram town. “His son has been accused of taking commission in the MP Local Area Development Fund tenders but I will still vote for him as he is accessible and is being fielded by none other than our jaanbaaz (strong) PM Narendra Modi,” he said.

Mr. Modi addressed a rally in Sasaram on May 14. “The PM’s rally has strengthened Chhedi Paswan’s chances,” Mr. Singh added.

Mr. Paswan, though, has a reputation of being a ‘party hopper’. Several voters said that he had been in almost all political parties, except the Congress, for political and electoral gains.

In her interactions, Ms. Kumar constantly reminds the voters about the legacy of her father (‘Babuji’ as she refers to him) and the work undertaken by her to promote Sasaram’s development. The introduction of several trains and the revamping of the railway station, the Durgawati reservoir and the Indrapuri Dam are among the accomplishments she lists. While the foundation stone for the Durgawati major irrigation project was laid in 1976 by then Minister of Agriculture and Irrigation Jagjivan Ram, it was completed only in 2018. She also talks about how she helped put Sasaram on the country’s tourist map.

Losing connect

A fair number of voters, though, appear unimpressed by Ms. Kumar’s campaign.

“Her only asset is the legacy of her father, Babu Jagjivan Ram; otherwise, she has been totally disconnected with the voters here,” rued Mahendra Chaudhury, a farmer with a small landholding in Chainpur.

BSP candidate Manoj Ram and the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) nominee Ashok Baitha, too, could cut into the Congress vote bank. Sasaram is on the border with Uttar Pradesh and BSP leader Mayawati wields significant influence among the Scheduled Caste voters here.

“So, despite anti-incumbency, the BJP’s Chhedi Paswan seems comfortably positioned,” said Mr. Pandey.


* Editorial 1

A referendum on the Prime Minister?





A referendum on the Prime Minister?

Hindutva nationalism as embodied by Narendra Modi has remained the dominant narrative of the Lok Sabha polls

Ramesh and Rajesh, two brothers in Atari Khejra, around 50 km from the Madhya Pradesh capital Bhopal, could be counted among the so-called aspirational generation that supported Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014. In their mid-20s and wiser by five years now, they laboured to explain their continuing support for Mr. Modi, who they want in office for a second term. The brothers run a tea shop by the highway and their backward caste Kurmi family owns some land. Their farm incomes remain non-remunerative, material life remains as tough as ever, and they are not beneficiaries of the several welfare schemes launched by the Modi government. But finally they came up with one reason that they sounded fully convinced about: “India has become number 1 in the world under Mr. Modi.”

Jettisoning economic issues

A widely popular explanation for Mr. Modi’s 2014 success was that he had jettisoned Hindutva for reforms/development. There was no evidence to support this theory — in fact, evidence suggested the opposite, as he declared himself a “Hindu nationalist” ahead of the campaign and repeatedly raised cow slaughter, “infiltrators”, etc. through the 2014 campaign. But this had become justification for a segment of his elite supporters. Mr. Modi never promised a list of reforms, though he did promise jobs. So the difference between 2014 and 2019 has not been that Mr. Modi has returned to Hindutva, but the complete removal of jobs and development from the agenda by systematically blocking or contaminating official data on these topics. If 2014 was about seeking economic progress through Hindu consolidation, in 2019 national glory was itself the end.

Core Modi voters are convinced that India is a superpower, that his strident rhetoric has scared Pakistan and China. In a particularly jaw-dropping moment of adulation for Mr. Modi, a young tourist guide in Agra, a Jat, who by conventional wisdom should be a supporter of the anti-BJP coalition of the Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samaj Party and Rashtriya Lok Dal in Uttar Pradesh, said: “Who in the world knew Manmohan Singh? Donald Trump stands up when he meets Narendra Modi.” His financial situation is worse than it was in 2014, but he believes that demonetisation has done a world of good for the nation. To ask about the promises of 2014 itself has become an anti-national act. “To talk about jobs, we need to have a country first, right?” Mr. Modi’s supporters retort. This suspension of logic and rational thinking and the intangible abstract of national glory can be found across the Hindi heartland. This is not to deny the existence of a cohort of transactional voters who rooted for Mr. Modi — the recipients of the subsidised cooking gas and houses, for instance.

This euphoria disconnected from self-admitted reality is borne out in the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies’s pre-poll survey, in which more people thought employment opportunities had reduced, prices had gone up, welfare had shrunk, social disharmony had risen and corruption had spiked, but still wanted a second term for Mr. Modi. Only on one question, more people thought Mr. Modi has done well: ‘India’s image in the world’.

This kind of support for Mr. Modi cuts across caste, though upper castes are its fulcrum. But this support could be mobilised only when the question was specifically framed whether they want a second term for Mr. Modi, sidestepping all local questions and daily experience. Mr. Modi’s attempt has been to make the entire election into a referendum on him, and his success will depend on whether or not he managed to push a critical mass of the voters to look beyond their material well-being.

