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 na├»ve 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.