MAY 4, Saturday

Delhi Edition

* Front Page

Only 10 of 100 Ganga sewage projects completed





Only 10 of 100 Ganga sewage projects completed

Jacob Koshy

The commissioning of sewage treatment plants is at the heart of the mission.

NEW DELHI

The National Democratic Alliance government has only finished 10 of the 100 sewage infrastructure projects commissioned after 2015 under the Namami Gange mission, according to records.

Commissioning of sewage treatment plants (STP) and laying sewer lines are at the heart of the mission to clean the Ganga. Nearly ₹23,000 crore has been sanctioned of the ₹28,000 crore outlay for sewage management work. River-front development, cleaning ghats and removing trash from the river — the cosmetic side of the mission — make up about for ₹1,200 crore of the mission outlay.

The bulk of the projects completed were those commissioned before the Ganga mission began work in earnest under programmes such as the Ganga Action Plan-1 and Ganga Action Plan-2, which began in 1987 and 1996 respectively.

For instance, as of March 31, 27 of the 37 completed STP projects and sewer infrastructure were those commissioned before 2015, says a report on the National Mission for Clean Ganga (NMCG) website.

U.P.’s performance

Uttar Pradesh, responsible for about three-fourths of the inadequately treated industrial waste and municipal sewage, had 18 pre-2015 STP and sewage infrastructure projects commissioned. Only 12 of these have been completed, and only 1 — of the 33 projects commissioned after 2015 at the cost of ₹8,000 crore — has been wrapped up, records show.

Making the Ganga pristine was one of the claims of the Narendra Modi government and this was followed up by sanctioning ₹20,000 crore for the NMCG.

As of March — the latest figures available — slightly over ₹28,000 crore has been sanctioned for various projects but only about ₹6,700 crore (about 25%) has been spent. Last March, the ratio was about 20%. The incomplete projects are reflected in the river quality.

Rajiv Ranjan Mishra, Director-General, NMCG, said completing pending projects too was a major obligation of the mission. Moreover, it was only after August 2016 that the NMCG got the necessary independence and authority to commission projects quickly, he explained. “Most of the major projects we have sanctioned have been in 2017 and 2018 and several of them will come online (and translate into improved water quality) by 2019 and early 2020. We have also followed a new model of having a single private operator take care of all the infrastructure works of a city (to improve efficiency) and implemented the Hybrid Annuity Model (HAM) in awarding tenders to STP and infrastructure developers,” he told The Hindu.



CBI searching for evidence on eleven ‘murdered’ girls





CBI searching for evidence on eleven ‘murdered’ girls

Files 7th status report in Muzaffarpur shelter home case

Krishnadas Rajagopal
NEW DELHI

The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) is searching for evidence related to the 11 girls believed to have been murdered by kingpin Brajesh Thakur, who is accused of the rape and sexual abuse of children in his shelter home in Muzaffarpur district of Bihar.

The agency got wind of the alleged murders from the rescued children. The names of these girls, who mysteriously disappeared from the balikagruh (girls’ home), emerged in multiple statements of children, who said the 11 girls were murdered by Thakur and his accomplices.

In its seventh status report to the Supreme Court, the CBI, which is facing allegations that its probe into the grisly case is “hogwash”, said a scrutiny of the girls’ home register at Muzaffarpur had so far revealed that a total of 35 girls with identical or similar names had lived there at one point of time or the other.



* Nation

SC orders questioning of Bharati Ghosh by CID





SC orders questioning of Bharati Ghosh by CID

‘Move vacation Bench in case of non-cooperation by ex-IPS officer’

Indo-Asian News Service

Former IPS officer Bharati Ghosh is the BJP candidate for the Ghatal Lok Sabha seat. Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

New Delhi

The Supreme Court on Friday ordered former IPS officer Bharati Ghosh to appear for questioning before the West Bengal CID on May 14, two days after polling takes place in the Ghatal Lok Sabha seat in Midnapore district from where she is contesting as a Bharatiya Janata Party candidate.

A Bench of Justices Ashok Bhushan and K.M. Joseph also gave the West Bengal government the liberty to move the vacation Bench in case of any non-cooperation by the former IPS officer of the West Bengal cadre.

Extortion cases

Once considered close to Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, Ms. Ghosh joined the BJP after falling out with her. The CID is probing an extortion case against her.

The West Bengal government had told the court that there were four categories of cases against the former officer rooted in certain acts of hers in the wake of demonetisation, possession of disproportionate assets and recovery of cash to the tune of ₹2 crore among others.

The Bench on Friday said the State government’s plea seeking vacation of the apex court’s two “ex-parte” orders — restraining it from taking any coercive action against Ms. Ghosh and seeking to bar her from entering the State — would be taken up for hearing in July, when the top court reopens after the summer break.

The West Bengal government had sought to bar the former IPS officer from entering the State contending that she may tamper with evidence.



20 Bangladeshis set to be deported





20 Bangladeshis set to be deported

They had entered the country illegally or overstayed

SPECIAL CORRESPONDENTGUWAHATI

Twenty Bangladeshi nationals are expected to be sent home on Saturday. Officials said the government has completed the procedure of deporting the 20 people who had entered the country illegally or overstayed. The process was undertaken after Bangladesh authorities confirmed their nationality.

Of the 20, 19 had been lodged in southern Assam’s Silchar Central Jail and one in western Assam’s Kokrajhar Central Jail. These jails also serve as detention camps for people marked foreigners.

The deportation would be second after 21 Bangladeshi nationals were sent home on January 19. Bangladesh had taken back 52 nationals in June 2018.

Officials in southern Assam said the Border Security Force would be handing over the Bangladeshi nationals to Border Guards Bangladesh at the Karimganj border.

Rohingya girls

The Mizoram police on April 30 detained eight Rohingya girls at Vairengte in northern Mizoram. The girls, in their late teens, said they were picked up from refugee camps in Bangladesh by agents and had been promised jobs in Malaysia.

“We feel they are victims of human trafficking and were to be smuggled out via Champhai (eastern Mizoram) to Myanmar and beyond,” a police officer in Mizoram said.

That day, the police also detained 23 Nepalese girls from Champhai and arrested one Lal Bahadur. They are being questioned for more information.



CBI begins probe into BSF helibase scam





CBI begins probe into BSF helibase scam

Corruption charges against CPWD engineers, govt. contractor

Devesh K. Pandey
NEW DELHI

The Central Bureau of Investigation has launched a probe into the allegations of corruption and use of “sub-standard material” in executing a contract for the construction of a helibase at the high-security BSF campus in Srinagar.

Four Central Public Works Department engineers — Umesh Chandra, Sanjay Kumar Srivastava, Prabhat Singh and Sharvan Kumar — have been booked along with the government contractor, Ghulam Mohi-u-din Bhat & Sons.

The contract also pertained to the construction of chain-link fencing adjoining the airbase with a provision of helicopter hangar at the BSF campus. The contract worth ₹2.11 crore was awarded to Mr. Bhat, of Budgam in J&K.

It is alleged that the engineers conspired with the contractor to cheat the CPWD by submitting fake invoices of cement and TMT steel and also used “sub-standard material” in the execution of work that had started in March 2014 and completed in September 2015.

The accused contractor had submitted fake retail invoices for about 42.76 metric tons of steel worth ₹24.35 lakh and about 23,880 cement bags for ₹1.06 crore.

