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COVER STORY

12-05-2017

His madman theory

Trump launches attack

Briefing

North Korea

China’s burden

FACED with intense pressure from the United States to denuclearise North Korea, reinforced by effective gunboat diplomacy and other forms of coercion in the Korean waters, China is engaged in a feverish exercise to protect its core interests in North Korea and the surrounding areas in the Asia-Pacific.

Essentially, Beijing’s response to an effective show of strength by the domestically beleaguered Trump Administration has boiled down to fusing two equally important goals: ensuring that North Korea is nuclear weapons free and ensuring the preservation of the regime there.

In redefining the ground rules in North Korea, the Chinese had to ensure that they were not caught flat-footed. Speed was essential as the U.S. was doing all it could to demonstrate that the use of military force against North Korea was not an empty threat. The Tomahawk missile attack on the Al Shayrat airfield inSyria by the U.S., carried out deliberately while Chinese President Xi Jinping was in the U.S. as President Donald Trump’s guest, conveyed a simple message: if Tomahawk cruise missiles could rain down in Syria, they could very well do so in North Korea too.

If there was any ambiguity in the message, it was clarified by the shock-and-awe “mother of all bombs” U.S. attack on Afghanistan. In Chinese minds, there was no doubt that bombing in the Achin province of Afghanistan was specifically tailored to convey a message to North Korea.

The message was crisp. Just as the high mountains in Afghanistan, arguably, could not afford protection, so the regime in Pyongyang would not be able to hide its crown jewels—nuclear weapons and missiles—in dug-up tunnels and caverns in the largely mountainous country. Further, the manoeuvring of the U.S. aircraft carrier Carl Vinson strike group, which was heading towards Australia, in the direction of the Koreas was proof that the U.S. was accumulating enormous firepower which could be unleashed on North Korea, making the regime of Kim Jong-un possibly untenable.

Sabre-rattling

Complementing the show of force, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, while touring the region recently, was at his sabre-rattling best. “Those who would challenge our resolve or readiness should know, we will defeat any attack and meet any use of conventional or nuclear weapons with an overwhelming and effective American response,” he said aboard the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan in Yokosuka, Japan. Later, during talks with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Pence underscored that “all options are on the table”, resorting to the “regime change” phraseology that was favoured by former U.S. President George Bush.

The era of strategic patience is over and while all options are on the table, President Trump is determined to work closely with Japan, with South Korea, with all our allies in the region and with China to achieve a peaceable resolution and the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula,” he observed.

In response, China appears to have offered the North Korean regime a lifeline by proposing to serve as the guardian of its security, provided it denuclearises.

An editorial in Global Times, affiliated with the People’s Daily flagship, warned that if the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) continued “its outrageous nuclear missile tests, the likelihood of the U.S. attacking the DPRK will surge…. By that time, the survival of the Pyongyang regime may be a problem.”

The daily asserted that North Korea was not strong enough to confront the severe sanctions which could be on the way. “It has been inevitable for Pyongyang to stop its nuclear missile activities. The DPRK seeks to confront with the United Nations Security Council for a long time with its weak national strength, which is certainly an unattainable utopia,” the daily warned.

“Even if the United States does not launch military strikes on the DPRK, the long-term sanctions are not something that the DPRK can withstand. The DPRK might already become the most isolated country in the world and is almost ‘fully blockaded’. No modern countries can survive in this way.”

The editorial, however, acknowledged that regime survival could not be guaranteed even if North Korea established a strategic relationship with the U.S., citing the case of the former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

“The United States brought down the Saddam’s regime which had no nuclear weapons, and later the ‘Arab Spring’ toppled the [Hosni] Mubarak regime and the [Muammar] Gaddafi regime. All these may have impressed Pyongyang.”

Consequently, it counselled Pyongyang to undertake “large-scale strategic planning” and “look for reliable political allies and umbrellas to achieve soft landing from its present dilemma”.

The daily stressed that China could be the solution to DPRK’s problems. “China is now the world’s second largest economic entity and has been more powerful than ever in its modern history. If China and the DPRK can rebuild firm strategic consensus, China has the power to provide security support for the DPRK and to provide support and help to prosper the nation’s economy.” The editorial stressed that Beijing did not have an agenda of “regime change”, and could be critical to the stability of North Korea once it decided to break out of its isolation.

“China does not have a pro-establishment camp to subvert the regime of the DPRK, nor will it allow such activities in civil sectors. Therefore, China will become the ‘big rear area’ of the DPRK to secure national political stability if the country opens up to the outside.”

The Chinese appear to have reinforced their offer by emphasising that they would not be part of any military manoeuvre that the U.S. may undertake for regime change.

Referring to Mike Pence’s Asia-Pacific visit, another write-up in Global Times spelt out the limits of China’s cooperation with the U.S. by making it clear that Beijing would not partner Washington in any military action against Pyongyang. Nor would it accept a joint military undertaking by the U.S. and South Korea to topple the North Korean government.

The daily warned that “cooperative efforts by China and the U.S. will under no circumstance evolve into any kind of military action against North Korea”.

It added: “Beijing will never support or cooperate with Washington when it comes to implementing solutions that involve using military force against Pyongyang. Nor will Beijing support increasing measures from Washington that involve the direct overthrow of the Pyongyang regime.”

It further pointed out that owing to domestic sentiment in China, a U.S. and South Korean land invasion of North Korea would be unacceptable to Beijing.

“Military action against North Korea is not an easy question to answer. If the blow is light, Pyongyang’s military power would remain intact, and South Koreans could potentially face a revenge attack of some kind. One can only hope that Washington reaches out to Seoul for a second opinion. If the blow is heavy, the Chinese people will not allow their government to remain passive when the armies of the U.S. and South Korea start a war and try to take down the Pyongyang regime. The Chinese will not let something like that happen, especially on the same land where the Chinese Volunteer Army once fought in the early 1950s. It is a land covered with the blood of Chinese soldiers who bravely fought in the early 1950s. Furthermore, if Pyongyang were to be taken by the allied armies of the U.S. and South Korea, it would dramatically change the geopolitical situation in the Korean Peninsula.”

Yet, short of military action, China would be ready to cooperate on the economic side, including imposing stricter U.N. sanctions such as a ban on petroleum exports to North Korea in order to denuclearise its neighbour. “There is even the chance that Beijing could also say ‘yes’ to a potential U.S.-imposed financial blockade against North Korea,” the daily observed.

However, the article warned that the U.S. should not expect instant results from the imposition of economic sanctions. “Sanctions from Beijing will not inspire instant change over Pyongyang’s nuclear programme. Moreover, if Washington is not willing to take a flexible stand that guarantees security and peace, its stark warnings and sanctions will probably push Pyongyang to resist as best as it can. As the old saying is understood, in order for a ‘stick’ to achieve its desired goal, a ‘carrot’ must be used at the same time.”

Defiant as usual

North Korea has been, expectedly, defiant in the face of the looming military crisis. Xinhua quoted an April 13 statement by a North Korean official, saying that Pyongyang would retaliate with “nuclear thunder and punishment lightning”, giving hostile forces a “taste of real war”.

A spokesperson for North Korea’s Institute for Disarmament and Peace issued a statement condemning the U.S. missile attacks on Syria. The Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) quoted him as saying: “The U.S. is introducing huge nuclear strategic assets into the Korean peninsula ... seriously threatening the peace and security of the peninsula and pushing the situation there to the brink of a war.”

He warned that this had “created a dangerous situation in which a thermonuclear war may break out at any moment on the peninsula and pose a serious threat to world peace and security.”

Yet, a section of the Chinese media is signalling that though a war cannot be ruled out, “crippling” sanctions may be more likely in case North Korea goes ahead with a sixth nuclear test.

Despite the military build-up and the rhetoric radiating from Washington, the U.S. will have to factor-in a North Korean artillery barrage or, worse, one directed against Seoul and other South Korean population centres and Japan before considering the exercise of its maximalist option.

Aggression against Syria

Syrian quagmire

JOHN CHERIAN cover-story

THE sudden reversal of the Trump administration’s policy on Syria just two days after an alleged chemical explosion in the Jabhat al-Nusra (an Al Qaeda affiliate)-controflled town of Khan Sheikhoun in the Idlib province on April 4 did not come as a surprise to many given Donald Trump’s flip-flops on other major issues since he assumed office. More than 70 civilians, some of them children, were reportedly killed in the attack by the Syrian Air Force on Khan Sheikhoun. Idlib is described as “the heartland of Jabhat al-Nusra”. The Syrian Army was making significant advances there against the rebels when the “chemical attack” happened. The Syrian government did not deny that its air force had launched an attack on extremists in the town. The Syrian military spokesman said at the outset that its planes had targeted a building, which had then exploded, letting out a dark plume of smoke.

The government in Damascus alleges that it was a building where the rebels had stored chemical weapons. The United Nations Special Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura, speaking soon after the alleged chemical attack, said his organisation had not received “any official or reliable confirmation of what took place or who was responsible” for the incident. The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Frederica Mogherini, said there was “no evidence at the moment” to pinpoint or apportion blame. The U.N. said it would conduct an inquiry at the earliest.

This did not stop President Trump from rushing to judgement. Trump said he was moved by the pictures of “beautiful little babies” who were allegedly the victims of the chemical attack. He wasted no time in dispatching 59 Tomahawk missiles towards a Syrian airbase in Shayrat, located in the province of Homs. However, Trump and the Western media were totally unmoved after the massacre of 120 people, including 80 children, in the same province a week after the incident in Khan Sheikhoun. Under a deal between the Syrian government and the rebels in the area, the children and their families who had been living under siege for years were being evacuated from a village.

There was not a word of sympathy from the White House for the bereaved parents. Not a single bullet was fired in retaliation by the United States-led alliance, which is allegedly fighting against Al Qaeda and Daesh (Islamic State or ISIS). There was no condemnation from Western capitals either. This was in stark contrast to the reaction of the West after the April 4 incident. The children who died in the terror attack in the second week of April belonged to the Shia community, considered apostate by al-Nusra and Daesh. Pope Francis was among the world leaders who spoke out against the targeting of children. He described it as “a vile attack” on fleeing refugees and said his heart “goes out for beloved and martyred Syria”.

When President Barack Obama was seemingly on the brink of ordering an attack on Syria in 2013 for crossing his so-called “red line” on the use of chemical weapons, Trump had cautioned him not to get involved militarily. He tweeted: “Do Not Attack Syria. If You Do Very bad things will happen.” Now sitting in the White House, Trump claims that his views on both Syria and President Bashar al-Assad have undergone a dramatic change. Chinese President Xi Jinping was a guest of the U.S. President at the Trump estate in Florida when the attack took place. Trump chose to break the news of the launch of cruise missiles into Syria casually to his Chinese counterpart over dinner. The important Trump-Xi summit was relegated to the background. It was a significant loss of face for China, which is a strong ally of the Syrian government. Trump did not even show the diplomatic courtesy of postponing the attack by a day until the Chinese President left the U.S. The attack on Syria also happened when peace talks on Syria were about to start in Geneva and the Syrian Army was making significant advances.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, speaking to the media after the American missile attack on Syria, said “that there was no doubt in our mind” that it was the government of Bashar al-Assad that was responsible for the chemical attack. The Russian government had pointed out at the outset that the Syrian government had no chemical weapons in its arsenal, as it had agreed to destroy its cache following an agreement brokered by Russia and done under U.N. supervision three years ago. Russian intelligence was firmly of the view that the explosion was caused by chemical weapons that the rebels had stored in a warehouse. There have been previous documented incidents of al-Nusra and Daesh using prohibited chemical weapons. The U.N. has recorded statements from Syrian civilians who were eyewitnesses to earlier attempts by the rebels to make the West believe that the Syrian government had used chlorine gas.

More ‘provocations’ likely: Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin said recently that he had information that the West was planning many more “false flag” incidents in Syria. “We have information from different sources that these provocations—I cannot call them otherwise—are being prepared in other regions of Syria, including the southern suburbs of Damascus where there are plans to throw some substances and accuse the official Syrian authorities,” Putin said. Many intelligence professionals in the U.S. and the region are of the view that it was a “false flag” incident staged by the rebels to give the U.S. a pretext to move into Syria militarily.

“Our U.S. Army contacts in the area have told us what happened. There was no ‘Syrian chemical weapon attack’. Instead, a Syrian aircraft bombed an Al Qaeda in Syria ammunition depot that turned out to be full of noxious chemicals and a strong wind blew the chemical laden cloud over a nearby village where many consequently died—this is what the Russians and the Syrians have been saying and, more important, what they appear to believe, happened,” said a statement from 20 former members of the United States intelligence community known as the Steering Group of the Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS). Before ordering the missile strike, the Trump administration did not bother to consult the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which had supervised the dismantling of Syria’s chemical weapons stock.

The Russian President has highlighted the hypocrisy of the West on the issue of chemical weapons in Syria. Putin said the West had consistently ignored the Syrian government’s request to probe allegations of chemical weapons use by the rebels. “The only time the international community responded was this time. I think that we can figure out what is going on by just using a little bit of common sense. The Syrian Army was winning the war. In some places, they had the rebels completely surrounded. For them [the Syrian government] to throw it all away and give their trump card to people who are calling for regime change is, frankly, a crock of shit,” the Russian President told the media. Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev was even more forthright about President Trump and his policies. “The mist of pre-election fog has melted away,” he commented on his Facebook page. “Instead of the mass circulated narrative of a joint fight against the our main enemy, the ISIS, The Trump administration has demonstrated that it will be fiercely fighting the legitimate government of Syria.”

Agreement suspended

After the U.S. missile attack, Russia further solidified its political and military relations with the Syrian government. The Russian Defence Ministry took immediate steps to strengthen Syria’s air defence, sent a naval frigate to the country and announced that it was suspending an agreement with the U.S. to coordinate activity over Syrian airspace. The Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement lauding the Syrian government’s “fierce battle” against “international terrorism”. Dmitri Peskov, the spokesman for the Russian President, said the U.S. action in Syria dealt a “significant blow” to U.S.-Russian ties. The Syrian Army, Peskov affirmed, had no chemical weapons at its disposal.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called for an independent inquiry into the allegations of chemical weapons use by the Syrian government. “If our U.S. colleagues and some European nations believe that their version is right, they have no reason to fear the creation of such an independent group,” Lavrov said after a meeting with the Foreign Ministers of Iran and Syria, Javad Zarif and Walid Muallem respectively, in Moscow. The three Ministers also discussed the threat posed by the increased concentration of U.S. troops along Syria’s borders with Jordan. Lavrov said the three countries had evolved a “joint procedure” to confront aggression.

President Assad, in a recent interview, stressed that Syria did not have chemical weapons any more. He said that even if the Syrian government had chemical weapons in its possession, it would never have used them against its own people. He said the only information about what happened in Khan Sheikhoun was the version put out by Al Qaeda’s information department, alleging the use of chemical weapons. Assad said the West was “hand in glove with the terrorists”. According to the Syrian President, the West “fabricated the whole story to create a pretext for the attack”. He was particularly scathing about the allegations that the deadly sarin gas was used in the attack on Khan Sheikhoun. He said that even the “fabricated videos” showed rescuers helping victims of the attack without wearing gloves or masks. “If there was sarin, they would have been affected right away,” Assad noted. Theodore Postol of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a leading analyst of military technology, said that for sarin gas to be effective it had to be launched from the ground and not dropped from the air. The accusation against the Syrian government was that its planes had dropped the deadly chemical.

The Syrian President pointed out that the large-scale U.S. missile attack was carried out within 48 hours of the incident “with no concrete evidence about anything” and based on “allegations and propaganda”. President Assad said the very fact that the West claimed that Daesh did not have chemical weapons meant that it was not serious about fighting terrorism. The action of the U.S. government against Syria, Assad said, showed that the “deep state” there, comprising military hawks, neocons and Wall Street, remained in control. “Trump wanted to be a leader, but every President there, if he wants to be a real leader, will have to eat his words later, swallow his pride, if he has pride at all, and make a 180 degree U-turn, otherwise he would pay the price politically,” Assad said in his interview.

The U.S., as it is, bears much of the responsibility for the situation in Syria and the wider region. The seven million refugees and a nation in tatters is a legacy of its brazen interference in the internal affairs of Syria. In its frenetic quest for regime change in Damascus, the West initially propped up a rebel Syrian army, and when that venture failed, armed, trained and subsidised a crazed army of jehadists.

“Actually, during the last six years, the U.S. was directly involved in supporting terrorists everywhere in Syria, including al-Nusra and ISIS, including all the like-minded factions in Syria,” Assad said. According to the Syrian President, the previous Obama administration had launched an even more serious attack on his country. He was referring to the U.S. Air Force attack on a Syrian military base in Deir Ezzor late last year that resulted in the death of more than 30 soldiers. Daesh fighters occupied the base, but they and the U.S. could not succeed in the larger game plan of capturing Deir Ezzor city or prevent the liberation of Aleppo.

As the Bolivian envoy to the U.N., Sacha Llorenti, observed in a speech at a Security Council meeting specifically called to discuss the U.S. act of aggression against Syria, the Americans had once again abrogated to themselves the role of “investigators, attorneys, judges and executioners”. He compared the speech of Nikki Haley, the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., to that of U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell in 2003 justifying the invasion of Iraq. Bolivia currently holds a non-permanent seat at the Security Council. Llorenti, holding an enlarged picture of Powell making his weapons of mass destruction in Iraq speech, demanded that the U.S. had to be brought to account for the unprovoked attack on Syria, noting the history of U.S. imperialist interventions worldwide, including Latin America.

The BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) nations issued a statement condemning the military action in Syria, which was not authorised by the U.N. The statement also called for the respect of international law, territorial integrity and sovereignty.

The European conundrum

Different concerns

IN February this year, Lithuanian authorities and the German army opened investigations into accusations of rape made against German soldiers stationed in the country. While the investigation was on, the media in Germany were quick to call it fake news and point the finger of suspicion at Russia as its originator. The political magazine Der Spiegel put the accusations—which German army sources told the paper amounted to “deliberate disinformation”—in the context of the recent strengthening of German and other North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) troops in Lithuania as part of NATO’s efforts to enhance its “forward presence in the eastern part of the Alliance”, namely Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. The magazine also pointed to the now-infamous “Lisa” case from 2016, involving allegations that a Russian girl had been raped in Berlin by immigrants, which Russian authorities insisted Germany was doing nothing about, but which turned out to be false.

These cases have tapped into German concerns over “fake news”—and the attempts to tarnish Chancellor Angela Merkel’s stance on immigration, particularly since national elections are due to take place in September. German authorities are so concerned about “fake news” that earlier this month they embarked on legislation that will enable fines to be imposed on social networks that do not provide options to report fake news or illegal content.

The tensions between Germany and Russia over these recent cases highlight the complexity of Europe’s current relationship with Russia, with foreign policy differences on issues ranging from Ukraine to Syria to Turkey, spilling onto the domestic political and electoral arena, making the situation ever more personal than before. These are concerns voiced not just by Germany.

Earlier this month, a number of European countries (Sweden, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, France and Germany) and the United States signed a memorandum to establish a centre devoted to tackling the so-called “hybrid threats”. “Hybrid means have been used as a tool both in power politics and in military conflict in Europe. Coercive and subversive activity to confuse, implicate and hinder decision-making processes has increased. Elections have been interfered with in manners that are not appropriate. During the ongoing migrant crisis, we have seen elements of hybrid influencing by both state actors and non-state actors,” said Timo Soni, Finland’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, at the signing of the memorandum in Helsinki earlier this month.

Angela Merkel’s approach

On the international stage, Europe’s relationship with Russia has been complex, and ever-changing, marked by both tough action and dialogue to ensure that existing agreements are kept—as exemplified by Angela Merkel’s approach. While she took a lead role in the introduction of sanctions against Russia following the annexation of Crimea, she has been eager to maintain Russian commitment to measures designed to calm tensions in Ukraine, agreed to at a summit in Minsk in 2016, and has kept up a regular dialogue with the Kremlin and President Vladimir Putin in particular. She is due to visit Moscow in early May; while the two leaders have met on several occasions in their own countries since the Ukraine crisis, it will be the first formal bilateral visit since then, Reuters reported.

Angela Merkel’s approach contrasts with that of British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who faced criticism at home and abroad for cancelling a visit to Moscow earlier this month. It was a move that some saw as a sign of Britain’s eagerness to please the U.S. government (U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was due to visit shortly after) and by others as an indicator that Johnson was viewed by many as a liability who could not be trusted with handling sensitive negotiations. (Johnson, a former journalist, has publicly changed his tune on Syria and Russia on a number of occasions—it was just over a year ago that, writing in The Spectator, he lauded Bashar al-Assad and Russia—over their tackling of ISIS in Palmyra.)

It is Angela Merkel’s strategy that continues to dominate Europe’s approach. Johnson’s subsequent attempts to persuade the G7 countries to back sanctions against Russia failed, as other leaders, both individually and in a joint statement, indicated their preference to keep open the channels with Russia. With Britain preparing to negotiate its exit from the European Union (E.U.), it is unlikely to gain further influence with its neighbours on this count.

Still, uncertainty remains, with upcoming national elections in Germany, Britain and France.

In Britain, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has broken ranks with the nation’s historically tough stance on Russia, raising questions about the impact that NATO troops on the border had on keeping tension levels high. “I don’t want to see more troops deployed on the borders between NATO and Russia, I want to see a de-escalation, ultimately a demilitarisation and better relationships between both sides of it,” he said in an interview with the BBC earlier this year, prompting accusations from the Conservatives that he was a Russian “collaborator”.

Crucial role

Angela Merkel has played a crucial role in shaping the E.U.’s stance as a group and balancing the differing concerns of the member states. While Poland has taken a tough line despite some of its sectors facing economic hardship as a result of the reciprocal sanctions imposed by Russia, others such as Greece, and Italy (also dependent on bilateral trade with Russia) have been wary of the tough approach, with Italy voicing strong opposition to the extension of sanctions over the past couple of years. “We are asking Russia to wield all of their influence on [Syrian president Bashar al-Assad] so that he enacts this transition as soon as possible, so there can be regular elections,” Italian Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano told Financial Times in a recent interview.

While Angela Merkel’s main electoral opponent—former president of the E.U. Parliament, Martin Schulz, who now heads the left-of-centre Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD)—has adopted a stance similar to Angela Merkel’s when it comes to Russia, it remains to be seen whether he can, if elected, unite the disparate voices across Europe in the way the Chancellor has done.

The French elections will also heighten uncertainty: Francis Fillon, once praised by Putin himself, has seen his prospects of victory dwindle dramatically over a scandal involving payments made out of the public purse to his family.

Marine Le Pen, leader of the Front National, a Far Right party, has been particularly critical of sanctions against Russia, recently telling CNN that the sanctions were “completely stupid” and would only harm Europe in the long run. Like U.S. President Donald Trump, she has also faced accusations over her links to Russia, and being the recipient of funds from a Russian lender in particular. Emmanuel Macron, expected at the time of writing this to go through to the second round of the elections in May, alongside Marine Le Pen, adopts a stance similar to Angela Merkel’s and Hollande’s. He has insisted that there should be no lifting of sanctions against Russia, and has openly accused Russia of interfering in the French electoral process. Further clouding matters are the recent gains made by the Left’s candidate, Jean Luc Melenchon, who is opposed to NATO and is critical of the current policy on Russia in a vein similar to Corbyn’s.

Going forward, influencing relations will be Europe’s evolving relationship with the U.S.: Angela Merkel was close to former President Barack Obama, who let her take the lead on the West’s approach to Ukraine, and who, when exiting the White House, described her as his “closest international partner these last years”. While her relationship with Trump got off to a rocky start (in his early days as President, Trump and his associates were critical of German policies, particularly towards Europe, and Trump refused to shake hands with her at a meeting last month), both seem prepared to work together on a need-to basis, with Angela Merkel welcoming Trump’s support for the Ukrainian peace process and NATO. However, it remains unlikely that Europe will be prepared to be railroaded into any conflict with Russia, particularly with Brexit negotiations coming up and given its failure to wean itself off Russian energy supplies. According to Gazprom, the Russian energy producer, the company’s share of European gas consumption rose to a record 34 per cent in 2016. It is notable that even some of Europe’s Far Right politicians, including former UK Independence Party (UKIP) leader Nigel Farage and France’s Marine Le Pen, have been critical of the recent U.S. missile strike on Syria in retaliation for the suspected chemical weapons attack.

In this context, it is hard to see a major acceleration of tensions between Europe and Russia. It is far more likely that they will continue to simmer, eroding trust, with further allegations of political intervention likely to gather pace as the French elections get under way.

Cover Story

Trump on the rampage

JOHN CHERIAN cover-story

THREE months after Donald Trump took over the presidency, the United States finds itself deeply enmeshed in the conflicts in other countries that his predecessors in office had left unresolved. On the campaign trail, Trump had railed against the U.S.’ military involvement abroad and military alliances such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). He had promised that if elected, he would ensure that the U.S. would stop playing the role of a self-appointed “global cop”. In his short inaugural speech on January 20, his main emphasis was on putting “America first” and improving the nation’s economy and crumbling infrastructure. Senior U.S. officials told the media that they were reconciled to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad staying in power.

However, nobody mistook Trump for a peacenik. During campaigning, he had repeatedly stated that he would “bomb the shit” out of Islamist groupings such as Al Qaeda and the Islamic State (Daesh) and reintroduce the practice of “torture” of political detainees. Trump started fulfilling many of his hawkish pledges immediately after taking office. His administration, dominated by former military men, gave the military a carte blanche to use maximum force against suspected terrorist targets. In the last week of January, Trump approved the dispatch of elite U.S. Navy Seals to Yemen to kill or capture a high-ranking leader of the Al Qaeda in Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The military mission resulted in the death of more than 30 civilians, among them an eight-year-old girl. The AQAP militant was nowhere to be found. It was later established that he had defected to the Saudi Arabia-led coalition that has invaded Yemen. Ironically, the Trump administration is backing the Saudi invasion to the hilt by providing military intelligence and sophisticated arms. Yemen has been plunged into anarchy as a consequence of the civil war instigated by Saudi Arabia and this has dramatically increased the presence of Al Qaeda and Daesh there.

Yemen, one of the most impoverished countries in the Gulf region, is on the brink of an all-out famine. According to the United Nations, nine million of the 27 million Yemenis are on the verge of starvation and 3.3 million have been classified as acutely malnourished, the majority of them children. Saudi Arabia has used the weapons supplied by the U.S. and its allies to ruin the country’s infrastructure, specifically targeting the port of Howeida, through which Yemen imports most of its food. Yemen imports 90 per cent of its food. As the war crimes, including the targeting of hospitals, schools and wedding parties, became hard to ignore, the Barack Obama administration mildly rebuked the Saudi monarchy. But, the first thing Trump did on succeeding Obama to the office was to send a clear signal to the Saudi-led alliance that it could continue bombing Yemen.

General Joseph Votel, the head of the U.S. Central Command, said Washington had “vital interests” in Yemen. The U.S. has huge military bases in Qatar and Bahrain and smaller ones in Jordan and Kuwait. A Saudi victory in Yemen would give the U.S. control over the strategic Bab-el-Mandeb Strait. But a victory is nowhere in sight as the alliance of Yemeni forces led by the Houthi insurgency has forced a stalemate. The U.S. Defence Secretary, James “Mad Dog” Mattis, said during a visit to Riyadh in the third week of April, that the U.S. was considering direct intervention in the war in Yemen on behalf of its Gulf allies. “It has gone on for a long time; we see Iranian supplied missiles being fired by the Houthis into Saudi Arabia and this is something, with the number of innocent people dying in Yemen, it has simply got to be brought to an end,” Mattis said.

The navies of the U.S. and its Gulf allies have blockaded Yemen. Even planes chartered by the United Nations are not permitted to land in Yemen. Ships bringing food and essential supplies from Iran are not allowed to reach Yemen. The U.S. Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, recently said that Iran’s “provocative actions threaten the United States, the region and the world”. The statement came just after the Trump administration reluctantly acknowledged that Iran had fully complied with the terms of the nuclear agreement it had signed with the U.S. and the P5+1 (permanent five members of the U.N. Security Council—the U.S., the United Kingdom, France, China and Russia—plus Germany).

The humanitarian crisis in Yemen is said to be worse than that prevailing in Syria. More than 10,000 civilians have been killed and more than three million displaced in the civil war.

The U.S. military industrial complex will be able to make more profits selling lethal weapons like “daisy cutter” and “cluster” bombs to the rich Gulf states. The U.S. sold weapons worth more than $130 billion during the eight years of Obama’s presidency. The Trump administration has decided to sell precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia. Its “shock-and-awe” military campaign in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia has already resulted in hundreds of civilian casualties. The Trump administration has lifted the restrictions imposed on the U.S. military by the Obama administration. In one single incident, a U.S. aircraft targeted a residential building in western Mosul, Iraq, on March 17, killing more than 200 non-combatants, many of them children and women.

Trump took a U-turn on his position on Syria in early April after the “chemical weapons” incident. Assad was no longer a potential ally in the fight against extremism but was put back officially on the regime-change list. Trump has also radically reversed his position on NATO. His latest position is that NATO was not only relevant but was a critical component of the Western military alliance. His main motivation for reversing his long-held positions was to show his critics and the American people that he was in no way indebted to the Kremlin. The mainstream media in the U.S. have stopped criticising Trump as a “puppet” of Russia. Instead, the media and influential think tanks are hailing him as a decisive leader of the “free world”.

Trump has ordered an increase in the number of U.S. special forces operating in north-eastern Syria. The U.S. has been backing the Syrian Kurds in their efforts to carve out an independent enclave within Syria. Unlike the Russian forces, U.S. troops are in Syria without the permission of the Syrian government. The Trump administration wants to ensure that the Syrian Kurds are in the vanguard of the forces that will take control of Raqqa, the capital of the so-called Islamic State.

In early April, American “friendly fire” killed many allied Syrian Kurd fighters. This was after Trump ordered the firing of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles into a small Syrian airbase after sanctimoniously blaming Syria for using “sarin gas” on Khan Sheikhoun town in the rebel-controlled Idlib province. The town is under the control of the Jabhat al-Nusra, an Al Qaeda affiliate.

Bashar al-Assad has vehemently denied the charge of using poison gas on his own people. He and Russian President Vladimir Putin have been demanding a speedy international probe into the alleged chemical attack, but Trump preferred to rush into judgement like a television reality show judge, which he was in an earlier avatar. Within days after the massive missile attack on Syria, Trump gave the go-ahead to use America’s “mother of all bombs”, weighing 10,000 kilograms, over a remote part of Nangarhar province in Afghanistan, bordering Pakistan. The bomb, officially called the Massive Ordnance Air Blast Bomb (MOAB), is the biggest and most powerful weapon since the two nuclear bombs the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. The bomb, according to the Pentagon, can obliterate anything within a 1,000 yard (915 metres) radius as its explosive compound is much stronger than the explosive material trinitrotoluene, or TNT. Many civilians would have most likely perished despite the U.S.’ claims that only militants were killed. Washington has justified the use of this weapon of mass destruction. The Pentagon spokesman said it was done at the request of the Afghan government, whose forces were engaged in a battle with Daesh in the region.

The U.S. Commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John Nicholson, said the decision to use the most powerful non-nuclear weapon in the U.S. military’s arsenal was his call but he had informed the Afghan President, Ashraf Ghani, about the decision. The bomb was used against a motley group of Daesh fighters, numbering around 200, which had withstood attacks from a combined force of the Afghan army and U.S. Special Forces. A U.S. Special Forces officer was killed in Nangarhar a week before the MOAB was dropped. The U.S. military claimed that more than 90 militants were killed in the attack. However, Daesh denied that it suffered any casualties. The price tag of a single MOAB is $20 million. The use of the MOAB in Afghanistan and the simultaneous launch of 59 Tomahawk missiles against Syria were apparently a signal to the enemies of America such as North Korea and Iran that the Trump administration would not think twice before resorting to extreme measures, including the nuclear option.

Recent history has shown that bombs alone will not be able to subdue an enemy or a nation. The U.S. carpet-bombed North Korea during the Korean War in the 1950s and Vietnam in the 1970s. The Korean War ended in a stalemate and America lost in Vietnam. In Afghanistan, the U.S. had previously dropped 2,500-kg bunker bombs in a futile bid to eliminate the Al Qaeda leadership holed up in the mountains of Tora Bora. Trump and his advisers do not have a long-term strategy to defeat either the Taliban or Daesh in Afghanistan. In March, the U.S. forces carried out over 79 “counter terror” strikes against Daesh in Nangarhar and the neighbouring province of Kunar. The U.N. has expressed serious concern over increasing civilian casualties in the U.S. air campaign. The Trump administration has authorised further drone attacks in the “war zones” American troops are active in. The Taliban, which is at daggers drawn with Daesh, has been expanding its hold on Afghan territory. It now controls over one-third of the country.

Tensions in East Asia

In East Asia, the Trump administration has unnecessarily ratcheted up tensions to a dangerous level by issuing bellicose threats against North Korea. While in campaign mode, Trump had talked about “doing a deal” with North Korea. After taking over, he ordered the installation of the anti-ballistic Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) missile batteries in South Korea, despite objections from major opposition parties and adverse public opinion. China, too, had protested against the deployment of the sophisticated missiles systems, viewing it as a threat to its own national security. Trump has dispatched a carrier group led by an aircraft carrier towards the Korean peninsula.

Top U.S. officials have been repeatedly emphasising that “all options are open” to end the alleged nuclear and missile threat from North Korea. The U.S. media reported that the National Security Council presented Trump with options ranging from “putting nukes in South Korea” or “killing dictator Kim Jong-un”. U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, during a visit to South Korea in the third week of April, warned North Korea that under Trump “the shield stands guard and the sword stands ready”.

North Korea, never one to be outdone in the art of sabre-rattling, has threatened to retaliate with a full-fledged nuclear attack if the U.S. targets its territory.

North Korea has denounced the Trump administration’s “maniacal provocations”, including the deployment of the naval carrier group. The Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, has warned that “storm clouds are gathering” as the U.S., South Korea and North Korea “are engaging in tit for tat, with their swords drawn and bows bent”. The Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, has expressed his concerns about the alarming turn in East Asia. China and Russia have both said that they will try to restart talks with North Korea. Washington has been refusing to engage in meaningful dialogue with Pyongyang. The Trump administration has reiterated the previous administration’s position that talks are only possible if North Korea gives up its nuclear and missile capabilities. Pyongyang has said that given the prevailing circumstances and stories about Washington considering a pre-emptive strike, it will be foolish to give up its nuclear deterrent.

