Monday, December 27, 2010

Mexico at war, the US is to blame

Mexico resembles a ‘failed state’, caught in a deadly trap, beset by every type of armed thug.

November 20 was the 100th anniversary of the Mexican revolution, the first major social revolution of the 20th century: a heroic deed carried out by two legendary popular figures, Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa, whose victory was a victory for workers and peasant farmers: rights, agrarian reform, free, non-religious public education, and social security.

One hundred years later, paradoxically, the situation of Mexico “is analogous in many respects to that at the and of 1910: an obscene concentration of wealth accompanied by widespread social backwardness; distortion of the popular will; infringement of workers rights; the negation of basic guarantees by the authorities; ceding of sovereignty to international capital, and a oligarchic, patrimonialist, technocratic political class out of touch with the people.”

Add to this depressing catalogue of problems a war — or, to be more precise, three wars: one waged among the drug traffickers for the control of territory; one of the Zeta groups (criminal groups comprised of ex-military and ex-police) that rob and kidnap the civil population; and one of the military and special forces against their own citizens.


Starting Dec 1, 2006, under pressure from Washington, Mexican president Felipe Calderon launched his ‘offensive against drug trafficking’. The wave of violence that followed left about 30,000 dead.

Mexico increasingly resembles a ‘failed state’, caught in a deadly trap, beset by every type of armed thug: paramilitary and parapolice; bands of ‘legal’ and ‘liberated’ assassins; US agents from the CIA and DEA; and finally the Zetas, who target particularly central and south American migrants on their way to the United States. They are without a doubt responsible for the atrocious murder of 72 migrants discovered last August 24 in the state of Tamaulipas.

Every year some 5,00,000 Latin Americans cross through Mexico on their way north. During the passage they undergo a wide range of abuses, from arbitrary arrest, robbery, and plundering to rape. Eight of 10 women experience sexual abuse; many are impressed as servants to criminal gangs or forced into prostitution. Hundreds of children are put to work. Thousands of migrants are kidnapped. The Zetas make the families of their victims pay ransom.

For organised crime it is easier to kidnap 50 or so unknown people for a few days and receive payments of between $300 and $1,500 than kidnap an important businessman. If the kidnapped person has no way to pay the ransom, he is killed. Each Zeta cell has its own ‘butcher’ to decapitate and dismember the victims, and burn the remains in a steel barrel. In the last decade, some 60,000 undocumented people whose families were unable to pay their ransom were ‘disappeared’.

Such barbaric violence concentrated in certain cities, like Ciudad Juarez, and in certain states, has spread to the rest of the country. Washington has designated Mexico a ‘dangerous country’ and ordered its consulate workers in various cities to send their children back to the US.

President Calderon regularly announces successes in the war on drug trafficking and the arrest of important narco leaders. He is content to have mobilised the army. The majority of Mexicans do not agree, because the military, who have no experience in this sort of intervention, increase the ‘collateral damage’, killing hundreds of civilians by mistake.

By mistake? Abel Barrera Hernandez, who just won the Robert F Kennedy Human Rights Prize, awarded in the US, doesn’t believe it. On the contrary he believes that the drug war is being used to criminalise civil protest.

The Obama administration believes that the bloodbath Mexico has become is a threat to the security of the US. In reality, the US bears a major share of the responsibility for this war. It is the main opponent of the legalisation of drugs. It is the supplier of (up to 90 per cent of) the weapons used in the violence, whether by the cartels or the Zetas or the army or the police. Moreover, the US is the main drug power: it is a major producer of marijuana and the largest producer of chemical drugs like amphetamines, ecstasy, etc.

The US is, above all, the largest drug market in the world, with 7 million cocaine addicts. And the mafias that operate in its territory make the largest profits off of the sale of drugs: 90 per cent, or $45 billion per year. In contrast, the total made by all of the Latin American cartels come to a mere 10 per cent.

Yet again, rather than give its neighbours (bad) advice, which has precipitated Mexico into a hellish war, Washington should clean its own house.

Shortcomings in functioning of Panchayati Raj Institutions:CAG

The Comptroller and Auditor General has expressed displeasure over tardy functioning of Panchayati Raj Institutions in Uttar Pradesh, citing allocation of funds ''without any need-based assessment'' and inability to utilise money in a time-bound manner.

In its report on the working of Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) in UP for the year 2007-08, the CAG has said "as per recommendation of the 11th Finance Commission, the Centre had released Rs 933.71 crore to the state government during 2001-05 for development work like road, water supply and sanitation.

Out of this amount, the state government released Rs 921.88 crore to PRIs and retained Rs 11.84 crore at their level.

Further, Rs 43.21 crore lapsed at the Directorate (state Panchayati Raj department), due to non-utilisation of funds, the CAG said.

The report pointed out that out of the total amount of non-utilised funds, Rs 42.07 crore was meant for creating database on finances.

"The 11th Finance Commission had recommended that a database on the finances of the PRIs should be developed at district, state and central levels and the same should be made easily accessible by means of computerisation," the report said.

"The data were to be collected and compiled in standard formats prescribed by the CAG. This would have facilitated comparison of performances of the PRIs among the states.
The database was, however, not developed as of May, 2008."

In August 2005, the Centre rejected the state government’s request for the extension of time and thus, the purpose of high priority to the expenditure on creation of database and maintenance of accounts for providing accurate information on the finances of PRIs was defeated," the CAG said.

The CAG also pointed towards the non-functionality of District Planning Committees (DPCs), before which Zila Panchayats were supposed to submit their development programmes, which were to include development plans of the Kshetra Panchayats and the Gram Panchayats involved.

However, since these DPCs "remained non-functional as of June 2008", despite the state government having passed an order for the constitution of these in February 2007, there was no effective monitoring of the development programmes, the CAG report said.

Underscoring these shortcomings in the functioning of PRIs in the state, the CAG has emphasised on the need for ensuring creation of a database on finances "as per recommendations of the 11th Finance Commission and the 12th Finance Commission".

The CAG has further said that the grants should be utilised in a time-bound manner to derive the intended benefit and the state government should ensure that District Planning Committees are effective and functional.

GLSV failure: Future space missions under cloud

The second failure of the Geo-Synchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) in a span of six months is expected to have a serious impact on Isro's three important space programmes, according to space scientists here. On April 15 this year, a GSLV, powered for the first time with an indigenous cryogenic engine, failed. On Saturday, the mission flopped following a technical snag in the first stage of the rocket.

Speaking to STOI, TIFR space scientist M N Vahia, who has had a long association with Isro, specifically mentioned three projects which could suffer a temporary setback — the Rs 425-crore second Indian moon mission, Chandrayaan-2, which will be flown by the GSLV. "Well, Saturday's failure will certainly produce delays in the second lunar programme. If my payload was being flown on this mission using a GSLV, I would certainly want this rocket to be tested and evaluated more thoroughly," he said. As of now, the mission is slated for lift off in 2013.

Also to be affected could be the nearly Rs 13,000 crore human space flight mission, for which a formal green signal is still awaited from the government, Vahia said. Isro chairman K Radhakrishnan has been quoted as saying that this flight will take off around 2015.

According to Vahia, there could be delays in launching India's communication satellites from Sriharikota because Isro is running out of cryogenic engines. With just one Russian cryogenic engine left, Isro is in a position to schedule just a single flight of the GSLV firmly in future. The Indian cryogenic engine is not operational. The question arises whether the space agency will have to depend on foreign launchers like Ariane for some more time to carry its communication satellites.

"What happened on Saturday afternoon at Sriharikota was an unnerving situation because India's reputation as a reliable space launching country has taken a serious dent," said Vahia.

Secretary of India chapter of Moon Society, Pradeep Mohandas, said: "If I were the vehicle director, I would subject all the stages of the GSLV to more exhaustive tests again before launching a flight."

Nehru Planetarium director Piyush Pandey expressed confidence that the GSLV will be used for Chandrayaan-2 though he felt "there could be a marginal delay if not a major one."

The most affected by these two GSLV failures are the scientists of Isro's Ahmedabad-based Space Application Centre whose payloads flown by this rocket have headed for the sea rather than the sky. The GSat-4, with important payloads which was carried by the GSLV, went into the Bay of Bengal on April 15 followed by GSat-5P on Saturday.

It is in this context that Pandey's remark assumes significance when he said that the next flight of the GSLV should have a dud satellite rather than an operational one which will allow the rocket to be tested.

According to other space scientists the weight of the GSat-5P, which was 2,310kg, resulted in Indian and Russian engineers having to modify the parts of the rocket to lift the satellite which is the heaviest payload ever to be flown by an Indian rocket.

Eminent astrophysicist S M Chitre however sounded a note of optimism when he said: "We will succeed and we should not give up the capabilities of the GSLV."

Read more: GLSV failure: Future space missions under cloud - The Times of India

Isro checks rocket failure data

India’s top space scientists are analysing data to find out what caused the satellite launch to fail yesterday and an expert committee is likely to be formed soon.

“Teams are looking at the data to find out the reason,” said Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) spokesperson S. Satish.

“A failure analysis committee is likely to be formed in the next one or two days,” he added.

Yesterday, a launcher rocket carrying India’s heaviest communication satellite exploded within a minute after lift-off from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota, Andhra Pradesh.

Initial data indicated that the control command signals from the rocket’s onboard computer failed to reach the first-stage circuits, causing the vehicle to lose altitude, veer off its flight path and crack up under the heavy load on its structure, Isro chairman K. Radhakrishnan said yesterday.

Top scientists today said they suspected that a connector chord, which takes the signal down, had snapped.

The committee to be formed is expected to be similar to the one set up after the failure of another satellite, the GSLV-D3, on April 15.

The officials, among them multi-disciplinary experts, concluded that the primary cause for the failure was the sudden loss of thrust in one of the four liquid propellant strap-on stages just 0.2 seconds after lift-off.

With only three strap-on stages working, there was significant reduction in the control capability. The vehicle altitude could be controlled till about 50 seconds.

U.R. Rao, a veteran space scientist, has strongly vouched for the robustness of the indigenously-built GSLV, saying it was a well-proved rocket and that “quality problem” led to its failure. He said unlike the GSLV failure on April 15 when the fault was at the cryogenic stage, the problem yesterday was at the first stage itself.

Rao said the first stage is “well-proven” and “we must be able to get back to the rails very quickly”.

“Once in a while, these things (failures) do happen. It has happened with Ariane (European space consortium) and Shuttle (of Nasa),” he pointed out.

Rao said he did not foresee any impact of yesterday’s launch failure on India’s space programme, but acknowledged that it would take time to “sort out enormous data” and find out the ”problem” that led to the unsuccessful mission.