The Congress challenge

The Congress under Rahul Gandhi challenged this delusional populism by questioning the militarism and ultra-nationalism underlying it and promising a minimum income guarantee for all under a scheme called NYAY (Nyuntam Aay Yojana). While this fuelled some hope for the party’s resurgence, its impact as a pan-India alternative to Hindutva has been limited. This is primarily due to the patronising tone of the party’s messaging, as opposed to the empowering tone of Hindutva.

Therefore, the Congress’s performance will depend largely on its ability to amplify local factors, the performance of its governments where they exist, and better management of elections compared to 2014. In Chhattisgarh, the Congress has achieved this objective in significant measure. “Mr. Modi’s campaign in 2014 was economy plus emotions, but this time he was only emotions. Our campaign was only economy and lacked emotions,” a Congress functionary summed it up. “In 2004 we beat the BJP when we both talked about material aspects.”

The U.P., Bihar narrative

The Hindutva narrative has been challenged the most in U.P., followed by Bihar, and among two communities everywhere: Muslims and tribals, who were not vocal. West Bengal is in a different category as the BJP is still trying to expand its footprint. Bihar and U.P. are extremely critical in 2019: 93 of the BJP’s 282 seats in 2014 came from these two States. The critical mass of the Muslim electorate and the deep-rooted history of social justice politics that has offered a counter-polemic to the Hindutva agenda make these States distinct. This unique combination of demographic and historical factors makes the Gujarat model of Hindutva — to reduce to irrelevance Muslims and tribals, and win an overwhelming majority among the rest — difficult in these States.

The BJP achieved that feat in 2014, and hopes to repeat it in 2019. A shared existential threat from the BJP united Yadavs, Dalits and Muslims in U.P. and Bihar and their numerical heft offers the strongest pushback to Hindutva in 2019. The BJP has the solid backing of the upper castes and non-Yadav backwards, and a section of Dalits in Bihar. That may not be good enough to match the 2014 figures in U.P., but Bihar offers better prospects for the party. The BJP’s performance therefore will depend on whether and to what extent it has lured Yadavs, and in U.P. non-Jatav Dalits and Jats. That will depend on the extent to which Mr. Modi could make it a referendum on himself in U.P. and Bihar. Unlike the Congress, the BJP has been relentlessly reaching out to all backward castes and tribals.

Traders, the traditional social base of the BJP, expressed resentment over demonetisation. Muslims and tribals offered but did not as much vocalise their opposition to Hindutva. There were no fatwas calling on the Muslims to vote in any particular direction in 2019. BSP chief Mayawati, representing Ambedkarite Dalits, mobilised her supporters on a staunchly political platform, but her refusal to accommodate the Congress in the U.P. alliance may have cost the alliance. Trinamool Congress chief and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has fought the Hindutva plans for West Bengal in the streets. All told, in regions where the BJP is strong, Hindutva nationalism personified in Mr. Modi remained the dominant political force in 2019. Any public desire for his removal from his office, if it exists, has not been an outcry. The Congress’s gains will be proportional to the impact of local factors, and not on account of any national alternative that it has put forward.

varghese.g@thehindu.co.in



Charting a clear course in the Indo-Pacific





Charting a clear course in the Indo-Pacific

The Indo-Pacific wing in the Ministry of External Affairs gives strategic coherence to India’s Look East policy

Though the term Indo-Pacific has been gaining traction in Indian policy circles for some time now, it achieved operational clarity after the Indian vision was presented by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his keynote address at the Shangri-La Dialogue in June 2018. His speech underscored that for India the geography of the Indo-Pacific stretches from the eastern coast of Africa to Oceania (from the shores of Africa to that of the Americas) which also includes in its fold the Pacific Island countries.

Many mechanisms

India’s Act East policy remains the bedrock of the national Indo-Pacific vision and the centrality of ASEAN is embedded in the Indian narrative. India has been an active participant in mechanisms like the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), in ASEAN-led frameworks like the East Asia Summit, the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting Plus, the ASEAN Regional Forum as well as the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation and the Mekong-Ganga Economic Corridor. India has also been convening the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium, in which the navies of the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) participate. India has boosted its engagements with Australia and New Zealand and has deepened its cooperation with the Republic of Korea. Through the Forum for India-Pacific Islands Cooperation, India is stepping up its interactions with the Pacific Island countries. India’s growing partnership with Africa can be seen through the convening of mechanisms like the India-Africa Forum Summits. India’s multi-layered engagement with China as well as strategic partnership with Russia underlines its commitment to ensuring a stable, open, secure, inclusive and prosperous Indo-Pacific.

India views the Indo-Pacific as a geographic and strategic expanse, with the 10 ASEAN countries connecting the two great oceans. Inclusiveness, openness, and ASEAN centrality and unity, therefore, lie at the heart of the Indian notion of Indo-Pacific. Security in the region must be maintained through dialogue, a common rules-based order, freedom of navigation, unimpeded commerce and settlement of disputes in accordance with international law. More connectivity initiatives impinging on respect for sovereignty, territorial integrity, consultation, good governance, transparency, viability and sustainability should be promoted.