The probe “also revealed that extra cement for ₹28 lakh approx. has been provided by the above mentioned CPWD officials in the 6th and final bill, in addition to the basic quantity of cement to the contractor agency, thus providing undue benefit to the said contractor and subsequent loss to the government exchequer has been caused”. The accused persons had also showed deployment of technical staff at the work site, as required under the contract conditions. Investigations revealed that no such officials were deployed and that the payments for the same were shown on paper.



Odisha pulls out all stops to restore normalcy after Fani fury





Odisha pulls out all stops to restore normalcy after Fani fury

Power supply, roads, telephone lines in disarray

Press Turst of India

Torn apart: The impact of cyclone Fani’s landfall in Puri district. On right, shanties in Puri lying shattered after the landfall.Biswaranjan Rout; PTI

Bhubaneshwar/Kolkata

Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, who reviewed the situation in following the landfall of severe cyclonic storm Fani, said Puri district, particularly the holy town had suffered huge damage. “Energy infrastructure has been completely destroyed. Restoration of electricity is a challenging task,” he said.

Hundreds of engineers and technicians worked on a war-footing to restore power supply. Work is on to restore road communication, thrown into disarray with thousands of uprooted trees blocking the way in innumerable places, Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik said.

He said since the cyclone was still passing through Odisha, it will take time to make an assessment of the damage.

National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) DIG Randeep Rana said not many casualties were reported so far as precautionary measures were in place.

The Chief Minister said nearly 12 lakh people were evacuated and shifted to safer locations within 24 hours ahead of the cyclone from about 10,000 villages and 52 urban agglomerations in probably the largest such exercise at the time of a natural calamity in the country.

The evacuees have been accommodated in over 4,000 shelters, including 880 specially designed cyclone centres where free cooked food is being served to them, he said.

After the landfall, the system is expected to sweep north-northeast through coastal Odisha towns of Khurda, Cuttack, Jajpur, Bhadrak and Balasore before entering West Bengal, Special Relief Commissioner (SRC) B P Sethi said.

Threat to Bengal

Meanwhile, West Bengal braced for the remnants of the severe cyclone with precautionary measures for districts like East and West Midnapore, both North and South 24 Parganas besides, Howrah, Hooghly, Jhargram and Kolkata and Sundarbans.

The sky was overcast in Kolkata and several other places since Friday morning as rain came in spurts, inundating several parts of the state capital. Traffic snarls were reported from different places in the city. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee cancelled all election rallies over the next 48 hours and is monitoring the situation.

“The eye of the storm is likely to be weakened when it enters West Bengal. The wind speed will be around 100 kmph to 110 kmph,” an official of the meteorological department said.

Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) announced that said no flights will depart or arrive at Kolkata airport from 3 p.m. on Friday till 8 a.m. on Saturday. A red alert has been issued in coastal areas and fishermen have been asked not to venture into the sea.



‘SC view on foreigners detention defies constitutional obligations’





‘SC view on foreigners detention defies constitutional obligations’

Rights body says lakhs are in limbo; may become ‘stateless’

Rahul Karmakar
GUWAHATI

A rights body, comprising a retired Supreme Court judge and a former Assam police chief, has said the apex court’s remark on the detention of ‘foreigners’ in Assam was unfortunate and “flies in the face of India’s constitutional and international obligations.”

One of the reasons, the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) pointed out, is that accounts from Assam indicate “arbitrariness and not rule of law” is often used to define those who came post 1971 from Bangladesh – of whatever religious denomination – and those who are Indian nationals.

“Lakhs are in a limbo and now fear that they may become “stateless” because of a process that is mired in a mix of complexity, confusion, lack of precision and prejudice,” a statement issued by the CHRI on Thursday night said. The chairperson of CHRI is Wajahat Habibullah, India’s first Chief Information Commissioner. The members include Madan B. Lokur, former Supreme Court judge; A.P. Shah, former Chief Justice of Delhi High Court, Nitin Desai, former Under Secretary in the United Nations, and Jayanto N. Choudhury, former Assam Director General of Police.

“The Supreme Court needs to reaffirm India’s constitutional and international obligations to rights on complex issues of nationality, detention and deportation and not be unmindful of its own commitment to these duties,” the CHRI said.

CJI’s admonition

The statement was in reference to Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi’s admonition of Assam Chief Secretary for proposing a method for the release of foreign prisoners in detention beyond their term of sentence for illegal entry. The rebuke was while advocating greater detention of suspected ‘foreigners’. “We regard these remarks as unfortunate as the case concerned the wilful violation of the human rights of hundreds of detainees languishing in “inhuman conditions”, the CHRI said, referring to Article 21 that says no person can be deprived of her/his right to life and liberty.



Not keeping record of pre-natal tests is criminal: SC





Not keeping record of pre-natal tests is criminal: SC

Court dismisses plea by doctors affected by law

Krishnadas Rajagopal, NEW DELHI

In a significant judgment, the Supreme Court on Friday upheld provisions in the anti-pre-natal sex determination law which ‘criminalises’ non-maintenance of medical records by obstetricians and gynaecologists and suspend their medical licence indefinitely.

A Bench of Justices Arun Mishra and Vineet Saran held that the particular provisions in the Pre-conception and Pre-natal Diagnostic Techniques (Prohibition of Sex Selection) Act of 1994 were necessary to prevent female foeticide in the country.

Social legislation

There are only 586 convictions out of 4202 cases registered even after 24 years of existence. It reflects the challenges being faced in implementing this social legislation, the court observed. The main purpose of the Act is to ban the use of sex selection and misuse of pre-natal diagnostic technique for sex selective abortions and to regulate such techniques.

The court dismissed averments made by doctors that the provisions in the law criminalise even the smallest anomaly in paperwork which is in fact an inadvertent and unintentional error. The sections have made obstetricians and gynaecologists vulnerable to prosecution all over the country.

“It is a responsible job of the person who is undertaking such a test i.e., the gynaecologist/medical geneticist/radiologist/ paediatrician/director of the clinic/centre/laboratory to fill the requisite information. In case he keeps it vague, he knows fully well that he is violating the provisions of the Act,” the court observed.



3 militants killed in Shopian encounter, 1 soldier injured





3 militants killed in Shopian encounter, 1 soldier injured

The district is set for Lok Sabha polls on Monday

Peerzada Ashiq

Tense times: Kashmiri villagers looking inside a damaged house after a gun battle between militants and security forces in Shopian district of Jammu and Kashmir on Friday.NISSAR AHMADNISSAR AHMAD

Srinagar

Three days to the polls, south Kashmir’s Shopian district on Friday witnessed a major encounter that left three militants, including an associate of slain Hizbul Mujahideen ‘commander’ Burhan Wani, dead and a soldier injured. Around 20 protesters were also injured in the clashes that followed the encounter.

According to the police, the militants were encircled in a follow-up to “a credible tip-off” about their presence in Shopian’s Adkhara area early in the morning.

“During searches, the hiding militants fired upon the security forces, leading to an encounter. Initially, with the efforts of the police and the security forces, the civilians trapped around the encounter site were evacuated to safety. All the three trapped militants were killed later,” said the police.

One Army jawan, Yugendar Kumar, also sustained gunshot injuries. He was evacuated to a hospital and is undergoing treatment, the police said.

