Saturday, April 24, 2010

Bogus rage over IPL tamasha!

And while St Peter's thieves debate... (ELP, Works, Vol 1)

So, IPL is not only about adrenaline-pumping cricket! Here are some statistics about IPL’s third season: 57 matches, 54 parties, 270 hours of partying and 1,29,600 bottles of beer. And just in case you want to know what happens at these parties (to which, of course, you will never be invited as you don’t belong to the charmed circle of ‘celebrities’ who claim to represent ‘new’ India) check out Friday’s Telegraph which has published a set of photographs on the front page capturing the tide of testosterone that hit Dublin, the happening place at ITC Sonar Bangla in Kolkata, well past the witching hour. Apparently, discarding clothes to the rhythm of Flo Rida’s Right Round is de rigueur to celebrate the completion of an IPL match, in this case between Kolkata Knight Riders and Rajasthan Royals. Why else would KKR opener Chris Gayle and a starlet called Sherlyn Chopra make a public spectacle of themselves?

No, I am not taking a moral position on clothes being dropped at a private party (admittedly in a public place) or 1,29,600 bottles of beer being swigged over 270 hours of partying. What worries me is that such vulgarity should be seen as an indicator of India’s social and economic progress. No less worrisome is the widely held notion that much of young India aspires to a lifestyle stripped of all values, morals and ethics. If this is what globalisation and liberalisation have done to us as a nation, a people, then perhaps the Coca-colonisation of the world is not such a terribly good idea.

Yet, I cannot bring myself to even remotely support, leave alone endorse, the ersatz anger and bogus anguish of our Members of Parliament who have spent the past week debating, discussing and deliberating upon the great cricketing tamasha called IPL. The faux outrage of our politicians over IPL’s alleged financial scandals and scams deserves to be ignored with all the contempt that can be mustered, not least because each statement, every utterance, heard in Parliament reeks of hypocrisy and worse. It ill suits our politicians to be smugly moralistic and pretend self-righteous indignation.

It is laughable to hear, of all people, Mr Lalu Prasad Yadav, whose loot of Bihar is surpassed only by the sacking of Delhi by Nadir Shah, wax eloquent on the need for probity in IPL. Strange as it may sound, he is the president of Bihar Cricket Association. But it’s not strange to hear him demand that IPL should be ‘nationalised’ and Government should manage commercial cricket in the country. He would want that as it would open various avenues of grabbing a slice of the pie that has till now been denied to him. That Mr Lalu Prasad Yadav’s wannabe cricketer son has acquired neither fame nor money via the IPL route is not entirely inconsequential in determining his attitude towards the cricketing enterprise as it exists. Politics can be leveraged to the advantage of kith and kin if an institution belongs to the public sector: Hence the Rashtriya Janata Dal leader’s demand that IPL be ‘nationalised’.

Mr Mulayam Singh Yadav believes, or so he claims, that the alleged mess in IPL’s affairs is the “fallout of a lop-sided policy of promoting a foreign game at the cost of indigenous sports”. That’s very endearingly rustic, but it’s utter nonsense — or, as a friend exclaimed, it’s unadulterated tripe. Kushti and khokho are not exactly spectator sports, or else Mr Mulayam Singh Yadav’s many friends in the corporate sector would have by now done a Lalit K Modi with both. More importantly, the Samajwadi Party leader’s criticism of cricket is as antediluvian as his party’s Lok Sabha election manifesto which promised to abolish English and banish computers from Uttar Pradesh and (if he were to become Prime Minister) the rest of the country.

And then there is the irrepressible leader of the working class, the one and only Gurudas Dasgupta, who is known for his proximity to both trade unions and the managements against whom they stage periodic strikes and agitations, often with disastrous results. “At the root of the problem lies the fact that IPL is laundering black money, it is a caricature of cricket… It is nothing more than organised gamble,” the venerable CPI leader thundered in Parliament. Amazingly, the BJP has embraced the Left’s agenda by demanding that a Joint Parliamentary Committee be set up to probe, of all things, the shenanigans of IPL! High matters of state have obviously ceased to matter for the main Opposition party.

It’s the colour of IPL’s money that’s bothering our politicians, is it? If only they would disclose the colour of the money that is used for funding election campaigns and the source of the money that greases the giant, uneven wheels of our democracy and keeps them moving! Had the colour of money been of such great significance for our holier-than-thou politicians, they would have by now forged sufficient consensus to bring about sweeping electoral reforms to eliminate the role of big money, bad money, slush money and black money in elections.

Pilloried incessantly by party elders for his links with a certain businessman, the late lamented BJP leader Pramod Mahajan had once shot back at his critics in a closed door meeting: “He is not a prostitute with whom you can sleep at night and refuse to recognise in the morning.” On the eve of the Mumbai Maha-adhiveshan in 1996, a senior BJP leader had gone public with questions about the source of money to pay for the extravaganza. “I don’t recall you asking me whether the money I gave you to contest the last election was purified with Ganga jal,” Mahajan retorted. No politician asks that question — whether he/she belongs to the Congress, the CPI(M) or the BJP. Others don’t matter.

