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COVER STORY

13-04-2001

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Briefing

DEFENCE AND DISSIMULATION

The tehelka.com revelations and their aftermath shake up entrenched political-bureaucratic networks and conduits in New Delhi that seek to milk the governmental system to their advantage.

FOR an audience reared on the surreal fantasies of the Indian film industry, it was a case of reality following art. As the Tehelka tapes - the outcome of a four-month long expedition into the murky domain of arms deals - were first broadcast over a sate llite television network on the afternoon of March 13, a world of low cunning, high intrigue and casual scruples came vividly to life for many who had believed in its existence but not known its inner dynamics. Every ingredient that the avid movie-goer m ight have expected was there - the boisterous laughter of villainy consummated, the spectacle of scruple being drowned in large infusions of alcohol, of discretion faltering at the merest promise of pecuniary reward and being completely abandoned at the sight of lucre. The journalistic scrutiny of public affairs has tended in recent times to wane in rigour. But when all the unproductive speculation over motive, sponsor and execution has run its course, the Tehelka tapes will be recognised as a watershed in the enshrinement of this principle.

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Each of the characters featured in the Tehelka tapes represents an important social type. There are the Army officers who initially respond with caution to the overtures of the arms dealer, being careful not to promise anything that goes beyond their jur isdiction. Colonel Anil Sehgal, a middle-level official in the Directorate-General of Ordnance and Supply, Army Headquarters (AHQ), was Tehelka's point of entry into the arms procurement business. And Sehgal began with a modest set of proposals: he could provide information on Army indents for spare parts, the price at which procurements were last made and the possible scheduling of future orders. Although far down in the chain of decision-making powers, Sehgal has access to the invaluable commodity of information.

Tehelka's next calls are higher in the hierarchy. Brigadier Iqbal Singh, Prospective Procurement Officer in AHQ, and Major-General Manjit Singh Ahluwalia, Additional Director-General of Ordnance and Supply, carry greater clout in the decision-making cha in. Although at pains to emphasise that their recommendations are always part of a larger whole and subject to the veto of higher-ranking officers, they are at liberty to exert their influence for a consideration. They also are resourceful enough to appr oach higher officers and coopt them into any possible irregularity.

Tehelka's roving expedition would have rapidly run aground without the impetus that it received at critical junctures from officials on the civilian side of the Defence Ministry. P. Sashi (wrongly identified early on as Sashi Menon) provided the initial clues about the kind of equipment for which an indent existed in AHQ. But H.C. Pant, a Deputy Secretary in the Ministry, was the key intermediary for accessing the higher spheres of the Army establishment. After having spent years in the Defence Ministr y and observed its inner workings from close quarters, Pant was an adept in the ways of the "fixers", the free-floating influence peddlers who are able to point the pushy arms trader towards receptive quarters.

Pant brings the Tehelka team in contact with Raj Kumar Gupta, who introduces himself as a "national trustee" of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh - a fictitious position by the very sound of it, but one that reveals his enormous importance as a fund-raiser for the right-wing political fraternity under the umbrella of the RSS. At a meeting in his residence Gupta repeatedly assures the Tehelka team that their "work" would be done. His confidence won after a few fawning remarks and some libation, Gupta unfol ds a saga of influence- peddling and deal-making, of bitter internecine rivalries that invariably are resolved to his advantage because he supposedly spreads the take more equitably. In this narration, Gupta enjoys an advantage within the RSS fraternity over even the fabled deal-making skills of two intimates of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee - his Principal Secretary Brajesh Mishra and his foster son-in-law Ranjan Bhattacharya.

Gupta is in obvious disdain of BJP president Bangaru Laxman but nevertheless offers an introduction for the modest fee of Rs. 25 lakhs. Pant opens up another conduit to the BJP president through Mohinder Pal Singh Sahni, an arms dealer and honorary con sul-general for Belize. Here again, the fee demanded is well beyond Tehelka's budget. Finally, a direct approach through Laxman's secretary who, needless to say, is appropriately rewarded, does the trick.

Laxman initially is thoroughly detached, seemingly uninterested in the propositions advanced by his callers. He remains conspicuously immersed in his paperwork, responding with extreme nonchalance to all the importunities being unfolded before him. A hi nt of animation comes into his manner when Gupta's name is mentioned, but his principal concern seems to be to cut him out of the picture. Obviously intent on securing his own autonomous routes of access to corporate funds, he repeatedly reminds his inte rlocutors that they have approached him directly.

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In taking leave after their second meeting, the Tehelka investigator brings out a wad of currency notes from his briefcase and offers it to the BJP president. His eyes lighting up, Laxman takes the money in his hand and stuffs it into his table drawer. A larger payoff is promised at the next meeting and in response to a specific query the BJP president indicates that the U.S. dollar, rather than the rupee, is his favoured currency. These moments have been frozen in public consciousness as the most memor able and defining images of the world of the arms trader. But after these first impulses have faded out, future researchers will undoubtedly find much to unravel in the deeper sociological nuances - the first Dalit to ascend to the apex of the Hindutva p arty caught in the act while seeking to build his own constituency by isolating the traditional upper- caste fund-raisers.

Independent overtures to R.K. Jain, the national treasurer of the Samata Party, yield a rich vein of disclosures. Little time seems to have been wasted in unnecessary preliminaries with the garrulous and expansive Jain, who seems ever keen on advertising his proximity to Defence Minister George Fernandes and his close political associate Jaya Jaitley, president of the Samata Party. The transactions that he ranges over in the course of his conversation with the Tehelka investigators constitute a catalogu e of dubious defence deals, each executed with conspicuous disregard for military efficacy and cost.

Jaya Jaitley herself prefers a degree of circumspection, only promising that all valid bids for the supply of equipment to the Indian armed forces will be fairly scrutinised. She assures the Tehelka team that any possible unfairness or arbitrariness in the process would be remedied. Then while receiving the "donation" of Rs. 2 lakhs from the essentially unpractised impersonators who successfully managed to pass themselves off as defence agents, she unburdens herself of a spiel on the party's internal politics. The money, she says, will be used for its National Council meeting, where about 800 delegates would gather in an environment of absolute democratic freedom to elect their president.

Jaya Jaitley's gratuitous remarks on her party's impeccable democratic credentials offer an ironic counterpoint to the rather sordid revelations of the Tehelka tapes. For the common citizen, these lay bare how democratic credentials and leadership can ea sily be purchased through the illicit take from the dispensation of patronage. More chastening has been the realisation that it is quite so simple for two rank amateurs - making up in audacity for their ignorance of defence matters - to enter the portals of the country's most highly secured establishment and work their way up through judiciously placed pecuniary favours. Evidently, even seasoned Army officers are willing to suspend routine processes of scrutiny of firms that seek contracts to supply vit al equipment, if the monetary rewards are adequate.

Two days after the Tehelka tapes were premiered at a media conference in Delhi, George Fernandes shed his obdurate refusal to do the right thing and quit his post as Defence Minister. Although in reality he was forced out of the job by the pressure of hi s coalition partners, he sought all the same to impart a positive gloss to his eviction. With the rot in the system that he presided over exposed to full public view, Fernandes adopted the moral posture of one who had sought to clean up but been thwarted . The Tehelka revelations were, in fact, turned on their head and cast as a sinister attempt to subvert the defence forces.

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Capitalising on the ethical uncertainties of a government that can be held to ransom by just about any political operative with a few seats in Parliament, Fernandes appropriated for himself a privilege that is normally afforded only to the head of state or head of government. Speaking over the national television channel, Fernandes had a simple plaint to offer: he had been energetic in his efforts to run a "clean and transparent" Defence Ministry. But in disrupting Parliament and denying him an opportun ity to explain , the Opposition parties were only endangering national security.

DID Fernandes have advance warnings of the tattered system of defence procurement that the Tehelka tapes have exposed? Did he at any stage seek corrective action? The alibi he offers is that one of his first official decisions was to provide secure boxes at various locations within the Defence Ministry to receive public complaints on corruption. In his resignation speech he asserted that each such complaint was followed up, though several of them came from unidentifiable sources. Moreover, he claimed, w hen Parliament itself took up the issue, he had little hesitation in ordering an inquiry by the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) and the Comptroller and Auditor-General of India into all defence deals concluded since 1985. The CVC's initial report on t he questions that had been referred to it was received as far back as October, and it has lain in mothballs since.

It would also be revealing to go into the sequence of events that led Fernandes to order a sweeping probe into defence deals. Suspicions that defence procurement was a domain of rampant irregularities had been considerably aggravated by the events follow ing the precipitate dismissal of the Chief of the Naval Staff, Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat, in December 1998. Since then there has been a flurry of correspondence at the highest levels and much media attention on the propriety of various defence purchase plan s. Former Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda's intervention in the debate over the acquisition of the T-90 battle tank and Fernandes' retaliatory effort casting aspersions on the probity of the Sukhoi Su-30 deal kept these issues in public focus.

Away from the glare of publicity, Jayant Malhoutra, then an independent member of the Rajya Sabha and a businessman who is by all accounts not disinterested in the arms business, began peppering Fernandes with letters. In March 1999, he placed on record a number of reservations about the proposal to buy the T-90 battle tank. To Fernandes' protestations that the "ongoing controversy" was misplaced since a decision was yet to be taken, Malhoutra responded with a broader thrust. In a letter dated April 21, 1999, he went beyond mere allegation: "I am charging that there is no defence deal without the presence of middlemen, agents, traders and middle companies... I would suggest that you ask your senior officials as to the role of the Nandas, the Chaudharys , the Khannas, the Jajodias, the Hindujas and the Mittals etc. (sic) in the procurement of strategic defence equipment."

Interestingly, many of these names, notably of the Nandas (or more specifically, former naval chief Admiral S.M. Nanda and his son Lieutenant Commander Suresh Nanda), recur frequently in the Tehelka tapes. In the Samata Party treasurer's narration, Sure sh Nanda donated Rs. 1 crore to his coffers on two separate occasions - first in order to influence an Army purchase of armoured recovery vehicles and then to induce a decision from the Indian Navy in favour of an Israeli onboard missile system. And if t he Tehelka tapes are to be believed, both these efforts were eminently successful.

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Admiral Bhagwat has alleged that the senior Nanda and Fernandes share a long mutual association from the time that the former was Chairman of Mumbai's Mazagon Docks in the 1960s and the latter a trade unionist just establishing his national political pro file. Other naval officers in the know confirm the essential veracity of the factual position, though they demur at drawing the inferences that Bhagwat has.

Yet with all the pressure that Malhoutra was bringing to bear, Fernandes remained resistant to the idea of an inquiry into defence purchases. During a debate in the Rajya Sabha in December 1999, Malhoutra insisted that nothing less than an inquiry by a J oint Parliamentary Committee would serve to assuage public misgivings on the overweening influence of middlemen in the country's defence purchases.

Replying to this and a host of other interventions, Fernandes was little short of blase: "I do not want to contradict all the matters that have been raised by Jayant Malhoutraji. While in my tenure of a year and nine months (in the Defence Ministry), we have not received any firm evidence of middlemen being present in defence purchases, it is not inconceivable that they would be seeking to establish their influence wherever possible. But I can say this much: that in the last one year and nine months, no defence contracts have been concluded through the mediation of middlemen." With this rather cavalier rejoinder, Fernandes turned to describing how he had in the interests of transparency, placed complaint boxes at various strategic locations in the prem ises of the Defence Ministry.

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CONSIDERING the cocky self-assurance with which he had seemingly beaten back the challenge in Parliament, it was rather curious that Fernandes should have in the space of just over a month ordered a sweeping probe into all defence purchases undertaken si nce 1985. The decisive intervening development was a writ petition filed in the Delhi High Court by Rear Admiral Suhas Purohit, pleading that his long-delayed promotion to the rank of Vice-Admiral be granted.

Purohit was cleared for appointment to the post of Controller of Logistics (CoL) in Naval Headquarters (NHQ) with the rank of Vice-Admiral as far back as October 1997. He was to assume the post on February 1, 1998, on the retirement of the incumbent, Vic e-Admiral Verghese Koithara. But for reasons that are shrouded in a welter of mutually contradictory statements from the Ministry of Defence (MoD), his promotion has been held in abeyance for over three years. Following his petition in the Delhi High Cou rt, the Defence Ministry in April 2000 gave an undertaking that it would not appoint any officer to the post until the matter was decided.

In public the MoD has taken the position that Purohit's promotion was not considered since he has colluded with defence contractors to cause enormous losses to the public exchequer in naval procurement decisions. Curiously, this information has never bee n passed on to NHQ. In September 1999, in response to the fifth one of Purohit's statutory representations on his delayed promotion, Chief of Personnel in NHQ, Vice-Admiral Arun Prakash, informed him that "all issues of relevance" had been forwarded to t he MoD for clarification. Despite repeated reminders though, "no written response has been received from MoD to date".

Admiral Bhagwat has stated on record that Purohit is being denied his promotion because of pressure from a cartel of arms dealers. The substance of Purohit's petition in the Delhi High Court makes out a similar case. Far from being in league with defenc e contractors, the aggrieved officer has said, he has in fact been instrumental in limiting their influence over the Indian Navy's procurement operations.

In April 1999, at the height of the political crisis following his reckless decision to dismiss a serving service chief, Fernandes circulated a briefing paper to Members of Parliament, drawing attention to certain damaging findings arrived at by the Cent ral Bureau of Investigation (CBI) after a process of "secret verifications". The paper said: "Requisitions/orders placed on suppliers in Russia by Naval Headquarters are conveyed in advance to the above mentioned firms to enable these firms to manipulate their prices to the disadvantage of the Indian Navy ... Sources have also informed that such advance information is passed on by Admiral Purohit from the fax machine installed at his residence or through an officer."

These rather outlandish allegations have been decisively refuted by the wealth of documentation produced by Purohit in support of his writ petition. Implicitly, the counter-affidavit filed by the MoD after a long and unexplained delay also suggests that the CBI inquiry had failed to uncover any evidence of wrongdoing by the Rear Admiral. Between then and February 1, 2001, the Delhi High Court held at least three hearings of the Purohit matter. At all these, the stated position of the Defence Ministry re mained what it was in August last year: that a Promotion Board meeting in October would review Purohit's case for appointment to the rank of Vice-Admiral. On February 6, the Defence Ministry informed the court that a meeting of the Board had in fact been held as far back as August last, where Purohit's claims to the next higher rank had been dismissed. Missing, however, were the earlier allegations of corruption and collusion with arms dealers. The grounds cited for disqualification were much smaller mi sdemeanours, some of a patently tenuous nature.

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Clearly, the pattern of dissimulation that has been witnessed in the Purohit case - which could quite conceivably be taken up as a motion of criminal contempt against the Ministry - raises several questions. Is it the case, as Fernandes has repeatedly al leged, that the Rear Admiral was a willing accomplice of the arms lobby? Or is he perhaps their hapless victim? And what were Fernandes' own motivations in lending the authority of his office to allegations that have since been proven false? The moral bl uster that the former Defence Minister has managed to sustain since leaving office clearly cannot withstand a rigorous process of interrogation on the basis of recorded fact. In this sense, the Tehelka revelations resurrect the questions about Fernandes' record in office that were just barely suppressed after the Bhagwat affair. This time, though, he may not quite manage to pull off the kind of great political escape that he is renowned for.

The political fallout

The expose churns up the country's politics on the eve of a round of Assembly elections.

IN a fortnight of relentless battles after the seismic upheaval of the Tehelka tapes, the principal political formations on the national political scene seemingly fought themselves to a stalemate. To the extent that it ever had one after three years of i nept governance, the multi-party coalition at the Centre had lost its moral sheen. The twin planks of "good governance" and "clean administration", which had been fashioned for deployment in the Assembly elections in four States and a Union Territory in May, now elicit only derisive laughter.

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At the same time, the Congress(I) has shed its early obduracy and effected a strategic shift in favour of coalition politics. There have been some efforts by party spokespersons to argue that this is a pragmatic decision occasioned by the current pattern of the composition of the Lok Sabha. Other insiders, though, see it as an irreversible change, since a more accommodating attitude to smaller parties may be essential for a party whose organisational apparatus in crucial States has been reduced to tatte rs.

Potential partners of the main Opposition party, however, remain sceptical about the quality of its leadership. Elements of the erstwhile United Front, which have stayed free of other political commitments during the phase of disintegration of "third for ce politics", have renewed their effort to nurture an alternative to the Congress(I) and the Bharatiya Janata Party. The newly floated Peoples' Front (alternately called Lok Morcha or Quami Morcha depending on linguistic preference), will have all the fo ur major Left parties among its constituents. It will be led by Communist Party of India (Marxist) veteran Jyoti Basu, and Mulayam Singh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party will be the convener. The Janata Dal (Secular), seeking to halt a rapid erosion in polit ical fortunes, has come on board, offering the P.F. a degree of geographical diversity. The P.F., however, is far from united in its attitudes towards the Congress(I). And Laloo Prasad Yadav's Rashtriya Janata Dal has opted to stay out of the P.F. since it is already in alliance with the Congress(I) in Bihar.

The ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA) at the Centre has suffered serious attrition within its ranks. An important constituent, Mamata Banerjee's Trinamul Congress, bolted rather than risk the opprobrium of association with a discredited coalition when crucial Assembly elections in West Bengal are imminent.

Another NDA partner, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in Tamil Nadu, also has to run the gauntlet of State Assembly elections within the next month-and-a-half. But it has seemingly opted for a damage limitation strategy that stops short of parting company w ith the coalition. Having established its complete pre-eminence in the seat-sharing formula for Tamil Nadu, the DMK can seek to distance itself from the sordid goings-on in the Defence Ministry. It would have a delicate balancing act to perform, since th e allegations of corruption against its principal rival, Jayalalitha's AIADMK, will be a major plank on which it will fashion an election strategy. Crucially, when the NDA held its "unity rally" in New Delhi on March 25, the DMK chose not to send a repre sentative.

The withdrawal of the Trinamul Congress, which comes shortly after the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) pulled out of the NDA, considerably increases the parliamentary vulnerability of the Vajpayee government. With the core membership of the NDA now holding o nly 262 seats in the Lok Sabha, the Ministry is more than ever dependent on the external sustenance rendered by the Telugu Desam Party. And while the TDP, which comfortably won a five-year term in 1999, may not have any immediate reason to distance itsel f from the NDA, it has greatly expanded its influence over key decisions.

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In varying degrees, the aftermath of the Tehelka revelations has contributed to the growing clout of even the smallest constituents of the NDA. Though the NDA still stands after the storms unleashed by the tapes, the next outbreak of dissidence within th e Ministry - even over issues of policy - could well prove terminal. The unstable balance of power within the BJP and the prickly clash of egos within the Samata Party could also pose a challenge to its survival.

The day the Tehelka tapes became public, the Union Cabinet met in an environment of confusion and disarray. Defence Minister George Fernandes, as the obvious focus of attention, had a dual strategy of relieving the pressure that was building up on him. O n the one hand he offered to resign if that would make the job of the Ministry any easier. But on the other, he urged that a counter-offensive might bring greater political rewards. With Vajpayee tending to tilt towards him, Fernandes retained his job. T he Cabinet finally came out with the rather vapid formulation that it was aware of the Tehelka tapes and would spare no efforts to arrive at the truth behind them - none of the guilty would be spared and no innocent person's reputation would be unfairly tarnished.

BJP president Bangaru Laxman, for his part, responded to public outrage over images of him accepting wads of notes, with a bland disavowal of wrongdoing. It was common for the president of the party to receive such donations, he said, and his entrapment in the act suggested a deeper political conspiracy.

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Vajpayee reportedly left the Cabinet meeting that was under way to have a quiet word with Laxman. The instructions were clear: Laxman was to hand in his resignation to the BJP's then senior vice-president Jana Krishnamurthy. Yet the issue was far from cl inched. Hints soon came from quarters close to the BJP president about a faction within the party that was working against Dalit interests. The Prime Minister then swiftly despatched an aide to secure Laxman's letter of resignation.

Captured in no less self-incriminating an act by the Tehelka cameras, Samata Party president Jaya Jaitley had meanwhile made herself scarce. She emerged the following day with a spirited denial that she had either accepted any money or committed any irre gularity.

As public indignation grew, so seemingly did the determination to brazen out the crisis. On May 14, the leaders of the NDA's main constituents met to reaffirm their faith in Vajpayee's leadership. In an ostentatious display of unity, Commerce Minister Mu rasoli Maran of the DMK briefed the media after the meeting and waved away any suggestion that Fernandes should resign.

A significant absence at the NDA meeting was that of Mamata Banerjee, who had only that day sent a communication to the Prime Minister urging that Fernandes' reported offer of resignation be accepted. As she prepared for a meeting with Vajpayee the follo wing day, her party spokesman Sudeep Bandopadhyay was laying the ground for a dramatic parting of ways. "Trinamul," he said, meant "grassroots" and the party needed to be true to its name. Clearly, in the immediate aftermath of the Tehelka revelations, M amata Banerjee had begun to grapple with the need for certain hard decisions if her party were to continue to be a significant presence in the politics of West Bengal.

Mamata Banerjee failed to win the necessary reassurance from the Prime Minister. Later in the day, the Trinamul Congress leadership met in an emergency session and decided to pull out of the NDA. Mamata Banerjee sent in her resignation as Union Railway M inister, and the only other Trinamul Congress representative in the Union Council of Ministers, Ajit Kumar Panja, followed suit.

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A few hours earlier, Jaya Jaitley had stepped down as president of the Samata Party, handing over charge to a little-known vice-president, V.V. Krishna Rao. This was regarded as an effort to divert at least some of the adverse attention that Fernandes, h er mentor in politics, was attracting. Till late that evening, when Fernandes appeared on Doordarshan television with a broadcast to the nation, few people had any idea of what his intentions were. But there had clearly been a shift of opinion within the BJP, which had till then tended to view Fernandes as its most loyal ally. The combined pressure of the Biju Janata Dal, the Janata Dal (United) and the TDP, finally wore down the erstwhile socialist's resistance. But when he did resign, it was on a note of defiance, with the promise that his vindication was imminent.

The next day, after Parliament was duly adjourned following a clash between aggressive slogan-shouting members, Home Minister L.K. Advani convened a meeting of the BJP's top leadership and won general assent for the appointment of a judicial commission o f inquiry. The decision was endorsed at a meeting of the NDA leadership that evening where the consensus was that Chief Justice of India Dr. A.S. Anand should be asked to name a sitting Judge of the Supreme Court to conduct the inquiry.

Signalling that his importance within the NDA remained undiminished, Fernandes briefed the media on the day's deliberations. Appearing alongside him, Parliamentary Affairs Minister Pramod Mahajan said that Fernandes enjoyed the unqualified trust of the NDA and would continue to function as its convener. In a gesture of loyalty that transgressed all norms of propriety, Mahajan also declared that Fernandes' absence from the Defence Ministry was a temporary inconvenience that would be remedied following h is exoneration by the judicial commission.

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Over a fortnight when it was largely spared from any parliamentary scrutiny, the NDA government seemingly managed to restore some order within the ranks. At the March 25 "unity rally" of the alliance following the BJP's National Executive meeting, Vajpay ee was in a combative mood. Referring to Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi's blistering speech at her party's Bangalore plenum, he said: "They have declared war and there is no going back. We have accepted the invitation. We will continue to run the gov ernment and at the same time contest the charges by going to the people."

LOFTY statements about seeking the endorsement of the people can be discounted, since the contours of the BJP's battle strategy are already clear. On March 20, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) registered a case against Vincent George, private se cretary to the Congress president, for possession of assets disproportionate to his known sources of income. BJP leaders have since sought to turn on the pressure, demanding that Sonia Gandhi get rid of her aide before taking on larger issues. The Congre ss(I) has responded defiantly, arguing that George is not a public servant anymore and that the timing of the case suggests ill-concealed political vendetta. Clearly though, the BJP is hardly likely to abandon its aggressive strategy of targeting the Con gress president's multiple vulnerabilities.

Meanwhile, there were suggestions from the Opposition that the strategy of disrupting Parliament may be reformulated in the course of the customary three-week long recess of the ongoing Budget session. Non-Congress Opposition leaders, who met in New Delh i on March 23, decided to boycott all meetings of the parliamentary consultative committees during the recess. But they decided to participate in the deliberations of the departmental standing committees, in an effort to register pointedly the stand that their protest is aimed not at Parliament but at the government.

The Opposition will now have to reckon with the fact that the strategy of boycotting Parliament would perhaps only consolidate the unity of the BJP and its allies. It is pointed out that a more subtle effort to turn up the heat within Parliament could, i n contrast, sharpen the internal contradictions within the ruling alliance.

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The multiple sources of discord within the BJP were highlighted in the Pratinidhi Sabha (or general council) of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, which took place on the outskirts of Delhi a few days after the Tehelka disclosures. With senior BJP function aries like Kushabhau Thakre and K.N. Govindacharya in attendance, the RSS launched a frontal attack on the government's economic policies, particularly its "reckless concessions for the entry of multinational companies". RSS general secretary Mohan Bhagw at accused the government of fostering a mood of "despondency" in the farm sector and among small-scale enterprises. There was a virtually unanimous demand aired by the BJP's ideological minders that a change of economic course was absolutely essential i n the prevalent circumstances.

RSS sarsangchalak K.S. Sudarshan imparted a further twist with his twin suggestions that the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) should not be manned by "incompetent persons" and that "extra-constitutional" centres of authority should have no place in the syst em of government. This came in the midst of renewed controversy over three individuals believed to have disproportionate clout in the government by virtue of their vantage positions within the Prime Minister's inner councils - Brajesh Mishra, principal s ecretary in the PMO, N.K. Singh, officer on special duty in the PMO, and Ranjan Bhattacharya, Vajpayee's foster son-in-law.

Vajpayee was sufficiently perturbed by the admonitions of the RSS chief to seek Advani's intervention in securing a disclaimer. Sudarshan subsequently clarified that his remarks were of a general nature and should not be read as a specific reference to V ajpayee's aides and associates. But he did not quite succeed in deflecting the adverse notice that the Prime Minister's powerful inner coterie has begun to attract.

The Shiv Sena, the BJP's partner in Hindutva extremism, also lent its voice to the demand for the eviction of the Prime Minister's three closest confidants. Sena chieftain Bal Thackeray sought initially to soften the blow, suggesting that the views expre ssed in his party's newspaper were not necessarily official ones. But days later, in a characteristic mood swing, in an interview published in the same forum he urged a similar course of action.

Brajesh Mishra is mentioned at several junctures in the Tehelka tapes as a pivotal figure in the chain of decision-making on defence purchases. This was sufficient inducement for two Samata Party MPs, Prabhunath Singh and Raghunath Jha, to demand his res ignation. The Samata duo were also extremely critical of the role that is played within the PMO by N.K. Singh and Ranjan Bhattacharya.

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Within the Samata Party, Prabhunath Singh and Jha have long nurtured a sense of grievance at their exclusion from ministerial posts. The Samata dissidents number at least half the party's parliamentary strength and have been seeking to bid up their influ ence through a subtle strategy of pressuring both Fernandes's dominant faction and the BJP. In an initial gesture of solidarity, the three other Samata representatives in the Council of Ministers - Nitish Kumar, Digvijay Singh and Srinivasa Prasad - also tendered their resignations along with Fernandes. They were later persuaded to withdraw in the interests of the ruling coalition's stability. But Prabhunath Singh and Jha mobilised sufficient numbers to oppose this withdrawal, bringing the party perilou sly close to a split. Though the immediate threat was averted, the precarious balance of forces within the Samata Party is clearly a longer term hazard for the Fernandes clique.

For the BJP itself, the events following the revelations seem to foreshadow a radical change in internal equations. Laxman's exit as party president and his conspicuous absence from the National Executive meeting, the RSS' disdainful description of him a s a man who failed the basic character tests of a swayamsewak, and above all Vajpayee's failure to stand up for a man who was perceived as his personal choice - all these suggest that the Prime Minister's days of pre-eminence within the inner councils of his party are over. Although not identical in the details, the contrast with the party's conduct when Advani was indicted for culpability in the hawala scandal has attracted some attention. Advani had then quit his seat in Parliament but retained his po st as party president with his authority undiminished. Laxman has, in contrast, been eased out of the leadership of the party, though he continues to be a Member of Parliament.

Laxman was appointed president last August in the BJP's eagerness to reach out to Dalits and other backward sections. His choice was widely attributed to the Prime Minister's personal intervention and came as a major surprise even to seasoned party-watch ers. In constituting his team of office-bearers, Laxman had sidelined many erstwhile Advani loyalists, seemingly to ensure that Vajpayee's authority would never be called into question. With his removal now, the right-wing orthodoxy within the BJP is lik ely to assert itself, establishing the party headquarters as an alternate power centre to the PMO. Although the RSS has also been careful not to challenge frontally Vajpayee's leadership, it is clearly now in a better position to demand a price for its a cquiescence.

Probes and questions

V.VENKATESAN cover-story

The setting up of an inquiry by a retired Judge of the Supreme Court into the Tehelka expose appears to be a part of the government's tactics of diversion and delay.

THE Union government on March 24 appointed a Commission of Inquiry under Justice K. Venkataswami, a retired Judge of the Supreme Court, to probe certain aspects of the allegations contained in the Tehelka tapes and transcripts. The allegations, accordin g to the notification, tend to cast an adverse reflection on the manner in which defence procurements and other transactions of the Central government were carried out.

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The appointment of the Commission follows Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's announcement in the course of his address to the nation on March 16 that the government would institute an inquiry by a sitting or retired judge of the Supreme Court and that it was consulting the Chief Justice of India, Justice A.S. Anand, in this regard. An inquiry became necessary, Vajpayee argued in his speech, because such an important matter could not be allowed to drift and become a football of political calculations and because the facts needed to be nailed. However, the speech made it clear that the government did not have an open mind on the issue. Vajpayee said: "Throughout the hours of recordings (by tehelka.com), no deal is actually struck. No Minister is invol ved. The boasts and allegations which the actors hurl are patently false, even the slightest effort would have revealed them to have been completely contrary to facts. Hurling such allegations is criminal. Giving heed to them is just as destructive."

"If any one has done wrong, he must be brought to book - swiftly and with the fullest force of law," he said, promising the inquiry all assistance.

The terms of reference of the Commission make the government's objectives clear. There is no hint therein that the Commission would be free to examine the available evidence on the involvement of senior politicians and bureaucrats in alleged defence scam s. The first part of the terms of reference says that the Commission shall inquire whether the transactions relating to defence and other procurements referred to in the videotapes and transcripts have been carried out in accordance with the prescribed p rocedures and the imperatives of national security. Secondly, the Commission would inquire whether in any of these procurements illicit gains have been made by persons in public office, other individuals, and any organisation as alleged, and if so, to wh at extent. In other words, the Commission will have to establish whether there was any linkage between the payments made by the Tehelka team and any actual procurement transactions. As the Tehelka team was only negotiating a fictitious procurement transa ction, there may be no scope for the Commission to examine how porous the procurement system in the Defence Ministry is or whether an arms dealer with the necessary monetary resources would have been able to destabilise the entire system. What the tapes revealed was only a tip of the iceberg and the Commission has no scope to bring the larger malaise under scrutiny. By inference, it is clear that the Commission would not be able to look into the claims of Bangaru Laxman and Jaya Jaitley that they accept ed money as donations to their party funds.

If the transactions had been carried out under the prescribed procedures and the imperatives of national security at least on paper, would that be sufficient ground to rule out any illicit gains having been made by anyone? Though the Commission would be competent to examine this aspect, its probe would be restricted to specific allegations that have been made against persons in public office, individuals and organisations as having made an illicit gain. If the illicit gains so made do not match the alle gations in the expose, would the Commission still inquire into them? It seems unlikely.

The Commission has been asked to suggest action that may be taken in respect of persons who may be found responsible for acts of commission and/or omission in respect of the transactions referred to in the first clause. This appears to be an attempt by t he government to deflect demands for the immediate prosecution and arrest of those found guilty on camera.

The Commission has also been asked to inquire into all aspects relating to the "making and publication of these allegations and any other matter which arises from or is connected with or incidental to any act, omission or transaction" referred to in the first two clauses. This clause enables the Commission to inquire into the motives, if any, of tehelka.com in bringing out this expose at this juncture, which appears to be a veiled attempt to bring into disrepute one of the finest works of investigative journalism in India.