A natural corollary

The setting up of the Indo-Pacific wing in the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) in April 2019 is a natural corollary to this vision. Given how the term Indo-Pacific has been gaining currency and how major regional actors such as the U.S., Japan and Australia are articulating their regional visions — including this term in their official policy statements — it was becoming imperative for India to operationalise its Indo-Pacific policy. The renaming of the U.S. Pacific Command to U.S. Indo-Pacific Command as well as the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act in December 2018 showcase Washington’s more serious engagement with the Indo-Pacific. The Free and Open Indo-Pacific concept was unveiled by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in 2016, and Australia released its Foreign Policy White Paper in 2017, which details Australia’s Indo-Pacific vision centred around security, openness and prosperity.

Given the huge geography that the Indian definition of Indo-Pacific covers, there was a need for a bureaucratic re-alignment to create a division that can imbibe in its fold the various territorial divisions in the MEA that look after the policies of the countries which are part of the Indo-Pacific discourse. This wing provides a strategic coherence to the Prime Minister’s Indo-Pacific vision, integrating the IORA, the ASEAN region and the Quad to the Indo-Pacific dynamic.

The integration of the IORA means that attention will continue to be focused on the IOR. This can be a result of the growing Chinese footprint in the Indian Ocean and Chinese diplomacy in the region. The Ministry of Defence and the Indian Navy also are also taking note of the developments in this region and this wing can work in coordination with these two organs as well. Given New Delhi’s stakes in its immediate neighbourhood, a more focused and integrated approach is needed.

Additionally, ASEAN forms the cornerstone of India’s Act East policy and Indo-Pacific vision. As ASEAN now enters into deliberations to carve out its own Indo-Pacific policy, it underscores a shift in the stand of the sub-regional organisation towards the Indo-Pacific concept. Initially there was a lurking fear within the grouping that the Indo-Pacific concept might just overshadow ASEAN’s centrality and importance. Visualising the ASEAN region as a part of the wider Indo-Pacific shows an evolution in the region’s thinking, opening new possibilities for India’s engagement with the grouping.

Challenges ahead

India’s bureaucratic shift is an important move to articulate its regional policy more cogently, coherently and with a renewed sense of purpose. There are still challenges for India, especially how it will integrate the Quadrilateral initiative which got revived in 2017 with its larger Indo-Pacific approach. It will also be important for the new MEA division to move beyond security and political issues and articulate a more comprehensive policy towards the region. Commerce and connectivity in particular will have to be prioritised if India is to take advantage of a new opening for its regional engagement.

While India has been consistently emphasising “inclusiveness” in the Indo-Pacific framework, it will be challenging to maintain a balance between the interests of all stakeholders. There are differences between India’s vision and the U.S.’s strategy for the Indo-Pacific even as countries like China and Russia view the Indo-Pacific with suspicion. As geopolitical tensions rise between China and the U.S., the MEA’s new division will have its task cut out if India’s long-term political and economic interests in the region are to be preserved. A bureaucratic change was indeed needed, but going forward the challenge would be to see how effectively this change manifests itself in managing India’s growing diplomatic footprint in the Indo-Pacific.

Harsh V. Pant is Director, Studies at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi and Professor of International Relations at King’s College London. Premesha Saha is an Associate Fellow at ORF, New Delhi



External woes





External woes

Given the widening trade deficit, urgent measures are needed to boost exports

The estimates for foreign trade showing a sharp slowdown in merchandise export growth in April, to 0.64% from a year earlier, ought to add to concerns about the economy. If one were to strip away the 31% surge in shipments of petroleum products to overseas markets, India’s export of goods actually contracted by over 3% in dollar terms last month. In contrast, overall merchandise exports had expanded 11% year-on-year in March, with the growth in shipments excluding petroleum products exceeding that pace by about 50 basis points. The slump in exports was fairly widespread, with 16 of the 30 major product groups listed by the Commerce Ministry reflecting contractions, compared with the 10 categories that had shrunk in March. Worryingly, shipments of engineering goods declined by over 7% after having expanded by 16.3% in March, while the traditionally strong export sectors — gem and jewellery, leather and leather products, textiles and garments and drugs and pharmaceuticals — all weakened. These are all key providers of jobs and any protracted pain across these industries will impact jobs, wages and consumption demand in the domestic market. While the contraction in gem and jewellery exports widened to 13.4% in April, from 0.4% in March, the slump in the leather segment broadened to 15.3% from 6.4%. And the pace of growth of garment exports decelerated to 4.4% from 15.1% in March.