He also said he believes that the failure would not lead to a delay in the 2013-scheduled Chandrayaan-2 mission.

China's dams in Xinjiang region trigger concerns in Kazakhstan

China's dam-building spree in its far-west Xinjiang region has triggered concerns in the neighbouring Kazakhstan, where officials say two main rivers have begun to see water-levels recede at an alarming rate.

Officials from the Central Asian nation are expected to raise the issue with Beijing early next year and press for more information on hydro-projects in Xinjiang, officials in the Kazakh government told The Hindu.

The Irtysh and Ili rivers, crucial to Kazakhstan's water security, have their source in Xinjiang. Since 2000, China has accelerated development in the region, which has seen intermittent ethnic unrest.

Kazakh officials say China's development push in Xinjiang, which includes a number of dams and irrigation projects, is the main reason behind the falling water-levels in both the rivers. The rivers drain into the Balkhash lake, which sustains the livelihood of more than two million Kazakhs.

“The water flow from China is much less now than it was before,” Gabit Koishibayev, a senior counsellor at the Kazakh Embassy here who is involved in negotiations with the Chinese government, told The Hindu.

Negotiations have made little headway so far, say officials. The dispute, which stretches to over a decade, could hold crucial lessons for India in managing water-sharing issues with China over the Brahmaputra river. China's plans to build dams in the difficult terrain of Tibet are still at a nascent stage compared with its projects in Xinjiang.

Kazakhstan has, however, been reluctant to publicly voice its concerns. China is a major destination for Kazakhstan's energy exports. In both cases, China, as the upper-riparian or upstream-lying state, holds the cards, having not committed to any bilateral water-sharing treaties and being entitled to, under international laws, use the rivers' waters for hydropower generation and other projects.

As with the Brahmaputra, there are also persisting concerns that China has plans to divert the Irtysh, though in both cases Chinese officials have stressed there are no such plans.

“We are very concerned about Chinese plans concerning the Irtysh,” said Mr. Koishibayev. “We also know that they are building channels and other infrastructure in Xinjiang.”

The Balkhash lake, he said, was “losing water.” “The water level is now lower by more than two metres to what it was three decades ago. Pollution is also rising, which has affected the banks and surrounding areas. Agriculture, the health of the ecosystem and the communities around it are at risk.”

Kazakh officials fear that the Balkhash will face a similar fate to the Aral Sea, which is on the verge of disappearing because of heavy pollution. Its mismanagement is regarded as one of the world's worst environmental disasters. Chinese officials stressed that China was “paying high attention to international communication on trans-border water issues”.

China was “carrying out related works according to principles of sustainable development,” the Foreign Ministry told The Hindu in a statement. “This is also in accordance with international laws and international principles.

At the same time, we are paying high attention to international communication on trans-border water issues.”

For China, managing water resources with its neighbours is emerging as an important diplomatic challenge, as it looks to balance the demands of its own spreading water shortages, especially in the arid north and north-west, with its foreign policy priority of maintaining a “harmonious” periphery.

China, which is increasingly reluctant to be seen as ignoring the concerns of its neighbours, has over the past year appeared to co-operate more in sharing information, Kazakh officials noted, both with Kazakhstan and southern neighbours who have voiced concerns about plans for the Mekong river.

In April, Chinese officials attended a meeting of the Mekong River Commission, which China has not formally joined, and promised to cooperate on flood prevention.

“We are providing information on floods and hydrological information related to the security of people's lives and wealth both upstream and downstream,” the Foreign Ministry told The Hindu.

China and Kazakhstan are now close to signing an agreement on quality protection, which will ensure that Xinjiang's industrial development will not continue to adversely reduce water quality in the two rivers, said Mr. Koishibayev.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Russia's U-turn on arms sale

Russia has thrown its defence ties with Iran on the altar of its “reset” with the United States. President Dmitry Medvedev last week imposed a sweeping ban on defence sales that goes beyond even the international sanctions on Iran and is likely to have a long-term negative impact on Moscow-Tehran relations.

The decree “On Measures to Implement the U.N. Security Council Resolution 1929 of June 9, 2010” Mr. Medvedev signed bans supplies of Russian tanks, fighter jets, helicopters, ships, heavy artillery systems and missiles, including the S-300 air defence systems, to Iran. Russia will also stop supplying spares and components for the weapons sold earlier, and ban the transit of arms bound for Iran through its territory. The decree contains a list of Iranian officials involved in the country's nuclear programme, who will henceforth be prohibited from entering Russia.

By and large, the Russian sanctions are in line with the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1929, which Moscow backed, except for one crucial point: the S-300 missiles do not fall under the category of offensive weapons banned by the U.N. resolution. The move added another puzzling zigzag to Moscow's back-and-forth policy on Iran.

Resolution 1929 states: “All states shall prevent the direct or indirect supply, sale or transfer to Iran […] of any […] missiles or missile systems as defined for the purpose of the United Nations Register of Conventional Arms.” Meanwhile, the Register clearly states that its definition of missiles or missile systems “ does not include ground-to-air missiles” (emphasis added.)

In justifying Mr. Medvedev's cancellation of the S-300 deal, Russian officials refer to the U.N. resolution's call on all states “to exercise vigilance and restraint over the supply, sale, transfer, provision, manufacture and use of all other arms and related materiel.”

That said, Resolution 1929 contained no explicit ban on air defence systems and Mr. Medvedev's decree went a step too far. Ironically, defending Moscow's ban on S-300, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, in the same breath, lambasted unilateral U.S. sanctions on Iran as being “ethically and morally wrong” and a “violation” of the U.N. resolution.

The $800-million contract for supply of five batteries of S-300 air-defence complexes to Iran was signed in 2007. (A typical S-300 battery contains 48 missiles on 12 mobile launchers.) If delivered to Iran, the S-300 would change the rules of the game in the region. In combination with Tor-M1 short-range air-defence missiles Russia supplied to Iran in 2008, the long-range S-300s would have deterred any aerial attack on Iran.

In December 2008, the Russian government news agency, RIA-Novosti, quoting defence sources, reported that Moscow had begun “implementing” the S-300 contract. The report was later denied but Moscow continued to affirm its commitment to supply S-300 missile systems to Iran. “We have a contract to deliver these systems and we will honour it. Delays have been caused by technical problems in tuning up the systems,” Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov stated as recently as February. Even after Resolution 1929 was approved, Russian lawmakers and arms exporters maintained that the new sanctions would not affect the delivery of S-300.

“The S-300 systems are not covered by the sanctions and work on the contract is going forward,” Mikhail Dmitriyev, Director, Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation, said in June. U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley also conceded at the time that Washington had failed to secure a clear-cut ban on the supply of S-300.

However, Russian diplomats' valiant efforts to save the S-300 deal from being axed under the U.N. resolution were in vain. The Kremlin used it as a bargaining chip with the White House. The fate of the S-300 contract was apparently sealed when Mr. Medvedev paid an official visit to the U.S. in June and secured President Obama's promise to help Russia modernise its economy. On his return, Mr. Medvedev called for allying Russia with the West. “We need to build modernisation alliances with our main foreign partners … above all with Germany, Italy, the European Union and the United States of America,” he said in a keynote speech to Russian diplomats in July.

The formal ban on Russian arms exports to Iran came three months later, timed for the U.S. Congress debate on the New START, a Russian-American nuclear arms pact Mr. Medvedev and Mr. Obama signed in April.

Moscow attaches paramount importance to START ratification, seeing it as a turning point in its relations with Washington that would pave the way for other deals — U.S. endorsement of a long-pending civil nuclear cooperation agreement between the two countries and Washington's support for Moscow's bid to join the World Trade Organisation.

The S-300 ban was designed to facilitate the START's passage through the U.S. Senate. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee in mid-September approved the U.S.-Russian treaty and sent it to the Senate floor, but its ratification is still hanging in the balance. The administration would like the Senate to vote on the treaty before it breaks for the November elections on October 8 because the Democrats may see their majority reduced in the new Senate. Mr. Medvedev clearly sought to impress the American public opinion and sway hesitant U.S. Senators in favour of backing the START.

The White House “strongly” welcomed the “faithful and robust implementation” by Moscow of the U.N. sanctions resolution. “We believe President Medvedev has demonstrated leadership on holding Iran accountable to its international obligations from start to finish,” said National Security Council spokesman Mike Hammer.

Mr. Medvedev's Iran arms ban is a big gift to the embattled Obama, who can now argue that his policy of “reset” with Russia is bringing tangible dividends. Moscow hopes a grateful Obama will lift the ban on high technology transfers to Russia. Time will tell whether these hopes are justified.

Sceptics point out that Russia halted its defence ties with Iran once in the past also, in the vain hope of getting U.S. aid and investments. Under a secret agreement brokered in 1995 by the then Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, and U.S. Vice-President Albert Gore, Russia agreed to stop selling weapons to Iran. The deal dealt a hard blow to Russia's struggling defence industry, depriving it of what was emerging as the third largest market for Russian arms after India and China. The U.S. “thanked” Russia by pushing NATO to its doorstep and bombing out its traditional ally, Yugoslavia. In 2000, Russia pulled out of the Gore-Chernomyrdin deal and resumed arms supplies to Iran.

The new ban on weapon sales to Iran will have dire consequences for Russia, critics say. Direct financial losses from the scrapping of the S-300 contract could exceed $1 billion. According to the Russian Centre for Analysis of World Arms Trade, Russia will lose at least $11 billion in weapon supplies to Iran through 2025. “Iran will never forgive Russia for this second sell-out in the past 15 years,” says defence expert Konstantin Makienko of the Moscow-based Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies (CAST). “Russia may lose forever the Iranian market of not only defence but also civilian technologies.”

Aviation industry sources said Iran had already stopped negotiations to acquire Russia's Tu-204SM passenger aircraft. Russia's refusal to supply S-300 systems has put a big question mark on a wide-ranging energy cooperation road map Moscow signed with Tehran just a couple of months ago.

Geopolitical costs for Russia could be even higher. “The cancellation of the S-300 contract undermines its reputation as a reliable defence partner among its current and potential customers,” Mr. Makienko said. “China will only be too happy to fill the vacuum left by Russia.”

Tehran's recent announcement that it had begun work on its own missile system, analogue of the Russian S-300, Russian experts said, was an indication that the Chinese came to Iranians' help, offering expertise gained in cloning the S-300 Russia had earlier sold to China.