THE Government faced considerable embarrassment in the matter of instituting an inquiry in the backdrop of the Opposition's lack of trust in any probe initiated by it. It has the power to constitute a Commission of Inquiry headed by a retired Judge witho ut consulting the Chief Justice of India. It was also aware that it would be difficult to get the Supreme Court to agree to spare a sitting Judge for the probe in view of the political nature of the controversy. It is clear that the government at the out set wanted the Chief Justice to recommend the name of a retired Judge of the Supreme Court for the probe, which it felt would carry credibility in the face of the widespread scepticism about the government's sincerity and objectiveness in this affair. Bu t instead of requesting the Chief Justice straightaway to name a retired Judge, it sought the services of a sitting Judge. It was open to the Chief Justice of India to nominate a sitting Judge in response to the government's request without consulting th e Full Court. However, Justice A.S. Anand, it appears, acted with abundant caution in seeking the Full Court's opinion before expressing his inability to spare a sitting Judge for the probe.

The Chief Justice could have expressed his inability to name a retired Judge also as there appears to be no precedent for such a step. This would have forced the government to take the responsibility of finding a retired judge. By getting the Chief Justi ce to agree to recommend a retired Judge, the government seems to have passed on the onus of ensuring the neutrality of the probe to the judiciary. This, many feel, is an unhealthy precedent.

The view that a judicial probe of this nature cannot be of much use in this case appears to be valid. The setting up of the Commission of Inquiry does not prevent the filing of first information reports based on reasonable suspicion. But the investigativ e agencies have made no effort to prosecute those who may have committed crimes under the Prevention of Corruption Act and verify the claims of Bangaru Laxman and Jaya Jaitley that they accepted donations to the party in good faith.

Secondly, two parallel enquiries have been initiated. The Defence Ministry appointed a one-man fact-finding committee on March 22 to probe the conduct of officials whose names have figured in the tapes. Headed by R.P. Bagai, Joint Secretary and Chief Vig ilance Officer of the Ministry, the committee has been directed by Jaswant Singh, the new Defence Minister, to submit a report within a month. It will look into transactions relating to the procurement of armaments, weapons systems and stores that have b een referred to in the tapes in order to ascertain whether the prescribed procedure has been followed. It would also report on whether there is any scope in the present procurement policies for manipulating the procedures and suggest corrective steps.

The other inquiry is by a three-member court headed by Lt.-Gen. S.K. Jain set up under the Army Act. This court will also examine whether there has been any deviation from established norms for procurement. It has been asked to suggest ways to make the p rocurement process transparent. It will probe whether there has been a security breach in the Army's Weapons and Equipment Directorate or any case of "moral turpitude" on the part of personnel there.

Besides, another inquiry is on into the allegations that a conspiracy in relation to the Tehelka expose was hatched in the office of a Home Ministry official in North Block with a view to discrediting the government.

The multiplicity of inquiries with similar mandates also raises questions: Will there not be a duplication of work and overlapping of terms of reference? What if they arrive at different findings?

Parties and funds

V.VENKATESAN cover-story

The latest expose highlights the need to clean up and make transparent the procedures followed by political parties in receiving donations from various sources.

THE Tehelka tapes showed Bangaru Laxman and Jaya Jaitley accepting from those who claimed were suppliers of defence equipment cash as contributions to their respective party funds. Laxman admitted that he accepted Rs.1 lakh in good faith, and claimed tha t he promptly deposited it with party treasurer Ved Prakash Goyal. Jaitley said that she did not actually take the Rs. 2 lakhs that was offered to her, but instead asked those who came with the money to make their donations through her party colleague an d Union Minister of State V. Sreenivasa Prasad. The Minister was at that point in time in Bangalore making arrangements for the national convention of the Samata Party to be held in Mysore. It is another matter, however, that Jaya Jaitley later said that the party did not receive the money at all.

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The BJP and the Samata Party claimed for the record that there was nothing wrong in their party presidents accepting cash donations for the party fund. All political parties receive donations, and their leaders say that in a democracy parties do need don ations to run their affairs.

Political parties generally require large funds to fight elections. Between elections too, they require funds to run their organisations and carry out programmes. Political parties, therefore, draw funds from several sources. But there are legal requirem ents involved, as also norms that parties themselves have evolved to receive donations.

The simplest and the most transparent of these sources is membership subscriptions, but these may account for only a limited part of a party's needs. The BJP, for instance, invites its members, supporters and well-wishers to enrol themselves as Aajiwan S ahyogis (lifelong associates). The Aajiwan Sahyog Nidhi was launched at the party's Jaipur conclave in 1997, in the wake of the hawala scandal, which allegedly involved India's top political leaders, including those of the BJP. The party claimed that the Nidhi reaffirmed its commitment to the ideals of transparency, accountability and probity in public life. Annual contributions were invited for the Nidhi in three categories - of Rs.1,000, Rs.5,000 and Rs.10,000. The contributions could be sent to the c entral office in New Delhi or State offices. It was announced that the party would register the donor's name, address and contribution, and input this information in the computer at its headquarters. For some time, the party organ, BJP Today, publ ished the names of such donors State-wise, without their addresses, but discontinued the practice for unknown reasons. In the mid-1990s the party announced that all contributions to the party exceeding Rs.10,000 could be made only by cheque. But it soon discovered that this was not feasible. After the Tehelka expose, both Laxman and general secretary Narendra Modi admitted that the party had not succeeded in enforcing the "cheque only" norm and had begun to accept in cash donations exceeding Rs.10,000. Laxman argued that the party had to abandon the norm when it faced difficulty raising funds for the two or three elections it faced within a short span of time.

The BJP's admission of its failure to practise what it preached should be seen in the context of the legal requirement. Evidently, contributions by cheque makes for more transparency, which factor impedes the free flow of unaccounted money. But this does not mean that a party can accept cash contributions on the plea that not enough people are willing to pay be cheque. Under a Supreme Court order (Common Cause vs. Union of India, S.C.Cases, 1996, p.752), contributions and donations to a political party are admissible for exemption from income tax only if the party keeps and maintains books of accounts satisfactorily; it keeps and maintains records of such voluntary contributions in excess of Rs.10,000 and of the names and addresses of the person s who have made such contributions; and the accounts of the party are audited by a chartered accountant or an otherwise qualified accountant. Sub-section 4-B in Section 139 of the Income Tax Act makes it obligatory for all political parties to file incom e tax returns.

The Supreme Court had held that if a political party violated these provisions and utilised unaccounted money, it could not claim the benefit of Explanation 1 to Section 77 of the Representation of the People Act. Under this Explanation, any expenditure incurred by a political party in the constituency of a candidate would not be considered to have been incurred by the candidate in relation to the provision of the ceiling on the expenditure by a candidate.

Although all major political parties claim that they have been filing income tax returns regularly following the Supreme Court order, it is the extent of unaccounted money that some major parties seek to mobilise that should be a matter of concern. In or der to account a contribution exceeding Rs.10,000, every party should show the name and address of the donor in its account books and issue a receipt. In cases where the donors do not want to be identified, it is likely that their contributions would be unaccounted for in the party's accounts. There is at present no mechanism to establish that parties receive unaccounted donations, even though technically the parties might be fulfilling the legal requirement of maintaining books of account audited by a qualified accountant and filing income tax returns.

The Tehelka expose of Laxman receiving money across the table is a classic example of a party functionary receiving a donation that cannot possibly be accounted for in its accounts. The BJP, however, asserted that the gift received by Laxman from the Teh elka team had been duly accounted for in its accounts. Laxman claimed (see interview) that the team had left a visiting card, which carried only some phone numbers in London. In the absence of the address of the donor, the party could not have legally ac counted for the money. BJP treasurer Goyal told Frontline: "We give receipts only if the donors demand. In this case, everybody knows who was the donor, and as they did not want any receipt, the question of giving a receipt did not arise."

The new president of the party, Jana Krishnamurthy, also averred that the amount received by Laxman had been accounted for in the party, though he claimed that it would be shown only in the income tax returns that it would file.

There is also apparent confusion in the BJP with regard to who is authorised to receive donations on behalf of the party. Laxman claimed that the Tehelka team insisted that he personally receive the donation, though he told them to meet the party treasur er. Krishnamurthy said that the presidents of the party received donations "occasionally" and handed them over to the treasurer. A BJP insider, however, pointed out that only treasurers were supposed to receive donations, and that Laxman's predecessors h ad never personally received such huge donations for the party.

The Samata Party, on the other hand, authorises only the party's national and State presidents to receive donations, says its new president, V.V. Krishna Rao. According to him, the party treasurer only keeps track of the accounts of expenditure and incom e, and he is not competent to receive contributions.

IN the case of the Congress(I), it appears that only the treasurer receives donations. A former Congress(I) treasurer said that his party had introduced the system of issuing coupons in lieu of receipts to donors for cash contributions. These coupons do not carry the names and addresses of the donors, but only numbers, which are mentioned in the party's books of accounts. During elections, candidates are supplied campaign materials in order to take advantage of the provisions of the Election Commission order on election expenditure. Much of the cash donations come to the party during election time.

THE Left parties have a very transparent system of party funding. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) funds itself through a system of levies: if a member receives an income of Rs.10,000 a month, he or she should contribute Rs.250. If the member does not thus contribute for three consecutive months, it will lead to loss of membership. Members of Parliament and of the State Assemblies have to deposit their entire salaries with the party, and accept a fixed sum as monthly allowance. Besides the party g oes for collections from the public, but avoids donations from big industrialists as a matter of principle. The CPI has a similar system of fund collection.

Will state funding of elections, as proposed by the Indrajit Gupta Committee in 1998, help clean up the Augean stables? The Committee has recommended state funding of parties only in kind, and not in cash. It has also left the issue of banning donations to parties by the corporate sector to be decided by Parliament. Clearly, as frequent elections necessitate the thorough milking of sources of funding, many of the political parties seem to be in search of new methods, legitimate or otherwise, to raise fu nds.

'I was an easy target'

Bangaru Laxman, who quit as the president of the Bharatiya Janata Party following the tehelka.com expose, finds himself at a loss. He is sad that neither the BJP nor any other constituent of the National Democratic Alliance it leads came to his de fence unlike as in the case of George Fernandes. The images of wads of currency notes being handed to him across his table by the tehelka team continue to cause immense damage to his image and that of the BJP. V. Venkatesan met him to get his vers ion of the events. Excerpts from the interview:

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You have described the Tehelka expose as a conspiracy. Who then, are behind this conspiracy, and what are their motives?

Surely those who are politically opposed to us. Especially after my taking over as party president, the social composition of the party underwent a change. The support base started expanding. More OBCs (other backward classes) and minorities were joining the party. This was an eyesore to many. Because they felt their constituency was being encroached upon. So I was picked up for framing. I had just completed three months as party president. I had very little to do with defence. No defence deals were in progress at that particular point of time. So, how did they choose me? Because I was an easy target. I was easily accessible. I was new to many things. Catching some soft targets, and showing that the whole system is corrupt, I don't think this gives a c orrect picture. My own feeling is that there were no defence deals after 1996. Those who were in this business for the past 45 years, they must have been feeling frustrated, since this Government tightened the procedures.

After the tehelka team met and gave you Rs.1 lakh, did you ever become suspicious of them? They, in fact, promised to pay you more in dollars but did not meet you subsequently, after the second meeting.

Certainly. In fact, I on the same day I informed the party treasurer about the whole thing. They were asking me whether they could pay in dollars. Then, I exclaimed, 'dollars!' But the exclamation was turned into a positive sign. This is a tape. Anything can be done.

The transcript quotes you as having said, "You can give dollars".

No, I did not say that it can be given in dollars. I exclaimed 'dollars', that is all. Therefore, what I was trying to say was, if they want to contribute more for the party, meet our party treasurer. So my exclamation was removed, and it was put in such a way that I was asking for dollars. They said they don't have rupees, and asked me whether we want in rupees or dollars. I said, 'dollars!' In a tape like this, dubbing is possible, fudging is possible. And editing anyway they have done. And I am told all these things were done outside the country. Tapes were taken outside the country, I learn, to Singapore, where the technology and sophistication is available to doctor tapes and microfilms. Somebody said they took the tapes to Dubai.

When did you deposit the Rs.1 lakh given by the tehelka team with the party treasurer?

On the same day, after the second meeting I informed the party treasurer that some party came, and they wanted to contribute, and that they were talking about investments in infrastructure projects. I don't remember the exact date, but I suppose it must have been before the national executive meeting in New Delhi in the first week of January.

Incidentally, procedural difficulties and policy difficulties were discussed. In that context they brought up the defence issue. They said they were going to supply binoculars to the defence. They claimed that with the help of technologically sophisticat ed binoculars we would be able to fight Kargil-type wars better. They tried to explain how it was operated, showed me the pictures. I said, look, what is the difficulty? They said the Army has okayed it, but the difficulty is because of the bureaucracy. That way, these dialogues came up. It is not that they exclusively came to strike a defence deal. They slowly dragged me into it.

Was any receipt given to them for the contribution to the party fund?

Their visiting card is there. But it doesn't bear the Delhi address. It only gives the London telephone number. Normally, the receipts are kept in the office. Otherwise, the entry is made (in the party accounts).

Can one see the party accounts to find out if there is a corresponding entry for Rs.1 lakh received by you?

Party accounts are not shown to journalists.

What is the procedure for collecting party funds?

There is no set procedure. On their own, they said they were keen on contributing to the party fund.

Have you collected party funds earlier?

No, this was the first time I saw a lakh of rupees as contribution to the party fund. Earlier small collections used to come, after I took over.

What is the amount nearest to this that you have collected?

Hardly, less than Rs.10,000 or so. And many a time, when I sat in the office, I immediately sent them (the donors) to the accountant.

But no one met you at your residence to donate?

No.

This time also, you could have directed them to the accountant?

But they were insisting (that I should receive it). They came with a purpose. They were asking whether they could remit it to the party account. When I told the party treasurer, I asked him to check up, as I did not know them.

Did the party treasurer check up the donors' antecedents?

After that, we got into many other things, and forgot about this. We never thought that this was going to boomerang like this.

Do you regret the choice of your private secretary, Sathyamurthy?

He gave me a letter admitting that he committed a big mistake in talking to those people. He did not resign, because there was no formal appointment. He came to assist me when I took over. He was recommended by a friend of mine, to organise my engagemen ts and programmes. My friend told me that if I am satisfied he could continue to help me. Because at that time I was left with no person, as I came from the Railway Ministry, and I needed somebody's help to function.

Do you think people within the BJP may be part of the 'conspiracy'?

As on today, I am not in a position to comment on anything. People within the BJP, they need not play such a dirty game. I don't say that there were no grounds to have differences of opinion. There could be differences of opinion particularly over the d istribution of work, day-to-day organisational problems. On policies, there is very little difference of opinion.

Does the fact that the BJP did not offer to restore you to the party president's post if you are proved innocent hurt you? The NDA and the Cabinet expressed full confidence in George Fernandes and offered to reinstate him after the inquiry.

I take it in my stride. Before I became the party president I was a worker. Now also I will remain a worker.

Are you unhappy with the party?

No. I don't expect this kind of treatment. In the government, it is the prerogative of the Prime Minister; here it is the party's National Council which has to take a decision.

But on the day your resignation was accepted, Jana Krishnamurthy was appointed as acting president, and this was described as a permanent arrangement by the party.

No. That cannot be according to the party constitution. Even if it has to be a permanent arrangement, it has to get the ratification of the competent body. The BJP has not given me up. The party is behind me.

Were you told by the Prime Minister to quit? You were widely seen as his choice when you were appointed, and it was felt that the Advani faction did not favour you.

I had a working relationship with Advaniji. They (Advani and Vajpayee) must have discussed before I quit.

You have just completed six months as party president. What prevents the party from saying that you can come back as party president once you prove yourself innocent?

They will be able to answer this. I do not feel bad about it.

The RSS has called you a failed swayamsevak.

(Laughs) I don't want to comment on their perception.

The ethics of subterfuge

A. G. NOORANI cover-story

The means that Tehelka employed to achieve the expose involves a justified journalistic pursuit.

IT is amusing to hear persons caught in the act, as it were, cry "ethics" at their exposure by the tehelka.com on March 13. The web site has proved itself. The nation has accepted that its revelations are true and heads rolled in consequence. George Fern andes, falsely claimed that he had resigned as Defence Minister in order "to uphold the morale of the armed forces". A man who felt that concern would not have taken over 48 hours to resign; and, then, only after pressure from Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and in the face of clamour by all outside the ranks of his own immediate cabal. Not only the government but the entire system has been shaken to the roots by the disclosures. The worst fears and worst suspicions stand confirmed.

18070181jpg The Sunday Times

None of this is any reason, however, to gloss over the ethical aspect. That is always relevant in every situation, no matter how grave or delicate. The time to discuss it threadbare is now, lest this be regarded as a precedent mindlessly for all cases in the future. It is perfectly legitimate to ask: who will trust the journalist when he seeks an interview? And, how does one distinguish between this case and that, of say, Louise Fernandes who interviewed the distinguished historian Mushirul Hasan withou t disclosing to him that she was taping the conversation? She claimed on the TV that it was for her "protection".

When is subterfuge justified in the course of a journalist's work? Investi-gative journalism is different from press interviews, surely. It is far older than many imagine. As far back as 1885, W.T. Stead made news for the Pall Mall Gazette when he exposed child prostitution by going out and buying a twelve-year-old girl. As James Michael recalls, "It led to a good story, a change in the law, and some time in jail for Stead, whose purchase was taken seriously by the Court" (The Politics of Secr ecy; Penguin; 1982; page 93).

The issue of ethics calls for a nuanced and principled answer. In the Pentagon Papers case, first, The New York Times and, next, The Washington Post published a series of articles based on a secret Defence Department history of the United S tates' involvement in the Vietnam war. They had been provided the documents by Daniel Ellsberg, a former Defence Department and Rand Corporation official who had come to loathe the war. While still engaged in government work, Ellsberg had secretly copied these classified papers. They revealed that, for years, successive administrations had made decisions at the highest level in ways that deliberately deceived the nation. The White House and the Departments of State and Defence said one thing to the peop le while doing its opposite. They knew that their statements and assurances were false.

The government moved the courts to restrain publication. The case finally reached the Supreme Court. On June 30, 1971, the court ruled in The New York Times vs United States, by six votes to three, that the Times could proceed with the publication (403 U.S. 713; Chief Justice Warren E. Burger tartly remarked that the duty to return stolen property applies as much to The New York Times as it does to cab drivers. The majority disagreed, because of the facts of the case. Justice Hugo Black sa id: "Paramount among the responsibilities of a free press is the duty to prevent any part of the government from deceiving the people and sending them off to distant lands to die of foreign fences and foreign shot and shell. In my view, far from d eserving condemnation for their courageous reporting, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other newspapers should be commended for serving the purpose that the Founding Fathers saw so clearly. In revealing the workings of government that led to the Vietnam war, the newspapers nobly did precisely that which the Founding Fathers hoped and trusted they would do." He added: "The guarding of military and diplomatic secrets at the expense of informed representative government provides no real security for our Republic." Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee expressed an illiberal view on this point on March 17.

Clive Ponting, a senior official in the Ministry of Defence, gave information to an MP, Tam Dalyell, which undermined the truth of ministerial answers in the House of Commons to his questions about the sinking of the "Belgrano" by the British navy in the Falklands war. Prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act, the jury acquitted him in rejection of the judge's interpretation of Section 2 of the Act that the words "the interests of the state" were synonymous with the policies of the government of the da y. In Britain and in the United States "the whistleblower" has acquired recognition - the civil servant who exposes a wrong while in service. In the U.S. there is even a statute to protect him, the Whistleblower Protection Act, 1989. In all these cases o fficial deception was exposed by resort to subterfuge or the covert. The courts upheld that. Who knows even now the identity of "Deep Throat" of Watergate fame?

We need not go further with analogies; for, there is a precedent which bears directly on the tehelka.com case and a ruling by the British Press Complaints Commission which covers it fully. Unlike the Press Council of India (PCI) - to which, curiously, no ne made a reference during the debate - the Commission is not a statutory body. It is set up as a full self-regulatory measure by the press itself to uphold and enforce a Code of Conduct formulated, not by the Commission, let alone the Government, but by the press itself. It is now a decade old. A committee of editors, under the chairmanship of the editor of the News of the World, Patricia Chapman, drew up the Code. Editors are represented on the Commission. Its membership is drawn from the whole range of newspapers and periodicals in contrast to that of the PCI.

Paragraph 7 of the Code reads thus: "Misrepresentation-(i) Journalists should not generally obtain or seek to obtain information or pictures through misrepresentation or subterfuge. (ii) Unless in the public interest, documents or photographs shou ld be removed only with the express consent of the owner. (iii) Subterfuge can be justified only in the public interest and only when material cannot be obtained by any other means." Paragraph 17 says: "Journalists have a moral obligation to protect conf idential sources of information."

Paragraph 18 defines the expression "the public interest" as used in paragraph 7, besides other provisions such as paragraph 5 which says: "Unless justified by public interest, journalists should not obtain or publish material obtained by using clandesti ne listening devices or by intercepting private telephone conversations."

The crucial question, then, is: what constitutes "the public interest"? Paragraph 18 says "Clauses 4 (privacy), 5, 7, 8 (harassment), and 9 (payment for articles) create exceptions which may be covered by invoking the public interest. For the purpose of this code that is most easily defined as: (i) detecting or exposing crime or a serious misdemeanour; (ii) protecting public health and safety; (iii) preventing the public from being misled by some statement or action of an individual or organisation." It adds: "In any case raising issues beyond these three definitions, the Press Complaints Commission will require a full explanation by the editor of the publication involved, seeking to demonstrate how the public interest was served."

This was no new fangled or self-serving exception devised by the press. Similar provisions were adopted in the Calcutt Committee's Report (1990) on Privacy in almost identical language (cm. 1102; The Stationery Office, London; 1990; p. 122, para 6). It w as set up by the British Government. It is a mark of illiteracy that the exposed now cry "fictitious company's fictitious deal". It was admittedly a subterfuge devised to expose a rotten state of affairs.

Para 7 of the Code was applied in The Sunday Times Case in 1994. On July 10, 1994, the paper published a story under the headline "Revealed: MPs who accept &pound1,000 to ask a parliamentary question". Within hours, two Conservative MPs, David Tre dinnick and Graham Riddick, were suspended from their jobs as parliamentary private secretaries. In the debate in the House of Commons on July 13, some MPs were more keen on attacking the newspaper rather than the offenders it had exposed. Their cry had a familiar ring ("the so-called guardians of the public interest").

Stung by the criticism, The Sunday Times revealed on July 17 the details of its investigative work over six months, following a tip at a lunch in January by a leading businessman that he had paid MPs to table parliamentary questions. Records of th ousands of questions were sifted. "A pattern began to emerge, several MPs known to have links with some of the 50 consultancy firms that hover around Westminster were asking questions of direct interest to the companies those firms lobbied for." (The teh elka.com tapes also reveal "a pattern"; far more grim and dangerous).

It was decided to test 10 Tory and 10 Labour MPs. All the Labour MPs refused. Two of the Tories were caught red-handed by a member of the paper's Insight team, Jonathan Calvert. Using his real name, he posed as a potential investor in a drugs company tha t was developing a cure for a throat infection called "Thising's Disease". The firm's name Githins was also an anagram of Insight. This was done to demonstrate how easy it was to table bogus questions.

On July 17 - note the despatch - the Press Complaints Commission gave its ruling. The full text is reproduced below as set out in Appendix 9 of the Report of the House of Commons Committee of Privileges First Report, Volume 2; p. 173.

"On 11 July 1994 Mr. Graham Riddick, MP for Colne Valley, complained to the Press Complaints Commission that information contained in an article in The Sunday Times of 10 July headlined "Revealed: MPs who accept &pound1,000 to ask a parliamentary question" was unfairly obtained through subterfuge. He maintained that such information was readily available elsewhere and raised his complaint under Clauses 7(i), 7(iii) and 18 of the Code of Practice.

"The article described how a journalist posed as an investor interested in buying a firm. He offered the complainant &pound1,000 to table a question in the House of Commons to the Secretary of State for Social Security about any work done by the firm (th e name of which had been invented) for the Department.

"Mr. Riddick has since told the Commission that as the House of Commons has established a Committee of Privileges to consider issues relating to this matter he does not wish to proceed with his complaint.

"The Commission is the appropriate body to decide whether The Sunday Times has breached the PCC's Code of Practice and it sees no conflict with the role of the Committee of Privileges in so doing. The Speaker of the House of Commons has informed the Comm ission that she does not see any conflict between an adjudication by the Commission based on the provisions of the Code and any investigation by the Committee of Privileges.

"The Commission has the power, of its own motion, to raise or continue the investigation of any alleged breach of the Code and it considers that Mr. Riddick's complaint raises an important question of public interest on which it ought to adjudicate.

"The Sunday Times told the Commission that they undertook this investigation after being told by a prominent businessman that it was common practice for MPs to be paid to table question in Parliament and the "going rate was &pound1,000". The newspaper's receipt of this information coincided with rumours which they had picked up in the House of Commons that MPs were being paid for putting down questions. The newspaper believed that an investigation into these matters was in the public interest and consid ered that a debate about the question of payment of MPs and their consultancies was timely. The propriety of any such payment seemed to the newspaper to be unclear. Erskine May's Parliamentary Practice indicates that the receipt of payment by MPs for tabling questions may be a breach of privilege yet payment appears to be permissible if MPs record any financial relationship with outside parties within a set period. An examination by the newspaper of thousands of parliamentary questions appeared t o confirm their suspicions but not to offer exact proof. The newspaper contended that the use of subterfuge was the only method by which the matter could be investigated.

"The Commission accepts the newspaper's explanation for their behaviour. The subject matter of the article raised issues of serious public interest which the newspaper had a right to pursue. In all the circumstances of this case, the Comm-ission consider s that the subterfuge used was justified as the only effective investigative tool available by which the information concerned could be obtained."

One has only to read the Code and the ruling to realise the full justification of tehelka.com's exposure. "We have to employ desperate solutions for desperate situations," its editor Tarun Tejpal rightly claimed (The Times of India, March 16).

Everyone knew that for decades defence purchases by the Governments of India were a scandal. Even Izvestia of December 16, 1995 reported the scandalous state of affairs which was known the world over. New Delhi was a den of sleaze. It had to be exposed. But far more relevant is Tejpal's query: "Though we blew the whistle, who will police this matter?" Who indeed?

'No qualms about the techniques'

Tarun Tejpal, chief executive and editor of Tehelka.com, spoke to Sukumar Muralidharan on the mechanics and the motivations of one of the most celebrated sting operations in Indian journalism. Excerpts:

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Did you ever encounter any resistance to your overtures? Is the system completely porous, or are there points at which resistance could be encountered by somebody seeking to penetrate it?

We actually went through two or three different routes after a point, and all of them were opening up. Finally if we had had enough money - not just the Rs. 10 or 15 lakhs but say Rs. 50 lakhs or a crore - then we could have split open the system.

There were no roadblocks as such but occasionally we would lose a thread. And very often this was because we did not have enough money to throw around. But supposing there was a product and there was enough money to back it, then we could have just worke d our way through anywhere. What used to happen is that somebody used to say bring me 10 lakh or 15 lakhs or 20 lakhs, and our reporter would say okay, here is 20,000 - I will bring you the rest later. If you look at the Bangaru Laxman episode for instan ce, our chaps said they would go back with $30,000 the next day. Now where are we going to get that money? But assuming we had it, then we could have gone back and actually got him on tape accepting that money. But we thought at a point that we had prove n the case well enough.

Have you committed to hand over the entire 100 hours of recordings to the official investigation?

Somebody has to make a formal request before we start considering it. And we will consult our lawyers before doing that.

The Army has made an approach.

From the Army the signals have been terrific: they want to use our evidence to clean up things. We have said that we are willing to cooperate. So I met them and asked for a formal request and then I deposed under oath.

And some of the officers who have been implicated in the tapes were present?

Absolutely. Major-General P.S.K. Choudhary sat through my deposition and he was given a chance to cross-examine me. He had only one question to ask: was I the author of the transcripts, and I said I was not.

How have the signals from the political establishment and the bureaucracy been?

Very disappointing. These people are stonewalling. Jaya Jaitley is going around splitting hairs. And from the Defence Ministry, as far as we are concerned, we have had a deafening silence.

Your reporters were not very well clued into defence matters. Did they at any stage encounter suspicions?

What was astonishing for us was the sheer greed on display. And that is borne out by the fact that these two reporters made so many mistakes. They are both very fine reporters, but they know nothing about military hardware or defence. They made so many g affes, but these chaps were so blinded by money that they did not suspect anything. What I suspect is that for them, these deals are just an everyday occurrence - they are so quotidian that they did not suspect anything wrong.

How did this idea of floating a fictitious company and seeking to sell its wares originate?

That was really Aniruddha's (Tehelka Investigative Team head Aniruddha Bahal) idea. For him it was the Bharatpur ammunition dump fire which really started things off. There was so much of talk that it was a set-up job, that the Army was trying to get rid of bad equipment - so that is what triggered it for him. But then finally it was about defence deals. The Indian political scenario has been dominated for so long by Bofors and other deals. So this is the first time that we have got hard evidence.

But the tapes do not constitute evidence in a legal sense...

Every lawyer who has commented has said that this is primary evidence. If there is a public servant taking money to do something, that is evidence of corruption. This shows the endemic corruption that exists. That was our purpose.

How close were you to having your cover blown?

There were a few skirmishes. The tense period was when the fieldwork finished, which was in the middle of January. From then till the middle of March was a tense phase. There were 15 people working on the transcribing and editing. On March 12, I saw the final edited version and the next day we broke the story.

R.K. Jain has said that he did realise that he had been played for a dupe and had tracked your cars to your office...

That was the most serious skirmish. But then, as with crooks who are caught, they had nowhere to go. So he just sat tight, hoping that it would be a false alarm. Like Bangaru Laxman for example, he actually called Aniruddha's number a couple of times. In one conversation he said that he did not go to the airport to see off the Prime Minister who was going to Vietnam, because he was waiting for us.

Was there ever any hint that you were under surveillance?

From October onwards we had a strong sense that our telephones were being tapped. So Aniruddha and Samuel (Tehelka reporter Mathew Samuel) stopped using their numbered cell-phones and they switched to call cards. But there was no real scare till the ti me Jain's men came following our cars.

There are suggestions that the Department of Company Affairs has been asked to inquire into your sources of finance...

We were told that the Prime Minister's Office had instructed several departments to dig out dirt on us. That is why I held a press conference to release all the company papers - the shareholding, the certificate of incorporation, the board of directors, the resumes of all the directors...

You have a distinguished board of directors. What did they have to say about it?

V.S. Naipaul called from England. And he had a literary-philosophical analysis of what was happening. He spoke about cycles of corruption and civilisation and so on. And Khushwant Singh I went and saw some days ago. I apologised for not informing him, bu t then he said that it was great and we have done a good job. And Amitabh (Bachchan), I did call before I broke the story, because he is the big public figure in India. I told him that we were breaking a big story. He said: can you tell me what the story is? And I said I couldn't. So that was fine. He is too civil to really insist and I have not spoken to him since.

So you have no qualms about the techniques used?

Not at all. I think these people have to be nailed in whatever way. I think the public relations aspect of Indian journalism has to be toned down. We just have to get a little hard.

But the print media, for instance, use different standards of substantiation...

I agree. I keep saying, imagine if this story had broken in print. Even with all this audio-video evidence, they are still stonewalling. If it had been in print, nobody would have given us the time of day.

For a paradigm shift

The recommendations of four task forces which reviewed the functioning of India's security establishment hold out the prospect of a radical transformation of the way it is structured and the way it functions.

IF the Union government means business, India's defence and intelligence services are in for their most radical transformation since Independence.