Imports grew by 4.5% to $41.4 billion in April, accelerating from March’s 1.4% pace as purchases of crude oil and gold continued to increase. While the 9.3% jump in the oil import bill, from March’s 5.6%, can partly be explained by the rise in international crude prices (Brent crude futures, for instance, advanced 6.4% in April), India’s insatiable appetite for gold, as reflected in the 54% surge in imports last month, must give policymakers cause for reflection. Excluding oil and gold, however, imports shrank by more than 2% last month, signalling that import demand in the real productive sectors is largely becalmed. As a result of merchandise imports outpacing exports, the trade deficit widened to a five-month high of $15.3 billion. The widening trade shortfall will add pressure on India’s burgeoning current account deficit, which at a provisional $51.9 billion in the first nine months of fiscal 2018-19 had already surpassed the preceding financial year’s 12-month shortfall of $48.7 billion. With stronger headwinds ahead in the form of an escalating trade war between the U.S. and China, and its knock-on impact on global growth, the outlook for export demand is far from reassuring. Add the rising military tensions in West Asia and its potential to further push up oil prices, and the scope to contain the trade and current account deficits seems significantly challenging. Clearly, this would be one more pressing concern for the new government to address.



Holding the centre





Holding the centre

Europe’s mainstream parties must not take fright at the perceived appeal of populism

On May 23, as the results of the Indian elections emerge, in Europe the world’s second largest democratic electoral process will get under way. More than 425 million voters are eligible to participate in elections that will take place over a four-day period to select 751 members of the European Parliament for a five-year term. There would have been 705, but for the delays to Brexit, which means Britain will participate too. Thousands of candidates from hundreds of parties as well as independents will seek votes, and the winners will form cross-national groupings in the House based on their political ideology. With turnout usually low (43% in 2014), predictions can be tricky, but expectations are that far-right and Eurosceptic parties will make gains. Last month, Italy’s Deputy Prime Minister and figurehead for the far right in Europe, Matteo Salvini, launched the campaign for the European Alliance of People and Nations, alongside allies from Germany to Denmark, on a platform invoking tougher immigration rules and in some cases Euroscepticism, uniting parties that had once been split between groupings. In Britain, the appeal of anti-European sentiment has manifested itself in the success of the Brexit Party, formed in January by former UK Independence Party head Nigel Farage — it is projected to win a 34% share of the vote. In Germany, the right-wing Alternative für Deutschland is expected to make gains, while in France the right-wing National Rally (former National Front) could to do better than President Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche.

There is a risk that centre-right and centre-left coalitions will fail to command a joint majority. The temptation will be for centrist parties to see these elections as yet another sign that populism is on the rise, and a cause they must in one way or another pander to. In Britain, this has certainly been the case with the rightward lunge of the Conservative Party, while in Germany the centre-left SPD has toughened its stance on asylum-seekers. Yet, this would be the wrong message to take. What is under way is vastly more complex. It is certain that people are seeking alternatives amid stagnating wages and living standards, with many shunning mainstream parties in their quest — but to infer that all see populism as the route ahead would be naive. Green parties, for example, are expected to make their best showing yet across the continent, as public support for an agenda that encompasses progressive climate change policies and social justice has grown. European parliamentary elections should certainly trigger alarm bells for the mainstream parties, but should also motivate them to look imaginatively for fresh answers, rather than attempting to rehash decades-old illiberal ones.


* Editorial 2

The foot soldiers of Hindutva in West Bengal





The foot soldiers of Hindutva in West Bengal

As ideological barriers give way and political activists switch sides, the BJP is relying on its tried and tested ways of getting into the mainstream on the strength of a host of communal organisations. Suvojit Bagchi reports on the rise of the BJP as tensions flare up and rumours abound in election time

”The Trinamool’s bigger challenge beyond May 23 will be Hindutva outfits which are not clearly visible on ground, unlike the BJP. “ A religious procession marking the Ram Navami festival in Siliguri in April, 2019. (Below): An Ekal Vidyalaya in a tiny hamlet, Kalitala, in the Habibpur developmental block of Malda district, West Bengal. AFP/ Subham Dutta DIPTENDU DUTTA

On an oppressively hot day in Baruipur, 50 km south of Kolkata, in South 24 Parganas district, Swarup Dutta sits in a shop crammed with stabilisers and inverters. He slowly sips his morning tea while chatting with three middle-aged men. Outside, banners of the Trinamool Congress showing the grim visage of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee are erected. But that doesn’t reflect the political leanings of the four men inside. Dutta is one of the founders of the Hindu Jagran Manch, an organisation affiliated to the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), in Baruipur. The Hindu Jagran Manch, according to its website, aims to “enable social harmony and Hindu unity, propagate in public interest Hindu myths, and rehabilitate the victims of love jihad,” among other things.

The four men discuss the ongoing general election, which has been marred by violence in West Bengal. Much has changed in the eastern State in just a decade. The West Bengal political landscape underwent a transformation in 2011 when the Trinamool rode to power, bringing to an end the Left Front’s 34-year rule. Eight years from then, the contest is not between the Trinamool and the Left, or even the Trinamool and the Congress. A new national player is making inroads everywhere. The Bharatiya Janata Party’s steady rise is not necessarily because of the party’s activities; it is supported by a host of organisations in West Bengal and has deep coffers. Established over the last three decades, these organisations have multiplied since the Trinamool came to power. Their rise has forced the Trinamool to change its election strategy and adapt to the new challenge in ways dictated by its competitor. This is a story of the work done by some of the agencies that lend their support to the BJP.