The three slain militants were identified by the police as Lateef Ahmad Dar alias Tiger of Dogripora Pulwama, Tariq Ahmad Sheikh alias Mufti Waqas of Moolu Chitragam of Shopian and Shariq Ahmad Nengroo of Chotigam Shopian.

Photo had gone viral

Lateef is believed to be the last associate of slain ‘commander’ Wani, who was killed in 2016 in an encounter. He was also seen in the viral online picture of 11 armed militants surrounding Wani. All the 11 militants in the photograph are dead now, said a police officer.

“Dar, since 2014, was involved in planning and executing several attacks in the area. Sheikh was also part of groups involved in planning and executing attacks on the security establishments and was instrumental in luring youth to join militant organisations and snatching weapons of security forces,” the police said.

The house where the militants were hiding was blasted in the joint operation of the Army, the police and the CRPF. Two other houses were also partially damaged in the operation.

At least 20 protesters were injured in clashes, as dozens of youth rushed to the encounter site to help the local militants to escape from the spot. According to the locals, three protesters were hit by pellets fired from shotguns and were shifted to Srinagar for treatment.

Shopian and Pulwama, where these militants hail from, are going to the polls on May 6. The police on Friday said they had arrested a youth, Shafat Yousuf Malik, in north Kashmir’s Handwara when he was on his way to join militants.

Reported missing from Kangan area of Ganderbal district recently, he “was prevented from joining a militant outfit”, said the police.

“Malik was provided with arms and ammunition by a militant group and was on his way to join the proscribed Hizb-ul-Mujahideen outfit. With his arrest, Malik was restrained from joining the militant outfit,” said the police.



Azhar listing a crucial political decision: France





Azhar listing a crucial political decision: France

All states bound to freeze his assets and block access to financial system, says envoy Alexandre Ziegler

Dinakar Peri

Alexandre Ziegler. PTI

New Delhi

France on Friday termed the listing of Masood Azhar as a global terrorist a very important “political decision” as for the first time the world has reached a decision on the issue.

Separately, diplomatic sources said the link to Pulwama is that the process started after the terror attack and United Nations Security Council had mentioned the incident.

‘Long process’

“It is very good news for the world community and obviously for India as well. It’s been a long process. A process in which we had played a significant role together with other partners. We are an unconditional partner of India to extend this unconditional support,” French envoy in India Alexandre Ziegler said talking to the media. Mr Ziegler said the designation was important because it directly hinders the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) chief’s activities. “All states are bound to freeze his assets and block his access to the financial system, ban him from entering or transiting through their territory; not provide him any arms or military assistance whatsoever, whether directly or indirectly,” he stated.

Stating that the fight against terrorism is one of the pillars of India-France strategic partnership, Mr. Ziegler added that fighting terrorism in cyberspace will be one of the priorities of their G7 presidency.

On this note, he stated, “Today, I would like to confirm that India is officially invited to the August summit in France and for the preparatory meetings.” Stating that the listing was probably “too long story” as it started 18 years back in 2001, Mr. Ziegler added that “for all of us it seemed very unfair” that a terrorist group was sanctioned but its leader was not.

No Pulwama mention

On May 1, the sanctions committee of the UNSC listed Azhar as a global terrorist but did not refer to the Pulwama terror attack which was mentioned in the initial listing.

China has said it agreed to the listing only because the U.S., U.K., and France agreed to revise the listing which didn’t mention Pulwama.

Responding to this, diplomatic sources said the link to Pulwama was that the process started after the February 14 terror attack.

‘More evidence’

“Significance of listing is not the technical details but the result. The result is Masood Azhar is sanctioned,” a diplomatic source stated.

Talking of how the listing got through this time, sources said it was a factual process and there was not enough evidence earlier.

Asked to comment on Pakistan’s response to the listing, the sources said they were “glad that Pakistan is satisfied with it” as the global community had been pushing Pakistan to act against it.



SC to hear review plea on VVPATs next week





SC to hear review plea on VVPATs next week

The review petition was filed three weeks ago after the Supreme Court, on April 8, directed the Election Commission to increase physical counting of VVPAT slips to five random electronic voting machines (EVMs) in each Assembly segment/constituency.

Earlier, under the EC guideline 16.6, only the VVPAT slips from one EVM in every Assembly segment/constituency was subjected to physical verification. Scrutiny of votes polled through five EVMs was quite enough to ensure that an election was “foolproof”, the court had said in its April verdict.

The Supreme Court’s decision was however a far shot from what the Opposition had wanted: VVPAT verification in 50% or 125 polling booths in each constituency. The physical scrutiny of slips in five EVMs has increased the VVPAT verification percentage from 0.44% to less than two percent.

The review plea contended that the Indian democracy could not be left to the mercy of EVM programmers. It pointed to large-scale tampering and selective malfunctioning of EVMs in the Lok Sabha polls of 2019. The earlier judgment had refused to delve into the issue of integrity of the EVMs.

Instead, the court was more keen on the logistics of physical verification in its April 8 judgment. It had said the VVPAT verification of five EVMs, rather than in 125 polling booths, was far more “viable at this point of time” in the Lok Sabha poll season. It had added that verification of five EVMs would not be a drain on the ECI’s infrastructural resources and manpower as the Opposition’s idea would have been. The ECI has said that a 50% random physical verification of VVPATs would delay Lok Sabha poll results of 2019 by six whole days.

The ECI had quoted from a March 22 report of the Indian Statistical Institute, which had said that a sample verification of 479 EVMs and VVPATs out of a total 10.35 lakh machine would lift public confidence to 99.99%.


* Editorial 1

The essence of democracy





The essence of democracy

What the candidature of Pragya Singh Thakur reveals about the BJP’s election campaign

What does Sir William Garrow (1760-1840) have to do with the elections now under way in India? The well-known and much-invoked phrase “innocent until proven guilty” was coined by that British barrister in the course of a 1791 trial at the Old Bailey. He turned the tables on legal practice at that trial by saying that the accusers, not those accused, must be tested, made to establish and prove their accusation in court. The English Court of Appeal in 1935 described Sir William’s concept as the “golden thread” connecting the burden of proof and the presumption of innocence “within the web of English criminal law”.

The report card

And that connects Sir William with the Indian polls directly. The National Election Watch is a grouping of NGOs and others working for transparency and accountability in elections. The Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) is a non-partisan NGO working for electoral and political reforms. They have given us telling statistics for four out of the seven phases of elections that have taken place so far. In the first phase of the elections, 17% of the candidates had criminal cases pending against them. In the second phase, the figure went down marginally to 16%. In the third phase, with the largest number of seats in any phase, the percentage of candidates figuring in criminal cases climbed to 21%. In two-thirds of these, the accused have been charged for serious offences like rape, attempt to murder, and murder. In the fourth phase, the last one held so far, according to ADR, a total of 210 candidates faced criminal charges, with 158 being “serious”. Five candidates had declared cases related to murder, 24 related to attempt to murder, 4 to kidnapping, 21 to crimes against women, and 16 candidates to hate speech. The phenomenon is not peculiar to any one party. The BJP, Congress, BSP, and the Shiv Sena have fielded criminally charged candidates, the BJP being on top of the scale numerically. Even some independent candidates are criminally charged.

The numbers in the three phases remaining are not likely to be very different. Around 20% of all the candidates in the seven phases, it may be, will be candidates with one criminal charge or another pending against them.