At the feverish pace with which Trump is ordering the use of missiles and other lethal weapons in the American armoury since taking office, it is only a matter of time before a real war breaks out with one or all of America’s many designated enemies. Two of them, Russia and China, are U.N. Security Council members, and the third, North Korea, possesses nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles. With the U.S. naval armada in the Korean peninsula, the threat of hostilities breaking out is being taken seriously. China has reportedly deployed 150,000 troops near the border with North Korea as a precautionary measure.

The Russian leadership, too, feels that the U.S. is preparing for war. The NATO expansion and build-up along the Russian border coupled with more aggressive moves such as building missile bases in Poland and the Baltic states gave Russia many reasons to fear about the West’s ultimate game plan. With Trump firmly under the control of military hawks, neoconservatives and liberal interventionists, all hopes for a detente between Moscow and Washington have all but vanished.

Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev has warned that the U.S. is “on the verge of a military clash with Russia” and that the relations between the two countries now are “completely ruined”. Russia and the U.S. control 90 per cent of the world’s nuclear arsenal. Trump is playing with thermonuclear fire. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has moved the “doomsday clock” even closer to midnight. “In 2017, we find the danger to be even greater, the need for action more urgent. Wise public officials should act immediately, guiding humanity away from the brink. If they do not, wise citizens should step forward and lead the way,” it said.

Maharashtra

Law to protect journalists

the-nation

ON April 7, both Houses of the Maharashtra State Legislature passed a law to protect journalists, making it the first State in the country to pass such a law. It was the result of a relentless struggle for several years by mediapersons who faced attacks in the line of duty, the Mumbai Press Club and the Patrakar Halla Virodhi Kriti Samiti (Action Committee Against Attacks on Journalists).

In its statement of objectives, the Maharashtra Mediapersons and Media Institutions (Prevention of Violence and Damage or Loss to Property) Act, 2017, explains that a special law was required to defend journalists “on account of the rampant instances of violence and attacks against mediapersons and damage or loss to the property of media institutions”.

The Bill was passed on the last day of the Budget session in which the opposition parties were absent.

Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis said there had been increasing violence against journalists and media houses. Ironically, Fadnavis’ partner in government, the Shiv Sena, has been at the forefront in attacking the media.

Under the Act, all attacks on mediapersons and media houses in the State would be treated as “cognisable and non-bailable” offences and the cases would be tried by a First Class Judicial Magistrate. Any person committing, abetting, instigating or provoking any violent act against mediapersons or media houses shall be punished with up to three years in jail or a fine of Rs.50,000 or both.

Conversely, the law also says that if a false complaint is filed by a mediaperson, the complainant can also be tried and given the same punishment.

A police officer not below the rank of Deputy Superintendent of Police shall investigate such offences.

Offenders will be liable to pay compensation for damage caused to property of mediapersons or media houses, as decided by the court, and to reimburse the medical expenses incurred by the mediapersons. If the compensation and medical expenses are not paid, they would be recovered as arrears of land revenue.

The Act defines a media institution as “any registered newspaper establishment, news channel establishment, news-based electronic media establishment or news stations”.

A mediaperson has been defined as a person whose principal vocation is that of a journalist, who is employed on regular or contract basis, as an editor, news editor, sub-editor, reporter, correspondent, cartoonist, news photographer, television cameraman, leader-writer, feature writer, copy tester or proof reader.

Violence is described as an act which causes or may cause any harm, injury or endangering the life of a mediaperson during the discharge of duty as a mediaperson or causing damage or loss of property belonging to any mediaperson or media institution.

Although new media such as news websites have not been expressly mentioned in the Act, it does consider online periodical work containing public news or comments on public news as newspapers. In the same way, news-based electronic media also find a place as any media that uses electronic devices for news-related matters.

IPC sections repeated

One criticism of the new law is that it repeats sections in the Indian Penal Code (IPC). Both Section 326, which deals with voluntarily causing grievous hurt, and Section 307, which covers attempt to murder, offer the same provisions as the new law. In fact, the existing IPC sections extend the punishment up to life imprisonment while the new law stops at three years in prison.

The Act is also unclear with regard to stringers and freelancers. There needs to be a specific mention of these categories of newspersons, especially for those who work outside urban areas.

Freelance journalists who operate from rural areas have always been particularly defenceless since they are not backed by any organisation nor do they enjoy the professional networks of their urban counterparts.

Attacks on journalists have been on the rise both nationally and internationally. The 2016 “World Press Freedom Index” released by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said that there has been a persistent and disturbing decline regionally and globally as far as media freedom was concerned. On safety of journalists, the report ranked India 133 out of 180 countries.

According to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), an independent, non-profit organisation that promotes press freedom worldwide and defends “the right of journalists to report the news without fear of reprisal”, more than 40 journalists in India have been killed in the line of duty since 1992. This number is besides those who have been beaten, threatened or intimidated in any other way.

Lyla Bavadam

Astrophysics

Finding brighter ‘Standard Candles’

science-and-technology

AN international team of astronomers has, for the first time, seen a cosmic magnification of the light from a class of supernova called Type Ia. Type Ia supernovas, often referred to as “standard candles” because of their well-known intrinsic brightness, are frequently used by astronomers as yardstick to accurately measure cosmic distances and deduce the expansion rate of our universe at different epochs. Finding a magnified, or “gravitationally lensed”, Type Ia supernova is like discovering a brighter candle with which to view the universe.

The researchers say that this discovery is the first of many to come, and that having a whole collection of similarly lensed Type Ia supernovae will lead to more precise measurements which could answer some of the most intriguing questions about the universe.

Gravitational lensing occurs when the gravity of a cosmic object, such as a galaxy, bends and magnifies the light of a more distant object. The effect can produce multiple images of the same object. While this phenomenon of gravitational lensing has been observed many times since Albert Einstein predicted it, imaging a lensed Type Ia supernova has proven formidably difficult, until now.

In the new study, published in the latest issue of Science, the researchers imaged the Type Ia supernova called iPTF16geu and found its four different images.

“Resolving, for the first time, multiple images of a strongly lensed ‘standard candle’ supernova is a major breakthrough,” said Ariel Goobar of the University of Stockholm, Sweden, the lead author of the study. “Normally, when we view a lensed object, we don't know the intrinsic brightness of that object, but with a Type Ia supernova, we do. This will allow us to better quantify and understand the phenomenon of gravitational lensing.”

Goobar and his group are partners in two Caltech-led international scientific collaborations, the intermediate Palomar Transient Factory (iPTF) and the Global Relay of Observatories Watching Transients Happen (GROWTH) project. The iPTF takes advantage of the Palomar Obser<FZ,1,1,11>vatory and its unique capabilities to scan the skies and discover, in near real-time, fast-changing cosmic events such as supernovas. GROWTH manages a global network of researchers and telescopes that can swiftly perform follow-up observations to study these transient events in detail.

“I was baffled when I saw the initial data for iPTF16geu from the Palomar Observatory. It looked like a normal Type Ia supernova but it was much brighter than it should have been, given its distance from us. The rapid follow-up with more powerful facilities confirmed that we had stumbled upon an extremely interesting and rare event,” said co-author Mansi Kasliwal of Caltech, the principal investigator of GROWTH. Within two months of detection, the team observed the iPTF16geu supernova with the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope; the adaptive-optics instruments on the W.M. Keck Observatory atop Mauna Kea, Hawaii; and the VLT telescopes in Chile. Apart from producing a striking visual effect, capturing the image of a strongly lensed Type Ia supernova such as iPTF16geu is extremely useful scientifically. Astronomers can measure very accurately how much time it takes for the light from each of the multiple images of the supernova to reach us.

West Bengal: religion-based nationalism

Disturbing rise

ON April 5, West Bengal witnessed a phenomenon that was not only unprecedented in its post-Independence history but also completely alien to its cultural and political traditions. Thousands of people took to the streets as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and other pro-Hindutva organisations led armed processions in different parts of the State to celebrate Rama Navami, a festival that has never been a part of Bengal’s mainstream culture. Draped in saffron and brandishing traditional weapons such as swords, daggers and choppers and shouting “Jai Shri Ram”, the Sangh Parivar activists asserted themselves and added a new facet to Bengal politics:religion-based nationalism. Even small children were seen in the procession carrying weapons. The Trinamool Congress government could do nothing to stop it. However, several top BJP leaders, including State BJP president Dilip Ghosh, were later booked under the Arms Act.

Just six days later, the saffron brigade once again staged a show of strength on the occasion of Hanuman Jayanti, another festival that had been confined to a few pockets of the State so far. This time too, the participants in the processions were seen wielding weapons. In one procession organised by the Mahavir Sena Samiti, midway through the rally people began to brandish menacingly weapons such as knives, choppers and swords. Six participants of the rally were arrested that night. In Suri in Birbhum district, activists of the Sangh Parivar clashed with the police after they conducted a rally despite being denied permission.

Given that the BJP is still weak organisationally and does not have a widespread presence in the State, political observers view this phenomenon as a result of increased polarisation between Hindus and Muslims and a direct reaction to Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s brand of “minority-appeasement politics”. The fact that a large number of Bengalis took part in the Rama Navami and Hanuman Jayanti celebrations despite both not being traditional Bengali festivals indicates that the rallies were more political than religious.

After a sudden growth in popularity in the State in the last several months, particularly after the 2016 Assembly elections, the BJP is now staking its claim to the status of principal opposition to the Trinamool. The result of the byelection on April 13 for the Dakshin Kanthi Assembly seat shows that there is some justification in the BJP’s claim: the Trinamool won with a total of 95,369 votes while the BJP got 52,843; the Communist Party of India (CPI) and the Congress could only secure 17,423 votes and 2,270 votes respectively (their candidates forfeited their deposits).

The BJP’s growth is changing the dynamics of politics in the State. With the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front and the Congress showing no signs of revival, the Trinamool and the BJP seem all set for a protracted political battle in which religion is the focal point, for the first time in the State. The Trinamool, which was resting easy with the assured votes of the majority of the Muslim population in the State (officially 27.1 per cent as per Census 2011 and expected to be around 30 per cent now), has begun to display signs of nervousness at the BJP’s sudden rise and reach out to orthodox Hindu voters with its brand of “soft Hindutva”. The party also organised rallies for Rama Navami and Hanuman Jayanti.

“Religion has become the central theme of Bengal’s politics. It has now become clear that West Bengal politics is gradually becoming religion-based rather than issue- or ideology-based,” the noted psephologist Biswanath Chakraborty, who is also professor of political science at Rabindra Bharati University, told Frontline.

BJP’s growth

Even BJP followers are stumped by the sudden spurt in the party’s popularity. The result of the Dakshin Kanthi election is a case in point. “Frankly, we did not expect so many votes. Dakshin Kanthi has always been one of our weakest constituencies. We were certainly not expecting more than 20 per cent,” a BJP source told Frontline.

The party’s success in making its presence felt in the State in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, when its vote share increased from 6 per cent to nearly 17 per cent, seemed to have been a flash in the pan. The “Narendra Modi wave” appeared to have died down as abruptly as it had begun, as was evident in the drastic plummeting of the BJP’s vote percentage in the subsequent local body elections. In the 2016 Assembly elections, however, when most expected the party to fare poorly, it managed to increase its vote share up to over 10 per cent and even won three seats, its best performance in the State so far. The Assembly elections were particularly bad for the Left Front, which had been the main opposition to the Trinamool. The Left’s plan to overthrow the ruling party by joining forces with the Congress failed to yield dividends and its vote share dropped further. In the months that followed, the continuous weakening of the opposition and perception that the Trinamool was blatantly favouring one particular religious community served to strengthen the BJP and other right-wing Hindu forces. Communal clashes began to take place in the State and Mamata Banerjee’s government remained in a state of denial. It dismissed the communal flare-ups at Dhulagarh in Howrah, Chandanagar in Hooghly and Haji Nagar in North 24 Paraganas as “local problems”.

At its recently concluded national executive meeting, the BJP made it clear that it had its sights set on, among other States, West Bengal. Rahul Sinha, national secretary and former State president of the party, told Frontline: “Our next step is to reach out to the people at the booth level to highlight the achievements of the Central government, expose the failures of the State government and present an alternative to the Trinamool. In the Lok Sabha elections [scheduled for 2019], we are confident of emerging as the number one party.”

The polarisation of votes between the Trinamool and the BJP is hurting other opposition parties, particularly the Left. CPI(M) Polit Bureau member and Left Front chairman Biman Bose admitted after the byelection result was declared that “sections of those who were with the Left movement have now joined the BJP”. Biswanath Chakraborty pointed out that it was evident that whatever little was left of the Left’s Muslim support base had shifted to the Trinamool, while the Hindu vote rallied behind the BJP. “In the following days, one can expect the Muslim votes to go even more to the Trinamool, as it will be seen as the only force to counter the rising BJP,” he added.

Mamata’s politics

The BJP and other Hindutva outfits claim that Mamata Banerjee’s “politics of appeasement” since 2011 has catalysed their speedy rise in the State. Rahul Sinha attributed the BJP’s gain in momentum to the State government’s “unrestrained appeasement policy of the Muslims”. He added: “The people of the State are disgusted with this policy and this is a direct reaction to it. Along with this is the continuous breakdown of law and order in the State and maladministration by the Trinamool.”

Realising how crucial the minority votes are for her political ascendancy, Mamata Banerjee has been quite unabashed in playing the religious card. Soon after assuming power, she announced a monthly honorarium to imams, who lead the prayers in mosques, and a stipend to muezzins, who perform the task of calling to prayer, but this decision was struck down by the Calcutta High Court as “unconstitutional”. Mamata Banerjee was often seen not only sharing the dais with Muslim religious leaders but also allowing them to dictate terms to her and intervene publicly in political matters.

According to BJP leader Abhijit Roy Choudhury, “the turning point” for many Hindus came during Durga Puja, Bengal’s biggest festival, when immersion of the idol was suspended for a day as it coincided with Muharram. The Calcutta High Court, while hearing a public interest litigation (PIL) petition on the matter, slammed the State government, saying: “There has been a clear endeavour on the part of the State government to pamper and appease the minority section of the public at the cost of the majority section without there being any plausible justification.”

“The fact that fundamentalist forces are having a free run has driven Hindus away from Trinamool. When the government is talking only of one religion, obviously people of other religions will feel neglected and move away from the ruling party,” said Roy Choudhury.

For all of Mamata Banerjee’s avowed opposition to the BJP, it is under her rule in the last six years that the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and other Hindutva forces have penetrated the State effectively. According to reports, between 2013 and 2016 the number of RSS shakhas (branches) increased from 820 to 1,090 in southern West Bengal alone. “From 2011 the RSS spread its network but did it in a very silent manner. Unlike the CPI(M), the Trinamool never had the organisation to understand the development. When they did understand, it was too late. Now things are already getting out of the Trinamool’s control,” an RSS source told Frontline.

Besides the Sangh Parivar, the other ultra right-wing Hindu organisations that have been spreading their influence in the State, particularly in the south, are the Hindu Samhati and the Hindu Jagran Manch. Devdutta Maji, vice president of the Hindu Samhati, said: “Our organisation was founded in 2008 by Tapan Ghosh. Our main job is creating awareness among the masses and including them in our movement. The government does not have the capacity to accept the fact of Islamist menace and act upon it. We believe that ordinary Hindus will have to be mobilised as it is the ordinary Muslims who are creating trouble. What is worrying the anti-nationals the most about the Hindu Samhati is that we are the most reactive organisation with most coverage and control of the ground and are expanding like wildfire.”

Maji admitted that between 2008 and 2011 the organisation faced severe difficulties in functioning and growing. “In the last three years of the CPI(M)’s rule, we were very badly harassed. Hindu religious organisations had no part in awakening Hindutva in Bengal. It was done by Mamata Banerjee and her policy of blatant minority appeasement,” he said.

Changing tactics

Interestingly, Mamata Banerjee’s political tactic to take on the growth of Hindutva has not been by placing greater emphasis on secularism but by adopting a milder form of Hindutva. In fact, the Trinamool and the BJP tried to outdo each other in the celebration of Rama Navami and Hanuman Jayanti. Several Trinamool leaders, including Sports and Youth Services Minister Laxmi Ratan Shukla, organised rallies as a response to the BJP’s programme.

At a recent public rally, Mamata Banerjee even warned the BJP against claiming Rama Navami as its own, exclusive festival. “It is as though Mamata is now saying that Hindutva is not the BJP’s property alone. She is now clearly trying to appropriate for herself BJP’s Hindutva card to combat the right-wing aggression,” said Biswanath Chakraborty.

However, this new ploy is making Mamata’s Muslim supporters a little apprehensive. For long they had placed their complete trust in the Trinamool in the hope that it would resist the rise of Hindu right-wing forces, but now many are looking at other options. Mohammed Quamaruzzaman, general secretary of the All Bengal Minority Youth Federation, said: “We have kept our eyes on all political parties. The Trinamool is in power today. It has the police and the administration under it, and yet we saw how those people [at the Rama Navami and Hanuman Jayanti rallies] blatantly defied the police and illegally brandished arms in the open. If the police and the administration do not take action against them, then we will know that the Trinamool too has surrendered to these radical fundamentalist forces.”

The Trinamool is yet to finalise a strategy to oppose this new challenge to its practically supreme political authority in the State. It is a very delicate balancing task that now lies ahead for the Chief Minister. On the one hand she will have to ensure that her minority support base does not slip away, and on the other she cannot take for granted the support of members of the majority community who have for so long been her staunch supporters.

Through a different lens

“THE kind of political questions raised by Orientalism, then, are as follows: What other sorts of intellectual, aesthetic, scholarly, and cultural energies went into the making of an imperialist tradition like the Orientalist one? How did philology, lexicography, history, biology, political and economic theory, novel-writing, and lyric poetry come to the service of Orientalism’s broadly imperialist view of the world? What changes, modulations, refinements, even revolutions take place within Orientalism? What is the meaning of originality, of continuity, of individuality, in this context? How does Orientalism transmit or reproduce itself from one epoch to another? In fine, how can we treat the cultural, historical phenomenon of Orientalism as a kind of willed human work—not of mere, unconditioned ratiocination—in all its historical complexity, detail, and worth without at the same time losing sight of the alliance between cultural work, political tendencies, the state, and the specific realities of domination? Governed by such concerns a humanistic study can responsibly address itself to politics and culture. But this is not to say that such a study establishes a hard-and-fast rule about the relationship between knowledge and politics. My argument is that each humanistic investigation must formulate the nature of that connection in the specific context of the study, the subject utter, and its historical circumstances.”—Edward W. Said, Orientalism, 1978.

The Palestinian scholar Edward Said’s seminal work on “how the West created an image of the East as the ‘backward and regressive Other’” and employed and exploited that image to advance “the supremacist ideology of imperialism” is premised on addressing and drawing from multifarious streams and disciplines of life and knowledge. Saeed Naqvi’s Being the Other: The Muslim in India is evidently inspired by Said’s masterly socio-political-cultural exploration while training its focus on historical and contemporary India. The attestation of “otherness” in the title is elaborated upon in the introductory chapter itself as follows: “The Oxford Dictionary defines the ‘Other’ as ‘that which is distinct from, different from, or opposite to something or oneself’. In the late twentieth century, the Palestinian scholar Edward Said analysed this phenomenon. From this issued his seminal work, Orientalism, on the ‘affiliation of knowledge and power’. This is how the West created an image of the East as the ‘Other’. The supremacist ideology of imperialism is structured on this platform. Looked at through this lens, it helps us see how, in India, an entire community (the Muslim), which comprises over 14 per cent of the total population, has come to be seen as the Other, as something exotic, backward, uncivilised, even dangerous.” Said’s iteration on the broad approach to be followed for each specific study on the connection between knowledge and power gets reflected in the multiple dimensions pursued by Naqvi in Being the Other.

However, it is not a comprehensive academic treatise that Naqvi advances here. It is essentially the work of a journalist who has a deep and expansive understanding of life situations, ideas, and social, political and cultural practices that he encountered. Naqvi lays himself bare on his approach as follows: “When I began writing this book I intended it to be a memoir. However, in its final form, a part of it is a procession of images, ‘scratches on my mind’. The rest of it comprises my observations and eyewitness accounts of various seminal events in contemporary Indian history that have had a bearing on Muslims. Being the Other is also a lament for the vanished syncretic Hindu-Muslim culture, especially in that crucible of tolerance, the qasbah of Mustafabad near Lucknow, where I grew up.”

Three broad narrative strands could be made out if one were to classify this collage of experiences and precepts. A stream of discerning political observation is one of these key narratives. Another one is at the level of elucidations on an evolving social and cultural life, spanning a few decades on either side of India’s year of Independence, 1947. These two narrative streams are interspersed with impressionistic vignettes from all walks of life and society, which are anecdotal and edifying. Put together, these three narratives give brief and unique glimpses into facets of history, political and economic affairs praxis, lifestyle, arts, and literature. And, in keeping with Said’s Orientalism-based approach, these narratives cumulatively delineate the picture of growing Hindutva hegemony and the othering of the 184 million Muslims in India.

This multidimensional approach is embellished by Naqvi’s individual status as a leading Indian journalist over the last four and a half decades. He has indeed been a significant presence in the print and electronic media, interviewing world leaders such as Nelson Mandela and Fidel Castro and contributing to the national and international media, including BBC News, The Sunday Observer, The Sunday Times, The Guardian, The Washington Post, and The Indian Express.

Belied promise

Evidently, he was the product of a time when the othering of Muslims had not become as visible or pronounced as it is today. Naqvi places himself as follows: “I have had an eventful life, rich with experiences gleaned from this country and a hundred other countries. In that sense, I am the ‘other’ within the Other. I was fortunate in that the liberal, secular outlook gifted to me by my environment turned out to my advantage. In 1966, Pran Chopra, the first Indian editor of The Statesman, and the paper’s political correspondent, Inder Malhotra, sent me as special correspondent to Jaipur when I was still in my twenties. They were not Hindus with marks on their forehead; I was not a Muslim wearing the elder brother’s outsized shirt and the younger brother’s pyjamas that dangled above the ankles. We grew out of different faiths but had a common social meeting ground. This was the early promise of Nehruvianism. It was soon to be belied.”

The narrative of political observation unravels several facets of history that are seemingly deliberately under-discussed. Naqvi points out that while it was the British who were the first to exploit the divisions between the Hindu and Muslim communities during the days of the Raj and in the run-up to Independence, later some of India’s greatest leaders, including Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel, persisted with the same approach and at some levels exacerbated them.

The part that discusses the politics of Partition is particularly biting. It underscores that even Gandhi ji betrayed the faith of two firm anti-partitionists, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad and Badshah Khan. Naqvi highlights the fact that Azad saw Gandhi as the last hope to prevent partition and how his persuasions evoked an assurance from Gandhi that partition would take place only “over my dead body”. But this assurance, evidently, was betrayed. Not just that. Naqvi says that it was Gandhi who suggested that Azad need not be accommodated in the Cabinet. Being the Other quotes Gandhi’s letter to Nehru as follows: “There are many positions he [Azad] can occupy in public life without any harm to any cause. Sardar is decidedly against his membership in Cabinet and so is Rajkumari [Amrit Kaur]…. It should not be difficult to name any other Muslim….” Citing this, Naqvi asks: “Gandhiji is quite clear. All that Nehru needs to keep up the secular pretence is to have a token Muslim in the Cabinet. How different is this tokenism from the one in vogue all the years since 1947?”

Being the Other argues that the Partition story is incomplete and a lot more new material has to be incorporated, including the Transfer of Power papers published in Britain in 1983, to get a complete picture of what actually transpired. Naqvi notes that two years after the Transfer of Power papers were published, the Pakistani historian Ayesha Jalal established in her Cambridge dissertation, “The Sole Spokesman”, that “it was the Congress which insisted on Partition. It was Jinnah who was against Partition.”

The author also points to a widespread perception that the call for partition was a bargaining ploy whereby Jinnah hoped to strike a better deal for Muslims in a united India. “But partnership with Muslims would have made it impossible for the Congress to achieve what Maulana Azad described as ‘unadulterated Hindu Raj’. Partition, in a way, was the gift the Congress gave to the Hindu Right, which, in the fullness of time, is today’s Hindutva.”

Hindutva hegemony

The book portrays this stream of Hindutva hegemony that arose even as India attained Independence, gathering momentum in the last seven decades through several occurrences such as the Ayodhya Ram Mandir agitation, the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992, the Gujarat genocide of 2002 and the Muzaffarnagar communal rampage of 2013-14. Being the Other lists Partition and the demolition of the Babri Masjid as significant happenings that widened the divide. Naqvi also points out that the political climate in the immediate South Asian neighbourhood created by the serial violence in Kashmir has also added to the othering of the Muslim. All this is further aggravated, by the so-called global war on terror, which seeks to portray, by design or by accident, almost every Muslim as a terrorist.

This context, the book observes, has resulted in the unambiguous hegemony of Hindutva over political, social and cultural spaces in the country. In the context of the recent elections in Uttar Pradesh, the country’s most populous State, where the political forces of Hindutva led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power without naming even a single Muslim candidate, this exposition of historical factors relating to the othering of the principal minority community is indeed worth debating. If the Uttar Pradesh election results and the anointment of an aggressive Hindutva warrior, Yogi Adityanath, as the Chief Minister are significant milestones in this march of social and political hegemony, other milestones along the path are the lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq at Dadri (Uttar Pradesh) over allegations of storing beef, the cancellation of Pakistani ghazal singer Ghulam Ali’s concert, and the vilification of several Muslim writers and other cultural activists for a perceived lesser degree of patriotism.

Amidst this riveting narrative of political observation, Naqvi looks rather wistfully at his childhood and youth and at the culturally syncretic life of Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb he enjoyed during those periods. He cites lyrical poetry exemplifying cultural syncretism to the core as follows: “These days people are ignorant of the eighteenth-century poet Nazir Akbarabadi’s poem, Kya kya likhoon main Krishna Kanhaiya ka baalpan (How should I write about the beautiful childhood of Lord Krishna), or Mohsin Kakorvi’s Samte Kashi se chala janibe Mathura badal, jab talak Braj mein Kanhaiya hai yeh khulne ka nahin (The clouds are moving ecstatically from Kashi to Mathura and the sky will remain covered with dense clouds as long as there is Krishna in Braj). These lines about Lord Krishna were written by a Muslim poet to celebrate not Krishna’s birthday but that of Prophet Muhammad! We were creatures of the Urdu composite culture. The label is self-explanatory. It carried the lilt of Brajbhasha, Bhojpuri, Awadhi, the flavour of life in the stretch between two great rivers which enclose the spaces where the legend of Radha, Krishna and Rama lived.”

The nostalgia and the craving for the “good old times” manifests at times in Being the Other as a decisive predilection for an elite, upper crest (upper caste) Shia Muslim ethos as a creator and cementer of social and communal harmony. This is clearly a limitation in Naqvi’s composite perception even as he makes a forceful presentation on the othering of Muslims in India. In spite of this limitation, this mixture of political observation, social-cultural vignettes and personal anecdotes marks an important document for debate, which in turn could become part of the several guidelines for possible social and political action.

Naqvi says that “when the reader has finished reading the book, I hope he or she will have gained a measure of understanding of what is being lost to communalism. Muslims aren’t the only ones who will lose, every Indian will. It doesn’t matter if you are Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, Christian, Jain or atheist—a country divided by sectarianism or shaped along communal lines will no longer be India. It will be a different country, a retrograde nation ruled by belief, superstition and authoritarian impulses, a replica of failed states and religious dictatorships around the world where tyranny has displaced democracy, human rights, justice and liberty for all.”

U.S. strikes

Reckless in White House

VIJAY PRASHAD cover-story

WITHIN a week, United States President Donald Trump authorised two major strikes—one against the Syrian Air Force and the other against an ISIS base in Afghanistan. Both of these strikes came with little warning, although these are not the first such attacks in either sector. The U.S. has bombed Syria almost 8,000 times over the past few years and Iraq uncountable times since 2003, dropping ordnance that has already dwarfed the tonnage dropped in all sectors of the Second World War. But these bombing raids were against the ISIS, largely, and not the Syrian government. In Afghanistan, the U.S. has been at war since 2001—making this the longest war in its history. Aerial bombardment of Afghanistan by the U.S. is now perfectly normal. What made this attack so extraordinary was the scale of the bomb—a-10-tonne monstrosity, the largest non-nuclear weapon used on planet earth. Not long after Afghanistan’s eastern province of Nangarhar shuddered with the intensity of that bomb, a U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) spokesperson talked to The Hill (a Washington D.C.-based political newspaper and website) about the attack. President Trump, said this military spokesperson, had given his armed forces greater latitude to fight the War on Terror. This freedom in combat, said the anonymous spokesperson, was “empowering the commanders and winning the war against the bad guys. In this administration, the military is given empowerment to do what we need to do”. Most stunningly, the spokesperson then spoke as if he were the manager of a prize-fighting boxer. “We mean business. President Trump said that once he gets in [to office] he’s going to kick the shit out of the enemy. That was his promise and that’s exactly what we’re doing,” said the spokesperson.

Hastily, a denial came from Doha (Qatar), where this spokesperson is based. CENTCOM’s media chief Major Josh Jacques said that the person who talked to The Hill was “unauthorised to speak on behalf of the U.S. Central Command”. But that statement had already been made. It revealed the unvarnished attitude of the military, or at least the section that favoured Trump’s more aggressive posture towards the world. The language and tone of the unauthorised spokesperson from CENTCOM mirrored that of Trump. “We have the greatest military in the world,” Trump said. “We have given total authorisation, and that’s what they’re doing, and frankly, that’s why they’ve been so successful recently.”

The measure of success

Since Trump assumed office, the U.S. has indeed stepped up aerial bombing across the geography of the War on Terror, from Syria to Afghanistan. Reports of civilian casualties from these strikes began to trickle out in the days after Trump came into office. The non-profit monitoring group Airwars decided to shift its resources to track civilian deaths from U.S. strikes and stop using its limited resources to look at strikes by Russians. The number of deaths from the former dwarfs those from the latter. In March 2017 itself, Airwars counted 1,782 civilian non-combatant deaths from U.S. strikes. There were three mass casualty attacks that month, one in Syria’s Aleppo (47 civilians dead), another in Syria’s Raqqa (33 civilians dead) and the third in Iraq’s Mosul (200 civilians dead). “Nothing has prepared us for that level of civilian casualties,” said Chris Woods of Airwars.

The bombing has been severe but the strategic gains have been limited. In Syria, the U.S.-backed forces have struggled to push against the ISIS in the country’s north. One aerial strike, in fact, killed a dozen soldiers of the U.S.-backed Syrian Defence Forces (SDF). The SDF has been hemmed in because of pressure from the Turkish government, whose Operation Euphrates Shield is intended to block the advance of these mainly Kurdish fighters along the Syrian-Turkish border. The strike on the Shayrat Air Base in Syria by the U.S. also came with little strategic foresight. From this base, the Syrian Air Force had been striking ISIS columns as they moved to threaten the city of Palmyra. With the destruction of several aircraft by the U.S. cruise missiles, the ISIS has been given relief from the skies.

In Afghanistan, the U.S. targeted the meagre forces of the ISIS’s Khorasan division, which had already been badly dented during an offensive by the Afghan Army in January 2016. It is not the ISIS but the Taliban that is a threat to the Afghan government. The monstrous 10-tonne bomb was used against an opportunistic group of fighters who have been unsuccessful in trying to build momentum in Afghanistan and who have been unable to inflame a sectarian war inside the country. These fighters, in fact, have been a thorn in the side of the Taliban, challenging it to be more brutal in its tactics to win over young fighters. With the ISIS weakened, the Taliban will have the field to themselves just as the summer of fighting is ready to open up.

Even those who have congratulated Trump on his actions, such as the U.S. Senator John McCain, bemoan the lack of a strategy to win the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. The Trump Doctrine, if there is any such thing, is to show that the U.S. is willing to use the full extent of its military power to intimidate its enemies. But the problem with this view, if this is indeed the vision of the Trump Doctrine, is that the U.S. might indeed fire its massive arsenal but it will also earn itself more enemies from the families of dead civilians and from patriotic-minded people who will not tolerate the attempt to intimidate. Even Hamid Karzai, former President of Afghanistan who was close to the U.S., said after the bombing: “This is an inhuman act, a brutal act against an innocent country, against innocent people, against our land, against our sovereignty, against our soil and against our future.” Karzai is not alone. Trump’s especially brutal language and the relish with which he has unleashed military power have alienated many potential allies and friends. It is easy to bomb a country; far harder to build alliances in its aftermath.

When he was asked to define the Trump Doctrine, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said that the two words that are essential to the Trump world view are “America First”. “We’re not just going to become the world’s policeman, running around the world,” Spicer said. But, the U.S. would use its military only when there is a “clear and defined national interest,” he said. What “clear and defined national interest” was served in the attacks on Syria and Afghanistan? Of Syria, Spicer said that the U.S. was acting so that weapons of mass destruction do not “spread to other groups” that might threaten the U.S. The logic here is similar to that advanced by George W. Bush in 2002 and 2003, that the U.S. should destroy Iraq’s fictional weapons of mass destruction arsenal before the country shared it with Al Qaeda. There is little evidence that the Syrian government, like the Iraqi government before it, would ally itself with a group like Al Qaeda, which it sees as an enemy. But that is beside the point. Logic and history are unimportant in the Trump White House (Spicer even said that Adolf Hitler had not used chemical weapons against his own people, which, of course, denies what the Nazis did in the Holocaust). The U.S.’ national interest is not served by the attack on the Syrian government. That is the kind of regime-change policy that Trump had campaigned against during his run for the White House.

Selective outrage

Almost no logical account has been provided by the White House as to why the U.S. acted against the Syrian government for the as-yet-to-be-investigated attack in Idlib. The White House said that Trump was moved by pictures of the children killed in the attack, and that his daughter, Ivanka, implored him to do something. There was no such reaction when at least 126 people were killed by extremists who bombed buses outside Aleppo in midApril. There were 60 children amongst those killed then. No U.S. outrage was evident against the extremists, many of whom have links of one kind or the other with the U.S. and its allies.