The rank hypocrisy of our politicians is further highlighted by the fake concern of our Prime Minister who is believed to be “very troubled” by the allegations levelled against IPL and the colourful stories that are being planted in our pliant, unquestioning, ill-informed media by the Congress’s dirty tricks department in the form of ‘startling discoveries’ by the Income Tax Department, the Enforcement Directorate and the Intelligence Bureau implicating not only Mr Lalit K Modi but senior politicians in other parties. It’s a shame and a pity that our libel laws are virtually non-existent and our judiciary entirely indifferent to defamation and political blackmail. It is equally shameful that media houses which thrive on cronyism should cavil at crony capitalism, but for which they would have been languishing. More to the point, our limp-wristed Prime Minister was nowhere near being as “troubled” as he is today when his Government subverted the law to exonerate Ottavio Quattrocchi. On the contrary, he thought it was a “shame” that the obnoxious Italian wheeler-dealer was charged with and prosecuted for stealing India’s money.

[This appeared as my Sunday column, Coffee Break, in The Pioneer on April 25, 2010. For other articles, see archive.]

*Visual courtesy The Telegraph.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

L'affaire Shashi Tharoor

Of probity and provincialism

Nobody who is caught with his hand in the till ever admits to his guilt till proven guilty in a court of law; all sense of decency and honour, dignity and respect, evaporates and yields space to belligerence followed by maudlin sentiments of hurt innocence. So also with the disgraced former Minister of State for External Affairs who once famously tweeted to me that he was proud to be associated with the Congress because of its “tolerance” and “liberal values”.

That was in response to my tweet (not the one on 'cattle class' travel which led to his first taste of controversy!) pointing out his irreverent comments about Mrs Indira Gandhi and the Congress’s first family (“Had Indira’s Parsi husband been a Toddywalla rather than so conveniently a Gandhi, I sometimes wonder, might India’s political history have been different?”) in his book India: From Midnight to the Millennium and Beyond. This was soon after Mr Jaswant Singh’s unceremonious exit from the BJP following the publication of his book Jinnah — India, Partition, Independence and Mr Tharoor was all over Twitter, patronisingly gloating over a veteran politician’s fall from grace in his party.

For all its ‘tolerance’ and ‘liberal values’, the Congress has not been particularly tolerant about Mr Tharoor’s extra-ministerial activities or liberal towards his cavalier attitude. When push came to shove, the Congress disowned him and distanced itself from his interest in promoting T20 cricket in Kochi. It would be in bad form and poor taste to gloat over Mr Tharoor’s current plight, but it would be perfectly in order to point out that arrivistes in politics should resist the temptation of excessive preening.

It is not the least surprising that Mr Tharoor, whose Dubai-based fiancée was a beneficiary by way of free ‘sweat’ equity worth Rs 70 crore from IPL’s Kochi franchise deal (hours before he was given marching orders she offered to return the shares which only served to implicate him) should have pretended outrage, flown into a temper with journalists, belligerently asserted that under no circumstances would he resign from office, only to be told to put in his papers last Sunday evening. He has now predictably resorted to mawkish claims of victimhood.

Reading out a statement in the Lok Sabha on Tuesday, Mr Tharoor declared, though not for the first time, “My conscience is clear and I know that I have done nothing improper or unethical, let alone illegal… I am deeply wounded by the fanciful and malicious charges that have been made against me.” We have heard similar remonstrations of innocence before by those accused of compromising their integrity.

He could have, however, spared us the claim that he resigned from the Union Council of Ministers to uphold the “highest moral traditions of our democratic system” and to “avoid embarrassment to the Government”. He did not resign voluntarily when unsavoury details (including those of his role which went well beyond that of a neutral ‘mentor’) of the IPL’s Kochi franchise scandal surfaced in media, which would have been the honourable thing to do; he was told to go by his party bosses. Had he resigned immediately, or at least offered to resign, rather than arrogantly cavil at the suggestion that he should do so to uphold the “highest moral traditions of our democratic system” he now cites, his reputation might have been tarred but it would not have been lying in tatters today.

Nor is any purpose served by his informing the Lok Sabha that he has “requested the Prime Minister to have these charges (against him) thoroughly investigated”. Whatever else may be the Prime Minister’s shortcomings, and he has many, he is not known to be a man who acts in haste. Neither is Mr Pranab Mukherjee known for arriving at a decision without carefully scrutinising and considering all available facts. A formal inquiry should be conducted into l’affaire Shashi Tharoor, but irrespective of its findings, which cannot possibly controvert the facts of the case, the smooth-talking former Minister would do well to bear in mind that in politics perception matters more than reality and the past is often, if not always, swamped by the present. Politics is a harsh world far removed from the rarefied confines of the UN headquarters in New York.