Union Home Minister L.K. Advani announced in February that the government had accepted the findings of four task forces set up by a Group of Ministers (GoM) in May 2000. Advani spoke in his capacity as chairman of the GoM, which had been created by Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee that April to study the recommendations of the Kargil Review Committee (KRC). The other key members of the GoM were then Defence Minister George Fernandes, External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh and Finance Minister Yashwa nt Sinha. The four task forces were to study intelligence, defence management, internal security and border management respectively, and address critiques made of India's security establishment in the KRC Report.

Most of the immediate consequences of Advani's announcement will be for the military and intelligence services. Six months from now, if events run to plan, India will have a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), chosen on the basis of seniority from among the ch iefs of the Army, the Navy and the Air Force. The CDS will command a new intelligence service, the Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA), which in turn will be commanded by a three-star General. This General will have overall responsibility for coordinating the directorates of military, naval and air force intelligence.

The Intelligence Bureau (I.B.) will have complete responsibility for internal security operations, and its Director, currently less powerful than most Secretaries of Ministries, shall be given wide and autonomous powers. The Research and Analysis Wing (R AW) will see a significant sharpening of its external intelligence gathering role.

Even State governments will feel the impact of the proposals. State-level joint intelligence task forces are to be set up, and specific proposals have been made to upgrade the capabilities of police anti-terrorist units. The Jammu and Kashmir Police's Sp ecial Operations Group (SOG) has been held out as an example of the kinds of anti-terrorist units that must now evolve. No one seems entirely certain yet about who will be tasked with the implementation of this mass of proposals, and how the substantial financial resources needed to realise the task force recommendations will be realised. With the Union government crippled by Tehelka's arms and bribes scandal, few people in the Ministry of Defence or the Ministry of Home Affairs have institutional refor m high on their agenda right now. There is little dispute, however, about the need for urgent reform, particularly of the intelligence establishment.

Jammu and Kashmir Governor Girish Chandra Saxena's report on the area of intelligence is without doubt the most substantial of the four documents the GoM has accepted. Prepared with former Foreign Secretary K. Raghunath, former I.B. chief M.K. Narayanan, former Special Secretary, Home, P.P. Shrivastava, former RAW Additional Secretary B. Raman, and R. Narsimha of the National Institute of Advanced Studies, the meticulously researched report calls on India's intelligence establishment to take "an honest and in-depth stock of their present intelligence effort and capabilities to meet challenges and problems". The report calls for a wholesale upgrading of technical, imaging, signals, electronics counter-intelligence and economic intelligence capabilities, as well as a system-wide reform of conventional intelligence gathering.

Saxena's report gives the I.B. a formal charter for the first time in its history. It will now have responsibility for the collection and dissemination of all intelligence on internal security, making it the nodal organisation for counter-terrorist and c ounter-intelligence work. The organisation has also been tasked with ensuring the security of information systems. This charter should free the I.B. from much of its political surveillance work, and the election-related information gathering it has been pushed into doing by successive governments. In six months, the organisation should also have created India's first dedicated police computer network and terrorism database. A similar database project, called Polnet, had been conceived of over a decade a go, when the civilian Nicnet went online. Although a Border Security Force Inspector-General continues to be in charge of Polnet's execution, nothing concrete has come into being.

Among the major paradigm shifts envisaged in the I.B.'s functioning is that the gathering and generation of intelligence and its analysis will be separated. Since the late 19th century, when the organisation was set up under a different name, the I.B. ha s placed a sharp emphasis on analysis of information. The hard businesses of micro-intelligence gathering, running sources, and producing actionable intelligence has on occasion, therefore, been relegated to the background. Part of the reason is that, af ter the creation of the RAW, the I.B. was stripped of its technical intelligence assets. Now it is to get independent communications intelligence capability, which would enable it to monitor all forms of cellular, land line, radio frequency and Internet traffic. It will have its own cryptographic resources, along with state-of-the-art direction-finding equipment to locate transmissions, including those by terrorists in areas like Jammu and Kashmir.

With these new resources will come new responsibilities. Until now the RAW has been the only organisation permitted to conduct espionage operations abroad. The I.B. had personnel in neighbouring countries like Pakistan and Nepal, but these agents were wh at are termed "declared" ones. This means the governments of the countries they are posted to are notified that they are intelligence officers, and their duties are restricted largely to ensuring the security of diplomatic missions and the staff. Now the I.B. will be empowered to conduct covert work relevant to its new charter, including deep penetration operations. This, the Saxena report points out, will mean that the I.B. will have to upgrade considerably the quality of its personnel and their traini ng, and that the Ministry of Home Affairs will have to stop treating the organisation as an "appendage or subsidiary unit".

THE RAW, like the I.B., should emerge from the restructuring a leaner and more focussed organisation. Much of its deadweight could be cut away. Organisations like the moribund Shanti Suraksha Bal (SSB), now under the charge of the Secretary, RAW, in the Cabinet Secretariat, are to be rationalised. Most of the SSB's 30,000-odd personnel, originally recruited to act as a paramilitary force along the border with China, will be inducted in the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP). Some of the SSB's covert oper atives will be handed over to the I.B., and the rest retained by the RAW to meet its in-house security needs. This will free officer level personnel for the organisation to concentrate on its main job, gathering external intelligence and running transbor der operations.

One notable victory for the RAW is the GoM's decision to agree that it should retain the high-profile Aerial Reconnai-ssance Centre (ARC), set up with the assistance of the United States in the wake of the India-China border conflict. The Army had demand ed that it be given control of the ARC, which operates a fleet of aircraft especially equipped for high altitude operations and precision imaging equipment. At the moment RAW designs a year-long agenda for the ARC, based on broad assessments by the Army of the kinds of surveillance flights that are required. Now the Army will have more direct representation in the ARC, in the form of a Military Intelligence Advisory Group which shall be involved in day-to-day operations. Control of the organisation, how ever, remains firmly in the RAW's hands. This is because the organisation is best equipped to assess broad threat perceptions.

Military Intelligence, however, has little cause for complaint. While the RAW will retain primacy in external intelligence, the new DIA will be empowered to conduct transborder operations. Based, sources say, on a secret authorisation granted by Prime Mi nister V.P. Singh in 1990-1991, the DIA will now be able to conduct operations for tactical intelligence coverage in all of Pakistan. It will also be allowed to execute independently what intelligence operatives call "port-to-port" and "airport-to-airpor t" operations - technical terminology for the movement of agents across national borders.

It is also clear that the DIA's head will have more power than any military intelligence bureaucrat of the past. The General will be the principal military intelligence adviser to the Chief of Staffs Committee and the Defence Minister. This means that in theory the three Chiefs of Staff will have no direct control over the intelligence services of their respective forces. The DIA chief will also directly control two of the military intelligence establishment's most powerful institutions, the Signals Int elligence Directorate and the Defence Image Processing and Analysis Centre (DIPAC).

THE influence of the DIA will also be felt at the field level, where it will participate in intelligence support groups, run jointly with the I.B. and the RAW to provide coordinated information to Army Corps Commanders in areas where the Armed Forces Spe cial Powers Act is in force. The idea is that regular interaction among field personnel of all the three organisations will help minimise friction, and create what the Saxena report has described as "the concept of an intelligence community". The Arun Si ngh-led report on defence restructuring, however, has not given the Army overall control over the civilian administration in disturbed areas, a power that it has for long sought. Police and intelligence officials had furiously resisted proposals put out by the Union government in 1998 asking them to report to Brigade commanders operating in their respective areas.

Arun Singh also appears to have rejected calls to set up new theatre-level commands, giving overall control of all forces in an area to a single officer. At present India has only one joint tri-series command, located on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, which is hardly an example of harmonious inter-services working. The Andaman Fortress, which is headed by a Vice-Admiral, is Navy-dominated. The Army has just one battalion based in Port Blair, while the Air Force operates a single Mi-8 helicopter squadr on. Other important military demands, however, have been met. Arun Singh's recommendations include granting the services more financial authority, as well as freeing the need to secure the approval of the Cabinet Committee on Appointments for the appoint ment officers of the rank of Brigadier.

Other proposals endorsed by the GoM, however, seem certain to run into more than a little resistance. The Saxena report, for example, speaks of the need to revive Joint Interrogation Centres (JICs) in States like Jammu and Kashmir. JICs run by all forces operating in a given area were common in Punjab and Jammu and Kashmir, and provided a valuable point for information-sharing among different agencies. They, however, developed a reputation, perhaps an overblown one, for brutality and torture. Among the first actions of the government of Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah, which took power in 1996, was to disband the JICs in Jammu and Kashmir. The best known among the JICs in the State, Papa-II in Srinagar, is now Chief Secretary Ashok Jaitley's summer home . Abdullah is also likely to be appalled by the praise given to the SOG, which is under intense pressure on the grounds of human rights violaolations.

In the months to come, much will depend on just how serious the Union government is about turning into reality the recommendations it has approved. One immediate issue will be funds. A technical coordination group, sources say, is to be set up to regulat e new intelligence hardware acquisitions, including upgrades to the existing multiple e-mail targeting system, code-named DIRT. Should purchases like these become mired in bureaucratic delays and wrangling, the task force recommendations will prove fruit less.

More important, it is far from clear whether the recommendations on their own will resolve the often-petty personality clashes and turf battles among the services, and within organisations. What legal framework will be put in place for the new system, to o, remains unclear. I.B. officials, for example, have frequently protested against the unwillingness of governments like the one in Uttar Pradesh to act on specific information on the presence of terrorists. It is important, though, that a beginning has been made. One can only hope that it does not prove to be the end as well.

Waking up to realities

The Bangalore plenary session of the Congress(I) shows a party that is slowly coming to grips with the changing political and economic situation in the country.

FOR the Congress(I), the country's major Opposition party, the release of the Tehelka.com tapes on March 13 was perfectly timed. Not only was Parliament in session, but the 81st plenary session of the All India Congress Committee (AICC) was to be held in Bangalore on March 17 and 18. (The event had been scheduled for February 14 to 16 earlier.) The explosive contents of the tapes changed the focus, course and outcome of the session held in Bangalore's Palace grounds. It transformed the Plenary from one which would at most have issued a rather uncertain campaign message for the coming Assembly elections in four States and a Union Territory, to one which issued a virtual call-to-arms for a war against the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government in New Delh i.

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Fortified by the ammunition provided by the Tehelka tapes, resolutions were hastily redrafted with the focus on misgovernment, corruption in the BJP and the government, and the demand that Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and his government accept mor al responsibility for these and resign. "Let the message go forth from Bangalore," Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi said in her presidential address, "that we will fight every battle, wage every war and make every sacrifice to ensure that the country i s liberated from the shackles of this corrupt, shameful and communal government."

The high spirits among delegates at the plenary, fed no doubt by the steady inflow of news on the political fallout of Tehelka's expose, was evidently shared by the pleased-looking phalanx of Congress Working Committee (CWC) members seated on the stage u nder a huge backdrop of garishly painted images of Congress leaders from the past. Even the usually grim Sonia Gandhi, at all times the focus of the plenary, did not conceal her upbeat mood. It was evident in Bangalore that her metamorphosis into a leade r who was very much a part of the political landscape was complete. While her authority in and leadership of the party was never under serious question, she had an awkward and inhibited public presence and her body language suggested a sense of unease at being under the arc lights of public life. But this time around, directing operations from the stage of the plenary, Sonia Gandhi appeared to be at ease with herself and the political role that she was called upon to play. Her speeches were well-crafted and focussed, and in contrast to the woodenness of her expressions in the past, here she spoke with flair and conviction in both Hindi and English.

"The original thrust of the Bangalore session, before the Tehelka.com revelations and with party organisational elections over was to get the party back on the road," Arjun Singh, a CWC member, told Frontline. According to him, the Plenary "clarif ied the confusion about our position on forming coalitions" and corrected "misinterpretations" of the position formulated at the Pachmarhi session of the party in September 1998. It was made clear that the Congress(I) would be prepared to enter into alli ances with secular parties, that is, with any party that does not have an alliance with the BJP. Hence, the Trinamul Congress in West Bengal would be a 'secular' alliance partner for the coming Assembly elections provided it called off its alliance with the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). Arjun Singh said that the plenary decided that the party must focus on the immediate need to ask for the resignation, on moral grounds, of Prime Minister Vajpayee. "We realise that we may not be able to defeat this government in Parliament on this issue. It is for this reason that we have asked him to step down on moral grounds," Arjun Singh said. The Congress(I), he said, would support, but "alone cannot take the lead" in building a secular front.

However, despite the repeated calls for the resignation of the government, there was no clear formulation of any plan of action that the Congress planned in order to achieve this objective. According to observers, a campaign for the ouster of the governm ent with no fall-back demand, such as the constitution of a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) for an enquiry into defence deals, may fizzle out soon. The Congress has of course been given a Bofors-like election plank for the coming Assembly elections a nd the party is trying to use it to find new alliance partners.

THE Bangalore plenary, for all its buoyancy of spirit, did not depart from traditional Congress practice in respect of the absence of any real debate. It did not throw up any fresh ideas on issues that are likely to be of critical importance to the party in the coming months. Predictably, every Congressman and Congresswoman who spoke had the mandatory fulsome praise for Sonia Gandhi and her leadership (Salman Khurshid, CWC member from Uttar Pradesh, went to the extent of calling her a world leader). The weaknesses of the party in some key States such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu was not seriously addressed. The representation of the Congress in Parliament from these five States, which together account for 225 Lok Sabha seats, is small.

One of the most significant outcomes of the Bangalore plenary was the ideological justification for and adoption of a left-of-centre, pro-poor platform, on economic policy in particular. However, the Left perspective was not confined to economic policy and it was evident in other areas of commentary, such as foreign policy. With the policy of economic liberalisation having come a cropper in respect of its promises of radically improving living standards, and with Assembly elections just weeks away, the Congress has changed tack on the issue of economic reform and returned to a position on key economic policy issues, which in theory at least, was last held by the party prior to the early 1980s. Although almost all Congress leaders argued that it was a platform that the party had never really abandoned, they made it clear that there has been a rethinking on and reformulation of several key economic policy issues. This was elaborated in the Report of the AICC Economic Introspection Group.

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In both the political and economic resolutions, and in Sonia Gandhi's presidential address, there was criticism of the "anti-poor and anti-farmer bias" of the BJP-led coalition. Sonia Gandhi spoke of the "tragic paradox of full godowns and empty stomachs " owing to the doubling of foodgrain prices and the absence of a massive food-for-work programme.

The disinvestment of profit-making public sector undertakings, the privatisation of banks and infrastructure, the increase in the administered price of food items, the indiscriminate import of food products, the slowdown in employment and the deceleratio n in growth rates in the economy were some aspects of the NDA government's economic policy that came in for trenchant criticism. Less convincing, indeed disingenuous, were the arguments of Congress ideologues, such as Mani Shankar Iyer and former Finance Minister and the architect of the economic reforms, Manmohan Singh, seeking to distance themselves from these policy planks which were laid down by the Congress governments that were in power during 1991-96. "The BJP-led coalition's economic policies ar e a parody of Congress policies, and it is the duty of the Congress, as the leading party of the Opposition, to highlight the anomalies, contradictions and lacunae in these policies," the economic resolution noted.

Former Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao circulated a 10-page note at the plenary on liberalisation and the public sector. He drew a distinction between partial disinvestment, which he claimed was what the Congress did with certain PSUs, and outright sal e, which was what the current government was doing. The note argued that a government that did not even have a majority in Parliament had no right to make an irrevocable sale of public property worth Rs.200,000 crores. "It is most unfortunate that the go vernment should be thinking of selling Air-India and Indian Airlines. I simply cannot think of India selling off her national carrier which carries the national flag," Narasimha Rao's note said. In the discussion on the economic resolution Congress leade rs Priya Ranjan Das Munshi from West Bengal and Vayalar Ravi from Kerala argued that the Congress must categorically state that it will block all anti-labour legislation in Parliament.

The negative consequences of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) directives on the Indian economy, notably with regard to the agricultural sector, were discussed extensively at the Plenary. Significantly, the attack was not on the WTO, but on the failure of the BJP government to use the many safeguards in the agreement which would have protected the interests of the people. "The WTO agreement is not to blame," the resolution on agriculture states. "The blame lies entirely with the incompetent BJP-led coa lition government which has failed to effectively use the many safeguards which Congress negotiators worked into the umbrella WTO agreements."

The all-important political resolution was moved by Arjun Singh. Apart from dwelling at some length on the issue of corruption in the context of the Tehelka.com expose, he spoke in detail on the dangers of the "saffronisation" of education and culture. O n Ayodhya, there appears to be a slightly modified line, one that is aimed at mollifying Hindu religious sentiment. The political resolution made it clear that the Congress was not averse to the construction of a Ram Mandir at Ayodhya, but that it was al ways against this being done by demolishing the Babri Masjid.

A new sense of purpose

politics

The Tehelka revelations enabled the AICC(I) to hold a successful plenary session in Bangalore, but will Sonia Gandhi be able to implement the decisions and achieve the goals set?

VENKITESH RAMAKRISHNAN in Bangalore

WILL it be a case of one step forward and two steps backward? This was one of the questions that worried a section of Congress(I) activists, including senior leaders, as they returned from Bangalore after the 81st session of the All India Congress Commit tee (AICC). The party was upbeat as the session was held in the backdrop of the Tehelka revelations and the Opposition outcry in Parliament and outside demanding the resignation of the Atal Behari Vajpayee-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) governmen t. There was also unanimity in the view that the Congress(I) had, at the session, positioned itself politically and ideologically in such a manner that it could work out an alliance with other Opposition parties including the Left. But did all this add u p to a strategic perspective that was good enough to achieve the immediate and larger objectives of the AICC, which, as stated by party president Sonia Gandhi, included liberating the country from the shackles of the "shameful, corrupt and communal" NDA government and restoring to the party its past glory?

The lack of perspective became evident when the much-touted action plan for an agitation against the government, announced in New Delhi a day after the AICC session concluded, had only the Congress(I) in its focus. The plan was intended to achieve the im mediate objective of liberating the country from NDA rule. However, as party leaders pointed out, the Congress(I) could have given a greater impetus to the plan had it been more broad-based. The leadership should have opted for a joint Opposition moveme nt and called upon leaders of other Opposition parties to work this out. The interests of realpolitik would have been served better that way. The current plan lays too much hope on events unfolding positively for the Congress(I) on the strength of a mass agitation. A party leader said that what the action plan showed was that the dominant sections of the party leadership, including Sonia Gandhi, did not have a real understanding of how to go about forging a coalition at the national level, although the need for this, as opposed to the Congress(I)'s favourite theory of one-party rule, was acknowledged theoretically at the Bangalore plenary. Whatever the merits of this assessment, it is clear that the advice given at the AICC session by certain sections of the party was not received eagerly by the national leadership.

In fact, two senior leaders gave suggestions on how to achieve the immediate objective - become proactive and forge alliances. Former Union Minister and leader from Karnataka M. Hanuman-thappa stated that merely passing political resolutions on the crime s of the NDA government was not enough for the people, particularly Congress(I) workers. "What they are looking for is praxis. They want the ouster of the NDA government, which is headed by people who caused the downfall of Rajiv Gandhi on the basis of m ere allegations. Here we should not be bothered too much about what would happen next. We should go in for proactive action," he said. Hanumanthappa's line was reflected in the views Chandrajit Yadav, the veteran leader from Uttar Pradesh. He averred tha t tactically the Congress(I) should contemplate forging broad alliances with forces such as the Samajwadi Party (S.P.) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in its fight against the communal BJP. These forces, he pointed out, represented particular sections of the downtrodden.

According to a small segment of delegates who supported this view, the problem of accepting the ground realities reflected a larger malady of perception as to how the party should go forward, which social class it should identify with and what its approa ch to vital issues should be. Leaders in this section pointed out that this manifested itself even in the political resolution presented at the AICC session. On the Ayodhya issue, the first draft stated that the Congress was not averse to the constructio n of a Ram mandir at Ayodhya, but that it was always against this being done by demolishing the Babri Masjid. This led to protests in private from delegates from Kerala, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu, the States going to the polls. Hence, the final resoluti on stated that the Congress was not averse to the construction of a Ram mandir at Ayodhya but this should not be done at the spot where the Babri Masjid stood.

Those who agreed with Hanuman-thappa and Yadav pointed out that the lack of precision in formulating policy was the single most important factor that prevented the party from adopting a constructive and creative strategy. According to them, the session d id not deal much with the specifics of the movement against the NDA government and the formation of an alternative government at the Centre. All that the official party spokesperson stated was that the Congress(I) would not be found wanting in fulfilling its constitutional responsibility, if the situation at the centre warranted it. This did not mark any advance on the party's earlier position.

Undoubtedly, these views did not carry much weight at the session, basically because there was not a Rajesh Pilot or a Jitendra Prasada to advocate them. The official response, as expressed by leaders such as Moti Lal Vora and Ambika Soni, was that the C ongress(I) could not switch to a proactive mode at the cost of its identity and that an agenda of coalition and cooperation was best forged through mass movements. "We have launched a mass movement against the government. This will ultimately assimilate all sections of the people and all the major parties in the Opposition," Moti Lal Vora said.

The official version also held that recent cooperation between the Congress(I) and other Opposition forces, including the Left parties, particularly on economic issues like the Balco disinvestment, would aid this process. "The changes that we have made i n the thrust of our economic policy, with the Nehruvian Pranab Kumar Mukherjee and Mani Shankar Aiyar replacing Manmohan Singh and Jairam Ramesh as the key players in the economic think-tank, would naturally accentuate this cooperation," said a leader fr om Madhya Pradesh.

While these assumptions sound simplistic and far-fetched, there is no gainsaying the fact that the Tehelka revelations and the AICC session have indeed brought many gains to the Congress(I). Hardly a month ago the Congress(I)'s efforts to develop and imp lement an election strategy with other parties had turned out to be a difficult task, with regional parties such as the Trinamul Congress and the All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) riding roughshod over the party. All that has changed now.

The force that has been really tamed in this situation is Mamata Banerjee's Trinamul Congress. In fact, until the Tehelka revelations the Trinamul Congress called the shots in West Bengal and virtually forced the Congress(I) State leadership to accept an alliance in which the BJP was also a participant. The Congress(I) was trying to work out means to be part of the Trinamul Congress-led alliance, without suffering the humiliation of becoming a partner of the BJP. It included a face-saving formula, that the Congress(I) align with the Trinamul Congress and fight the BJP in some seats. There was a major debate in the State and Central units of the party over whether this proposal was violative of party policy. The central leadership's earlier stance was t hat there can be "no truck with the Trinamul Congress as long as it is part of the NDA led by the communal BJP". The Tehelka revelations came when this debate was going on. Mamata Banerjee resigned from the Ministry and broke ranks with the BJP at the Ce ntre. Although Mamata's action was motivated by the realisation that she needed to distance herself from the disgraced constituents of the NDA, the real gainer was the Congress(I).

The situation is similar in Tamil Nadu, where the alliance between the Congress(I) and the Tamil Maanila Congress (TMC) has acquired a new vigour in the context of the Tehelka revelations and the new postures adopted at the AICC session.

But, obviously, the Congress(I) would be able to derive advantage from the return of these breakaway factions only if it shows the capability to make strikes that would propel both itself and its newfound allies to power in the States as well as in the C entre. As a senior CWC member pointed out, ultimately all questions boil down to gaining power which alone would fulfil the larger objective of regaining past glory.

The efforts to achieve this goal will indeed be a test of Sonia Gandhi's leadership qualities. Her actions less than a couple of months ago had shown that despite having the support of the rank and file she was overly cautious with regard to the many gro ups in the party. The nominations to the CWC, which preceded the AICC session, were a clear case in point. The feeling in the party about the nominations was that the Congress(I) president had completed a half-baked organisational restructuring.

However, the Tehelka revelations, the success of the AICC session and the enthusiasm it has generated in the Congress(I) ranks certainly offer Sonia Gandhi an opportunity to consolidate her position in the party and move forward. But will Sonia Gandhi be able to do that?

The case of Vincent George

THE Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) has registered a case against Vincent George, personal secretary to Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi, accusing him of amassing wealth disproportionate to his known sources of income.

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The case was registered on March 21, three days after the conclusion of the AICC(I) Plenary in Bangalore and two days after the party unfolded a mass agitation programme against the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government, based on the Tehelka reve lations. The registration of the first information report (FIR) in a designated CBI court was clearly a dampener on the Congress (I)'s agitational plans.

On its part, the Congress(I) has been asserting that the case was a politically motivated one. Congress(I) spokesperson S. Jaipal Reddy claimed that the NDA government was so seriously stung by the Tehelka revelations that it was ready to go to any lengt h to divert public attention from them. The case against Vincent George was clearly a diversionary tactic, he said.

However, this claim has not received much support, particularly from other Opposition parties. The lone support came from former Prime Minister V.P. Singh. Although he refused to give George a clean chit, V.P. Singh pointed out that the NDA government wa s adopting double standards while dealing with corruption cases. Even within the Congress(I), several leaders admit that the case against George has the potential to put the party on the back foot. In fact many of the allegations mentioned in the FIR fil ed by the CBI have been doing the rounds in party circles ever since Sonia Gandhi took over as party president in 1998. By mid-2000, these voices had almost acquired the form of a propaganda offensive against George and his alleged associates such as Con gress Working Committee (CWC) member Arjun Singh regarding mismanagement of party affairs.

The CBI has registered the case against Vincent George under Section 13(2) and Section 13(I)(E) of the Prevention of Corruption Act (acquisition of disproportionate assets). The Act refers specifically to public servants, and what is under scrutiny by t he CBI is George's amassing of wealth during the period between November 1984 and December 1990. During that period George was personal secretary to Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.

The CBI considered the legitimate income of George, his wife Lily and children Dennis and Priyana during the "check period" and fixed it at Rs.8.84 lakhs. It was found out that as many as 11 fixed deposits, amounting to Rs.13.40 lakhs, existed in the nam es of Lily George and the two children. Sources in the government and the BJP claim that these revelations are only the tip of the iceberg and that more would come out soon.

Deepening divide

THE war between Hindu and Muslim communalists continues in the Jammu region, and the towns of Rajouri and Poonch remain its most intense battlefields. The month of March has seen communal riots break out in both towns, and there are signs that the situat ion may worsen. Many people expect a dramatic escalation in terrorist violence this summer, eroding what little remains of the region's syncretic traditions.

Photographs of the burning of the Koran by Hindu fundamentalists in New Delhi appeared in Rajouri newspapers in mid-March. At Friday prayers at the town's main mosque on March 16, local residents decided to hold a peaceful protest the next day. Unlike in the Kashmir Valley, where protests were led by far-Right figures like Syed Ali Shah Geelani, those in Rajouri did not have a political shape. Muslims decided to close their shops as a mark of protest, and no mass protests were planned. The protests were peaceful in small towns and villages too.

Trouble broke out when a small group of students took out a procession and threw stones at some businesses owned by Hindus. Muslim leaders intervened, putting an end to this early confrontation. Another group of students, however, marched through Hindu-d ominated Jawahar Nagar, shouting slogans against the Vishwa Hindu Parishad. If residents are to believed, there were slogans in favour of Pakistan too. That claim is denied by Muslims who say they were present at the spot.

Whatever the truth of the matter, Hindus in Jawahar Nagar attacked the protesters. The police intervened with teargas shells. As the students fled the area, a small group of Muslims beat up a Hindu bystander.

Prompt action against this group proved enough to prevent the prospect of Hindu retaliation the next day. It took just one day's curfew to cool down the town. But just as things seemed to calm down, news came on March 23 about the burning of the Koran by activists of the Hindu Bachao Sangharsh Samiti in Amritsar and Patiala. The Samiti's cadre were also reported to have thrown pieces of pork into an Amritsar mosque. The residents of Rajouri again set up their barricades.

In Poonch, Hindu and Muslim revanchists ended up waging battles with stones, and curfew was imposed.

TERRORIST violence lies at the centre of this communal feuding. On March 14, the mutilated bodies of two Sikhs, Mohan Singh and Lakhbir Singh, were discovered near Poonch. Both had disappeared five days earlier after they chose to walk to their villages when the driver of the truck they had hitched a ride on refused to travel further in the dark. Hindus and Sikhs living in Poonch inferred, probably correctly, that the two had been killed by terrorists in the area. That became a pretext to attack Muslims in the town. There were no deaths, but the ground had been laid for a cycle of communal attacks and counter-attacks.

It is not that such violence is new in the region. Last September, a riot broke out in Rajouri when a shot by a Muslim student playing football at the local college hit a Hindu student watching from the sidelines. Abuse and brawling followed, and large g roups of people gathered, throwing stones. The police were forced to use live ammunition and four people died.

The incident came less than a month after six Hindus were killed by terrorists at Kot Dhara village. As reprisal, activists of the Hindu Right attacked B.A. Runyal, District Commissioner of Rajouri who was a Muslim, and set fire to his car.

Such incidents, as well as personal feuds that were given a communal colour, have become alarmingly routine in the region since the mid-1990s.

HINDU revanchists try to obscure the fact that Muslims are the principal victims of violence in the region. Less than six weeks before the most recent riot in Rajouri, 15 Muslim villagers were executed by terrorists at Kot Charwal as a punishment for the ir assisting the Army. When 16 policemen and ancillary staff were killed on the night of March 1 at Gambhir Mughlan in Rajouri, few people noticed that they had gone to the area to investigate the killing of two Muslims. Mohammad Bashir, a newly-elected panchayat member, and his friend Abdul Majid were executed by terrorists for their pro-India affiliations. On the night of March 11, Munshi Khan, a Muslim panchayat leader, was killed at Mendhar, while Habib Gujjar, the father of one-time terrorist Raj M ohammad, was shot dead at Darhal in retaliation for the surrender of his son.

All this should have been the basis for building communal solidarity in Rajouri and Poonch. But Muslim communal politicians, like their Hindu counterparts, seem determined to divide people, and not unite them. In the months to come, the friction is certa in to increase. The ongoing ceasefire has meant that the Army has slowed down offensive operations, leaving vast areas around Buffliaz, the Kalaban forests, Mohra Bacchai, Hari Buddha and Fazalabad in Poonch, Pathana Tir in Mendhar, and the Manjakote, Fa tehpur Enclosure and Gambhir Mughalan in Rajouri vulnerable to the depredations of large groups of terrorists.

Without a secular political leadership, Rajouri's residents, Hindu and Muslim, are vulnerable to the tactics of deliberate provocation.

The missing peace dividend

With ceaseless terrorist violence, mounting protests against the security forces, a marked growth of the religious-chauvinist constituency and a dialogue process delayed, the Ramzan ceasefire seems to be backfiring in Jammu and Kashmir.

From reliable sources I come to know that I have been elected unopposed punch (sic.) for SR-80 Sangam Srinagar. The fact is that I have not filled up any form or fulfilled any formality requires under rules in that respect. Before man and God I take an oath that all this has been done only to revenge against me. I am simply an illiterate farmer and I have nothing to do with such a job.

- English language advertisement inserted in a Srinagar newspaper by Muhammad Ashraf Dar, March 3, 2001.

THE news of real import in Jammu and Kashmir these days is not what appears on the front pages. A burnt temple; civilians massacred by terrorists; protesters shot by the police: all these just punctuate a far larger story.

Ishtehar-e-Latalukat, or announcements advertising disassociation from political or elected office, have filled the paid columns of Urdu and English newspapers this past month. On March 13, the Lashkar-e-Toiba announced that it would execute anyone who t ook up contract work for the Military Engineering Service (MES) or the Army Supply Corps (ASC). The next morning, newspapers carried an advertisement sponsored by MES and ASC contractors, who said that severing their work would cause "indescribable troub le, in consequence of which their dependent families and those of others whose men are connected with them shall have to undergo sufferings and starvation". "ASC contractors and suppliers", it begged, "earnestly and sanguinely appeal to the Lashkar-e-Toi ba to spare them".

Most other people have not even picked up the courage to beg. Abdul Salam Wani and Ghulam Nabi Dar, unlike Mohammad Ashraf Dar, did not wait to get elected. On February 26, they paid for an advertisement which recorded that they had "no interest in these things (and) nor are we ready for such things". Official records show that eight people who had filed nomination papers or had taken office in the State's since-aborted local body elections have been shot dead since January 11. Although the elections we re held on a non-party basis, almost all of them had some past affiliation with the ruling National Conference (N.C.). The party has lost over 30 cadre since Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's Ramzan ceasefire came into force on November 28, and 42 pe ople who had, or were believed to have, association with security organisations have been executed.