Minimal explanation has been given for the U.S. attack in Afghanistan apart from the assertion by the U.S. commander that this massive bomb was necessary to take out the tunnel networks used by the ISIS. These tunnels, many of which were built with the assistance of the U.S.’ Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) for the mujahideen in the 1980s, have been used for long by various extremist groups. Why strike the ISIS, already weakened, when it would have been far more useful to the Kabul government if the U.S. had turned its firepower against the more threatening Taliban? No explanation has been given for this.

After Trump’s two strikes, he received accolades in the U.S. from a range of politicians and commentators. It is as if U.S. culture is incapable of being unhappy with a President who bombs another country. The term “presidential” began to be used for Trump by people who had previously seen him merely as a usurper. Perhaps Trump’s bombing raids had less to do with Syria and Afghanistan and more to do with U.S. politics, where his personal approval ratings are miserable. Trump would not be the first U.S. President to use the U.S. military to bolster his popularity. President Bill Clinton routinely used cruise missiles as a way to distract people from his domestic scandals. It has even been suggested that Trump used the attacks on Syria and Afghanistan to send a message to North Korea—that he would act if he sees fit (as in Syria) and he would use massive weaponry that is unimaginable (as in Afghanistan). Whether Trump acts for domestic reasons or to send a message to North Korea, either way his use of violence seems to be lacking a logical strategy for Syria and Afghanistan.

Richard Nixon pioneered a theory of foreign affairs known as the “Madman Theory”. He told his Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman: “I call it the Madman Theory, Bob. I want the North Vietnamese to believe I’ve reached the point where I might do anything to stop the war.” Nixon’s people would spread the rumour, he said, that the nuclear option was available and that Nixon was mad enough to use it.

“Ho Chi Minh himself will be in Paris in two days begging for peace,” Nixon said. Perhaps Trump, like Nixon, believes in the Madman Theory, one pioneered by Machiavelli, who wrote: “It is a wise thing to simulate madness.” It terrifies one’s adversaries. It pleases the bloodlust of one’s supporters. But it does not make the world a safer place.

River Sarasvati

Fiction as history

ZIYA US SALAM the-nation

OLD wine is being sought to be served in a new bottle in the corridors of history and archaeology in Haryana. A fresh proposal to rename the Indus Valley Civilisation as Sarasvati Indus Civilisation or simply Sarasvati Civilisation has been made by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in the State. Earlier this year, the Haryana Sarasvati Heritage Development Board, headed by Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar, stated there was enough evidence to rename the Indus Valley Civilisation. The proposal said: “There are less than hundred sites in Pakistan dating back to the so-called Indus Valley Civilisation while there are nearly a thousand sites in Haryana…. The largest Harappan site Rakhigarhi and the oldest Bhirrana are both in Haryana. The State government is restarting excavation at Kunal in Fatehabad district.”

The move failed to impress historians and archaeologists alike. The eminent historian Irfan Habib, who has written extensively on the Sarasvati, dubs it “an exercise at fiction”. “It is an old BJP slogan based on politics, not history,” he says. Prof. D.N. Jha, who is widely respected for his path-breaking work on ancient India, dismisses the proposal: “The idea of renaming the Indus Valley Civilisation is many years old. The Sarasvati Heritage Board was established in 2002 under NDA [National Democratic Alliance] rule but was scrapped in 2005-06 after the UPA [United Progressive Alliance] came to power. Its revival under the communalist Modi regime is no surprise. It is reminiscent of the gross misuse of archaeology during the Nazi regime.”

The noted archaeologist Shereen Ratnagar, who has taught at Jawaharlal Nehru University and authored the widely read book Understanding Harappa, clears the air by underlining the difference between history and archaeology, making unnecessary the State government’s attempt to find favour with historians for renaming the civilisation that preceded the Vedic Age by about a thousand years. “History cannot support an archaeological claim—they are different disciplines,” she says. “This is nothing new. The late S.P. Gupta and others said so many years ago.” As for the huge number of sites in Haryana, she says: “They get such a large number because they count sites of various cultures.”

In her book Understanding Harappa, she makes it clear that the ancient civilisation known to us for over 150 years is indeed the Indus Valley Civilisation and that it cannot be called Sarasvati Civilisation. She argues that irrespective of the number of discoveries claimed by those asking for the civilisation to be named after the river Sarasvati, Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro remain the largest sites. They have the richest artefacts and the most elaborate architecture. “They are likely, therefore, to have been economically or politically central, even dominant places. Thus, ‘Harappan’ is a satisfactory label,” she writes. “If in an ancient mound we find only one pot and two bead necklaces similar to those of Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro, with the bulk of pottery, tools and ornaments of a different type altogether, we cannot call that site Harappan. It is instead a site with Harappan contacts....Where the Sarasvati valley sites are concerned, we find that many of them are sites of local culture (with distinctive pottery, clay bangles, terracotta beads and grinding stones), some of them showing Harappan contact, and comparatively full-fledged Mature Harappan sites,” she writes.

However, the debate rages over whether the period should be named after Sarasvati, a tributary of the Indus. Says Jha: “It is often suggested that this was the civilisation of the Sarasvati river, not the Indus. Vedic literature gives importance to a river known as the Sarasvati, which some archaeologists identify with the mostly dry river now known as the Ghaggar in India, and, further downstream in Pakistan, as the Hakra, that is, its course being from mountains in the north-east towards the Indus channel in the south-west. It has been said that there are several relic mounds of the period (example Kalibangan) along the banks of this Sarasvati river system, more than along the alluvial valley of the Indus. So, it was claimed, this is the Sarasvati civilisation, not the civilisation of the Indus. There are difficulties about this suggestion. First, fewer Harappan sites lie along the banks of the Ghaggar-Hakra than is made out. Second, there is no proof at all that the Sarasvati of the Rg Veda was in fact this (now dry) river—the identification is itself open to doubt.” Jha questions the supposed evidence of the presence of a thousand sites. “All these sites are dispersed and do not form a chain along any big river.”

However, it is said that there are satellite images that confirm the claims of the Haryana Sarasvati Heritage Development Board. If one were to believe the images, the Sarasvati was indeed an awe-inspiring river with free-flowing water and habitats around its banks. The noted historian Satish Chandra, however, dismisses the claim: “They are trying very hard to find the Sarasvati river. They claim it was a big, majestic river and quote evidence of the existence of so many Harappan period sites. What is forgotten is that civilisation grew on the banks of small rivers. Traditionally, people did not use water from the river but wells and baolis. The question of having a big river does not hint at civilisation.”

Irfan Habib dismisses the “proof” of satellite imagery, saying: “The claims of water being sighted are all fiction. Satellite images show no connection between the Hakkar and the Indus.” His viewpoint is similar to Shereen Ratnagar’s. As she puts it: “The geology in that region is complex. In the medieval period, too, it had several rivers and irrigation canals. Subsoil water in one stretch or another cannot be proof of an ancient water course from the Shivaliks to the Gulf of Kutch.”

She points out: “R.N. Singh and a team of archaeologists explored this region and reported in 2008 that the landscape has been so altered by human activity in the recent past that the use of satellite imagery does not help us to correlate site location with ancient river courses. Moreover, the locational data given for Harappan sites was in many cases faulty and not all were in close proximity to dry beds of the Ghaggar river.”

From myth to reality

Amidst all this, there are conflicting claims on the course of the Sarasvati, indeed its very existence. The Board states: “The river is no more a myth; its existence is a reality. No one should call Sarasvati a myth since it has already been proven that the river was present. No one should also use the word mythology in association with the river.” Legend has it that the river remains hidden and meets the Ganga and the Yamuna in Prayag. One school believes that the river flowed westward to Rann of Katch and into Pakistan.

“The Sarasvati as part of a larger river trinity is a myth,” insists Habib, before taking on those who believe that the river had a westward course. “According to their logic, the river originates in submersible water in Haryana. If they can bring water from a nullah in Haryana, then the original source of Sarasvati will be in Haryana, not Himachal Pradesh. Then Sarasvati originates in the plains and cannot carry much water. A river that originates in the Shivaliks cannot carry water to either the Rann of Kutch or the mythical union with the Ganga and the Yamuna in Prayag. The present-day Sarasvati neither rises in the Himalaya nor flows down to the sea. Its connection with the Ghaggar is relatively recent, and its link with the Hakra is not as certain as everyone assumes.”

Habib adds more detail to his argument by revealing that scrutiny of alluvium from the Ghaggar plains ruled out any larger river coming down from the Himalaya to the area here. He does agree that the Sarasvati is indeed mentioned in Chapter X of the Rg Veda, where it is mentioned that it is located between the Yamuna and the Sutlej. That is probably the present-day Sarsuti. The Brahmanas mention Sarasvati’s disappearance at Vinasana, thus ruling out its merger with the Ghaggar.

Jha elaborates: “The Sarasvati of the Rg Veda was not as big as it has been made out to be; nor did it directly flow into the Rann of Katch as the Sarasvati enthusiasts insist. On the other hand, the idea that the river, which dried up in Vinasana, flowed underground for nearly 500 kilometres may not be very old. But insistence on the Sarasvati flowing down to Rann of Katch would mean that the Triveni Sangam is a myth. So it is for the Hindutva ideologues to choose between their communalism and the popular superstition about the Triveni Sangam.”

If that is the case, why is there so much eagerness, such unbounded enthusiasm, to rename the Indus Valley Civilisation after Sarasvati?

Cultural agenda

Says Jha: “The idea of renaming the Indus Valley Civilisation is many years old and is part of the right-wing communal agenda. The ‘othering’ of Muslims as foreigners has led to the assertion that Hindus are indigenous people and so are their supposed ancestors, the Aryans. Since they claim to be the original inhabitants of India, they have to be the progenitors of the oldest civilisation, the Harappan Civilisation. But some of its important centres (Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa) are in Pakistan, so its roots must be found in India. Not surprisingly, Hindutva enthusiasts have named the Harappan Civilisation after the river Sarasvati. Thus, one can immediately see the link between the depiction of Muslims as foreigners and the naming of the Harappan Civilisation after the river Sarasvati.”

His argument finds support from Shereen Ratnagar. “The term Sarasvati conjures up an identity between the culture reflected in the Vedic literature and that of the Harappan Civilisation, when there is, in fact, hardly any correspondence. Thus, the label Sarasvati is difficult to defend on scholarly grounds and we should not forget that, in any case, the river in question was a tributary of the Indus.” And not a majestic, though hidden, companion of the Ganga and the Yamuna.

So, is the myth of the Sarasvati Civilisation buried for good? Jha has a clincher: “That the river Sarasvati is mentioned in the Rg Veda is not a myth. But the Sarasvati Civilisation is.” Says Habib: “Just fiction. How does one fight fiction?” A myth is a narrative about the remote past. Scholars (Leftists included) have used the term wrongly, creating confusion in people’s minds. A myth is believed to be the truth, but there is no hard evidence for it. The more appropriate term would be legend. How do you ‘prove’ something fictional anyway?” Indeed.

Jammu & Kashmir

Simmering Valley

SHUJAAT BUKHARI the-nation

A FEW people, including former Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram, have flagged the apprehension that India is on the brink of losing Kashmir. Although such voices are in a minority, the reality dawned on the nation after Kashmir said an emphatic “no” to elections.

The voter turnout in the April 9 byelection to the Srinagar Lok Sabha constituency was a meagre 7.14 per cent, marginally higher than the 5 per cent turnout in the November 1989 elections to the Baramulla and Anantnag parliamentary seats. Boycott of elections was possible in 1989 because militancy had just taken birth in the Kashmir Valley, but the violent disruption of the polling exercise in some pockets of Srinagar constituency in April 2017 showed the people’s resistance to the democratic process, a process in which they had participated in 2002, 2008 and 2014.

Former Chief Minister and National Conference (N.C.) president Farooq Abdullah won the Srinagar byelection by a wide margin of more than 10,000 votes. The election was necessitated by the resignation of Tariq Hamid Qarra of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP). He resigned in September 2016 in protest against what he called the brutality of the state against protesters in the Kashmir Valley. Qarra subsequently joined the Congress. In 2014, Qarra defeated Abdullah. In this byelection he campaigned for Abdullah as the N.C. is the Congress’ alliance partner.

Such was the impact of the violence outside polling booths in Budgam, in which eight civilians were killed, that it led to the postponement of the byelection slated for April 12 in Anantnag. (The Anantnag seat fell vacant after Mehbooba Mufti, who is the State Chief Minister, relinquished it after she was elected to the State Assembly.) Tasaduq Mufti, the ruling PDP’s candidate, requested the Election Commission of India in a letter that the election be deferred to “avoid further human loss”. It was to have been the electoral debut of Tasaduq, Mehbooba Mufti’s brother. Following a word from the Union Home Ministry and a push from the State government, the Election Commission postponed the byelection to May 25.

Obviously, the decision to defer the election was the direct fallout of what happened in Budgam. Notwithstanding the fact that the separatist Hurriyat Conference has been calling for the boycott of elections since 1996, Kashmir has always recorded a good voter turnout. The voting percentage in the 1996, 2002, 2008 and 2014 Assembly elections was 53, 43, 61 and 66 respectively and it was 35, 39 and 50 in the 2004, 2009 and 2014 Lok Sabha elections.

The voter turnout prompted New Delhi to claim that the people of Kashmir had reposed faith in Indian democracy, and that in a way it “authenticated the State’s accession” to the Union. However, even mainstream parties such as the N.C. and the PDP have tried to delink people’s participation in the elections from the political issue and argue that the elections were a success because of issues of governance such as “bijli, sadak and paani” (electricity, roads and water). The biggest surprise by way of people’s participation came in the 2011 local body elections when the turnout was nearly 80 per cent in some places.

The likes of the Hurriyat have always challenged this narrative to maintain that the people’s mood vis-a-vis the political issue has not changed. The April 9 election in a way endorsed that view although the boycott was not completely in response to the call given by the separatists. There was simmering discontent, essentially rising from the unrest in 2016 when cries for “aazadi” rent the air, drawing new battle lines in Kashmir. The majority of the voters did not want the “sham” election to take place in Srinagar. It is a fact that violence played a role in keeping the voters away from the booths, but the writing was already on the wall. The anger against the system, especially among the youth, had reached a crescendo. Also, there was a fear that the Valley may see a repeat of the prolonged agitation that took place from July 2016.

The involvement of Pakistan and militants in not allowing the poll exercise is nothing new for Kashmir, but the fact that this time it was the people’s will that disrupted the process cannot be ignored. Snapshots of the popular mood were already blazing on the horizon, with people putting up resistance to the presence of security forces during anti-militancy operations. In the last week of March, when a militant was trapped in Budgam district, people took on the security forces by pelting them with stones in order to help him escape. The militant was killed and three youths were also gunned down. Such incidents have become common in Kashmir and herald a new change on the ground.

Journalists who have covered Kashmir since 1990 would point out that those days people would run away from an encounter site, but today they run towards the encounter site. New Delhi has lost whatever space it had gained.

This fiasco brings out the abject failure of the administration. For a long time, the administration was aware of the situation, but mishandling Kashmir has become its hallmark. Given that there is no accountability, the first option is to fire the bullet to kill protesters, not to scare them away. The impunity with which the police and the paramilitary forces have responded to situations in Kashmir since 2008 has helped them to become indispensable because the political leadership has always shielded them.

Militancy

The agitation and the anger following the killing spree have formed a dangerous combination that is pushing the youth towards militancy. In the past few years, there has been a steep rise in the number of local militants. Earlier, the ratio of foreign militants to local militants was 70:30. Today, according to officials, it is just the reverse. According to official sources, the number of youths who joined militancy in 2010 was 54. It decreased to 23 in 2011. There was a further decline to 21 and 16 in 2012 and 2013 respectively, but the number went up to 53 in 2014 and rose drastically to 66 in 2015 and 88 in 2016.

In 2017, informed sources say, 19 youths joined the ranks of militants until March. Security officials admit that the hanging of the 2001 Parliament building attack case convict Mohammed Afzal Guru in 2013 was a turning point as far as pushing the youth towards militancy is concerned. Kashmiris found themselves completely pushed to the wall following the hanging of Afzal Guru.

With the killing of Burhan Wani in July 2016 and the romanticism that his life story infused among the youth, more and more youths started joining the militancy. But that is hardly a concern on the ground as the youths who are taking on the security forces with stones are proving to be more dangerous than the actual militants. The youths, who once told former External Affairs Minister Yashwant Sinha that they did not fear death, have the capacity to put the forces on the back foot to the extent that the forces have lost their balance in dealing with them.

That the Army and paramilitary forces have failed to tackle the problem is clear from a video that has gone viral showing a young man being tied to a jeep and dragged through several villages, covering a distance of 22 kilometres. More such videos showing abuse and violence and forcing people to shout “Pakistan Murdabad” have gone viral. Lt Gen. H.S. Panag, former Army Commander of the Udhampur-based Northern Command, admitted that the video would haunt the Indian Army and the nation for a long time to come.

A day before the video went viral, national television channels ran a video clip in which some youths were shown heckling a paramilitary jawan, and a lot of time was devoted to discussions on the video grab. But the video showing the youth dragged by a jeep completely overshadowed it, putting the Army in the dock. This incident not only shows that the forces have run out of options to deal with a crisis that is essentially political but also puts a question mark on the projects worth several crores of rupees being implemented under “Operation Sadbhavna” in Kashmir. The distance between the people and the Army has further increased. The police registered a first information report against the Army, but the damage had already been done.

Whether policymakers in New Delhi agree or not, postponing the election following what happened on April 9 is viewed as “surrender”. The argument that the postponement had saved many lives may be valid, but whether the government will be able to conduct the election on May 25 is a big question. Apparently, this decision will embolden those who have been challenging the writ of the government.

The Joint Hurriyat Conference, which spearheads this new face of “resistance” (irrespective of whether it holds the key), has claimed a moral victory and rightly so. New Delhi’s surrender before the agitation by voters has made it vulnerable. Until now, it had been positioning itself differently and selling to the whole world the idea that democracy was flourishing in Kashmir. After the April 9 byelection and the postponement of the Anantnag election, it will have to explain what this turnaround means. Even leaders such as Farooq Abdullah, former Chief Minister Omar Abdullah and Congress State party president G.A. Mir have admitted that the political mainstream has lost the ground completely.

What is important to realise is that Kashmir has not been averse to any democratic process that helps address the political issue. The period between 2003 and 2007 stands testimony to the fact that Kashmiris believe in a process that is aimed at finding a solution to the problem. However, the past eight years have shown that the Centre only wants to make itself strong in Kashmir through the barrel of the gun. Threats and provocations in the past two years have complicated the situation.

The anger on the streets is the culmination of the Centre’s dictates on cow and beef, its move to do away with the State flag, the setting up of a separate township for Kashmiri Pandits and also a Sainik Colony, and the Sangh Parivar constituents’ decision to go to court to get Articles 370 and 35 A scrapped.

Today, an average Kashmiri thinks of rising against this onslaught, and disrupting the elections was one way of registering his anger. The message that Jammu and Kashmir is a law and order issue has not gone down well with the people. Obviously, the absence of political engagement has made New Delhi pay a heavy price. But if the political grapevine is anywhere closer to the truth, the Central government does not think in terms of a political solution but believes that in the event of unrest, it is only a Kashmiri who loses his life. The election boycott and the violence that forced the Centre to postpone polling in Anantnag is a huge political statement, which can be hardly ignored.

Of late, militants have started increasingly targeting mainstream political activists. The ghost of “unknown killers” seems to be returning to the Valley. The killing of a PDP worker in Pulwama and a lawyer affiliated to the N.C. has shaken these parties. Moreover, the Jammu and Kashmir Police are on the back foot after militants started targeting the families of its personnel. Although civil society actors fear that this might lead to a “civil war” since thousands of families are associated with the police, there is no word from the separatist leadership, which always weighs all the options. Given the police’s role in countering the unrest, people have been promoting disaffection towards them.

“We are doing our job,” said a police officer. But social media users have been criticising the way the police are in the forefront of quelling the protests. The Director General of Police, S.P. Vaid, asked his men to avoid going to homes for some time. This has further complicated the issue and is seen as drawing new lines between the police force and the people.

The local police were given the credit for rooting out militancy with their active involvement, but the new-age militancy seems to be proving too difficult for them. It is the increasing ground support to the militants that has changed the dynamic of relations in the Valley. In the absence of a political engagement, the problem on the ground has been left to the security grid for resolution. But that is not going to work. That is why people are anxious about the coming summer.

Right To Information

Diluting a right

AKSHAY DESHMANE the-nation

IN early April, a sense of alarm permeated through the country’s civil society groups following two worrisome developments: the gruesome murder of a Pune-based Right to Information activist, Suhas Haldankar, and the Union government’s release of a new set of draft rules for the administration of the RTI Act.

A close scrutiny of the new draft rules reveals why civil society groups consider these developments, ostensibly unrelated, ominous signs for the future of RTI in India. The 22 draft rules that comprise RTI Rules, 2017, can be broadly divided into three categories: those largely replicating the existing ones, which have been in force since 2012; others that are completely new; and lastly, those that were originally a part of the controversial Central Information Commission (Management) Regulations, 2007, which have been challenged in courts and are presently under the consideration of the Supreme Court.

In fact, this ongoing court case, which is to be heard next on May 2, appears to be the reason why the Centre chose to draft a completely new set of rules that merges both the 2007 and 2012 versions and adds new provisions. This explains the hurry with which the rules were uploaded on the evening of March 31 with comments initially invited only by email up to April 15. Subsequently, following a public outcry, the deadline was extended to April 25 with the option of terrestrial mail included.

In the current scheme of things, States have their own individual rules to administer the Act, but many of them refer to the framework of the Union government rules, which cover entities over which the Centre has its jurisdiction.

The most controversial among the newly drafted rules is rule 12, which at least one civil society group has referred to as a “death sentence” for RTI users. It was originally part of the 2007 Rules. As per law, the Chief Information Commissioner is the final authority to which people seeking information can make an appeal if subordinate officials deny them information. Draft rule 12 empowers the Central Information Commission (CIC) to permit withdrawal of appeals and abate the proceedings pending before it if the person making the appeal dies before a decision is arrived at.

This provision has alarmed RTI users and advocates who point out that silencing and attacking those who ask uncomfortable questions could now become easier.

Venkatesh Nayak of the international non-governmental organisation Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) explained the context in which RTI users are functioning today to underline why rule 12 is a bad idea. “In 2017, there are more than 375 recorded instances of attacks on citizens who sought information to expose corruption and wrongdoing in various public authorities. Of these, 56 are murders, at least 157 are cases of physical assault and more than 160 are cases of harassment and threats, some of which have resulted in death by suicide…. By legally permitting withdrawal of appeals, vested interests will feel emboldened to pressure RTI users to withdraw their appeals before the CIC. If this proposed rule becomes law at the Centre, many States will make similar amendments, thereby unwittingly jeopardising the life and safety of RTI users,” he said.

Haldankar’s case illustrates the potential problems with rule 12. A resident of Pimpri-Chinchwad town in Maharashtra’s Pune district, he was known locally for exposing irregularities in public works the Pimpri-Chinchwad Municipal Corporation carried out. This appears to have got him into trouble with powerful local politicians, who allegedly killed him on April 9, more than a week after the new rules were uploaded.

Nayak said: “If the Central government has its way, all RTI applications and appeals that Suhas may have filed with Central public authorities will abate automatically. Those who battered Suhas to death with cement blocks would get a victory, and the national motto, satyameva jayate [truth alone shall triumph], would take a battering once again. Civil society actors have been demanding that the RTI Rules do not allow for the closure of appeals on the appellant’s death.”

Former Central Information Commissioner Shailesh Gandhi is also not in favour of rule 12. In his official communication to the Department of Personnel and Training, which is accepting public feedback on RTI, Gandhi wrote: “This rule appears to have been proposed in the belief that when the seeker of information does not want the information it need not be given. By the same logic, when she dies it cannot be given to the applicant. It has not been appreciated that the information sought in RTI belongs to all citizens since they own the government and every piece of information held by it. Thus everyone has the right to get the information which is sought by an applicant. Allowing withdrawal of RTI appeals would be a direct encouragement to undesirable pressure on applicants, and deal making. The law expects all information to be available suo motu. This proposed rule should be modified to state that when an appeal is sought to be withdrawn or an appellant dies, the information sought shall be placed on the website.”

Many problem areas

Many more civil society activists and RTI users expressed their dismay. They also enumerated many other problem areas, ruing the fact that there were few provisions in the draft rules that could be appreciated. Commodore Lokesh Batra (retired), a veteran RTI activist, told Frontline that though the new rules did not change the application fee, the government had tweaked the wording of rule 3 to render possible a future increase in the fee for filing applications. “An application under Subsection (1) of Section 6 of the Act shall be accompanied by a fee of rupees ten or as notified by the Central government from time to time…,” reads the relevant part of rule 3 (emphasis added). Batra felt there was no need for this.

The well-known RTI activist Subhash Chandra Agarwal felt that “the biggest objection is regarding rule 12”. He appreciated some provisions such as rule 15, which details procedures for deciding complaints, but felt that the power of the Chief Information Commissioner to decide which Information Commissioner (IC) would hear a particular matter, as detailed in rule 17, was not desirable. “It [which IC hears what appeal/petition] should be on a rotational basis,” Agarwal told Frontline. Nayak of the CHRI said that some of the proposed rules were likely to convert the simple appeals and complaints procedures into complex court procedures.

The issues raised by civil society groups prompted opposition parties to intervene. Congress leaders Ahmed Patel and Manish Tewari condemned the new rules. At a press briefing, Tewari said: “The entire RTI regimen is sought to be constricted, suffocated and finally subverted. So, therefore, it is the responsibility of all progressive forces, all those people who believe in transparency, who believe that the government should be accountable, who believe that the RTI has been an empowering instrument over the last almost 12 years of its existence, that these rules must be contested, these rules must be opposed and absolutely no dilution should be allowed in the entire RTI structure.”

The government countered the Congress party’s claims. “There is no change even in a comma or a full stop in the proposed amendment to the RTI rules relating to word limit and fee from the ones proposed by the Congress in 2012,” claimed Information and Broadcasting Minister M. Venkaiah Naidu.

In a statement titled “Factual position on proposed amendments to RTI rules”, the Ministry of Personnel, Public Grievances & Pensions said: “The key provisions of the RTI Rules, 2012, have been identically incorporated verbatim. No change has been made in the RTI fee structure. The government is committed to ensuring a full and easy implementation of the Right to Information.” The statement listed six specific provisions and essentially said that they were drafted on the basis of the CIC (Management) Regulations, 2007, and the 2012 Rules and that was sufficient to prove that “the allegation that there is a move to dilute the provisions of RTI is unfounded”.

This attempt to show the previous Congress-led government in a poor light and underplay the potential adverse effects of some provisions of the draft rules on RTI users did not cut much ice with civil society activists. Batra shared with Frontline the correspondence between former National Advisory Council (NAC) president Sonia Gandhi and former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, accessed through an RTI application, regarding the rules being drafted in 2011 to implement the transparency legislation. The draft rules floated then had two provisions similar to the current rule 12. Documents show that the NAC verdict on both those problematic provisions was the same: they should be “dropped” or “deleted”. The final rules adopted did not contain them.

What remains to be seen is whether the present government similarly heeds the voices of civil society.

Frontline Exclusive

How Dalit lands were stolen

ILANGOVAN RAJASEKARAN social-justice

“[They are] always badly nourished, clad, if at all, in the vilest of rags, eaten up with leprosy or other horrible diseases, hunted like pigs, untaught, uncared for…. The British administration has freed this clan of a community from the yoke of hereditary slavery and from the legal disabilities; but they still remain at a low depth of social degradation.”

—James Henry Apperley Tremenheere, Acting Collector, Chengleput, 1891.

NOTHING could have portrayed better the subhuman condition of the most disadvantaged social group, the Pariahs, in the then Madras Presidency than an official British document, “Notes on Pariahs of Chengleput”, prepared by the then Chengleput Acting Collector J.H.A. Tremenheere, which he submitted to the British government in 1891. It underscored the need to transform them into a landed community so that they could lead a life of dignity.

When Tremenheere’s report came up for discussion in the British Parliament on May 16, 1892, George Nathaniel Curzon, the then Undersecretary of State for India in England, informed the House that “both the Secretary of State and the Government of Madras are anxious to do all that is practicable to improve the condition of the Pariahs”.

Subsequently, the British government issued a Government Order (1010/1010A of Revenue Department, dated 30-9-1892), passing the Depressed Class Land Act 1892. This historic move, earmarked lands known as Depressed Class conditional lands for untouchables such as Pariahs and Pallars in the Madras Presidency comprising present-day Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh and parts of present-day Kerala, Karnataka, Telangana and Odisha. These later came to be known as “panchami” lands (land belonging to “Panchamars”—“the deprived”). (Today, any land that is given to Dalits under various State and Central governments’ social welfare schemes is also called “panchami” land.)

This landmark report paved the way for the distribution of land to Dalits in the then Madras Presidency, particularly in Chengleput district. V. Alex, a Dalit intellectual and publisher of Panchami Nila Urimai (The Rights to Panchami Land), a Tamil translation of Tremenheere’s report by A. Sundaram, said the report turned out to be the base for the sociocultural, educational and economic empowerment of Dalits.

Though a few of his predecessors had highlighted the poor living conditions of Dalits and attempted to mitigate their problems with welfare measures such as grants-in-aid and free house sites, Tremenheere was the first officer to make a conscious effort to make them landholders. In fact, before Tremenheere took charge in Chengleput, a Sub Collector, C.M. Mullay, recorded in 1888 the “miserable conditions of the lower castes”. Sadly, he did not receive support from his senior colleagues. The “Pariahs” and the “Pallars” (referred to as “pullahs” in the records then) were treated as slaves under the prevailing caste-based landholding system known as mirasi. Also known as the kaniyatchikaran (landed clan) system, it divorced “Pariahs from the soil”.

Brahmins and Vellalas living in Tiruchi, Thanjavur, Madurai and Tirunelveli were mainly identified as the mirasi castes. Vanniyars in the present-day northern districts and other “shudras” (caste Hindus) were the non-mirasi castes. Tremenheere objected to mirasidars arrogating to themselves “ceri” (Dalit settlement) sites, monopolising land and preventing Pariahs from becoming cultivators. “We have permitted ancient privileges to survive until they have become anachronisms and we have created new privileges. The policy of the state has degraded [Pariahs] and the state must retrieve its mistakes,” he said in his report. The mirasis were not averse to the other caste Hindu groups, such as the payirkarars (caste Hindu crop growers) owning tiny tracts of land. Thus the untouchables remained landless.

In his study “The Question of Land to the Dalits: A Historical Perspective”, C. Jerome Samraj, who is an Assistant Professor with the Department of Economics at Pondicherry University, points out that the colonial government “had to reduce the authority of the ‘mirasi’ castes over those land that [was] left uncultivated to make it available for others who were willing to cultivate.… However, even though land could be freed from the mirasis, the untouchable castes remained excluded from the land-owning classes.”

Tremenheere was fortunate that his report did not meet the fate of C.M. Mullay’s report earlier. He received a copy of the “memorial of the Madras Missionary Conference” held in May 1891 from the Governor of Fort St. George. It described the debasing socio-economic and cultural life of Pariahs and desired “to have the Collector’s report as to the easy means of amelioration of the condition of the Pariahs”.

‘Gentle slavery’

Much before Tremenheere’s seminal study, Christian missionaries were behind many radical decisions aimed at uplifting Dalits, especially Pariahs. S. Anandhi, in her work “Land to the Dalits: Panchami Land Struggle in Tamil Nadu”, points out that the campaign of two missionaries, Rev. William Goudie and Rev. Adam Andrew, in Chengleput and Tiruvallur areas played a key role in establishing the land rights of the depressed classes in Chengleput district in the face of stiff resistance.

The Madras Missionary Conference report dwelt exhaustively on the Pariahs and their living conditions. It said their condition was akin to “gentle slavery”, though the British had declared slavery illegal under the Indian Penal Code in 1843. It was a customary practice then for untouchables attached to land as farm labourers, known as pannaiyals, to be “transferred by way of sale, mortgage or hire” whenever the land was transferred from one mirasi to another. Jerome Samraj cites colonial records to say that this practice existed “in most districts in Tamil region as a form of voluntary contract”.

The Chengleput Collector responded positively to the request of the missionary conference, recording the abysmal living conditions of Pariahs by visiting the “ceris” personally. However, the Board of Revenue almost rubbished his report, calling it an “exaggeration”, since the colonial rulers’ main agenda was not social reform but “revenue maximisation from land administration”, as Jerome Samraj points out. Besides his personal jottings, Tremenheere validated his report by quoting extensively material from various sources and reports in newspapers, including The Hindu, which, in its edition dated August 7, 1891, wrote an editorial on “The condition of the Pariahs”.

Tremenheere, in his report, justified his recommendation to distribute land to Dalits: “The small marginal landholdings, housing, literacy, free labour without force/bondage, self-respect and dignity are the factors that could lead to transformation [in their lives].” The Pariah population, his report noted, was 4.5 million as per the 1881 Census and would be around nine million in 1891, making it a major social group in the State. He recommended, among other things, granting the Pariahs the right to connect to the soil, and providing free houses and schools in the “ceris” and even scholarships for their children so that they can continue their education. Accordingly, the G.O. of 1892 assigned about 12 lakh acres for distribution to landless Pariahs (including Pallars and other untouchables), across the Madras Presidency, though Pariahs were predominant in the area that is the northern region of Tamil Nadu today.

Dalit struggles

With Dalits slowly getting empowered through education and migration, their struggle for land has been an issue since the early 18th century. In fact, the historian-author Rupa Vishwanath, in The Pariah P roblem: Caste, Religion and the Social in Modern India, notes that but for Tremenheere the Pariah problem would not have come out in the public domain. She also noted, quoting from the Japanese scholar Haruka Yanagisawa’s scholarly work “A Century of Change: Caste and Irrigated Lands in Tamil Nadu, 1860s-1970s”, that even before the British could allot the “Depressed Class” lands, Pariahs who worked in the army and the railways had started purchasing land.