It would, however, be churlish to deny Mr Tharoor the right to defend himself and clear his name; others with a far lower integrity quotient have been given that opportunity. After all, as he has eloquently pointed out in his statement in the Lok Sabha, he has “a long record of public service unblemished by the slightest tint of financial irregularity”. That he served the UN under Mr Kofi Annan, who will be remembered as a Secretary-General who fetched immense disrepute to the organisation and whose son was found to have benefited from UN contracts, is inconsequential. Although it could be asked as to whether his conscience troubled him every time media reported about Mr Annan’s, or his son Kojo’s, dubious deeds. Of course, the perks of office can have a numbing effect on the conscience of the most honest person, as can the loaves and fishes of office.

What is reprehensible is Mr Tharoor’s attempt — there’s nothing covert or sly about it — to provoke provincial resentment against his sacking from the Government. No doubt he has been elected to the Lok Sabha from Thiruvananthapuram, but he was a Minister in the Government of India, not the Government of Kerala. As an MP, he is tangentially responsible for minding the interests of his constituency as his primary job is to participate in parliamentary debates on national affairs and help frame laws on national issues. As a member of the Union Council of Ministers, his remit was to mind India’s foreign affairs.

By repeatedly referring to Thiruvananthapuram and Kerala, the “ethos of Kerala”, the people of Kerala (with whom he had no association at all during his growing up years in Kolkata and Delhi and the many decades he spent at the UN) he has tried to link high issues of ministerial probity with low politics of provincial identity. The unstated though clear message he has sought to send out is that an elected representative of Kerala is being unjustly penalised. That’s balderdash and Mr Tharoor, more than anybody else, knows it.

It’s strange that a suave, accomplished person with an impressive track record of serving an international organisation with distinction, and whose last tweet sent out at 11.16 pm on April 16 reads, “U folks are the new India. We will ‘be the change’ we wish to see in our country,” should fall back on the discredited ‘old’ politics of provincial pride and prejudice in his time of trouble. That’s as distressing as his fiancée benefiting from a cricket franchise deal that he ‘mentored’.

(My blog on the mess called IPL/BCCI will appear soon. And no, I am not a fan of Lalit K Modi nor do I fly the flag for IPL.)

[This appeared as the main edit page article in The Pioneer on April 21, 2010.]

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Shubho Nobo Borsho!

Reflections on Poila Boishakh, 1417.


Twice a year Anandabazar Patrika dutifully publishes a list of restaurants planning to serve a selection of dishes showcasing the best of epaar Bangla-opaar Bangla cuisine to celebrate Bangaliyana: On the eve of Poila Boishakh and on Shashthi, the day before Durga Puja begins. Till about a decade ago, Kolkata’s leading Bengali newspaper would have carried interviews with noted personalities, asking them how they planned to celebrate Poila Boishakh or Durga Puja. Feasting at home on traditional Bengali food would feature prominently in their replies.

Presumably, Bengalis do not cook Bengali food at home any more. Twice a year they eat out to rediscover their cultural roots. The last Bengali wedding I attended, I was horrified to find chholey-kulchey and shahi paneer on the menu, along with chilli chicken and Amritsari fish. I haven’t bothered to attend any Bengali wedding since then.

The cultural decline of Kolkata’s Bengalis has been precipitous. Its impact is now visible in the districts of West Bengal. When Bengali women take to wearing salwar-kameez, discarding and disowning the graceful taanter sari, and Bengali men snigger at those who still wear dhuti, then there’s something horribly wrong with the way Bengalis look at themselves.

On my last visit to Kolkata I was saddened to see Bengalis reprimanding their children for speaking in Bengali. Abaar dekha hobey (we will meet again), the traditional parting statement used with relatives and friends, has now been replaced by phir milengey, thik hai! The diction is laughable; the repudiation is contemptible.

The cultural degeneration of the Bengalis has a lot to do with the degeneration of politics in Bengal. The Marxists made deracination fashionable; perverse and twisted cosmopolitanism has killed what remained of Bangaliyana. What survives of Bengali culture is because of Bangladesh: Bengalis across the river have not given up their roots. It's because of Bangladesh that Bengali is the world's fourth largest spoken language -- or third largest, depending on which statistics you choose to grade spoken languages.

Today, as a new Bengali year begins, Bengalis would do well to reflect on what they have lost, and how to regain the cultural and, by extension, intellectual, space they have ceded. That could yet lead to a new beginning.

Shubho Nobo Borsho!

Monday, April 12, 2010

My speech at the India-China Development Forum, Beijing

The following is the text of my speech at the India-China Development Forum in Beijing on March 30, 2010:

Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen.

It is a pleasure and a privilege to be here today at the India-China Development Forum. I feel deeply honoured for being given the opportunity to share some thoughts with such a distinguished gathering of diplomats, officials and mediapersons.

Let me begin by quoting from the Book of Changes, or I Ching, an amazing collection of the distilled wisdom of ancient wise men of China.

“Friendship from outside is auspicious.”

I stand here today as a friend of the people of China. And I say this with confidence: My country desires abiding friendship with China -- a friendship between equals based on mutual understanding and respect, a friendship fashioned after shared concerns. Relations between nations are no doubt determined by self-interest; let ours be determined by enlightened self-interest.