Jumping ship

Samir Naskar, 40, who has dropped in for a chat, is a member of the Hindu Jagran Manch, which is still unregistered here. He is a former member of the Sonarpur Zonal Committee and Panchayat of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). Now, he is a committed foot soldier of the BJP.

“What to do? Dilip-da wanted me,” he explains. “Dilip-da” is the BJP State president Dilip Ghosh, who was particularly keen on roping in Naskar because of his ability to manage elections. Naskar says he switched recently from the Hindu Jagran Manch to the BJP. The reason is “understandable,” says Dutta. “Naskar has worked with Dilip-da in the Manch. They share a bond.” It is against the blurring of boundaries between ideologically inimical parties that the 2019 election is playing out.

Naskar used to be in charge of booth management for the CPI(M) — his task was to gather together boys in his Panchayat, Pratapnagar, which is adjacent to Baruipur, to mobilise voters to reach the booths and vote, he says. Now, he is the poll manager of the BJP in four Panchayats, which together have about 67,000 voters.

“Today, Hindus are supporting the BJP because of Mamata’s policy to appease the Muslims,” says Naskar. His grouse with the CPI(M) and the Trinamool is that they are “reluctant to protect the interests of Hindus”. He adds: “Last month, Muslims planned a jalsha in Sangur village in Pratapnagar. We stopped them from organising it. The police arrested me.”

With the participation of activists like Naskar from across the State, the Hindu Jagran Manch’s main programme, Ram Navami, has witnessed a massive surge in participation. In 2014, Ram Navami celebrations got a big boost when the Manch provided logistical support. “We felt that the youth needed an icon in Bengal. We decided to give the Ram Navami celebrations a push. We formed celebration committees and Naskar played a key role in that,” Dutta says. He reads from a yellow diary: “Last year, 20,61,000 people participated in the Ram Navami rally. Among them, 3,89,135 were matrishakti (women). Till about a few years ago, there were only a few thousand who attended the celebrations.”

Soon after BJP leaders participated in armed Ram Navami rallies, this year the Trinamool, not to be left behind, also organised processions, with participants beating drums and shouting ‘Jai Shri Ram!’ Trinamool leaders admit that they were — and still are — unsure about their strategy “to counter the Hindutva brigade”. The district president of the Trinamool in Malda, Moazzem Hossain, who is contesting this time, says, “We do not have cadres who are informed and educated to monitor the Sangh Parivar. They [Hindutva organisations] are operating at many levels.” One such ‘operation’ involves taking candidates to local and lesser-known shrines in the evenings, have them perform an aarti, and take the blessings of the temple priest. When a priest endorses a candidate in front of 200-500 people, it makes a difference.

Neither does the Left Front have a strategy. In the Kolkata office of the Party of Democratic Socialism, founded by the CPI(M)’s rebels in 2001, Samir Putatundu, one of the founders, says they “never monitored the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh] outfits over the years, as neither the BJP nor the RSS was perceived as a threat.” With the Left now floundering in West Bengal, and with the Trinamool still its main adversary in the State, more and more of its supporters are moving to the opposite ideological camp, the BJP.

A new icon in Bengal

The VHP office is located in a nondescript four-storey building on which is painted the emblem of the organisation, a giant banyan tree. Inside the office, located in central Kolkata, is a poster of Lord Krishna and two cows on the door. It reads, ‘Only those who protect cows will get our votes’. Elderly Bengali women in white saris run around offering prasad in the office, someone is cooking bhog, and there is a strong fragrance of flowers.

The organisation secretary of the VHP, Sachindranath Sinha, does not deny that the VHP has been working with temple priests for a long time. “It is called Dharmacharya Samparka Bibhag [the blessings of priests are sought for every activity of the VHP]. There are half a dozen other departments of the VHP doing various kinds of work such as empowering women [through Durga Vahini], skill development, etc.,” Sinha says. The VHP liaises with sadhus and arranges free pilgrimages for them to the Maha Kumbh Mela and places of religious significance.

The organisation has only been growing, Sinha says. “The Bajrang Dal is the youth wing of the VHP. Four years ago, we had 5,000-7,000 members. Now we have 70,000.” He credits the rise of the Bajrang Dal to Lord Ram and the general growth of Hindutva in the State. “A few years ago, after the government change, we began noticing how the minorities were growing from strength to strength. The majority community was complaining and the BJP was failing to take advantage of the situation,” he says. “We decided then to act and began promoting Ram Navami to engage the youth.”