Sir William would have exclaimed, ‘That does not matter; they may all be found to be innocent!’ They well may. Also, they may be the ones who get defeated. On the other hand, studies have shown that those with criminal records (muscle power) plus a seemingly unlimited power of spending (money power) have a distinctly higher chance of succeeding over those with just one of those ‘powers’ and over those who have neither. So, some of these this time round may well get elected, their dates in court rubbing shoulders with their dates in and with Parliament. And business will be as usual for them, with Garrowian logic and ethics and the notion that many, if not most, of these cases are ‘politically foisted’ winning the day. The Election Commission has asked for an amendment to the Representation of the People Act to bar, with some caveats, those charged with criminal offences from contesting. But after hearing the matter, the Supreme Court declined, in 2018, to enter this area, ‘leaving the decision on criminal netas on Parliament’.

Illiberal intent

It is precisely this ‘liberal’ arrangement that the most illiberal take advantage of. It is exactly this democratic legerdemain that the most undemocratic occupy. It is this very legal latitude that the most law-disdaining use, abuse.

Mitesh Patel is perfectly entitled under the law to contest from the Anand seat in Gujarat. And we should grant him the presumption of innocence. Whatever else he may be accused of, he cannot be accused of hiding anything. He has declared in his poll affidavit that he was an accused in the 2002 post-Godhra riots, that an FIR was registered against him in Anand district in 2002 for engaging in arson, rioting, stone-pelting and theft, among other charges. And, he has declared, he was booked under Indian Penal Code Sections 147 (rioting) 148 (rioting, armed with deadly weapon), 436 (arson), 332 (causing hurt to deter public servant), 143 (unlawful assembly) and 380 (theft). He may well be found to be innocent of all these crimes.

The point, however, is not that. The point is that the Anand Sessions Court acquitted him in 2010. Sir William, there you go! But the matter does not end there. The Government of Gujarat, yes, the BJP Government of Gujarat, acting with amazing rectitude and objectivity, filed an appeal in 2011 against his acquittal. (We shall not go into how it could not have but done so.) So, the charge has not gone away. On the one hand, the BJP government appeals against his acquittal, on the other the BJP gives him a ticket to contest from Anand. Perfectly legal, of course. Consistent with liberal, democratic nostrums. But what about the ethics of it? Eth… what? What in ‘Elections 2019’ is that?

The case of Pragya Thakur

As I am sure with millions of others, when I heard of Pragya Singh Thakur’s candidature from Bhopal, I had but one thought: Malegaon, 2008. We know she is an accused in the 2008 Malegaon bombings, was granted bail following the dropping of charges by the National Investigation Agency and is currently under trial for multiple charges in terms of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. Technically, she can contest. Technically, she is as yet ‘innocent’. Technically, no one can fault her or the BJP for making her its chosen candidate from Bhopal.

But what does her candidature, of Mitesh Patel, and of others, say of the party that has selected them? Why, from so many hopeful applicants for tickets, have they been favoured? Because they can deliver a very particular electoral product. They can deliver polarised victories. Pragya Singh Thakur’s comments on Hemant Karkare, the valiant police officer who was martyred in the Mumbai terror attack known as ‘26/11’, do not bear repetition. They belong to the world of curses, hoodoo, jinxes, ‘the evil eye’, not to the world of rational humanity. And though the BJP ‘has distanced’ itself from those comments, it has remained as near as near can be to her candidacy.

Narendra Modi is a candidate from the temple-town of Varanasi, Amit Shah from the heart-core of the Gujarat riots, Ahmedabad. One is the BJP’s leader, the other its president. Yet, it is not these two leaders but the two candidates “presumed innocent till proven guilty” who represent the face, mind and heart of the party that seeks India’s mandate to govern its one billion people. Face, mind and heart are incomplete without a soul.

Where is that to come from? From our deepest feelings as a people. We are not at war. But 20 years ago, in 1999, we were: the Kargil War. Our soldiers became the soul of the country. In any war, they become that. It so happened, by the inexorable calendar of parliamentary democracies, that elections had to be, and were, announced, right in the middle of that war. Then-Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee kept the war and his election campaign distinct. BJP registers will show anyone interested in history that at a political meeting in Haryana when he noticed photographs of our defence chiefs displayed in the backdrop, he said, ‘No, this is not proper.’ And the arrangement was rectified.

Not proper, not done. That is what ethics are about. Not presumptions of innocence till proven guilty, but presumptions of intention that need no proving.

Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and governor



An image makeover of the Belt and Road Initiative





An image makeover of the Belt and Road Initiative

India’s attitude has to be set in the larger picture of the relationship with China

As the Second Belt and Road Forum (BRF), reviewing progress of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), concluded in Beijing on April 27, China had reason to be satisfied. The summit segment was attended by 37 heads of state or government. The list included strategic partner Russia and almost all from Central and Southeast Asia, two important areas of BRI operation.

If the attendance from South Asia was somewhat disappointing (only Pakistan and Nepal at the leaders’ level), South Asian countries, except India and Bhutan, joined various initiatives launched at the forum. The east coast of Africa, which is on the Maritime Silk Road, sent five leaders. Particularly in the context of recent U.S. tirades against the “predatory economics” of the BRI, it was significant that nine European leaders attended, including seven from the European Union. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sent a special envoy, conveying that the BRI “is a grand vision with great potential”. The UN Secretary General and IMF Managing Director were in attendance, the latter extolling the BRI’s achievements, “from stimulating infrastructure investment to developing new global supply chains”. China claimed participation from 150 countries at the forum, which included a CEO conference, where agreements worth $64 billion were signed.

Litany of complaints

The Chinese leadership claimed the attendance rebutted allegations that BRI is a geopolitical tool and exploitative “debt trap” driving countries into dependence on China. It would be more realistic to see it as indicating China’s economic clout and the desire of most countries to hedge their bets in the current turbulence in great power relations. Concerns about the viability of BRI projects have not dissolved; it is just that immediate benefits sometimes obscure the direness of future consequences.

Over the years, the structure and implementation of the BRI have attracted negative comment, including from some of the countries represented at the forum. There is a litany of complaints: that projects are selected as per Chinese priorities, with inadequate consultation with recipients; terms are agreed bilaterally and non-transparently with the leadership, and benefits do not trickle down to the population; contracts go to Chinese companies, are implemented by Chinese labour, with raw materials and products from China; most projects are over-valued and economically unviable; most financing is by Chinese loans on unrealistic terms, leading eventually to “debt traps”; foreign companies and private investment are spurned; corruption flourishes in the absence of transparency, labour laws are flouted and environmental compliance is lax. Above all, the BRI exhibits China’s geostrategic ambition for economic dominance and political hegemony.

China promises a makeover

President Xi Jinping’s speeches and the final forum communique silenced this criticism by promising a total makeover of the BRI. They declared that it will be guided by extensive consultation, joint contribution and shared benefits. Cooperation should be transparent, people-centric, green and clean, with zero tolerance for corruption. Project evaluation, tendering, bidding and implementation would meet international standards. The right of participating countries to define their developmental priorities would be respected, as also their laws, sovereignty and territorial integrity. Foreign investment would be welcomed. Economic, social, fiscal and environmental sustainability of projects should be ensured, with emphasis on debt sustainability. In short, it was a promise to transform the BRI, in one fell swoop, from all that it was into all that it should have been. The question is how this rhetoric will translate into action.