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Newspaper advertisements of this kind have been something of a barometer of the balance of power in Jammu and Kashmir. Thousands of N.C. workers, hit by executions and kidnappings in the early 1990s, put out declarations of disassociation with their part y. From 1995, when the pro-India militia of Mohammad Yusuf Parrey decimated the Hizbul Mujahideen in much of the Kashmir Valley, Jamaat-e-Islami cadre scrambled to buy space. Now, things seem to have come full circle. From January 12 to March 10, State i ntelligence records show, the valley saw at least 31 major rural and urban protests against Indian rule. Thousands of people came out to join these protests, numbers unprecedented since 1990. Some of those protests were in support of far Right terrorist groups like the Lashkar-e-Toiba, which is a wholly new development.

One key objective of the Ramzan ceasefire was to isolate the far Right and allow the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) centrists to gain ground. The ceasefire has not quite blown up in anyone's face, but the backfiring noises are starting to get ala rmingly loud.

IT HAS LARGELY escaped notice that the string of protests through the month of March has, for the first time in Jammu and Kashmir's recent history, been firmly placed within the four walls of pan-India communal conflict. Speaking in Hardwar on March 8, R ashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) chief K.S. Sudershan called for what he described as the "Indianisation of Islam", and asked that Muslims sever their relationship with Mecca. His remarks came in the midst of a welter of Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP)-led a nti-Muslim mobilisations, masquerading as protests against the demolition of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban in Afghanistan. A copy of the Koran was allegedly set on fire by Hindu fundamentalists in New Delhi on March 3, provoking deep resentment thro ugh Jammu and Kashmir. News of the riots that broke out in Kanpur provoked further concern.

Right-wing leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani gave shape to this disquiet, calling on March 13 for protests against the VHP's "irresponsible and derogatory statements against Islam". Geelani's motives for making the call were transparent. His conflicts with th e APHC, and his own Jamaat-e-Islami, had come to a head that morning. No invitation was issued to Geelani to attend a meeting of the APHC executive, called to discuss Union Home Minister L.K. Advani's apparent rejection of any proposal for a dialogue wit h the organisation. Shifting the focus away from his embarrassing political isolation paid dividends. Protests on March 17 led to violent showdowns with the police in several areas, notably in downtown Srinagar and Sopore. The far Right leader emerged as the principal representative of these protests, securing political space for himself outside the Jamaat and the APHC.

Arrested that evening, Geelani spent the night in jail with several party functionaries. The next morning, all of them were released except Mohammad Yusuf "Mujahid", a former Hizbul Mujahideen terrorist and one of Geelani's principal aides. Police offici als claimed that Yusuf was wanted in connection with other offences. Geelani, however, refused to leave jail without Yusuf. This led to a fracas, following which the leader was dumped out of a police jeep next to his home in Rawalpora. Geelani, who has c ardiac problems, had himself admitted in the Sher-i-Kashmir Medical Institute's intensive care unit, while his supporters claimed that he had been subjected to a "murderous assault". Rumours of his demise spread through the city, leading to renewed excha nges with the police in some neighbourhoods.

Doctors at the Sher-i-Kashmir Institute seem less than convinced that Geelani had any serious problem. His discharge summary, in Frontline's possession, states that his vital parameters were near-normal, and that there was no evidence of any myoca rdial infarction. The summary, issued on the letterhead of Dr. Khurshid Iqbal and Dr. Nisar Trumboo and signed by a senior resident, shows that he was prescribed antibiotics and analgesics as well as medication for chronic bronchitis. Geelani's cause, ho wever, was served. Hizbul Mujahideen chief Mohammad Yusuf Shah, better known by his alias Syed Salahuddin, bypassed the APHC for the first time and directly called for a general strike to protest the supposed assault. The Lashkar-e-Toiba, which has had l ittle to do with Hizb's actions in past years, endorsed the call.

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HAS Geelani been reborn a hero? Despite his success in this instance in shutting down the Kashmir Valley, the evidence is mixed. One weakness lies in the larger politics of the Hizbul Mujahideen itself. Salahuddin, who has allied himself with Geelani in order to marginalise the Hizb's most important pro-peace leader, Abdul Majid Dar, faces dissension within the ranks. Sources say that the Hizb chief was shouted down by his audience at a March 10 address to his cadre at the organisation's largest camp, J ungle, near Muzaffarabad in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. Other signs of trouble surfaced in late February when surrendered Hizb cadre led by Rauf Rasool forcibly occupied Geelani's home and locked up his offices. Rasool claimed that since the house had bee n paid for with Hizb funds, the organisation's former cadre, some of them desperately poor, had first right to live there.

Geelani's problems within the APHC are only too evident. Early during the ceasefire, he had attacked the APHC mainstream's supposed secularism, and described the movement in Jammu and Kashmir as being essentially religious in character. The centrists, wh o outnumber Geelani six to one on the APHC executive, responded by writing an irate protest note to Jamaat-e-Islami Amir (chief) G.M. Bhat. The letter asked that the Jamaat be represented in the APHC executive by its Amir, as all other organisations were . Geelani responded by attempting to force a showdown in the Jamaat's central council, its Majlis-e-Shoura. Again, he found himself outmanoeuvred. After a meeting on March 10 the Majlis declared that although "there is no issue in which Islam does not of fer appropriate and practical guidance", the Kashmir issue was "human and political because alongside the majority community, the minority was also affected."

It is no surprise then that in recent months Geelani has been seeking to distance himself from the Jamaat. Press releases now routinely describe him as a member of the Saudi Arabia-based World Islamic League, rather than as the political head of the Jama at-e-Islami. Salahuddin's support, along with that of Jamaat-e-Islami Pakistan, has allowed him to build a constituency among the 1,000-odd Hizb cadre released after their arrest. Mohammad Yusuf's arrest, and the earlier detention of youth leader Masrat Alam, have however left in limbo any plans to build a new formation. Geelani's sole major associate now is the Islamic Students League's Shakeel Bakshi. Without the patronage of the mainstream Jamaat-e-Islami, Geelani could find that he has funds and ter rorist patronage but no real mass political support.

At least, that is what the APHC centrists are banking on. The executive's decision not to call him to the March 11 meeting or any subsequent gathering was a pointed snub, and could not have been delivered without at least the tacit consent of the Jamaat- e-Islami's leadership. "We could have thrown him out if we wished," says an APHC leader close to leading moderate Abdul Ghani Lone, "but we all felt he was better inside the APHC and Jamaat, rather than outside it".

The fact remains, however, that if the APHC's dialogue process with the Indian government does not begin soon, it could find itself wholly marginalised. Aggressive security measures, like cordon and search operations, have been resumed through the Kashmi r Valley in the wake of continued terrorist violence. That means most ordinary people have yet to see anything resembling a peace dividend.

Without tangible results the APHC could find itself, and not Geelani, isolated. The organisation has placed great hopes on Vajpayee's March 12 announcement that his government would soon "have talks with all the parties, and make efforts to find a soluti on to the Kashmir problem". The Prime Minister argued that the Union government was not responsible for the problems that had emerged. The real reason for the failure of a dialogue with the APHC appears to be a bitter campaign of resistance mounted by Ad vani and Defence Minister Jaswant Singh. One idea now being floated in order to bypass the objections is to initiate two levels of dialogue, one with the APHC and another with other groupings. No one in the APHC seems to have any real ideas what to do sh ould a dialogue fail to materialise. At a recent seminar in Boston APHC leader Yasin Malik asked for U.S. intervention - a tired position which has failed to yield dividends.

Indian officials believe that the recent developments will force the APHC to accept some kind of minimalist settlement in a future dialogue. United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan's refusal to meet APHC representatives during his visit to New Delhi (see separate story) is being interpreted in the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) as a sign of waning international interest in Jammu and Kashmir. Annan's assertion that the U.N. could not mediate the India-Pakistan conflict, and his call for a resumption o f dialogue based on the Shimla and Lahore agreements, also created considerable enthusiasm among Indian officials managing Jammu and Kashmir policy. Advocates of the repeated extension of the ceasefire claim that it has generated international goodwill, and that it has persuaded the administration of U.S. President George Bush that India is serious about searching for peace.

Should a two-level dialogue begin, just who is included in its political fallout could prove interesting. Informed analysts believe that Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah is securing his flanks by seeking influence among the anti-India constituency in Jammu and Kashmir. Srinagar's political circuit is abuzz about a rapprochement between Abdullah and his uncle G.M. Shah, who in alliance with the Congress(I) brought down an N.C. government in 1984. The Chief Minister, the story goes, has agreed to rehabilita te Shah's son Muzaffar Shah in return for his uncle accepting Union Minister Omar Abdullah as the State's Chief Minister. Significantly, G.M. Shah has proclaimed his commitment to independence for Jammu and Kashmir, and recently sought to organise a semi nar involving leaders from both sides of the Line of Control (LoC). As such he threatens the APHC's exclusive representation of secession.

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What is not clear is whether high politics will have any tangible impact on the ground. Levels of violence and infiltration across the LoC continue to rise, and many Jammu and Kashmir security officials are predicting an especially violent summer. More i mportant, Pakistan's military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf, signalled at the start of his March 22 visit to the U.S. that he was in no position to end the activities of fundamentalist groups without some major concession by India on Jammu and Kashmir. And worst of all, there is a marked growth of the religious-chauvinist constituency in much of Jammu and Kashmir. Newspapers reflect the growing influence of communal ideology. On March 23 one Srinagar newspaper carried a mindless edit page assault on t he theory of evolution, while another attacked Hindu fundamentalism by claiming that corruption was an organic outcome of the religion.

News of the alleged March 23 desecration of the Koran in Amritsar and Patiala spread through Jammu and Kashmir, and this along with reports of other provocative acts set off mass anger. Chauvinist forces could not have asked for anything better. A mob in Baramulla promptly burned down the Ram Ghat temple, while at least one person was killed in the inevitable police firing that followed. Communal war is not unknown in Jammu and Kashmir, but its intensity in Baramulla startled many people. And in many ot her parts of India Hindu chauvinists moved to cash in on events they did not a little to bring about. The ugly forces born of the intimate embrace between the Islamic Right and the VHP seem set to undo the work of all the Prime Minister's men.

Bloodbath in Kanpur

Kanpur witnesses arson and killings as some communal elements in the police and right-wing activists inflame passions and unleash violence.

THE eruption of violence that led to the killing of 13 persons, including an Additional District Magistrate and a 12-year-old boy, in Kanpur city on March 16 took most people by surprise, as the district, with a sizable Muslim population, did not have a history of communal tension. Soon it became apparent that the involvement of Right-wing communal forces, the ineptitude of the district administration, and the partisan, communal and trigger-happy attitude of the State police were the principal causes of the turn of events. Once again the role of the Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC) was in focus.

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Inflammatory reports in sections of the media served to escalate tensions and sow distrust among communities. Significantly, entire communities did not join the rioting despite provocation from fundamentalist elements. The face-off was between the police and the minority community, and it was not communal in the strict sense of the term. Certain persons were in league with the PAC. Even so, the clashes appeared to be one-sided as at the end of it all more persons from the minority community were killed or injured than any other group. It was as if the administration had ceased to exist for the minority community.

Some lumpen elements, whose political identity left no one in doubt, cried Har Har Mahadev as they accompanied the police in an ostensible mission to quell the clashes. A local television channel telecast a sizable length of footage of the first day of c lashes. (The clashes continued on March 18.)

It was a report and a picture of the alleged burning of the Koran on March 5 by Bajrang Dal and Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) activists in front of the United Nations office in New Delhi that triggered trouble in Kanpur and elsewhere in the country. Certai n fundamentalist groups printed posters about the incident and pasted them in several Muslim-dominated areas. (Posters calling for jehad had appeared a week earlier in several Muslim localities of Kanpur district.) It is alleged that the Student Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) had the picture downloaded from a website and despatched copies of it across the country. It is felt that even the posters could have originated from outside.

In Delhi, on March 13, a 16-member delegation of Muslim leaders led by Syed Ahmed Bukhari, the Shahi Imam of the Jama Masjid, Maulana Obaidullah Khan Azmi, Member of Parliament and representatives of the Mili Council and the Muslim Personal Law Board met the Prime Minister to demand action against those who had allegedly burnt the Koran. Stating that it was an extremely volatile issue, the delegation expressed fears that a law and order problem could emerge.

An inquiry was ordered subsequently, but even the Delhi Police initially refused to take the report seriously. Deputy Commissioner of Police (South) P. Kamaraj denied that such an incident had taken place. However, on March 14, two Bajrang Dal activists were arrested.

The Bajrang Dal, which raised provocative slogans following the destruction of the Buddha statues in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, denied that the activists had burnt the holy book. However, it was quite clear from the news picture that the incident had occurred . On March 4, the Bajrang Dal announced its intention to hold demonstrations all over the country to protest against "Islamic terrorism" and the actions of the Taliban.

In Kanpur, word spread about the posters and about a protest meeting called for March 16. All mosques were told to prepare for protest marches and Muslims were exhorted to wear black badges. The administration was aware of the meeting but did not make ad equate arrangements to handle any untoward incidents. Four mosques are located in the area where the clashes took place. Soon after Friday prayers, a protest march, seeking to burn the effigies of the Prime Minister, Home Minister L.K. Advani, was organi sed. When the protesters reached Nai Sarak, the police did not allow them to burn the effigies. They moved towards Naveen Market from where they were forced back into the bylanes of Chamanganj and Yateemkhana. There was a lathi-charge, and it appeared th at the police had succeeded in quelling the protest temporarily. Meanwhile, anti-social elements indulged in arson. A paint shop belonging to a member of the majority community was set on fire. Apparently this was done to settle old scores.

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Behind the Kotwali, the seat of the district administration and the police, an entire row of bangle and footwear shops owned by members of the minority community was burnt even as the police watched. Significantly, the Bharatiya Janata Party office, situ ated along the protest route, was not touched. The office of the national co-convener of the Bajrang Dal is located in the market area.

There were numerous instances of members of the minority community stepping in to protect members of the majority community. Some of them were in Choubey Ka Gola where C.P. Pathak, the Additional District Magistrate (Finance), was killed. Similarly, in S hastri Nagar, a Hindu-dominated area, where Bajrang Dal and VHP activists sought to inflame passions, some members of the majority community gave refuge to beleaguered families of the minority community. The police were reported to have recovered some bo mbs from the house of a BJP corporator in the area.

In many of the affected areas, including Beconganj, Talaqmahal, Yateemkhana and Choubey Ka Gola, the unanimous demand was: remove the PAC. In Beconganj, where a readymade garments market was gutted, people blamed the station House Officer specifically an d the PAC in general. "In normal times, it is unusual for a non-Muslim to come to these Muslim-dominated areas. Do you think they will come and set fire to our shop when the atmosphere is tense?'' asked Sultan Warsi, from whose house two bullet shells we re recovered. His house overlooks the Beconganj police station. He said he had three daughters and there was little reason for him to shoot at the police, an allegation levelled against the residents by the police. There was no doubt in their minds that the police set the shops on fire.

In Talaqmahal, Mariam Urooj was inconsolable. "The PAC looted our medical shop and we shouted for help from our rooftops but none came to our rescue," alleged the student of the Methodist High School. Her father, Pintoo, has a reputation for being secula r-minded. Mariam said that it was only with the help of a senior police officer that the PAC personnel were made to empty their vehicles, from which hens, dry fruit and other objects spilled out. In the Talaqmahal and Choubey Ka Gola areas, the PAC force s were removed and jawans of the Rapid Action Force (RAF) were deployed, which helped restore some confidence among the residents.

Even as the police pushed back the protesters, they were joined by an unexpected ally. In the Yateemkhana area, right-wing elements of the majority community live in Chandreshwar Hata. Some young men, quite at ease with the police, joined with the person nel of the force and hurled objects at protesters. The slogan Har Har Mahadev they raised was captured in the TV video clip, leaving little doubt about their affiliation. Senior Superintendent of Police Arun Kumar, who took charge after the District Magi strate and the SSP were removed following the clashes, told Frontline that the clashes assumed communal overtones after the ADM's death. This was surprising as the majority of Muslims maintained that it was the communal police and not any section of the public who unleashed violence. According to Arun Kumar, the target of the protesters was the BJP office, a theory which is not substantiated. Asked why the police fired directly, Arun Kumar replied that various measures were taken to prevent the riots. H e admitted that there was distrust in the PAC and wondered which other force could have been deployed.

The new District Magistrate, B.S. Bhullar, told Frontline that normalcy had been restored although there was an undercurrent of tension. He felt that it was not healthy to perpetuate the "myth of a communal PAC", especially when there were very few optio ns. He also admitted that the situation had been allowed to worsen. As the majority of the areas were still tense, curfew had been relaxed only partially. Tension was palpable in several Muslim-dominated areas even on March 22.

According to Subhashini Ali, a former member of Parliament from Kanpur, it was significant that areas that were volatile in the wake of the Babri Masjid demolition in 1991 were quiet this time. All attempts by reactionary elements to turn the situation i nto a communal one had failed, Ali said. Areas such as Faithfulganj and Ram Narayan Bazaar, which has a mixed population, and even Shujaatganj remained largely peaceful despite the appearance of offensive posters. A visit to these areas showed that thoug h there was a semblance of normalcy, the fear of the PAC was all-pervasive. Residents of Bakarganj wanted the administration to remain neutral. They wondered why Chief Minister Rajnath Singh was reluctant to deploy any other force. For their own protecti on, the local people have formed peace committees that keep vigil.

A FACT-FINDING team of women activists, including Brinda Karat of the All India Democratic Women's Association, Syeda Hameed of the Muslim Women's Forum, and Pranoti Mukherjee of the National Federation of Indian Women as well as representatives of the C atholic Bishops Conference of India and the Indian Social Institute visited some of the areas under curfew. In a memorandum to Commissioner V.K. Malhotra, they demanded action against officials who failed to arrest those responsible for putting up provoc ative posters. They also demanded swift action against the PAC personnel who they said had indulged in arson and looting. The team alleged that the police connived with Bajrang Dal activists who were encouraged to attack mosques and shops. Contrary to of ficial propaganda that sought to paint the entire Muslim community as aggressors, it was the minority community which was the victim of looting, arson and police reprisals, the team members stated.

With Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh approaching, it could well be that the ruling BJP is playing the communal card. More so in a context where its popularity, already on the wane for more than one reason, has taken a further beating with the Tehalka expose. Hence it was not surprising that Rajnath Singh saw an international and internal political conspiracy in the Kanpur violence.

A revolt in Tamil Nadu

Tamil Maanila Congress leader P. Chidambaram's estrangement from his mentor G.K. Moopanar has added an "untested factor" to the polarised political situation in Tamil Nadu.

HOW will the "P. Chidambaram factor" unravel itself as the campaign for the Tamil Nadu Assembly elections picks up momentum? With a fiercely contested round of elections on the cards - between a powerful ruling Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam-led front and a f ormidable secular front headed by the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) - the 'PC factor' has become a debating point.

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Chidambaram, one of the founders of the Tamil Maanila Congress (TMC) and a former Union Finance Minister, revolted against the party's decision to align with the AIADMK led by former Chief Minister Jayalalitha and formed the Tamil Maanila Congress Democr atic Front (TMCDF). He described it as "a platform for doing propaganda for the next 60 days that a single-party government under Jayalalitha will not provide good governance." Chidambaram said that "if necessary", the TMCDF would ask the people to vote for the DMK-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA).

Chidambaram and three of his supporters - legislators B. Ranganathan and N. Sundaram and K.K. Kasilingam, president of the TMC's Sivaganga district unit - were suspended from the TMC on March 22. Announcing this, A.R. Marimuthu, who heads the party's dis ciplinary action committee, said that the committee was satisfied with the material placed before it that a prima facie case existed against the four. They will be served with show-cause notices, asking them to explain within three days why they s hould not be expelled from the party.

As the TMC executive committee met at the party's headquarters in Chennai under the presidentship of G.K. Moopanar on March 21 to discuss the issue, leaders denounced Chidambaram and a crowd of TMC cadres outside raised slogans against him and distribute d pamphlets criticising him. Moopanar said, "My party is intact. Even in Sivaganga (Chidambaram's home district), 90 per cent of the cadres are with me."

Chidambaram, inaugurating the TMCDF's office, was defiant. He said: "We are also in the TMC and it belongs to us. They can expel me. But can they expel those who sent letters of support to us from different parts of the State, opposing the TMC's alliance with the AIADMK? Can they expel those who rang me up, pledging support?"

He said at a press conference on March 23: "The life and the soul are here (in the TMCDF) and the body is in the Satyamurthi Bhavan (TMC headquarters). The body has sundered the soul." He said that in view of the encouraging response he got from TMC work ers and the public to his recent moves, he would convert the Forum into a long-term movement.

It would be a bitter and anguished parting of ways between Chid-ambaram and Moop- anar. For the past 25 years, Moopanar had encouraged Chidam-baram's rise in the Congress(I) and in the TMC, which was formed in 1996 protesting against the Congress(I)'s de cision to align with the AIADMK. Chidambaram said: "Moopanar has been my leader and a father-figure for the past 25 years."

While it will be difficult to assess the impact Chidambaram's decision, it has lifted the hopes of the DMK-led front. DMK president and Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi gleefully accepted Chidam-baram's offer to campaign for the DMK-led front. The DMK is al so buoyed by Chidambaram's certificate that the DMK has "definitely provided a better government" than Jayalalitha did in terms of "understanding people's aspirations, following democratic norms and respecting the opposition and the Assembly."

The rival fronts are expected to get into full campaign mode by the end of March. The AIADMK has completed the seat-sharing exercise with its constituents. While the AIADMK will contest 141 of the 234 seats, the TMC will field candidates in 32, the Congr ess(I) in 15, the Pattali Makkal Katchi in 27, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Communist Party of India (CPI) in eight each, and the Indian National League (INL) led by M.A. Abdul Latheef, the Forward Bloc (L. Santhanam faction) and the Ta mizhaga Munnetra Kazhagam headed by John Pandian in one each.

The NDA comprises 16 parties, including the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK). This line-up includes caste-based parties, communal organisations and upstart outfits. They include the Makkal Tamil Desam, a party of Yadavas; the Kongu Nadu Makkal Katchi of Gounders; the Tamil Nadu Mutharaiyar Sangam of Mutharaiyars; the Tamil Nadu Muslim United Jamaait; and the Thondar (Volunteers') Congress. By admitting these outfits, the DMK has compromised on one of its fundamental tenets of fighting casteism.

The DMK high command's largesse of giving six seats to the nascent Makkal Tamil Desam, founded by former AIADMK Minister S. Kannappan only in September 2000, and three seats to the Tamizhaga Muslim United Jamaait of J.M. Haroon, MLA, who broke away from the TMC after it allied with the AIADMK, has caused heart-burn not only within the DMK but among its allies too. Karunanidhi initially said that the Makkal Tamil Desam would not be taken into the NDA because corruption cases were pending against Kannappa n, but later he went back on his word with an eye on Yadava' votes in the southern districts. One seat given to the Thondar Congress founded by former Tamil Nadu Congress Committee president Kumari Ananthan in early March is aimed at getting the Nadar vo tes.

The contretemps that surfaced in the seat-sharing talks between the DMK and the MDMK was smoothed out with the MDMK and the BJP getting 21 seats, after the BJP agreed to Karunanidhi's request to give up two of the 23 seats originally allotted to it. But problems remain in allocating seats to the MGR-ADMK and the Tamizhaga Rajiv Congress (TRC).

While MGR-ADMK founder S. Tirunavukkarasu expected at least 10 seats, the DMK offered him only three. TRC president Vazhapadi K. Ramamurthi was angry that his party was offered only three, including two for the two Vanniyar organisations that support him . The TRC executive committee, which met on March 23, made it clear that the TRC should be allotted nine seats in Tamil Nadu and three in Pondicherry.

ALTHOUGH Jayalalitha speedily completed the seat-sharing exercise, the CPI(M) and the CPI were unhappy that they were allotted only eight seats each. The CPI(M) had demanded 25 seats and the CPI 15. In the 1996 elections, the CPI contested 11 and won eig ht seats and the CPI(M) contested 40 seats in alliance with the MDMK and won one seat. At one stage the two Left parties wanted to pull out of the AIADMK combine and contest 20 seats each as a front. But CPI(M) general secretary Harkishan Singh Surjeet r eportedly shot down the idea and directed the State unit to accept the eight seats.

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The INL, another ally of the AIADMK, has split. The INL general council expelled its founder Abdul Latheef from the party because he accepted Jayalalaitha's offer of one seat while it had three legislators.

At the heart of the rift between Moopanar and Chidambaram is the question whether the TMC should align with the AIADMK. Chidambaram is convinced that single-party rule under Jayalalitha cannot provide good government. He is chagrined that the TMC offered ''unconditional support" to the AIADMK and did not insist on a coalition government. The PMK, which pulled out of the NDA only on February 15 to join the Jayalalitha bandwagon, had laid down conditions, Chidambaram's supporters pointed out.

Chidambaram's opposition to the AIADMK goes back to February 2000 when the TMC supported AIADMK candidates in three byelections to the Assembly. The AIADMK lost in all the seats because, according to Chidam-baram, the TMC cadre did not vote for the AIADM K. On December 27, 2000, when Moopanar was re-elected party president, Chidambaram appealed to him to take "a quick decision" on the TMC's allies. Moopanar avoided giving a direct reply but said the TMC would support the Congress (at any cost).

In February this year, Chidambaram complained that he was not consulted on the constitution of the TMC election committee. For several weeks, he kept away from various TMC office-bearers' meetings. On March 9, Jayalalitha and Moopanar signed an agreement under which the TMC and the Congress(I) were together apportioned 47 seats.

Two days later, Chidambaram raised the banner of revolt and appealed to the leadership to reconsider the decision taken "without consulting me". According to him, good governance depended on the following questions: "1. Who will head the government? 2. W ho will be the constituents of this government? 3. What will be the common minimum programme of the government? 4. Will the government abide by a code of conduct?" None of these questions was answered by the alliance, he said. He maintained that single-p arty rule under Jayalalitha would not guarantee good governance.

Senior TMC leaders refuted on March 12 Chidambaram's claim that he was not consulted on the alliance. They said that he "boycotted" the party meetings but was informed of the decisions. Besides, they added, Moopanar sought Chidambaram's views. They said it was a "unanimous decision" by TMC leaders and cadres to work with the AIADMK.

Chidambaram met Moopanar on March 15 and a rapprochement was expected. One version had it that Chidambaram wanted Jayalalitha to accept a common minimum programme but she refused. Then Chidambaram appealed to Moopanar to reconsider his decision. There wa s no reply. So Chidambaram decided to stick to his guns and announced the formation of the TMCDF the next day. He said he and his supporters would not quit the TMC because he was "confident that after 60 days, the TMC will return to its original path cha lked out in 1996 (of opposing the AIADMK)."

Chidambaram met Karunanidhi and told him that he would campaign, asking people to vote for the DMK-led front. Karunanidhi offered three seats to the TMCDF aspirants but Chidambaram insisted that the TMCDF was not a political party but a forum to ensure g ood governance. His supporters were free to contest as independents, he said.

Leaders of the TMC take Chidambaram's challenge lightly, saying that he would not be able to make a dent because he was "not a field worker who mixed with party workers and understood their sentiments." No district president, town president or block pres ident has thrown in his lot with him. According to them, all those who opposed Moopanar in the undivided Congress proved politically unsuccessful.

A TMC leader who was anguished over the developments said that if Chidambaram had attended all the TMC office-bearers' meetings in the last two months, Moopanar, who was not keeping well now, would have gladly handed over the party's reins to him.

Chidambaram's supporters said that he had "a clean image", which would appeal to the voters. (Besides, he is a good orator in Tamil and English.) They said that Moopanar was not able to give a convincing reply when asked whether Jayalalitha could assure good governance. The TMC could not justify its tie-up with the AIADMK because its raison d'etre was opposition to the corrupt ways of the AIADMK, they argued. Those denied the party ticket for the elections would flock to Chidambaram and "dissiden ce in the TMC will be felt only in the last 10 days of the election campaign," they said.

According to the TMCDF's supporters, the confrontation with Chi-dambaram would not have occurred if a third front comprising the TMC, the Congress(I), the Dalit Panthers and the caste-based parties had been formed. Leaders of these parties met Moopanar a ny number of times "but Moopanar kept them guessing." "TMC workers were hoping for a share in power after being in the wilderness for 30 years. Moopanar has now pushed them into nothing," an admirer of Chidambaram said.

Chasing a right

How a sustained movement in a Rajasthan village to obtain information from panchayat-level officials under the law of the land faces seemingly insurmountable hurdles.

THE right to information has often been described as one of the most effective tools in the hands of citizens not only to fight corruption and the arbitrary exercise of power in the structures of government, but also to participate in governance.

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While the Central Bill on the Right to Information is being examined by the Joint Select Committee of Parliament, it is necessary to highlight some of the experiences in States in which laws relating to the right to information have been enacted. The exp erience in Janawad panchayat in Rajsamand district of Rajasthan illustrates graphically and dramatically the critical need for strong and enforceable legislation on the right to information if there is to be any hope of giving the ordinary people any rea l entitlement through this law.

After a three-year-long struggle, the citizens of Rajasthan gained in 1997 the right to obtain photocopies of all panchayati raj-related documents, including copies of muster rolls and vouchers of development expenditure, within four days of making an ap plication. On May 1, 2000, the State Assembly enacted amidst much fanfare a law that gave the people the right to information in all spheres of governance. In Janawad, despite sustained efforts and pressure, it took one year and a High Court directive finally to obtain the required information. The story of how the information was obtained is as important as the information itself.

Using the Rajasthan Panchayati Raj Rules and inspired by the revelations at a public hearing held in December 1999 in the neighbouring panchayat of Umarwaas (Frontline, March 17, 2000), over 70 citizens of Janawad collectively decided to apply for copies of records of work executed in their panchayat in the previous five years. A simple but powerful mechanism of transparency - a board painted on the wall of the panchayat indicating the total amount of money sanctioned and the amount spent on each item of work - had revealed shocking misappropriation. There were even cases of "ghost works" - where the only work that had actually taken place was the pocketing of money.

In order to prove the fraud and pin down the guilty, copies of the records were needed. On February 16, 2000, the residents submitted the first application for information. When a month passed without any response from the panchayat sarpanch or secretary , the applicants approached the District Collector.

The citizens of Janawad learnt in the next couple of months that the right to information entitlement, like many of the works in their panchayat, existed only on paper. No official, from the panchayat to the district level, was willing even to accept the ir application and issue a receipt. Ensuring that they got the information was clearly a distant dream. They turned for help to the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS), the organisation that has been in the forefront of the struggle for the people's ri ght to information in Rajasthan.

One of the most effective methods used by the state in Rajasthan to blunt efforts at people's mobilisation is first to ignore, then promise and not deliver, then delay, and finally, using all possible means wear out and deflate all people's demands and m ovements for change. It is a "peaceful" yet diabolical method of maintaining the status quo, more effective and sophisticated than straightforward opposition and violent repression. It was this method of attrition that was used by vested interests to deny information to the MKSS in Janawad.

On May 17, when the MKSS first approached district officials seeking their intervention to have the law implemented in Janawad, letters were promptly issued ordering the panchayat to provide the copies. For the next three months the gram sewak, Balu Lal Saini, played a game of hide and seek, by giving dates but absenting himself, claiming that the records had gone for audit, and looking for technicalities and loopholes in the rules to deny the information.

Copies of records were being sought of works executed during the period 1995-2000, mostly during the term of the former sarpanch, Ram Lal. Although he failed to get elected even as a ward member in the election held in January 2000, he had found ways to ensure that his reign continued. As the pressure mounted, Ram Lal and the gram sewak used their influence to make the sarpanch, a Dalit woman called Bhuri Bai, follow their commands. She was allegedly made to sign a letter that made false claims that the gram panchayat and the gram sabha had passed resolutions to withhold information, as providing such information would "disturb the peace" and lead to a law and order problem. The fact that passing such a resolution amounted to negating the law did not b other the panchayat authorities.