Similarly, even before those reports from the missionaries and the British government, Dalits were waging a grim battle against caste oppression since 1817. The Pallars in Paramakudi in Ramanathapuram district protested against caste Hindus’ domination. They even launched a non-cooperation movement in 1858 against the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and advanced castes.

However, the British order on Depressed Class lands was significant since it officially recognised and documented the condition of the oppressed. To prevent any abuse, the order laid down stringent conditions (Board of Standing Order 15, Special Form D for assignment of land to Scheduled Castes) for allotting land to Pariahs and other Dalit sections.

The order stated that the state-assigned land should not be alienated to any person for 10 years from the date of assignment, and thereafter it could only be sold or transferred to persons belonging to the Scheduled Castes. Thus, between 1918 and 1933, the earmarked Depressed Class lands were distributed to the Scheduled Castes. It said that in case of violation of the provisions, the government was vested with the power to take back the land from the purchaser without paying compensation or refund. However, much of the 12 lakh acres assigned for the purpose reportedly fell into the hands of unscrupulous elements among non-Dalits, especially in present-day Tamil Nadu. It was reported that panchami land given to Dalits, according to a study, was “bought even for a basket of ragi and maize”.

Land reform on paper

In the post-Independence period, no serious efforts were made to document agricultural land, especially in Tamil Nadu as was done in Kerala and West Bengal. In Tamil Nadu, laws that empowered people to own the land they tilled and laws that fixed a ceiling on the number of standard acres one could own remain only on paper even today. Though the Congress, which ruled the State soon after Independence, initiated steps such as forming Harijan cooperative societies, Dalit activists say little could have been expected from the party as it was dominated by “mittadars and mirasdars” (landlords). Even the implementation of the revolutionary Land Reforms Act 1960 could not empower the landless.

Brahmins had migrated to urban centres such as Chennai and the OBCs took their place and emerged as major cultivators-cum-landowners. The change in land-ownership equations had no impact on the status of Dalits, who were retained as labourers. The discrimination became harsher and endemic. “The contradiction that exists between policies and practices exposes the dubious role of vested interests in the State administration and the failure of targeted policy interventions. As a result, Acts such as the one on land ceiling failed to alter the oppressive agrarian structure that has survived since the 11th century,” points out Jerome Samraj.

The Dravidian parties, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), which have ruled the State for the past five decades, are content with a few cosmetic exercises in the area of land reform, while other political parties except the Left show no interest in the issue. “These parties depend on rich landholders and traditional landlords, all belonging to the OBCs,” says D. Ravikumar, senior general secretary of the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK), a Dalit party in Tamil Nadu, and a Dalit writer. He is also the convener of the VCK’s Panchami Land Retrieval Movement. The Dalit parties Puthiya Thamizhagam and the VCK have prioritised panchami land retrieval as their main objective.

Several Government Orders, validating the rights of Dalits over the “Depressed Class” conditional lands (G.O. MS 2217 of Revenue dated 1-10-1941, G.O. MS 3092 dated 12-12-1946 and so on) were passed in the State, but to no avail—the rich continue to retain their grip over the land by forming trusts and distributing parcels of it among their payirkarars and OBCs. Non-Dalits are said to be holding around 3.5 lakh acres of panchami land, though there seems to be no official records on this staggering figure.

Many factors, among them the caste system, are behind the systematic thwarting of moves to assign land to Dalits. One key factor was the way land records were kept. Land record-keeping was a practice traditionally performed by “karnams” (custodians of village records) and was handed down from one generation to the next in their families, and they favoured the landed class. “In many villages, old land documents were either altered or obliterated. Revenue officials had to depend on them for any land-oriented issue,” says Samuel Raj, coordinator of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)’s [CPI(M)] Tamil Nadu Untouchability Eradication Committee.

As Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, M.G. Ramachandran abolished this traditional system of land administration by appointing village administrative officers (VAOs) in the Revenue Department who replaced the k arnams. “Though it changed the power equations at the political and administrative levels, it did not help inland reforms, which remain elusive even today. I blame it on the lack of conviction of those in power. The landless languish in poverty,” says Samuel Raj. The State’s measures for land classification and redistribution, thus, remain half-hearted even today. Dalit activists claim that even the “jamabandhi” exercise (settlement of village assets), which every district administration has to conduct once a year, is futile because the administration is not serious about updating the panchami land records in the respective districts.

In 1979, the Tamil Nadu government took up a land survey across the State, the first such major exercise after Independence, with the objectives of regularising, reforming and classifying land, including various conditional land (panchami). But it did not achieve its stated objective. The “Updating Registry Scheme’’ (UDR), as it was called, began on June 1, 1979, and ended on April 30, 1987, without any tangible impact.

Samuel Raj claims that the survey did more harm than good to the landless, especially Dalits. The UDR survey did not restore panchami land to Dalits. “Instead, it was a well-planned conspiracy to dispossess them of their land by exploiting their ignorance. The classification of land as panchami was changed to other nomenclatures such as patta and porombok land in many places,” he says.

Absence of records

In the absence of government records, credible statistics are not available on panchami land in the erstwhile Madras Presidency, and now in Tamil Nadu. In fact, contradictory claims are being made on the availability of panchami land in Tamil Nadu mainly owing to the lack of inadequate information on land. In his work, “State Intervention in the Distribution of Land to the Poor: A Study of Tamil Nadu”, the historian and writer M. Thangaraj of the Dr Ambedkar Centre for Economic Studies, University of Madras, has detailed the injustice done to Dalits. He cites V. Karuppan, a retired Indian Administrative Service Officer of the Tamil Nadu cadre and head of the Dalit Joint Action Committee and Save Panchama Land Movement (SPLM), to say that the extent of total “Depressed Class” land in Tamil Nadu identified so far is a mere 1,16,392.40 acres. Of this, 16,018.09 acres are reportedly under alien occupation.

Ironically, the Office of the Commissioner of Land Administration (CLA), in response to a query made under the Right to Information (RTI) Act in 2006, claimed that 1,26,113 acres of panchami land were available and only 10,619 acres were occupied by non-Dalits. An RTI application filed in the late 1990s by Y. Aruldoss, an activist, revealed that the extent of panchami land in the State was reportedly 1,04,494.38 acres, of which 74,893 acres were with Dalits. K. Meyyar, a Communist Party of India (CPI) functionary in Madurai, through his sustained RTI campaign, made the district administration identify panchami land in Madurai district to the extent of 2,843 acres in 2015. Sadly, these are not in the possession of Dalits.

Karanai agitation

Even before the resurgence of the Dalit movement in the early 1990s following the birth centenary celebration of B.R. Ambedkar, and the Dalit resistance to a brutal police crackdown on the Dalits of Kodiyankulam in Tuticorin district in 1995, struggles for the retrieval of panchami land had started in a few pockets across the State, though they remained low-key and disorganised.

The agitation of 1994 in Karanai, a village near Mahabalipuram in Chengleput district, emerged as the focal point for the struggle to retrieve panchami land in Tamil Nadu. This, says Anandhi, “gave a State-level visibility to the panchami land struggle”. A few Dalit youths in and around Karanai began an agitation demanding return of panchami land allotted to the Dalit families in the village, which ended in a police firing that killed two youths. A Dalit activist told Frontline that a senior police officer, now retired, was among the many non-Dalits who owned panchami land in Karanai (see separate story).

Karanai is 15 km from Siruthavur, a village that courted controversy when the CPI(M) and a few other political parties alleged that a bungalow where the then Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa used to stay was built on panchami and “porombok” land. The issue has been referred to the Supreme Court (see box).

C. Nicholas of the Dalit Mannurimai Kootamaippu (Dalit Land Rights Federation), a Villupuram-based social organisation, claimed that around 700 acres of panchami land had been identified in 1,200 villages and hamlets in the districts of Tiruvallur, Kancheepuram, Vellore, Tiruvannamalai and Cuddalore. “But Dalits own just a quarter of them today. The struggle to reclaim them has so far resulted in about 30 acres being restored to Dalits. Similar initiatives have been undertaken at other places too,” says Nicholas.

Several struggles to reclaim panchami land are on at various places in the State. Says Murali, a Dalit activist from Salem: “We have submitted innumerable petitions to the Salem District administration to retrieve panchami land and restore them to Dalits. Nothing has happened so far.” The RTI has been an invaluable tool for activists and sociologists taking up land issues.

According to Nicholas, the issue of the panchami land, or any other land for that matter, should be approached legally. “I do not believe in an emotional reaction. Landowning should be viewed as a rights issue. When you confine it to the boundaries of caste, it becomes a caste-centric issue. It will not serve the purpose, as you saw in Karanai. With the RTI around, Dalit activists should make use of it to collect necessary documents and details with regard to panchami land. After sensitising the officials, we must fight our battles for land legally and socially,” he says. This, he says, have yielded positive results (story on page 64).

Court judgments

Active judicial interventions have played a big role in keeping alive the issue of Depressed Class land. Scores of cases relating to them are being heard in various courts of the higher and subordinate judiciary. Some of the verdicts, especially in the higher judiciary, have prompted the government to shed its complacency and take tangible measures to restore to Dalits land illegally transferred from them.

A few judgments stand out. Justice K. Chandru, a judge of the Madras High Court, heard a batch of writ petitions filed by private builders and residents’ associations on the issue of D.C. land that had been alienated from Scheduled Caste people in 1925. In his verdict on November 7, 2008, he observed that evaluation of various legal precedents led to “only one irresistible conclusion that the ‘panchami land’ assigned in favour of the Dalits as a conditional assignment, if violated, can empower the government to resume those lands and such resumed lands can be entrusted to some other beneficiary belonging to the Dalit community”.

He quoted extensively from various judgments and records that were placed before him and told the petitioners that “these lands cannot be sold or mortgaged to anyone for 10 years. These lands may be sold or mortgaged after 10 years to the depressed classes only and any breach of these conditions will be liable to be cancelled.” He dismissed the writ petitions. Nicholas calls it a historic judgment that has empowered Dalits trying to get their land back. “It is a potent weapon in the hands of Dalits who are fighting to get hold of their land,” he says.

Justice Chandru’s verdict was endorsed again in no uncertain manner by the two-member bench of Justice Prabha Sridevan and P.P.S. Janarthana Raja of the Madras High Court six years ago. The bench upheld the single judge’s findings. Delivering the judgment for the bench, Justice Prabha Sridevan quoted extensively the observations of the Supreme Court in Papaiah vs State of Karnataka and others (1996), which Justice Chandru too had quoted, on the question of the right to economic justice under Article 46 of the Constitution.

The said Article “casts upon the state a duty to provide economic justice to the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes and other weaker sections of society in order to prevent their exploitation”. Article 39(b) of the Constitution enjoins the state to distribute its largesse, (that is) land, to subserve the public good. For the Scheduled Castes, the Scheduled Tribes and other weaker sections, the right to economic justice is a fundamental right for them to secure equality of status, opportunity and liberty.

The bench said: “Economic justice is a facet of liberty without which equality of status and dignity of person [is] teasing illusions.” It reiterated further that the state was under a constitutional obligation to distribute largesse (land) to poor people, especially in rural India, to augment their economic position. “Assignment of land having been made in furtherance thereof, any alienation, in its contravention, would be in violation of the constitutional policy….” The judge also drew attention to a provision in the Statement of Objects and Reasons of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. “Despite various measures to improve the socio-economic conditions of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes, they remain vulnerable. They are denied a number of civil rights. They are subjected to various offences, indignities, humiliation, and harassment,” the judge observed.

Another interesting judicial observation came in a verdict in 2012 in a case relating to the sale of panchami land that had been alienated. M. Gunasekaran, a Dalit from Nemili village in Arakkonam taluk, petitioned the Madras High Court seeking its direction to the Nemili Sub Registrar to register the sale deed of a residential plot classified as panchami land, which he was buying from a non-Dalit, K. Vimalraj. The official had refused to register the sale deed on the grounds that a non-Dalit could not own the panchami land that he wished to sell to a Dalit.

Justice N. Paul Vasanthakumar said in his judgment: “Panchami land given to the depressed class persons cannot be sold by a person belonging to [any] other community, other than a Scheduled Caste, though the buyer belonged to a Scheduled Caste.”

He dismissed the petition. A number of similar judgments on panchami land, delivered in the Madras High Court and the Supreme Court, have been forthright in endorsing the rights of Dalits.

Ineffective committees

Increasing awareness and court verdicts favouring Dalits have forced the State government to issue directives and form special committees to sort out the panchami land issue. In 1991, on a petition filed by a Dalit in Karakathahalli village in Dharmapuri district, which claimed that 3.39 acres of panchami land had been usurped by a non-Dalit, the Madras High Court instructed the State government to restore all panchami land immediately. Consequently, the government issued a G.O. (G1/4868/90, dated 15-7-1991) asking District Collectors and other senior revenue officers to identify panchami land in their respective districts.

About 85,000 acres were identified, but the exercise was suspended midway through, for which no convincing reason was given. A three-member committee headed by a retired judge, M. Maruthamuthu, was set up by the DMK government just before the Assembly elections in 2011. With the change in regime following the elections, the committee was wound up. Meanwhile, on the basis of a petition, the Madras High Court, in an order issued on August 12, 2015, asked the State government to form an expert committee within six weeks to ascertain the status of panchami land in the State.

The AIADMK government constituted a three-member committee on October 8, 2015, headed by the Commissioner of Land Administration, to identify and retrieve panchami lands usurped by non-Dalits and to provide suggestions on how the land could be restored to its original owners. The consensus among Dalits is that the committee has done nothing worthwhile. “When we approached the committee on the issue, it asked us to provide details on panchami land, saying that land records were not available with the State government,” says Samuel Raj.

Though sporadic protests demanding retrieval of panchami land have been reported from across the State, a coordinated movement at the State and national levels has been initiated only recently. The Tamil Nadu Untouchability Eradication Front (TNUEF), the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS) and the All India Agricultural Workers’ Union (AIAWU) are behind this effort. They have been demanding for a long time verification of the title transfers based on the records available with the Land Registration Department so that panchami land could be identified and handed over to landless Dalits.

The TNUEF and other organisations collected information on panchami land across the State through RTI petitions. As a first step, the information collected was compiled and released at a conference. The National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR) also urged the government to distribute land to Dalits along with cultivation resources, for which funds from the Scheduled Caste Sub-Plan could be used. In fact, to ensure land rights for Dalits at the national level, an exclusive forum, the National Federation for Dalit Land Rights Movement (NFDLRM), was formed in 2008.

The forum, based in New Delhi and comprising some 250 groups fighting for land for Dalits from 16 States, urged the government to convene a special Parliament session to discuss the issue of land and Dalits. They formed a “National Commission for Dalit Land Rights” to address issues relating to Dalits and the landless to ensure that land meant for Dalits and the landless, such as panchami land, Mahar Watan land and Bhoodan land (land gift movement), were properly distributed and utilised. (Mahar Watan is a type of inam granted to people, mainly Mahars, in Maharashtra. They were treated as untouchables since they did “inhuman” work and for which they received watan, or rights to small piece of land, to do their own cultivation. The watan included share of village produce. The watans were abolished in 1955.)

Dravidian politics

The identification of usurped panchami land is a political hot potato that no major political party, Dravidian or otherwise, in Tamil Nadu, is willing to take up. They fear losing the votes of the landowning OBCs. Ravikumar points out that the VCK’s efforts had failed to mobilise the movement on a mass scale. “We, apart from the TNUEF, have undertaken an exhaustive study and survey to ascertain the quantum of alienation of panchami land from Dalits. We came across numerous instances in which big corporates, industrial houses and even government agencies have encroached upon such land,” he says. According to him, nearly one lakh acres of land have been assigned illegally to non-Dalits. “Chennai city possesses vast tracts of panchami land, which is worth crores of rupees and on which a few iconic buildings stand today,” he says.

Activists and sociologists are sceptical about the retrieval of the Depressed Class land in Tamil Nadu without the support of the State government. Numerous RTI applications, protests, judicial interventions, awareness programmes and public hearings are yet to make a substantial difference to the situation. In 2010, S. Karuppiah, an activist in Madurai, submitted a petition to the Chairman of the National Commission for Scheduled Castes and to the Chief Minister on the illegal holders of panchami land. M. Jeeva of the Madurai-based Society for Integrated Rural Development (SIRD) claims that OBCs in Madurai district have possessed D.C. land since 1953. The former Madurai Collector U. Sagayam had found that some 700 acres of panchami land in Melur taluk was under the control of granite quarry barons.

The state as usurper

The state, sadly, is a major usurper of panchami land. For example, a primary school in a village near Sholavandan in Madurai district, a man-made pond in Perambalur district and a bus stop in Tiruvannamalai district are located on panchami land. “Even industries are coming up on Depressed Class land, for which nearly 2,000 acres across the State have been assigned,” says Nicholas, referring to the various government proposals for setting up industrial estates and special economic zones (SEZ) on panchami land. The state has, thus, been a partner in crime in permitting agricultural land and allied common land, such as panchami, meichal, eri, natham, reserve forests and odai porombok, to be used for purposes other than what they were meant for—agriculture.

Land to the Adani group

In fact, a tahsildar was suspended in Ramanathapuram district last year for transferring the ownership of 4,000 acres of land, including vast tracts of panchami land, to the Adani group, which has installed a solar power plant near Kamudhi near Ramanathapuram. In the 1901 Census, says Ravikumar, 67 per cent of Dalits in Tamil Nadu were identified as landless. After a century, their status remains the same. It is a sordid tale of deprivation, of how Dalits in villages were, for a century, systematically dispossessed of their land. The denial of their constitutional right to own land effectively deters them from attaining economic and social emancipation.

Dalits in Tamil Nadu, Ravikumar says, are landless. He quotes the statistics of the Agricultural Census of the Government of India of 2010-2011. The census is taken once in five years and the findings of 2010-11 were released in 2014. It details the extent of cultivable land and its holders and also points out that Tamil Nadu has fewer landholding Dalits than Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. According to the 2005-2006 report, 8,84,000 Dalits owned 5,03,000 hectares of cultivable land, while the 2010-2011 data say that 8,73,000 Dalits possess 4,92,000 hectares. “In just five years, between 2005-2006 and 2010-2011, 11,000 Dalits have been rendered landless, losing about 11,000 hectares of land. The 2010-2011 data show that in Andhra Pradesh, Dalits owned 11,00,000 hectares and in Karnataka Dalits owned 10,74,000 hectares of land. In Maharashtra Dalits owned 13,03,000 hectares of land,” Ravikumar says.

He does not hesitate to put the blame on the two Dravidian parties that have ruled the State for more than half a century now. “Had the State government been genuine, the land reform in Tamil Nadu would have been total. The have-nots would have been empowered. Caste atrocities could have been prevented. Unfortunately, it has not taken place,” he says. Dalits, he says, have been deprived of their land and were being pushed into a trap of “hundred days’ work” (the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, or the MGNREGA).

“These Dravidian rulers know how to keep the socially disadvantageous people docile and ignorant by distributing freebies and implementing populist schemes as short-term benefits,” he says. “One of the remarkable features of the panchami land agitation of the 1990s in Tamil Nadu was that it brought together the land issue of Dalits and their identity politics,” says Anandhi. Tremenheere’s report, Jerome Samraj says, was “remarkable” for the way in which it presented the issue “from the point of view of the Depressed Classes and in a manner acceptable to the superior authorities”.

The Dalit activist and Chengleput-based lawyer A. Asokan, who observes Tremenheere’s birth anniversary every year as a mark of respect to the English Collector, says that but for him Dalits’ dream of owning land would have never been realised. “We Dalits are indebted to him,” he says. But what one needs from the State government, he points out, is identification of the rightful beneficiaries once the lands are reclaimed.

What Ambedkar said rings loud in the hard reality of today too: “We have no land, because others have usurped it.” Tremenheere sums up in his now-famous “Notes” on Pariahs: “With a little land and a hut of his own, able to read and write and free to dispose of his labour as he will, self-respecting and therefore on the road to respect, the future of the Pariah might be very different from that unhappy present which are stories of profound misery, have compelled me to delineate.” That was in 1891, the year Ambedkar was born. Little has changed in the condition of Dalits since then.

Film Awards

Questionable choices

MORE than two decades ago when Akshay Kumar started his film career with Saugandh in 1991, followed soon after by Khilari, the favourite line of critics to describe his acting ability was “tree trunk expression”. He was considered good looking, and the more charitable ones believed he could carry off action sequences with ease. Nobody, though, accused him of possessing extraordinary acting ability. On a good day, he was a glam boy. On a bad day, he was, well, bad. Over the years, he honed his limited skills and became better. No longer was he just an “action king”; he displayed a zest for comedy, too.

When the noted director Priyadarshan, never short of ways to make viewers laugh, teamed up with Akshay Kumar, the star could get the initial crowd and the director could get a repeat audience with his skill. They made for a fine combo in films such as Hera Pheri, Bhool Bhulaiyaa, Garam Masala and Bhagam Bhaag, all largely over-the-top masala fare in which the laughs were cheap and aplenty.

Then came films like Dhadkan (2000), Welcome (2007), then Special 26 (2013) and Baby (2015). Yet nobody in the world of cinema believed that Akshay Kumar, a hugely successful commercial star who was maybe just a notch below the Khans but very popular all the same, had the potential to win a national award. It turns out that he did have the potential for not one but a couple of awards. For his performance as Rustom Zaveri in Rustom, and before that with Airlift, Akshay Kumar managed to get the coveted national award for Best Actor. It seemed a bit like a combined silver jubilee award. In the days gone by, when a film failed to get the expected bumper opening, the distributors ran the film at many B and C grade halls simultaneously. And, soon, adding the combined weeks, they would announce that the film had notched up a silver jubilee. That the silver jubilee was achieved in, say, eight weeks instead of the usual run of 25 uninterrupted weeks did not seem to matter to many. Akshay Kumar won the award, and he was greeted with the mandatory “congrats, well deserved” routine by the likes of Sonu Nigam and Sonali Bendre.

Priyadarshan, as the head of the national awards jury, had this to say: “Akshay has won the best actor award for both Airlift and Rustom. For technical reasons, only Rustom is mentioned in the list of awardees. But he has given contrasting and extremely sensitive performances in both Airlift and Rustom, and we thought it was only fair to honour him for both.”

‘Anti-national’ Aamir and ‘patriotic’ Akshay

“Sensitive”? Debatable. But a national award for Best Actor for two films? Unprecedented. Or, maybe it needed two Akshay Kumars to tilt the balance in his favour, for the other contestants were Aamir Khan and Mohanlal. That Aamir Khan makes it a point to avoid private award functions is a non-starter for an excuse. His performance in Dangal was one for the masses as well as the classes. Probably the best of his career, one that has made a non-fashionable sport like women’s wrestling the talk of the town.

Many wondered aloud if Kiran Rao’s fears—remember how Aamir talked of his wife, Kiran, fearing for their children in an increasingly intolerant India—had cost him the award. There will never be a final word on this, but considering how a section of the ruling dispensation, including Union Ministers, have been critical of the star sharing his wife’s fears on a public platform. Many right-wing followers dubbed him anti-national, while others lampooned him.

His fellow stars, like Akshay Kumar, while not being directly confrontational, lost no opportunity to reiterate which side of the fence they stood on the issue. Though Aamir has since clarified, apparently the rogues have a longer memory than people give them credit for.

On Akshay Kumar making clear his fascination for the Narendra Modi-led government—the recently launched app on Bharat ke Veer was apparently his idea—many believe he has tweeted his way to glory. His tweets have never been short on support for the Prime Minister, and the star has taken any criticism of the government to be synonymous with criticism of the nation. With a section of the audience, and a significant part of the powers that be, he seems to have ticked all the right boxes. The award is hard earned.

Keyboard warriors need to be feted too. More so, when they seem to wear their patriotism and political predilection on their sleeves. It is not easily forgotten how after the release of his film Baby he had come out in support of Modi. He stated: “With my hand on my heart, I believe 100 per cent that we are not only in safe hands, but being led by a man with a conscience as well as necessary fighting spirit.” Also, the photograph in which the Prime Minister is seen pulling the ear of Akshay Kumar’s son Aarav, taken at the International Fleet Review in Visakhapatnam, went viral. It left the father feeling “proud”. Soon after, Akshay Kumar tweeted: “Proud moment in a father’s life when the Prime Minister pulls your son’s ear in jest, and calls him a good boy.”

Akshay is not the first or the only one who has been accused of winning the national award for reasons other than acting craft. A few years ago Ajay Devgn got the award when Prakash Jha headed the jury. That Jha was working with Devgn in a film around the same time mattered little. The conflict of interest angle was but little explored. Much like this time when Priyadarshan is said to be working with Akshay Kumar yet again. That he found no contradiction in sitting on judgement on Akshay’s acting abilities after having directed him in more than half a dozen films says it all.

Incidentally, Devgn too has been vocal in his support for the Prime Minister and also got due reward. His film Shivaay, otherwise criticised for lacklustre fare, got an award for Best Visual Effects. When Shivaay released in October last year, at the same time as Karan Johar’s Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, which featured Pakistani actor Fawad Khan in a small role, more than one leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came out in support of the film. Congratulating Naveen Paul, the man behind the award-winning special effects, Devgn said, in a statement, “Many congratulations to Naveen and the entire team, I am thankful to the honourable jury, but I have to say that I am not at all surprised by their decision. This indeed is a well-deserved win.” Devgn produced and directed the film. Like Akshay, he has stood rock solid behind the Prime Minister.

Following the November 8 demonetisation of Rs.500 and Rs.1,000 notes, he called the move “historical” and dubbed the common man’s daily struggle to put bread on the table as “trivial”. Incidentally, on social media he had taken on film-maker Anurag Kashyap, who had supported Karan Johar’s film, and talked of the duplicity of right-wing leaders seeking a ban on Johar’s film for using a Pakistani artiste while the Prime Minister had gone on an unscheduled visit to Lahore to meet Nawaz Sharif. “We should be responsible about what we are saying. These are people who spoil things,” Devgn had said.

Also winning, even if indirectly, was Priyanka Chopra. Her Marathi production Ventilator found favour three times over, for Best Director and for editing and re-recording. Needless to reiterate, Priyanka, too, has stood on the right side of the fence over the past few years. Maybe incidental, but she too had been a cheerleader for the Prime Minister during the Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan and then demonetisation. She had been nominated by the Prime Minister to participate in the Swachh Bharat campaign.

While rumblings of discontent are almost an annual feature with the national awards—when Raveena Tandon got the Best Actor (Female) in 2002 for Daman, and Anil Kapoor got Best Actor (Male) for Pukar in 2001 even some jury members quit to register their protest—this time, the approach appears less nuanced when it comes to popular stars and directors. No such hiccups seem to have come the way of other, less “starry” winners, notably Rajesh Mapuskar for Best Director or Surabhi C.M. for Best Actor (Female). Or even the best supporting actor and actress awards for Manoj Joshi and Zaira Wasim. Even the special jury award for Mohanlal has not raised eyebrows, despite the star having worked closely with Priyadarshan in the past. In fact, many have greeted the special mentions for Sonam and Adul Hussain for Neerja and Mukti Bhawan respectively. Not so with Akshay Kumar, Ajay Devgn and Priyanka Chopra. Are they being singled out because of their support for the political dispensation ruling at the Centre? Or are they the beneficiaries of the support?

The Siruthavur controversy

social-justice

NO discussion on panchami land in Tamil Nadu is complete without a mention at least of the palatial farmhouse that the late Chief Minister Jayalalithaa used to visit in Siruthavur village near Chengleput in Kancheepuram district. The bungalow was in the eye of a storm after political parties and local people alleged that it stood on land grabbed from poor agricultural labourers, besides “porombok” land of the government. This high-profile land-grab controversy brought the issue of panchami land to centre stage after the Karanai protest.

In 1968, the then Chief Minister C.N. Annadurai distributed 53 acres of land to 20 landless agricultural workers, a majority of them Dalits, in Siruthavur under the Central government’s Settlement of Land to Landless Agricultural Labourers Scheme, with a bar on its sale for 25 years. The beneficiaries were selected through a resolution passed by the village panchayat.

Each family was allotted 2.50 acres of land and a 10-cent plot to construct a house. Plough animals and loans for digging wells and buying farm implements were also provided. The majority of the beneficiaries belonged to the Adi Dravidar community. But over a period of time, many of them had sold their land. The bungalow in question was reportedly built on these pieces of land. A group of villagers, mainly the beneficiaries of the scheme, alleged that their land had been usurped by a few powerful persons who cheated them and made them pledge their land deeds under the ruse of distributing loans against the land. The Communist Party of India (Marxist), along with the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) and a few other Dalit outfits, took up the issue. “They are yet to get their land back,” said E. Shankar, the CPI(M)’s Kancheepuram district secretary.

Later, these “outsiders”, Shankar claimed, built the bungalow on a area of around 150 acres, which included government “porombok” (wasteland) land, “odai” and “eri porombok” (waterways and tanks), and also land of Dalit beneficiaries. Tamil Nadu State secretary of the CPI(M), N. Varadarajan, told the media then that the land had been “illegally transferred to some who were close to Jayalalithaa, when she was in power, between 1991 and 1996, and a bungalow, which she was frequenting, has been constructed on it.”

In 2006, by which time the bungalow had been built, the CPI(M) urged the then DMK government of M. Karunanidhi to restore the land to its original title holders. On the basis of a memorandum it submitted, the Chief Minister constituted an Inquiry Commission headed by Justice K.P. Sivasubramaniam, a retired judge of the Madras High Court. It was given two months’ time to wrap up the inquiry. Agitations were also held at many places in the State to retrieve the occupied land. Dalit leaders, including Thol. Thirumavalavan, demanded that all transactions relating to those 53 acres in Siruthavur should be reviewed with retrospective effect from 1967.

Thirumavalavan told the media then that the pieces of land were first owned by the family of a former Indian cricketer, who sold them to a Tamil musician, who, in turn, sold them to a private firm. The only dissenting voice then was of Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) general secretary Vaiko, who said the Inquiry Commission was “unnecessary”. Reacting to the allegations, Jayalalithaa had said that the farmhouse did not belong to her or to her close friend V.N. Sasikala. “It was taken on rent,” she claimed.

The Sivasubramaniam Commission went into the circumstances that led to the land grab. Formed on July 27, 2006, it submitted its 813-page report in two volumes, containing the statements of 40 witnesses, to Chief Minister Karunanidhi in February 2010.

The panel exonerated Jayalalithaa, saying that there was “no material to suggest that Jayalalithaa was involved in land grabbing”. However, it held that V.N. Sudhakaran and Ilavarasi, both related to Sasikala, were beneficiaries of an “illegal transfer of patta on a single day”.

The property, it noted, was in the name of Bharani Beach Resorts Private Limited. The Commission contented that the alienation of land belonging to Dalits was void and it was within the power of the government to resume and restore them to the Dalit owners. But the buyers of the land in Siruthavur, including Bharani Beach Resorts Private Limited, claimed that the bungalow stood on “porombok” land of about 30 acres and not on land of the landless Dalits. They told the panel that they were prepared to face legal proceedings under the provisions of the Land Encroachment Act.

The government, accepting the findings, said steps would be taken to resume the land and distribute it to deserving Dalits. But the State could not implement the recommendations of the panel since the owners of the land went to the Supreme Court in appeal against the very formation of the Inquiry Commission. Shankar told Frontline that the court had refused to stall the Commission’s proceedings. “Even after many years, the recommendations of the Commission have not been implemented. The land is yet to be surveyed and distributed among the landless. No government seems to have taken any interest in sorting out the issue. The status quo is being maintained,” he said.

The issue of land grab in Siruthavur is far from over. A Chennai-based anti-corruption activist group, Arappor Iyakkam, submitted a petition to the Director General of Police, Tamil Nadu, on February 9, accusing AIADMK general secretary Sasikala and her family members of having usurped government and private land in Siruthavur, Payanoor and Karunkuzhipallam villages of Thiruporur and Kancheepuram blocks. Around 112 acres of land in the area have allegedly been encroached upon, with the State police providing round-the-clock security even today, it claimed.

Ilangovan Rajasekaran

North Korea

China’s burden

FACED with intense pressure from the United States to denuclearise North Korea, reinforced by effective gunboat diplomacy and other forms of coercion in the Korean waters, China is engaged in a feverish exercise to protect its core interests in North Korea and the surrounding areas in the Asia-Pacific.

Essentially, Beijing’s response to an effective show of strength by the domestically beleaguered Trump Administration has boiled down to fusing two equally important goals: ensuring that North Korea is nuclear weapons free and ensuring the preservation of the regime there.

In redefining the ground rules in North Korea, the Chinese had to ensure that they were not caught flat-footed. Speed was essential as the U.S. was doing all it could to demonstrate that the use of military force against North Korea was not an empty threat. The Tomahawk missile attack on the Al Shayrat airfield inSyria by the U.S., carried out deliberately while Chinese President Xi Jinping was in the U.S. as President Donald Trump’s guest, conveyed a simple message: if Tomahawk cruise missiles could rain down in Syria, they could very well do so in North Korea too.

If there was any ambiguity in the message, it was clarified by the shock-and-awe “mother of all bombs” U.S. attack on Afghanistan. In Chinese minds, there was no doubt that bombing in the Achin province of Afghanistan was specifically tailored to convey a message to North Korea.

The message was crisp. Just as the high mountains in Afghanistan, arguably, could not afford protection, so the regime in Pyongyang would not be able to hide its crown jewels—nuclear weapons and missiles—in dug-up tunnels and caverns in the largely mountainous country. Further, the manoeuvring of the U.S. aircraft carrier Carl Vinson strike group, which was heading towards Australia, in the direction of the Koreas was proof that the U.S. was accumulating enormous firepower which could be unleashed on North Korea, making the regime of Kim Jong-un possibly untenable.

Sabre-rattling

Complementing the show of force, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, while touring the region recently, was at his sabre-rattling best. “Those who would challenge our resolve or readiness should know, we will defeat any attack and meet any use of conventional or nuclear weapons with an overwhelming and effective American response,” he said aboard the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan in Yokosuka, Japan. Later, during talks with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Pence underscored that “all options are on the table”, resorting to the “regime change” phraseology that was favoured by former U.S. President George Bush.

The era of strategic patience is over and while all options are on the table, President Trump is determined to work closely with Japan, with South Korea, with all our allies in the region and with China to achieve a peaceable resolution and the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula,” he observed.