The other remarkable feature was the launch of the “Belt and Road” as an overarching framework for bilateral and plurilateral cooperation. China announced a clutch of “Belt and Road” scholarships, training courses and exchange programmes. Groups of countries launched cooperation mechanisms for ports administration, accounting standards, tax administration, banking, intellectual property, sustainable cities, energy and dispute settlement, among many others. Some of these mechanisms were facilitated by UN agencies. China listed 283 “deliverables” from the forum, comprising Chinese initiatives, bilateral and multilateral agreements, investment projects and financing arrangements. The message was the BRI is now more than a bunch of Chinese infrastructure projects; it is truly a “community of common destiny” (as Mr. Xi termed it in 2017) to reshape global governance – a sort of G-150, promoting multilateralism, globalisation, development and human rights, whose members could forge plurilateral cooperation under its umbrella.

All in all, it was a show of China’s self-confidence about its place in the world at a time of churn in global politics. The U.S. absence was barely mentioned, nor did the shadow of the increasingly strident U.S. campaign against China’s “militarism”, “predatory economics” and “technology theft” intrude into the bonhomie of forum proceedings. India’s absence was gracefully handled, with the Chinese Foreign Minister confirming that it would not affect the ongoing high-level India-China dialogue.

An important – potentially the most impactful – initiative of the BRI has gone relatively unnoticed. Mr. Xi announced in 2017 that it would enhance digital connectivity and integration of big data to build the “digital silk road of the 21st century”. Digital connectivity infrastructure is to be built in tandem with physical connectivity. This arouses U.S. (and wider) concerns that with its lead in 5G network technology and deep pockets, China will establish dominance of its 5G standards and equipment in Eurasia and beyond. The sudden image makeover of the BRI may well be intended to open up a more accommodating attitude to this technology insertion.

India and the BRI

The debate in India about whether or not we should join the BRI will probably be reignited in the wake of its new avatar. The opposition to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor determined absence at the forum. There is no specific opportunity for India in any other element of the BRI. India’s attitude to it has to be set in the larger picture of the relationship with China, which combines a strong economic partnership with major strategic challenges, further complicated by the global geopolitical flux.

P.S. Raghavan, a former diplomat, is Chairman of the National Security Advisory Board. Views are personal



GST buoyancy





GST buoyancy

With collections hitting a record high, the next step should be to simplify the tax regime

The final month of financial year 2018-19 has given the government some reason for cheer. Targets for indirect tax collections may have been missed for the last year, but collections from the Goods and Services Tax in April for economic activity in March scaled a new high. The GST inflows of ₹1,13,865 crore in April are the highest recorded since the tax regime was introduced in July 2017. They represent an increase of over 10% compared to the same month a year ago, and over 15% buoyancy over the average monthly GST collections in 2018-19 of ₹98,114 crore. To be clear, GST revenues have crossed the ₹1 lakh crore mark in March, January and October as well. The government has acknowledged that economic growth did slow down in 2018-19, owing to declining private consumption growth, a tepid increase in fixed investments and muted exports. The hope would be that the latest GST numbers are a harbinger of better growth momentum for 2019-20. The growth rate of the economy fell from 8.2% in the first quarter to 7.1% in the second and 6.6% in the third, so any improvement in the final quarter numbers due at the end of May should provide some succour. Healthier GST collections, if sustained, will also mean less pressure on the Centre to cover its fiscal deficit.

The April GST numbers have come as a surprise to many experts, given the lacklustre economic activity witnessed across many sectors in recent months, which should normally have impacted tax collections adversely. This perplexing trend may be attributed to increasing compliance among businesses amidst the aggressive push by the tax authorities to widen the tax base. GST filings, for instance, were the highest in March this year. However, the April surge has occurred despite a decrease in the total number of GSTR-3B returns filed by businesses, from 75.95 lakh in March to 72.13 lakh in April. In the absence of more disaggregated data, it could be argued that tax rate cuts by the GST Council in December too may have spurred higher volumes for some goods and services. The rush to pay tax arrears at the end of the financial year may have been another seasonal factor contributing to better tax collection during the last month. Enforcement action by the taxman to collect more revenue from registered taxpayers who have not been filing returns could be yet another factor. It is still too early to assume that this is the beginning of a secular trend. One must not lose sight of the need for further simplification of the GST regime once the election season is over. A significant number of businesses have already been brought into the tax net since the advent of the GST. In order to encourage greater compliance, there must be efforts to make it easier for small firms to remain in the tax net by cutting down the time and energy required to fill myriad tax returns. A nudge would be preferable to the stick.



Spanish steps





Spanish steps

Election results give Pedro Sanchez an opportunity to deepen centre-left politics

A convincing victory for the Socialist party (PSOE) in Spain’s general election on Sunday has dealt a blow to the prospect of a rightwing coalition with the far-right Vox. The verdict is a personal triumph for Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, who failed to save his minority government in February despite having regained the party leadership. The PSOE is short of the 176 required for a governing majority. Yet, it is in some ways spoilt for choice: it can either enter into a formal alliance or rule on its own. Mr. Sánchez can count on issue-based support. Encouragingly, the anti-capitalist Podemos has indicated a readiness to work in a PSOE-led coalition. It had nurtured ambitions of overtaking the PSOE as the principal force on the political left after the 2015 elections, but now its current stance stems from what it sees as a larger role to isolate the conservatives and the far-right. The chances of the liberal Ciudadanos supporting the PSOE are remote, as the former seems set on replacing the conservative Popular Party as Spain’s main centre-right alternative. In any case, Ciudadanos’s more recent proclivity to cohabit in a coalition with theVox may not go down well with the PSOE rank and file. Collaboration with the Catalan secessionists would be equally hard. They had in February joined the Opposition to vote out Mr. Sánchez’s government, which insisted on negotiating a settlement within the framework of the Constitution. One of the parties has demanded a second Catalan referendum and the withdrawal of the sedition trial against separatist leaders as a condition for supporting Mr. Sánchez again.

The victory in Spain is the latest in a string of successes for social democrats in the European Union, since the xenophobic backlash in many countries after Germany welcomed about a million Syrian refugees in 2015. Yet, the unfolding political fragmentation and the erosion of two-party dominance across Europe also means these gains cannot be exaggerated. As voters in the 28-nation bloc brace themselves to elect a parliament this month, this new reality could become more manifest. Halting the populist surge — as exemplified in Britain’s vote to leave the EU — opposed to freedom of movement and closer European integration is their biggest challenge. Centrist forces have responded to the extremist threat by leaning either too much to the left or to the right, hollowing out the middle ground. Such pandering to populists has cost them dearly. It is time moderate parties abandoned this perilous course. The near-unambiguity of Mr. Sánchez’s latest mandate is the envy of most governments around Europe. Having been handed one, he must ensure a full term in office, something that has eluded Spain for some years.


Editorial 2

A new fault line in post-war Sri Lanka





A new fault line in post-war Sri Lanka

After 10 years of a fragile peace, the deadly bombings on April 21 have blighted the eastern lagoon landscape of the island nation, pitting religious communities against one another. Meera Srinivasan reports on the simmering tensions in the aftermath of the attacks

A policeman frisks a devotee as he arrives at a mosque to attend prayer in Colombo after the bomb blasts on April 21. (Below) Kattankudy, which is among the most densely populated areas in the island.AFPJEWEL SAMAD

Every few metres in Batticaloa a white poster with the words ‘Kanneer Anjali’ (tribute with tears) appears, tied to trunks of trees, walls of churches, or gates of mosques. Right below the bold letters is an image of a pair of eyes, weeping.