There was some apprehension in putting the spotlight on Lord Ram in a State where Durga, Kali, local gods celebrated in Bengal’s literature such as Manasha and Itu, and other godmen are celebrated, he says. “But we felt we should select only that icon, which has helped us grow elsewhere, to mobilise people. This year we have had rallies in all the 512 of the VHP’s own blocks.”

Sinha agrees that their programmes have helped “the BJP increase its vote share,” but insists that the VHP is not “connected to elections”. “We are a religio-social organisation,” he says firmly. Sinha smiles while talking of the Trinamool adopting the same strategy to garner votes. “They’ve realised that the Hindu votes are consolidating behind the BJP.”

Changing strategy

At the Ram Navami celebrations in April, thousands of people could be seen brandishing hefty metal swords and rocket launchers made of thermocol. Ratna De Nag, the incumbent MP of Hooghly, stood at the tail end of the rally, following the sword-wielding men and “monitoring the situation”, according to her associates.

“The ruling party is adopting the narrative of the Opposition. And that is the victory of the Sangh Parivar,” says Sanjeeb Mukherjee, retired Professor of Political Science, Calcutta University. “Owing to a lack of ideology, the Trinamool is borrowing the narrative of its rivals from time to time. Earlier it had a pro-peasant narrative, which it had borrowed from the Left. Now it has a pro-Hindutva narrative, which it has borrowed from the Right.”

But the Trinamool could also turn this into an advantage, he says. “An important characteristic of Mamata is that she is a quick learner. Not having a strong ideology helps her to continuously improvise. This is a kind of jugaad in the world of politics.” But while the Trinamool “adapts”, there is no way to tell which direction its flock will turn.

Biswanath Das (name changed) is a reasonably affluent political activist. He lives on the bank of the river Padma in Murshidabad’s Jalangi block. “We are officially Trinamool and unofficially BJP,” says Das. Das, a Trinamool Panchayat Samiti member, was denied a ticket when internal infighting broke out within the Trinamool. He was also attacked by members of a faction of the Trinamool. He still has a neatly spread Trinamool flag on the roof of his house. “The Hindus here are all with the BJP, but the flag is for protection,” he says.

Nation-building

Seemanta Chetana Mancha (SCM), a platform to increase awareness about borders and commit to the nation-building process, is another success story of the Hindutva brigade in Bengal. Standing in a floodplain of the Padma, the SCM’s State Committee member, Tapash Biswas, says the organisation, which “closely coordinates with the Border Security Force”, has grown dramatically. “Our job is to ensure that people like Biswanath Das are aware of their rights as citizens living on the border. They report cases of cow theft, smuggling and atrocities by the ‘majority’ in Murshidabad,” says Biswas, a swayamsevak. Muslims, who constitute about 70% of Murshidabad’s population, are the majority in the district.

Colonel Dipak Bhattacharya, the South Bengal president of the SCM, says the organisation was launched in Bengal decades ago, but began to grow only from 2017. “In the last four years, from very few volunteers we are now have about 30,000 in the State, of which 20,000 are in South Bengal,” he says. The Colonel became a full-time swayamsevak after retirement, he says.

The SCM is popular in border States like Rajasthan and Gujarat. One of the key programmes that popularised the SCM in the border towns and villages of Bengal was “stopping land transfer to Muslims”. Many Hindu families, especially aged couples whose children live in Kolkatta, were selling their property to Muslims and leaving the border areas to be with their children, the SCM members say. “So, we undertook a programme to reach out to those couples. We told them that if every Hindu family leaves the area, then the border will be completely dominated by Muslims. The programme gave a major boost to our membership,” Bhattacharya says. Other programmes such as providing protection to cows and ensuring jobs have attracted more people.

Skill development

Along the banks of the river is a giant and partly rusted gate covered with bougainvillea. This is the Bhalukbona Gramotthan Prashikshan Kendra. The organisation was founded in Kolkata in the late 1980s and is credited for the BJP’s growth in the tribal areas of central India by national leaders of the party.

As the gate opens, visible on a plaque are words by Prime Minister Narendra Modi: “Our mission should be skill development to take the country forward.” The Bhalukbona centre, located deep in Malda’s Habibpur block which has a 50% Scheduled Caste and 30% Scheduled Tribe population, is running the Prime Minister’s skill development programme on a huge campus.

“Since 2001, the Ekal Vidyalaya has been in operation, but from 2011, we developed the Gramotthan project to ensure jobs for the villagers in the area,” says Kanai Pande, the man in charge of the Bhalukbona project. Pande, a swayamsevak, takes us on a guided tour of the campus which has a Ram Mandir, a goshala, a computer-training school and various skill development programmes to impart training to courier boys or automobile mechanics. But the real success story is the 85,000 Ekal schools in India. “Bengal has about 3,600 of such schools, of which 250 are in Malda,” says Pande.

It is early morning. Dalit and Adivasi children chant the Gayatri Mantra in Kalitala village in Habibpur. The school has one teacher, Jolly Mondal, who is pursuing a Master’s degree. She gets ₹1,000 as honorarium per month and “enjoys teaching”. The children under her watch recite a series of poems recounting the greatness of Sita and Savitri. The children say that their favourite hymn is the Bijaya Mahamantra, in praise of Lord Ram.