As for rewards from Washington, U.S. officials warn Moscow not to expect too many. “The objective is not actually to develop a good relationship with Russia. The goal here is to advance our national security and economic interests and to promote universal values,” a senior White House official said commenting on the Russian arms ban to Iran. In fact, the Russian concession has encouraged U.S. strategists to put higher demands on Moscow. “Some Russia sceptics aren't so sure that Moscow has yet made the strategic decision to turn away from Iran and towards the United States,” Josh Rogin wrote in his blog on The Foreign Policy website.

To convince these sceptics, Russia should stop cooperation with Iran on the Bushehr nuclear reactor, tear up energy deals and support tougher economic sanctions on Tehran. To quote a relevant Russian saying: “Put a finger in his mouth and he will bite your arm off.”

New economic idiom in Look East policy

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's civil nuclear diplomacy towards the United States, and now ‘pacifist' Japan, is viewed in East Asia as a new message to the region about India's posture as a “rising power.”

Politically more visible, though, is a bunch of economic pacts that is beginning to fill India's pocket. Dr. Singh's economic diplomacy was, therefore, in prime focus, as he held talks in Tokyo on October 25, beginning a visit to Japan, Malaysia, and Vietnam.

East Asian leaders have often traced India's Look East policy to the diplomatic realism of former Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao at a time of national crisis in the 1990s. Against this background, a dominant view in East Asia today is that Dr. Singh is setting the terms for India's long-term engagement with key regional powers. Inevitably, such diplomacy will extend beyond the economic realm. India's strategic calculations are easily discernible too.

Some officials in the region privately comment on how India has, in recent months, stayed the course of difficult trade negotiations with remarkable resoluteness. Obviously, it is not for the East Asian officials to worry about the economic fall-out these agreements might produce for the people in India, especially as seen by its various political parties.

In Japan, the political mood towards India is remarkably friendly on the economic front. A Japan-India Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA/EPA) was finalised by the negotiators on both sides in time for celebration during this visit.

It took them nearly four years to firm up Tokyo's first-ever pact with a big economy. India is behind only Japan and China in Asia in terms of their macro-level gross domestic products and related indices. No less significantly, Tokyo does not have an economic pact with either its long-standing ally, the U.S., or with an immediate neighbour like the ascendant China.

In this big picture, there is considerable macro-level asymmetry between India as a developing economy and Japan as a developed country. But Tokyo has viewed its negotiations with India as a unique exercise, without worrying about striking a model agreement between a developed country and a developing economy. The secret of success, despite delays during the Japan-India talks, is said to be economic realism driven by political will. The automotive industry in the two countries and their respective services sectors required sensitive attention during the talks.

According to a Japanese negotiator, Takeshi Matsunaga, the EPA provides for “a high level of liberalisation” of tariff by both sides and places them on “an equal footing.” Also built into the agreement is India's preferred principle of free “movement of natural persons.” Not amounting to migration, this will mean a free flow of professional talent in the services sector. This will benefit both countries, with India gaining an acceptance of this principle in the first place. Investment and several other aspects of a full-fledged economic pact are also covered.

The CEPA/EPA does reflect the new-found “importance of India to Japan” in the emerging world of several rising powers and a stagnant superpower. This formula about India's “importance” was first cited by a top Japanese official in June this year, when he informed The Hindu of Tokyo's decision to begin civil nuclear talks with New Delhi. Two rounds of talks have been held so far.

The negotiators face the challenging task of harmonising a pacifist principle with a pragmatic policy. New Delhi holds its voluntary moratorium on nuclear-weapon tests as inviolable pragmatic policy.

At the other end, Japan, as an “internationalist” and a “pacifist,” might have to “suspend” or even “stop” its civil nuclear cooperation with India, if New Delhi were to test an atomic bomb once again. America's nuclear umbrellas for its allies, including Japan, are in a different category altogether. In all, however, a Japanese official, Hidenobu Sobashima, told this correspondent in Singapore a few days ago that the Japan-India civil nuclear talks “will continue.” It is, therefore, possible that Japan will not risk writing off the new “importance” of India in a hurry, especially as long as the current fluidity in global affairs persists.

In Malaysia

If the Japan-India engagement is now dictated by high stakes, New Delhi's ties with Malaysia, too, are entering a qualitatively significant phase. India and Malaysia have firmed up a Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA). According to a top Malaysian official, Rebecca Fatima Sta Maria, the two countries would, during Dr. Singh's visit to Kuala Lumpur at this time, announce that the legally-binding text of CECA would be signed by the end of January next year. The CECA might then come into force from July next year.

As a measure of economic pragmatism, India and Malaysia negotiated the CECA in less than one year, truly a feat of fast-track parleys. The two sides are also keen to have a genuine strategic partnership. However, the world-view of Malaysia, which belongs to the Organisation of Islamic Conference, may not always be in sync with India's on all issues. At another level, the Hindu Rights Action Force (HINDRAF)-Makkal Sakthi, which seeks to espouse the cause of Malaysian-Indian minority, wants Dr. Singh to raise issues relating to its welfare in his talks with his counterpart, Najib Tun Razak.

As a banned organisation, HINDRAF has added the Tamil label of “Makkal Sakthi,” meaning “people power” which is in vogue in this region, in a bid to stay within the ambit of law. On a related front, Mr. Najib has signalled goodwill towards Malaysian-Indians by promising, most recently, government's contribution to the education foundation set up by the Telugu Association of Malaysia.

In Vietnam

In Hanoi, Dr. Singh will have to switch from the nuances of bilateral diplomacy to the compulsions of multilateralism during India's annual summit with the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). India's Free Trade Agreement with ASEAN is already in force, providing a relative new framework for the summit.

At the annual East Asia Summit (EAS), Dr. Singh will be sitting with, among others, the leaders of South Korea and Singapore, with which India already has comprehensive economic pacts. But the EAS, which includes China, is a strategic forum, and this aspect will get heightened with the likely admission of the U.S. and Russia into this organisation. Issues of acute sensitivity to all major powers will then arise, especially in the ASEAN Defence Ministers' Meeting-Plus (ADMM+) forum, which might be co-opted by an expanding EAS as its security wing.

There are already indications that the issues might range from the long-term U.S. role in the region to the perceived flashpoints in the South China Sea or East China Sea or even Kashmir.

What to expect from Obama's visit

The visit of the head of state of the sole, though somewhat depleted, superpower provides us a timely opportunity to apprise our guest of our assessment of the strategic environment surrounding us and to engage him in an in-depth discussion on how to deal with the common threat to our countries and peoples, nearly all of which emanates from the Af-Pak region. The success of Barack Obama's visit should be judged, not so much by whether the U.S. lifts the sanctions on ‘the entities' or whether or not he softens his rhetoric on outsourcing, important as these issues are. There are far more serious subjects which should occupy the limited time the leaders spare for a tête-à-tête or talks at the delegation level. A candid discussion of the strategic implications of the crisis in Afghanistan and Pakistan must be carried out.

The war in Afghanistan, it seems, is not a major issue in the forthcoming mid-term congressional and gubernatorial elections in America. Mr. Obama would no doubt wish to make it an equally not-a-critical issue when it is time for him to start campaigning for a second term. Indeed, it is this factor which has dominated his approach to the Afghan war, as Bob Woodward has brought out so conclusively in Obama's Wars. Henry Kissinger could not resist the temptation of being clever when he said the ‘exit strategy' was all about exit and not about strategy; in fact, however, Mr. Obama has been discussing strategy almost since his first week in office.

Obama's Wars also brings out the President's preoccupation with Pakistan, persuading its leaders to cooperate with America in degrading and defeating the Taliban in Afghanistan. As one of Mr. Obama's advisors said during the endless hours spent on discussing the ‘options' the President could consider, all the persuasion took the form of carrot and no stick. Nearly $20 billion has been sunk into Pakistan since 2001 and more is being pledged almost every week. It must be the highest investment, with very little to show for it, per sq km in the world. The Americans have also felt obliged to assure Pakistan that their President will visit Islamabad next year, as well as not to make too much of a fuss over the Sino-Pak civil nuclear deal. It is not only India that has to be pragmatic in its foreign policy.

One reads in the Woodward book that the Americans have identified 150 targets which they would bomb in case of another 9/11-type attack on the American homeland that was traced to Pakistan's badlands. Perhaps the Pakistan military takes the American threat more seriously than India's when it says another ‘Mumbai' would engender a robust response from us. Happily for India-U.S. relations, Mr. Obama's initial inclination to include India, or more specifically Kashmir, in Richard Holbrooke's mandate was quickly discarded, thanks to New Delhi's timely and effective intervention. Nonetheless, the President, and more so his advisors, have convinced themselves that the key to obtaining Pakistan's full cooperation lies in prevailing upon New Delhi to ‘cooperate' with Islamabad in tackling the root causes of the crisis between ‘the two nuclear-armed arch enemies', as India and Pakistan are invariably described in the American media.

The extent to which the Americans and others in the western world have bought the Pakistani line should be a matter of concern to us. It also shows that Pakistan's propaganda machine is working ceaselessly in all those capitals. One explanation for this bias is that Pakistan is considered an underdog and the world always has sympathy for underdogs. Pakistan's very weakness is its strength. But there is no getting away from the fact that we have to intensify our PR efforts; the lobbying firms we have hired in Washington should be made to produce better results. It is here that Mr. Obama's visit provides us with an excellent opportunity to disabuse him of the falsehoods Pakistan has been spreading about us.

For example, many in the West, and perhaps elsewhere as well, believe that India does present a threat to Pakistan and that the threat would become the most acute if there was a pro-India government in Kabul. The concept of ‘strategic depth' is not dismissed summarily by others, least of all by the Pentagon. Pakistan's argument that India and an India-friendly Afghanistan could join forces and attack it, however laughable, is not scoffed at by all think tanks abroad. In this writer's interaction with several think tanks recently in America, he was told that India must not take advantage of Pakistan's precarious position at this stage, that India must “give comfort” to Pakistan, that India must engage Pakistan in a composite dialogue, including specifically on the question of Kashmir, etc. One influential think tank even suggested that in order to bring Pakistan fully on board in the war against the al-Qaeda and the Taliban, it must be offered a ‘quid' in the shape of a sphere of influence in the Afghan provinces adjoining Pakistan.

When pointed out that this would in effect mean conceding a sphere of influence to China, they were least concerned. All this, despite the Indian government's persistence with dialogue notwithstanding Pakistan's stalling of proceedings against the perpetrators of 26/11 and the undisputable links between the Inter-Services Intelligence and the Lashkar-e-Taiba.