Near town, the narrow lane leading to the evangelical Zion Church, where one of the bombers blew himself up, just as his fellow jihadists did at two Catholic churches in Colombo and Negombo, is cordoned off. A huge banner with mugshots and names of the victims hangs at the entrance. Many of them are studio pictures of well-dressed children smiling at the camera.

Sri Lankans are yet to fully comprehend the dreadful Easter blasts that shook the country less than a fortnight ago, killing over 250 people across churches and hotels in and around the capital Colombo, and in this eastern city some 300 km away. They are grappling with possible reasons and necessary responses with urgency, evident in the many statements and solidarity messages emerging from different religious and civil society groups.

But the people of Batticaloa have an additional burden.

Batticaloa’s burden

While Sri Lanka’s Muslims, who make up nearly 10% of the population, are scattered across the island, their highest concentration is in the Eastern Province, comprising Trincomalee, Batticaloa and Ampara districts.

Apart from losing 28 of its residents, including 14 children who were at Sunday school on April 21, Batticaloa is also where Zahran Hashim, the alleged mastermind of the Easter attacks, hailed from. Perhaps for that reason, the district has remained in the spotlight, more often figuring in tales about a radical Islamist-turned-suicide bomber and much less in those about victims of his ghastly act.

Stories of pastor Kumaran who lost his 11-year-old son, the parents of young siblings Sharon and Sarah, and the family of Ramesh Raju, who tried intercepting the suicide bomber and died, faded within days.

Even as different narratives of the distressing episode compete for credibility, Muslims and Christians suddenly find themselves cast on either side of the atrocity as “perpetrators” and “victims”, despite many knowing that those who perished were not all Christians and despite much of the Muslim community vehemently condemning the attacks carried out by a small radical group as “barbaric”. More perplexing is the nature of the attack itself — of Muslims targeting Christians, fellow minorities, with whom they have no known animosity. In fact, in Sri Lanka’s post-war years, Muslims and, in fewer instances, Christians have faced violent attacks from hard-line Sinhala-Buddhist forces.

While scores of affected families struggle to cope with the shock and those stubborn Easter morning memories that won’t leave, the people of Batticaloa appear to be bracing for other likely repercussions, not fully known, but potentially dangerous. Their scenic coastal town with lush paddy lands around, and a calming lagoon running through, unexpectedly turned into a site of horror on Easter day.

“The Christians are shattered,” says Fr. Rajan Rohan, attached to the St. John’s church in Batticaloa, which is run by the American Ceylon Mission. Hailing from the nearby Valaichchenai town, he returned to Batticaloa last September, after completing assignments in the northern Jaffna city during the final years of the war, and later in Nuwara Eliya, in the Central Province. “When I came back here, I was shocked to see how much this place had changed.”

As a child, Fr. Rohan recalls being thrilled around Ramzan. “We loved that kanji (porridge) our neighbours made with beef stock. It was a delicacy that we eagerly awaited every year,” he says. Muslim families sharing treats with children in the neighbourhood was not uncommon, and words like “co-existence” had no use in an effortlessly multireligious society.

But in 2018, things were different in Fr. Rohan’s home town. “There was a lot of Islamophobia among our Tamil people. In a country that has paid a heavy price because of Sinhala-Buddhist majoritarianism, it was startling to see Tamils so preoccupied with Muslims,” he recalls. “They would say things like ‘we can never trust Muslims’ easily in conversation.”

Sri Lanka’s Muslims are mostly Tamil-speaking, but identify as a separate ethnic group, distinct from Tamils, most of whom are Hindus and the rest Christians. The three-decade-long civil war not only saw raging hostility between the majority Sinhalese and minority Tamils, who bore the brunt of the carnage, but also witnessed Tamil-Muslim relations sour.

Despite being bound by language, they grew apart, with the Tamil militants seeing the Muslims as aligned to and aiding the state security forces that they were fighting. The 1990 mosque massacres in Kattankudy and nearby Eravur, in which the LTTE mowed down nearly 150 Muslims at prayer, and the LTTE’s mass expulsion of Muslims from the north later that year, have left a long shadow of bitterness and resentment.

On his return, Fr. Rohan, who leads an interfaith initiative, found it hard to bring Tamils and Muslims together. “But we were trying. And just when we had begun working on those lines, this [bombings] has happened,” he says, pointing to the “daunting” task ahead.

Strained ties

It is not just Tamil-Muslim ties that witnessed a change in the past decades. The Muslim community has seen substantial changes within, according to A.L.M. Sabeel, a member of the local Urban Council and a former secretary of the Kattankudy Mosques Federation.

Starkly different from the rest of Batticaloa, Kattankudy town stands out. Short date palm trees line the median cutting through this town for some 50 metres, with shops on either side selling garments, gadgets and other essentials. Several mosques and cultural centres can be seen along the main road, while thousands of families live in crammed houses along the streets off the main road. The township is among the most densely populated areas in the island.

“Women of my mother’s generation used to wear a saree, wrapping their heads with the pallu. But in the last 15-20 years, we see more women switching to the abaya [full gown]. The face veil is an even more recent thing,” notes Sabeel, 45, who was raised here. Among men, the full-length white robes and long beards are recent imports. “My father was clean-shaven. But many men of my generation, including myself, sport a beard,” he says, attributing the relatively newer trends to more labour migration to West Asian countries, Arab funding for local institutions and consequent interactions, and social media exposure. “I don’t think some of these ideas suit us, especially these clothes in such hot weather.”

However, changes in attire, he points out, coincided with “a more significant shift”. “We are a minority in this country and have historically embraced a Sri Lankan identity. But in recent times, many Muslims appear keen on asserting their religious identity, often in the name of culture.” The community, in his view, also turned more insular during this time.

Meanwhile, some within the community question this new, relatively more rigid idea of “Islamic culture”. Culture is about convenience, argues a 40-year-old mother of three. “I wear the abaya when I go out somewhere but prefer a salwar kameez with a headscarf when I visit my doctor. Culture is what you want to make of it. Some people might criticise you over your choices but isn’t that the case in every community?”

Accommodating different shades of opinion on the practice of Islam, Islamic culture and assertion, Sri Lankan Muslims have largely remained together as a community, with trade being a key binding factor. Although Muslims of the east were engaged in agriculture, fisheries and livelihoods such as weaving in the past, they became a predominantly trading community over the years.

“It is true that Muslims mobilise well and maintain good networks within the community. And that irritates many Tamils,” Sabeel notes.

A troubled youth

Thangavel Roshan, 28, took the Easter weekend off and travelled from Colombo, where he works at a construction site. “We usually work all seven days to accumulate our days off to travel home,” he says, seated outside his home in Navatkudah in Batticaloa. A few metres into this locality, concrete roads give way to rickety mud roads.