Pande insists that Ekals are “both non-religious and non-formal schools” and that they follow the government-approved syllabus for children up to the fourth grade. These schools, some of which are residential, impart education in sports, language, culture and patriotism. “We teach children to love their country through songs. There are 90 such schools in Habibpur block, besides many run by the RSS,” says Pande. Both Ekal and Gramotthan are funded by “well-wishers in many countries, especially the United States.”

On way to the city, Pande says that the good work of the Ekal should “benefit the BJP” in the elections. How? “We run the finest Ekal school in Balurghat and it has an impact in the area,” he says. Sinha says there are “50 families connected to each Ekal”, and the teacher is asked to reach out to each family to talk “about religion and the country”. The teachers do not talk about the elections necessarily, he says. But come elections, the parents carry forward the message of voting for the country first, an oft-repeated comment of BJP leaders.

The bigger challenge

The heady mix of nationalism and religion has clearly found a resonance in the once Marxist State of West Bengal. Bengal now slips into the last phase of what has turned out to be a violent battle for the ballot. With educationist Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar’s marble bust smashed into smithereens following a clash between the BJP and the TMC a few days ago, and both blaming each other for the episode, the tension in the State has only increased. Messages about religious communities are being forwarded by organisations, many of which were founded in post-Independence Bengal, managed to survive during the Communist era, and are now consolidated in Trinamool’s Bengal. The Trinamool’s bigger challenge beyond May 23 will be these Hindutva outfits which are not clearly visible on ground, unlike the BJP.



* Foreign

10 years since war, justice is still elusive





10 years since war, justice is still elusive

Reconciliation is afar as survivors say some lands are yet to be released and relatives are missing

Meera Srinivasan

Seeking information: Relatives of people who went missing during Sri Lanka’s civil war taking part in a candle light vigil in August 2017.Getty imagesNurPhoto

JAFFNA

Given a choice between living in a camp for displaced persons and in a home of his own, Dinesh Kumar would have chosen the latter any day. But nothing prepared him for the daily battle at his new house.

“I go to the sea to fish, but the catch has fallen drastically in the years we were displaced. I do some home gardening with my wife, we barely manage,” said the 30-year-old, standing in front of his small, Army-built house in Tellippalai, in Jaffna peninsula. Authorities have named the colony ‘Nallinakkapuram’ (colony of reconciliation). But for residents here, concerns over finding livelihood and drinking water have trumped the relief of being back on their land.

Over the last couple of years, over 80 families have relocated here, after being displaced for decades during Sri Lanka’s three-decade-long civil war between the state armed forces and rebel Tigers. The war ended 10 years ago with a brutal finish, as the armed forces defeated the LTTE. It claimed 40,000 civilian lives in the last phase alone, leaving behind a trail of grief and mass destruction.

For the survivors, healing hasn’t been easy. The post-war efforts of the two governments in power since 2009 have at best been patchy, and grossly inadequate, going by several residents’ accounts. With justice out of sight, reconciliation appears even harder for some. Nallinakkapuram residents pointed to gaping holes in the roof of their homes built by the Army. During the rains, many are forced to seek shelter elsewhere. Residents in some other areas, who tried building their own homes with foreign donor grants, often found themselves trapped in debt. The grants proved insufficient amid spiralling costs and jobs remain scarce in the war-hit areas.

The lack of jobs and the pressure of predatory loans, especially among women, have been recurring themes across the Northern and Eastern Provinces, which have tried bouncing back for a decade now. A Presidential Task Force has been working on reviving old factories to generate employment, but the pace has hardly helped, according to many.

Emerging local conflicts over land and water among former and newly resettled residents have not only fanned tensions within the community, but point to the many challenges in resettlement.

Seemingly ‘bread-and-butter issues’, they add up to a stifling post-war reality that makes everyday life significantly harder for the war-hit community. “We lost our homes, we lost our loved ones. Today, as we try to build a new life for our children, we are struggling to make ends meet,” said a resident, who asked not to be named, citing possible “action” from the military. “Why take a risk,” he said.

Military occupation

Ten years after the war, there are families in the north who are still agitating to retrieve their military-held land. Most of the private land held by the Army has been returned in the last few years, but the military still holds considerable amount of state land which, residents say, ought to be used for the public, or for the thousands who don’t make it to beneficiary lists of various projects because they are landless.

“With so few jobs available, a relative of ours worked in an Army-run farm until last year. But wearing the uniform they give and toiling in their farms made her uncomfortable after a point,” said a young woman in Kilinochchi, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “In our case, I work in a garment factory, so she quit, but some people don’t have a choice.”