Faced with this manipulation, the MKSS lodged a protest with the district authorities, who agreed that these were illegal resolutions but expressed their inability to "interfere" with the "independent powers" of the panchayat. The MKSS was advised to app eal to the Department of Panchayati Raj in Jaipur.

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Even the sincere and determined efforts of the Secretary of the Panchayati Raj Department could not ensure the implementation of the law. The department issued orders annulling the alleged resolutions, called for an explanation from the gram sewak and th e sarpanch, and ordered them to provide copies to the applicants immediately. When these orders reached the panchayat and block offices the MKSS activists were given another date, in early November, to collect the required copies. One day before they wer e to collect the copies, the MKSS received a copy of an order passed by the pradhan of the block, Kishan Lal Gujjar, forming a "high-level enquiry committee" to go into possible corruption in Janawad panchayat. The committee was headed by the Block Devel opment Officer (BDO) and was to be assisted by the junior engineer and the accountant. (In panchayat-related corruption cases it is mostly the persons holding these three posts who are accused of acting in collusion.) The order mentioned the persistent e fforts of the MKSS to obtain copies of the records, and the pradhan endorsed the view of the gram sewak and the sarpanch that giving copies of these records would "disturb the peace". He therefore ordered that no records be given to any individual or org anisation until the inquiry was concluded!

There was no alternative now but to go back to Jaipur. As soon as the Secretary of the Department of Panchayati Raj issued orders to the BDO to ensure that records were provided, even block officials began avoiding MKSS activists and villagers. It was cl ear that the entitlement that had been obtained through a prolonged agitation would require another agitation for the people to benefit from it.

On November 22, the MKSS held a one-day dharna at the district headquarters of Rajsamand where over a thousand people gathered to demand that the law be implemented and the records of Janawad panchayat be provided. The District Collector gave a public as surance that the records would be provided two days later and that the BDO, who was present, would ensure that this was done.

It is generally acknowledged that in the Indian administrative structure the one official who can get things done at the local level is the District Collector. A Collector's orders carry more weight than the orders of others in the State government, and when petty officials disobey a Collector, there should be more to it than meets the eye. This is why there was a great deal of interest when the next day's newspapers carried a press statement by the gram sewak of Janawad that he had examined the law and according to his own interpretation he was not bound to provide copies of records. Issuing a press statement against the law and the Collector's public assurance seemed a foolish thing to do. At the appointed time the entire village and the local press turned up at Panchayat Bhavan to see if the Collector's assurance would be kept. Brimming with confidence, the gram sewak handed over a letter to the BDO refusing to part with copies of the records.

In his letter he sought further instructions from his superiors. However, in his conversation he made it clear that he had already received such instructions. The BDO had been making disapproving noises all through - issuing warnings to the gram sewak th at he was doing something wrong by refusing to obey the Collector's orders and follow the provisions of the law. However, as soon as the MKSS gave him a written representation to intervene and provide the copies of records as he was the gram sewak's supe rior and was present on the spot, he dictated a reply, which provided the finishing touches to the morning's charade. He said he would seek the advice of his superior officers and let the MKSS know in 15 days whether the gram sewak's new interpretation o f the Panchayati Raj Rules was valid or not.

December 2000 marked two years of the Congress government in office in Rajasthan. Huge notices exhibited in Jaipur and published in the newspapers pronounced the government's motto of providing a sensitive, accountable and transparent administration. In several interviews the Chief Minister claimed that one of the outstanding achievements of the government had been the enactment of the law relating to the right to information. The time had come to let the people know how this translated at the field lev el.

On November 28, the MKSS held a press conference in Jaipur on the non-enforcement of the right to information law. It offered several well-documented examples of non-compliance with it. They pertained, among others, to Sangawas panchayat in Rajsamand dis trict, Thana panchayat in Bhilwara district and Kalaliya panchayat in Pali district. There were also instances of unfulfilled assurances by the Electricity and Soil Conservation departments to provide copies of records. But the extraordinary chain of eve nts in Janawad became the focus of the press conference.

Stung by the negative publicity, the State government asked for the records to be brought to Jaipur immediately. The district administration promised to ensure that the copies were handed over, and MKSS activists were told that these would be delivered t o their office by the time they returned. There was still, however, a long way to go.

All through the next day, officials of Rajasmand district made calls and visits to the MKSS office to find out whether the records had arrived. Ironically, the officials kept asking the MKSS where their gram sewak was, and why the records they had sent w ith him to be delivered to the MKSS office hours earlier had still not reached. It transpired that the same gram sewak had been entrusted with not only the photocopies, but also the originals of the panchayat records, and both he and the records had vani shed!

The gram sewak's disappearance should have been a matter of great concern. A manhunt should have been launched for him. The MKSS expressed concern over his safety, but the district administration seemed confident that both he and the records would return safely.

There were rumours in Janawad village that he had gone to seek a stay order from the High Court Bench in Jodhpur. MKSS activists reassured Janawad's citizens that the courts had always insisted on transparency and that no court would grant a stay on orde rs to issue copies of the details of development expenditure, especially when there was a law that facilitates such provision. The assessment of the MKSS was wrong.

The gram sewak returned after three days with the records - and a stay order from the High Court. The stay order continued to be in force from November 29, until the case was disposed of on February 20, 2001. Despite the legal provisions under which affe cted parties can make an application to be heard within 14 days in cases where an ex-parte stay has been granted, a series of adjournments ensured that the stay order continued to be in force. The people of Janawad had had to stand up to a variety of pressures from Ram Lal and this order left them wondering again about the institutions of justice.

For over a decade the people of the panchayat had complained of corruption by Ram Lal and his group in the panchayat. These complaints had made no difference allegedly because he had an extensive network of support in the bureaucracy and the political es tablishment right up to the power centres in Jaipur. The people's sense of relief at his failure to get reelected in January 2000 was short-lived.

The right to information and its potential use by citizens provided a ray of hope to those who had been struggling to control the injustice in Janawad. The board on the wall of the panchayat office was intended to present the facts about the development of the panchayat over the previous five years. However, it told the story of why there had been no development. Over Rs. 80 lakhs had been spent in five years and it was clear that substantial amounts had gone into the pockets of some people.

There were the details of a number of works that simply did not exist - a veterinary hospital, a sub-public health centre, a community centre, check dams, and roads. There were other works on which a few thousands of rupees had been spent but several tim es the amount shown as the cost. People thought that if they could lay their hands on certified copies of these records, they would have in hand undeniable proof of corruption. The successful getaway with the records by the gram sewak and the subsequent stay order were now being used by Ram Lal to prove his invincibility.

It is said that even the best-laid-out plans leave a trail behind. When the gram sewak left the panchayat office with the records, he hid one file among older papers and files. As the pressure to provide the copies mounted from an embarrassed State admin istration, a harassed Additional Collector of the District and the Chief Executive Officer of the Zilla Parishad turned up with copies of some of the old records the gram sewak had left behind. They insisted that the MKSS take these unasked for copies so that they could report that some documents had been handed over. Among these papers, inadvertently handed over, were photocopies of the papers in the concealed file pertaining to construction of a dispensary at Janawad in 1998 at a cost of Rs. 1,36,973.

The MKSS took the file to the village on December 10. An impromptu public hearing was organised some 100 metres from the Janawad dispensary. The dispensary had indeed been built, but over 30 years ago. Since then the nurse who worked there had approached the panchayat innumerable times for money, to undertake repairs to the building, but the panchayat repeatedly said that there was no money. In the seven years she had worked in Janawad, not a single rupee had come from the panchayat. And yet the papers showed a completed measurement book filled out by the Junior Engineer for this ghost work.

This was enough to land Ram Lal, the Junior Engineer, the BDO and the gram sewak concerned in trouble. On the initiative of the MKSS, an official investigation was conducted, and on the confirmation of the fictitious work, a First Information Report was filed in the police station by the BDO. This was the first public acknowledgement by the administration that the person who had been shielded for several months may have committed corruption. Finally, it seemed the proof was available. But no arre sts were made.

Meanwhile, during the struggle to obtain copies of the records, the court case continued. Five officials of the government and the MKSS were made parties by the panchayat and the sarpanch in the High Court. Bhuri Bai told a television journalist on recor d that she had no idea about any court case - she only signed where the BDO and the gram sewak asked her to. The State government promised to put all its efforts into having the stay vacated as soon as possible. Yet it chose to be constrained from top to bottom by a court stay on the order of the BDO.

Ram Lal and his network have had all the time they could ask for to cover up any wrongdoing and change the public opinion that was ranged against him. The criminal complaint lodged against him by the BDO, on the petition of the MKSS, relating to t he sub PHC and several other fictitious works that came to light subsequently, is still under investigation and no arrests have been made. The Station House Officer told the MKSS that he had confirmed the fact that the records had been forged, but he sai d that the forged muster rolls had to be sent for tests such as finger print tests and all that would take time. Time is what Ram Lal and his people wanted and time is what they have been given in plenty.

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BUT the tide has finally begun to turn in Janawad. On January 26, in the social audit in the gram sabha held in the presence of the Chief Executive Officer of the Zilla Parishad, villagers identified seven ghost works, accounting for over Rs. 8 lakhs .

The newly posted BDO lodged two more FIRs. Politicians and bureaucrats who were openly supporting Ram Lal are now distancing themselves from him. On February 21, a day after the High Court decision was announced, the copies of the records were handed ove r to the MKSS. The MKSS promptly announced a jan sunwai (public hearing) in Janawad on April 3, 2001. (For an article on a related campaign of public hearings in rural Rajasthan in an earlier phase of the movement, see Frontline, March 6, 1 998; page 102.)

The objective of this public hearing will be to force the State government to act on proof. The police have still not acted on the three FIRs. The MKSS has demanded that the administration immediately recover the defalcated funds and take firm act ion against all those whose job it was to prevent the embezzlement. As the jan sunwai approaches, and the focus shifts to the quantum of money allegedly embezzled and its impact on the poor, the lessons of the year-long struggle to obtain the info rmation must not be lost. After April 3, Janawad is likely to be remembered for the detailed exposure of corruption in the development machinery. If people want to find solutions, however, Janawad must also be remembered for the struggle it had to wage t o expose corruption. If the right to information is to be of any real use to ordinary citizens, the loopholes in the laws that are now being enacted must be decisively removed.

As the Bill that has been tabled in Parliament is debated, the story of Janawad offers us some lessons. The first is that the right to information will encounter strong resistance from the bureaucracy. Only stiff penalties for non-compliance will give th e Act the teeth it requires for proper implementation. The Bill makes no provisions for penalties.

The second lesson is that the bureaucracy will use any excuse to deny information, and therefore the exemption clauses must be extremely restricted and must not give any room for misinterpretation.

The third lesson is that if any information is denied by an official, it is quite likely that the official will get support from his superiors. The only safeguard is to allow at least one independent appeal.

Finally, as the board in the panchayat of Janawad has illustrated, there is a lot of critically important information that can be easily provided even without it being asked for. If such information is given to citizens, it can truly create the basis for citizens' participation in a range of democratic activities. Suo motu display and dissemination of information must be mandated by the Act, so that the term "transparent governance" is not allowed to become another empty slogan.

Aruna Roy, a recipient of the Magsaysay award, and Nikhil Dey are both activists of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS), which is involved in the movement to uphold the people's right to information.

Back in power

Yoweri Museveni is re-elected President of Uganda for a second consecutive term.

THE victory of Yoweri Museveni in Uganda's March 12 presidential election was never seriously in doubt. In a field of six candidates, Museveni won his second elected term as President on the very first count, securing nearly 69 per cent of the votes. His nearest rival, Kizza Besigye, a physician by training, was one among Museveni's close comrades-in-arms in the guerilla war and later held senior positions in the government. Besigye, whose main hope lay in forcing a second round run-off, trailed far beh ind Museveni, securing less than 28 per cent of the votes. The other four candidates together polled a little more than 3 per cent of the votes. In the previous presidential election held in March 1996, where he had faced two candidates, Museveni had sec ured 76 per cent of the votes.

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For one who was fighting elections for the first time, Kizza Besigye did well to score nearly 28 per cent of the valid votes. Although there was much recrimination and bitterness in the campaign and stray incidents of violence occurred following the anno uncement of the results, the situation might improve since the present exercise was only a rehearsal for the next presidential elections, due in 2006. Museveni cannot contest again as the Constitution allows only two terms for a President. The political credibility of Besigye and other candidates will depend on how they and their supporters will fare in the parliamentary polls to be held before the end of May 2001.

Politically, the victory means an endorsement, for the second time in less than a year, of 'non-party politics' represented by the National Resistance Movement (NRM) - the name under which the Uganda Patriotic Movement founded by Museveni reinvented itse lf in June 1981. The system was endorsed in the national referendum held in June last year.

As is usually the case, the poll outcome has been disputed. Kizza Besigye, who even now considers himself as part of the NRM, has maintained that the electoral process was irregular and that the campaign was marred by violence and intimidation. There is probably an element of truth in these charges. However, some of the charges, like the claim based on some figures released by a radio station that Museveni had polled more than the strength of the electorate, were not true. Curiously, Museveni too says t hat his supporters were intimidated.

However, even observers, who conceded that there were irregularities and instances of intimidation of voters, concluded that the exercise was 'substantially free and fair'. There were about a hundred observers drawn from the Organisation of African Unity , the Commonwealth, the Electoral Commissions of Kenya and Tanzania and a group of independent observers from South Africa.

This description, whose recent currency can be traced to the Report of South Africa's first democratic elections prepared by the country's Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), is perhaps the best that one can expect of any electoral process held under a democratic dispensation. The description, when used by the IEC, caused lot of superior derision in the South African media and the white minority which was until then only accustomed to the perfectly flawless electoral exercise under apartheid. Indeed , only under systems such as apartheid and fascism can electoral exercises be, and have been, totally flawless. For instance, the so-called elections in South Africa held during the apartheid regime, where only about 10 per cent of the total population w ere considered citizens with the actual all-white electorate being even smaller, were little more than family picnics, notwithstanding the contrived virulence of the campaigns. With the contending parties, both for centuries also contending partners in s ettler and colonial theft and truly united on the issue of denying equal rights, nay even citizenship to the majority of the population, there was no way in which the exercise could engage strong passions - except those dictated by greed and desire for t he power and perks of political office.

Under a democratic system, whose innate flaws are also its strongest points, electoral exercises can therefore never be anything but only 'substantially free and fair', not 'absolutely free and fair'.

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Although Museveni has been President of Uganda since January 29, 1986, when he was sworn in President following the victory of the National Resistance Army, the armed wing of the NRM, at the end of a 15-year-long guerilla and conventional war and politic al mobilisation, this was only the second time that he had actually contested the election. The first ten years after the end to 'tyranny and dictatorship' - the code words in NRM polemics for the years of Idi Amin (1971-79), Milton Obote II (1979-85) an d Tito Okello (the six months that followed the second ouster of Milton Obote on July 27, 1985) - were devoted to the tasks of putting together a nation and a people ravaged by years of misrule, civil war and attendant evils. A terrible consequence of th ose years, owing to lack of immunisation programmes and the disfigurements wrought by war and landmines, was the emergence of what Museveni describes as a 'new tribe' in Uganda - about two million disabled people in a population of about 22 million.

The major preoccupations during this period were the formation of a 'broad-based' government, the election of local level 'resistance councils' with the stated objective of promoting 'grassroots democracy', and finally the drawing up of a draft new Const itution, after wide public consultation, and its consideration by a Constitutional Assembly elected for the purpose. It was under the provisions of this Constitution, adopted by the Constitutional Assembly on September 22, 1995 and promulgated on October 8, 1995, that the first presidential and parliamentary elections were held in May and June 1996 respectively.

ONE of the peculiarities of Ugandan politics under Museveni is that formally all political parties are banned, although political activities as such are not. As argued by Museveni in his autobiography and political manifesto, Sowing the Mustard Seed: The Struggle for Freedom and Democracy in Uganda (Macmillan, London, 1997), 'social metamorphosis' in a pre-industrial society as in Uganda is manifest not in class formations, as in highly industrialised societies where class formations are in an ad vanced state, but in tribalism and sectarianism. Thus, all political activities in colonial and post-colonial Uganda, despite being articulated by the leaders in conventional and on occasion even in class terms, were actually driven by tribalism and sect arianism.

Being a sophisticated political thinker with a fund of commonsense and moreover as a person who personally led a successful armed struggle and revolution, Museveni is able to argue his case persuasively. Indeed, the admitted achievements of Uganda under Museveni are attributed by him to this absence of political mobilisation through organised political parties which, in the context of Uganda, are bound to be ethnic and religion based.

In practical terms, this has meant that the NRM, being formally not a political party but a 'national movement', has had a free run. However, since Ugandan society is more politicised than many other societies, there is the curious phenomenon of 'non-par ty politics' which is as passionate and as contentious as in societies informed by more conventional political activity - openly organised political parties funded by membership and donations, party newspapers, public mobilisation of supporters on politi cal issues and the like. For instance, although none of the 276 members of Parliament, of whom 214 are elected directly, are members of any political party, everyone knows who among the 20 or so who are known to be not 'Movementists' had and continues to have which political affiliation dating back to the days of the Uganda People's Congress, the Democratic Party and others.

Although the tussle between 'Movementists' and 'Multipartyists' seemed to have been won decisively by the former in the referendum last year, the issue is not dead. One of the problems that Kizza Besigye will have to face if he were to continue with a po litical career is that apart from being opposed to Museveni, he is yet to define himself politically, that is, whether he is still a 'Movementist' as most of his opponents outside the NRM claim, or is he genuinely converted to the 'Multipartyist' cause.

However, there are indications of a return to more normal kind of political activities in Uganda. If, as it seems likely, the Political Organisations Bill currently before Parliament were to be passed before the parliamentary elections due within the nex t two to three months, the elections would be held in relatively free conditions for political parties to openly operate by way of having their own headquarters, collect membership fees and donations, have their own newspapers and the like.

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Any assessment of Museveni as he begins his last term as President should necessarily be tentative. The failures are all too obvious. That one of his closest comrades had to come out openly against him, abandoning all the political capital he had accumul ated, is an eloquent commentary on the limitations of the path of 'non-party politics', of the 'non-political party' that the NRM has become.

Museveni has also been criticised for his involvement in the crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). However, Uganda has already begun the process of disengagement. Indeed, one of the points in Museveni's election manifesto was that Uganda's ai ms in the DRC having been achieved, Ugandan troops would be withdrawn even if there was no political agreement. While both Uganda and Rwanda have cited 'security concerns' for their intervention in the DRC, in Uganda's case these are rather more clearly defined, and limited to neutralising the perceived threats from the 'Allied Democratic Forces' (ADF) supposedly owing allegiance to Idi Amin and operating in the west and the north. These aims, according to Museveni, have been achieved with the recent su ccesses against the ADF on both sides of the Rwenzori mountains.

However, even his bitterest critics cannot deny what the country has achieved under Museveni. The achievements include the modest annual economic growth rate of around 4.5 per cent, the close cooperation with other East African countries, the facilitatio n of return of the so-called investor confidence, the containment of tribal and sectarian divides and the restoration of relative social stability, although the underlying tensions manifest themselves occasionally in extreme violence. Indeed, the virulen ce of political opposition to Museveni is just one indication of how far the country has travelled from the dreaded past of 'tyranny and dictatorship'. Above all, there is the remarkable achievement, universally admired, of controlling the HIV/AIDS pande mic. Uganda is the only country in Africa where there is a decline in AIDS cases.

The greatest temptation that Museveni faces, as he embarks on possibly his last term when he is sworn in as President on May 12, is that he may become a victim of that all too prevalent myth of indispensability. In a recent interview to the government-ow ned Kampala daily, New Vision (January 26, 2001), Museveni had this to say in answer to what was clearly a leading question, although asked in the context of the election campaign and the challenge posed by Besigye: "I am the one who has been hand ling the intestines of the sheep. You know, tying the intestines of the sheep is not easy... I am the one who has been tying those intestines and moving forward. Newcomers may not manage to tie these intestines and it may cause a big problem." It is true that Uganda's Constitution bars Museveni from contesting for a third term. But Constitutions have been amended. By an elastic interpretation of the Constitution, President San Nujoma had a third term in Namibia. In Zambia, where presidential e lections are due in November this year, President Frederick Chiluba is encouraging a 'debate' among the faithful whether he should seek another term on the ground that he has actually served only one term since the Constitution was amended in 1996 limiti ng the term of a President to two.

President Jerry Rawlings of Ghana, with whom Museveni has sometimes been compared, resisted such temptations despite his background in armed forces. Is it too early to ring alarm bells in Uganda?

A long march in Mexico

The struggle of the indigenous people of Mexico for their rights enters a new phase with EZLN activists organising a march from Chiapas to the capital.

ON February 27, representatives of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) started on a caravan from San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas, Mexico, in what was nicknamed 'Zapatour' by accompanying activists. A movement that emerged on the world stage in the early morning hours of January 1, 1994 in the resource-rich but poverty-stricken southern province of Chiapas set off for Mexico City to announce a new stage in its struggle. When the Zapatour entered Mexico City on March 11, it proved that it was not just a movement of the marginalised indigenous people in Chiapas, but a truly Mexican national movement.

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The day the EZLN arrived in Mexico City, Subcomandante Marcos, representative of the EZLN, announced at the city centre: "We have arrived. We are here... We are not some fleeting fashion which, when it passes, will be stored in the calendar of defeats fo r this country to look upon with nostalgia... We are rebels because the land is rebel if someone is selling and buying it, as if the land did not exist, as if the colour we are of the earth did not exist.'' These powerful words were met with tremendous a pplause from the crowd of 100,000 in the Zocalo.

When the EZLN was formed in 1994, it was greeted with warmth across the world as the harbinger of a new wave of Fourth World revolution (aided by the dot.comrades across the globe). A few months before the EZLN left the Lacandon Jungle for the main town of Chiapas, Mexican political scientist (and now Foreign Minister) Jorge Castaneda, in a celebrated book entitled Utopia Unarmed: The Latin American Left After the Cold War, bemoaned the end of the Left in Latin America. Castaneda did, however, ac knowledge the central position of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) which are "an increasingly important component of the Left and of the expression of popular movements." The EZLN came from this milieu, born of more than a decade of hard political w ork before the 1994 uprising. But the detractors of the EZLN accused it of being unrepresentative, indeed of being a creature of an international Left community that was in love with Third World guerillas, nostalgic for Che Guevara and naive about the Me xican reality. But during the Zapatour, as tens of thousands of Mexicans met the EZLN representatives at every stop along the way, through Puebla, Oaxaca, Toluca, and finally when a hundred thousand of them gathered in the central square of Mexico City, the EZLN was offered the mandate of the people. The journey from the jungles of Lacandon to Mexico City made it clear that the EZLN had plenty of popular support.

As the march began, the government reacted with frenzy. The unarmed caravan was shadowed by members of the Federal Preventative Police, and the government refused to allow the Red Cross to accompany it. The government threatened to imprison the leadershi p and refused to meet with EZLN representatives if they wore masks. "Why are they so afraid of a peaceful, unarmed march of the marginalised indigenous who are not working for the fall of the government or asking for the expropriation of the factories, o r for the nationalisation of banks, or for the handing over of power to the workers in businesses, or for the surrender of the federal army," an EZLN leader asked in a speech at Toluca on March 5. "The only thing we are asking for through this march is f or (the government) to recognise us as indigenous and as Mexicans. It is the hysteria of the Right that is turning this mobilisation into a revolution," he said.

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Since December 2000, the Mexican government has been led by the conservative National Action Party (PAN) of President Vincente Fox. Mr. Fox was eager to end the stalemate in Chiapas, but it seems that he wants to do this on his own terms and not on those of the EZLN. On March 13, representatives of the government presented an anonymous document to the EZLN. It suggested that the EZLN meet 20 elected officials and some members of the government's Concord and Pacification Commission (COCOPA) and not the e ntire Congress of the Union. Insulted by the anonymous document, the EZLN told the press that the purpose of the caravan was for the non-negotiable constitutional recognition of indigenous rights and culture. In fact, on the first three days of the March , the Indigenous National Congress (CNI) crafted six demands, which included the recognition of the constitutional rights of the indigenous (as represented in the San Andres Accords signed by the government and the EZLN in February 1996, but not implemen ted as yet), the return of indigenous lands to communal stewardship, and the demilitarisation of indigenous regions (such as Chiapas, where 70,000 federal troops garrison the State). Despite Fox's telegenic amiability, the government was obdurate. It was as if the EZLN and the CNI were not to be taken seriously. "It is time that Fox and those he serves to listen and to listen to us," Marcos told the Congress. But "those he serves", the Mexican elite and the United States government, do not want to liste n to the EZLN.

Why does the Mexican elite and the U.S. drown out the voices of the submerged? It could be because the simple claims of the EZLN for indigenous rights have a much larger purpose. It is asking for the enlargement of the space for democratic action, for a new theory of democracy in Mexico. The EZLN in Chiapas has fought for attention and recognition of social problems, such as the racist dispossession of indigenous peoples and various day-to-day human rights violations. The network of EZLN activity flour ishes in the villages and towns of the province, providing social services long since abandoned by the state. At the same time, the EZLN has created autonomous spaces, places where self-government, economic democracy and development, are practised withou t governmental (or corporate) participation. The mobilisations, marches and press releases of the EZLN are aimed principally at getting the government out of the way. And despite immense federal troop pressure and coercion by armed brigands of landlords, the EZLN has succeeded in preventing the annihilation of these spaces. In many ways, even if the EZLN appears as a guerilla army, it is truly a force for the reconstruction of society.

The EZLN and the CNI press for the constitutional recognition of the rights of the indigenous people. This has been the main demand of the EZLN since its entry into Mexican politics. To some people this may appear to be a rather strange, legalistic deman d for a revolutionary organisation. But the EZLN asserts that it only wants to create and strengthen the forces of civil society, to enlarge public debate and to enhance the institutions of Mexican democracy. The Party of the Institutionalised Revolution (PRI), which ruled Mexico for eight decades, feared that the EZLN's demands would signal the end of its monopoly. Now President Fox, the credit for whose electoral victory in July can be partially claimed by the EZLN, fears that an enhanced civil societ y will mean the loss of power not just of a monopoly party but of the monopoly classes in Mexican society. The PRI represented those classes, but its defeat has not meant their defeat. The ruling class in Mexico switched its allegiance to Fox's PAN, and it is now up to Fox to protect its hold on the social and economic order. Thus the simple demand from the EZLN is decidedly revolutionary.

Indeed, this is perhaps why it appeals to the CNI. Frustrated for years by the authoritarian yoke, the indigenous populations now turn to the strategy of the EZLN. The connection between the Congress and the EZLN illustrates the national scope of the str uggle. The Congress has now pledged to create autonomous municipalities in indigenous communities across Mexico, based on the Zapatista model. All speeches by EZLN and Congress representatives during the Zapatour named each and every indigenous nation an d identified the EZLN and the Congress together as voices for the indigenous people throughout Mexico. The attempt to create a movement of the indigenous of Mexico, and of all those opposed to authoritarianism, offered a powerful challenge in the "hour o f the Fox".

Will the EZLN succeed? The Zapatour has energised Mexican politics, perhaps for the first time since the decline of the Mexican Left after October 1968 (and despite its brief revival during the 1986 student mobilisation and the 1990 presidential campaign of Cuauhtemoc Cardenas' Party of the Democratic Revolution). The rich and the middle class received a shot in the arm in the victory of Fox. If some among them expected the EZLN to take a shot from the army, they were disappointed. From the beginning, F ox has been unable to oppose the EZLN publicly, mainly because it has galvanised the poor (as illustrated during the Zapatour). The EZLN is making reasonable, minimal demands and has out-organised, out-manoeuvred, and out-talked the government at every t urn. The government can only stall, concede as little as possible, as slowly as possible, and hope that the support for the EZLN wanes with time. The EZLN for its part seems aware of the government's strategy, and is not worried.

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"Up there they say that you are here to watch in morbid fascination, to hear, without listening to anything," Subcomandante Marcos told the Indigenous National Congress on March 11. "They say we are few, that we are weak. That we are nothing more than a photograph, an anecdote, a spectacle, a perishable product whose expiry date is close at hand. Up there they say that you will leave us alone. That we shall return alone and empty. Up there they say that forgetting is defeat, and they want to wait for yo u to forget and to fail and to be defeated. They know up there, but they do not want to say it: there will be no more forgetting and defeat shall not be the crown for the colour of the earth," Marcos said.

As the Zapatour rode into Mexico City, it ensured that the EZLN's message would not be forgotten, that it would indeed spread across Mexico. In the "hour of the Fox" all eyes turn to the government to see what its move will be.

Justin Podur is a Toronto-based volunteer and writer for ZNet/Z Magazine, an alternative magazine based in the United States. Vijay Prashad is Director of International Studies at Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut.

India and the ICC

USHA RAMANATHAN world-affairs

India, along with a few other countries, is for now holding out against the ratification of the Rome Statute for the establishment of an International Criminal Court. A discussion of the concerns and imperatives in this regard.

THE Rome statute for the establishment of an International Criminal Court (ICC) was voted in, in July 1998, by 120 states; seven states voted against it and 21, including India, abstained (Frontline, August 14, 1998). Since then 139 countries have signed on and 29 states have ratified the statute. The United States, which resisted the statute through the negotiations, admittedly worried that its armed forces could be hauled up before the ICC, did a near about-turn when it signed the statute on De cember 31, 2000. Ratification, though, is not in sight. India continues to boycott the statute. The ICC will be established after the deposit of the 60th instrument of ratification, acceptance and approval or accession with the Secretary-General of the U nited Nations.

The Indian state's concern revolves around the role of the Security Council as a trigger for investigation and prosecution and in the matter of deferral of prosecutions; the inherent jurisdiction of the ICC; the office of an independent prosecutor; and t he inclusion of internal armed conflict as a crime that the ICC can try.

THE Rome statute provides for three triggers: a State Party to the statute, the Security Council, and the Prosecutor on his or her own initiative. This privileging of the Security Council was resisted by many states, including India, during the run-up to the Rome conference. There was an illogicality in vesting this power with the Security Council when its permanent members appeared less than enthusiastic about a criminal court with universal jurisdiction. The U.S., particularly, was categorical in its opposition to the ICC, which was projected as a threat to its armed forces which act as policemen around the world. The difficulty in keeping the Security Council out was, however, that the ICC was jostling for jurisprudential space that would not confli ct with the U.N. statute. Chapter VII of the Statute, which authorises the Security Council to take "action with respect to threats to peace, breaches of the peace and acts of aggression", could not be wished away; nor could the ICC override the provisio ns of the U.N. statute. Granting the role of a trigger to the Security Council then was a compromise - an uneasy compromise, unacceptable to some states, but almost inevitable.

The inevitability also arose from recent experience with tribunals that were established to try the cases of violence and bloodshed in Rwanda and Yugoslavia. The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) and the International Criminal Tribunal fo r Former Yugoslavia (ICTFY) are ad hoc tribunals set up by the Security Council. Both were set up after the events and they were to try the kind of offences that were specifically witnessed in those arenas. The need for such ex post facto interven tion could be obviated by encouraging the Security Council to use the ICC rather than set up tribunals of competing jurisdiction.

The opposition to the Security Council operating as a trigger also loses its singular acridness when it is recognised that the Prosecutor may initiate action upon receiving information from any quarter. But this too is a bitter pill for India. The power of the Prosecutor to take a case to trial is tempered by the intervention of a pre-trial chamber which will decide whether there is a case to be investigated and tried. Yet the potential for receiving complaints and investigating into their genuineness r esides in the Prosecutor and that was stoutly, if unsuccessfully, resisted by India.

The Rome statute envisages the Prosecutor initiating investigation "on the basis of information on crimes within the jurisdiction of the court" (Article 15). The office of the Prosecutor is to be an independent organ with the court "responsible for recei ving referrals and any substantiated information on crimes within the jurisdiction of the court, for examining them and for conducting investigations and prosecutions before the court"(Article 42). And no member of the office of the Prosecutor may "seek or act on instructions from any external source." This power to act on information received opens the field for initiating the process before the ICC upon receiving a complaint from any person, not merely a State Party or the Security Council. For India, doubts about how independent an independent Prosecutor would be, or even could be, were therefore interspersed with a rejection of the potential for individuals and organisations getting the wheels of the ICC moving.