His right leg is bandaged and kept raised on a plastic stool. Roshan, along with his family, was at Zion Church on Easter Sunday when he saw the bomb explode right in front of his eyes. “I was lucky, I escaped with this injury,” he says. His parents and siblings too did, as they were further away. Doctors have advised Roshan three months’ rest before he can get back to work. “If there were enough jobs here, I wouldn’t be working so far away. A big chunk of my salary goes for the commute [Colombo is an eight-hour bus ride away]. I haven’t saved a rupee so far,” he says.

His older brother Thangavel Nelson works at a highway project in Kurunegala in the North Western Province. “They say post-war development and all that; I think that happened only in the north. The east hasn’t got anything… no factories, no development, no jobs. We have to struggle outside for such little money,” he sulks, blaming Tamil politicians “who don’t care.”

“But look at Muslims,” he says, voicing what appears to be a popular grievance among many Tamils. “They get government jobs, they prosper in business. Unlike us, they are very secure.”

Much of the antagonism is also linked to the ongoing struggles around resources in the district, according to Sitralega Maunaguru, retired professor at the Eastern University in Batticaloa.

“There are a lot of simmering tensions between the communities over allocation of land in many areas, and in sharing water. People of different communities accuse each other’s local politicians of manipulating and favouring their people,” she says, adding that conversations on these subjects often quickly escalate to anti-Muslim speech. “The recent bombings are bound to fan those tensions.”

Muslim politicians and their patronage networks are common talking points among Tamils. As partners in Sri Lanka’s ruling coalition, Muslim leaders hold key ministerial portfolios, while the main Tamil party is in opposition. Tamil leaders, in turn, are seen as lacking political power or the will to make a difference.

With clashing interests of the political class and the leaders’ vote bank manoeuvres shaping their realities, people, especially the youth, appear to be entangled in a web of insecurities — political, economic and social.

“Their politicians take good care of them. Muslim people can get away with anything,” says Nelson matter-of-factly.

Old prejudice, new fear

This view, which is shared by many others, is precisely what makes Fr. Rohan rather nervous. Inter-community relations, which are also ethnic relations in this context, are fragile and need to be handled with great care, he observes. “We have to sensitise our [Tamil] community, including children. Even in jest, a Tamil child should not tell a Muslim friend anything like, ‘we can’t trust you guys, you’ll drop a bomb’.”

Clearly, Fr. Rohan’s immediate concern was about preventing any backlash against the Muslims. “While we comfort the affected families, it is important to try and prevent adverse reactions. We don’t want others to use our name and attack the Muslims for what a small, isolated group did. That will lead to more hate and clashes in our society.”

His apprehension is rooted in two main reasons. One, the delicate social relations that prevail in the multi-ethnic districts of the Eastern Province, where Muslims are the single largest group, constituting 38% of the population. The province is also home to some 6 lakh Tamils (Hindus and Christians), and 3.5 lakh Sinhalese (Buddhists and Christians), making it one of Sri Lanka’s most diverse regions. Two, the spate of anti-Muslim violence in varying intensities, and led by hard-line Sinhala-Buddhist groups in the last seven years, has made Muslims more vulnerable.

Further, he emphasises that Tamil society cannot afford another cycle of violence and distress. “If our youth resort to militancy again, some of us will turn targets very soon. We saw that happen with the LTTE, where the organisation we nurtured turned against us when we voiced disagreement or dissent.”

The government too has a role in preventing any retaliation, he notes. “They were quick to ban the radical Islamist organisations behind the attacks as ‘terrorist’ outfits. They ought to show the same promptness when it comes to radical Sinhala-Buddhist organisations notorious for inciting violence.”

In the current Sri Lankan context, his fears of a backlash are well-founded — where post-war reconciliation has dragged, a political solution to the Tamil question remains out of sight, and youth across ethnicities are disgruntled amid growing joblessness. Especially so in the wake of Sri Lankan authorities naming the little-known local radical Islamist group, the National Thowheed Jamaath (NTJ), and its allies as perpetrators of the Easter attacks, which the Islamic State has also claimed.

Whether it is the NTJ’s links abroad, or the rationale for their targets (churches and hotels) or the extent of radicalisation within the Muslim community, questions outnumber answers at this point. But those feeling uneasy about the likely impact of the attacks say there is no time to waste.

The peril of radicalisation

With the government claiming that Hashim was among the nine suicide bombers who carried out the coordinated bombings, some may believe the problem is over, but it is hardly so, according to M.B.M. Firthous, a Kattankudy-based preacher, who also heads a local school. “The conciliatory statements that different religious leaders made after the attacks talk about peace and co-existence, but those are things that have to be said. The problem, unfortunately, runs deeper,” he says. The sooner it is acknowledged, the greater the chances of addressing it, he notes.

After every incident of an anti-Muslim attack in recent years, “some forces” within the Muslim community tried to radicalise youth through classes and videos, urging them to retaliate. But the community had no appetite for it and rejected it outright, according to different mosque leaders in the province.

“A few youth were perhaps ideologically drawn to a more rigid interpretation and practice of Islam, at times due to social media influences. Others, who were deeply affected by the anti-Muslim attacks, found the radical path speaking to their outrage. But they were very, very few and didn’t have any support from the community,” says Sabeel.

But radicalisation is not about numbers, Firthous cautions. “If the idea has been sown in even one person’s mind, we have to be very worried,” he says, pointing to an “urgent need” for introspection within the Muslim community. “We cannot afford to isolate ourselves. There is a lot to be done by all communities.” He also blames the many peace-building efforts that followed the civil war: “They were run by NGOs and well-funded by donors, but they merely scratched the surface without any meaningful effort or reflection on the part of communities.”

And today, the outrage over the disparities and injustices accumulated over years of war and peace is manifesting in new, grievous ways. About a week after the victims of the blast were laid to rest in Batticaloa, and amid several interfaith meetings and messages of assurance, a group of young men went around parts of Batticaloa on motorbikes, distributing flyers asking Tamils to boycott Muslim-owned shops and to quit working there. “We, the youth, must be aware and prevent terrorists who, in the garb of traders, enter our towns,” says the provocative leaflet attributed to ‘Tamil youth, Eastern Province’.

According to a resident who received it on Wednesday night, a trishaw (three-wheeler) followed the motorbikes, with someone inside speaking through a loudspeaker. They were “clearly stoking hatred”, says the resident, who asked not to be named. “We don’t know who got the youth to distribute the flyers. It could be anyone seeking political mileage from this tragic moment. But sadly, they might get it. Even at the cost of more violence and bloodshed, perhaps.”