The pressure on us would have been severer had we refused all contact with Pakistan after 26/11. However, the government's knee-jerk reaction every time Pakistan utters the ‘K' word is un-understandable. We have a perfectly good case on Kashmir and in fact we should be the ones to want to discuss Kashmir, since it is Pakistan which aggressed against us and is still occupying our territory. We should not be afraid of the ‘K' word. We should ask those who want us to discuss Kashmir with Pakistan: “What is it that you want us to discuss regarding the Kashmir issue? Are you even sure that Pakistan wants to ‘solve' the issue, except by the only way that we will never agree to, namely to hand over the whole of Kashmir, or at least the entire Valley to them?” Manmohan Singh and Pervez Musharraf came close to concluding an agreement on Kashmir, but that has been disowned by Ashfaq Parvez Kayani.

President Obama might not necessarily ‘buy' these arguments from the think-tankwallahs, although the think tanks in America are as aggressive in pushing their ideas on decision-makers as their businesses are in pushing their products in overseas markets. But he is looking for a way out of the Afghan quagmire and is most anxious that the process of ‘reconciliation' with the Taliban should succeed. He does seem to be persuaded that Pakistan's help in this process is indispensable, even though President Hamid Karzai may have his doubts about conceding anything more than a consultative role to Pakistan. Reports that Pakistan arrests any Taliban commander believed to be talking to the representatives of the Kabul government indicate Gen. Kayani's determination to keep the process firmly in Pakistan's control. The U.S. is anxious not to risk alienating the General described by Mr. Holbrooke as the most important political factor in Pakistan. (Woodward's book has the following gem. Secretary Hillary Clinton asked Mr. Karzai during his visit to Washington in May 2010: “Do you really think the ISI could pick up Mullah Omar if they wanted?” Karzai reached over and plucked a chocolate chip cookie from his plate. “They could deliver Mullah Omar like I can pick up this cookie,” he said.)

Every such visit does not have to be “highly successful” or “historic.” The success or otherwise of the visit must not be judged by our getting concessions on some bilateral issues. Nor should Mr. Obama expect to clinch the deal for sale of 126 American fighter aircraft at this juncture. The President might say something about India's ambition for a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council. His advisors presumably have explained to him that the Indian public opinion will not be satisfied with some vague formula of the U.S. being sympathetic to India wanting to play a bigger role on international forums including the U.N., etc. If he does not bring himself to expressing unambiguous support, he would be well advised not to say anything on the subject.

The real criterion for measuring success would lie in assessing whether or not the two leaders have reached consensus on defining the dangers that their, and other, countries face from the Af-Pak area and how they intend to tackle it. They must agree on a mechanism for arriving at such assessment and there is only one way of doing it. What is needed is a trilateral forum of consultations consisting of the U.S., India and Afghanistan.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

At climate meet, India will not bend

As the week-long UN climate summit begins in New York on Tuesday, India has said it would like to be a part of a deal maker and not the deal breaker.

Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh pointed out that while India would not budge from its position on legally binding carbon emission cuts, it would like to be part of a solution and not be a deal breaker (Watch full interview below).

The summit will be key to advancing negotiations that are currently at an impasse over emission targets for developing nations, ahead of an agreement during the UN conference in Copenhagen this December.

The Copenhagen agreement would then replace the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, requiring mandatory cuts in atmosphere-warming gases. The Kyoto Protocol expires at the end of 2012. As far as India is concerned, the main sticking point is America's demand that it accept legally binding emission cuts.

India is clear that it will not accept any legally binding cuts on carbon emission. It also insists that its per capita emission of carbon is lower than that of America or other developed countries.

India also feels it should be given credit for its large-scale afforestation programme.

Asked about India being called uncooperative and stubborn, Jairam said: "Not at all. I think the world is completely wrong on this. We have got an image that is contrary to what we have been doing. The message that I am trying to convey is that we have not caused the problem of global warming but we want to be part of the solution at Copenhagen. We want to be a deal maker not the deal breaker.

"We are taking very aggressive adaptation measures. We are also being very aggressive unilaterally, voluntarily on mitigation. We are thinking of domestic legislation to enhance the measure of credibility on our mitigation actions and all our measures have been widely appreciated."

On America emitting 22 per cent of emissions and asked whether an international agreement on climate change was possible without the US on board, Jairam said: "Without the US there is no agreement. The US has to come up with a substantial cut on its emissions by 2020. There is no doubt about it but the politics of it seems to be difficult.

"There is the health care debate, the economic slowdown. So many other issues, the war in Iraq, Afghanistan. I don't see what the appetite is for a successful deal in Copenhagen. We are hopeful. India is trying to do its best to work with the United States and to create conditions that will facilitate the US to make meaningful cuts because without the US there is not going to be any meaningful deal and we know that. Chianti knows it, India knows it and so does Europe."

Climate action: Will India go China's way?

India is poised to follow China's example and likely to propose a target to slow down growth in its greenhouse gas emissions, but not cap these altogether.

China last week said it would cut carbon emissions per unit of economic output by up to 45 per cent by 2020.

India says it could cut such carbon intensity by 24 per cent by 2020 compared with 2005 levels.

India, the world's fourth highest emitter, is under pressure to announce details of how it will control its growing carbon emissions, and issuing targets will probably strengthen New Delhi's position at the Copenhagen negotiations.

Jairam Ramesh, minister of state, Environment and Forest said, "We now have taken on performance targets in energy, building, forestry and various sectors of the economy. We are not going to be taking any legally binding emission cuts. That is simply out of the question, but we can look at various alternatives. Incidentally, our carbon intensity is very low. The Chinese have just announced a carbon intensity decline by 2020 and according to that, they will be in the year 2020 where India was in 2005 as far as carbon intensity is concerned."

India is under considerable pressure to set emission targets ahead of Copenhagen. India has taken a tough stand saying as a developing nation it has its own agenda.

India has said there is no question of legally binding emission cuts while the developed western countries are continuously pressurising India to quantify cuts.

As per the latest position, India is considering carbon intensity reduction targets ahead of Copenhagen climate summit as the west wants.

A national plan has also been launched to cut the carbon use and also for mitigation of climate change effects. The west wants India to stretch further and announce a trajectory that India's emissions will take.

Eco Facts

Pollution: Each kind of pollution- air, noise, water- has significant impacts to our everyday lives, affecting all living and non-living factors in the biosphere and the atmosphere and also involve socio-economic factors. These impacts have caused significant changes to the environment we are living in.
Deforestation: They are the earth’s largest depository of natural resources and house half of the planet’s dryland species. But man’s greed is putting a saw through the fragile ecosystem and over the years half of the world’s forests have been transformed into a concrete jungle. Indiscriminate felling of trees for fuel and timber or for housing and agriculture purposes has gone on unabated despite the clichés mouthed by environmentalists and a line of successive governments.
Soil Erosion: Floods and soil erosion are two of India's greatest problems. Neither is new, but there can be no doubt that in recent years floods are taking an increasing toll on crops and the rapid progress of soil erosion in different parts of the country has caused grave concern. India is thought to be losing 4.7 billion tons of topsoil a year, mostly through water erosion. Its monsoonal climate, with the concentration of rainfall during a few months of the year, leaves its exposed soils vulnerable to erosion. About 60 percent of soil that is washed away ends up in rivers, streams and lakes, making waterways more prone to flooding and to contamination from soil's fertilizers and pesticides. Soil erosion also reduces the ability of soil to store water and support plant growth, thereby reducing its ability to support biodiversity.
Land Degradation: Decline in land quality caused by human activities has been a major global issue during the 20th century and will remain high on the international agenda in the 21st century. The importance of land degradation among global issues is enhanced because of its impact on world food security and quality of the environment. High population density is not necessarily related to land degradation; it is what a population does to the land that determines the extent of degradation. People can be a major asset in reversing a trend towards degradation. However, they need to be healthy and politically and economically motivated to care for the land, as subsistence agriculture, poverty, and illiteracy can be important causes of land and environmental degradation.
Waste Management: Urban India is likely to face a massive waste disposal problem in the coming years. Until now, the problem of waste has been seen as one of cleaning and disposing as rubbish. But a closer look at the current and future scenario reveals that waste needs to be treated holistically, recognising its natural resource roots as well as health impacts. Waste can be wealth, which has tremendous potential not only for generating livelihoods for the urban poor but can also enrich the earth through composting and recycling rather than spreading pollution as has been the case. Increasing urban migration and a high density of population will make waste management a difficult issue to handle in the near future, if a new paradigm for approaching it is not created.
Increasing Energy Consumption: India faces a huge energy deficit: till 2001, only 44 per cent of Indian households had access to electricity. But consumption’s galloping: between 1947 and 2001, India’s per capita power consumption rose from 15 to 592 units. If India has to move ahead economically, it must find ways to bridge the deficit.
High Carbon Emissions: Carbon dioxide emissions are causing the Earth’s climate to change and warm, which will have catastrophic results if we do not act to reduce them. Carbon dioxide emissions in our atmosphere are at their highest levels in recorded history, spanning over 650,000 years. The effects of climate change can be seen now. Temperatures are increasing, glaciers are receding at unprecedented speeds and storms are becoming more frequent and severe.

Global warming could leave cities flattened

With climate change taking its toll on Earth, rock avalanches and landslides have become more common in high mountain ranges over the last decade.

The collapses are caused by melting glaciers and permafrost, which remove the glue that binds steep mountain slopes together.

However, the worse part may be to come. Thinning glaciers on volcanoes could destabilize vast chunks of their summit cones, triggering mega-landslides capable of flattening cities such as Seattle and devastating local infrastructure.

To assess the risk, Daniel Tormey of ENTRIX, an environmental consultancy based in Los Angeles, studied a huge landslide that occurred 11,000 years ago on Planchón-Peteroa.

He focused on this glaciated volcano in Chile because its altitude and latitude make it likely to feel the effects of climate change before others.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Delhi delivers, the Games are on

Over the last few weeks, as the events leading up to the Commonwealth Games (CWG) in New Delhi unfolded like scenes from a B-grade Bollywood disaster movie — featuring a collapsed foot overbridge, flooded building basements, stained bedcovers, and dirty, stinking toilets in the Games Village — sports fans might have forgotten that what was scheduled to take place in the nation's capital was actually a sports event. But now that CWG 2010's rocky ride towards the starting grid has culminated in an extravagant Opening Ceremony that showcased India's rich and pluralistic culture, sport can at last take centre-stage. The central government and the Delhi administration, as well as the reconstituted Organising Committee, did well to respond to what was pretty much an emergency. The Games Village was cleaned up on a war footing and the Army did commendable work in putting up a Bailey foot overbridge in under six days. The eleventh hour damage-control exercise has apparently pleased all the visitors, going by the feedback from the teams. Disastrous consequences were averted by a late response, but a lot remains to be done over the next 10 days if the host is to turn the Games into a widely acclaimed success. This alone can advance India's cause if the world's second most populous nation hopes to bid for the Olympic Games in the conceivable future.