There are significant differences between the ICC and other international institutions such as the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and the Committee for Human Rights. The ICC will try individuals, and not states. Further, being a criminal court, the re will be an accused, fair standards in the trial of the accused, a threshold for evidence to constitute proof, punishment of imprisonment or/and fine, and reparation and compensation to the victims of the crime.

The theme running through the statute, and which informed the proceedings all the way up to the signing of the statute in Rome, was that of impunity. In countering impunity, exclusive reliance on State Parties or the Security Council could be fatal. More over, in criminal law everywhere (with exceptions only in cases such as bigamy, for instance) it is not who reports the crime, but the fact that the crime has been committed which is the starting point for bringing a perpetrator to justice. The prosecuto rial power to investigate and initiate prosecution is, in the meantime, hemmed in by the statute, by making the Prosecutor bound by the decision of the court at every stage of the proceedings.

The potential for interference by the Security Council is pronounced in its power to defer investigation and prosecution. Under Article 16, the Security Council, through a resolution adopted under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter, may request the court th at no investigation or prosecution be commenced or proceeded with under the statute for a period of 12 months; and such a request may be renewed by the Security Council. The Security Council's designated role as a peacekeeper under Chapter VII was used t o incorporate this provision into the statute. That all five permanent members of the Security Council would have to agree to such deferral is the one insurance against any indiscriminate use of this power. For India, which has been worried more about be ing hauled up before the ICC than the effectiveness of the ICC itself, this should cause little concern, though it opposes this provision in principle.

WHAT does worry the Indian state is the inherent jurisdiction of the ICC. In fact, opposition on this ground seemed so obvious that delegates at the Rome conference were caught by surprise at the widespread acquiescence with the proposal to give the cour t the authority to determine its own jurisdiction. The ICC statute is premised on the principle of complementarity; that is, the primary responsibility for investigation and trial rests with the state. It is where the state is unwilling or unable to carr y out investigation or prosecution that the ICC steps in (Article 17).

The Indian position has been that this inherent power of the court to decide whether a state has acted, and acted in a manner that is consistent with justice, impinges on the sovereignty of the state. An Indian official was quoted as saying: "India has i ts own laws to deal with human rights abuses; we have the Human Rights Commission, an active judiciary and a free press. We don't need the ICC to bring offenders to justice, we do it ourselves." This, of course, is an exaggerated claim, which is belied b y statistics presented in the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly. On February 26, 2001 Mohammad Yousuf Tarigami of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) alleged in the Assembly, without being effectively countered, that the number of persons missing from the cu stody of the security forces and the police had risen to 2,174 in Jammu and Kashmir, 76 cases had been registered and only one person had been challaned. Similar is the case of disappearances in Punjab; the Central Bureau of Investigation confirmed that 2,097 bodies were treated as "unidentified" (even where they were in fact partly identified in some cases) and cremated in three districts of Punjab during the period of disturbances. The National Human Rights Commission, which was authorised by the Supr eme Court to act, declined to consider that these were symptomatic of what had happened in Punjab and not just in the three districts where the investigative officers had managed to obtain information, and rejected the plea that the phenomenon of disappe arances be investigated. The issue has been reduced to one of paying compensation to individual claimants. The Punjab government has agreed to pay a compensation of Rs.1 lakh each in 18 cases of disappearance, but without admitting the justness of the cl aims being made or without suspecting any culpability on the part of its officers.

That there are systemic blind spots is hard to dispute. What worries the Indian state, however, is that the ICC may be used by adversaries, or states inimical to India, to embarrass it. In advancing this as a reason for rejecting the ICC, there is a deli berate underplaying of the high thresholds that have been built into Indian laws for investigating a crime and launching prosecution. Legal definitions of crimes are peppered with words such as 'widespread', 'systematic' and 'large-scale'. It is difficul t to reconcile the Indian state's confidence in its human rights record with this diffidence. The rejection of cases filed before the ICC would, in fact, be a feather in India's cap.

IN working out what would constitute an internal armed conflict, the Rome statute specifically excludes "situations of internal disturbances and tensions, such as riots, isolated and sporadic acts of violence or other acts of a similar nature" (Articles 8(d) and (e)). It would be in India's interest to engage constructively in the manner in which these provisions of the statute evolve.

India has not questioned the need to bring to justice perpetrators of large-scale violation of human rights. The experiences with Augusto Pinochet of Chile and Pol Pot of Cambodia and in Sierra Leone, Rwanda and Bosnia, the disappearances, detentions and deaths under the military juntas in Central America, apartheid, and so on are too recent to forget. Universal jurisdiction is the emerging principle that is expected to ensure that perpetrators of mass outrages are punished and, hopefully, deterred. Als o, the potential for misuse of political and armed power, cynically represented as moves for peace, has been repeatedly demonstrated; for instance, in the recent air strikes over Iraq. And, the Security Council's authority to establish ad hoc tribunals h as gained respectability with none having openly challenged this exercise of discretion; there is no denying that this could be selectively invoked. It is in this context that the statute for an ICC has been constructed. It is, therefore, to be a permane nt court, with regional representation and a prospective mandate. Its credibility and the cooperation of participating states will depend considerably on the precedents that are set and the consistency of the institution. The international human rights a nd legal communities are not unaware of this.

Since July 1998, many positions have changed. A significant step was taken when France, one of the permanent members of the Security Council, ratified the statute. There have been debates in the House of Lords to bring national legislation in conformity with the ICC statute. The U.S. has signed it. Bangladesh, whose attempt to try war criminals after the war of liberation in 1971 was thwarted by its inability to reach the perpetrators, has signed the statute.

The problem in refusing to be party to the statute is that it reduces the potential for making a difference to the development of a law around the ICC statute - there would be no Indian representation among the judges in the Prosecutor's office, in the R egistry and in the Assembly of State Parties. Yet, if the state where the offence is committed or the accused belongs to a nation which is a State Party to the statute, or the Security Council decides to refer the matter to the ICC, India would be caught in a bind: there would be no obligation to cooperate, but refusal would inevitably cause extreme awkwardness.

The urgency does not appear to have lessened in the pursuit of procuring ratifications. It seems it is only a matter of time, and that not too much, before the 60th ratification will be in. India will have to decide whether it will continue its sullen si lence or opt for the pragmatic route of participation.

Usha Ramanathan is a New Delhi-based researcher on law.

A valley-type glacier

R. RAMACHANDRAN environment

THE Gangotri is the second largest Himalayan glacier after Siachen. The width of this 30.2-km-long glacier, whose head at its highest point is called Chaukhamba, varies from 0.5 km to 2.5 km. It is the source of the Bhagirathi which originates at Gaumukh , the snout. The Bhagirathi joins the Alaknanda, fed by the glacier Satopan, downstream to become the Ganga. It is a valley-type glacier, situated in the Uttarkashi district of Garhwal Himalayas in Uttaranchal State.

The interesting thing about Gangotri's topography is that at its source the river flows north west. The glacier extends in height from 4,120 to 7,000 m above sea level (masl). It has three main tributaries: Raktvarn (15.9 km), Chaturangi (22.45 km) and Kirti(11.05 km) and more than 18 other tributary glaciers that are transverse to the main trunk. The total glacierised area of the catchment is 258.56 sq km, of which the Gangotri system accounts for 109.03 sq km, followed by Chaturangi (72.91 sq km), Ra ktavarn (45.34 sq km) and Kirti (31.28 sq km). The total ice cover of the catchment is 200 sq km and the total ice in the glacierised area is about 20 cu km. The Gaumukh is now at 4,120 masl and it is located at the northernmost end of the glacier. Subte rranean channels below the glacier are also known to feed the Bhagirathi at Gaumukh. As a result of the retreat of the Gangotri, the Meru glacier, which used to feed the Gangotri just before the snout, now meets the Bhagirathi downstream of Gaumukh.

The Gangotri had in the past extended up to Sukhi, below Jhala, which is 40.5 km downstream of Gaumukh in the Bhagirathi valley. This assumption is based on observations on moraines at an altitude of about 2,300 masl. This is the oldest terminal moraine of the Gangotri glacier and its position probably represents the position of the snout during Pleistocene. This, it is believed, resulted in the expansion of the glacierised area in the form of a long valley glacier system covering a minimum area of 685 sq km during what is known as the Bhagirathi glacial stage (about 100,000 years ago). The remnants of lateral moraines can now be seen on both sides of the valley up to Gangotri town, which is 18 km downstream of Gaumukh.

'I was an easy target'

Bangaru Laxman, who quit as the president of the Bharatiya Janata Party following the tehelka.com expose, finds himself at a loss. He is sad that neither the BJP nor any other constituent of the National Democratic Alliance it leads came to his de fence unlike as in the case of George Fernandes. The images of wads of currency notes being handed to him across his table by the tehelka team continue to cause immense damage to his image and that of the BJP. V. Venkatesan met him to get his vers ion of the events. Excerpts from the interview:

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You have described the Tehelka expose as a conspiracy. Who then, are behind this conspiracy, and what are their motives?

Surely those who are politically opposed to us. Especially after my taking over as party president, the social composition of the party underwent a change. The support base started expanding. More OBCs (other backward classes) and minorities were joining the party. This was an eyesore to many. Because they felt their constituency was being encroached upon. So I was picked up for framing. I had just completed three months as party president. I had very little to do with defence. No defence deals were in progress at that particular point of time. So, how did they choose me? Because I was an easy target. I was easily accessible. I was new to many things. Catching some soft targets, and showing that the whole system is corrupt, I don't think this gives a c orrect picture. My own feeling is that there were no defence deals after 1996. Those who were in this business for the past 45 years, they must have been feeling frustrated, since this Government tightened the procedures.

After the tehelka team met and gave you Rs.1 lakh, did you ever become suspicious of them? They, in fact, promised to pay you more in dollars but did not meet you subsequently, after the second meeting.

Certainly. In fact, I on the same day I informed the party treasurer about the whole thing. They were asking me whether they could pay in dollars. Then, I exclaimed, 'dollars!' But the exclamation was turned into a positive sign. This is a tape. Anything can be done.

The transcript quotes you as having said, "You can give dollars".

No, I did not say that it can be given in dollars. I exclaimed 'dollars', that is all. Therefore, what I was trying to say was, if they want to contribute more for the party, meet our party treasurer. So my exclamation was removed, and it was put in such a way that I was asking for dollars. They said they don't have rupees, and asked me whether we want in rupees or dollars. I said, 'dollars!' In a tape like this, dubbing is possible, fudging is possible. And editing anyway they have done. And I am told all these things were done outside the country. Tapes were taken outside the country, I learn, to Singapore, where the technology and sophistication is available to doctor tapes and microfilms. Somebody said they took the tapes to Dubai.

When did you deposit the Rs.1 lakh given by the tehelka team with the party treasurer?

On the same day, after the second meeting I informed the party treasurer that some party came, and they wanted to contribute, and that they were talking about investments in infrastructure projects. I don't remember the exact date, but I suppose it must have been before the national executive meeting in New Delhi in the first week of January.

Incidentally, procedural difficulties and policy difficulties were discussed. In that context they brought up the defence issue. They said they were going to supply binoculars to the defence. They claimed that with the help of technologically sophisticat ed binoculars we would be able to fight Kargil-type wars better. They tried to explain how it was operated, showed me the pictures. I said, look, what is the difficulty? They said the Army has okayed it, but the difficulty is because of the bureaucracy. That way, these dialogues came up. It is not that they exclusively came to strike a defence deal. They slowly dragged me into it.

Was any receipt given to them for the contribution to the party fund?

Their visiting card is there. But it doesn't bear the Delhi address. It only gives the London telephone number. Normally, the receipts are kept in the office. Otherwise, the entry is made (in the party accounts).

Can one see the party accounts to find out if there is a corresponding entry for Rs.1 lakh received by you?

Party accounts are not shown to journalists.

What is the procedure for collecting party funds?

There is no set procedure. On their own, they said they were keen on contributing to the party fund.

Have you collected party funds earlier?

No, this was the first time I saw a lakh of rupees as contribution to the party fund. Earlier small collections used to come, after I took over.

What is the amount nearest to this that you have collected?

Hardly, less than Rs.10,000 or so. And many a time, when I sat in the office, I immediately sent them (the donors) to the accountant.

But no one met you at your residence to donate?

No.

This time also, you could have directed them to the accountant?

But they were insisting (that I should receive it). They came with a purpose. They were asking whether they could remit it to the party account. When I told the party treasurer, I asked him to check up, as I did not know them.

Did the party treasurer check up the donors' antecedents?

After that, we got into many other things, and forgot about this. We never thought that this was going to boomerang like this.

Do you regret the choice of your private secretary, Sathyamurthy?

He gave me a letter admitting that he committed a big mistake in talking to those people. He did not resign, because there was no formal appointment. He came to assist me when I took over. He was recommended by a friend of mine, to organise my engagemen ts and programmes. My friend told me that if I am satisfied he could continue to help me. Because at that time I was left with no person, as I came from the Railway Ministry, and I needed somebody's help to function.

Do you think people within the BJP may be part of the 'conspiracy'?

As on today, I am not in a position to comment on anything. People within the BJP, they need not play such a dirty game. I don't say that there were no grounds to have differences of opinion. There could be differences of opinion particularly over the d istribution of work, day-to-day organisational problems. On policies, there is very little difference of opinion.

Does the fact that the BJP did not offer to restore you to the party president's post if you are proved innocent hurt you? The NDA and the Cabinet expressed full confidence in George Fernandes and offered to reinstate him after the inquiry.

I take it in my stride. Before I became the party president I was a worker. Now also I will remain a worker.

Are you unhappy with the party?

No. I don't expect this kind of treatment. In the government, it is the prerogative of the Prime Minister; here it is the party's National Council which has to take a decision.

But on the day your resignation was accepted, Jana Krishnamurthy was appointed as acting president, and this was described as a permanent arrangement by the party.

No. That cannot be according to the party constitution. Even if it has to be a permanent arrangement, it has to get the ratification of the competent body. The BJP has not given me up. The party is behind me.

Were you told by the Prime Minister to quit? You were widely seen as his choice when you were appointed, and it was felt that the Advani faction did not favour you.

I had a working relationship with Advaniji. They (Advani and Vajpayee) must have discussed before I quit.

You have just completed six months as party president. What prevents the party from saying that you can come back as party president once you prove yourself innocent?

They will be able to answer this. I do not feel bad about it.

The RSS has called you a failed swayamsevak.

(Laughs) I don't want to comment on their perception.

The ethics of subterfuge

A. G. NOORANI cover-story

The means that Tehelka employed to achieve the expose involves a justified journalistic pursuit.

IT is amusing to hear persons caught in the act, as it were, cry "ethics" at their exposure by the tehelka.com on March 13. The web site has proved itself. The nation has accepted that its revelations are true and heads rolled in consequence. George Fern andes, falsely claimed that he had resigned as Defence Minister in order "to uphold the morale of the armed forces". A man who felt that concern would not have taken over 48 hours to resign; and, then, only after pressure from Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and in the face of clamour by all outside the ranks of his own immediate cabal. Not only the government but the entire system has been shaken to the roots by the disclosures. The worst fears and worst suspicions stand confirmed.

18070181jpg The Sunday Times

None of this is any reason, however, to gloss over the ethical aspect. That is always relevant in every situation, no matter how grave or delicate. The time to discuss it threadbare is now, lest this be regarded as a precedent mindlessly for all cases in the future. It is perfectly legitimate to ask: who will trust the journalist when he seeks an interview? And, how does one distinguish between this case and that, of say, Louise Fernandes who interviewed the distinguished historian Mushirul Hasan withou t disclosing to him that she was taping the conversation? She claimed on the TV that it was for her "protection".

When is subterfuge justified in the course of a journalist's work? Investi-gative journalism is different from press interviews, surely. It is far older than many imagine. As far back as 1885, W.T. Stead made news for the Pall Mall Gazette when he exposed child prostitution by going out and buying a twelve-year-old girl. As James Michael recalls, "It led to a good story, a change in the law, and some time in jail for Stead, whose purchase was taken seriously by the Court" (The Politics of Secr ecy; Penguin; 1982; page 93).

The issue of ethics calls for a nuanced and principled answer. In the Pentagon Papers case, first, The New York Times and, next, The Washington Post published a series of articles based on a secret Defence Department history of the United S tates' involvement in the Vietnam war. They had been provided the documents by Daniel Ellsberg, a former Defence Department and Rand Corporation official who had come to loathe the war. While still engaged in government work, Ellsberg had secretly copied these classified papers. They revealed that, for years, successive administrations had made decisions at the highest level in ways that deliberately deceived the nation. The White House and the Departments of State and Defence said one thing to the peop le while doing its opposite. They knew that their statements and assurances were false.

The government moved the courts to restrain publication. The case finally reached the Supreme Court. On June 30, 1971, the court ruled in The New York Times vs United States, by six votes to three, that the Times could proceed with the publication (403 U.S. 713; Chief Justice Warren E. Burger tartly remarked that the duty to return stolen property applies as much to The New York Times as it does to cab drivers. The majority disagreed, because of the facts of the case. Justice Hugo Black sa id: "Paramount among the responsibilities of a free press is the duty to prevent any part of the government from deceiving the people and sending them off to distant lands to die of foreign fences and foreign shot and shell. In my view, far from d eserving condemnation for their courageous reporting, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other newspapers should be commended for serving the purpose that the Founding Fathers saw so clearly. In revealing the workings of government that led to the Vietnam war, the newspapers nobly did precisely that which the Founding Fathers hoped and trusted they would do." He added: "The guarding of military and diplomatic secrets at the expense of informed representative government provides no real security for our Republic." Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee expressed an illiberal view on this point on March 17.

Clive Ponting, a senior official in the Ministry of Defence, gave information to an MP, Tam Dalyell, which undermined the truth of ministerial answers in the House of Commons to his questions about the sinking of the "Belgrano" by the British navy in the Falklands war. Prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act, the jury acquitted him in rejection of the judge's interpretation of Section 2 of the Act that the words "the interests of the state" were synonymous with the policies of the government of the da y. In Britain and in the United States "the whistleblower" has acquired recognition - the civil servant who exposes a wrong while in service. In the U.S. there is even a statute to protect him, the Whistleblower Protection Act, 1989. In all these cases o fficial deception was exposed by resort to subterfuge or the covert. The courts upheld that. Who knows even now the identity of "Deep Throat" of Watergate fame?

We need not go further with analogies; for, there is a precedent which bears directly on the tehelka.com case and a ruling by the British Press Complaints Commission which covers it fully. Unlike the Press Council of India (PCI) - to which, curiously, no ne made a reference during the debate - the Commission is not a statutory body. It is set up as a full self-regulatory measure by the press itself to uphold and enforce a Code of Conduct formulated, not by the Commission, let alone the Government, but by the press itself. It is now a decade old. A committee of editors, under the chairmanship of the editor of the News of the World, Patricia Chapman, drew up the Code. Editors are represented on the Commission. Its membership is drawn from the whole range of newspapers and periodicals in contrast to that of the PCI.

Paragraph 7 of the Code reads thus: "Misrepresentation-(i) Journalists should not generally obtain or seek to obtain information or pictures through misrepresentation or subterfuge. (ii) Unless in the public interest, documents or photographs shou ld be removed only with the express consent of the owner. (iii) Subterfuge can be justified only in the public interest and only when material cannot be obtained by any other means." Paragraph 17 says: "Journalists have a moral obligation to protect conf idential sources of information."

Paragraph 18 defines the expression "the public interest" as used in paragraph 7, besides other provisions such as paragraph 5 which says: "Unless justified by public interest, journalists should not obtain or publish material obtained by using clandesti ne listening devices or by intercepting private telephone conversations."

The crucial question, then, is: what constitutes "the public interest"? Paragraph 18 says "Clauses 4 (privacy), 5, 7, 8 (harassment), and 9 (payment for articles) create exceptions which may be covered by invoking the public interest. For the purpose of this code that is most easily defined as: (i) detecting or exposing crime or a serious misdemeanour; (ii) protecting public health and safety; (iii) preventing the public from being misled by some statement or action of an individual or organisation." It adds: "In any case raising issues beyond these three definitions, the Press Complaints Commission will require a full explanation by the editor of the publication involved, seeking to demonstrate how the public interest was served."

This was no new fangled or self-serving exception devised by the press. Similar provisions were adopted in the Calcutt Committee's Report (1990) on Privacy in almost identical language (cm. 1102; The Stationery Office, London; 1990; p. 122, para 6). It w as set up by the British Government. It is a mark of illiteracy that the exposed now cry "fictitious company's fictitious deal". It was admittedly a subterfuge devised to expose a rotten state of affairs.

Para 7 of the Code was applied in The Sunday Times Case in 1994. On July 10, 1994, the paper published a story under the headline "Revealed: MPs who accept &pound1,000 to ask a parliamentary question". Within hours, two Conservative MPs, David Tre dinnick and Graham Riddick, were suspended from their jobs as parliamentary private secretaries. In the debate in the House of Commons on July 13, some MPs were more keen on attacking the newspaper rather than the offenders it had exposed. Their cry had a familiar ring ("the so-called guardians of the public interest").

Stung by the criticism, The Sunday Times revealed on July 17 the details of its investigative work over six months, following a tip at a lunch in January by a leading businessman that he had paid MPs to table parliamentary questions. Records of th ousands of questions were sifted. "A pattern began to emerge, several MPs known to have links with some of the 50 consultancy firms that hover around Westminster were asking questions of direct interest to the companies those firms lobbied for." (The teh elka.com tapes also reveal "a pattern"; far more grim and dangerous).

It was decided to test 10 Tory and 10 Labour MPs. All the Labour MPs refused. Two of the Tories were caught red-handed by a member of the paper's Insight team, Jonathan Calvert. Using his real name, he posed as a potential investor in a drugs company tha t was developing a cure for a throat infection called "Thising's Disease". The firm's name Githins was also an anagram of Insight. This was done to demonstrate how easy it was to table bogus questions.

On July 17 - note the despatch - the Press Complaints Commission gave its ruling. The full text is reproduced below as set out in Appendix 9 of the Report of the House of Commons Committee of Privileges First Report, Volume 2; p. 173.

"On 11 July 1994 Mr. Graham Riddick, MP for Colne Valley, complained to the Press Complaints Commission that information contained in an article in The Sunday Times of 10 July headlined "Revealed: MPs who accept &pound1,000 to ask a parliamentary question" was unfairly obtained through subterfuge. He maintained that such information was readily available elsewhere and raised his complaint under Clauses 7(i), 7(iii) and 18 of the Code of Practice.

"The article described how a journalist posed as an investor interested in buying a firm. He offered the complainant &pound1,000 to table a question in the House of Commons to the Secretary of State for Social Security about any work done by the firm (th e name of which had been invented) for the Department.

"Mr. Riddick has since told the Commission that as the House of Commons has established a Committee of Privileges to consider issues relating to this matter he does not wish to proceed with his complaint.

"The Commission is the appropriate body to decide whether The Sunday Times has breached the PCC's Code of Practice and it sees no conflict with the role of the Committee of Privileges in so doing. The Speaker of the House of Commons has informed the Comm ission that she does not see any conflict between an adjudication by the Commission based on the provisions of the Code and any investigation by the Committee of Privileges.

"The Commission has the power, of its own motion, to raise or continue the investigation of any alleged breach of the Code and it considers that Mr. Riddick's complaint raises an important question of public interest on which it ought to adjudicate.

"The Sunday Times told the Commission that they undertook this investigation after being told by a prominent businessman that it was common practice for MPs to be paid to table question in Parliament and the "going rate was &pound1,000". The newspaper's receipt of this information coincided with rumours which they had picked up in the House of Commons that MPs were being paid for putting down questions. The newspaper believed that an investigation into these matters was in the public interest and consid ered that a debate about the question of payment of MPs and their consultancies was timely. The propriety of any such payment seemed to the newspaper to be unclear. Erskine May's Parliamentary Practice indicates that the receipt of payment by MPs for tabling questions may be a breach of privilege yet payment appears to be permissible if MPs record any financial relationship with outside parties within a set period. An examination by the newspaper of thousands of parliamentary questions appeared t o confirm their suspicions but not to offer exact proof. The newspaper contended that the use of subterfuge was the only method by which the matter could be investigated.

"The Commission accepts the newspaper's explanation for their behaviour. The subject matter of the article raised issues of serious public interest which the newspaper had a right to pursue. In all the circumstances of this case, the Comm-ission consider s that the subterfuge used was justified as the only effective investigative tool available by which the information concerned could be obtained."

One has only to read the Code and the ruling to realise the full justification of tehelka.com's exposure. "We have to employ desperate solutions for desperate situations," its editor Tarun Tejpal rightly claimed (The Times of India, March 16).

Everyone knew that for decades defence purchases by the Governments of India were a scandal. Even Izvestia of December 16, 1995 reported the scandalous state of affairs which was known the world over. New Delhi was a den of sleaze. It had to be exposed. But far more relevant is Tejpal's query: "Though we blew the whistle, who will police this matter?" Who indeed?

'No qualms about the techniques'

Tarun Tejpal, chief executive and editor of Tehelka.com, spoke to Sukumar Muralidharan on the mechanics and the motivations of one of the most celebrated sting operations in Indian journalism. Excerpts:

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Did you ever encounter any resistance to your overtures? Is the system completely porous, or are there points at which resistance could be encountered by somebody seeking to penetrate it?

We actually went through two or three different routes after a point, and all of them were opening up. Finally if we had had enough money - not just the Rs. 10 or 15 lakhs but say Rs. 50 lakhs or a crore - then we could have split open the system.

There were no roadblocks as such but occasionally we would lose a thread. And very often this was because we did not have enough money to throw around. But supposing there was a product and there was enough money to back it, then we could have just worke d our way through anywhere. What used to happen is that somebody used to say bring me 10 lakh or 15 lakhs or 20 lakhs, and our reporter would say okay, here is 20,000 - I will bring you the rest later. If you look at the Bangaru Laxman episode for instan ce, our chaps said they would go back with $30,000 the next day. Now where are we going to get that money? But assuming we had it, then we could have gone back and actually got him on tape accepting that money. But we thought at a point that we had prove n the case well enough.

Have you committed to hand over the entire 100 hours of recordings to the official investigation?

Somebody has to make a formal request before we start considering it. And we will consult our lawyers before doing that.

The Army has made an approach.

From the Army the signals have been terrific: they want to use our evidence to clean up things. We have said that we are willing to cooperate. So I met them and asked for a formal request and then I deposed under oath.

And some of the officers who have been implicated in the tapes were present?

Absolutely. Major-General P.S.K. Choudhary sat through my deposition and he was given a chance to cross-examine me. He had only one question to ask: was I the author of the transcripts, and I said I was not.

How have the signals from the political establishment and the bureaucracy been?

Very disappointing. These people are stonewalling. Jaya Jaitley is going around splitting hairs. And from the Defence Ministry, as far as we are concerned, we have had a deafening silence.

Your reporters were not very well clued into defence matters. Did they at any stage encounter suspicions?

What was astonishing for us was the sheer greed on display. And that is borne out by the fact that these two reporters made so many mistakes. They are both very fine reporters, but they know nothing about military hardware or defence. They made so many g affes, but these chaps were so blinded by money that they did not suspect anything. What I suspect is that for them, these deals are just an everyday occurrence - they are so quotidian that they did not suspect anything wrong.

How did this idea of floating a fictitious company and seeking to sell its wares originate?

That was really Aniruddha's (Tehelka Investigative Team head Aniruddha Bahal) idea. For him it was the Bharatpur ammunition dump fire which really started things off. There was so much of talk that it was a set-up job, that the Army was trying to get rid of bad equipment - so that is what triggered it for him. But then finally it was about defence deals. The Indian political scenario has been dominated for so long by Bofors and other deals. So this is the first time that we have got hard evidence.

But the tapes do not constitute evidence in a legal sense...

Every lawyer who has commented has said that this is primary evidence. If there is a public servant taking money to do something, that is evidence of corruption. This shows the endemic corruption that exists. That was our purpose.

How close were you to having your cover blown?

There were a few skirmishes. The tense period was when the fieldwork finished, which was in the middle of January. From then till the middle of March was a tense phase. There were 15 people working on the transcribing and editing. On March 12, I saw the final edited version and the next day we broke the story.

R.K. Jain has said that he did realise that he had been played for a dupe and had tracked your cars to your office...

That was the most serious skirmish. But then, as with crooks who are caught, they had nowhere to go. So he just sat tight, hoping that it would be a false alarm. Like Bangaru Laxman for example, he actually called Aniruddha's number a couple of times. In one conversation he said that he did not go to the airport to see off the Prime Minister who was going to Vietnam, because he was waiting for us.

Was there ever any hint that you were under surveillance?

From October onwards we had a strong sense that our telephones were being tapped. So Aniruddha and Samuel (Tehelka reporter Mathew Samuel) stopped using their numbered cell-phones and they switched to call cards. But there was no real scare till the ti me Jain's men came following our cars.

There are suggestions that the Department of Company Affairs has been asked to inquire into your sources of finance...

We were told that the Prime Minister's Office had instructed several departments to dig out dirt on us. That is why I held a press conference to release all the company papers - the shareholding, the certificate of incorporation, the board of directors, the resumes of all the directors...

You have a distinguished board of directors. What did they have to say about it?

V.S. Naipaul called from England. And he had a literary-philosophical analysis of what was happening. He spoke about cycles of corruption and civilisation and so on. And Khushwant Singh I went and saw some days ago. I apologised for not informing him, bu t then he said that it was great and we have done a good job. And Amitabh (Bachchan), I did call before I broke the story, because he is the big public figure in India. I told him that we were breaking a big story. He said: can you tell me what the story is? And I said I couldn't. So that was fine. He is too civil to really insist and I have not spoken to him since.

So you have no qualms about the techniques used?

Not at all. I think these people have to be nailed in whatever way. I think the public relations aspect of Indian journalism has to be toned down. We just have to get a little hard.

But the print media, for instance, use different standards of substantiation...

I agree. I keep saying, imagine if this story had broken in print. Even with all this audio-video evidence, they are still stonewalling. If it had been in print, nobody would have given us the time of day.

The deals in question

JOHN CHERIAN cover-story

A look at the defence deals on the table that have figured in the latest scandal.

SINCE assuming power some three years ago, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government in New Delhi has been on a shopping spree in the international arms bazaar. It concluded among others the Rs.560-crore Barak anti-missile systems deal, the Rs.250-crore Armed Recovery Vehicles deal, and agreements relating to the purchase of Su-30 fighter planes, T-90 tanks, the aircraft carrier Admiral Gorshkov and Krasnopol artillery shells. According to the Russian media, the deals signed in the last two years betwee n India and Russia are worth more than $3 billion. Defence Minister George Fernandes had with fanfare proclaimed in Parliament last year the government's commitment to excluding middlemen and agents from defence deals.

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The Tehelka tapes show former Samata Party treasurer R.K. Jain as saying that he had passed on Rs.1 crore to Fernandes for expediting the Barak deal. The allegation against the Defence Ministry is that it went against the advice of the Defence Research a nd Development Organisation (DRDO) headed by A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, which wanted the Navy to go in for the indigenous Trishul missiles instead of the Barak system, which is twice as expensive as the former. The Barak system is claimed to be capable of destr oying anti-ship missiles and aircraft.

Fernandes has said that the DRDO was fully involved in the selection of the system and that the first contract for the Barak system, to be installed on board INS Viraat, was concluded in 1997 when Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat was the Chief of the Naval Staff. But Bhagwat had given his assent to the import of only one Barak system, on the grounds that it was too expensive. The Trishul was still not available at that time.

However, after Bhagwat's dismissal, the Defence Minister ordered six more Barak systems for the Navy. Fernandes has now claimed that this decision, taken during the Kargil war, was made after consultations with the DRDO and the Navy. However a section of the Navy is known to be of the view that the Barak system is not designed to tackle supersonic anti-ship missiles, which may constitute a major threat in the years to come.