For those who were already concerned about the lingering military presence after the war, the recent Easter attacks have brought a new, but familiar concern. “The attacks were somewhere else, but the military started intimidating us in the north first. The number of security checks and the heightened surveillance is bringing back awful memories of those war years,” said Leelavathi Ananthanatarajah, an activist based in Kilinochchi.

Old fears

“Some of us are hoping to go to Mullivaikkal tomorrow for remembrance, but we fear they will try to prevent us from even remembering the dead,” she said.

The post-war years have been rather unkind to many like her who are looking for their missing relatives. Enforced disappearances are among the chief concerns of many survivors of the war.

The Maithripala Sirisena-Ranil Wickremesinghe government set up the Office on Missing Persons (OMP) “only to show Geneva that they are doing something,” she said, referring to annual UNHRC sessions.

“We know their task is huge and not straightforward. But we say take some five cases where substantial evidence is available. Show us how you might deal with those cases for us to put our faith in the mechanism,” said Ms. Ananthanatarajah, secretary of an association of families of disappeared persons in the north-east.

Moreover, politicians who promise to deliver on accountability never fail to mention they will never punish a “war-hero”. “What are the chances that we will know the truth? And authorities speak of interim relief and reparations already. That could only mean that authorities think justice is dispensable for us, right? Surely it is not,” she said.



House Democrats concerned over Trump’s India policy





House Democrats concerned over Trump’s India policy

Ask President to appoint a permanent official for South Asia

Sriram Lakshman
Washington

Disturbed by what they describe as a lack of leadership and policy coherence, Democrats from the U.S. House of Representatives, including the chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Eliot Engel, have written to President Donald Trump.

Their letter asks that the President appoint an Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs and lists a series of concerns, including the lack of a coherent India policy. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is copied on the letter, which is dated May 15.

“We are deeply concerned by your failure, more than two years into your term, to name and have confirmed an Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs at the Department of State,” the letter reads.

Position vacant

The position has been vacant since January 2017, when Nisha Biswal left the Department. In April, the White House had confirmed that it was withdrawing the name of Robert Williams, an intelligence officer nominated for the top South and Central Asia job. The Department has been run by Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Alice Wells in the absence of a permanent appointment.

“From the failure of the Department’s senior officials to engage directly with Sri Lankan government officials during the country’s October-December 2018 constitutional crisis, to the Department’s failure to form a coherent India policy, to the mishandling of the U.S.-Afghanistan relationship in the midst of seeking a peace deal with the Taliban, it is clear that American leadership — when it is needed most — is missing in action,” the letter says, adding, “We believe that these failures are at least in part the result of not having a confirmed Assistant Secretary.”

The India-U.S. relationship has been mixed over the last two-odd years of the Trump administration. Mr. Trump had announced his South Asia policy in August 2017 — calling for a greater development role for India in Afghanistan (and linking that to India “making billions of dollars in trade” with the U.S.), asking Pakistan to end its support for terrorism, and seeking stability in Afghanistan. The U.S. also played a central role in helping to get Jaish-e-Mohammad chief Masood Azhar sanctioned by the UN.

However, of late, the trade-related irritants in the relationship have piled up. Disagreements over ICT, dairy products, medical devices, India’s e-commerce policy and the U.S.’s H-1B visa policies are yet to be resolved. Mr. Trump’s March announcement that preferential trade benefits for India under the U.S.’s GSP program will be withdrawn, and the U.S. requiring India to stop its imports of Iranian oil from May have added to the strain on the relationship

The Democrats say that they cannot understand why the position remains vacant given that, to their knowledge, a number of candidates have been considered for the role.



In a first for Asia, Taiwan Bill legalises same-sex marriages
In a first for Asia, Taiwan Bill legalises same-sex marriages
Agence France-Presse
People celebrating outside Taiwan’s Parliament after the passage of the Bill.APChiang Ying-ying
Taipei
Taiwan’s Parliament legalised same-sex marriage on Friday in a landmark first for Asia as the government survived a last-minute attempt by conservatives to pass watered-down legislation.
Lawmakers comfortably passed a Bill allowing same-sex couples to form “exclusive permanent unions” and another clause that would let them apply for a “marriage registration” with government agencies.
The vote — which took place on the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia — is a major victory for the island’s LGBT community and it places the island at the vanguard of Asia’s burgeoning gay rights movement.
Thousands of gay rights supporters gathered outside Parliament despite heavy downpours, waving rainbow flags, flashing victory signs and breaking into cheers as the news filtered out.
Gay rights groups hailed the vote on Friday, saying that the ability to apply for a “marriage registration” — known as Clause Four — put their community much closer to parity with heterosexual couples.
“The passage of Clause Four ensures that two persons of the same-sex can register their marriage on May 24th and ensure that Taiwan becomes the first country in Asia to legalise same-sex marriage and to successfully open a new page in history,” said the Taiwan Alliance to Promote Civil Partnership Rights.
Two years ago, Taiwan’s top court ruled that not allowing same-sex couples to marry violates the Constitution, with judges giving the government until May 24 to make the changes or see marriage equality enacted automatically.

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