There are two ways of looking at India-China relations. We can look at our bilateral relations through the prism of the past, or we can look at it from the perspective of the future. Either way, we would do so from the vantage position of the present.

Without going into the details of India-China relations as they stand today, for instance expanding trade, investment, etc, which others will no doubt do during the course of the day, I would like to point out the imperatives of greater proximity between New Delhi and Beijing and why our two countries should work towards a paradigm shift in bilateral relations as we enter the second decade of the 21st century.

History tells us that India and China are not only the two greatest civilisations of the East, but that we set the benchmark for civilisational excellence which is universally recognised.

Our two countries are divided by a border that stretches for 3,600 km. Yet, daunting as that may sound, it has not prevented travel and trade between India and China; our interaction is not of recent vintage, just as we are not nations born 100, 200 or 300 or even 500 years ago.

This is only to underscore the point that we are matured civilisations and not arrivistes trying to make their presence felt in global affairs.

However, the past cannot be the full story; nor can the present entirely dominate our thinking – at least it should not.

It is expected of matured civilisations to weave a rich tapestry using facts of history, the realities of today and, perhaps most important, a shared vision of the future. This is by no means an easy task and will require tremendous effort and determination by both sides to accomplish.

Emperor Qianlong had a simple yet instructive message inscribed on a plaque that hung above his throne: “The way of heaven is profound and mysterious. The way of mankind is difficult.” Great nations would acknowledge this reality, and then set about the job of overcoming this difficulty.

We are fast moving towards a future where India and China, with nearly 40 per cent of the world’s population, will together dominate the global economy. The only other country of proximate significance will be the US, but that is inconsequential to why we have gathered here today.

However, emerging as powerful economies by itself will perhaps not serve any larger purpose. That would be served if India and China were to forge a strategic partnership, one which goes beyond our stated intent and helps us strategise the realities of tomorrow’s world, factoring in the imperatives of 2025 or maybe even beyond.

Enhanced trade and cooperation are no doubt important components of the matrix of such a relationship. But there are others too. Dealing with terrorism, whose manifestation continues to mutate with each passing day, is one of them. The other is global warming and its consequences.

Why do I specifically mention these two points? Because, in India there are serious concerns about both issues, and these are often reflected in the media’s coverage.

Let me first dwell on the issue of terrorism – it poses a serious threat to India; it also poses a threat to China. The terrorist threat we face emanates from Pakistan and there is incontrovertible proof of Pakistan’s complicit role. It is in this context that questions are often raised in India with regard to the nature of relations between China and Pakistan, especially when those relations are to do with military and strategic affairs.

Frankly, it is entirely up to China to determine the nature of its relationship with Pakistan. That’s your sovereign right, just as it is India’s sovereign right to determine the nature of its relationship with any country. But China’s relationship with Pakistan does cause serious concern in India, and is often the subject of media criticism. Therefore, we must factor in this point of view.

Second, we have certain concerns over global warming and its consequences, especially the impact of climate change on shared rivers and glaciers that feed them. We believe there is urgent need for joint management of shared rivers and joint study of melting of glaciers that feed those rivers.

There is need for transparency in collection and sharing of data, especially data related to glaciers. The two countries should be open to cooperation by way of sharing of information and river management. There has been some movement on this front, but it’s not sufficient. That would be possible when we take our relationship to a new level.

Let me reiterate, India’s friendship will augur well for China just as China’s friendship would augur well for us.

The Book of Changes informs us, “No matter how smooth it is, there are always slopes.”

It would be absurd to suggest that there are no differences between India and China, that there are no disagreements, that there are no divergent views and opinions. Of course there are. No relationship is without differences and disagreements.

The biggest disagreement, as we all know, is over stretches of our border. Both countries have done the right thing to set up a joint mechanism to deal with this issue while moving ahead on other fronts.

This does not mean the problem has been brushed under the carpet, but that we have not allowed ourselves to be overwhelmed by it. That is being pragmatic; that is being mindful of our mutual enlightened self interests.

The test of true friendship is whether friends are honest with, and can freely speak their minds to, each other.

We could flatter you, as some countries indeed flatter you, but that would be unwise. It would definitely not be a sign of true friendship between India and China.

“To accept flattery is good for a base person,” the Book of Changes alerts us, “but it might ill inform a great person.”

China, to my mind – and the mind of most Indians – is a great nation which should be wary of flattery.

Friends can also be keen competitors. Friendship and competition are not mutually exclusive, nor do they clash with overarching shared interests. After all, within China provinces compete with each other, as they do in India, for investment. If we are competing for investment, for trade, for commerce, we are doing so without any sense of ill-will.

Nor does competition exclude collaboration. We believe that the world is big enough for us to compete with others and yet collaborate with them on key issues of mutual concern. Nurturing a relationship such as this, as I have mentioned earlier, will take a lot of effort and investment – both literally and metaphorically.

There will be naysayers and those who will insist that competition and collaboration cannot co-exit. We need not be deterred by them.

For, as the Book of Changes says, “Prediction will show that the expedition is dangerous. But do not intend to save the expenditure; instead, you must increase it.”