But now that ‘play' has been called in New Delhi, attention must turn to the athletes who have gathered in the nation's capital in quest of glory. The Delhi Games feature a record number of 6,700 athletes and officials (it was 5,766 in the last edition in Melbourne). India itself is fielding a 619-member contingent and, following rigorous preparation in several disciplines, expects to double its 2006 tally of 50 medals. While CWG standards are not comparable to world standards in sports such as tennis, wrestling, archery, weightlifting, and boxing, shooting may be an exception. India may be confident of reaping a good harvest in most of these sports. But despite the withdrawal of a few superstars such as Usain Bolt, the world and Olympic record holder in 100 and 200 metres, and the multiple Olympic gold medalist swimmer Stephanie Rice of Australia, the focus will not necessarily be on Indian athletes. There are several world-class performers in athletics and swimming: world and Olympic pole vault champion Steven Hooker of Australia, Nancy Jebet Langat, the women's 1500m Olympic champion from Kenya, and Liesel Jones, the Olympic breaststroke champion from Australia, are just the best-known among several visiting athletes who have it in them to provoke clucks of awe from the fans in the stadia and those watching on television.

Turkey: the country of contrasts

On September 12, 58 per cent of the electorate that went to the polls in Turkey voted in favour of a constitutional reform package put forth by the governing Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi, AKP). The symbolism was lost to none: the referendum took place on the 30th anniversary of Turkey's last direct military intervention. Its interpretations, though, varied wildly. The government, along with the United States and the European Union, hailed the result as a step towards greater democracy and a blow to the country's junta-made 1982 Constitution. The Opposition, which had framed the amendments as a sugar-coated attempt by the Islamist-rooted AKP to wrest control of the country's fiercely secular judiciary, bemoaned that the outcome would take Turkey closer to a one-party dictatorship.

Domestic developments in Turkey have been attracting a great deal of attention from the outside world in recent years — testament to the country's growing international stature. Turks are not used to being under the spotlight so much, at least not for the right reasons: as recently as a decade ago, the country mostly made the news for its political and economic crises, military interventions, tensions with its neighbours and gross human rights abuses.

Today's headlines tell a different story. A member of the G20, Turkey's economy grew fastest next to China's in the first half of 2010; a stark contrast to the gloomy picture across the European Union, which has long been keeping Turkey at the door. Ankara is also strengthening its ties with most of its neighbours, while mediating conflicts further afield. There is an increasing talk of a Turkish ‘soft power', defined by a flurry of cultural, economic and diplomatic hyperactivity in all directions.

Yet despite the positive press, those who look at Turkey from the outside often see a country divided along ideological, political and ethnic fault lines: secularists vs. Islamists, liberals vs. nationalists, Turks vs. Kurds, etc. For many observers, the referendum process was a further confirmation of Turkey's divisions. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan brazenly labelled all those who opposed the reform package as “coup supporters,” while many in the secular Opposition blamed the outcome on the “ignorant masses” that were easily manipulated.

Contrasting narratives are increasingly being adopted by outside observers as well. There is a heated debate, particularly within western foreign policy circles, as to what to make of a changing Turkey: is Ankara's increasingly assertive and independent foreign policy merely a reflection of its growing economic and political clout in the wider region; or is it a sign that Turkey is abandoning the West for a coalition of eastern or Islamic allies, such as Iran and Syria, under the AKP government?

Turkey's curse

The problem with most analyses of Turkey, both domestic and foreign, is that they attempt to explain a complex socio-political transformation on the basis of caricaturised dichotomies. Perhaps it is the inevitable curse of being labelled “the bridge between the East and the West”: its challenges are invariably reduced to an existential rift between two neatly separated civilisational camps. In the end, “the bridge” rarely holds and the country is presented with a stark choice: it can either be eastern or western; Muslim or democratic; backward or modern.

The reality, however, is that many diverse and seemingly contradictory processes are taking place simultaneously in today's Turkey. The chief concern of the Kemalist old guard — that is, the military-bureaucratic establishment — and the secular urban middle class has long been that Prime Minister Erdogan and his party are working to replace Kemal Ataturk's secular regime with an overtly Islamic one. But the AKP is as much a product of Turkey's transformation as it is the cause. There is no denying that after decades of exclusion from public life, Islam is resurgent in Turkey. A visitor who last passed through the provinces of Anatolia 20 years ago will probably find fewer shops selling alcohol and more women wearing the Islamic headscarf.

Yet the same visitor may also notice that there are more people, including women, on the streets and the ghost towns of yester-decade have become vibrant business and investment hubs in their own right. In fact, it is partly on the back of a rising Anatolian middle class, which is at once pious and entrepreneurial, that Turkey's recent economic (and the AKP's political) achievements have come about. This is not an easy transition: the collision of secular and pious lifestyles that were once socially and geographically separated often creates tensions. A recent assault by a local mob on several newly established art galleries in Tophane, a poor immigrant neighbourhood of Istanbul that is being rapidly gentrified, is a case in point.

For many secular Turks, these are dreadful signs of Turkey's creeping ‘Iranisation.' But tales of mutual suspicion and intolerance represent only part of the picture. The other part is about a country where a long disenfranchised majority is being gradually integrated into the socio-political system largely through democratic means and economic growth and, in the process, having to reconcile its traditional values with its newfound affluent tastes and liberal practices. Had the Shah achieved a similar feat, Iran may have never needed a revolution.

The many faces of Erdogan's Turkey

Turkey is a country of striking contrasts. It has more Facebook users than most western countries, yet YouTube remains banned by a court decision for broadcasting videos that insult Ataturk. Istanbul, the European capital of culture for 2010, has the highest number of mosques of any city, a vibrant art scene, a bustling nightlife, as well as sprawling shantytowns that are lately being replaced by government-funded housing blocks. It has a growing civil society that bravely confronts national taboos, as well as nationalist movements that fight to keep them intact.

Mr. Erdogan's AKP has managed to dominate Turkey's political life for the past eight years, because it embodies most of its contrasts. It is the only party that has significant electoral presence in the country's industrial west, conservative heartlands, and conflict-torn Kurdish southeast, as well as across most social and political divides. In 2007, when the party won nearly one of every two votes in a general election, its supporters included liberals, social democrats, and businesspeople, Islamists, nationalists as well as a significant number of Kurds.

Its democratising reforms have significantly trimmed the military's political tentacles, and won Turkey the EU candidate status in 2005. Its economic and fiscal policies attracted record levels of foreign investment, and helped avert the worst effects of the latest financial crisis. Its leaders, on the other hand, have become increasingly intolerant of dissent, taking cartoonists to court and putting pressure on critical journalists and newspapers. They have also been criticised for handing out lucrative business contracts to firms close to the party, and making appointments to local government positions, universities and the police on the basis of personal connections or association with various religious fraternities.

In 2009, the AKP government launched bold initiatives to normalise ties with Armenia, with which Turkey has no diplomatic ties, and find a democratic end to the bloody, three-decade-old Kurdish insurgency. Faced with a nationalist backlash, however, it soon reverted to populist rhetoric on both fronts. Finally, the AKP has gone further than any civilian authority to expose and cleanse the Turkish state of its ultra-nationalist, putschist and criminal elements; that is, the so-called “deep state”. It now risks squandering that possibility by turning the court case, known as ‘Ergenekon,' into a vendetta against political opponents.

It is no surprise, then, that the newly approved constitutional reform package also represents a mixed bag. The amendments remove legal obstacles preventing the trial of the junta that carried out the 1980 coup, which is responsible for the death and torture of thousands of people, particularly in the Kurdish provinces, but not the anti-democratic institutions it put in place. They break the monopoly of the Kemalist elite over the judiciary, which has been deeply ideological and shut down numerous political parties, but allow the executive to pack the courts with its own candidates.
<>Perhaps most importantly, the referendum process revealed a widespread demand for a brand new democratic Constitution. Political actors should respond to that demand without delay. The government should also catch what could be the last train towards a peaceful settlement of the Kurdish issue within the framework of a unified Turkey, by maintaining dialogue, both in public and in private, with the Kurdish nationalists.

Turkey's multi-faceted transformation is yet to be complete: the country is facing a historic moment to create its own brand of modernity — one that is vibrant, democratic and multicultural. This is by no means a foregone conclusion, however, and the pitfalls ahead are as daunting as the opportunities are enticing.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Ayodhya: is a solution possible?

The Supreme Court of India on September 23 gave a pause to the vexed Mandir-Masjid controversy and the contending title claims to the site made by the Muslim Waqf Board and the Hindu Dharam Sansad, by directing the Allahabad High Court to defer the pronouncement of the long-awaited judgment. Now, a three-judge bench headed by Chief Justice of India S.H. Kapadia is set to decide on the matter on September 28.

The learned judges of the Supreme Court, whatever their publicly stated positions, are not so naïve as to believe that within less than a week a solution could be found for the contentious case. It should be clear to everyone, most of all to the judges, that if the issue has defied a solution for more than a hundred years, no miracle is likely to happen within less than a week. All the water that has flowed down the Sarayu river through all these years has not helped Ayodhya to recover the meaning of its name — a place without war. On the contrary, the claims and counter-claims by the parties involved in the dispute have only helped to harden the respective positions, which have spread the hatred and distrust thus generated to the whole country.

Given these facts and the situation, what prompted the judges last week to grant a stay could not be the possibility of an imminent solution. They were probably trying to convey a message to the nation, particularly to those who are party to the dispute, as well as to the government. The case has dragged on for such a long time under the assumption that it could be resolved by the intervention of the judiciary. The court now seems to suggest that it is not the case; a real solution lies in the political domain, with the active participation of civil society.

The salience of the civil suit lies in the fact that it is implicated in the larger issue of the dispute pertaining to the Mandir and the Masjid on which the court cannot really pronounce a judgment, even if it gathered evidence from historians. The government was using the judiciary as an escape route. And the judiciary, instead of dismissing the case, attempted to overreach itself. As far as the civil suit for the title of the land is concerned, it was in fact decided in 1885-86. It was in the post-1857 period when political conditions were fluid that the mahant of Ayodhya constructed a chabutara on the land leading to the masjid and started worship, claiming it to be the janmasthan of Sri Ram. The mahant filed a case in 1885 claiming title to the land, but it was dismissed. So were his appeals to the superior courts. The British officials favoured the status quo, for religious and political reasons.