* Foreign

A small town shaken by threat of terror
 
 

A small town shaken by threat of terror

In Sainthamaruthu, where suicide bombers triggered an explosion, locals are living in perpetual fear

 

The house in Sainthamaruthu, Sri Lanka, where at least 15 people were killed during a raid last week.Getty ImagesAllison Joyce

 
“Is the font okay?” a young man at the computer asked M.I. Abdul Majeed, showing him a printout that read, ‘for security reasons, visitors are requested to park their vehicles outside the mosque’.
“That’s perfect. Let’s put up this message on all three gates,” said Mr. Majeed, secretary of the Jumma mosque in Sainthamaruthu, located in the southeastern Ampara district.
On Wednesday, more than a week after Sri Lanka’s Easter attacks, administrators at this mosque were on high alert. One of the serial explosions had occurred in neighbouring Batticaloa district, some 45 km north. Within days, locals realised that the threat was even closer. It was in their midst, as was evident when security forces rounded up a house in this town in the early hours of April 27.
Following an overnight gun battle with suspects, in which three alleged jihadists were killed, troops found 15 bodies inside a house where, officials said, at least three suicide bombers triggered explosions. Six children and three women were among the dead, while authorities later identified three men as the father and two brothers of Zahran Hashim, who is believed to have led the serial bombings on April 21.
Tip-off to police
“They were people from Kattankudy living here as tenants. We didn’t have the slightest idea that they were terrorists. The moment some people in the locality sensed something suspicious, they alerted the police,” said Abdul Rafeek, a member of the municipal council in nearby Kalmunai town. His point on locals tipping off the police would be repeatedly made by many here, in different ways.
Until the Easter blasts, the following gunfire and bloody explosions that jolted Sainthamaruthu, the small town was focussed on its own problems, especially its 30-year-long-demand for a separate urban council.
The 100%-Muslim town, which is home to some 25,000 people, has been demanding that it be given a separate local body to develop infrastructure and local governance.
“All Muslim parties promised us that they would get us an urban council, but none actually did,” said Y.M. Hanifa, president of the mosque. Losing faith in their political leadership, members of the mosque backed nine independent candidates in the last local authority elections. “All of them won,” Mr. Hanifa said, with evident pride.
The members were elected to the nearby Kalmunai Municipal Council, the next best to having their local body.
Tsunami colony
“We moved here, into this tsunami settlement built by the government in 2008. Our own homes, boats everything was gone,” said Aboobakkar Aisha, 58, recalling how “even the war or the tsunami” didn’t affect the community as much as the recent incidents did.
It was on the lane parallel to hers that the suspects had taken a home on rent. “We had no idea that people in our midst had such motives. If our people had not alerted the police, all of us would have become suspects in the eyes of the military. That would have made our lives miserable,” she said.
The attacks and the subsequent responses of the government have already brought other consequences to the community, particularly women.
In addition to heavy policing and perpetual fear, locals feel trapped in the settlement that is made up of rows of tightly packed homes along hard, concrete roads.
“After the government banned face veils, my daughter can’t go out. She can’t even go to the madrasa without wearing it,” said S.M. Fazmia, 30, pointing to how the controversial niqab ban — which other Muslim women have challenged on grounds of civil liberties and lack of consultation — had, in this case, restricted women’s mobility.
Those attached to the mosque also flag new, urgent concerns, like keeping radicalisation at bay.
“We know radicalisation had no place in our multi-ethnic context. Let alone its ideological appeal, it is practically very hard to follow that doctrine and coexist with others here. The community is clear on that,” said Mohammed Islmail Mohammed Sadaath, a former lecturer of political science.
Different religious and ethnic groups have coexisted in the past.
Muslims’ links, especially with Tamils, was mostly through education and trade, according to Mr. Hanifa, 83. “My teacher was a Tamil, most of my students were Tamil,” the retired school principal said.
 
Labour, Tories suffer losses





Labour, Tories suffer losses

Liberal Democrats, Green Party make gains in local elections

Vidya Ram

Liberal Democrat leader Vince Cable.Getty ImagesDan Kitwood

London

Britain’s two major political parties suffered heavy losses in local elections that took place across England and Northern Ireland this week, in a development that some attributed to their stance on Brexit, while others saw it as a continuation of the fragmentation of politics that had been under way before the Brexit referendum, but saw a temporary halt after it.

The heaviest losses were suffered by the Conservatives, who had lost over 510 Councillors in seats up and down the country by early afternoon, while Labour had lost over 70. Substantial gains were made by both the Liberal Democrat and Green parties, which have gained over 300 and 60, respectively, by early afternoon.

Significantly, among the biggest gains made by the Liberal Democrats was in the city of Chelmsford, which voted to leave in the 2016 referendum. The Liberal Democrats are the largest political party in favour of a new public vote on Brexit, and the party has inevitably seen the results as an endorsement of that strategy. “Three-party politics is back,” declared the party’s leader Vincent Cable. “In big cities and rural England — in both Leave and Remain areas — we have shown ourselves the strongest campaigning force and the big winners of the night.”

UKIP’s losses

Also notably, the UKIP, the heavily pro-Brexit party, also suffered net losses across the country, though made some gains such as in the heavily ‘Leave’ voting northern town of Sunderland. The Green Party, which is also campaigning for a second referendum, saw its gains as partly reflective of the growing concerns about climate change, manifested through school strikes, the rise of the protest movement ‘Extinction Rebellion’ and the declaration of a climate change emergency by Parliament.

While Labour acknowledged that the results fell short of expectations, its shadow Chancellor John McDonnell suggested that the message being sent was “Brexit-sort it”. “Message received,” he tweeted. Jeremy Corbyn also insisted that the swing towards Labour “in many parts of the country” showed they could win seats in a general election whenever that takes place. Labour has long been pushing for a general election as the right route out of the Brexit impasse.

The results will intensify pressure on both Prime Minister Theresa May and Mr. Corbyn, with both parties facing criticism for the decision to take part in talks to attempt to find a route forward on Brexit. While some Conservatives fear that the talks will force Ms. May to bow to Labour demands on customs union membership, many Labour supporters believe that Labour could end up endorsing the Conservatives’ vision of Brexit.



Jail sentence given to Assange disproportionate, says UN group





Jail sentence given to Assange disproportionate, says UN group

Agence France-Presse
Geneva

The 50-week jail sentence given to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange for breaching a British court’s bail conditions seven years ago is “disproportionate,” the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention said on Friday.

Mr. Assange will serve the nearly one-year jail sentence while fighting a separate attempt to extradite him to the United States.

The UN working group noted that the Swedish allegations — the initial offence that triggered his British arrest — had been withdrawn and that the original bail terms should therefore have been nullified.

It noted too that he had been given near the maximum 12-month sentence available in the U.K. for breaching bail conditions.

The group is “deeply concerned about… the disproportionate sentence imposed on Mr. Assange”, it said in a statement. It accused Britain of extending “the arbitrary deprivation of (his) liberty”.

The experts took further issue with Mr. Assange’s detention at the Belmarsh high-security prison. “This treatment appears to contravene the principles of necessity and proportionality envisaged by the human rights standards,” the panel said.



Guaidó calls for protests at military bases





Guaidó calls for protests at military bases

Agence France-Presse

Opposition leader Juan Guaidó.APFernando Llano

Caracas

Venezuelan Opposition leader Juan Guaidó on Thursday called for peaceful demonstrations at Army bases, days after a military uprising in support of his bid to oust President Nicolás Maduro fizzled out.

The latest appeal came after Mr. Maduro called on the armed forces of the crisis-wracked nation to oppose “any coup plotter”.

In a tweet, Mr. Guaidó asked supporters to gather for peaceful demonstrations on Saturday at military bases in a bid to get soldiers to “support the Constitution”.

Meanwhile, Venezuela’s Supreme Court ordered the re-arrest of influential Opposition figure Leopoldo López — who made a dramatic appearance alongside Mr. Guaidó on Tuesday after he was freed from house arrest.

Mr. López has since taken refuge at the Spanish Embassy. Madrid has said it would not hand Mr. López over to Venezuelan authorities.

U.S. President Donald Trump warned in an interview that Washington has “lots of options”. “There’s always a tipping point” for military intervention, he said, while adding: “I’d rather not do that.”


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