I do believe that taking our bilateral relationship to a new level in tune with the realities of 2025 and beyond will require a joint expedition, in which both India and China will have to invest heavily in more ways than one. If we hit a slope, as the Book of Changes tells us, we should just ignore it. Instead, we should increase the investment in our relationship and move on.

The Book of Changes cautions us: “Give rein to your emotion. If not, disaster is ahead. There is no benefit whatsoever.”

After 28 years of working for various newspapers and being associated with media in India and abroad, I would call upon professional colleagues in India and China to avoid the temptation of episodic, knee-jerk reactions.

I understand that there is often consternation in Beijing about what appears in Indian newspapers or is broadcast by Indian news television. However, it must be understood, and this is important, that media in India enjoys full freedom.

It would also be useful if friends in China were to understand that there are often occasions when both the Government and the people of India are equally, if not more, upset over what appears in the Chinese media. There were several such occasions last year.

I wouldn’t want to mention specific instances as that would serve no purpose. Suffice to say emotional commentary in media is indistinguishable from irrational criticism; neither is desirable. This is as true for Indian media as it is for Chinese media.

I would, therefore, urge media to be responsible and exercise restraint even when the temptation to be sensational and dramatic is great. I would also call upon intellectuals, opinion-makers and scholars attached to think-tanks to avoid language that is inflammatory and neither does service to their country nor promotes national interest.

Let me conclude with an explanation as to why I have repeatedly referred to the Book of Changes in my comments today.

Standing in front of Bao He Dian, or the Hall of Preserved Harmony, in the Forbidden City, on Monday morning, my eyes fell on a board providing information to tourists. Out of sheer curiosity, I walked up to the board and read the information. At the very end, there was this profound sentence from the Book of Changes which was one of the guiding principles of the Emperors who conducted affairs of state from this hall:
“Maintain harmony between all things on Earth to have a long period of peace and stability.”

We need peace, we need stability. Because, without peace and stability, we cannot prosper – as two nations, two peoples, two neighbours.

Our ancient wise men knew the importance of peace and stability. They also knew how to ensure peace and stability: By maintaining harmony.

I am confident that both India and China will continue to maintain a harmonious relationship, and seek to harmonise differences, to ensure peace and stability so that the people of both countries can prosper.

Thank you.

To fight Maoists, reform police

Unless your foot soldiers are good, you can't win the war on Red terror.

The Uttar Pradesh Government has taken an extraordinary step towards police reforms, something which everybody talks about but nobody does anything to implement. Ms Mayawati, who is much criticised for being, to put it politely, unconventional in the manner in which she runs the BSP and the Government she presides over, has instructed her administration to scan the answer-sheets of 2,28,000 candidates who recently sat for a selection examination for 35,000 posts of constables and make them available online. Each applicant will have the right to access his or her answer-sheet, tally it with the listed right answers, and if he or she has been unfairly marked, file an appeal. Given the fact that Indians are a litigious lot, we can expect many of the hopefuls to not only appeal against their grades but even approach the courts. But since it was an objective test based on multiple choice answers and the examiners had no discretionary powers to either mark up or mark down the applicants based on their ‘subjective’ assessment of his or her abilities, it’s unlikely those who contest the results will get too far in using loopholes in the law to either hold up the recruitment process or force the Government to employ those unworthy of the job.

In the past, the recruitment of constables for Uttar Pradesh Police has always been a controversial affair. Instead of selecting candidates based on their merit and potential policing acumen, the emphasis has been on caste, community and, the most important of all, cash. Hopefuls readily paid huge sums of money to get into the State police force, and then subsequently recovered their ‘investment’ and more through means that do not merit elaboration. The money would travel all the way up to those in power. The last time constables were recruited in large numbers for Uttar Pradesh Police was when Mr Mulayam Singh Yadav was in power, and it was a scandal. Ms Mayawati has put an end to that abominable practice, hopefully for good.

The system of recruiting police constables is flawed across the country. Either State Governments are too niggardly and therefore reluctant to fill up existing vacancies or, when recruitment does take place, various considerations other than merit come into play. The recruitment of constables in West Bengal is a classic example of perversion of the process: Over the decades the Left Front Government has institutionalised a system whereby only those affiliated to the CPI(M), or who have been activists and members of the party with a proven track record of loyalty, are drafted to serve as constables and junior officers. As a result, West Bengal Police is, for all practical purposes, an adjunct of the party organisation and the policemen, not surprisingly, are amazingly partisan even when in uniform and on duty. The role of the State police in putting down the agitation against acquisition of farmland for setting up a Special Economic Zone in Nandigram bears testimony to this fact. Such examples abound, and they are not necessarily limited to West Bengal.