In response, China appears to have offered the North Korean regime a lifeline by proposing to serve as the guardian of its security, provided it denuclearises.

An editorial in Global Times, affiliated with the People’s Daily flagship, warned that if the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) continued “its outrageous nuclear missile tests, the likelihood of the U.S. attacking the DPRK will surge…. By that time, the survival of the Pyongyang regime may be a problem.”

The daily asserted that North Korea was not strong enough to confront the severe sanctions which could be on the way. “It has been inevitable for Pyongyang to stop its nuclear missile activities. The DPRK seeks to confront with the United Nations Security Council for a long time with its weak national strength, which is certainly an unattainable utopia,” the daily warned.

“Even if the United States does not launch military strikes on the DPRK, the long-term sanctions are not something that the DPRK can withstand. The DPRK might already become the most isolated country in the world and is almost ‘fully blockaded’. No modern countries can survive in this way.”

The editorial, however, acknowledged that regime survival could not be guaranteed even if North Korea established a strategic relationship with the U.S., citing the case of the former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

“The United States brought down the Saddam’s regime which had no nuclear weapons, and later the ‘Arab Spring’ toppled the [Hosni] Mubarak regime and the [Muammar] Gaddafi regime. All these may have impressed Pyongyang.”

Consequently, it counselled Pyongyang to undertake “large-scale strategic planning” and “look for reliable political allies and umbrellas to achieve soft landing from its present dilemma”.

The daily stressed that China could be the solution to DPRK’s problems. “China is now the world’s second largest economic entity and has been more powerful than ever in its modern history. If China and the DPRK can rebuild firm strategic consensus, China has the power to provide security support for the DPRK and to provide support and help to prosper the nation’s economy.” The editorial stressed that Beijing did not have an agenda of “regime change”, and could be critical to the stability of North Korea once it decided to break out of its isolation.

“China does not have a pro-establishment camp to subvert the regime of the DPRK, nor will it allow such activities in civil sectors. Therefore, China will become the ‘big rear area’ of the DPRK to secure national political stability if the country opens up to the outside.”

The Chinese appear to have reinforced their offer by emphasising that they would not be part of any military manoeuvre that the U.S. may undertake for regime change.

Referring to Mike Pence’s Asia-Pacific visit, another write-up in Global Times spelt out the limits of China’s cooperation with the U.S. by making it clear that Beijing would not partner Washington in any military action against Pyongyang. Nor would it accept a joint military undertaking by the U.S. and South Korea to topple the North Korean government.

The daily warned that “cooperative efforts by China and the U.S. will under no circumstance evolve into any kind of military action against North Korea”.

It added: “Beijing will never support or cooperate with Washington when it comes to implementing solutions that involve using military force against Pyongyang. Nor will Beijing support increasing measures from Washington that involve the direct overthrow of the Pyongyang regime.”

It further pointed out that owing to domestic sentiment in China, a U.S. and South Korean land invasion of North Korea would be unacceptable to Beijing.

“Military action against North Korea is not an easy question to answer. If the blow is light, Pyongyang’s military power would remain intact, and South Koreans could potentially face a revenge attack of some kind. One can only hope that Washington reaches out to Seoul for a second opinion. If the blow is heavy, the Chinese people will not allow their government to remain passive when the armies of the U.S. and South Korea start a war and try to take down the Pyongyang regime. The Chinese will not let something like that happen, especially on the same land where the Chinese Volunteer Army once fought in the early 1950s. It is a land covered with the blood of Chinese soldiers who bravely fought in the early 1950s. Furthermore, if Pyongyang were to be taken by the allied armies of the U.S. and South Korea, it would dramatically change the geopolitical situation in the Korean Peninsula.”

Yet, short of military action, China would be ready to cooperate on the economic side, including imposing stricter U.N. sanctions such as a ban on petroleum exports to North Korea in order to denuclearise its neighbour. “There is even the chance that Beijing could also say ‘yes’ to a potential U.S.-imposed financial blockade against North Korea,” the daily observed.

However, the article warned that the U.S. should not expect instant results from the imposition of economic sanctions. “Sanctions from Beijing will not inspire instant change over Pyongyang’s nuclear programme. Moreover, if Washington is not willing to take a flexible stand that guarantees security and peace, its stark warnings and sanctions will probably push Pyongyang to resist as best as it can. As the old saying is understood, in order for a ‘stick’ to achieve its desired goal, a ‘carrot’ must be used at the same time.”

Defiant as usual

North Korea has been, expectedly, defiant in the face of the looming military crisis. Xinhua quoted an April 13 statement by a North Korean official, saying that Pyongyang would retaliate with “nuclear thunder and punishment lightning”, giving hostile forces a “taste of real war”.

A spokesperson for North Korea’s Institute for Disarmament and Peace issued a statement condemning the U.S. missile attacks on Syria. The Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) quoted him as saying: “The U.S. is introducing huge nuclear strategic assets into the Korean peninsula ... seriously threatening the peace and security of the peninsula and pushing the situation there to the brink of a war.”

He warned that this had “created a dangerous situation in which a thermonuclear war may break out at any moment on the peninsula and pose a serious threat to world peace and security.”

Yet, a section of the Chinese media is signalling that though a war cannot be ruled out, “crippling” sanctions may be more likely in case North Korea goes ahead with a sixth nuclear test.

Despite the military build-up and the rhetoric radiating from Washington, the U.S. will have to factor-in a North Korean artillery barrage or, worse, one directed against Seoul and other South Korean population centres and Japan before considering the exercise of its maximalist option.

Aggression against Syria

Syrian quagmire

JOHN CHERIAN cover-story

THE sudden reversal of the Trump administration’s policy on Syria just two days after an alleged chemical explosion in the Jabhat al-Nusra (an Al Qaeda affiliate)-controflled town of Khan Sheikhoun in the Idlib province on April 4 did not come as a surprise to many given Donald Trump’s flip-flops on other major issues since he assumed office. More than 70 civilians, some of them children, were reportedly killed in the attack by the Syrian Air Force on Khan Sheikhoun. Idlib is described as “the heartland of Jabhat al-Nusra”. The Syrian Army was making significant advances there against the rebels when the “chemical attack” happened. The Syrian government did not deny that its air force had launched an attack on extremists in the town. The Syrian military spokesman said at the outset that its planes had targeted a building, which had then exploded, letting out a dark plume of smoke.

The government in Damascus alleges that it was a building where the rebels had stored chemical weapons. The United Nations Special Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura, speaking soon after the alleged chemical attack, said his organisation had not received “any official or reliable confirmation of what took place or who was responsible” for the incident. The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Frederica Mogherini, said there was “no evidence at the moment” to pinpoint or apportion blame. The U.N. said it would conduct an inquiry at the earliest.

This did not stop President Trump from rushing to judgement. Trump said he was moved by the pictures of “beautiful little babies” who were allegedly the victims of the chemical attack. He wasted no time in dispatching 59 Tomahawk missiles towards a Syrian airbase in Shayrat, located in the province of Homs. However, Trump and the Western media were totally unmoved after the massacre of 120 people, including 80 children, in the same province a week after the incident in Khan Sheikhoun. Under a deal between the Syrian government and the rebels in the area, the children and their families who had been living under siege for years were being evacuated from a village.

There was not a word of sympathy from the White House for the bereaved parents. Not a single bullet was fired in retaliation by the United States-led alliance, which is allegedly fighting against Al Qaeda and Daesh (Islamic State or ISIS). There was no condemnation from Western capitals either. This was in stark contrast to the reaction of the West after the April 4 incident. The children who died in the terror attack in the second week of April belonged to the Shia community, considered apostate by al-Nusra and Daesh. Pope Francis was among the world leaders who spoke out against the targeting of children. He described it as “a vile attack” on fleeing refugees and said his heart “goes out for beloved and martyred Syria”.

When President Barack Obama was seemingly on the brink of ordering an attack on Syria in 2013 for crossing his so-called “red line” on the use of chemical weapons, Trump had cautioned him not to get involved militarily. He tweeted: “Do Not Attack Syria. If You Do Very bad things will happen.” Now sitting in the White House, Trump claims that his views on both Syria and President Bashar al-Assad have undergone a dramatic change. Chinese President Xi Jinping was a guest of the U.S. President at the Trump estate in Florida when the attack took place. Trump chose to break the news of the launch of cruise missiles into Syria casually to his Chinese counterpart over dinner. The important Trump-Xi summit was relegated to the background. It was a significant loss of face for China, which is a strong ally of the Syrian government. Trump did not even show the diplomatic courtesy of postponing the attack by a day until the Chinese President left the U.S. The attack on Syria also happened when peace talks on Syria were about to start in Geneva and the Syrian Army was making significant advances.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, speaking to the media after the American missile attack on Syria, said “that there was no doubt in our mind” that it was the government of Bashar al-Assad that was responsible for the chemical attack. The Russian government had pointed out at the outset that the Syrian government had no chemical weapons in its arsenal, as it had agreed to destroy its cache following an agreement brokered by Russia and done under U.N. supervision three years ago. Russian intelligence was firmly of the view that the explosion was caused by chemical weapons that the rebels had stored in a warehouse. There have been previous documented incidents of al-Nusra and Daesh using prohibited chemical weapons. The U.N. has recorded statements from Syrian civilians who were eyewitnesses to earlier attempts by the rebels to make the West believe that the Syrian government had used chlorine gas.

More ‘provocations’ likely: Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin said recently that he had information that the West was planning many more “false flag” incidents in Syria. “We have information from different sources that these provocations—I cannot call them otherwise—are being prepared in other regions of Syria, including the southern suburbs of Damascus where there are plans to throw some substances and accuse the official Syrian authorities,” Putin said. Many intelligence professionals in the U.S. and the region are of the view that it was a “false flag” incident staged by the rebels to give the U.S. a pretext to move into Syria militarily.

“Our U.S. Army contacts in the area have told us what happened. There was no ‘Syrian chemical weapon attack’. Instead, a Syrian aircraft bombed an Al Qaeda in Syria ammunition depot that turned out to be full of noxious chemicals and a strong wind blew the chemical laden cloud over a nearby village where many consequently died—this is what the Russians and the Syrians have been saying and, more important, what they appear to believe, happened,” said a statement from 20 former members of the United States intelligence community known as the Steering Group of the Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS). Before ordering the missile strike, the Trump administration did not bother to consult the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which had supervised the dismantling of Syria’s chemical weapons stock.

The Russian President has highlighted the hypocrisy of the West on the issue of chemical weapons in Syria. Putin said the West had consistently ignored the Syrian government’s request to probe allegations of chemical weapons use by the rebels. “The only time the international community responded was this time. I think that we can figure out what is going on by just using a little bit of common sense. The Syrian Army was winning the war. In some places, they had the rebels completely surrounded. For them [the Syrian government] to throw it all away and give their trump card to people who are calling for regime change is, frankly, a crock of shit,” the Russian President told the media. Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev was even more forthright about President Trump and his policies. “The mist of pre-election fog has melted away,” he commented on his Facebook page. “Instead of the mass circulated narrative of a joint fight against the our main enemy, the ISIS, The Trump administration has demonstrated that it will be fiercely fighting the legitimate government of Syria.”

Agreement suspended

After the U.S. missile attack, Russia further solidified its political and military relations with the Syrian government. The Russian Defence Ministry took immediate steps to strengthen Syria’s air defence, sent a naval frigate to the country and announced that it was suspending an agreement with the U.S. to coordinate activity over Syrian airspace. The Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement lauding the Syrian government’s “fierce battle” against “international terrorism”. Dmitri Peskov, the spokesman for the Russian President, said the U.S. action in Syria dealt a “significant blow” to U.S.-Russian ties. The Syrian Army, Peskov affirmed, had no chemical weapons at its disposal.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called for an independent inquiry into the allegations of chemical weapons use by the Syrian government. “If our U.S. colleagues and some European nations believe that their version is right, they have no reason to fear the creation of such an independent group,” Lavrov said after a meeting with the Foreign Ministers of Iran and Syria, Javad Zarif and Walid Muallem respectively, in Moscow. The three Ministers also discussed the threat posed by the increased concentration of U.S. troops along Syria’s borders with Jordan. Lavrov said the three countries had evolved a “joint procedure” to confront aggression.

President Assad, in a recent interview, stressed that Syria did not have chemical weapons any more. He said that even if the Syrian government had chemical weapons in its possession, it would never have used them against its own people. He said the only information about what happened in Khan Sheikhoun was the version put out by Al Qaeda’s information department, alleging the use of chemical weapons. Assad said the West was “hand in glove with the terrorists”. According to the Syrian President, the West “fabricated the whole story to create a pretext for the attack”. He was particularly scathing about the allegations that the deadly sarin gas was used in the attack on Khan Sheikhoun. He said that even the “fabricated videos” showed rescuers helping victims of the attack without wearing gloves or masks. “If there was sarin, they would have been affected right away,” Assad noted. Theodore Postol of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a leading analyst of military technology, said that for sarin gas to be effective it had to be launched from the ground and not dropped from the air. The accusation against the Syrian government was that its planes had dropped the deadly chemical.

The Syrian President pointed out that the large-scale U.S. missile attack was carried out within 48 hours of the incident “with no concrete evidence about anything” and based on “allegations and propaganda”. President Assad said the very fact that the West claimed that Daesh did not have chemical weapons meant that it was not serious about fighting terrorism. The action of the U.S. government against Syria, Assad said, showed that the “deep state” there, comprising military hawks, neocons and Wall Street, remained in control. “Trump wanted to be a leader, but every President there, if he wants to be a real leader, will have to eat his words later, swallow his pride, if he has pride at all, and make a 180 degree U-turn, otherwise he would pay the price politically,” Assad said in his interview.

The U.S., as it is, bears much of the responsibility for the situation in Syria and the wider region. The seven million refugees and a nation in tatters is a legacy of its brazen interference in the internal affairs of Syria. In its frenetic quest for regime change in Damascus, the West initially propped up a rebel Syrian army, and when that venture failed, armed, trained and subsidised a crazed army of jehadists.

“Actually, during the last six years, the U.S. was directly involved in supporting terrorists everywhere in Syria, including al-Nusra and ISIS, including all the like-minded factions in Syria,” Assad said. According to the Syrian President, the previous Obama administration had launched an even more serious attack on his country. He was referring to the U.S. Air Force attack on a Syrian military base in Deir Ezzor late last year that resulted in the death of more than 30 soldiers. Daesh fighters occupied the base, but they and the U.S. could not succeed in the larger game plan of capturing Deir Ezzor city or prevent the liberation of Aleppo.

As the Bolivian envoy to the U.N., Sacha Llorenti, observed in a speech at a Security Council meeting specifically called to discuss the U.S. act of aggression against Syria, the Americans had once again abrogated to themselves the role of “investigators, attorneys, judges and executioners”. He compared the speech of Nikki Haley, the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., to that of U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell in 2003 justifying the invasion of Iraq. Bolivia currently holds a non-permanent seat at the Security Council. Llorenti, holding an enlarged picture of Powell making his weapons of mass destruction in Iraq speech, demanded that the U.S. had to be brought to account for the unprovoked attack on Syria, noting the history of U.S. imperialist interventions worldwide, including Latin America.

The BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) nations issued a statement condemning the military action in Syria, which was not authorised by the U.N. The statement also called for the respect of international law, territorial integrity and sovereignty.

Communalism

Vigilante on the prowl

IN yet another case of brutal vigilantism in the name of cow protection, motorcycle-borne men armed with hockey sticks mercilessly beat up Pehlu Khan, a 55-year-old dairy farmer from Mewat district in Haryana, on April 1. The farmer succumbed to his injuries. Pehlu Khan and his two sons were returning to Jaisingpur in Nuh tehsil from a cattle fair in Jaipur after purchasing two milch cows and two newborn calves for Rs.45,000. They were accompanied by two young men from the village, who had also purchased milch cattle from the fair. At around 7 p.m., the vigilantes, owing allegiance to the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Bajrang Dal, stopped the vehicle in which Pehlu Khan and a fellow villager, Azmat, were travelling, on the Delhi-Jaipur National Highway in Alwar district of Rajasthan.

The men were pulled out and beaten with belts, sticks and hockey sticks in the presence of a big crowd. Some of the standers-by joined in the lynching. The entire incident was videographed. The assaulters were seen pushing Pehlu Khan to the ground. The driver, who belonged to the majority community, was let off with a few slaps after he revealed his caste identity.

The vigilantes waited for the second vehicle, which carried three milch cows and calves, and Pehlu Khan’s two sons and another farmer. The men were dragged out and beaten; however, the worst treatment was reserved for Pehlu Khan. “Unlike us, he had a distinct beard,” his 19-year-old son, Arif, said. He said they had been stopped at police posts and allowed to pass when they showed the papers. “If what we were doing was illegal, the Rajasthan Police would have stopped us. We had milch cows. No one kills milch cows. We are dairy farmers. We sell milk for a living,” he said.

Arif said while they were lying in a heap after the assault, he heard someone order to set them on fire. He told Frontline that there were only 10 men in the beginning but soon hundreds of people joined them. “My brother Irshad showed the assaulters the receipts issued by the municipal authority in Jaipur. They tore them up saying they did not care for any receipts. They would have killed us had not someone called the police,” he said. In fact, a video taken by someone and released on social media showed some policemen laughing as they got down from their vehicle.

Arif said: “They did not even spare our clothes. The police gave us clothes. They took away our cash and our mobile phones. They took away the cows and calves we had purchased. The vehicles that we hired have been impounded by the police.” He has a blood clot in his eye.

The first information report (FIR) registered by the investigating officer, Ramesh Chand Sinsiwar, on the basis of the complaint made by Pehlu Khan said that the men repeatedly identified themselves as VHP and Bajrang Dal activists and declared that whoever transported cattle on the Behror route would meet with the same fate. The FIR named six persons and said that the assailants included 200 other unidentified persons.

None of the attackers named in the dying declaration by Pehlu Khan and in the statements of the survivors has been apprehended. In fact, cases were registered against 16 persons, all dairy farmers and small agriculturists from the Meo community, including Pehlu Khan’s two sons and the two villagers who accompanied them.

Not a coincidence

The accosting of the vehicles on April 1 was not a coincidence. A high-level delegation of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) comprising Members of Parliament from West Bengal and Tripura, along with Polit Bureau member and former MP Subhashini Ali, was told by the Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP) that four vans with several cattle were impounded at the Behror police station that day. Ironically, the police filed a case against Pehlu Khan under the Rajasthan Bovine Animals (Prohibition of Slaughter and Regulation of Temporary Migration or Export) Act, 1995. In 2015, the Act was made more stringent with amendments that allowed for the seizure of vehicles and the arrest of persons found illegally transporting cows inter-State.

According to the DSP, 11 men, all farmers from Mewat, were booked under the Bovine Act under sections relating to inter-State transportation of cattle. He told the delegation that two vans were intercepted on the road and the occupants beaten up. The crowd dispersed when the police arrived. The official said the transporters did not have the relevant permission from the District Magistrate to transport the cattle. The delegation found out that the Jaipur Municipal Corporation had levied extra charges for inter-State transport of cattle. It demanded an investigation into “Hindu chaukis” (illegal check points) set up by cow vigilantes.

“We stayed at the site of the cattle fair. The Municipal Corporation provided us with cots. It was a regular arrangement, but this was the first time for us. Id was approaching and our buffalo was not yielding much milk so we had to buy milch cattle. Milch cows were cheaper than buffaloes,” said Pehlu Khan’s sons. Jaisingpur village is dominated by Meo Muslims but has Hindu households as well, and the two communities have lived in harmony. The majority of the Meos are landless daily wage workers or tenant farmers. The few who own land have small holdings. Livestock rearing and dairy farming are the only source of income for the people of the region.

Government in denial mode

When the matter came up in Parliament, Minister of State for Minority Affairs and Parliamentary Affairs Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi denied it was a case of cow vigilantism. Subsequently, he denied he had said that. Minister of State for Home Kiran Rijiju, while issuing a stern warning to cow vigilantes, described the incident as an altercation between “two groups”. This was perhaps just another routine warning issued since the lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq at Dadri in Uttar Pradesh in 2015 on suspicion of cow slaughter.

Mohan Bhagwat, sarsangchalak of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, while calling for a national law banning cow slaughter, was critical of cow protection vigilantism. Rajasthan Home Minister Gulab Chand Kataria told reporters in Jaipur that it was all right that a few people who were illegally transporting animals were caught, but he hastened to add that no one had the right to take the law into their own hands. This is the refrain that invariably follows every case of cow vigilantism.

Meanwhile, organisations such as the Bhoomi Adhikar Andolan, the Left and democratic platform with 300 independent organisations representing peasants, agriculture workers, tribal people and Dalits, organised a massive protest in New Delhi on April 19. Victims and their family members participated in the protest. Amra Ram, a four-time legislator of the CPI(M) from Rajasthan, staged a 24-hour hunger strike demanding the arrest of the accused. Amra Ram, who is also the president of the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS), told Frontline that such vigilantism was harming the peasant economy as 25 per cent of the gross domestic product of the region was from animal husbandry. Amra Ram said the RSS demanded that the cattle fair in Jaipur be closed permanently.

“If it was illegal, then why did the Jaipur municipality allow the sale or issue the licence? This is a psychopathic crime. What kind of a law is this? Protect cows and kill human beings?” asked Hannan Mollah, general secretary of the AIKS. He pointed out that the Rajasthan government had presided over the death of thousands of cows at the State-run Hingonia Gaushala. The AIKS, he said, would launch conventions to protest against the attack on the peasant community and livestock owners.

Just as in the rest of Mewat, the state of schools, sanitation and public health in Jaisingpur is very poor. There is no high school in the village, despite the much-touted “Beti padhao Beti bachao” scheme of the Centre and Haryana governments. Barring the CPI(M) and the Aam Aadmi Party, no ruling party functionary or government official from Rajasthan or Haryana—both Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-ruled States—had visited Jaisingpur to commiserate with the distraught family of Pehlu Khan, which consists of his visually challenged mother, wife and eight children, the youngest of whom is just eight years old. The family has not been any given compensation. The systematic targeting of minorities in the name of cow protection has been on the rise ever since the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government came to power at the Centre in 2014, and senior BJP leaders and Ministers and MPs have been in denial mode. The murderous attack on Pehlu Khan took place against the background of a high-voltage campaign seeking a ban on slaughterhouses and the consumption of beef by self-styled cow protection groups.

In March 2016, two cattle herders, including a minor, were lynched in Latehar district in Jharkhand when they were on their way to a cattle fair. A truck driver was killed in Jammu and five Dalits were humiliated and beaten up in Una. In August 2016, there was a shocking incident of a double murder and gang rape, allegedly perpetrated by members of the Gau Rakshak Dal, at Dingerheri village in Tauru tehsil in Mewat district. Soon after the BJP came to power in Haryana, “biryani” vendors on the Sohna-Nuh Alwar road were harassed as food inspectors went about checking if beef was included in the food.

Cow politics

On April 6, the Vasundhara Raje government in Rajasthan decreed a 10 per cent surcharge on stamp duty on all instruments. The order said: “In exercise of the powers conferred of the Rajasthan Stamp Act, 1998, and in supersession of this department’s notification, State government hereby orders surcharge at the rate of 10 per cent on stamp duty payable on all instruments for the purposes of conservation and propagation of cow and its progeny.”

On April 17, the VHP declared that it could impose a ban on beef consumption in Goa without the help of the government. As per media reports, a senior functionary of the organisation claimed that he would do so with the help of Sangh Parivar affiliates such as the Durga Vahini and the Bajrang Dal. On March 31, Gujarat became the first State to award life imprisonment for anyone found guilty of cow slaughter. Earlier, the law provided for a maximum of 10 years’ imprisonment.

There is an uneasy calm in Mewat, a region known for putting up tough resistance to despotism since medieval times. “The Mughals couldn’t tame us. We have a distinct identity and culture. But there are elements that are out to spoil the harmony. We have never demanded anything from the government despite the region’s backwardness. Yet, our people are targeted. We are sitting on a powder keg that is ready to explode,” said a former sarpanch in Mewat.

The aggressive politics over the cow has not abated. While the Centre has issued statements warning the vigilantes, the tightening of cow protection laws in BJP-ruled States and the creation of an atmosphere around the cow and its progeny by way of belligerent statements aimed at the minorities do not inspire confidence. It is for the same reason that the BJP’s apparent concern for Muslim women with regard to triple talaq seems unconvincing.

India & Pakistan

Shadow wars

JOHN CHERIAN the-nation

IN the first week of April, a military court in Pakistan, the Field General Court Martial (FGCM), awarded the death penalty to Kulbushan Jadhav, a retired Commander of the Indian Navy, on charges of carrying out espionage and terrorist activities. According to Khawaja Muhammad Asif, the Defence Minister of Pakistan, the former Indian naval officer was convicted after a trial which lasted more than three and a half months. Sartaj Aziz, Foreign Policy Adviser to the Pakistan Prime Minister and the country’s de facto Foreign Minister, said in the second week of April that the trial was conducted in a fair and transparent manner under the laws of the land. “His sentence is based on credible, specific evidence proving his involvement in espionage and terrorist activities in Pakistan,” Aziz asserted. He revealed that “a letter of assistance” was sent to the Indian government in late January this year asking for specific information and access to certain key witnesses. Aziz said that there was no response from the Indian side.

Jadhav was arrested in March last year. The Pakistani authorities claim that he was operating under an assumed name in the restive province of Balochistan. The charges under which he was tried included “sponsoring terrorism” and working against the integrity of the Pakistani state. According to Aziz, Jadhav was found guilty of aiding and abetting terrorist activities in Balochistan, including sponsoring and directing attacks on Gwadar port and gas pipelines.

Jadhav has the right to appeal against the verdict to an appellate court within 40 days. If the Pakistan Army’s Court of Appeal upholds the death sentence, then he can submit a mercy plea to the Pakistan Army chief within 60 days and to the country’s President within 90 days. Jadhav also has the option to approach a High Court if he feels that due process was not observed or his fundamental rights were violated. It is clear that the death sentence, if at all it is implemented, will not be done in a hurry. Alleged spies on both sides of the border are known to languish for years in jails before they are freed. But Jadhav is by far the most high-profile Indian prisoner that Pakistan has ever had in its custody.

The announcement about the death sentence seems to have taken the Indian government by surprise. It was trying various means, including using diplomatic and other channels, to get the former naval officer released. One of the reasons for the Pakistani announcement could have been the mysterious disappearance of one of its own retired military officers, Lt Col. Mohammad Habib, while he was on a trip to Nepal, in early April. His rank, coincidentally, is equivalent to that of a Commander in the Indian Navy. Reports in the Pakistani media said that the officer went missing near Nepal’s border with India. India has denied that the Pakistani officer is in its custody. The view in the Pakistani security establishment is that the “disappearance” was organised by India’s intelligence agencies to prepare the ground for a possible “prisoner swap” in the near future.

Detailed dossier

The Pakistani military and allied intelligence agencies have apparently prepared a detailed dossier on Jadhav’s alleged activities inside Pakistan, along with a list of Pakistani citizens who have since been arrested. Among the first whose arrest was made public is a notorious character by the name of Uzair Baloch, who has links with politicians and the underworld. Baloch, however, has been accused of receiving funds routed through Iranian intelligence agencies for carrying out assignments to destabilise Karachi, Pakistan’s key commercial hub. Baloch, according to Pakistani intelligence agencies, had made Chabahar port his base of operations. Some Pakistani officials close to the country’s intelligence and security services have been implying that the Iranian security services allowed Jadhav to operate from the port city of Chabahar under an assumed identity.

The Indian government insists that Jadhav was spirited away from Iran and taken across the border to Balochistan. Some reports quoted a former German diplomat, Guntar Mulack, as saying that he believed Jadhav was picked up from Iranian territory by Taliban fighters and handed over to Pakistan. The diplomat has now said that his information was based “on an unconfirmed speculation from a reliable source” and could have been incorrect. Iran has strongly refuted allegations of involvement in espionage or destabilisation efforts aimed against Pakistan. The Iranian embassy in Islamabad issued a statement in the third week of April condemning the “dissemination of such baseless” news aimed at influencing public opinion in Pakistan.

Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) said that it picked up Jadhav on March 3 last year in the Mashkel area of Balochistan. The ISI claims that the naval officer confessed to working for India’s premier intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), to destabilise Pakistan through acts of espionage and sabotage. In the “confessional video” which was released by Pakistan soon after his arrest, Jadhav is shown admitting to India’s alleged involvement in terrorist activities in Balochistan and the port city of Karachi. Lt Gen. Asim Bajwa, spokesman for the ISI, claimed that Jadhav’s main brief was to disrupt the ambitious China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which passes through Balochistan. Bajwa alleged that the Gwadar port, which is located in the province, was designated as a “special target” by India’s intelligence agencies.

Allegations about the Indian government’s involvement in Balochistan are not new. In fact, in a joint statement issued during the 2009 Sharm El Sheikh Non-Aligned Movement summit after a meeting between Indian and Pakistani Prime Ministers, Manmohan Singh and Yusuf Raza Gilani, India admitted to being involved in clandestine activities in Balochistan. Both sides pledged to stop interfering in each other’s affairs. Relations between the two countries have steadily gone downhill since then, especially after the Narendra Modi-led National Democratic Alliance was voted to power. Last year, Modi publicly declared India’s support for the liberation struggle in Balochistan. The two sides have not held meaningful talks at a high level since Modi became Prime Minister three years ago. The country’s Pakistan policy seems to be run from the Prime Minister’s Office, with National Security Adviser Ajit Doval, the former RAW chief, calling the shots.

Pakistani officials have indicated that they will soon be releasing a list of their citizens who were in close contact with Jadhav. They say that there is no question of Jadhav being let off in exchange for the missing Pakistani military officer, who is reportedly in Indian custody. Pakistani officials claim that the missing officer had no connection with the country’s intelligence services. Anyone with a background in intelligence services would not have walked into the trap set for him, they claim. The officer was lured into Nepal with the promise of a high-paying post-retirement job.

Vocal protests

The news of Jadhav’s sentencing elicited strong protests from parties cutting across the political divide. External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj told Parliament that “India would go out of its way” to rescue Jadhav from the hangman’s noose. Describing Jadhav as a “son of India”, she warned Pakistan of undesirable consequences if the death sentence was carried out. “I would caution the Pakistani government to consider the consequences for our bilateral relationship if they proceed on the matter,” she said, adding that there was “no evidence of wrongdoing” against the former naval officer. She claimed that Jadhav was engaged in legitimate business activities in Iran. The Lok Sabha was unanimous in its condemnation of the Pakistan military court’s judgment. The Pakistan High Commissioner to India, Abdul Basit, was summoned by the External Affairs Ministry and handed a demarche which warned that in case the sentence against the Indian citizen was carried out, India would “treat it as a case of premeditated murder”.

The Pakistan High Commissioner, in an interview he gave to an Indian publication, said that Jadhav continued to be a “serving Indian (Navy) officer” and that was the reason why he was tried in a military court. Pakistan says that its investigations and interrogations show that Jadhav never retired from service and was working for the Indian Navy’s intelligence wing. Basit said that Jadhav had been visiting Pakistan since 2003, using a genuine Indian passport but under the assumed name of Mubarak Hussain Patel. The Pakistani diplomat said that a preliminary dossier of Jadhav’s clandestine activities was sent to the United Nations Secretary-General’s office last year.

Denied consular access

The Indian government is demanding immediate consular access to Jadhav. The Indian High Commissioner to Pakistan, Gautam Bambawale, met with Pakistan’s Foreign Secretary, Tehmina Janjua, to discuss the issue for the first time on April 14. Bambawale said that the government had consistently demanded access to Jadhav after his arrest had been announced last year. He told the media that it was the 14th time that a formal request was being made for consular access. Bambawale said that India had also asked for a copy of the charge sheet against Jadhav. Pakistani officials said that consular access was denied to Jadhav since it was a case involving alleged espionage and that it was standard practice in court martial cases. Indian officials are of the view that consular access is being denied so that the circumstances under which Jadhav was captured remained shrouded in mystery. High Commissioner Basit said that consular access was not “automatic”, especially when a case was “sensitive and related to matters of security”. According to some reports, Islamabad has, however, decided to hand over copies of the court order and the charge sheet against Jadhav to the Indian authorities.

The government, however, is not satisfied with the explanations provided by Pakistan. Diplomatic relations between the two countries, already at a low, are not likely to improve in the near future. India announced the postponement of the maritime security dialogue with Pakistan, which was scheduled to be held in mid April. The two sides were to discuss issues relating to fishermen from both countries who are languishing in jails. Many of the fishermen have been incarcerated for inadvertently crossing the maritime borders.

Essay

Gilgit games

A.G. NOORANI the-nation

The Kashmir dispute brings out the most ludicrous traits in the personality of the states of India and Pakistan. The media and officialdom go into high dudgeon as if on cue. Covertly, India had decided against a plebiscite in Kashmir in 1948. Pakistan did the same in 1958. But, of course, Gilgit has been an integral part of the State of Jammu and Kashmir. From successive editions of C.U. Aitchison’s Treaties, Engagements and Sanads (1909, Vol. XI, pages. 256-257) to popular tourist guide books of old, this fact is set out without any qualification ( Ince’s Kashmir Handbook: A Guide for Visitors by Joshua Duke, 1888, pages 281-300; and A Handbook of Jammu and Kashmir State; Government of Jammu and Kashmir, 1945, page 3).

The British messed with Gilgit because of its strategic importance. A British officer was posted there from 1877 to 1881 as Political Agent. Withdrawn in 1881, the Gilgit Agency was re-established in 1889. It covered the Gilgit Wazarat, Hunza, Nagar, Punial, Yasin, Kuh, Ghizi and Ashkuman. The Gilgit Wazarat alone was administered by the State officials. The others enjoyed varying degrees of autonomy. In 1935 a lease was imposed. It was relinquished only on August 1, 1947. A revolt ensured that Gilgit never came under the ruler’s possession. The fact of it being legally a part of Jammu and Kashmir cannot be challenged.

Covert moves

Pakistan has been playing with the entire part of J ammu and Kashmir in its possession regardless of legalities. It broke it up into two parts—Azad Kashmir and “the Northern Areas”. At Muzaffarabad, on November 7, 1973, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto felt himself free to offer Azad Kashmir three choices—the status quo, provincial status or a full-fledged province of Pakistan. He asked it “not to aspire for an independent status”.