Record of aggression

The history of the Mandir-Masjid dispute during the post-Independence period is but a record of aggression by Hindu communal forces, and a series of compromises and reconciliation bids by the Central government led by the Indian National Congress, particularly under Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao.

In 1949, Hindu communal forces conducted a seven-day continuous recitation of Ramcharitamanas, which proved to be the precursor to the installation of an idol of Ram Lalla in the mosque. The fact that they got away with the defiance of the state not only emboldened them to indulge in further aggression, leading ultimately to the demolition of the Masjid. During this period, the Sangh Parivar not only organised a series of agitations to mobilise Hindus in the name of Ram but also made preparations for the construction of the temple. It assiduously built up a tempo of aggression, with Uma Bharti and Rithambara leading the charge. The finale of this carefully constructed aggression was the Rath Yatra led by Lal Krishna Advani 20 years ago, which finally led to the demolition of the Masjid in 1992. The demolition was a criminal act according to the laws of the country, as the mosque was a 400-year-old historical monument that the state was committed to protect.

While the Hindu communal forces were engaged in a progressive assault, the state was unable to solve its own political dilemma. The Congress which led the government during this period was committed to secularism in principle, but the party realised that it was not possible to survive without the electoral support of Hindus. As a consequence, the party indulged in secular rhetoric, but followed communal politics in practice. It pursued what has now come to be termed ‘soft Hindutva'. Through this means it hoped to outsmart the Hindu communal forces.

The leader who initiated this disastrous policy was Rajiv Gandhi. He ordered the opening of the locks of the Masjid, thereby permitting Hindus to perform puja inside. He did this in order to steal the thunder from the Hindu communal forces. His successor-Prime Minister pursued the policy of compromise much more vigorously, and ‘officially arranged' the shilanyas of the temple. The Congress thus became an appendage of communal forces; that is what emboldened a mob to demolish the Masjid, thus inflicting a major blow on democracy and secularism.

Decisive factor

The failure of the Indian state was a most decisive factor behind the act of demolition. As is evident from the account given later by Narasimha Rao, it is clear that the state failed to discharge its duty of protecting the monument. It failed to prevent Mr. Advani's Rath Yatra, which led to the loss of several lives: everybody knew it would have disastrous consequences. Even after the demolition, the construction of a temporary temple was not stopped. At least now the state can rectify its mistakes by charting out a bold and innovative step in line with the principles of secularism.

The parties to the dispute and those who indulged in violence in the name of Ram are not representatives of India's Hindus and Muslims. They have no authority to speak on behalf of Hindus and Muslims. They are actually seeking to coerce the members of these communities by claiming to speak on their behalf.

The meaning of Turkey's referendum

Turkey's political system rooted in the tradition of its founder President Kemal Ataturk and underwritten by its armed forces has suffered a mortal blow. A referendum held under the watch of the government led by the Justice and Developed Party (AKP) has effectively ended the military's commanding position within the Turkish establishment.

Fifty eight per cent of the voters who participated in the referendum approved amendments to 26 Articles, which included provisions to lift the immunity enjoyed by officers who plotted the 1980 coup. The present Constitution was formulated in the aftermath of this coup, the third in Turkey's turbulent history. It was arguably also its bloodiest, as an estimated 5,000 people were killed in its wake. In the reign of terror that followed, around 600,000 were detained, while hundreds of thousands were tortured or simply disappeared.

The September 12 vote brought about key changes in the Constitutional Court, Turkey's top judicial body, which has so far played a leading role in anchoring the Kemalist legacy. The Court reviews the laws to determine whether they conform to the Constitution. It is also empowered to sit in judgment of criminal cases involving the President, the Cabinet members and judges.

Following the referendum, the President will no longer have the sole prerogative of appointing judges to this body — a measure which critics say has allowed the influential military apparatus to play a decisive role when dealing with contentious issues. The vote also limits the Constitutional Court's influence over political parties which, in the past, have been frequently banned, apparently to enforce Turkey's iron-clad secularism.

The referendum marks a firm rejection of the military's hegemony over the Turkish establishment. By undermining the pervasive powers of the armed forces, what do the Turks and their current crop of leaders hope to achieve? Is Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the architect of the referendum and leader of the AKP — a party with Islamic roots — engaged in a process of turning secular Turkey into a theocracy? Is he an Ottoman-era revivalist or a leader who, in tune with the supposed aspirations of Turks, wants to fast-track Turkey's entry into the European Union by expediting democratisation?

Since it came to power in 2002, the AKP leadership has repeatedly reinforced its political commitment to a democratic and secular state, which does not suppress the emergence of a modern Muslim cultural identity. It has also expressed its aspiration of carving out a distinct Turkish national identity, which is neither European nor a 21st century clone of the Ottoman Empire. It appears that the Turks now see themselves as the focal point of an emotionally integrated West Asian commonwealth, which has a thriving economic relationship with the West, especially Europe.

As Turkey reinvents itself, it appears that its political transformation is being influenced by three distinct social trends.

First, its obsession with Europe is losing some of its gloss. A majority of Turks no longer see Europe as a continent that symbolises modernity and progress. A recent Transatlantic Trends survey conducted by the German Marshall Fund shows that only 38 per cent of Turks are now looking for an EU membership for their country. This is a precipitous drop from 2004, when a vociferous three-fourths of the Turkish respondents sought the EU membership.

Conversely, West Asia's appeal as a region that requires greater engagement is rising rapidly within Turkey. In 2009, only 10 per cent of the Turks wanted closer foreign policy ties with their neighbours to the southeast. But that number has doubled in one year. Third, and perhaps the most significant, Turks are showing a deeper respect for their own national identity. Nearly 34 per cent of the respondents, an all-time high, want Turkey to act alone, and plan its own agenda on the international stage.

As its leaders listen and Turkey introspects, it is finding comfort in retaining, if not reinforcing, its democratic and secular credentials. President Erdogan went to great lengths to talk about Turkey's deepening commitment to democracy soon after the positive outcome of the referendum. “Our faith and trust in democracy has again been seen. We understood once again that the place to solve all kinds of problems is democratic politics and that we can find a solution within democracy for all issues. The power of democracy, the power of politics, and the power of the nation all grew greatly today.” The referendum, he stressed, had delivered the message that Turkey supported “advanced democracy and freedoms”.

However, unlike in the past, the political context in which Mr. Erdogan expressed his support for democratic values has fundamentally changed. During the Kemalist era, the push for democracy and secularism was accompanied by a rejection of Islam. But Mr. Erdogan does not see a fundamental contradiction between democracy and Islam. In his view, it is not only necessary to promote democracy but also deepen Turkey's Muslim cultural roots and identity, in tune with the demands of a modern and advanced society. In an article that appeared on the website, Turkish columnist Mustafa Akyol wrote: “A group of theologians at Ankara University is examining early Islamic sources in order to distinguish core elements from the accretions of later history.” He pointed out that this group is supported by the Diyanet Isleri Baskanligi, the Turkish Republic's official religious body, to re-examine the Hadith. The Hadith are narrations of the words and deeds of Prophet Mohammad. Mr. Akyol says that “in comparison with the Koran, the Hadith are collectively of huge length, and full of minute details about how a Muslim should live.” Much of the Sharia or Islamic Law is based on the Hadith. This scholastic project, once completed and debated threadbare, could have wide-ranging implications within Turkey and the region beyond.

Turkey's novel recourse to evolutionary Islam and democracy has caught the imagination of people in West Asia. The Turkish model in which Republican values are seen cohabiting peacefully with religious thought has benefited Ankara's foreign policy as well. Turkey's support for the Palestinians and its bold confrontation with Israel in the wake of the Gaza-bound Mavi Marmara relief boat incident appear to have touched an emotional chord with the people in the region. Turkey's outreach to Iran to defuse the crisis surrounding its nuclear programme and its refusal to vote for fresh sanctions against Tehran have also made a difference to its regional standing. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has often used the word “family” while describing neighbouring West Asian countries. However, the same nomenclature does not apply to Ankara's European neighbourhood, which is better recognised as an avenue for Turkey's economic accomplishments in the future.

The referendum is part of a much bigger endeavour that Turkey has visualised for itself. Riding on the popularity of the vote, the AKP is now expecting spectacular electoral success in next year's parliamentary polls. Mr. Erdogan has already stated that once elected, he will draw up a brand new Constitution that will remove all legal vestiges of authoritarian rule, and begin a new era of progress.

However, major obstacles are yet to be overcome — before Mr. Erdogan achieves his maximalist objectives. For instance, the Turkish government has to show great sensitivity towards healing the psychological wounds inflicted by the 1980 coup. A display of vendetta against the coup leaders and their junior affiliates is not an option, as it is bound to be divisive. On the contrary, excessive restraint will hardly be sufficient to deter the military to stay out of politics or ease the prolonged agony of the victims. In order to strike the right balance, serious consideration is being given to the establishment of Truth and Reconciliation Committees. These committees could decide on re-opening cases, awarding amnesty wherever appropriate, and go into great depths to rule on the nature and content of compensation for the families of the victims. Despite the popularity of the vote, there are many sections, including Turkey's Muslim and non-Muslim minorities, which the AKP needs to reassure as it reinforces its political consolidation.

The integration of the Kurds in the national mainstream continues to pose a major challenge. Among the non-Muslim minorities, the problems of Armenians, who hold legitimate historical grievances traceable to the First World War-era, also need to be addressed. As its model of a secular and democratic Muslim majority state at a cross-roads of Europe and Asia takes root, Turkey is bound to be targeted by the al-Qaeda and its affiliates, who will see the Turkish experience as the biggest ideological threat to global jihad. The challenges are enormous, but Turkey is moving ahead with a rare clarity and sense of purpose to emerge as a nation that is at peace with itself, and its trouble-torn neighbourhood.

Monday, September 6, 2010

A deepening relationship

Writing on his blog before his 2006 visit to India while he was Leader of the Opposition in the British Parliament, David Cameron said he was going for “a simple reason: India matters so much in the modern world …Our relationship with India goes deep. But I think it can and should go deeper … I think it's time for Britain and India to forge a new special relationship for the twenty-first century.” Visiting India again this week, this time as Prime Minister, Mr. Cameron went all out to prove his determination to make those words come true. It is no secret that the recession-hit United Kingdom is eyeing India primarily through an economic lens. On his two-city tour, Mr. Cameron made a strong pitch for improving bilateral trade and investment, particularly for India to relax rules on foreign direct investment in legal services, banking and insurance, and in defence manufacturing. Although the joint statement was short on specific economic commitments, both countries agreed to “substantially increase trade and significantly increase investment,” and find ways to double it in the next five years. But the British delegation had at least one substantial achievement to celebrate — the clinching of the Rs.5,100 crore deal to supply Hawk trainer jets to the Indian Air Force and Navy. The document notes the “opportunities for wide-ranging cooperation” in the nuclear field after the signing earlier this year of the U.K.-India Civil Nuclear Cooperation Declaration. The Indian interest in attracting foreign investment in infrastructure development was reflected in the joint statement, with both countries agreeing to explore how best to go about this.