An article in a recent issue of the American journal Bulletin of Atomic Scientists says that New Delhi has been showing considerable interest in Israeli fences for the country's borders. Israeli fences use electronic sensors to track human movemen t. The Indian media have also reported that the Army is considering buying an electronic intruder alarm system for the border areas from foreign companies, including an Israeli one.

Officials of the DRDO have said that they have produced an indigenous Remotely Activated Acoustic Warning System (RAAWS), costing Rs.6 lakhs to Rs.8 lakhs per kilometre installed. The foreign firms have reportedly quoted Rs.50 lakhs to Rs.55 lakhs. The D RDO developed RAAWS three years ago. The government had stated in parliament in December 1999 that indigenously produced sensors were ineffective in hill terrain and that approval had been given for the procurement of "unattended ground sensors" from abr oad. The DRDO scientists who had worked on the project claimed that their alarm system had not been tested in hilly terrain as claimed by the government. They maintain that their product is as good as any foreign system.

The government recently abandoned the Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) programme of the Centre for Airborne Systems (CABS) of the DRDO just because the aircraft which carried the test system had crashed a couple of years ago. It has been tryin g to secure Israeli help for the AWACS project while the CABS' facilities remain idle.

Bulletin of Atomic Scientists notes that "Israeli equipment is costly and it is doubtful whether New Delhi will be offered the generous financing terms it enjoys with Russia". The Israeli newspaper Haaretz has said that the Israeli arms ind ustry is looking for a market worth $2 billion in India. Israel is known to be good at sanctions-busting, as was proved during the 1970s and the 1980s when it actively colluded with the apartheid regime in South Africa.

The NDA government is of the view that increasing defence ties with Israel will reduce the dependence on Russian suppliers and at the same time give the armed forces access to high-quality equipment which would otherwise have been impossible to get becau se of the U.S. sanctions after Pokhran II. However, there are many risks involved in dealing with Israel, as Washington has considerable leverage in Tel Aviv on defence matters. Last year Israel went back on its decision to sell AWACS planes to China aft er the U.S. intervened.

R.K. Jain has mentioned on tape a deal with another Israeli company, Soltam, which was given the contract to convert the Army's ageing 130mm field guns into the more powerful 155mm guns. It is argued by apologists for the government that the Israeli comp any was the only one that had the expertise for the job. Another reason mentioned for awarding the contract to the Israeli company is that it was the only one that brought its products for trial in 1993.

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THE other "deal" involving the Navy that figures in the Tehelka tapes concerns the plan to acquire Admiral Gorshkov along with 22 MiG-29-Ks. Although the deal has not been clinched, the price currently quoted for the refurbishment of the ship is said be on the high side. Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat has said that the original price tag of $400 million has been jacked up to $700 million over the last three years.

The Russian media quote $2 billion for the refurbished aircraft carrier and its contingent of MiG-29K deck fighters. The Indian Navy claims that several delegations have gone to evaluate and scrutinise the Gorshkov "for its possible induction into the In dian Navy after refit and modernisation". Three of these delegations were headed by a senior Flag Officer who is well-versed with carrier operations. According to informed sources, the Navy is examining the detailed project report submitted by the Russia ns on the refitment and the armaments. The Navy says that "it is premature to quote any figure as the agreed price of the Gorshkov". A senior Russian official said that all defence contracts signed between India and Russia were state-to-state deals with no private parties involved.

Another defence deal involving Russia that has come in for media attention is the purchase of the Krasnopol Guided Artillery Weapons System for the Army. Major S.J. Singh, one of the Army officers caught on the Tehelka tape, is heard boasting that he arr anged for the multi-crore-rupee contract despite the ammunition having failed in five of the six trials. It is suggested that the Krasnopol shells used by the tanks and Bofors guns are ineffective at high altitudes.

A senior official of KBP Instrument Bureau, which produces the ammunition, vehemently rebutted this allegation. He said that Krasnopol shells had already been sold to leading Asian countries including China. The U.S. has applied sanctions against KBP Ins trument Bureau, one of the biggest and oldest Russian armament companies, because it has dealings with Syria, which the U.S. treats as a "terrorist" state.

The official said that the tests were first carried out in the Indian deserts and then in the Siachen area. The desert tests were a total success but the results in Siachen were not good, the official said, and explained that the shells had until then b een used only up to altitudes of 3,000 metres while the altitude in Siachen was around 4,500 metres. Another reason, the official said, was that the Indian defence establishment did not allow the transfer of a Bofors gun to Russia to prepare the shells a s per the Army's specifications. The official said that the Russian Army had never possessed a gun of the calibre of the Bofors gun.

The problem was rectified within a year, according to the official. His company, he said, had spent more than $1 million to design "a projectile specifically for India as India is our strategic partner". On November 2, 1999, the shells were successfully tested in the Himalayas. Four of the five projectiles fired hit their targets. They have now been certified as combat-effective. The Chinese army has already entered into a deal with KBP Instrument Bureau to produce the Krasnopol shells under licence, t he official said.

A Czech company's offer to supply 250 Armoured Recovery Vehicles used to recover damaged tanks, figures in the Tehelka tapes. Fernandes said in his resignation speech that he had rejected the offer, which quoted the lowest price, because the company was not an original equipment manufacturer and it was trying to hawk second-hand equipment. He said that the contract for the Armoured Recovery Vehicle was given to public sector undertakings; a contract for 87 vehicles was shared equally by Bharat Heavy Ele ctricals Limited (BHEL) and Bharat Earth Movers Limited (BEML). But these two companies are not known to have the expertise to make such vehicles, and it is reported that what they are going to produce for the Army will be the same Czech vehicles importe d in a knocked-down condition.

In his speech Fernandes also denied that he was unduly influenced by the Russian MIG MAPO company in connection with the Advanced Jet Trainer (AJT) contract. He said that requests with regard to the proposal had been issued only to two companies which th e Indian Air Force (IAF) had shortlisted - the manufacturers of the British Hawk and the French Alpha Jet. Fernandes, however, admitted that the Russians had been "constantly requesting the Government of India to consider their aircraft". In the last wee k of March the Hinduja brothers denied that they had either received commissions or played a role in the Hawk deal.

The paralysis that has set in in the defence establishment in the aftermath of the latest expose is bound to have an adverse impact on future defence procurement processes. Even some deals that have been signed and sealed could come under scrutiny, now t hat the role of middlemen is difficult to deny. The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence, in its report in the fourth week of March, criticised the Defence Ministry in the fourth week of March by saying that secrecy in the name of national securit y should "not be used as a potent weapon to merely cover up corruption and inefficiency in defence procurement procedures."

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The Committee had suggested in the past that the bottlenecks in defence procurement procedures be removed. It had recommended that the government avoid "wasteful expenditure on purchases and plug the sources on the leakages of funds". Another suggestion, made in the wake of the report of the Vice-Chief of the Army Staff's committee on modifying the defence procurement process, was that the government form a broad-based, high-power committee for "a deeper look into the acquisition process". The current s ituation, the Committee report noted, was not conducive to buying weapons on time, and that too at a juncture when the armed forces faced a high-risk security situation in many parts of the country.

The Parliamentary Committee remarked that the delivery of specific systems such as the T-90s, the weapons-locating radar and the refurbished MiG-21 aircraft should be expedited. It observed that it was imperative that the armoured corps were kept strong. For this, the Committee suggested that the final price of the T-90s should be negotiated quickly. The Committee also wanted the upgradation schedule of the MiG-21BiS to be adhered to. Further delays, it noted, would make the aircraft's life-extension fi nancially unviable.

The Chief of the Army Staff (COAS), Gen. S. Padmanabhan, while supporting the establishment of the post of a chief of defence staff and the proposal to merge the civilian dominated Ministry of Defence with a single Service headquarters, had said that the se steps would lead to greater operational efficiency and encourage an efficient and transparent procurement policy. The Army chief has initiated a 20-year-plan to modernise the Army's equipment. He has said that the T-90 tanks the Army is acquiring will stay in service for the next 30 years. The Army's inventory of towed and self-propelled guns will be standardised on 155mm weapons. The infantry will be provided with better anti-tank weapons and combat armour.

Critics of the T-90 deal feel that it would lead to the marginalisation of the indigenously built Main Battle Tank (MBT) Arjun. It is reported that the German company that supplies the Arjun with its diesel engines has since hiked the price. Each engine now costs more than Rs.5 crores, making the Arjun a more expensive proposition than the imported T-90s. The Comptroller and Auditor-General (CAG) had criticised the Arjun for its technical deficiencies and poor operational mobility, in a report published in 1999. It is also reported that the indigenous content of the Arjun has diminished considerably, with imported parts now constituting nearly 60 per cent of it.

The DRDO has sunk a lot of money and expertise in the Arjun project, but the Army does not seem to have much confidence in the tank's prowess. The Public Accounts Committee (PAC), which tabled its reports in April last year, had been told by the Defence Ministry that the T-90s were being inducted as an "interregnum" purchase, until the Arjuns were made available. With more than 300 T-90s to be inducted into the Army, not many people believe in the assertions of the Defence Ministry.

Many important deals signed with foreign defence equipment manufacturers will mature soon. They include the modernisation of the T-72 tank, the purchase of the Smersh multi-barrel rocket launcher, the Kornet E anti-tank guided missile, the unmanned aeria l vehicle Mark-2, weapons locating radar, medium self-propelled guns, medium towed guns, thermal imaging systems and assault rifles for para commandos. Some foreign vendors feel that the expose has come at a bad time, just as the financial year is coming to an end. Several delegations representing big companies are in Delhi, and some of them are cooling their heels.

The Navy also wants the Barak system it has contracted for but there are many unanswered questions regarding this and other deals that were signed in the last three years. The first batch of the Su-30 MKI jets and T-90 tanks are scheduled to arrive soon. Both the deals may now come under scrutiny. The AJT deal could be a major casualty of the latest scandal. The IAF is in dire need of trainers if the current accident rate is any indicator.

After the Bofors scandal of the 1980s, defence procurements had temporarily come to a halt. Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha pointed out during the Budget session that Rs.3,146 crores earmarked for defence purchases had not been utilised in 2000-01. The m ajor reason for the non-utilisation of the funds was the delays in finalising deals.

The surveillance scene

PRAVEEN SWAMI cover-story

A run-down on currently available surveillance and counter-surveillance technologies and their applications, in the context of the Tehelka operation.

SPIES, unlike Tehelka's team of journalists, would not really have needed to enter Defence Minister George Fernandes' home to find out just what was happening there. Using equipment available off the shelf, such as long-range parabolic microphones and sh otgun microphones, they could have picked up conversations sitting in a hotel room 1,500 metres away, even through a 50 cm thick wall. Each time Fernandes picked up a cordless or cellular telephone to speak to officials, electronic devices costing just a few thousand dollars would have allowed the spies to listen in. And if they were equipped with state-of-the-art emission detection equipment, the spies could have read each line of text typed out on the computers at the Defence Ministry.

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Tehelka's sting operation has shaken up India's intelligence establishment, and not for the obvious reasons. It has illustrated just how vulnerable defence and strategic establishments are to professional surveillance, and shown up the dismal state of co unter-surveillance infrastructure.

In the world of modern surveillance technology, the miniature cameras used by Tehelka lie at the bottom end of the scale. Spybase, an online surveillance technology vendor, sells products like the VidLink 100 video transmitter system for as little as $39 9 (about Rs.18,800). Fitting into any object the size of a cigarette box, the VidLink transmits video signals from its miniature camera up to 1.6 km away, where they can then be recorded on tape. An amateur version of the VidLink is available for just $1 79 (about Rs.8,400) and allows for video transmission over some 250 m. High resolution systems are also commercially available. U.S.-based Communications Control Systems (CCS) sells a video camera fitted in a pen, with a lens just 3.6 mm in diameter, whi ch can record colour images in just 0.5 Lux of brightness.

Systems like these have been widely used abroad, both by journalists and law-enforcement organisations, as well as for commercial espionage. A corporation might, for example, record the payment of bribes to politicians in order to prevent them from reneg ing on an agreement. Miniature cameras and video transmitters, concealed in devices as diverse as desktop clocks, electrical plugs, door knobs or even hollowed-out books, are routinely used to monitor employees in rooms where sensitive information is kep t. Despite a fair level of information on such surveillance methods being available, criminals continue to be caught on camera. The producers of a recent British Broadcasting Corporation programme used covert cameras to blow the lid of trafficking in eas tern European women. Police forces routinely use cameras fitted inside car radio antennae to keep suspects under surveillance. "All this is seen as essential equipment," says security equipment dealer Ajay Gupta, "not as expensive toys."

Why, then, have we not seen explicit images of corruption and narratives of scandal emerge from elsewhere in the world? The simple answer is that these techniques will not work in developed countries. Any office or home where sensitive material is stored , or secrets are discussed, would be protected with modern counter-surveillance devices that would detect any electronic intrusions. One major counter-surveillance tool consists of systems that can detect any transmissions, through a full range of 5 mega hertz to over 4 gigahertz. The minute a covert camera is turned on, for example, the counter-surveillance equipment would detect its activation. Users would also be alerted to the presence of any audio or video transmitter concealed in fixed devices plan ted inside a room. Kits are available to detect the covert use of audio and video recorders.

State-of-the-art equipment can feed false signals to those listening in, allowing images of bribe-taking, for example, to be replaced with innocuous footage. Other technologies exist to alert users that their telephones are being tapped. CCS' B-411, for example, monitors telephone lines for any changes in the electrical parameters, of the kind caused by transmitters, extension phones, or even plain tape recorders. The B-411 then generates a masking tone that makes eavesdropping difficult. Devices to pre vent other kinds of surveillance are again available commercially. Audio jammers, which generate random noise, are available for around $100, and provide a high level of protection against microphones and tape recorders. Each jammer can protect conversat ions taking place within a 100 square metre room. Special shielding equipment is available to protect rooms from microphone surveillance.

Organisations in advanced countries, official and corporate ones, go to extraordinary lengths to protect their secrets. Telephone, fax and e-mail correspondence is, for instance, routinely encrypted. This provides users of counter-surveillance technology another layer of defence should their systems fail to alert them to bugs. A variety of devices are commercially available, ranging from cheap gadgets that distort voices, to full-scale encryption equipment. Anyone listening in to an encrypted telephone or radio conversation would hear only gibberish. Sadly, very few Indian establishments use encryption routinely. While the Intelligence Bureau and the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) have secured some key voice and fax lines, many communications, includ ing satellite telephones, remain unencrypted. That means anyone armed with a frequency scanner, or even just some copper wire, screwdrivers and ingenuity, can listen in to sensitive conversations.

New technology can resemble science fiction. Since the early 1980s, the intelligence community has been discussing technologies to protect the surveillance of emissions from computer monitors and printers. Technology exists to read this kind of text from up to 3 km away, using the electronic emissions generated by computers. The United States security establishment has rigorous standards, code-named Tempest, to protect these kinds of surveillance. Other standards, reportedly codenamed Nonstop and Hijack , exist to prevent the transmission of signals from radio frequency devices such as cellphones, pagers and cordless phones. German computer magazines reported in 1991 that authorities processing sensitive data in that country were required to use only Te mpest-protected devices approved by ZfCH, Germany's Central Office for Encipherment. Ericsson is believed to be the market leader for such special computer security screens.

EVER since espionage began, code-breakers have been constantly at war with code-makers. Any technology to ensure secrecy is immediately challenged by counter-technologies, which are in turn beaten by new secrecy tools. Experts, however, believe that the war is finally being won by the code-makers. Simon Singh, the author of The Code Book, has suggested that the advent of quantum cryptography would make it theoretically and practically impossible to decipher an encrypted conversation.

Concerns about the intelligence establishment's communication security have been voiced for several years now. The May 2000 report of the official task force on the intelligence apparatus (see separate story) noted the need for the Intelligence Bureau to possess "a reliable and safe communications capability". The report said: "Many of the hostile groups operating within the country currently benefit from the expertise of foreign intelligence services, and are able not only to latch on to frequencies, b ut can can also demodulate RF (radio frequency) transmissions that have been modulated and remodulated after transmission." "Almost all messages," the report concluded, "now need to be encrypted, and online encryption is a dire necessity." The report has been accepted by the Central government, but it is anyone's guess how long it will be before such major technological upgradation comes about.

Interestingly, one form of unbreakable encryption, based on what are known as one-time cipher pads, has existed for almost a century. A one-time cipher consists of replacing characters or digits with a randomly generated alternative. The hotline between the Presidents of the U.S. and Russia apparently use these pads, but the costs of generating genuinely random characters, and the difficulties involved in regularly disseminating pads, render the use of this method impractical for everyday use.

Big Brother is listening, but Indian intelligence officials are curiously blase about electronic surveillance. The U.S.-run Project Echelon can intercept almost all e-mail and fax correspondence and telephone conversations, using a network of satellites and earth-based receivers. The interception of conversations between Pakistan's military ruler General Pervez Musharraf and the Chief of General Staff, Lt. Gen. Mohd. Aziz Khan during the Kargil war would not have been possible had both sides used encryp tion. Technologies like Rivest-Adelman-Shamir (RSA), based on one-way algorithms, provide for near-unbreakable encrypted communication. The U.S. has imposed severe restrictions on the export of strong encryption software, but some products based on RSA t echnology, like the now-legendary e-mail encryption software PGP, are available for download from servers outside that country. Strong encryption necessitates enormous computer resources to decode, of the kind that can stretch the abilities even of the N ational Security Agency of the U.S.

Organisations like the RAW do possess significant technological capabilities, including equipment to sweep important installations for bugs and to protect communications from interception. The organisation, sources say, also has considerable capability t o intercept telephone conversations. Military Intelligence, for its part, has formidable capabilities to decrypt enemy communications and gather intelligence by prowling the air waves. Such technology, however, is closely guarded, and finds little system -wide application. Visitors to top intelligence establishments and the Defence Ministry face only physical frisking, designed to detect not sophisticated surveillance tools but weapons. Any half-competent spy with access to any of these establishments wo uld have little difficulty planting bugs, or taping conversations, or filming documents. Even rooms which house ciphering equipment are rarely shielded from the prospect of an electronic attack.

If Tehelka's investigative team members had instead been espionage agents, the consequences would have been calamitous for the country. None of the conversations of the Defence Minister would have been confidential. India's nuclear secrets, its defence a cquisitions, its inner workings: all these would have been transparent. Decisions made in the offices of top military officials would have been known to India's enemies even as they were being made.

For all we know, this is already the case. Almost all of India's top officials receive civilian visitors, and there appears to be little regular audit of what they might have left behind. That Tehelka could record on tape politicians unconnected with def ence is cause for nothing except sadness. That they could penetrate high-security offices with such ease underlines the urgent need to upgrade the technological resources available to India's defence and intelligence organisations.

Chasing a right

How a sustained movement in a Rajasthan village to obtain information from panchayat-level officials under the law of the land faces seemingly insurmountable hurdles.

THE right to information has often been described as one of the most effective tools in the hands of citizens not only to fight corruption and the arbitrary exercise of power in the structures of government, but also to participate in governance.

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While the Central Bill on the Right to Information is being examined by the Joint Select Committee of Parliament, it is necessary to highlight some of the experiences in States in which laws relating to the right to information have been enacted. The exp erience in Janawad panchayat in Rajsamand district of Rajasthan illustrates graphically and dramatically the critical need for strong and enforceable legislation on the right to information if there is to be any hope of giving the ordinary people any rea l entitlement through this law.

After a three-year-long struggle, the citizens of Rajasthan gained in 1997 the right to obtain photocopies of all panchayati raj-related documents, including copies of muster rolls and vouchers of development expenditure, within four days of making an ap plication. On May 1, 2000, the State Assembly enacted amidst much fanfare a law that gave the people the right to information in all spheres of governance. In Janawad, despite sustained efforts and pressure, it took one year and a High Court directive finally to obtain the required information. The story of how the information was obtained is as important as the information itself.

Using the Rajasthan Panchayati Raj Rules and inspired by the revelations at a public hearing held in December 1999 in the neighbouring panchayat of Umarwaas (Frontline, March 17, 2000), over 70 citizens of Janawad collectively decided to apply for copies of records of work executed in their panchayat in the previous five years. A simple but powerful mechanism of transparency - a board painted on the wall of the panchayat indicating the total amount of money sanctioned and the amount spent on each item of work - had revealed shocking misappropriation. There were even cases of "ghost works" - where the only work that had actually taken place was the pocketing of money.

In order to prove the fraud and pin down the guilty, copies of the records were needed. On February 16, 2000, the residents submitted the first application for information. When a month passed without any response from the panchayat sarpanch or secretary , the applicants approached the District Collector.

The citizens of Janawad learnt in the next couple of months that the right to information entitlement, like many of the works in their panchayat, existed only on paper. No official, from the panchayat to the district level, was willing even to accept the ir application and issue a receipt. Ensuring that they got the information was clearly a distant dream. They turned for help to the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS), the organisation that has been in the forefront of the struggle for the people's ri ght to information in Rajasthan.

One of the most effective methods used by the state in Rajasthan to blunt efforts at people's mobilisation is first to ignore, then promise and not deliver, then delay, and finally, using all possible means wear out and deflate all people's demands and m ovements for change. It is a "peaceful" yet diabolical method of maintaining the status quo, more effective and sophisticated than straightforward opposition and violent repression. It was this method of attrition that was used by vested interests to deny information to the MKSS in Janawad.

On May 17, when the MKSS first approached district officials seeking their intervention to have the law implemented in Janawad, letters were promptly issued ordering the panchayat to provide the copies. For the next three months the gram sewak, Balu Lal Saini, played a game of hide and seek, by giving dates but absenting himself, claiming that the records had gone for audit, and looking for technicalities and loopholes in the rules to deny the information.

Copies of records were being sought of works executed during the period 1995-2000, mostly during the term of the former sarpanch, Ram Lal. Although he failed to get elected even as a ward member in the election held in January 2000, he had found ways to ensure that his reign continued. As the pressure mounted, Ram Lal and the gram sewak used their influence to make the sarpanch, a Dalit woman called Bhuri Bai, follow their commands. She was allegedly made to sign a letter that made false claims that the gram panchayat and the gram sabha had passed resolutions to withhold information, as providing such information would "disturb the peace" and lead to a law and order problem. The fact that passing such a resolution amounted to negating the law did not b other the panchayat authorities.

Faced with this manipulation, the MKSS lodged a protest with the district authorities, who agreed that these were illegal resolutions but expressed their inability to "interfere" with the "independent powers" of the panchayat. The MKSS was advised to app eal to the Department of Panchayati Raj in Jaipur.

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Even the sincere and determined efforts of the Secretary of the Panchayati Raj Department could not ensure the implementation of the law. The department issued orders annulling the alleged resolutions, called for an explanation from the gram sewak and th e sarpanch, and ordered them to provide copies to the applicants immediately. When these orders reached the panchayat and block offices the MKSS activists were given another date, in early November, to collect the required copies. One day before they wer e to collect the copies, the MKSS received a copy of an order passed by the pradhan of the block, Kishan Lal Gujjar, forming a "high-level enquiry committee" to go into possible corruption in Janawad panchayat. The committee was headed by the Block Devel opment Officer (BDO) and was to be assisted by the junior engineer and the accountant. (In panchayat-related corruption cases it is mostly the persons holding these three posts who are accused of acting in collusion.) The order mentioned the persistent e fforts of the MKSS to obtain copies of the records, and the pradhan endorsed the view of the gram sewak and the sarpanch that giving copies of these records would "disturb the peace". He therefore ordered that no records be given to any individual or org anisation until the inquiry was concluded!

There was no alternative now but to go back to Jaipur. As soon as the Secretary of the Department of Panchayati Raj issued orders to the BDO to ensure that records were provided, even block officials began avoiding MKSS activists and villagers. It was cl ear that the entitlement that had been obtained through a prolonged agitation would require another agitation for the people to benefit from it.

On November 22, the MKSS held a one-day dharna at the district headquarters of Rajsamand where over a thousand people gathered to demand that the law be implemented and the records of Janawad panchayat be provided. The District Collector gave a public as surance that the records would be provided two days later and that the BDO, who was present, would ensure that this was done.

It is generally acknowledged that in the Indian administrative structure the one official who can get things done at the local level is the District Collector. A Collector's orders carry more weight than the orders of others in the State government, and when petty officials disobey a Collector, there should be more to it than meets the eye. This is why there was a great deal of interest when the next day's newspapers carried a press statement by the gram sewak of Janawad that he had examined the law and according to his own interpretation he was not bound to provide copies of records. Issuing a press statement against the law and the Collector's public assurance seemed a foolish thing to do. At the appointed time the entire village and the local press turned up at Panchayat Bhavan to see if the Collector's assurance would be kept. Brimming with confidence, the gram sewak handed over a letter to the BDO refusing to part with copies of the records.

In his letter he sought further instructions from his superiors. However, in his conversation he made it clear that he had already received such instructions. The BDO had been making disapproving noises all through - issuing warnings to the gram sewak th at he was doing something wrong by refusing to obey the Collector's orders and follow the provisions of the law. However, as soon as the MKSS gave him a written representation to intervene and provide the copies of records as he was the gram sewak's supe rior and was present on the spot, he dictated a reply, which provided the finishing touches to the morning's charade. He said he would seek the advice of his superior officers and let the MKSS know in 15 days whether the gram sewak's new interpretation o f the Panchayati Raj Rules was valid or not.

December 2000 marked two years of the Congress government in office in Rajasthan. Huge notices exhibited in Jaipur and published in the newspapers pronounced the government's motto of providing a sensitive, accountable and transparent administration. In several interviews the Chief Minister claimed that one of the outstanding achievements of the government had been the enactment of the law relating to the right to information. The time had come to let the people know how this translated at the field lev el.

On November 28, the MKSS held a press conference in Jaipur on the non-enforcement of the right to information law. It offered several well-documented examples of non-compliance with it. They pertained, among others, to Sangawas panchayat in Rajsamand dis trict, Thana panchayat in Bhilwara district and Kalaliya panchayat in Pali district. There were also instances of unfulfilled assurances by the Electricity and Soil Conservation departments to provide copies of records. But the extraordinary chain of eve nts in Janawad became the focus of the press conference.

Stung by the negative publicity, the State government asked for the records to be brought to Jaipur immediately. The district administration promised to ensure that the copies were handed over, and MKSS activists were told that these would be delivered t o their office by the time they returned. There was still, however, a long way to go.

All through the next day, officials of Rajasmand district made calls and visits to the MKSS office to find out whether the records had arrived. Ironically, the officials kept asking the MKSS where their gram sewak was, and why the records they had sent w ith him to be delivered to the MKSS office hours earlier had still not reached. It transpired that the same gram sewak had been entrusted with not only the photocopies, but also the originals of the panchayat records, and both he and the records had vani shed!

The gram sewak's disappearance should have been a matter of great concern. A manhunt should have been launched for him. The MKSS expressed concern over his safety, but the district administration seemed confident that both he and the records would return safely.

There were rumours in Janawad village that he had gone to seek a stay order from the High Court Bench in Jodhpur. MKSS activists reassured Janawad's citizens that the courts had always insisted on transparency and that no court would grant a stay on orde rs to issue copies of the details of development expenditure, especially when there was a law that facilitates such provision. The assessment of the MKSS was wrong.

The gram sewak returned after three days with the records - and a stay order from the High Court. The stay order continued to be in force from November 29, until the case was disposed of on February 20, 2001. Despite the legal provisions under which affe cted parties can make an application to be heard within 14 days in cases where an ex-parte stay has been granted, a series of adjournments ensured that the stay order continued to be in force. The people of Janawad had had to stand up to a variety of pressures from Ram Lal and this order left them wondering again about the institutions of justice.

For over a decade the people of the panchayat had complained of corruption by Ram Lal and his group in the panchayat. These complaints had made no difference allegedly because he had an extensive network of support in the bureaucracy and the political es tablishment right up to the power centres in Jaipur. The people's sense of relief at his failure to get reelected in January 2000 was short-lived.

The right to information and its potential use by citizens provided a ray of hope to those who had been struggling to control the injustice in Janawad. The board on the wall of the panchayat office was intended to present the facts about the development of the panchayat over the previous five years. However, it told the story of why there had been no development. Over Rs. 80 lakhs had been spent in five years and it was clear that substantial amounts had gone into the pockets of some people.

There were the details of a number of works that simply did not exist - a veterinary hospital, a sub-public health centre, a community centre, check dams, and roads. There were other works on which a few thousands of rupees had been spent but several tim es the amount shown as the cost. People thought that if they could lay their hands on certified copies of these records, they would have in hand undeniable proof of corruption. The successful getaway with the records by the gram sewak and the subsequent stay order were now being used by Ram Lal to prove his invincibility.

It is said that even the best-laid-out plans leave a trail behind. When the gram sewak left the panchayat office with the records, he hid one file among older papers and files. As the pressure to provide the copies mounted from an embarrassed State admin istration, a harassed Additional Collector of the District and the Chief Executive Officer of the Zilla Parishad turned up with copies of some of the old records the gram sewak had left behind. They insisted that the MKSS take these unasked for copies so that they could report that some documents had been handed over. Among these papers, inadvertently handed over, were photocopies of the papers in the concealed file pertaining to construction of a dispensary at Janawad in 1998 at a cost of Rs. 1,36,973.

The MKSS took the file to the village on December 10. An impromptu public hearing was organised some 100 metres from the Janawad dispensary. The dispensary had indeed been built, but over 30 years ago. Since then the nurse who worked there had approached the panchayat innumerable times for money, to undertake repairs to the building, but the panchayat repeatedly said that there was no money. In the seven years she had worked in Janawad, not a single rupee had come from the panchayat. And yet the papers showed a completed measurement book filled out by the Junior Engineer for this ghost work.

This was enough to land Ram Lal, the Junior Engineer, the BDO and the gram sewak concerned in trouble. On the initiative of the MKSS, an official investigation was conducted, and on the confirmation of the fictitious work, a First Information Report was filed in the police station by the BDO. This was the first public acknowledgement by the administration that the person who had been shielded for several months may have committed corruption. Finally, it seemed the proof was available. But no arre sts were made.

Meanwhile, during the struggle to obtain copies of the records, the court case continued. Five officials of the government and the MKSS were made parties by the panchayat and the sarpanch in the High Court. Bhuri Bai told a television journalist on recor d that she had no idea about any court case - she only signed where the BDO and the gram sewak asked her to. The State government promised to put all its efforts into having the stay vacated as soon as possible. Yet it chose to be constrained from top to bottom by a court stay on the order of the BDO.

Ram Lal and his network have had all the time they could ask for to cover up any wrongdoing and change the public opinion that was ranged against him. The criminal complaint lodged against him by the BDO, on the petition of the MKSS, relating to t he sub PHC and several other fictitious works that came to light subsequently, is still under investigation and no arrests have been made. The Station House Officer told the MKSS that he had confirmed the fact that the records had been forged, but he sai d that the forged muster rolls had to be sent for tests such as finger print tests and all that would take time. Time is what Ram Lal and his people wanted and time is what they have been given in plenty.

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BUT the tide has finally begun to turn in Janawad. On January 26, in the social audit in the gram sabha held in the presence of the Chief Executive Officer of the Zilla Parishad, villagers identified seven ghost works, accounting for over Rs. 8 lakhs .

The newly posted BDO lodged two more FIRs. Politicians and bureaucrats who were openly supporting Ram Lal are now distancing themselves from him. On February 21, a day after the High Court decision was announced, the copies of the records were handed ove r to the MKSS. The MKSS promptly announced a jan sunwai (public hearing) in Janawad on April 3, 2001. (For an article on a related campaign of public hearings in rural Rajasthan in an earlier phase of the movement, see Frontline, March 6, 1 998; page 102.)

The objective of this public hearing will be to force the State government to act on proof. The police have still not acted on the three FIRs. The MKSS has demanded that the administration immediately recover the defalcated funds and take firm act ion against all those whose job it was to prevent the embezzlement. As the jan sunwai approaches, and the focus shifts to the quantum of money allegedly embezzled and its impact on the poor, the lessons of the year-long struggle to obtain the info rmation must not be lost. After April 3, Janawad is likely to be remembered for the detailed exposure of corruption in the development machinery. If people want to find solutions, however, Janawad must also be remembered for the struggle it had to wage t o expose corruption. If the right to information is to be of any real use to ordinary citizens, the loopholes in the laws that are now being enacted must be decisively removed.