Azad Kashmir was annexed indirectly, and the Northern Areas directly. They have been dismembered from the State and claimed to be not a part of Kashmir. But curiously, not part of Pakistan either, formally. The Azad Jammu and Kashmir Interim Constitution Act, 1974, which Bhutto imposed on Azad Kashmir on August 24, 1974, declares Islam to be “the State religion” (Article 3). It lays down in Article 7(2) that “No person or political party in Azad Jammu and Kashmir shall be permitted to propagate against, or take part in activities prejudicial or detrimental to, the ideology of the State’s accession to Pakistan.”

The plea of a plebiscite is thus banned. There, none can advocate independence or accession to India. Pakistan imposes such a law on Azad Kashmir, yet demands a plebiscite in the rest of the State. This Constitution also sets up a Council with the Prime Minister of Pakistan as chairman and five of his nominees as members, besides the Prime Minister of Azad Kashmir and six members elected by its Assembly. It wields executive and legislative power. Its secretariat is in Islamabad. The Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (POK) is thus firmly riveted to Pakistan.

The Northern Areas were renamed by the Gilgit-Baltistan (Empowerment and Self-Governance) Order made by the Government of Pakistan on September 9, 2009. It is a mere executive order, not a piece of legislation. Where did Pakistan derive its legal authority for such an order? By conquest alone. The order is a virtual replica of the Azad Kashmir Act, 1974. The Governor is appointed by Islamabad. There will be a Gilgit-Baltistan Council headed by the Prime Minister of Pakistan in which he will command a majority. There will be a Legislative Assembly but the Council will also have legislative power. Pakistan’s laws prevail. So will Islamic law. Oaths for all pledge them to “remain loyal to Pakistan”. This rules out advocacy of plebiscite for independence or accession to India.

Azad Kashmir’s stand

In a 228-page judgment, three judges of the High Court of Azad Kashmir ruled unanimously on March 8, 1993, that the Northern Areas of the State of Jammu and Kashmir, covering Gilgit and Baltistan and ruled directly by Pakistan, form part of Kashmir.

The court referred to Pakistan’s statements before the United Nations Security Council and the United Nations Commission for India and Pakistan (UNCIP) and its objection to Kashmir’s integration with India. It tartly remarked: “Allowing integration of Northern Areas to any Province of Pakistan would be tantamount to negation of Pakistan’s stance at home and in the Security Council.” This is precisely what Pakistan has done in fact.

Paragraph 9 of the written statement submitted to the court by the Government of Pakistan said: “It is admitted as true that the Northern Areas do not form part of the territories of Pakistan as defined in the Constitution of 1973. However, it is explained [that] on account of that omission, it may not be concluded that the said areas are part of the territories of Azad Jammu and Kashmir.” Were they independent of both, then?

The passage in paragraph 194 of the judgment is followed by a damning censure in paragraph 195: “The Respondent (Pakistan) was unable to satisfy its validity [sic] to keep control by detaching these areas from the rest of Azad Jammu and Kashmir.” The fact of this “detaching” of the areas from Kashmir, which Pakistan calls “disputed” territory, suffices to cook Pakistan’s goose. Its concern is not with the people of Kashmir. It is a land-grabber. The court uses identical language at the end of the judgment on page 227, paragraph 203: “We, therefore, hold that no legitimate cause has been shown by the Respondents No.1 (Pakistan) and 2 (Azad Kashmir), to keep the Northern Areas and their residents (State subjects) detached from Azad Jammu and Kashmir, under separate and arbitrary administrative system and deprive them of fundamental rights.”

On appeal, the Supreme Court of Azad Kashmir said that “the findings of the High Court on the point that the Northern Areas were historically and constitutionally part and parcel of the Jammu and Kashmir State before 14 August 1947 suffer from no legal infirmity; even otherwise this fact has not been challenged by the Federation of Pakistan before this Court. Thus, the said findings stand confirmed.” It concluded: “To summarise, in the light of what has been stated, the conclusion which we reach is that the Northern Areas are a part of Jammu and Kashmir State but are not a part of Azad Jammu and Kashmir, as defined in the Interim Constitution Act, 1974.” On May 28, 1999, the Supreme Court of Pakistan ruled that “the people of Northern Areas are citizens of Pakistan”.

The Sheikh’s indictment

“Mr Bhutto, you are wailing about the right of self-determination for the people of Jammu and Kashmir, but what about the fate of 1.5 million people in occupied Kashmir who have been denied basic rights and are suffering for long?” Sheikh Abdullah asked at a rally in Srinagar on March 2, 1975. His indictment is unanswerable. In truth, after the Simla Agreement of 1972, Bhutto confirmed suspicions of a tacit accord on partition when, on September 25, 1974, he formally annexed Hunza to Pakistan. Zia-ul-Haq went further. He nominated three observers from the Northern Areas to the Majlis-e-Shoora and claimed they were part of Pakistan. Indian correspondents drew conflicting explanations from him. They were told that Gilgit, Hunza and Skardu were parts of Pakistan, not disputed territories. This drew a strong and identical reaction from both parts of Kashmir.

Sheikh Abdullah’s government issued a White Paper in May 1982 entitled “Statement of Facts: Gilgit, Hunza, Yasin, Ponial, Chitral and Skardu”. It cited authoritative material, with a bibliography and a map, to establish convincingly that these areas have from time immemorial formed integral parts of the State of Jammu and Kashmir.

On June 3, 1982, Azad Kashmir leader Sardar Mohammed Ibrahim challenged Zia’s assertion. With characteristic guile, Zia backtracked. He told an Indian journalist that the “Northern Areas and Kashmir are disputed territories and we accept them as such. Period. We do not accept them as part of Pakistan; otherwise the whole battle is lost. How can we talk about Kashmir and the U.N. and things like that?” It was a tactical retreat. To another journalist, Zia complained he had not been correctly reported and asserted, once again, that while Kashmir is a disputed area, not so the Northern Areas, Gilgit, Hunza. He went further: When reminded that these were part of Kashmir, Zia retorted: “May be it [sic] was part of Kashmir when Kashmir was Kashmir. Today, we don’t accept.”

Northern Areas parameters

The High Court had defined the Northern Areas carefully. The State of Jammu and Kashmir was divided into four provinces—Jammu, Kashmir, Ladakh and Gilgit and Frontier Ilaqas (areas). The Frontier Ilaqas comprised Hunza, Nagar, Punial, Yasin, Kuh, Ghizar, Ishkoman and Chilas. Gilgit was leased to the British by the Maharaja of Kashmir on March 26, 1935, and recovered on August 1, 1947.

Gilgit, Baltistan and former Frontier Ilaqas were designated as “Northern Areas”, with an area of 63,553 square miles and a population that some estimate at 1.5 million. Baltistan is basically the district of Skardu. Administratively, Pakistan has split the Northern Areas into the districts of Gilgit, Diamer, Skardu, Ghizar and Chilas.

The White Paper of the government of Kashmir is obviously written by a historian. It is rich in details. For instance: “Skardu fell to Pakistani raiders on 14 August 1948. Uptill then it was ruled by the government headed by Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, which was appointed by Maharaja in March 1948. The last Wazir Wazarat of Skardu was an officer from Jammu, Mr Amar Nath Pragal. He was brutally killed by the invaders and the district treasury ransacked, which even at that time contained ninety thousand and odd rupees in Indian currency. The local administration was mostly manned by officials hailing from Jammu and Kashmir provinces. Many of them managed to escape; a number of them were taken prisoners. These were to return only after an exchange of political prisoners between India and Pakistan and were absorbed in State government cadres.”

Kashmiris have objected unanimously to Pakistan’s move to make Gilgit-Baltistan one of its provinces. Rather late in the day they have discovered that Pakistan’s interests are different from those of Kashmir. The Palestinians discovered that of the Arab states. In 1949, Zafrullah Khan insisted on the exclusion of independence as an option for Kashmir.

Kashmiris must shed illusions and face the realities. They must evolve a peaceful strategy of a movement that shuns dharnas and closures and relies on effective, powerful protests. This will earn them much goodwill and political strength.

For India and Pakistan, too, the best course is to accept the realities and try to remove their curbs by allowing the people in both parts of the State a say on their future. The Four Point Plan is still relevant. It is the only solution: withdraw the troops from the borders; allow free movement of people, material and literature across the Line of Control; grant self-rule ( azadi) to both parts of Kashmir; and have the mechanism already agreed between India and Pakistan for coordination and cooperation.

U.S. strikes

Reckless in White House

VIJAY PRASHAD cover-story

WITHIN a week, United States President Donald Trump authorised two major strikes—one against the Syrian Air Force and the other against an ISIS base in Afghanistan. Both of these strikes came with little warning, although these are not the first such attacks in either sector. The U.S. has bombed Syria almost 8,000 times over the past few years and Iraq uncountable times since 2003, dropping ordnance that has already dwarfed the tonnage dropped in all sectors of the Second World War. But these bombing raids were against the ISIS, largely, and not the Syrian government. In Afghanistan, the U.S. has been at war since 2001—making this the longest war in its history. Aerial bombardment of Afghanistan by the U.S. is now perfectly normal. What made this attack so extraordinary was the scale of the bomb—a-10-tonne monstrosity, the largest non-nuclear weapon used on planet earth. Not long after Afghanistan’s eastern province of Nangarhar shuddered with the intensity of that bomb, a U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) spokesperson talked to The Hill (a Washington D.C.-based political newspaper and website) about the attack. President Trump, said this military spokesperson, had given his armed forces greater latitude to fight the War on Terror. This freedom in combat, said the anonymous spokesperson, was “empowering the commanders and winning the war against the bad guys. In this administration, the military is given empowerment to do what we need to do”. Most stunningly, the spokesperson then spoke as if he were the manager of a prize-fighting boxer. “We mean business. President Trump said that once he gets in [to office] he’s going to kick the shit out of the enemy. That was his promise and that’s exactly what we’re doing,” said the spokesperson.

Hastily, a denial came from Doha (Qatar), where this spokesperson is based. CENTCOM’s media chief Major Josh Jacques said that the person who talked to The Hill was “unauthorised to speak on behalf of the U.S. Central Command”. But that statement had already been made. It revealed the unvarnished attitude of the military, or at least the section that favoured Trump’s more aggressive posture towards the world. The language and tone of the unauthorised spokesperson from CENTCOM mirrored that of Trump. “We have the greatest military in the world,” Trump said. “We have given total authorisation, and that’s what they’re doing, and frankly, that’s why they’ve been so successful recently.”

The measure of success

Since Trump assumed office, the U.S. has indeed stepped up aerial bombing across the geography of the War on Terror, from Syria to Afghanistan. Reports of civilian casualties from these strikes began to trickle out in the days after Trump came into office. The non-profit monitoring group Airwars decided to shift its resources to track civilian deaths from U.S. strikes and stop using its limited resources to look at strikes by Russians. The number of deaths from the former dwarfs those from the latter. In March 2017 itself, Airwars counted 1,782 civilian non-combatant deaths from U.S. strikes. There were three mass casualty attacks that month, one in Syria’s Aleppo (47 civilians dead), another in Syria’s Raqqa (33 civilians dead) and the third in Iraq’s Mosul (200 civilians dead). “Nothing has prepared us for that level of civilian casualties,” said Chris Woods of Airwars.

The bombing has been severe but the strategic gains have been limited. In Syria, the U.S.-backed forces have struggled to push against the ISIS in the country’s north. One aerial strike, in fact, killed a dozen soldiers of the U.S.-backed Syrian Defence Forces (SDF). The SDF has been hemmed in because of pressure from the Turkish government, whose Operation Euphrates Shield is intended to block the advance of these mainly Kurdish fighters along the Syrian-Turkish border. The strike on the Shayrat Air Base in Syria by the U.S. also came with little strategic foresight. From this base, the Syrian Air Force had been striking ISIS columns as they moved to threaten the city of Palmyra. With the destruction of several aircraft by the U.S. cruise missiles, the ISIS has been given relief from the skies.

In Afghanistan, the U.S. targeted the meagre forces of the ISIS’s Khorasan division, which had already been badly dented during an offensive by the Afghan Army in January 2016. It is not the ISIS but the Taliban that is a threat to the Afghan government. The monstrous 10-tonne bomb was used against an opportunistic group of fighters who have been unsuccessful in trying to build momentum in Afghanistan and who have been unable to inflame a sectarian war inside the country. These fighters, in fact, have been a thorn in the side of the Taliban, challenging it to be more brutal in its tactics to win over young fighters. With the ISIS weakened, the Taliban will have the field to themselves just as the summer of fighting is ready to open up.

Even those who have congratulated Trump on his actions, such as the U.S. Senator John McCain, bemoan the lack of a strategy to win the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. The Trump Doctrine, if there is any such thing, is to show that the U.S. is willing to use the full extent of its military power to intimidate its enemies. But the problem with this view, if this is indeed the vision of the Trump Doctrine, is that the U.S. might indeed fire its massive arsenal but it will also earn itself more enemies from the families of dead civilians and from patriotic-minded people who will not tolerate the attempt to intimidate. Even Hamid Karzai, former President of Afghanistan who was close to the U.S., said after the bombing: “This is an inhuman act, a brutal act against an innocent country, against innocent people, against our land, against our sovereignty, against our soil and against our future.” Karzai is not alone. Trump’s especially brutal language and the relish with which he has unleashed military power have alienated many potential allies and friends. It is easy to bomb a country; far harder to build alliances in its aftermath.

When he was asked to define the Trump Doctrine, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said that the two words that are essential to the Trump world view are “America First”. “We’re not just going to become the world’s policeman, running around the world,” Spicer said. But, the U.S. would use its military only when there is a “clear and defined national interest,” he said. What “clear and defined national interest” was served in the attacks on Syria and Afghanistan? Of Syria, Spicer said that the U.S. was acting so that weapons of mass destruction do not “spread to other groups” that might threaten the U.S. The logic here is similar to that advanced by George W. Bush in 2002 and 2003, that the U.S. should destroy Iraq’s fictional weapons of mass destruction arsenal before the country shared it with Al Qaeda. There is little evidence that the Syrian government, like the Iraqi government before it, would ally itself with a group like Al Qaeda, which it sees as an enemy. But that is beside the point. Logic and history are unimportant in the Trump White House (Spicer even said that Adolf Hitler had not used chemical weapons against his own people, which, of course, denies what the Nazis did in the Holocaust). The U.S.’ national interest is not served by the attack on the Syrian government. That is the kind of regime-change policy that Trump had campaigned against during his run for the White House.

Selective outrage

Almost no logical account has been provided by the White House as to why the U.S. acted against the Syrian government for the as-yet-to-be-investigated attack in Idlib. The White House said that Trump was moved by pictures of the children killed in the attack, and that his daughter, Ivanka, implored him to do something. There was no such reaction when at least 126 people were killed by extremists who bombed buses outside Aleppo in midApril. There were 60 children amongst those killed then. No U.S. outrage was evident against the extremists, many of whom have links of one kind or the other with the U.S. and its allies.

Minimal explanation has been given for the U.S. attack in Afghanistan apart from the assertion by the U.S. commander that this massive bomb was necessary to take out the tunnel networks used by the ISIS. These tunnels, many of which were built with the assistance of the U.S.’ Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) for the mujahideen in the 1980s, have been used for long by various extremist groups. Why strike the ISIS, already weakened, when it would have been far more useful to the Kabul government if the U.S. had turned its firepower against the more threatening Taliban? No explanation has been given for this.

After Trump’s two strikes, he received accolades in the U.S. from a range of politicians and commentators. It is as if U.S. culture is incapable of being unhappy with a President who bombs another country. The term “presidential” began to be used for Trump by people who had previously seen him merely as a usurper. Perhaps Trump’s bombing raids had less to do with Syria and Afghanistan and more to do with U.S. politics, where his personal approval ratings are miserable. Trump would not be the first U.S. President to use the U.S. military to bolster his popularity. President Bill Clinton routinely used cruise missiles as a way to distract people from his domestic scandals. It has even been suggested that Trump used the attacks on Syria and Afghanistan to send a message to North Korea—that he would act if he sees fit (as in Syria) and he would use massive weaponry that is unimaginable (as in Afghanistan). Whether Trump acts for domestic reasons or to send a message to North Korea, either way his use of violence seems to be lacking a logical strategy for Syria and Afghanistan.

Richard Nixon pioneered a theory of foreign affairs known as the “Madman Theory”. He told his Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman: “I call it the Madman Theory, Bob. I want the North Vietnamese to believe I’ve reached the point where I might do anything to stop the war.” Nixon’s people would spread the rumour, he said, that the nuclear option was available and that Nixon was mad enough to use it.

“Ho Chi Minh himself will be in Paris in two days begging for peace,” Nixon said. Perhaps Trump, like Nixon, believes in the Madman Theory, one pioneered by Machiavelli, who wrote: “It is a wise thing to simulate madness.” It terrifies one’s adversaries. It pleases the bloodlust of one’s supporters. But it does not make the world a safer place.

U.S. military power

Military might

BY ordering the massive ordnance air blast airstrike on Afghanistan's Nangarhar province on April 13, which saw the 11-tonne “mother of all bombs” being dropped to wipe out a network of Islamic State (Daesh) tunnels, the United States has once again drawn the world’s attention to its massive firepower, enormous resources, and propensity to stage military interventions to buttress its status as the global policeman.

When U.S. President Donald Trump sought to increase the Defence budget to $639 billion for the fiscal year ending 2018, it signalled the country’s intention to keep feeding the military-industrial complex and maintain its global supremacy in military spending. Since the September 11, 2001, attacks the country’s defence budget has been leaping by tens of billions of dollars. rising to $357 billion in 2002 and peaking at $711 billion in 2011, according to data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), an independent resource on global security.

An idea of the size of U.S. military spending can be gleaned from the 2015 figures from SIPRI, which show that it accounted for about 35 per cent of the entire global expenditure of $1.676 trillion and was bigger than the next seven countries’ combined defence budgets.

U.S. military spending as a percentage of global expenditure steadily declined from 1991 until 2001, after which it has been on an upward trajectory for the most part.

Ever since the end of the Second World War, the U.S. has been involved in strife, low-intensity conflicts and full-fledged wars across the world that have toppled democratically elected governments, caused enormous economic and social upheavals and left a massive trail of destruction and loss of life in its wake. Some of the key conflicts that were marked by a significant American presence are the Korean War of 1950-1953, the 10-year Vietnam War that ended in 1975, the Gulf War of 1990–1991, the Iraq War of 2003–2011, and the war in Afghanistan from 2001 to 2014. Its two major ongoing wars are targeted at destroying Daesh strongholds in Iraq, Syria and parts of Africa, and Taliban and al-Qaeda militants in Pakistan.

The U.S. air force and navy, arguably the biggest and most powerful in the world, enable the country’s interventionist role by virtue of the immense amount of resources and personnel at their disposal.

Essay

Gilgit games

A.G. NOORANI the-nation

The Kashmir dispute brings out the most ludicrous traits in the personality of the states of India and Pakistan. The media and officialdom go into high dudgeon as if on cue. Covertly, India had decided against a plebiscite in Kashmir in 1948. Pakistan did the same in 1958. But, of course, Gilgit has been an integral part of the State of Jammu and Kashmir. From successive editions of C.U. Aitchison’s Treaties, Engagements and Sanads (1909, Vol. XI, pages. 256-257) to popular tourist guide books of old, this fact is set out without any qualification ( Ince’s Kashmir Handbook: A Guide for Visitors by Joshua Duke, 1888, pages 281-300; and A Handbook of Jammu and Kashmir State; Government of Jammu and Kashmir, 1945, page 3).

The British messed with Gilgit because of its strategic importance. A British officer was posted there from 1877 to 1881 as Political Agent. Withdrawn in 1881, the Gilgit Agency was re-established in 1889. It covered the Gilgit Wazarat, Hunza, Nagar, Punial, Yasin, Kuh, Ghizi and Ashkuman. The Gilgit Wazarat alone was administered by the State officials. The others enjoyed varying degrees of autonomy. In 1935 a lease was imposed. It was relinquished only on August 1, 1947. A revolt ensured that Gilgit never came under the ruler’s possession. The fact of it being legally a part of Jammu and Kashmir cannot be challenged.

Covert moves

Pakistan has been playing with the entire part of J ammu and Kashmir in its possession regardless of legalities. It broke it up into two parts—Azad Kashmir and “the Northern Areas”. At Muzaffarabad, on November 7, 1973, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto felt himself free to offer Azad Kashmir three choices—the status quo, provincial status or a full-fledged province of Pakistan. He asked it “not to aspire for an independent status”.

Azad Kashmir was annexed indirectly, and the Northern Areas directly. They have been dismembered from the State and claimed to be not a part of Kashmir. But curiously, not part of Pakistan either, formally. The Azad Jammu and Kashmir Interim Constitution Act, 1974, which Bhutto imposed on Azad Kashmir on August 24, 1974, declares Islam to be “the State religion” (Article 3). It lays down in Article 7(2) that “No person or political party in Azad Jammu and Kashmir shall be permitted to propagate against, or take part in activities prejudicial or detrimental to, the ideology of the State’s accession to Pakistan.”

The plea of a plebiscite is thus banned. There, none can advocate independence or accession to India. Pakistan imposes such a law on Azad Kashmir, yet demands a plebiscite in the rest of the State. This Constitution also sets up a Council with the Prime Minister of Pakistan as chairman and five of his nominees as members, besides the Prime Minister of Azad Kashmir and six members elected by its Assembly. It wields executive and legislative power. Its secretariat is in Islamabad. The Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (POK) is thus firmly riveted to Pakistan.

The Northern Areas were renamed by the Gilgit-Baltistan (Empowerment and Self-Governance) Order made by the Government of Pakistan on September 9, 2009. It is a mere executive order, not a piece of legislation. Where did Pakistan derive its legal authority for such an order? By conquest alone. The order is a virtual replica of the Azad Kashmir Act, 1974. The Governor is appointed by Islamabad. There will be a Gilgit-Baltistan Council headed by the Prime Minister of Pakistan in which he will command a majority. There will be a Legislative Assembly but the Council will also have legislative power. Pakistan’s laws prevail. So will Islamic law. Oaths for all pledge them to “remain loyal to Pakistan”. This rules out advocacy of plebiscite for independence or accession to India.

Azad Kashmir’s stand

In a 228-page judgment, three judges of the High Court of Azad Kashmir ruled unanimously on March 8, 1993, that the Northern Areas of the State of Jammu and Kashmir, covering Gilgit and Baltistan and ruled directly by Pakistan, form part of Kashmir.

The court referred to Pakistan’s statements before the United Nations Security Council and the United Nations Commission for India and Pakistan (UNCIP) and its objection to Kashmir’s integration with India. It tartly remarked: “Allowing integration of Northern Areas to any Province of Pakistan would be tantamount to negation of Pakistan’s stance at home and in the Security Council.” This is precisely what Pakistan has done in fact.

Paragraph 9 of the written statement submitted to the court by the Government of Pakistan said: “It is admitted as true that the Northern Areas do not form part of the territories of Pakistan as defined in the Constitution of 1973. However, it is explained [that] on account of that omission, it may not be concluded that the said areas are part of the territories of Azad Jammu and Kashmir.” Were they independent of both, then?

The passage in paragraph 194 of the judgment is followed by a damning censure in paragraph 195: “The Respondent (Pakistan) was unable to satisfy its validity [sic] to keep control by detaching these areas from the rest of Azad Jammu and Kashmir.” The fact of this “detaching” of the areas from Kashmir, which Pakistan calls “disputed” territory, suffices to cook Pakistan’s goose. Its concern is not with the people of Kashmir. It is a land-grabber. The court uses identical language at the end of the judgment on page 227, paragraph 203: “We, therefore, hold that no legitimate cause has been shown by the Respondents No.1 (Pakistan) and 2 (Azad Kashmir), to keep the Northern Areas and their residents (State subjects) detached from Azad Jammu and Kashmir, under separate and arbitrary administrative system and deprive them of fundamental rights.”

On appeal, the Supreme Court of Azad Kashmir said that “the findings of the High Court on the point that the Northern Areas were historically and constitutionally part and parcel of the Jammu and Kashmir State before 14 August 1947 suffer from no legal infirmity; even otherwise this fact has not been challenged by the Federation of Pakistan before this Court. Thus, the said findings stand confirmed.” It concluded: “To summarise, in the light of what has been stated, the conclusion which we reach is that the Northern Areas are a part of Jammu and Kashmir State but are not a part of Azad Jammu and Kashmir, as defined in the Interim Constitution Act, 1974.” On May 28, 1999, the Supreme Court of Pakistan ruled that “the people of Northern Areas are citizens of Pakistan”.

The Sheikh’s indictment

“Mr Bhutto, you are wailing about the right of self-determination for the people of Jammu and Kashmir, but what about the fate of 1.5 million people in occupied Kashmir who have been denied basic rights and are suffering for long?” Sheikh Abdullah asked at a rally in Srinagar on March 2, 1975. His indictment is unanswerable. In truth, after the Simla Agreement of 1972, Bhutto confirmed suspicions of a tacit accord on partition when, on September 25, 1974, he formally annexed Hunza to Pakistan. Zia-ul-Haq went further. He nominated three observers from the Northern Areas to the Majlis-e-Shoora and claimed they were part of Pakistan. Indian correspondents drew conflicting explanations from him. They were told that Gilgit, Hunza and Skardu were parts of Pakistan, not disputed territories. This drew a strong and identical reaction from both parts of Kashmir.

Sheikh Abdullah’s government issued a White Paper in May 1982 entitled “Statement of Facts: Gilgit, Hunza, Yasin, Ponial, Chitral and Skardu”. It cited authoritative material, with a bibliography and a map, to establish convincingly that these areas have from time immemorial formed integral parts of the State of Jammu and Kashmir.

On June 3, 1982, Azad Kashmir leader Sardar Mohammed Ibrahim challenged Zia’s assertion. With characteristic guile, Zia backtracked. He told an Indian journalist that the “Northern Areas and Kashmir are disputed territories and we accept them as such. Period. We do not accept them as part of Pakistan; otherwise the whole battle is lost. How can we talk about Kashmir and the U.N. and things like that?” It was a tactical retreat. To another journalist, Zia complained he had not been correctly reported and asserted, once again, that while Kashmir is a disputed area, not so the Northern Areas, Gilgit, Hunza. He went further: When reminded that these were part of Kashmir, Zia retorted: “May be it [sic] was part of Kashmir when Kashmir was Kashmir. Today, we don’t accept.”

Northern Areas parameters

The High Court had defined the Northern Areas carefully. The State of Jammu and Kashmir was divided into four provinces—Jammu, Kashmir, Ladakh and Gilgit and Frontier Ilaqas (areas). The Frontier Ilaqas comprised Hunza, Nagar, Punial, Yasin, Kuh, Ghizar, Ishkoman and Chilas. Gilgit was leased to the British by the Maharaja of Kashmir on March 26, 1935, and recovered on August 1, 1947.

Gilgit, Baltistan and former Frontier Ilaqas were designated as “Northern Areas”, with an area of 63,553 square miles and a population that some estimate at 1.5 million. Baltistan is basically the district of Skardu. Administratively, Pakistan has split the Northern Areas into the districts of Gilgit, Diamer, Skardu, Ghizar and Chilas.

The White Paper of the government of Kashmir is obviously written by a historian. It is rich in details. For instance: “Skardu fell to Pakistani raiders on 14 August 1948. Uptill then it was ruled by the government headed by Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, which was appointed by Maharaja in March 1948. The last Wazir Wazarat of Skardu was an officer from Jammu, Mr Amar Nath Pragal. He was brutally killed by the invaders and the district treasury ransacked, which even at that time contained ninety thousand and odd rupees in Indian currency. The local administration was mostly manned by officials hailing from Jammu and Kashmir provinces. Many of them managed to escape; a number of them were taken prisoners. These were to return only after an exchange of political prisoners between India and Pakistan and were absorbed in State government cadres.”

Kashmiris have objected unanimously to Pakistan’s move to make Gilgit-Baltistan one of its provinces. Rather late in the day they have discovered that Pakistan’s interests are different from those of Kashmir. The Palestinians discovered that of the Arab states. In 1949, Zafrullah Khan insisted on the exclusion of independence as an option for Kashmir.

Kashmiris must shed illusions and face the realities. They must evolve a peaceful strategy of a movement that shuns dharnas and closures and relies on effective, powerful protests. This will earn them much goodwill and political strength.

For India and Pakistan, too, the best course is to accept the realities and try to remove their curbs by allowing the people in both parts of the State a say on their future. The Four Point Plan is still relevant. It is the only solution: withdraw the troops from the borders; allow free movement of people, material and literature across the Line of Control; grant self-rule ( azadi) to both parts of Kashmir; and have the mechanism already agreed between India and Pakistan for coordination and cooperation.

West Bengal

Trinamool leaders face corruption probe

the-nation

THE Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) set the ball rolling in the Narada sting case on April 17 when it registered a first information report (FIR) against 13 persons, including 12 top Trinamool Congress leaders who were caught accepting cash on camera in the operation carried out by the news portal Narada News and made public in 2016.

Among them are some of the biggest names in the party, including MPs Saugata Roy, Sultan Ahmed, Kakoli Ghosh Dastidar, Prasun Banerjee and Aparupa Poddar; Cabinet Ministers Firhad Hakim, Subrata Mukherjee, Suvendu Adhikari and Sovan Chatterjee (who is also the Mayor of the Calcutta Municipal Corporation); MLA Iqbal Ahmed; and former Minister Madan Mitra. An Indian Police Service officer, Syed Hussain Meerza, is also among the accused. Meerza, the then Superintendent of Police of Bardhaman district, was shown in a video clip accepting cash on behalf of Trinamool heavyweight Mukul Roy.

The sting was carried out just before the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and was made public in 2016, days ahead of the Assembly elections.

On March 17 this year, exactly a month before the FIR was lodged, a Division Bench of the Calcutta High Court directed the CBI to conduct a preliminary enquiry into the case. “CBI conducted the Preliminary Enquiry into the said allegations expeditiously. Enquiry revealed prima facie material for registration of a Regular Case (FIR) under appropriate sections of Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988, and IPC,” said the CBI in its official statement. The charges were framed under Sections 7 and 13(2) read with 13(1)(a) & (d) of the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988; and Section 120(B) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), dealing with criminal conspiracy.

Though Chief Minister and Trinamool supremo Mamata Banerjee called the FIRs a “political game”, sources in the Trinamool admitted that the situation was “worrying” for the party. In January, the party received a severe blow to its image when Trinamool MPs Sudip Bandopadhyay, who is a close aide of Mamata Banerjee, and Tapas Paul were arrested in connection with the Rs.17,000-crore Rose Valley Deposit Collection scam. From the time the multi-crore Saradha (deposit collection) scam broke in the State in 2013, for which several top Trinamool leaders, including two Rajya Sabha members and a senior Cabinet Minister, were put behind bars, the Trinamool Congress has been reeling under repeated charges of corruption at the top level.

After the latest setback, the leadership is putting a brave front on it. Transport Minister Suvendu Adhikari (himself an accused in the case), said: “This is not a case of corruption, but of conspiracy. It was a plot hatched just before the Assembly elections [2016] to overthrow the Trinamool government, but in spite of this we still won by margins of 30,000 to 80,000 votes.” However, there is concern among the party’s rank and file.

One party worker told Frontline: “If once more our top leaders are put in prison one after another, it will get increasingly difficult for us to reach out to the people and convince them during the time of elections. Such things are hard to live down and can negate all the good work the party has done for the people over the years.”

Suhrid Sankar Chattopadhyay

Prenatal sex determination

Bizarre solution

LYLA BAVADAM the-nation

THE Budget session of the Maharashtra legislature touched two ends of the moral spectrum. At the progressive end was a new law that accorded the media some degree of protection. At the other end was a dubious proposition to make sex determination tests mandatory.

There was outrage when the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) of the Legislative Assembly suggested making prenatal sex determination and the tracking of pregnant women mandatory as a means of preventing sex selection and ending female foeticide. Aware of the existence of illegal sex determination and abortion clinics but seemingly unable to purge them from the system, the government had been considering various options. It was finally forced to act by the discovery of abandoned female foetuses at Mhaisal village near Sangli in March.

The foetuses were unearthed when the police acted on a complaint filed by the parents of Swati Jamdade, who died on February 28 when she was undergoing a medical abortion at a hospital run by a homoeopath, Babasaheb Khidrapure. Swati Jamdade, who was expecting her third child, decided to have her pregnancy screened to check the baby’s gender. When she was told that she was going to have a girl again, she and her husband opted for medical termination of pregnancy. Her parents complained to the police that their daughter was forced by her husband to undergo the procedure after the sonography scan had revealed a female foetus. A case was registered against the doctor and the hospital staff. Five days into the investigation, the police found 19 bags with what is medically termed as “products of conception”—foetuses, placental material and tissue matter from fertilised ova. The 19 female foetuses were found wrapped crudely and dumped near the hospital.

The disturbing part of the findings is that it took the death of a woman for the illegal activity of sex selection screening centres to come to light. It is not difficult to deduce that hundreds of women may have survived the abortion of unwanted female foetuses, thus encouraging the network of such centres and back-room abortionists to flourish. The government reacted to the Mhaisal foetus scandal by merely referring the issue to the PAC. The PAC’s solution was to legalise the operation.

The PAC’s 23-member panel, headed by Gopaldas Agrawal of the Congress, proposed that sex determination tests be done when parents come for a sonography and that the pregnant women be tracked regularly to check if they are coming for tests and especially so if the sonography reveals the foetus to be a female.

The panel report said: “When parents come for sonography, compulsory sex determination must be allowed and follow-ups must be done at the local level to ensure that the couples come for further check-ups. It is necessary to visit these couples at home if they stop check-ups.”

The report called for bringing parents under the purview of the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (Regulation and Prevention of Misuse) Act, (PCPNDT), 1994. The committee recommended that local health officials should keep tabs on pregnant women to check female foeticide.

The panel’s suggestion seems to be based on the simple assumption that once it is established that a woman is carrying a girl child and she and her family know that she is on the state’s radar, there is less chance of any attempt to abort the foetus.