What politicians fail to realise is that for short-term gains that suit their narrow interests, or worse, to fill their purses with bribes in exchange of jobs in the police, they have, over a period of time, hobbled the State-level law enforcement agency which is crucial to uphold the authority of the state and keep law-breakers at bay. Constables and their immediate bosses — sub-inspectors and inspectors — are the first respondents to any crisis and turmoil. They are the foot soldiers who have to combat organised crime, deal with terrorism of various shades and confront insurgencies. When the quality of recruitment is poor, or merit is compromised, or vacancies are left unfilled because in their wisdom some Chief Ministers decide that spending more on the police force is a waste of money, the power of the state to enforce its writ and uphold the law of the land is severely diminished. It’s a telling comment on the warped priorities of those who govern India’s States that there is a shortage of at least 6,00,000 policemen in the country.

If we look at the States where Maoists are on the rampage and have ‘liberated’ entire districts from the civil administration, we will find that the police force is either crippled due to lack of personnel or the foot soldiers are of such poor quality and acumen that they cannot be expected to wage war against a disciplined, trained and motivated force of insurgents. When Maoists attacked a police station in Odisha, the constables on duty fell at their feet and pitifully pleaded for mercy. At Lalgarh in West Bengal, constables and their bosses simply shuttered the police stations under their charge and fled even before the Maoists came looking for them. In Bihar, they just don’t show up for duty. As for Jharkhand, the less said the better. Conversely, Andhra Pradesh has been successful in driving the fear of death into Maoists and chasing them out of the State because it has invested wisely in strengthening its police force and in setting up a dedicated anti-insurgency unit which is famously known as ‘Grey Hounds’. Such is the fear of being picked up by the Grey Hounds that Maoists will do anything to avoid taking shelter in Andhra Pradesh.

Reforming the process of recruitment of policemen is only one aspect of police reforms. Training the new recruits, providing them with the latest arms and state-of-the-art communications equipment, instilling in them a sense of pride and boosting their morale so that enemies of the state — and the people — can be effectively neutralised are some of the other aspects. There is also the issue of housing and other benefits which has been begging attention for a long time now. But the process must begin with recruiting the right personnel so that an effective police force can be created over the next few years.

For all her shortcomings, and the list is pretty long, Ms Mayawati has demonstrated that it does not take too much effort to cleanse the process of recruitment of constables who form the bulk of a State’s police force. Yes, a share of the credit should also go to the Union Ministry of Home Affairs which, at Mr P Chidambaram’s behest, has circulated an advisory to all State Governments on how to make police recruitment transparent and rid it of corrupt practices.

Sadly, the chances are that most State Governments will cry foul and Chief Ministers will pretend self-righteous indignation while pointing out to the Home Ministry that law and order is a State subject and the Centre should desist from interfering in their domain. That’s poppycock. When national security is imperilled by inimical forces like the Maoists and jihadis, there is no reason why the Centre should bother about constitutional niceties. India cannot bear the burden of corrupt, indifferent or callous State Governments, irrespective of whichever party is in power.

[This appeared as my Sunday column Coffee Break in The Pioneer on April 11, 2010.]

Thursday, April 08, 2010

In war on Red terror, blood shall be spilled

We should be resolute in exterminating Maoists to the last cadre. India has to win this war for the sake of liberty and democracy.

The reaction to Tuesday’s (April 6) ghastly Maoist attack on CRPF jawans deep in the densely forested Abujhmad region of Dantewada in Chhattisgarh has been predictable. There’s outrage across the country that the lives of 76 security forces personnel should have been so cruelly snuffed out. Politicians have responded with lachrymose statements; some have pretended anger at Government’s ‘flawed’ policy of using security forces as cannon fodder in the war on Red terror. Strangely, or perhaps not, Union Home Minister P Chidambaram has been criticised by colleagues in the Congress for “provoking” the Maoists into striking with such ferocity. Security experts have been prompt in pointing out faultlines in the overall strategy and ground level tactics, not so subtly suggesting they could have done a better job. Sympathisers of the Left extremists, who masquerade as ‘intellectuals’, have had no compunctions about using friendly media outlets, including television channels, to slyly justify the slaughter. Meanwhile, the Prime Minister has expressed “shock and grief”, which really amounts to saying nothing.
While the sense of outrage (tinged with frustration) that prevails among the people is genuine, it is doubtful whether the reaction of the political class is motivated by concern for national security. Mr Chidambaram’s colleagues in the Congress, no doubt displeased that he should have emerged as an effective Minister on whom praise is lavished frequently, have seized upon the opportunity to try and run him down. Those in the Opposition who mock at the Government do so unthinkingly. Their own track record in tackling the Maoist menace is a tale of callous indifference or, worse, shameful capitulation. The JD(U) spokesman would do well to bear in mind that Maoists have ‘liberated’ large stretches of Bihar from the civil administration where the writ of the state no longer runs. As for our security experts, it is possible that their criticism of the Government’s strategy and tactics is well-meaning, but the course of an asymmetric war cannot be predicted by the best strategists and tacticians.
Could Tuesday’s massacre have been prevented? In hindsight, the answer to this question would be, yes. If only the CRPF jawans had been more cautious, if only they had not used a vehicle in a terrain likely to have been laid with landmines, if only they had not under-estimated the firepower of the Maoists, if only they had not ventured out at that hour of dawn, if only… If ifs and buts were pots and pans, there would be no need for tinkers’ hands. Or, as another version of the proverb goes, if ifs and buts were candy and nuts, we would all have a Merry Christmas. The point is, ifs and buts are neither pots and pans, nor are they candy and nuts. In battling insurgency, the best laid plans can go wrong and fatalities can be high, just as collateral damage cannot be entirely ruled out.
Those who are suddenly mindful of the fact that 76 jawans have been killed should look at the statistics of Maoist violence over the past few years. In 2009, Maoist violence and encounters with security forces witnessed a spurt in casualties, and fatalities added up to a whopping 998. Among the dead were 292 Maoist cadre, 312 security forces personnel (including policemen) and 392 civilians. It would be absurd to suggest that since more security forces personnel have died than Maoists, or because civilian casualty is so high, the state is losing the war on Red terror. Insurgency driven by ideology extracts a terrible toll; if we are to win the war, we should stop counting the body bags. Excessive focus on casualties of war weakens national resolve. Maudlin sentiments have never helped anybody win a battle, leave alone a protracted war which the offensive against the Maoists is going to be: The ‘liberated zones’ won’t be liberated from Red terror overnight; it will take at least a decade to re-establish the authority of the state where Maoists now rule the roast.