With Mr. Cameron determined to woo India, both sides seemed to have deliberately avoided speaking on difficult bilateral issues publicly. If New Delhi reiterated its reservation on the British cap on immigration, it did so quietly. While there has been no change in substantive positions, the atmospherics this time were far better than during the final years of the Labour government under Gordon Brown when David Miliband's tone and comments, particularly on Kashmir, had not been received well. Prime Minister Cameron was careful not to mention the Kashmir issue at all. Unsurprisingly, his candid statements on terrorism emanating from Pakistan against India, Afghanistan, and the other parts of the world, have endeared him to Indians. That the same statements have caused outrage in Pakistan — casting a shadow over President Asif Ali Zardari's visit to the U.K. next week — and come under criticism in Britain, where Mr. Cameron has been attacked for antagonising Islamabad, only goes to show that in diplomacy, you cannot please all the people all the time.

Signalling a shift to universal PDS

Three major elements of the United Progressive Alliance government's commitment to provide food security to the people are reforming the public distribution system (PDS), raising foodgrain productivity and production, and creating a decentralised, modern warehousing system.

Ideally, the reforms in the PDS should have come first for the availability and delivery of subsidised foodgrains to become meaningful and comprehensive. Be that as it may, the recommendation of the National Advisory Council (NAC) to launch universal PDS in one-fourth of all districts or blocks for a start should be seen as a paradigm shift towards universalisation. This move reveals that the all-powerful NAC headed by UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi has realised that the ability to deliver cheap foodgrains will be contingent on availability — availability that is home-grown, not based on imports.

In order to make a serious effort to meet the provisions of the proposed food security Bill, it is essential to enhance the production of wheat, rice, pulses, oilseeds and millets. This, in turn, needs a policy review in favour of land reforms, securing fertile agricultural land for foodgrain production rather than allowing the indiscriminate setting up of special economic zones (SEZs), mega-food parks and builders' colonies on farmers' fields.

By all indications, the 150 districts from where universal PDS would commence will be in the rural poverty-belt in Jharkhand, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Orissa, Assam, eastern Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. Recent events have shown that there is a certain urgency about reaching out to the poor and the marginalised people in this belt.

The rough calculation is that universalisation will begin in some 1,500 blocks (an average of 10 in each of the 150 districts) where more than 95 per cent of the population is poor. The criterion that is being worked out will exclude those who are in salaried or government jobs, are income tax payees, have a four-wheeler or own a plot or a house with a plinth area of over 500 square feet. Using these criteria, it is estimated that about five per cent of the population would be out of the scheme in these districts. This will be crucial because the identification of beneficiaries and implementation of the scheme will be done by the State governments.

It has also been decided to subsume the “poorest of the poor” — the Antyodaya Anna Yojna beneficiary families now numbering 2.5 crore of the 6.5 crore Below Poverty Line (BPL) families. The AAY beneficiaries buy PDS foodgrains at Rs.2 a kg. They will have to pay Re.1 more for grain under the universal PDS, which will provide 35 kg wheat or rice at Rs.3 a kg per family to all the identified beneficiaries, including those in the Above Poverty Line (APL) category, in the identified districts.

For the rest of the 490-odd districts where targeted PDS will continue for now, the Tendulkar Committee's poverty estimate of 8.07 core families will hold. Hence, for the APL population that is brought in or kept out of the PDS depending on grain availability, it will be status quo for the time being. The APL families will gradually (possibly over five years) be assured of a minimum of 25 kg per family at prices that will be worked out by the government. The subsidy burden will depend on the estimated offtake and the cost will be worked out by the Union Ministry of Food and Public Distribution.

Welfare measures including mid-day meal programmes, the integrated child development scheme and calamity relief programmes will continue. The inclusion of the destitute, migrants, the old, the infirm and the urban poor will be worked out after the Hashim Committee report on urban poverty is received. For now, pulses and edible oils will not be included in the food basket under the proposed National Food Security Act as the acute shortfall in the production of these commodities is met by large-scale imports.

Broadly, there will be an enhanced outgo of about 20 million tonnes on account of providing 35 kg (up from the present 12 kg) to the APL population at Rs.3 a kg in the 150 districts in addition to the BPL outgo. In a bad year, this may come from cutting APL or Open Market Sale Scheme allocations.

It is clear by now that the key to universalisation is the availability of foodgrains. For this reason, even the activists working under the banner of the Right to Food Campaign have accepted “phased” universalisation. The Food Ministry's cautious estimate is that the average annual availability for the PDS is about 43 million tonnes. The NAC seems to have gone by the Planning Commission estimate of availability of about 50 to 55 million tonnes to ensure the supply of cheap foodgrains in 150 districts besides fulfilling regular commitments of buffer and welfare schemes.

It is obvious that the UPA's seeming benevolence on the food security front is not going to be entirely without strings. The underlying principle is that the subsidy accruing from providing foodgrains at cheap rates will come from withdrawal of subsidies on petrol, diesel and, gradually, kerosene, and other unforeseen measures.

Besides ensuring minimum foodgrain entitlements at a discount, the draft of the National Food Security Act will indicate enabling clauses with regard to enhancing foodgrain production, public distribution reforms and improvement in drinking water, sanitation, health and hygiene for better intake and absorption of food by the poor.

In other words, the proposed Bill will provide for food security but call for nutrition security.

Back to founding principles

The Bangladesh Supreme Court has made a progressive and far-reaching contribution to the project of national renewal that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed has undertaken since her return to power in December 2008. For much of its nearly four decade-long existence, Bangadesh has had the misfortune of having its national destiny determined not by the secular founding principles of its 1971 liberation struggle, but by military adventurers and — as in Pakistan — their hand-maidens, the religious parties. Under Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, the daughter of Bangladesh's founding father Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, and herself a participant in the liberation movement, there is a determined mood to reclaim those principles. With a two-thirds majority in Parliament, the ruling Awami League can easily make the required constitutional changes. But it now has a solid legal foundation in the Supreme Court's judgment upholding the annulment of General ZiaurRehman's Fifth Constitution Amendment. The amendment, introduced in 1979, legitimised the regimes that followed Sheikh Mujib's assassination. The Supreme Court has boldly struck down the Zia-era phrase “absolute trust and faith in the Almighty Allah” in the preamble to the Constitution, and ordered the restoration of the original sentence containing the words “secularism, nationalism, democracy and socialism.” The judgment does not cover the 1988 Eighth Amendment introduced by General H.M. Ershad, making Islam the state religion. But by explicitly ordering the restoration of “secularism” in the preamble, the Supreme Court has left the door open for legal challenges to it. The judgment also makes clear its abhorrence of military rule.

The reinstatement of Article 12 — omitted in Zia's rewriting of the Constitution — prohibiting religion-based political mobilisation could have immediate implications for Bangladesh's rightwing Islamic groups, some of which are known to have foreign patrons and links with extremist and militant organisations. The Awami League government must take into account the possible political fallout before seeking to ban religious parties on the basis of the judgment, considering that these parties, including the Jamaat-e-Islami, are aligned with Khaleda Zia's Bangladesh National Party. The atmosphere in Bangladesh is already charged on account of the ongoing trial by an “international war crimes tribunal” of Jamaat leaders accused of collaborating with Pakistan in 1971. The Sheikh Hasina government must be careful not to permit the country's political polarisation to negate the recent positive achievements towards nation-building.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Pakistan handing over control of PoK to China?

While the world focuses on the flood-ravaged Indus River valley, a quiet geopolitical crisis is unfolding in the Himalayan borderlands of northern Pakistan, where Islamabad is handing over de facto control of the strategic Gilgit-Baltistan region in the northwest corner of disputed Kashmir to China.

The entire Pakistan-occupied western portion of Kashmir stretching from Gilgit in the north to the Indian side in the south is closed to the world, in contrast to the media access that India permits in the eastern part, where it is combating a Pakistan-backed insurgency. But reports from a variety of foreign intelligence sources, Pakistani journalists and Pakistani human rights workers reveal two important new developments in Gilgit-Baltistan: A simmering rebellion against Pakistani rule and the influx of an estimated 7,000 to 11,000 soldiers of the People's Liberation Army (PLA).

China wants a grip on the region to assure unfettered road and rail access to the Gulf through Pakistan. It takes 16 to 25 days for Chinese oil tankers to reach the Gulf. When high-speed rail and road links through Gilgit and Baltistan are completed, China will be able to transport cargo from Eastern China to the new Chinese-built Pakistani naval bases at Gwadar, Pasni and Ormara, just east of the Gulf, within 48 hours.

Many of the PLA soldiers entering Gilgit-Baltistan are expected to work on the railroad. Some are extending the Karakoram Highway, built to link China's Sinkiang Province with Pakistan. Others are working on dams, expressways and other projects.

Mystery surrounds the construction of 22 tunnels in secret locations where Pakistanis are barred. Tunnels would be necessary for a projected gas pipeline from Iran to China that would cross the Himalayas through Gilgit. But they could also be used for missile storage sites.

Until recently, the PLA construction crews lived in temporary encampments and went home after completing their assignments. Now they are building big residential enclaves clearly designed for a long-term presence.

What is happening in the region matters to Washington for two reasons. Coupled with its support for the Taliban, Islamabad's collusion in facilitating China's access to the Gulf makes clear that Pakistan is not a US "ally". Equally important, the nascent revolt in the Gilgit-Baltistan region is a reminder that Kashmiri demands for autonomy on both sides of the cease-fire line would have to be addressed in a settlement.

Media attention has exposed the repression of the insurgency in the Indian-ruled Kashmir Valley. But if reporters could get into the Gilgit-Baltistan region and Azad Kashmir, they would find widespread, brutally-suppressed local movements for democratic rights and regional autonomy.

When the British partitioned South Asia in 1947, the maharajah who ruled Kashmir, including Gilgit and Baltistan, acceded to India. This set off intermittent conflict that ended with Indian control of the Kashmir valley, the establishment of Pakistan-sponsored Kashmir in its western part, and Pakistan's occupation of Gilgit and Baltistan, where Sunni jihadi groups allied with the Pakistan Army have systematically terrorized the local Shiite Muslims.