Apart from the fact that there is only one woman on the panel, there is much else that is wrong with the suggestion. It is intrusive and violates the privacy of the woman and her family. The woman becomes open to scrutiny by unscrupulous medical professionals and government health officials. The law takes away the responsibility from doctors who run sonography clinics. More than anything else, it infringes upon the PCPNDT Act. The Act was enacted to stop female foeticide, prevent declining sex ratios and, more importantly, ban prenatal sex determination tests.

More than a 100 activists and groups such as the Forum Against Sex Selection, the Akhil Bharatiya Janwadi Mahila Sanghatana, the Mahila Sarvgrameen Utkarsh Mandal, the Forum for Medical Ethics Society, the Forum Against Oppression of Women, the Jan Swasthya Abhiyan-Mumbai and the Maharashtra Mahila Arogya Hakka Parishad have opposed the PAC’s proposal.

Kamayani Bali Mahabal, the advocate-activist belonging to the Forum Against Sex Selection, said in a statement: “These recommendations are grossly violative of the PCPNDT Act and will impinge upon the MTP [Medical Termination of Pregnancy] Act as well. It is ironical that such a recommendation is being made in Maharashtra, which pioneered the law to curb sex selection after a long campaign by women and health activists that linked the use of sex-selection and sex-detection technologies to gender-based discrimination and thereafter to the declining child sex ratio in India.”

The panel appears to be of the view that turning its recommendations into law would make parents more accountable.

The report reads: “Since the law only provides for action against doctors (for carrying out sex selection tests), there is no fear of the law among parents. But this fear of law among parents is necessary to increase the sex ratio. Doctors, parents, district health officers [DHOs] and NGOs must be involved in the tracking system.” That is just a euphemistic way of shifting the onus onto the woman and absolving doctors. The woman and her family will be hounded by the authorities. In fact, underscoring the fact that many pregnant women did not have autonomy over their pregnancies, amendments to the PCPNDT Act in 2003 kept the pregnant woman out of the scope of the Act. Kamayani Bali Mahabal said: “This new proposal will only result in a 24-hour surveillance of pregnant women both within the family and by the state authorities.”

Informed decision

The right of women to make an informed decision about their pregnancies will also come under fire if the panel’s suggestion is accepted. Kamayani Bali Mahabal pointed out: “[The authorities] will unnecessarily target every woman bearing a female foetus, and will link any abortion that such a woman has (for any reason) to sex selection. This will adversely impact women’s already poor access to safe abortion. It will fuel a proliferation of illegal facilities for getting rid of unwanted female foetuses.”

Interrogation of Khidrapure, who was arrested on March 7, revealed that he was part of a larger network covering Maharashtra and Karnataka. He had been associated with this group of medical professionals and corrupt government officials since 2009. In fact, even before the news broke about Khidrapure’s abortion clinic located in the border district of Sangli, there was a raid on an illegal clinic in the border district of Kolhapur in February.

If the Maharashtra government accepts the suggestion, it will be that much easier for the criminal activity to flourish. Couples from Karnataka—where there is no move to make sex selection mandatory—desperate for a male child, could easily cross the border to determine the child’s gender in the neighbouring State. This is likely to open a new line of revenue generation for prenatal diagnostic clinics.

In order to bolster the case for implementation of its suggestion, the panel said that 550 cases registered under the PCPNDT Act were pending in courts in the State. Its thinking seems to be that the existing Act has no power, but the fact is that the majority (330) of the cases were filed between 2011 and 2012 after the expose of an extensive illegal sex selection and abortion racket in Beed district in a clinic run by Drs Sudam and Saraswati Munde. This proves that the PCPNDT Act does have teeth and only requires proper implementation. This fact has found support from the Shiv Sena, which has taken an open stand against the panel’s suggestion.

The panel noted that “the sex ratio in Maharashtra in 2010 was 854 girls per 1,000 boys. It went up to 861 in 2011 and 919 in 2014.” The figures prove that the existing Act has been effective and only needs stringent implementation and not any modification or addition.

It is interesting to see gender selection in a global perspective. Population First, the advocacy and communications group which states that one of its key objectives is to help eliminate the falling sex ratio in India’s population, explains in a 2014 report:

“Worldwide, the natural ‘sex ratio at birth’ is 105. This means that at birth, there are 105 males born for every 100 females. The sex ratio at birth is usually expressed as the number of boys born alive per 100 girls born alive. Nature provides that the number of boys born is slightly more than the number of girls, owing to greater biological vulnerability of the male child. Sex Ratio at Birth: China 118, India 109, Pakistan 106, Bangladesh 104.9, Singapore 107, South Korea 106, Vietnam 111, Azerbaijan 116.5, Armenia 114.9, Georgia 113.6, Albania 111.7, Montenegro 109.8. These figures point at the proportion of deficit in female births, indicating that prenatal sex selection has become increasingly a global phenomenon. (Source: “Sex-ratio imbalance in Asia: Trends, Consequences and Policy Responses”, Christophe Z Guilmoto, UNFPA). Across the globe, UNFPA [United Nations Population Fund] estimates a total gender gap of 117 million women missing in 2010, most of them from China and India. In India, the 2011 Census found about 7.1 million fewer girls than boys under the age of six as against a deficit of 6 million girls in 2001. The UNFPA estimates that 30 per cent of the women in India resort to sex selection for their last birth in absence of a previous male child. As per Census 2011, the all India child sex ratio (0-6 age group) is 914:1000, an all time low in last 50 years.”

Implementing the PAC panel’s suggestion will amount to victimisation of women. Stringent implementation of the PCPNDT Act is the answer to preventing gender-selective abortions.

Investigation into student's death

Struggle for justice

On January 6, Jishnu Pranoy, a 17-year-old engineering student, died under mysterious circumstances at the Nehru College of Engineering and Research Centre, Pampadi, in Kerala’s Thrissur district.

The authorities of the self-financing engineering college said that he had committed suicide after being caught cheating at the university semester examinations. However, the circumstances of his death and statements of fellow students and family members suggested that it could well have been a case of death owing to harassment and torture by some college authorities who were peeved at Jishnu’s activist role on campus. In one instance, he had reportedly protested against the rescheduling of examination dates and had sought the intervention of the leaders of the Students’ Federation of India (SFI) although student union activities were banned in the college, apart from writing Facebook posts and complaining to the university authorities. One of his posts that went viral after his death was about his admiration for Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan. Fellow students said that Jishnu had told them the day he was summoned to the vice-principal’s room that the authorities had, among other things, told him that he was going to be debarred from writing examinations.

Students of the college, irrespective of political affiliation, began an agitation on January 10 claiming that Jishnu had died because of harassment and torture by the college authorities. Soon the government announced a compensation of Rs.10 lakh to Jishnu’s family, whose members were known Communist Party of India (Marxist) sympathisers from a small village near Vadakara in Kozhikode district. When complaints of haphazard police inquiry became shrill, the local officer who was in charge of the inquiry was removed. The government even appointed a well-known lawyer as special prosecutor on a request from Jishnu’s family. Then the inquiry went cold. The first accused was the college chairman, P. Krishnadas, a politically influential businessman who runs the Nehru group of institutions, which includes 19 colleges offering engineering, medical, nursing, pharmacy and law degrees. The majority of the institutions run by the group are in Tamil Nadu and the rest in Kerala. The other four accused included the college’s public relations officer and former Congress Minister K.P. Viswanathan’s son Sanjith Viswanathan, vice-principal N.K. Sakthivel, teacher C.P. Praveen and college employee Dipin.

The police showed much reluctance in arresting the accused, claiming that their whereabouts could not be traced. But after a prolonged student agitation, campaigns in social media and the media’s focus on the issue, cases were registered against members of the college management and teachers.

The first information report (FIR) in the case was filed only over a month after Jishnu’s death. Despite mounting protests, Krishnadas and Sanjith were arrested only on April 3 and 4 respectively, significantly, after they had obtained anticipatory bail. Jishnu’s mother Mahija, father Asokan and uncle Sreejith (an employee at Deshabhimani, the CPI(M)’s organ) had been alleging that the police knew very well where they had been hiding until then and had been seeking the Chief Minister’s intervention to speed up the case.

April 5 became a crucial day with regard to the case. The Left Democratic Front (LDF) government was getting ready for the inauguration of the 60th anniversary celebrations of Kerala’s first Communist government, led by E.M.S. Namboodiripad. Newspapers that day carried articles by LDF leaders of the many measures taken by the first communist government that led to the creation of a new Kerala. One of them was to ensure human rights and build a humane police force that was no longer the hand of oppression and torture that it was during British rule.

But it was also the day Jishnu’s parents and relatives and some of his neighbours and friends from Vadakara chose to travel to Thiruvananthapuram to launch an agitation before the office of the Director General of Police (DGP) demanding the arrest of all those who were responsible for his death. Before launching the agitation, they had sought an appointment with the DGP, Loknath Behra, who had reportedly told them at a meeting at the Kerala House in New Delhi on March 26 that they should give the police some more time, at least until April 4, before starting an agitation. But the meeting did not take place, with the police insisting that only six members of the group would be allowed to meet the DGP, and Mahija and others reportedly demanding that more people be allowed.

The entire State watched in stunned silence as television channels aired visuals of the police trying to prevent Jishnu’s mother, relatives and the small group that came with them from entering the DGP’s office, and later, as they began to protest and a scuffle ensued, being subjected to vicious police action. Jishnu’s mother, Mahija, fell down, allegedly after being targeted by an officer from the local station. Many were dragged and hauled into police vans. Mahija and a few others were taken to hospital, and the entire group from Kozhikode was soon released without any charges.

It became clear later that though the police had let off Mahija and her group, they had taken into custody five others from the scene of protest. Among them were activists from the Socialist Unity Centre of India (Communist), or SUCI, M. Shajir Khan, his wife Mini, their friend Sreekumar, the public activist and former Chief Minister V.S. Achuthanandan’s additional private secretary K.M. Shahjahan, and the self-proclaimed godman Himaval Bhadrananda (also known as “Thokku (gun) Swami” after an incident in 2008 when a gun he was waving around while threatening to shoot himself at a police station in Aluva went off accidentally). According to media reports, all five were taken around the city in a police vehicle for hours; their arrest was registered much later; and they were finally jailed early morning the next day.

Shajir Khan is a known SUCI activist and State secretary of the Save Education Forum, which has a history of campaigns against self-financing colleges and other issues in the State’s education sector. SUCI members had been in touch with the student agitators in Jishnu’s college and with Mahija and her relatives from the day of his death and, according to the family members, “were close to them as individuals, not as representatives of any organisation”. They were there to help Mahija and her relatives; they had booked hotel rooms for them in Thiruvananthapuram and had accompanied them as they marched to the DGP’s office. Mahija and Sreejith repeatedly told the media that Shajir Khan, Mini and Sreekumar played no role in the agitation and were there merely to offer support. They also said that they did not know Shahjahan or Himaval Bhadrananda earlier.

As additional private secretary to the then Opposition Leader, Shahjahan was for a long time Achuthanandan’s close confidant and had played a key role in managing many of the leader’s popular political campaigns. He became a victim of rivalry within the State CPI(M) and at one point was expelled from the party on charges of leaking news to the media relating to the party’s Malappuram party conference in 2006. Since then he has kept his distance from Achuthanandan but actively involved himself in public and political causes and as a political commentator. He is also an employee of the State-run Centre for Imaging Technology (C-DiT). He is currently on leave and is studying law at the Law College in Thiruvananthapuram.

Nobody knew why Himaval Bhadrananda was at the scene of the protest until he disclosed that he had fixed an appointment to meet the DGP around the same time. But he too was arrested, allegedly as an afterthought.

No doubt the police action in Thiruvananthapuram turned out to be a public relations disaster for the State government. Political Kerala did not take kindly to the clumsy and baffling handling of the issue by the government. On the one hand, there was widespread public opinion against the use of force against Mahija and her group and the way the grieving protesters were treated during the police action; on the other, Kerala also began debating the serious implications of the arrest of the four activists and the imposition of non-bailable offences on them merely for their public support to a mother who was demanding the arrest of the people responsible for the death of her only son.

Soon after the police action, as Mahija, her brother Sreejith and some other relatives announced they were beginning an indefinite fast at the hospital until all the accused were arrested, and Mahija’s daughter too began a similar fast at their home in Kozhikode, the opposition United Democratic Front (UDF) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) called for a State-wide hartal. The response to the hartal call was near total. Among the people who criticised the police action were leaders of the CPI(M) and the LDF coalition too, prominent among them CPI(M) Polit Bureau member M.A. Baby, Achuthanandan and CPI State secretary Kanam Rajendran.

The government took the unprecedented step of issuing an advertisement in all major newspapers titled “Jishnu Case: What is the campaign? What is the truth?”, which comprised a 14-point statement explaining in general the government’s diligence and seriousness in the handling of the case from the beginning; justifying the police action; denying the use of force against Mahija; and alleging that some elements were trying to create trouble in society utilising the pain of a family grieving for their son. As protests mounted, on the eve of a crucial parliamentary byelection in Malappuram, the CPI(M) State secretariat too issued a statement that the police had acted in accordance with the LDF government’s policy.

But Jishnu’s family rejected the government’s claims and continued their fast for five days, until hectic parleys by government emissaries resulted in a 10-point agreement being prepared and the Chief Minister calling Mahija over phone and assuring her that all those responsible for Jishnu’s death would be arrested soon. The same day, N.K. Sakthivel was arrested near Coimbatore.

As per the agreement, the government would review whether the police inquiry into Jishnu’s death was flawed as was being alleged and whether there were errors in the post-mortem report. It would also review reports for the Chief Minister to take a final decision on erring police officers involved in the incidents in front of the DGP’s office. The team inquiring into Jishnu’s death would be strengthened.

Since the third accused had also been arrested, it was also agreed that the agitation would be suspended. Jishnu’s family also reiterated in the agreement that only their family members and friends had participated in the protest before the DGP’s office; that Shajir Khan, Mini, and Sreekumar had no role in it and were there merely to help them; and that they did not know Shahjahan or Himaval Bhadrananda earlier or how they happened to be near the DGP’s office on that day.

Meanwhile, Shahjahan’s mother, L. Thankamma, started a “fast unto death” at her residence demanding the release of her son. She alleged that Pinarayi Vijayan was trying to wreak vengeance on her son for his efforts to bring out the truth in the Lavalin corruption case and expose the Chief Minister’s role in it. She said there was a conspiracy behind the arrest of her son, a public activist, who had merely offered his support and empathy to Mahija’s struggle, and an attempt to insult him by bracketing him along with a person like Himaval Bhadrananda.

Although Jishnu’s family ended its struggle, the travails of Shahjahan, Shajir Khan, Mini, Sreekumar and Himaval Bhadrananda continued for seven days. All of them had been taken into custody on charges of criminal conspiracy. A Judicial First Class Magistrate’s court eventually let them off on bail on April 11, rejecting the government’s plea against it.

Other charges against them included unlawful assembly and obstruction of duty of the police. The police had also earlier sought them under their custody for a day, but the court had merely allowed them to be questioned only for a few hours. Shahjahan, who is studying law, had to appear for his semester examination from jail; he was also suspended from government service as he had remained in custody for over 48 hours.

The issue has now snowballed into a major political controversy, with people from all walks of life coming out with statements against the police action on Jishnu’s family, the arrest of the activists and the imposition of charges of criminal conspiracy against them.

It has also intensified the war of words between the leaders of the CPI(M) and the CPI, key partners in the LDF government, over several such policy and governance issues. These include the death of four Maoists in police action in the Nilambur forests; the imposition of Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, or UAPA, on public activists and their arrest on the basis of the law; the government’s stand before the High Court on whether the provisions of the Right to Information Act are applicable to Cabinet decisions as soon as they are made; and the government’s response in the case filed by the relatives of the well-known naxalite, Varghese, seeking compensation for his death in a fake police encounter that took place in the 1970s.

In all such issues, an unusually assertive CPI leadership has been claiming that the State government was deviating from the well-established positions of the Left movement and that the CPI(M) leadership had, in turn, been warning them not to act like they are in the opposition or give a handle to the opposition to attack the government.

In the end, Kerala seemed as surprised by the moral and political strength that the unusual struggle by Jishnu’s mother and her relatives gained in such a short time and the goodwill and empathy they got from across the State as it was by the jarring and puzzling response of the police and the failure of the government to uphold democratic principles in its treatment of a handful of activists who took part in the struggle of a grieving family.

The State is now compelled to look closely at the progress of the investigation into Jishnu’s death and the fate of the activists who tried to offer support to Mahija’s struggle. It has already become a bumpy ride for the 11-month-old LDF government in the State.

Politics

Saffron strategy for Odisha

Prafulla Das politics

AFTER its impressive performance in the Odisha panchayat elections in February, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is currently drawing up plans to take on the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) and conquer Odisha. The party held a two-day national executive meeting in Bhubaneswar in mid April, which boosted the morale of the party cadre. The Varanasi-like road show by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the State capital, which was attended mostly by BJP workers from all over the State, was hyped by the saffron party with the help of a section of the media. Television channels and newspapers have been creating the impression that the party cannot wait to contest the elections in 2019.

In its efforts to make its presence felt in the 36,000 polling booths, the BJP has announced its plans to make Odisha the laboratory of welfare schemes for the poor. The implementation of the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana is being accorded top priority to take the Modi government’s message to more rural areas in the State.

The BJP, which has a strong presence in the interior parts of the State, has also started the process of strengthening its base in the coastal regions, where it fared relatively well in the local body elections in some districts such as Khurda and Kendrapara. It has already tried to strike a chord with the people of Odisha with Modi felicitating the descendants of martyrs of the Paika rebellion during his two-day visit to attend the national executive meet.

Drawing up strategies to woo voters ahead of elections is nothing new, but any party needs workers at the grass-roots level to effectively implement them, which the BJP does not have in the State although it won nearly 300 zilla parishad seats out of 846 in this year’s local body elections compared with just 36 in 2012.

It is common knowledge that the BJP fared better than the Congress, which bagged only 60 zilla parishad seats compared with 128 in 2012, primarily because most senior Congress leaders wanted their party to win fewer zilla parishad seats so that they could approach their high command for the removal of Odisha Pradesh Congress Committee president Prasad Harichandan from his post. Congress zilla parishad candidates contesting under the party symbol lost in several places even though the sarpanch and samiti member candidates supported by the party were successful in those very areas.

Some 16 Congress legislators led by the Leader of the Opposition, Narasingha Mishra, backed by several senior party leaders, have been trying hard to oust Harichandan since last year.

The Congress, which has been out of power since 2000, can only emerge stronger if it gets a new leader who enjoys the support of his colleagues. And if the Congress manages to improve its performance by getting back to form by 2019, it could hurt the BJP more than the BJD.

Even though it may not come to power in Odisha in 2019, the Congress can still spoil the BJP’s chances and indirectly help the BJD in the triangular contests that are on the cards for all 21 Lok Sabha and 147 Assembly constituencies. The BJD, if it remains united, will emerge victorious even if the BJP moves ahead of the Congress, as it did in the recent local body elections.

Although the Congress has been fighting the BJD since 2000, the lack of unity among Congress leaders has been detrimental to the party’s growth. Congress workers eager for a change in government in the State will have no option but to join the BJP if their leaders do not unite and give the ruling party a tough fight.

Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik has already created a record as the longest-serving Chief Minister of the State. The BJP can win a majority in Odisha only if the BJD crumbles and that is highly unlikely in the current scenario.

The BJP’s apparent bid to create a division in the BJD Parliamentary Party has been averted following a tweet war between two of the regional party’s Lok Sabha members, Tathagata Satpathy and Baijayant Panda, recently. As Panda now stands exposed as the lone BJP sympathiser within the BJD, Naveen Patnaik has started reworking his strategies to remain ahead of both the national parties.

Realising that fissures were seen in his party organisation at the grass-roots level and anti-incumbency was noticed in some areas during the recent elections, the Chief Minister has already changed the leadership in both the students’ wing and the youth wing to infuse new vigour.

He has also appointed a senior Indian Police Service (IPS) officer as an officer on special duty to improve the functioning of his office.

In a dramatic shift in his style of working, Patnaik has started to reach out to the people at large, from going out to buy books at a city bookshop to felicitating a six-year-old girl named Tiki, who displayed exemplary courage to save her sister from the jaws of a crocodile, and taking a picture with her.

Even as his party won 56 per cent of the zilla parishad seats, Patnaik has started interacting with the BJD’s newly elected local body representatives from different districts at the party headquarters in Bhubaneswar in the presence of the party’s sitting legislators and prominent leaders from those districts. He is trying to strengthen the party organisation by ensuring proper implementation of various welfare schemes at the grass-roots level.

The BJD, which is named after Naveen Patnaik’s father and former Chief Minister Biju Patnaik, is keeping his legacy alive by naming several welfare schemes after him in order to retain its State-wide clout.

The BJP has the backing of many organisations that the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) has been running in the State. It is also inducting leaders from rival parties and prominent personalities from different walks of life to gain strength.

A crucial test of the BJP’s rise in strength would be the elections to the urban local bodies to be held in the State next year. The BJD emerged stronger in urban areas in 2013 as poor and working class people supported it for some of the State government’s welfare schemes.

As on date, the BJD is sitting comfortably. Patnaik continues to maintain his clean image despite his popularity taking a minor hit recently. He may well steer his party to success in 2019 too if he manages to keep his party and support base together.

Ayodhya

Time for trial

“JUSTICE delayed is justice denied,” but sometimes it is better late than never, as in the case of the December 6, 1992, demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya by thousands of frenzied kar sevaks gone berserk, which unleashed one of the most horrendous bouts of communal riots in the country. More shocking, perhaps, is the fact that in all these years not one individual who had been at the forefront of the Ram Mandir movement had been held guilty. The masterminds of the entire episode had got off scot-free, seemingly cocking a snook at the rule of law. In the eyes of the people at large, it was the most despicable mockery of the rule of law because the perpetrators of the crime escaped prosecution, with their influence in the corridors of power seemingly providing them immunity. They went on to become Union Ministers, and in the case of the BJP patriarch L.K. Advani, even Deputy Prime Minister.

Rath yatra

But even if it is 25 years late, the political life of Advani more than anybody else has come full circle with the Supreme Court ordering that he and other BJP leaders such as Murli Manohar Joshi, Vinay Katiyar and Uma Bharati, besides some Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Shiv Sena leaders, be tried for criminal conspiracy in the demolition of the Babri Masjid. It was Advani who took the BJP to its dizzying heights of success by stoking the communal fire as he travelled across the country in his rath in 1990-91, a journey that culminated in the demolition of the Babri Masjid.

It was a crime that shook the very foundation of Indian jurisprudence because the BJP had given solemn affidavits in various forums affirming its commitment to protect the disputed shrine even as a shrill political movement was being woven around it. Though it was a Congress government at the Centre then, Uttar Pradesh was under BJP rule, with Kalyan Singh, now Governor of Rajasthan, as Chief Minister. He had given a commitment in the meeting of the National Integration Council and even filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court that no harm would come to the disputed structure. But on December 6, 1992, the day anointed for kar se v a at the disputed site in Ayodhya, he seemed to have forgotten all his commitments and allowed kar se v aks a free hand to pull the structure down. Senior leaders such as Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi and Uma Bharati were present at the spot but did nothing to control the mob. The State government not only remained a mute spectator, but actually abetted the crime by obstructing the Central forces deployed around Ayodhya from reaching the spot. Though Kalyan Singh has since faced a symbolic punishment—his government was dismissed and he served a one-day jail term—other senior BJP, VHP and Shiv Sena leaders managed to circumvent the rule of law because successive BJP governments at the Centre and in the State manipulated the rules to ensure their freedom.

Supreme Court strikes

But the latest Supreme Court order seeks to do justice now. On April 19, 2017, the Supreme Court, hearing a plea by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and Haji Mahmood Ahmad, ordered the CBI to initiate trial against Advani, Joshi, Uma Bharati and others for criminal conspiracy that led to the demolition of the Babri Masjid. In 2001, a special CBI court in Rae Bareli and in 2010 the Allahabad High Court had allowed the dropping of criminal conspiracy charges against these leaders. This meant that the Babri Masjid demolition case would go on against the hordes of unnamed kar sevaks and government officials only, while the political masterminds were let off.

While passing the order, the Supreme Court bench of Justices P.C. Ghose and R.F. Nariman said charges of such grave nature could not be allowed to be dropped because of petty technical errors that could have been cured easily but were not cured. “In the present case, crimes which shake the secular fabric of India have allegedly been committed almost 25 years ago. The accused persons have not been brought to book largely because of the conduct of the CBI in not pursuing the prosecution of the aforesaid alleged offenders in a joint trial, and because of technical defects which were easily curable but which were not cured by the State government,” the bench said.

They ordered that the separate trials being conducted in trial courts at Rae Bareli and Lucknow be clubbed and conducted in the capital of Uttar Pradesh, and directed that the trial be completed in two years with the hearing to be held on a daily basis. The bench also ruled that there would be no fresh trial because of the framing of charges against senior BJP leaders. However, they said Kalyan Singh, who enjoyed constitutional immunity as Rajasthan Governor, could be tried only after he demitted office.

No adjournment

The court said on no grounds would the trial be adjourned. It further stated that the judges presiding over the case would not be transferred until the trial was concluded and the judgment pronounced. It directed the CBI to ensure that prosecution witnesses appeared on each and every date for recording of evidence in the case and said the trial court should start the proceedings within four weeks from the date of this order.

Besides Advani, Joshi and Uma Bharati, those who face criminal conspiracy charges include Sadhvi Rithambara; BJP leader Vinay Katiyar; VHP leaders Vishnu Hari Dalmia, Champat Rai Bansal and B.L. Sharma; VHP activists Satish Pradhan and Dr Satish Chandra Nagar, and the sants Ram Vilas Vedanti, Dharam Das, Mahant Nritya Gopal Das and Mahamandleshwar Jagdish Muni. While Kalyan Singh enjoys immunity, those who face charges but are deceased now include the Shiv Sena’s Balasaheb Thackeray, Moreshwar Save, Mahant Avaidyanath, Paramhans Ramchandra Das, Acharya Giriraj Kishore and Ashok Singhal.

The reprieve in 2001

The matter reached the apex court after the special trial court, in May 2001, dropped criminal conspiracy charges against 21 persons, including Advani, Joshi and Uma Bharati, on technical grounds ( Frontline, June 8, 2001). The special trial court dropped the charges after the Allahabad High Court, in February 2001, quashed a notification of the State government for handing over the case to a special CBI court on the grounds that it had been issued without the High Court’s permission. The High Court had asked the State government to rectify this error by issuing a fresh notification within three months, which the State government, then headed by Rajnath Singh, now Union Home Minister, refused to do. This resulted in the trial court dropping criminal conspiracy charges against 21 accused, including Advani, Joshi and Uma Bharati, and proceeding with the trial of 26 others.

“It is not the State government’s jurisdiction to decide whom to prosecute in this matter since the case has been handed over to the CBI. Investigation and prosecution in this case is purely the CBI’s prerogative,” Rajnath Singh had said then. He had asked why the State government should issue a fresh notification on its own, particularly when there had been no request for it from the CBI. Rajnath Singh had said the opposition in the State was unnecessarily making an issue out of a non-issue because the government had no role to play in this matter.

The fact, however, remained that the CBI’s request to the State government through the Union Home Ministry to take “appropriate action” in the matter had gone unheeded. Sources in the CBI had told Frontline at that time that it had written to the State government in the third week of February for appropriate action (issue of a fresh notification). The turn of events had then caused jubilation in the BJP camp. Speaking to journalists in Delhi, Rajnath Singh had said: “The Prime Minister [A.B. Vajpayee] is so happy, he congratulated me.”

The CBI had subsequently filed an appeal in the Allahabad High Court, which in May 2010 upheld the trial court’s order. The CBI then approached the Supreme Court, which delivered its verdict on April 19, 2017, paving the way for the trial of senior BJP and VHP leaders who were the masterminds of the entire sordid saga.

Interestingly, in a quirky turn of events, the BJP has tried to remain neutral to the development, but those who were considered his political foes have turned sympathetic towards Advani.

BJP reaction

The BJP’s reaction speaks volumes about the changed political dynamics of the party. In 2001, BJP governments at the Centre and in the State bent over backwards to shield its senior leaders from facing criminal charges. This time, however, even though there are BJP governments again at the Centre and in Uttar Pradesh, the reaction has been totally the opposite. Though the government has ruled out the resignations of either Uma Bharati, now a Union Minister, or Kalyan Singh, no attempt has been made to shield or protect anybody.

“The case has been going on since 1993 in some form or the other and no material shift has taken place at this stage,” said Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, while ruling out any resignations. The party has also failed to come out in support of its senior leaders or spell out any strategy to defend them politically. “We respect them and stand by them. We are confident that there was no conspiracy involved and are sure our leaders will come out unscathed. We are of the view that they should face the trial and are hopeful they will be acquitted. The law should take its own course, ” said party spokesman G.V.L. Narasimha Rao.

Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh, who as Chief Minister allowed the dropping of charges against Advani, Joshi, Bharati and others, refused to comment on the situation. “Please leave me out of this. I will not say anything on this issue,” he told Frontline on April 21.

The fact, however, remains that the party is secretly celebrating the apex court’s order because it will now keep the Hindutva pot boiling without any effort from its side and also keep the Ram mandir agenda alive. Party insiders told Frontline that they were happy that the case had come up now and had to be completed in two years’ time with hearing every day. “Imagine the contours of the political dialogue that will follow when the trial proceedings are reported on a daily basis. The case could not have cropped up at a more opportune time. The next general election would have arrived by then. Whichever way the verdict goes, it will be in our favour. If they are acquitted, we will be vindicated in our stand that there was no conspiracy involved in the demolition. If not, then also we gain. Can you imagine what will be the impact if Advaniji is arrested, for example?” said a senior BJP leader at the party headquarters here who did not want to be named.

Advani’s staunch political opponents such as Lalu Prasad and Mulayam Singh Yadav, however, have turned his sympathisers now. They both said Advani had been framed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. “He has been done in by his own people, which is unfortunate,” said Mulayam Singh Yadav. Lalu Prasad said Modi had framed Advani so that he was out of the presidential race. Advani’s name was being discussed in certain political quarters for the next presidential election. Significantly, the Shiv Sena has come out in support of the veteran leader. It has demanded that the Centre withdraw all cases relating to the demolition now, especially those against the political leaders, because the Ayodhya dispute was, in any case, moving towards a solution.

River Sarasvati

Fiction as history

ZIYA US SALAM the-nation

OLD wine is being sought to be served in a new bottle in the corridors of history and archaeology in Haryana. A fresh proposal to rename the Indus Valley Civilisation as Sarasvati Indus Civilisation or simply Sarasvati Civilisation has been made by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in the State. Earlier this year, the Haryana Sarasvati Heritage Development Board, headed by Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar, stated there was enough evidence to rename the Indus Valley Civilisation. The proposal said: “There are less than hundred sites in Pakistan dating back to the so-called Indus Valley Civilisation while there are nearly a thousand sites in Haryana…. The largest Harappan site Rakhigarhi and the oldest Bhirrana are both in Haryana. The State government is restarting excavation at Kunal in Fatehabad district.”

The move failed to impress historians and archaeologists alike. The eminent historian Irfan Habib, who has written extensively on the Sarasvati, dubs it “an exercise at fiction”. “It is an old BJP slogan based on politics, not history,” he says. Prof. D.N. Jha, who is widely respected for his path-breaking work on ancient India, dismisses the proposal: “The idea of renaming the Indus Valley Civilisation is many years old. The Sarasvati Heritage Board was established in 2002 under NDA [National Democratic Alliance] rule but was scrapped in 2005-06 after the UPA [United Progressive Alliance] came to power. Its revival under the communalist Modi regime is no surprise. It is reminiscent of the gross misuse of archaeology during the Nazi regime.”

The noted archaeologist Shereen Ratnagar, who has taught at Jawaharlal Nehru University and authored the widely read book Understanding Harappa, clears the air by underlining the difference between history and archaeology, making unnecessary the State government’s attempt to find favour with historians for renaming the civilisation that preceded the Vedic Age by about a thousand years. “History cannot support an archaeological claim—they are different disciplines,” she says. “This is nothing new. The late S.P. Gupta and others said so many years ago.” As for the huge number of sites in Haryana, she says: “They get such a large number because they count sites of various cultures.”

In her book Understanding Harappa, she makes it clear that the ancient civilisation known to us for over 150 years is indeed the Indus Valley Civilisation and that it cannot be called Sarasvati Civilisation. She argues that irrespective of the number of discoveries claimed by those asking for the civilisation to be named after the river Sarasvati, Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro remain the largest sites. They have the richest artefacts and the most elaborate architecture. “They are likely, therefore, to have been economically or politically central, even dominant places. Thus, ‘Harappan’ is a satisfactory label,” she writes. “If in an ancient mound we find only one pot and two bead necklaces similar to those of Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro, with the bulk of pottery, tools and ornaments of a different type altogether, we cannot call that site Harappan. It is instead a site with Harappan contacts....Where the Sarasvati valley sites are concerned, we find that many of them are sites of local culture (with distinctive pottery, clay bangles, terracotta beads and grinding stones), some of them showing Harappan contact, and comparatively full-fledged Mature Harappan sites,” she writes.

However, the debate rages over whether the period should be named after Sarasvati, a tributary of the Indus. Says Jha: “It is often suggested that this was the civilisation of the Sarasvati river, not the Indus. Vedic literature gives importance to a river known as the Sarasvati, which some archaeologists identify with the mostly dry river now known as the Ghaggar in India, and, further downstream in Pakistan, as the Hakra, that is, its course being from mountains in the north-east towards the Indus channel in the south-west. It has been said that there are several relic mounds of the period (example Kalibangan) along the banks of this Sarasvati river system, more than along the alluvial valley of the Indus. So, it was claimed, this is the Sarasvati civilisation, not the civilisation of the Indus. There are difficulties about this suggestion. First, fewer Harappan sites lie along the banks of the Ghaggar-Hakra than is made out. Second, there is no proof at all that the Sarasvati of the Rg Veda was in fact this (now dry) river—the identification is itself open to doubt.” Jha questions the supposed evidence of the presence of a thousand sites. “All these sites are dispersed and do not form a chain along any big river.”