This is not to suggest that the lives of our security forces are expendable, or that they can be sacrificed without any concern on the altar of belligerent extremism, but to underscore the fact that the Indian state’s success in overcoming several challenges to the nation’s unity and integrity have not been without the loss of lives — of security forces personnel, of civilians and of those waging war on the state. Public memory being notoriously short, few would recall the terrible price that had to be paid to put down insurgency in the North-East, or restore peace in Punjab. Young officers and jawans in the prime of their lives are routinely killed while fighting terrorists in Jammu & Kashmir or while preventing jihadis from crossing the Line of Control into India. If we must shed tears, we should do so for all our men in uniform who have laid down their lives for their country and their people, and steel our resolve to avenge their deaths by exterminating the practitioners of violence, no matter what the shade of their evil ideology or their purported cause.
No purpose, however, would be served if the state were to take recourse to either senseless bravado or a bull-headed response to grisly blood-letting by the Maoists, irrespective of whether the victims of their butchery are civilians or security forces. The state must move stealthily, it must strategise with absolute clarity about what it seeks to achieve, and, most important, it must adopt tactics that will enable the security forces to outmanoeuvre the insurgents at every step. There will be errors of judgement, there will be mistakes and there will be slip-ups. Those strategising and fighting the war on Red terror will have to learn from these and recalibrate their tactics accordingly.
Mr Chidambaram has rightly cautioned against any “knee-jerk reaction” to Tuesday’s savagery by the rabid ilk of Koteswara Rao and advised that “at this moment we must remain calm and hold our nerves in the fight to rid India of the grave threat of Maoists and to save democracy”. Successive strikes by the Maoists in recent months — Sildah in West Bengal where 24 jawans of the Eastern Frontier Rifles were killed; Koraput in Odisha where 11 CRPF jawans died after their vehicle hit a landmine; and, now Dantewada in Chhattisgarh — suggest the need for course correction by those strategising the war on Red terror. Once this is done, the Government must stay the course and press on till the objective of ridding India of those who wish to supplant our democracy with a totalitarian state no different from Pol Pot’s regime is achieved. Liberty comes attached with a price tag and we should be willing to pay the price, no matter how high.

[This appeared as the main article on the Edit Page of The Pioneer on April 8, 2010.]

Please see: This is war by Ajai Sahni & Ajit Kumar Singh on why there's no other option but to smash the Maobadis.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Lakshmanpur-Bathe victims get justice

A Bihar court on April 7 sentenced to death 16 of 26 convicted persons in the Lakshmanpur-Bathe carnage in Jehanabad district in which 61 people, all Dalits, were killed by a private militia of landlords in December 1997. Announcing the judgement, Additional District Judge Vijay Prakash Mishra sentenced to life imprisonment the remaining 10 convicts and imposed a fine of Rs 50,000 on each. The trial in the case had concluded on April 1.

[My report on the Lakshmanpur-Bathe massacre of 1997. It was commissioned by]

The Stench of Death

Lakshmanpur-Bathe (Jehanabad district, Bihar): It has been raining for the past few days and the air is laden with the cold moisture of winter showers. The fields are a soggy brown. The Sone river shimmers is the dull winter daylight, lazily flowing through wide banks of sand.

In normal times, a village like Lakshmanpur-Bathe would be full of sounds that you do not hear in urban India. But these are not normal times. And you do not hear children shrieking to their hearts's delight, the gentle mooing of cows or the bleating of goats. There are no snot-nosed children staring at you in wide-eyed amazement or giggling women in dark doorways. There is no whiff of woodfire in the air.

In this emptiness you can feel strains of sorrow; if you hear hard enough, you can hear the silent, grievous sobbing of women, you can smell the staleness of death. The day before was daswi, the tenth day when rituals are performed for the soul of the departed in rural Bihar so that the journey into the other world is unhindered and peaceful. But what peace can you pray for when the soul is that of a young mother who was shot dead with her infant suckling at her breast? And how do you bade the infant goodbye?