As the Bill that has been tabled in Parliament is debated, the story of Janawad offers us some lessons. The first is that the right to information will encounter strong resistance from the bureaucracy. Only stiff penalties for non-compliance will give th e Act the teeth it requires for proper implementation. The Bill makes no provisions for penalties.

The second lesson is that the bureaucracy will use any excuse to deny information, and therefore the exemption clauses must be extremely restricted and must not give any room for misinterpretation.

The third lesson is that if any information is denied by an official, it is quite likely that the official will get support from his superiors. The only safeguard is to allow at least one independent appeal.

Finally, as the board in the panchayat of Janawad has illustrated, there is a lot of critically important information that can be easily provided even without it being asked for. If such information is given to citizens, it can truly create the basis for citizens' participation in a range of democratic activities. Suo motu display and dissemination of information must be mandated by the Act, so that the term "transparent governance" is not allowed to become another empty slogan.

Aruna Roy, a recipient of the Magsaysay award, and Nikhil Dey are both activists of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS), which is involved in the movement to uphold the people's right to information.

Ecology and capitalism

SUSAN RAM other

Late Victorian Holocausts: El Nino Famines and the Making of the Third World by Mike Davis; Verso, London and New York, 2001; pages 464, &pound20 (hardback).

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EVERY age has its prevailing mythology - established, embellished and militantly propagated by the ruling interests of the day. A century ago, upholders of British imperialism could loftily present the Raj in India as an exercise in munificence, an outpo uring of charity unparalleled in human history. Today, the globalising free market is purported, by its extollers, to exert a similarly beneficial impact on needy people the world over: neo-liberalism, untrammelled by state meddling and Luddite oppositio n, will (so the claim runs) bring growth, opportunity, betterment for all.

If imperialism-as-charity today finds few adherents, important elements of the mythology of empire live on. In Britain, the view that colonisation had a 'civilising' impact still persists, and not merely within the older generation. One university studen t this writer encountered recently believed the British had fought the Opium Wars in China in order to stop the opium trade. More insidiously, imperialist ideology shapes general perceptions of the world about us. For people living in advanced cap italist economies, this takes the form of consigning much of the rest of humanity to a 'third world' slough of backwardness that is assumed to be centuries deep. India, China, Brazil, Africa are commonly perceived as historical 'lands of famine' only now stumbling into the modern age. Western colonialism - for all its excesses, its racist attitudes, its cruelties - is still understood as an agent of transformation, stirring the world's backwaters and propelling entire tradition-locked societies into the future. The counterpart view, held by some disillusioned citizens of former colonies, is that 'things were better' in the halcyon days of empire; it would have been much better if the British (or the French, or the German) had never left.

The achievement of Mike Davis, in a new book that is an incendiary fusion of scholarship and moral outrage, is to cut to the quick of capitalist mythology and stand such assumptions on their head. Nothing is more 'modern' and of these times, he reveals, than the emiseration of millions, the transformation of large parts of the world into lands ravaged by hunger, disease and environmental degradation. Far from acting as an agent of progress, globalising world capitalism has functioned as an engine of cat astrophe, generating riches for the few while locking millions into dehumanising, life-threatening poverty. And at specific moments in the recent past, the economic imperatives of the world capitalist system have interacted with cyclical climatic factors to produce killing fields almost beyond our powers of imagination. In particular, three great drought-famines of the late 19th century, triggered by the synchronous weather system known as the El Nino/Southern Oscillation (ENSO), but transformed by the imperatives of empire into cataclysmic events with a combined toll of 30 million human lives, deserve to be seen for what they are: not as 'natural' events but as holocausts in which the requirements of global capitalism, interpreted and executed by wilf ul human agents, decreed that millions must perish.

Davis argues that if we are to gain the measure of these events, to fathom the complex interplay of human and natural forces, classical Marxist analysis needs to be extended into, and married with, the evolving new science of ecology. A veteran of the la bour movement in the United States (he worked as a meat-cutter, and a long distance truck driver before becoming a teacher of urban theory), Davis has in a sequence of controversial, assumption-challenging studies explored the explanatory potential of ra dical political ecology. Much of his previous work has focussed on the Californian experience. His Ecology of Fear, an analysis of the ways in which capitalism has turned Los Angeles into a potential disaster zone, provoked outrage among the city' s bourgeois elite for its suggestion that the affluent Malibu suburbs, insanely built in fire traps within a parched landscape characterised by endemic incendiary outbreaks, might best be left to burn.

In his new book, Davis attempts, through a dramatic and ambitious application of Marxist political ecology, a totalising engagement with the past. In pursuit of what he calls the 'political ecology of famine' he adopts a three-pronged strategy. First, he seeks, through conventional historical narrative, to establish the reality of the great 19th century drought-famines as lived human experience. Here, statistical estimates of the carnage are enriched and contextualised by eyewitness testimony; whistlebl ower accounts are set against the voices of the servants of empire - Lytton, Curzon and their farflung counterparts - whose decisions spelt death for millions across a vast sweep of the world's tropical zone, from China to Brazil, from India to the heart lands of Africa. The horror of it all is sharpened by the density and assiduousness of Davis' scholarship. There is a Chomsky-like quality to the richness and range of his sources, to his attention to detail.

As his second prong, Davis explores, and seeks to demystify, the synchronous climatic-atmospheric events which served as the proximate cause or initiator of the three great drought-famines. Here, the reader is guided through a scientific detective story. The arduous, obsessive search (analogous, Davis suggests, to the hunt for the "elusive great white whale") for the cause of global drought. What is striking here is the recentness of the breakthrough. It was only in the late 1960s that ENSO came to be u nderstood in all its interlocking complexity. The crux of ENSO theory, suggests Davis in helpfully plain language, is "the recognition that normal rainfall patterns over much of the globe change in response to... giant oscillations of ocean temperature a nd air pressure in the equatorial Pacific." Within this "planetary game of musical chairs played with jet streams and semi-continent-sized air masses" there are cycles within cycles, resulting in great variations in ENSO intensity and periodicity. But wh at seems clear, from our current level of knowledge, is that three times in the closing decades of the 19th century - in 1876-78, in 1889-91, and finally in 1896-1902 - ENSO played out its planetary game with peculiar intensity, aborting monsoon rains ac ross the broad sweep of equatorial earth and triggering generalised crop failure.

But the ENSO events of the late 19th century, while striking in their assertiveness and depth, were hardly new to human experience. Recent research shows synchronised climatic assaults to be deeply woven into the fabric of history. An example is the grea t drought-famine of 1743-44, an ENSO-provoked event which devastated agricultural production across northern China. But while extreme hardship followed, there was nothing approaching the mass mortality from starvation and disease that would engulf the sa me countryside a century or so later.

IN his third prong of attack, Davis asks why this was so. On the basis of detailed case histories of the experience of India, China and Brazil, he concludes that the crucial variable - the factor that more than any other transformed the late 19th century ENSO events into cataclysms of comprehension-defying proportions - was the growing social vulnerability of huge sections of humanity. People perished in their millions not because the monsoons failed. They died because complex, historically evolved prot ective structures and practices had been stripped away in consonance with 'free market' dogma. They died because high taxes, chronic indebtedness, tumbling terms of trade for their produce, enclosure, and a hundred other blows denied them the possibility of survival. They died alongside the railway tracks that, under different circumstances, might have been conduits of lifesaving grain from surplus areas; they died in the shadow of grain stockpiles guarded by troops to maintain inflated, profiteering pr ices. Meanwhile, the European empires, together with Japan and the U.S., seized the moment to extend capitalism's globalising reach, wresting new colonies, expropriating communal lands, tapping new sources of plantation and mine labour. As Davis puts it: "What seemed from a metropolitan perspective the 19th century's final blaze of imperial glory was, from an Asian or African viewpoint, only the hideous light of a giant funeral pyre."

Discounting the view, alive and strong among apologists and stalwarts of the free market, that catastrophe on such a scale was an inadvertent 'birth pang' or no-fault 'friction of transition' of an ultimately benign world capitalism, Davis brings us face to face with the reality of human agency. He reminds us of the naked force by which markets were 'made' and entire peoples conscripted into a London-centred world economy. In line with the precedent established by the Nuremberg judges (in the context of a different but, by implication, comparable mass slaughter), he disallows the defence that servants of empire were only obeying orders. Names need to be named, infamy must be set down for all time.

Here is Lord Lytton, presiding over the glittering extravaganza of the 1876 Delhi Imperial Durbar while countermanding efforts by his Madras Governor to save lives by stockpiling grain. Here is Richard Temple, "the personification of free market economic as a mask for colonial genocide", forcing half a million starving people out of relief work and stipulating a daily ration for male coolies - the notorious 'Temple wage' - which was less even than that later decreed at Buchenwald. Here, in the China of the Boxer Rebellion (essentially a response, Davis argues, to the ENSO-precipitated drought-famine of 1897-98), is Field-Marshall Von Waldersee, directing his exterminating armies to heed the Kaiser's orders and emulate the carnage of Attila.

This is a work of passionate engagement with the past; its dense and meticulous scholarship is suffused with anger, its voice frankly accusatorial. As such, it is certain to draw fire from conventional historiography, with its claims to objectivity and e mphasis on 'balance' as the road to historical truth. That Davis, in pursuit of a totalising perspective on a hugely complex historical experience, may sometimes stray beyond the evidence is suggested by a portrait of pre-colonial Indian society that, wi th its emphasis on patrimonial obligation and small producer entitlements, seems to bypass the whole issue of caste. But this is to miss the point. By retrieving a vast swathe of 'hidden history', re-evaluating it in the light of new scientific knowledge , and placing it within a coherent explanatory framework of direct and immediate relevance to our own times, Davis has produced a book of extraordinary range and force - a lighting up of the past that is also a call to action.

Exploring Asia

A major conference on Information Technology takes stock of Asia's potential and problem areas.

THE theme and the venue were made for each other, as it were. The theme was "Asia's Technology Future: Transforming Business" and the venue, Bangalore, India's high-tech capital which heralded the country's technology revolution. It was the 12th Annual C orporate Conference in Asia of the Asia Society, founded in the United States by John D. Rockefeller III in 1956 with the objective of fostering public understanding of Asia in the U.S. and communication between the peoples of America, Asia and the Paci fic.

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Organised jointly by the Asia Society, Dow Jones & Co. Inc. and the Confederation of Indian Industry, the conference explored, from March 11 to 13, the impact of technology on business and society in Asia and the question whether the continent can rise t o the challenges of the New Economy and become the technology leader or will continue to serve as a manufacturing/service location for multinationals. The dominant topics were pan-Asian cooperation, China's growing strength and its desire to become a maj or software player, India's pre-eminence in the software industry and its relationship with its Asian neighbours, especially China, the downturn in the U.S. economy and its implications, the widening digital divide, and so on. Marshall Bouton, executive vice-president of the Asia Society, said that unlike previous annual conferences where broad macroeconomic policy issues relating to business were the focus, the 12th conference concentrated "on a particular ingredient of the business model".

Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee set the tone for the conference when, in his keynote address, he called for a "collaborative approach to research, development and business partnership", which could create a win-win situation for all. Acknowledging th e importance of information technology (IT) as "a powerful agent of economic growth and social development" Vajpayee said that India would "embrace technology even more comprehensively and confidently" as it modernised its agriculture, industry, services and governance.

But are Asian governments and businesses on the ball? Change has been slow. For example, the idea of doing business through the Internet has not caught up in the region. Delegates referred to the tendency of Asian companies to try to appear to be up-to-d ate by creating non-interactive websites. These sites offered static information that could only be read but could not help carry out actual business. This is in sharp contrast to the global trend where competitors are increasingly doing business through e-commerce.

A recent survey by Goldman Sachs involving 70 companies in 12 industries in 11 Asian countries showed that companies could expect to save 5 to 30 per cent of operating cost by adopting e-commerce practices. This level of saving is crucial for Asian com panies if they are to retain the cost advantage they have enjoyed traditionally owing to lower labour costs. But the hurdle they face in switching to the efficiency of e-commerce is what is called guanxi, the Asian emphasis on personal connections . Family-owned conglomerates in India, South-East Asia, Hong Kong and Taiwan, closely knit business syndicates such as the keiretsu in Japan and the chaebols in Korea, and government-owned enterprises in China prefer the old system of doing business through personal contacts rather than through means such as the Internet.

With a population of over three billion, which is more than half the world population, Asia has a huge market, theoretically. According to the International Tele-communication Union, by 2010 more than 50 per cent of the mobile phone users in the world wi ll be in the Asia-Pacific region. But the pattern of use of IT varies widely, from country to country and even region to region. While some Asian countries have the highest rates of personal computer ownership and Internet and mobile phone penetration in the world, some have not even laid out the basic telecom infrastructure in rural areas.

Asian countries face the disadvantage of having small domestic markets when compared to European countries and the U.S. Yeo Cheow Tong, the Minister for Communications and IT in Singapore, said that Asian countries could be more competitive if they colla borated closely, encouraged closer economic ties between companies in their respective countries and removed regulatory and other barriers to their markets.

The advocacy of such a pan-Asian IT grouping at the conference was tempered by the realisation that it was almost impossible to achieve this, given the cultural and political divide and mutual suspicion among many of the Asian countries. The Indian softw are industry, for instance, is greatly focussed on North American (61 per cent) and European (23.5 per cent) markets, although the speakers emphasised that East Asia was highly relevant to India's future in an economic, cultural and geo-physical sense. S aid Bouton: "The Asia Society has in our meetings sought to tie India into a broader understanding of Asia. (Today) when East Asians define Asia, they stop at the Burma-India border. Likewise, when Americans look at Asia their gaze looking westward from Los Angeles goes as far as Singapore or looking eastward from New York goes as far as the Middle East (West Asia). India falls between these two stools."

There was virtual unanimity at the conference regarding the importance of China and India forging a relationship in the interest of the region as a whole. Micah Truman, co-founder of Madeforchina, an Internet-based marketing and consultancy company based in Beijing, said that for the Asian technology revolution to take place Indian software companies must make inroads into China. But this is very difficult to achieve, he acknowledged. Truman said: "The Chinese government's mandate is to meet the people' s enormous needs for software, knowledge in technology and state and tax services. It already does business with a number of big multinational companies and large institutions and will take it (software) as it needs it. The question is, can Indian compan ies supply it and will the Indians focus long enough?"

Dr. Jasmine Aimaq, director, Pacific Council on International Policy, an American-Asian think tank, said: "There is more separation between Asian countries than there are alliances. Countries only come together if there is a clear advantage to be gained. From the software perspective India and China coming together would be an advantage to the world. But I can't see that happening."

Truman initiated a heated debate when he spoke of the possibility of China overtaking India in the global software race. He said: "We have traditionally separated hardware and software, but the distinction is going to blur. In software, India has a huge headstart, has the infrastructure, manpower, and the government has been exemplary, but it is important to keep a clear eye to the possibilities and one of the possibilities is most certainly China. Don't overlook China. Yes, China's software exports are very low; the government regulates the Internet; IT laws have been slow in coming; it has problems with IPRs (Intellectual Property Rights); and has a shortage of IT talent. But the Chinese government firmly believes that information economy has to be e mbraced at all costs. Innovation is a very difficult thing, but a bunch of fast-moving guys from Chinese universities know that they must make innovations happen or otherwise IT will leave them behind."

Truman said that China's key strategy of getting its agriculture into shape created a base for low-cost export-oriented manufacturing. It leveraged that advantage into a fast-growing economy with increasing global clout, attracted foreign investments, an d developed a high level of competence in manufacturing. There was no reason why China could not do this in software too. It already has a much larger internal IT market than India. Now it is only a question of how China would do it for the export market .

Among other ingredients that Asia needs to face the challenges from IT-driven economies is strong capital market backing from both Asia and other regions. According to Tong, despite the carnage in the dotcom business, venture capital companies are making investments to the tune of $80 billion annually, which is four times what they invested in 1998. "Smart money will continue to chase innovations that change the way businesses work," he said.

Another essential was talent, a catalyst for growth in the New Economy. There was emphasis at the conference on the need to develop and retain talent within Asia. According to Tong, Asia can become the world leader if it can replicate the positive charac teristics of Silicon Valley, put in place a common market that sees a free flow of talent, ideas and capital, and raise education and skill levels.

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James B. Hunt Jr., former Governor of North Carolina who is largely credited with his State's successful shift from an agriculture- and textile-based economy to become a leader in banking and IT, said: "North Carolina has become one of the outstanding hi gh-tech hubs in the world because we focussed in two ways. One, by investing more on higher education, research and development work, bringing in the brightest scientists and bringing universities together. We encouraged the private sector to join in, fo rging a three-way partnership between government, the private sector and higher education. Second, we sought to improve education through the grades, giving greater emphasis to technical education."

Hunt said that there was no reason why a similar model could not be replicated in Asia, given the fact that Asia has many of the best minds in the world. "The attitude should be very bullish in terms of how successful they can be in the world economy - a nd also to give all the children an education because they have the potential. Nowhere in the world can you find people with a greater aptitude for science and mathematics," he said.

Many speakers pointed out that the slowdown in the U.S. economy would have an impact in Asia because it means a decrease in the outsourcing of business - for instance, the Indian software industry. On the positive side, the American downslide could affor d an opportunity for Asian companies to become stronger at least for a little while. U.S. Ambassador to India Richard Celeste said: "This is a softer moment in the market place. It is the time for Asian companies to innovate and to gain markets." But, as Hunt said, "In the long term we have to have a rebound of the entire world economy if Asia is to be benefited greatly."

A downside of the IT revolution is the divide that has been created between the IT haves and havenots. The digital divide - between countries, within countries, between the sexes, between rural and urban populations and so on - has prompted such slogans as sorghum versus software, penicillin versus pentium and charkha versus chip. Among the suggestions made at the conference to bridge this divide were the creation of an equity fund that would take care of the needs of the developing world, the st rengthening and expediting of a link between commercial investment and governmental/development expenditure, the production of low-cost personal computers (PCs) and the removal of trade barriers.

The Asia Society holds annual corporate conferences to highlight issues and themes that are relevant at a given time for businesses and governments. Bouton said: "We seek understanding, informed, disciplined discussion, dialogue and debate, whether it is across nations or within our country (U.S.)" The conference in Bangalore had 600 delegates. Said Nicholas Platt, President of the Asia Society, "Of all the conferences, this one had the most focus and energy."

LETTERS

LETTERS other
Disinvestment woes

"The rush to disinvest" (March 30) made interesting reading. Disinvestment is the latest buzzword, but what its supporters should realise is the need for discussion, debate and consensus-building. The Balco deal, which has met with opposition from worker s and the State of Chattisgarh, is a case in point.

Disinvestment should not be seen as a target or a scoreboard of success of the Minister concerned, Arun Shourie, and Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha. The intentions behind disinvestment may well be good but these should be seen to be so by the majority o f the people, especially workers.

The disinvestment process has created anxiety in the minds of managers and workers of public sector undertakings that are on the chopping block. How can anyone expect them to work with enthusiasm?

We have to proceed cautiously on the disinvestment path. Let the entire process be more transparent. Let the workers and the managers have their say. Nothing is lost if the process takes a little longer. After all, human beings are involved, and not just buildings and machinery.

D.B.N. Murthy Bangalore Taliban's barbarism

This has reference to "Taliban targets" (March 30). Words cannot describe the barbarism and brutality of the Taliban government. The reclusive mullah Mohammad Omar Muhajid is leading Afghanistan to an uncivilised era. The people are compelled to follow h is words.

The effects of Taliban rule on the people have been manifold. In 1998, nearly 1,00,000 women become widows on account of its war. The infant mortality rate is 163 per thousand, the highest for any country. A quarter of the number of children do not live beyond the age of five. The economy has been crippled by the ban on employing women. Before 1996, 70 per cent of the teachers in Kabul, 50 per cent of civil servants and 40 per cent of doctors were women. The freedoms of women have been arrested. The pow er struggle between the moderates and the extremists is leading the nation to starvation.

The whole world, including other Islamic nations, today understands that there is no difference between the Taliban and terrorism. Only three nations - Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates - have recognised the Taliban government. The Orga nisation of Islamic Conference, which has not recognised the Taliban, should urge these three countries to reconsider their decision.

S.A. Sundaramurthy Tirupur * * *

The Taliban's activities seem to stem from some deep-rooted conspiracy to defame Islam since people had started embracing Islam all over the world upon finding the teachings of Islam to be attractive. Knowing that Islam would become the largest religion in the world, they are trying to defame it. They have embarked on a campaign to depict Muslims as ruthless terrorists who indulge in barbaric activities. That is the reason why they promote organisations like the Taliban through extensive media coverage. By highlighting the activities of a few misguided, fanatical Muslims and by giving them undue importance, they are trying to bring disrepute to the entire Muslim community.

According to Islam, it is the moral responsibility of a conquering community to ensure that the rights of the local people are not taken away and that they are given security and the freedom to pursue the religion of their choice.

Examples of religious tolerance can be seen in Iran, Egypt and the other corners of the world where the leadership is branded as extremist-Islamic. The religious institutions of other faiths are secure in these countries.

India itself is a good example. Despite having been under Muslim rule for more than five centuries, the country's cultural inheritance at Ajanta, Ellora, Khajuraho and numerous other places, including temples, has remained intact.

The Muslim intelligentsia should sit together and chalk out a plan to counter this movement. In order to succeed in this, they need to rise above petty differences. The first step in this direction should be to condemn the acts of destruction by the Tali ban. There is no ideological difference between the Taliban fundamentalists and the RSS. If the Taliban is responsible for destroying the 2000-year-old statues, we have the RSS which converted Ayodhya, which was considered to be a Buddhist city initially , into the Hindu-majority one that it is today.

It is imperative that Muslim and Hindu intellectuals of the subcontinent join hands to work against all fanatical forces.

Mohammad Adeeb Delhi Chandrika Kumaratunga

Yours was the only national magazine to cover Chandrika Kumaratunga's visit to India with the importance it deserved (March 16). The most courageous woman on the globe now, she faces threats to her life of a level that is unimaginable. It is unfortunate that even our women's organisations miss her significance.

R. Sajan Desam, Kerala Temple destruction

The two-part article by Richard M. Eaton (December 22, 2000 and January 5, 2001) gave the impression that temple desecrations in medieval India were not directed to convert the Indian population to Islam but were chosen acts whereby the triumphant Muslim rulers tried to engrave their saga of victory by building a house to their god after demolishing the one belonging to the vanquished Hindu ruler. These modificatory efforts were aimed at expressing gratitude to god for granting them victory in the war a gainst the infidels. The author further says that Hindu places of worship had very little spiritual legitimacy in the eyes of the population and were largely temporal in essence and that therefore their destruction should not be taken as an example to be emulated in these times.

Contrary to this, it can be suggested that places of worship or even religion as such had rarely been out of the ambit of the state. And this holds true for nearly all the religions, including the Semitic ones - Islam, Christianity and Judaism. Religion is one among the vital instruments of hegemony and control which comes at little expense and pays great dividend to the dilatory goals of the state. This is particularly relevant for disputed places of worship around the world, be it King Solomon's temp le in Jerusalem or the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya.

Nearly all grand places of worship bore the outlines of the dominant ideology of the day, which drew a great number of followers, both to the King and his concept of God. It was the same stale game of gaining legitimacy through the backdoor and with litt le help from the Almighty.

Though historically accurate, the analysis provided a shaky ground for saving the disputed Muslim places of worship from right-wing Hindu fundamentalists. The author failed to give a solid critique of religious fundamentalism and nearly re-stated the ba sis, which is often referred to justify the destruction of the Babri Masjid in 1992. Eaton's argument is a twin-edged sword that can be used both by the proponents and opponents of religious fundamentalism.

In view of the Taliban's destruction of the invaluable artifacts of Afghanistan's Buddhist past, itself an effort to legitimise its rule among Islamic fundamentalists worldwide, what is more necessary is to condemn all acts of religious intolerance, pa st or present, in no uncertain terms and pledge against a recurrence of such unwanted acts of violence. Our society can ill-afford such an extravagant display of religious chauvinism, given its inflammable nature and vast numbers, which ensures in times of conflict and unrest great loss of human life and property.

Kallol Bhattacherjee Received on email Women's Reservation Bill

The Women's Reservation Bill is the one subject that has been most talked about and the least acted upon. Now, one can easily visualise that the Bill stands the 'brightest' chance of getting drowned in the din and noise of tehalka.com. But the singular d isservice meted out to the women's issue has, unfortunately come from no less a person than Chief Election commissioner, M.S. Gill. (See his interview in Frontline dated March 16, 2001.)

To quote Gill: "My solution is simple. Instead of amending the Constitution every other day with all the negative points it involves, have a simple amendment in the RPA (Representation of Peoples Act) where all you would say is this: all parties that hav e their recognition and privileges of the Commission shall retain these only for so long, at every election they fight in every State they put up X percentage of women candidates."

With this simple solution, Gill wants us to believe that the proportion of women which is only '8 per cent in Parliament and Assemblies over the last 50 years' will overnight jump from 8 to 15 or 20 per cent, even if a little less than 33 per cent of th e ticket is given to women by the political parties.

The Frontline correspondent who interviewed Mr. Gill has chosen to describe his solution as 'unique'. Unique indeed - not as a solution but as a way of scuttling the whole issue.

Gill, at least for the record, asserts that gender justice is certainly his priority but not higher than his loyalty to the Constitution. He does not want the fault of political parties to visit on the Constitution. So he wants the Constitution to be lef t undisturbed by gender considerations. He ascribes the fact of women not being given the ticket to an adequate extent to the fault of political parties. He declares: "The flaw is that women are not getting space in the political parties. Guaranteed spac e. Assured space."

Gill's solution can at best only guarantee party ticket for women in elections. It will certainly not ensure their presence in Parliament or Assemblies unless a specific number of constituencies are mandated to return only a woman as the representative.

We have on hand our own experience with regard to the elections to local bodies. Only the 83rd amendment to the Constitution has given the women the guaranteed and assured space in the local bodies. Not before. Not otherwise than by reservation.

The delay over passing of the Bill is of course a matter of serious concern not only to women, but also to all those who genuinely seek women to be empowered. But, it cannot be an alibi for pushing through a non-serious and frivolous proposal, from which ever quarters it may emanate.

W.R. Varada Rajan Received on email Sundarlal Report

Thank you for publishing A.G. Noorani's "Of a massacre untold" (March 16). Finally, the picture of the 1948 massacres is becoming clearer thanks to his research. However, a few points the author raised need clarification, pertaining to me personally. Fir st, Noorani should have informed his readers what those "inaccuracies" are and what "intemperate language" has been used, in my introduction to Hyderabad: After the Fall, rather than leaving it to imagination.

I do not think that I was "misled" about the Sundarlal Report. The fragments available to me were supplied by the daughter of the principal investigator of the Sundarlal Report. The fragments are both in English and in Urdu, which I still have. Noorani d oes not inform us of the reasons for questioning how the report could be both in English and in Urdu, which was the official language of the State in 1948. In fact, as he himself says: "...The rest is a village by village-wise and district-wise account." What could be more accurate than a detailed village-by-village account?

These comments notwithstanding, I commend and compliment both the writer and Frontline for bringing forth a dark chapter in the history of modern Hyderabad. By doing so, you have strengthened the freedom of the press in India.

Dr. Omar Khalidi Massachusetts A.G. Noorani writes:

I wish Dr. Khalidi had queried me on these points when he called me on March 8. He requested for a copy of the Report and made kind references to my article, which he repeats in his letter. I sent him the Report on March 10, the day he wrote to Frontl ine. I hope he is satisfied with the authenticity and fullness of the text; from the beginning with its address to the Prime Minister to the end with its recommendations and traditional acknowledgements.

As Dr. Khalidi fairly acknowledged in his book, "only a small portion of the Report was available to me" (p. 204). What is reproduced (on pp. 100-109) under the heading "The Report" is a "village and district-wise account of the Report". It does not figu re in the text I sent him.

Evidently, it was raw material collected by the investigative teams for submission "to the delegation". The Report itself says "we were asked by the Government of India to proceed..." Dr. Khalidi quotes Yunus Salim as saying that Nehru "in his personal c apacity" sent a team comprising Pandit Sundarlal, Qazi Abdulghaffar and - but, of course - Salim himself. Both assertions are wrong. Dr. Khalidi says that "the fragments available to me were supplied by the daughter of the principal investigator (sic.) o f the Sundarlal Report" whose identity he is "leaving it to imagination", to use his phrase.

I leave it to Dr. Khalidi himself to discover the "inaccuracies", now that he has the text. It is not unlikely that he might discern a few excesses of phrasing as well. I was concerned to draw the reader's attention to both; not to belittle a scholar lik e Dr. Khalidi whom I respect.

Vindicated again

other

MORE than seven years after their ordeal began and over three years after they were cleared of all charges by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and the Supreme Court, the victims of the infamous 'ISRO espionage case' may see the first trickle of compensation soon. On March 16, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) ordered the Kerala government to pay Rs.10 lakhs to S. Nambinarayanan, a scientist at the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), as "immediate interim relief" for the mental and physical torture he had to undergo while in custody. The Commission has also directed the State government to report on the action taken against "delinquent officers" (of the Kerala Police and the Intelligence Bureau) who, it said, had committed "gr oss violation of human rights".

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"If the 1998 Supreme Court verdict vindicated my stand, the NHRC order is a morale-booster. If the CBI and the courts earlier said I did not commit the crime, the Commission has now brought out that what others did to me was a crime," said an "extremely happy" Nambinarayanan.

After a CBI inquiry had found that "the allegations of espionage are not proved and have been found to be false" and a court had ordered the release of all the accused, including Nambinarayanan, the case dragged on and came to an end at the Supreme Court on April 28, 1998 (Frontline, May 9-22, 1998). The court indicted the Kerala government for its "mala fide exercise of power" in ordering a fresh police inquiry "with the avowed object of establishing that the accused are guilty, even afte r the investigating agency of its choice, the CBI, found that no case had been made out against them."

The NHRC has now said that it is "an unusual case of gross violation of human rights of a reputed scientist whose long and distinguished career in space research has been tarnished apart from the mental and physical torture he and his family were subject ed to by the Kerala Police."

Its order said that the statement by the doctor who had examined Nambinarayanan while in custody supported the complaint that he was subjected to physical and mental torture with a view to extorting a confession from him as suggested by the interrogators . It also said that the CBI's findings, duly supported by the Supreme Court, were sufficient to prove the gross violation of human rights by the public servants.

"Is it possible for them to give back what I have lost in my life? They have every right to suspect foul play and to see that the law is being adhered to, that no crime is committed, that justice is done. But the process of doing so should also be accord ing to the law," Nambinarayanan told Frontline. "The outcome only shows that no matter who the person is, the truth will come out in the end. It is only a matter of educating those who suffer that there are several avenues to get justice done. My belief in the Indian judicial system has only increased."

In a case he filed (as an indigent petitioner) in a Thiruvananthapuram sub-court in January 1999, Nambinarayanan claimed Rs.1 crore as damages for the "malicious prosecution" and the injuries caused to him by 12 listed respondents, including two I.B. off icials, six senior police officers, the State Home Secretary and the State and Union governments. In response, the State government filed a criminal complaint for defamation against Nambinarayanan (and the Bangalore-based businessman S. K. Sarma, who was also acquitted by the Supreme Court), claiming that the "allegations" made by them in their complaint to the courts were defamatory to the government and its officials.

Nambinarayanan is now Director, Advanced Technology and Planning, at the ISRO headquarters in Bangalore, and is to retire this year-end. He has finished writing a book ("soon to be published") on the "story behind" the case, based on his bitter experienc es. "There are people who are still sceptical, and those who continue to declare that I am guilty, even after the Supreme Court exonerated me. They may have been misguided initially. But at least now shouldn't they admit what they did was a mistake? Will they never understand the havoc they played with our lives?" Nambinarayanan asks.

R. Krishnakumar

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