However, it is said that there are satellite images that confirm the claims of the Haryana Sarasvati Heritage Development Board. If one were to believe the images, the Sarasvati was indeed an awe-inspiring river with free-flowing water and habitats around its banks. The noted historian Satish Chandra, however, dismisses the claim: “They are trying very hard to find the Sarasvati river. They claim it was a big, majestic river and quote evidence of the existence of so many Harappan period sites. What is forgotten is that civilisation grew on the banks of small rivers. Traditionally, people did not use water from the river but wells and baolis. The question of having a big river does not hint at civilisation.”

Irfan Habib dismisses the “proof” of satellite imagery, saying: “The claims of water being sighted are all fiction. Satellite images show no connection between the Hakkar and the Indus.” His viewpoint is similar to Shereen Ratnagar’s. As she puts it: “The geology in that region is complex. In the medieval period, too, it had several rivers and irrigation canals. Subsoil water in one stretch or another cannot be proof of an ancient water course from the Shivaliks to the Gulf of Kutch.”

She points out: “R.N. Singh and a team of archaeologists explored this region and reported in 2008 that the landscape has been so altered by human activity in the recent past that the use of satellite imagery does not help us to correlate site location with ancient river courses. Moreover, the locational data given for Harappan sites was in many cases faulty and not all were in close proximity to dry beds of the Ghaggar river.”

From myth to reality

Amidst all this, there are conflicting claims on the course of the Sarasvati, indeed its very existence. The Board states: “The river is no more a myth; its existence is a reality. No one should call Sarasvati a myth since it has already been proven that the river was present. No one should also use the word mythology in association with the river.” Legend has it that the river remains hidden and meets the Ganga and the Yamuna in Prayag. One school believes that the river flowed westward to Rann of Katch and into Pakistan.

“The Sarasvati as part of a larger river trinity is a myth,” insists Habib, before taking on those who believe that the river had a westward course. “According to their logic, the river originates in submersible water in Haryana. If they can bring water from a nullah in Haryana, then the original source of Sarasvati will be in Haryana, not Himachal Pradesh. Then Sarasvati originates in the plains and cannot carry much water. A river that originates in the Shivaliks cannot carry water to either the Rann of Kutch or the mythical union with the Ganga and the Yamuna in Prayag. The present-day Sarasvati neither rises in the Himalaya nor flows down to the sea. Its connection with the Ghaggar is relatively recent, and its link with the Hakra is not as certain as everyone assumes.”

Habib adds more detail to his argument by revealing that scrutiny of alluvium from the Ghaggar plains ruled out any larger river coming down from the Himalaya to the area here. He does agree that the Sarasvati is indeed mentioned in Chapter X of the Rg Veda, where it is mentioned that it is located between the Yamuna and the Sutlej. That is probably the present-day Sarsuti. The Brahmanas mention Sarasvati’s disappearance at Vinasana, thus ruling out its merger with the Ghaggar.

Jha elaborates: “The Sarasvati of the Rg Veda was not as big as it has been made out to be; nor did it directly flow into the Rann of Katch as the Sarasvati enthusiasts insist. On the other hand, the idea that the river, which dried up in Vinasana, flowed underground for nearly 500 kilometres may not be very old. But insistence on the Sarasvati flowing down to Rann of Katch would mean that the Triveni Sangam is a myth. So it is for the Hindutva ideologues to choose between their communalism and the popular superstition about the Triveni Sangam.”

If that is the case, why is there so much eagerness, such unbounded enthusiasm, to rename the Indus Valley Civilisation after Sarasvati?

Cultural agenda

Says Jha: “The idea of renaming the Indus Valley Civilisation is many years old and is part of the right-wing communal agenda. The ‘othering’ of Muslims as foreigners has led to the assertion that Hindus are indigenous people and so are their supposed ancestors, the Aryans. Since they claim to be the original inhabitants of India, they have to be the progenitors of the oldest civilisation, the Harappan Civilisation. But some of its important centres (Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa) are in Pakistan, so its roots must be found in India. Not surprisingly, Hindutva enthusiasts have named the Harappan Civilisation after the river Sarasvati. Thus, one can immediately see the link between the depiction of Muslims as foreigners and the naming of the Harappan Civilisation after the river Sarasvati.”

His argument finds support from Shereen Ratnagar. “The term Sarasvati conjures up an identity between the culture reflected in the Vedic literature and that of the Harappan Civilisation, when there is, in fact, hardly any correspondence. Thus, the label Sarasvati is difficult to defend on scholarly grounds and we should not forget that, in any case, the river in question was a tributary of the Indus.” And not a majestic, though hidden, companion of the Ganga and the Yamuna.

So, is the myth of the Sarasvati Civilisation buried for good? Jha has a clincher: “That the river Sarasvati is mentioned in the Rg Veda is not a myth. But the Sarasvati Civilisation is.” Says Habib: “Just fiction. How does one fight fiction?” A myth is a narrative about the remote past. Scholars (Leftists included) have used the term wrongly, creating confusion in people’s minds. A myth is believed to be the truth, but there is no hard evidence for it. The more appropriate term would be legend. How do you ‘prove’ something fictional anyway?” Indeed.

Jammu & Kashmir

Simmering Valley

SHUJAAT BUKHARI the-nation

A FEW people, including former Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram, have flagged the apprehension that India is on the brink of losing Kashmir. Although such voices are in a minority, the reality dawned on the nation after Kashmir said an emphatic “no” to elections.

The voter turnout in the April 9 byelection to the Srinagar Lok Sabha constituency was a meagre 7.14 per cent, marginally higher than the 5 per cent turnout in the November 1989 elections to the Baramulla and Anantnag parliamentary seats. Boycott of elections was possible in 1989 because militancy had just taken birth in the Kashmir Valley, but the violent disruption of the polling exercise in some pockets of Srinagar constituency in April 2017 showed the people’s resistance to the democratic process, a process in which they had participated in 2002, 2008 and 2014.

Former Chief Minister and National Conference (N.C.) president Farooq Abdullah won the Srinagar byelection by a wide margin of more than 10,000 votes. The election was necessitated by the resignation of Tariq Hamid Qarra of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP). He resigned in September 2016 in protest against what he called the brutality of the state against protesters in the Kashmir Valley. Qarra subsequently joined the Congress. In 2014, Qarra defeated Abdullah. In this byelection he campaigned for Abdullah as the N.C. is the Congress’ alliance partner.

Such was the impact of the violence outside polling booths in Budgam, in which eight civilians were killed, that it led to the postponement of the byelection slated for April 12 in Anantnag. (The Anantnag seat fell vacant after Mehbooba Mufti, who is the State Chief Minister, relinquished it after she was elected to the State Assembly.) Tasaduq Mufti, the ruling PDP’s candidate, requested the Election Commission of India in a letter that the election be deferred to “avoid further human loss”. It was to have been the electoral debut of Tasaduq, Mehbooba Mufti’s brother. Following a word from the Union Home Ministry and a push from the State government, the Election Commission postponed the byelection to May 25.

Obviously, the decision to defer the election was the direct fallout of what happened in Budgam. Notwithstanding the fact that the separatist Hurriyat Conference has been calling for the boycott of elections since 1996, Kashmir has always recorded a good voter turnout. The voting percentage in the 1996, 2002, 2008 and 2014 Assembly elections was 53, 43, 61 and 66 respectively and it was 35, 39 and 50 in the 2004, 2009 and 2014 Lok Sabha elections.

The voter turnout prompted New Delhi to claim that the people of Kashmir had reposed faith in Indian democracy, and that in a way it “authenticated the State’s accession” to the Union. However, even mainstream parties such as the N.C. and the PDP have tried to delink people’s participation in the elections from the political issue and argue that the elections were a success because of issues of governance such as “bijli, sadak and paani” (electricity, roads and water). The biggest surprise by way of people’s participation came in the 2011 local body elections when the turnout was nearly 80 per cent in some places.

The likes of the Hurriyat have always challenged this narrative to maintain that the people’s mood vis-a-vis the political issue has not changed. The April 9 election in a way endorsed that view although the boycott was not completely in response to the call given by the separatists. There was simmering discontent, essentially rising from the unrest in 2016 when cries for “aazadi” rent the air, drawing new battle lines in Kashmir. The majority of the voters did not want the “sham” election to take place in Srinagar. It is a fact that violence played a role in keeping the voters away from the booths, but the writing was already on the wall. The anger against the system, especially among the youth, had reached a crescendo. Also, there was a fear that the Valley may see a repeat of the prolonged agitation that took place from July 2016.

The involvement of Pakistan and militants in not allowing the poll exercise is nothing new for Kashmir, but the fact that this time it was the people’s will that disrupted the process cannot be ignored. Snapshots of the popular mood were already blazing on the horizon, with people putting up resistance to the presence of security forces during anti-militancy operations. In the last week of March, when a militant was trapped in Budgam district, people took on the security forces by pelting them with stones in order to help him escape. The militant was killed and three youths were also gunned down. Such incidents have become common in Kashmir and herald a new change on the ground.

Journalists who have covered Kashmir since 1990 would point out that those days people would run away from an encounter site, but today they run towards the encounter site. New Delhi has lost whatever space it had gained.

This fiasco brings out the abject failure of the administration. For a long time, the administration was aware of the situation, but mishandling Kashmir has become its hallmark. Given that there is no accountability, the first option is to fire the bullet to kill protesters, not to scare them away. The impunity with which the police and the paramilitary forces have responded to situations in Kashmir since 2008 has helped them to become indispensable because the political leadership has always shielded them.

Militancy

The agitation and the anger following the killing spree have formed a dangerous combination that is pushing the youth towards militancy. In the past few years, there has been a steep rise in the number of local militants. Earlier, the ratio of foreign militants to local militants was 70:30. Today, according to officials, it is just the reverse. According to official sources, the number of youths who joined militancy in 2010 was 54. It decreased to 23 in 2011. There was a further decline to 21 and 16 in 2012 and 2013 respectively, but the number went up to 53 in 2014 and rose drastically to 66 in 2015 and 88 in 2016.

In 2017, informed sources say, 19 youths joined the ranks of militants until March. Security officials admit that the hanging of the 2001 Parliament building attack case convict Mohammed Afzal Guru in 2013 was a turning point as far as pushing the youth towards militancy is concerned. Kashmiris found themselves completely pushed to the wall following the hanging of Afzal Guru.

With the killing of Burhan Wani in July 2016 and the romanticism that his life story infused among the youth, more and more youths started joining the militancy. But that is hardly a concern on the ground as the youths who are taking on the security forces with stones are proving to be more dangerous than the actual militants. The youths, who once told former External Affairs Minister Yashwant Sinha that they did not fear death, have the capacity to put the forces on the back foot to the extent that the forces have lost their balance in dealing with them.

That the Army and paramilitary forces have failed to tackle the problem is clear from a video that has gone viral showing a young man being tied to a jeep and dragged through several villages, covering a distance of 22 kilometres. More such videos showing abuse and violence and forcing people to shout “Pakistan Murdabad” have gone viral. Lt Gen. H.S. Panag, former Army Commander of the Udhampur-based Northern Command, admitted that the video would haunt the Indian Army and the nation for a long time to come.

A day before the video went viral, national television channels ran a video clip in which some youths were shown heckling a paramilitary jawan, and a lot of time was devoted to discussions on the video grab. But the video showing the youth dragged by a jeep completely overshadowed it, putting the Army in the dock. This incident not only shows that the forces have run out of options to deal with a crisis that is essentially political but also puts a question mark on the projects worth several crores of rupees being implemented under “Operation Sadbhavna” in Kashmir. The distance between the people and the Army has further increased. The police registered a first information report against the Army, but the damage had already been done.

Whether policymakers in New Delhi agree or not, postponing the election following what happened on April 9 is viewed as “surrender”. The argument that the postponement had saved many lives may be valid, but whether the government will be able to conduct the election on May 25 is a big question. Apparently, this decision will embolden those who have been challenging the writ of the government.

The Joint Hurriyat Conference, which spearheads this new face of “resistance” (irrespective of whether it holds the key), has claimed a moral victory and rightly so. New Delhi’s surrender before the agitation by voters has made it vulnerable. Until now, it had been positioning itself differently and selling to the whole world the idea that democracy was flourishing in Kashmir. After the April 9 byelection and the postponement of the Anantnag election, it will have to explain what this turnaround means. Even leaders such as Farooq Abdullah, former Chief Minister Omar Abdullah and Congress State party president G.A. Mir have admitted that the political mainstream has lost the ground completely.

What is important to realise is that Kashmir has not been averse to any democratic process that helps address the political issue. The period between 2003 and 2007 stands testimony to the fact that Kashmiris believe in a process that is aimed at finding a solution to the problem. However, the past eight years have shown that the Centre only wants to make itself strong in Kashmir through the barrel of the gun. Threats and provocations in the past two years have complicated the situation.

The anger on the streets is the culmination of the Centre’s dictates on cow and beef, its move to do away with the State flag, the setting up of a separate township for Kashmiri Pandits and also a Sainik Colony, and the Sangh Parivar constituents’ decision to go to court to get Articles 370 and 35 A scrapped.

Today, an average Kashmiri thinks of rising against this onslaught, and disrupting the elections was one way of registering his anger. The message that Jammu and Kashmir is a law and order issue has not gone down well with the people. Obviously, the absence of political engagement has made New Delhi pay a heavy price. But if the political grapevine is anywhere closer to the truth, the Central government does not think in terms of a political solution but believes that in the event of unrest, it is only a Kashmiri who loses his life. The election boycott and the violence that forced the Centre to postpone polling in Anantnag is a huge political statement, which can be hardly ignored.

Of late, militants have started increasingly targeting mainstream political activists. The ghost of “unknown killers” seems to be returning to the Valley. The killing of a PDP worker in Pulwama and a lawyer affiliated to the N.C. has shaken these parties. Moreover, the Jammu and Kashmir Police are on the back foot after militants started targeting the families of its personnel. Although civil society actors fear that this might lead to a “civil war” since thousands of families are associated with the police, there is no word from the separatist leadership, which always weighs all the options. Given the police’s role in countering the unrest, people have been promoting disaffection towards them.

“We are doing our job,” said a police officer. But social media users have been criticising the way the police are in the forefront of quelling the protests. The Director General of Police, S.P. Vaid, asked his men to avoid going to homes for some time. This has further complicated the issue and is seen as drawing new lines between the police force and the people.

The local police were given the credit for rooting out militancy with their active involvement, but the new-age militancy seems to be proving too difficult for them. It is the increasing ground support to the militants that has changed the dynamic of relations in the Valley. In the absence of a political engagement, the problem on the ground has been left to the security grid for resolution. But that is not going to work. That is why people are anxious about the coming summer.

Right To Information

Diluting a right

AKSHAY DESHMANE the-nation

IN early April, a sense of alarm permeated through the country’s civil society groups following two worrisome developments: the gruesome murder of a Pune-based Right to Information activist, Suhas Haldankar, and the Union government’s release of a new set of draft rules for the administration of the RTI Act.

A close scrutiny of the new draft rules reveals why civil society groups consider these developments, ostensibly unrelated, ominous signs for the future of RTI in India. The 22 draft rules that comprise RTI Rules, 2017, can be broadly divided into three categories: those largely replicating the existing ones, which have been in force since 2012; others that are completely new; and lastly, those that were originally a part of the controversial Central Information Commission (Management) Regulations, 2007, which have been challenged in courts and are presently under the consideration of the Supreme Court.

In fact, this ongoing court case, which is to be heard next on May 2, appears to be the reason why the Centre chose to draft a completely new set of rules that merges both the 2007 and 2012 versions and adds new provisions. This explains the hurry with which the rules were uploaded on the evening of March 31 with comments initially invited only by email up to April 15. Subsequently, following a public outcry, the deadline was extended to April 25 with the option of terrestrial mail included.

In the current scheme of things, States have their own individual rules to administer the Act, but many of them refer to the framework of the Union government rules, which cover entities over which the Centre has its jurisdiction.

The most controversial among the newly drafted rules is rule 12, which at least one civil society group has referred to as a “death sentence” for RTI users. It was originally part of the 2007 Rules. As per law, the Chief Information Commissioner is the final authority to which people seeking information can make an appeal if subordinate officials deny them information. Draft rule 12 empowers the Central Information Commission (CIC) to permit withdrawal of appeals and abate the proceedings pending before it if the person making the appeal dies before a decision is arrived at.

This provision has alarmed RTI users and advocates who point out that silencing and attacking those who ask uncomfortable questions could now become easier.

Venkatesh Nayak of the international non-governmental organisation Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) explained the context in which RTI users are functioning today to underline why rule 12 is a bad idea. “In 2017, there are more than 375 recorded instances of attacks on citizens who sought information to expose corruption and wrongdoing in various public authorities. Of these, 56 are murders, at least 157 are cases of physical assault and more than 160 are cases of harassment and threats, some of which have resulted in death by suicide…. By legally permitting withdrawal of appeals, vested interests will feel emboldened to pressure RTI users to withdraw their appeals before the CIC. If this proposed rule becomes law at the Centre, many States will make similar amendments, thereby unwittingly jeopardising the life and safety of RTI users,” he said.

Haldankar’s case illustrates the potential problems with rule 12. A resident of Pimpri-Chinchwad town in Maharashtra’s Pune district, he was known locally for exposing irregularities in public works the Pimpri-Chinchwad Municipal Corporation carried out. This appears to have got him into trouble with powerful local politicians, who allegedly killed him on April 9, more than a week after the new rules were uploaded.

Nayak said: “If the Central government has its way, all RTI applications and appeals that Suhas may have filed with Central public authorities will abate automatically. Those who battered Suhas to death with cement blocks would get a victory, and the national motto, satyameva jayate [truth alone shall triumph], would take a battering once again. Civil society actors have been demanding that the RTI Rules do not allow for the closure of appeals on the appellant’s death.”

Former Central Information Commissioner Shailesh Gandhi is also not in favour of rule 12. In his official communication to the Department of Personnel and Training, which is accepting public feedback on RTI, Gandhi wrote: “This rule appears to have been proposed in the belief that when the seeker of information does not want the information it need not be given. By the same logic, when she dies it cannot be given to the applicant. It has not been appreciated that the information sought in RTI belongs to all citizens since they own the government and every piece of information held by it. Thus everyone has the right to get the information which is sought by an applicant. Allowing withdrawal of RTI appeals would be a direct encouragement to undesirable pressure on applicants, and deal making. The law expects all information to be available suo motu. This proposed rule should be modified to state that when an appeal is sought to be withdrawn or an appellant dies, the information sought shall be placed on the website.”

Many problem areas

Many more civil society activists and RTI users expressed their dismay. They also enumerated many other problem areas, ruing the fact that there were few provisions in the draft rules that could be appreciated. Commodore Lokesh Batra (retired), a veteran RTI activist, told Frontline that though the new rules did not change the application fee, the government had tweaked the wording of rule 3 to render possible a future increase in the fee for filing applications. “An application under Subsection (1) of Section 6 of the Act shall be accompanied by a fee of rupees ten or as notified by the Central government from time to time…,” reads the relevant part of rule 3 (emphasis added). Batra felt there was no need for this.

The well-known RTI activist Subhash Chandra Agarwal felt that “the biggest objection is regarding rule 12”. He appreciated some provisions such as rule 15, which details procedures for deciding complaints, but felt that the power of the Chief Information Commissioner to decide which Information Commissioner (IC) would hear a particular matter, as detailed in rule 17, was not desirable. “It [which IC hears what appeal/petition] should be on a rotational basis,” Agarwal told Frontline. Nayak of the CHRI said that some of the proposed rules were likely to convert the simple appeals and complaints procedures into complex court procedures.

The issues raised by civil society groups prompted opposition parties to intervene. Congress leaders Ahmed Patel and Manish Tewari condemned the new rules. At a press briefing, Tewari said: “The entire RTI regimen is sought to be constricted, suffocated and finally subverted. So, therefore, it is the responsibility of all progressive forces, all those people who believe in transparency, who believe that the government should be accountable, who believe that the RTI has been an empowering instrument over the last almost 12 years of its existence, that these rules must be contested, these rules must be opposed and absolutely no dilution should be allowed in the entire RTI structure.”

The government countered the Congress party’s claims. “There is no change even in a comma or a full stop in the proposed amendment to the RTI rules relating to word limit and fee from the ones proposed by the Congress in 2012,” claimed Information and Broadcasting Minister M. Venkaiah Naidu.

In a statement titled “Factual position on proposed amendments to RTI rules”, the Ministry of Personnel, Public Grievances & Pensions said: “The key provisions of the RTI Rules, 2012, have been identically incorporated verbatim. No change has been made in the RTI fee structure. The government is committed to ensuring a full and easy implementation of the Right to Information.” The statement listed six specific provisions and essentially said that they were drafted on the basis of the CIC (Management) Regulations, 2007, and the 2012 Rules and that was sufficient to prove that “the allegation that there is a move to dilute the provisions of RTI is unfounded”.

This attempt to show the previous Congress-led government in a poor light and underplay the potential adverse effects of some provisions of the draft rules on RTI users did not cut much ice with civil society activists. Batra shared with Frontline the correspondence between former National Advisory Council (NAC) president Sonia Gandhi and former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, accessed through an RTI application, regarding the rules being drafted in 2011 to implement the transparency legislation. The draft rules floated then had two provisions similar to the current rule 12. Documents show that the NAC verdict on both those problematic provisions was the same: they should be “dropped” or “deleted”. The final rules adopted did not contain them.

What remains to be seen is whether the present government similarly heeds the voices of civil society.

The Siruthavur controversy

social-justice

NO discussion on panchami land in Tamil Nadu is complete without a mention at least of the palatial farmhouse that the late Chief Minister Jayalalithaa used to visit in Siruthavur village near Chengleput in Kancheepuram district. The bungalow was in the eye of a storm after political parties and local people alleged that it stood on land grabbed from poor agricultural labourers, besides “porombok” land of the government. This high-profile land-grab controversy brought the issue of panchami land to centre stage after the Karanai protest.

In 1968, the then Chief Minister C.N. Annadurai distributed 53 acres of land to 20 landless agricultural workers, a majority of them Dalits, in Siruthavur under the Central government’s Settlement of Land to Landless Agricultural Labourers Scheme, with a bar on its sale for 25 years. The beneficiaries were selected through a resolution passed by the village panchayat.

Each family was allotted 2.50 acres of land and a 10-cent plot to construct a house. Plough animals and loans for digging wells and buying farm implements were also provided. The majority of the beneficiaries belonged to the Adi Dravidar community. But over a period of time, many of them had sold their land. The bungalow in question was reportedly built on these pieces of land. A group of villagers, mainly the beneficiaries of the scheme, alleged that their land had been usurped by a few powerful persons who cheated them and made them pledge their land deeds under the ruse of distributing loans against the land. The Communist Party of India (Marxist), along with the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) and a few other Dalit outfits, took up the issue. “They are yet to get their land back,” said E. Shankar, the CPI(M)’s Kancheepuram district secretary.

Later, these “outsiders”, Shankar claimed, built the bungalow on a area of around 150 acres, which included government “porombok” (wasteland) land, “odai” and “eri porombok” (waterways and tanks), and also land of Dalit beneficiaries. Tamil Nadu State secretary of the CPI(M), N. Varadarajan, told the media then that the land had been “illegally transferred to some who were close to Jayalalithaa, when she was in power, between 1991 and 1996, and a bungalow, which she was frequenting, has been constructed on it.”

In 2006, by which time the bungalow had been built, the CPI(M) urged the then DMK government of M. Karunanidhi to restore the land to its original title holders. On the basis of a memorandum it submitted, the Chief Minister constituted an Inquiry Commission headed by Justice K.P. Sivasubramaniam, a retired judge of the Madras High Court. It was given two months’ time to wrap up the inquiry. Agitations were also held at many places in the State to retrieve the occupied land. Dalit leaders, including Thol. Thirumavalavan, demanded that all transactions relating to those 53 acres in Siruthavur should be reviewed with retrospective effect from 1967.

Thirumavalavan told the media then that the pieces of land were first owned by the family of a former Indian cricketer, who sold them to a Tamil musician, who, in turn, sold them to a private firm. The only dissenting voice then was of Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) general secretary Vaiko, who said the Inquiry Commission was “unnecessary”. Reacting to the allegations, Jayalalithaa had said that the farmhouse did not belong to her or to her close friend V.N. Sasikala. “It was taken on rent,” she claimed.

The Sivasubramaniam Commission went into the circumstances that led to the land grab. Formed on July 27, 2006, it submitted its 813-page report in two volumes, containing the statements of 40 witnesses, to Chief Minister Karunanidhi in February 2010.

The panel exonerated Jayalalithaa, saying that there was “no material to suggest that Jayalalithaa was involved in land grabbing”. However, it held that V.N. Sudhakaran and Ilavarasi, both related to Sasikala, were beneficiaries of an “illegal transfer of patta on a single day”.

The property, it noted, was in the name of Bharani Beach Resorts Private Limited. The Commission contented that the alienation of land belonging to Dalits was void and it was within the power of the government to resume and restore them to the Dalit owners. But the buyers of the land in Siruthavur, including Bharani Beach Resorts Private Limited, claimed that the bungalow stood on “porombok” land of about 30 acres and not on land of the landless Dalits. They told the panel that they were prepared to face legal proceedings under the provisions of the Land Encroachment Act.

The government, accepting the findings, said steps would be taken to resume the land and distribute it to deserving Dalits. But the State could not implement the recommendations of the panel since the owners of the land went to the Supreme Court in appeal against the very formation of the Inquiry Commission. Shankar told Frontline that the court had refused to stall the Commission’s proceedings. “Even after many years, the recommendations of the Commission have not been implemented. The land is yet to be surveyed and distributed among the landless. No government seems to have taken any interest in sorting out the issue. The status quo is being maintained,” he said.

The issue of land grab in Siruthavur is far from over. A Chennai-based anti-corruption activist group, Arappor Iyakkam, submitted a petition to the Director General of Police, Tamil Nadu, on February 9, accusing AIADMK general secretary Sasikala and her family members of having usurped government and private land in Siruthavur, Payanoor and Karunkuzhipallam villages of Thiruporur and Kancheepuram blocks. Around 112 acres of land in the area have allegedly been encroached upon, with the State police providing round-the-clock security even today, it claimed.

Ilangovan Rajasekaran

V. Sathanur march

A quiet struggle

social-justice

WHEN Dalits took out a “march to our land” in V. Sathanur village in Vikrawandi subdivision in Villupuram district of Tamil Nadu on April 10, 2015, the organisers took care to see that the agitation, launched to retrieve 66.47 acres (26.9 hectares) of Adi Dravidar (A.D.) conditional land in the village, did not degenerate into a law-and-order situation as it happened in Karanai village in 1994. They did not want another tragedy.

Armed with appropriate legal documents that identified the extent of land that was still under non-Dalit occupation, Dalit men and women entered a piece of land and brought down the fence that had been erected around it by the administration of a private college. They symbolically ploughed the land to assert their right over it and urged the State to reclaim A.D. land and redistribute it among landless Dalits in the village. Later, officials from the Revenue Department came to the site and promised the protesters that the panchami land would be reclaimed from the non-Dalit possessors.

Consequently, the Villupuram district administration cancelled the pattas issued to non-Dalit landholders and took possession of some pieces of land in the village. The Ambedkar Peravai organised the stir with the support of the Dalit Mannurimai Kootamaippu (Dalit Land Rights Federation), which has been fighting to retrieve panchami land since 1994, the Integrated Rural Development Society (IRDS), Villupuram, the Tamil Nadu Untouchability Eradication Front of the CPI(M) and a few other organisations. M. Sundaramoorthy, a functionary of the Peravai, told Frontline that nearly 400 Dalits, mainly women, have been waiting for disbursal of these pieces of land since then.

“The officials found out that the classification of the A.D. conditional land allotted to 124 Dalits in 1926 in the village was altered under the UDR [Updating Registry Scheme], and a land survey conducted in 1985-86 enabled non-Dalits to buy and occupy the land. We sourced the relevant information through RTI [Right to Information] and created awareness among the district revenue officials about the illegal nature of these transactions involving land meant for Dalits. We urge the Villupuram district administration to expedite the distribution of the realigned land to Dalits immediately,” said Sundaramoorthy.

He has documentary evidence dated March 23, 1926, in support of his claim that the pieces of land in question were allotted to Adi Dravidars or Dalits. He claimed that a total of 66.47 acres of land in V. Sathanur village were disbursed to 124 Adi Dravidar beneficiaries, with each receiving half an acre in 1926 under the A.D. Conditional Land Scheme. But, between 1988 and 1990, a private educational trust purchased land in this area. Dalits also gave their land because they believed it was meant for the education of their wards. A few non-Dalits had also purchased land from the beneficiaries violating the rules of the A.D. Conditional Land Scheme. “Since 2009, we have been demanding that the land should be reclaimed and redistributed to landless village Dalit women. A total of 262 petitions have been given in this regard,” said Sundaramoorthy.

Two Dalit women, Maduramma (70) and Yasodhai, have been at the forefront of the land struggle in the village. They insisted that the beneficiaries should be landless Dalits, particularly women. “We, however, are not against distributing the land to the women heirs of those who had sold them. We are planning to form a cooperative society under which we plan to develop the land for eco-friendly farming,” Yasodhai said. Madhuramma agreed, as did Irusammal and Jayalakshmi, who also took part in the struggle.

C. Nicholas, convener of the Dalit Mannurimai Kootamaippu, said that they had been urging the district administrations to allot the retrieved land to landless Dalit women. He pointed out that it would “ensure a sustainable empowerment to the disadvantaged in rural areas”. His organisation, he said, was engaged in the unenviable task of making Dalits aware of their rights over panchami and other land that were allotted exclusively for landless Dalits. He has been involved in the exercise of identifying, retrieving and assigning panchami land in villages in Villupuram, Tiruvallur, Kancheepuram, Tiruvannamalai and Vellore districts.

“After the tragedy at Karanai, we decided to take our mission forward sensibly and legally. We organise awareness programmes in which we encourage educated Dalit youths who would like to take up the issue of panchami land in their respective villages to make use of the RTI provisions to source the necessary information on land. Then we ask them to meet the officials concerned to brief them about the legality of the issue. We have a strong team of lawyers to back them in the courts. And, as a last resort, we organise agitations such as the one in V. Sathanur,” he said. With proper documents and records, neither the non-Dalit occupants nor the state can deny their right over the land, he said.

Nicholas is particular that struggles for panchami land do not create law-and-order situations, which, he believes, would invariably end in violence and yield no result. “Karanai taught us a bitter lesson about how a land-based struggle should not be organised. Land issues have to be approached legally and objectively. Here, there is no space for indulgence. It is a sensitive livelihood issue. After providing the necessary technical, legal and documental inputs, we ask the local Dalits to fight it out. After all, it is their battle,” he said.

Activists like him face formidable foes—big business and industrial establishments that attempt land consolidation under the ruse of industrialisation in the era of neoliberal reforms. “This issue is emerging as a major threat to the livelihood of marginalised people in rural Tamil Nadu, affecting small and medium farmers, not to mention landless Dalits. Hence, we empower Dalit women and youths in the villages so that they can take forward the struggle for land,” said Nicholas.

The strategy has started yielding positive results, with the State reclaiming panchami land in a few places and disbursing it to Dalits. In 2008, in Kattupaiyur village near Tirukkoilur block in Villupuram district, after an eight-year struggle, 31 Dalits, all women barring one, received land that had been alienated from them some half a century ago. These pieces of land, totalling 19 acres, had been in the possession of non-Dalits since 1931.

Kattupaiyur is not far from the Thenpennai river that cuts through the district. But still, it presents a parched landscape because it is dependent on rain for irrigation. “Even those who have land on the banks of the river are forced to sink borewells to get water for irrigation because of the intense sand mining on the riverbed. Our village is seven kilometres from the river and we bank on groundwater and rain,” said Govindasamy, a Dalit farmer. He owns one acre of rain-fed land in which he grows black gram and maize. Unfortunately, there is acute water scarcity in the village today.

Groundwater can only be tapped through borewells sunk to a depth of 300 feet. “Not everyone can afford to sink borewells. Those who have sunk borewells can go for paddy cultivation twice a year,” said Shankar, a Dalit graduate who is working among the disadvantaged in the village. His family members, including his mother, are beneficiaries of the redistribution of the panchami land.

Muthulakshmi, 57, was one of the 31 beneficiaries of the panchami land retrieval movement in Kattupaiyur. A tiny parcel of land measuring 30 cents (one acre is 100 cents) was what she got as her share after the struggle. Today, she grows millets and maize, besides black gram. “It is just one-time sowing. If it rains, they will flourish. If not, they will wither and, along with them, our life too. It is a perennial ordeal,” said Muthulakshmi.

This year, the rains failed miserably. The demonetisation move of Prime Minister Narendra Modi compounded their woes. “The village had to go without cash. The shortage of lower denomination notes, the mainstay of village economy, wrecked us totally. Even those who sustain their farms with borewell water were not able to give us wages,” she said.

Despite the grim situation, beneficiaries of panchami land redistribution are proud landowners. “They [the traditional landowning class] have started treating us with a modicum of respect and dignity. Besides, the migration of village folk, mainly Dalits, to cities in search of livelihood options has also come down significantly,” said another Dalit woman, Mariammal.

Nicholas pointed out that women were chosen as beneficiaries to receive the reclaimed land since experience had shown that male beneficiaries often tended to sell the land. “Besides, they migrate for employment, leaving the land fallow and allow ‘outsiders’ to come in. But women beneficiaries generally stay put. Hence, it was decided to make women landholders. The state generally accepts it,” claimed Nicholas.

Capacity building of women and youth of the disadvantaged groups, besides a concerted legal approach, has enabled activists to identify panchami land in various villages in Villupuram and its neighbouring districts. “Now, we have to organise and execute our objective in these places in a planned and phased manner. In many villages, the land has been alienated from the pattadars. Copies of documents related to the land have been procured through RTI and other sources. We have started initiating a string of legal measures to reclaim these pieces of land from the encroachers,” Nicholas said. In places where panchami land was identified, landless Dalit women farmworkers have been asked to submit petitions to the authorities concerned, seeking a share in the redistribution of the reclaimed land. “The entire exercise of identifying genuine beneficiaries has been handed over to the local people. They have to sit, discuss and decide their future,” Nicholas said. “Such empowerment alone can make them respectable and responsible,” he contended.

Ilangovan Rajasekaran

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Oct 9,2020