Gilgit and Baltistan are in effect under military rule. Democratic activists there want a legislature and other institutions without restrictions, where the elected legislature controls only 4 out of 56 subjects covered in the state Constitution. The rest are under the jurisdiction of a "Kashmir Council" appointed by the president of Pakistan.

India gives more power to the state government in Srinagar; elections there are widely regarded as fair, and open discussion of demands for autonomy is permitted. But the Pakistan-abetted insurgency in the Kashmir valley has added to tensions between the forces and an assertive population seeking greater of local autonomy.

The United States is uniquely situated to play a moderating role in Kashmir, given its growing economic and military ties with India and Pakistan's aid dependence on Washington. Such a role should be limited to quiet diplomacy. Washington should press New Delhi to resume autonomy negotiations with Kashmiri separatists. Success would put pressure on Islamabad for comparable concessions in Gilgit-Baltistan. In Pakistan, Washington should focus on getting Islamabad to stop aiding the insurgency in the Kashmir Valley and to give New Delhi a formal commitment that it will not annex Gilgit and Baltistan.

Precisely because the Gilgit-Baltistan region is so important to China, the United States, India and Pakistan should work together to make sure that it is not overwhelmed, like Tibet, by the Chinese behemoth.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

A conference on caste-based enumeration comes up with valid arguments in support of the exercise.

THE inclusion of caste in Census 2011 has been a vexed question for the polity. The uncertainty over the issue has now come to an end with the Group of Ministers (GoM) on Caste Census giving its consent for the exercise. Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, who led the GoM, announced in the Lok Sabha on August 12 that only the modalities remained to be sorted out.

In the past few months, caste-based enumeration has been the subject of opinion columns of newspapers, talk shows on television and discussions on the Internet. A conference on “Caste Census: Towards an Inclusive India”, held on July 23 at the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy (CSSEIP) of the National Law School of India University (NLSIU), Bangalore, provided another forum to discuss the issue at length. The participants consisted of a multidisciplinary academic group involved in research on caste and public policy.

Justice M.N. Rao, Chairperson of the National Commission for Backward Classes; Dr M. Vijayanunni, former Registrar General and Census Commissioner of India; Prof. Sukhdeo Thorat, Chairperson of the University Grants Commission; and Prof. S. Japhet, Director, CSSEIP, NLSIU, were among the distinguished personalities who participated in the conference. The group generally was of the opinion that caste-based enumeration was unavoidable in the Indian context.

However, in a letter to the GoM (published in the Opinion Column of The Hindu dated August 14), the participants of the conference objected to its recommendation to conduct caste enumeration at the biometric data capture stage. Saying that outside agencies are likely to be involved at this stage, they argued strongly that The Census of India (or the Office of the Registrar General of India) “is the only competent agency in the country with the necessary expertise and experience to undertake this gigantic task”.

History of caste census

The last time an Indian census included caste data was in 1931. According to Vijayanunni, caste data were collected in 1941 as well, but their tabulation was dropped as a money-saving measure during the Second World War. Several historians have argued that the inclusion of caste in the Indian census by the British was an anthropological exercise to learn about the colonised. In his well-known book Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, Benedict Anderson has said that the ‘census', the ‘map' and the ‘museum' were ways in which the colonialists learnt about the colonised. Some historians say that the manner in which caste and religious data were collected rigidified the otherwise nebulous caste and religious identities in South Asia.

The 1871 census (the first census exercise in British India) shows how the colonial census operations categorised certain castes as superior, intermediate, trading, pastoral, and so on (Memorandum on the Census of British India 1871-72, page 21, available on the website of La Trobe University). This clearly legitimised certain caste notions of superiority and inferiority by the state itself.

Census 1901 reveals an interesting feature: a fall in the number of ‘lower castes' compared with past censuses. This was because of a severe famine in the 1890s. The census report states: “The diminution in the lower groups is doubtless due to the excessive mortality of 1897 when the administration had to face, and admittedly failed to solve, the difficult problem of forcing relief upon people who were reluctant to accept it until they had been reduced to a state of debility which could end only in death.” This is an example of how caste enumeration can be useful; the 1901 census helped identify which castes were affected most severely by the famine.

Idea of a casteless society

When India became a republic and adopted its Constitution in 1950, it was recognised that the nation needed to move towards a casteless society. But the very fact of ‘untouchability' being accepted as a reality in the Constitution implied that caste was pervasive in society. The issue came up for a vociferous debate in the Constituent Assembly. Several members argued that untouchability could be abolished only if the caste system was done away with.

Promatha Ranjan Thakur, a member of the Constituent Assembly from Bengal, said on April 29, 1947: “I do not understand how you can abolish untouchability without abolishing the very caste system. Untouchability is nothing but the symptom of the disease, namely, the caste system. It exists as a matter of caste system. I do not understand how this, in its present form, can be allowed to stand in the list of fundamental rights. I think the House should consider this point seriously. Unless we can do away with the caste system altogether there is no use tinkering with the problem of untouchability superficially. I have nothing more to say. I hope the House will consider my suggestion seriously” (Constituent Assembly debates at

Caste continues to be a pervasive marker of identity in Indian society today, and there have been mixed opinions in the recent debate on conducting a caste-based census. For instance, in a scathing piece in India Today, the sociologist Dipankar Gupta wrote thus about the demand for conducting a caste-based census: “Our democracy is determined to show the world that whatever others can do, we can do worse. If in this process, individual initiatives are killed, standards lowered, and professional ethics compromised, there is no cause for worry. We can still sink a lot lower.”
Caste and polity

There is a visible link between caste identity and political affiliations in almost all parts of the country. The discipline of psephology in India is dominated by the analysis of the ‘caste' factor, and its open usage in the media and public forums defeats the noble idea enshrined in the Constitution. It may be argued that direct elections and the growth of political parties have helped the growth of caste consciousness. Over several decades it has also led to what Christophe Jaffrelot calls, in his work India's Silent Revolution: The Rise of the Lower Castes in North India, “a genuine democratisation of India”. He says “the social and economic effects of this ‘silent revolution' are bound to multiply in the years to come”.

The participants of the conference made this point while arguing that counting caste will help the nation move towards caste equality and a caste-free society. They questioned the so-called ‘nobility' of not ascertaining castes leading to the utopian idea of a casteless society. Said Satish Deshpande, a sociologist at Delhi University: “Not counting caste has defeated the desire to transcend caste, and the noble idea of ‘caste blindness' should be rejected in favour of a fresh beginning [of counting caste].” The participants also argued that “enumerating all castes will allow us to examine whether – and how – caste continues to affect the distribution of privilege and disprivilege in our society. It is as important to track how caste benefits some groups as it is to monitor how it disadvantages other groups.”

The strongest point in favour of conducting caste-based census was that it would help devise an evidence-based social policy. As such, there is a wide disparity in caste figures, particularly in the number of Other Backward Classes (it varies from 40 to 52 per cent). The implementation of several social policies benefiting particular castes depends on knowing their exact numbers.

It is also true that policy discussions on caste-related issues are handicapped by a lack of data. Caste-based census, its proponents say, will generate a reliable and comprehensive database on “issues such as interrelations between caste and socio-economic condition”. This will also help the judiciary on adjudicating on important measures such as reservation of government and public sector jobs in States where reservation has crossed the constitutionally mandated 50 per cent (as in Tamil Nadu where reservation is 69 per cent). Caste-based census will also give details on the differences in the socio-economic conditions of various castes.
Procedural difficulties

Responding to the procedural difficulties that might entail the incorporation of caste in the census, Vijayanunni said the Census Commission of India was equipped to handle all the procedural and methodological requirements. He said the issue of including new castes in the Scheduled Castes list had come up for consideration in the 1990s, but the census establishment did not want to take up the responsibility because of several factors, including the fact that the Social Justice Ministry is the nodal ministry to deal with the subject of caste.

On the stand taken by some people to involve other organisations in identifying castes, he said the Census Commission of India was “the only competent agency that can be expected to undertake the all-India data collection and tabulation exercise required for caste data. The Social Justice and the Tribal Affairs Ministries, though dealing with the subject of castes and tribes, do not have the infrastructure, experience or organisational base to undertake this task, and that is why collection, tabulation and dissemination of Schedule Caste-Schedule Tribe [S.C./S.T.] data has been undertaken by the census all these years.”

He also said that the proper time for the collection of caste data was the population enumeration phase of the census, from February 9 to 28, 2011, and not during the biometric data capture for the National Population Register. Dismissing doubts about the methodological hurdles in collecting caste information one by one, Vijayanunni said the census could be used to collect data for all castes without confining the data collection exercise to OBCs alone.

Competent authority

The competence of the enumerator to decide whether a person belongs to the S.C., the S.T., the OBC, or any other category was a contentious point in the debate.

In fact, a few castes are categorised differently in different States. The delegates concurred that the enumerator was not the competent authority to make this distinction and that he or she should enter the given caste name in the designated column on caste without raising any objections or argument. The process of verification/classification was to be done later by census officials, they said.

The participants also agreed that a National Task Force or advisory group can assist with the identification and consolidation of caste data (as was done with religion and caste returns for S.C./S.T. groups in past censuses).

Sceptics say that in a caste-based census, there is the possibility of upper castes misreporting their caste and claiming to belong to backward castes or of backward castes inflating their numbers for political and material benefits. However, the delegates said that caste being a public identity, it would be difficult for a person to make spurious claims about one's caste. What they chose to ignore, however, is that while caste may be a public identity, the process of collecting census data is a private activity and not one conducted in public.

Minorities and caste identities

The question of minorities and their caste identities also came up for discussion. The sociologist Imtiaz Ahmed, whose pioneering work demonstrated the pervasive consciousness of caste among Muslims, feared that religious minorities would not be enumerated as having a caste, thus immediately denying them entry into any category on the basis of caste. His fears may be valid, but in several States communities of Muslims (some even in their entirety) are included in the lists of OBCs or S.Cs.

The conference did not address how caste enumeration will lead to a casteless society when the proposed caste-based census is already being pejoratively referred to as Mandal-II. The political upheaval that such a clear delineation of caste figures would lead to was also not addressed.

The participants dismissed the criticism that caste-based census would lead to an increase in caste consciousness or that it will further caste divisions. Except for a tiny minority, they said, everyone was aware of his or her caste identity.

The proceedings of the conference were released as a book in New Delhi on August 5 by Digvijay Singh, general secretary of the All India Congress Committee, and M. Veerappa Moily, Union Minister for Law and Justice. The book serves as a useful primer on the issue of incorporating caste as a category in the census.