Sixty-one people were shot dead in this village on the night of December 1 by armed criminals who came from across the river. Entire families of three generations wiped out by gunfire. All of them were poor, perhaps the poorest of the poor. They belonged to that vast underclass of Indians who, 50 years after Independence, are yet to realise what freedom means. They were born into oppression, they lived in oppression and their brutal slaughter is the ultimate symbol of oppression.

No, all of them were not dalits. The five boatmen -- three of whom ferried the marauders across the Sone -- whose threats were slit by the killers so that there would be no witnesses to the crime, were Nishads. Among those who were shot dead, were men and women who in life enjoyed a social status higher than that of harijans but in death were united by the economic criterion of unrelenting poverty that stalks the landless peasantry of Bihar.

The villagers of Lakshmanpur-Bathe, caught in the time warp of feudal India, refer to you as 'sarkar.' The landlords in whose fields they work for a kg of foodgrains a day, the petty government officials who make occasional forays, the uniformed policemen and the local politicians are their 'mai-baap.'

Fifty years after India kept its tryst with destiny, these villagers, like millions of villagers in thousands of other villages all over the country, are yet to see the miraculous healing powers of modern medicine or the magic of switching on an electric light. They are yet to learn how to read and write or to explore the world beyond Lakshmanpur-Bathe by travelling down pucca roads, Globalisation may have made the world into a small village, but the only village they are aware of is Lakshmanpur-Bathe.

Like giant concrete totems, electricity poles stick out from the blood-soaked soil of Lakshmanpur-Bathe, inert sentries of modernity that never existed. A politician in Patna, looking for ways and means to make some quick money from sources other than animal fodder, must have ordered the erection of these electricity poles. After paying off the contractor's enormously inflated bill, there was not enough money to string these poles with cables. Not that it would have made any difference. Bihar's towns and villages that have both poles and cables do not have electricity.

The only ray of hope in the benighted lives of these underclothed, underfed, underpaid people who were unlucky enough to be born in villages like Lakshmanpur-Bathe is provided by the revolutionary fervour of groups that profess Marxism-Leninism or dream of a Maoist transformation of rural Bihar society and economy. The Naxalbari movement in rural Bengal triggered the imagination of these men and women, mostly men, in rural Bihar.

Initiated by Jagdish Mahto and Rameshwar Ahir in Bhojpur district, the Naxalite movement in Bihar has taken several twists and turns. And like the Naxal movement in Bengal or Andhra Pradesh, in Bihar too it has splintered over the years, giving birth to three main streams: The Maoist Coordination Committee swears by Maoist tactics while the two CPI-ML factions, Liberation and Party Unity, continue to persist with Marxism-Leninism.

Each has carved out an area for its 'operations' that largely concentrate on securing a better deal for the landless peasantry but often focuses on retributive justice based on the principle of eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, limb for a limb and life for a life.

Like everything else in Bihar, the haves and have-nots are also divided along caste lines. The oppressor, the landlord, is a Rajput, a Bhumihar or a Kurmi. The oppressed is a Paswan, Koeri, Majhi, Musahar, Chamar or, in some cases, even a Yadav. Class and caste have nearly coalesced, defying conventional Left wisdom that seeks to segregate caste from class and draws a line between caste war and class war. In Bihar, class war is also caste war.

And with the virtual withering away of the State, the disappearance of any semblance of constitutional rule of law, the oppressor and oppressed have organised their own lines of defence. The landlords have created brutal private armies like the Ranvir Sena and Sunlight Sena, whose soldiers have a tremendous capacity for brutality. The landless are protected by the Naxal groups whose armed cadre have no less an appetite for bloodletting.

The designated guardian of both the landlords and the landless, the police, is a pathetic carricature of law-keepers. Policemen in Bihar are scared to confront either the extremist groups or the landlord's armies. They would rather disappear from the scene of a carnage and reappear after the killings are over.

Policemen who thought that valour was more important than discretion have both their lives and their weapons. In Patna and elsewhere, policemen refuse to carry weapons, scared that their outdated .303 rifles will attract the attention of either the private armies or the extremist groups whose armoury comprises looted police weaponry. Unarmed policemen can at least plead mercy and run for their lives.

The unending cycle of violence in Bihar where the not-so-poor kill the poor and the poor kill the very poor in a relentless caste/class war, in a sense, provides macabre, black humour in an otherwise unexciting saga of political intrigue and financial misdemeanour. But frivolity apart, the Republic of Bihar today is a grim reminder that all is not well with the Republic of India.

Lakshmanpur-Bathe is a blot on the collective conscience of the nation. The barbarity of the massacre should have stirred us as never before. The entire nation should have grieved along with the grieving men and women who saw their flesh and blood being butchered but dare not raise their voice in protest, lest their mai-baap, their sarkar forsake them forever.

But nobody is perturbed, least of all in New Delhi from where the world of McDonalds and Pizza Hut looks so beautiful.