Posted by: John Elliott | January 7, 2015

India’s Seven Sisters – so near and yet so far

“Are you going on to India?” I found myself asking two Swiss tourists whom I met over New Year in India’s north-eastern state of Assam. I could try to justify the question by explaining that they had been talking about going next to the nearby countries of Bhutan and Nepal, but that wasn’t what was in my mind. I clearly felt, subconsciously, that I was outside India, relaxing at the Kaziranga national park alongside the massive Brahmaputra River and watching famous one-horned rhinos, wild buffaloes and elephants.

Assam is one of the “seven sisters” states that lie to the east of Bangladesh and Bhutan, linked to India only by a 20-40km wide strip of land known at the Siliguri Corridor. Ethnically different from the Indian “mainland” (as many people there refer to the rest of the country), they look more East Asian, and there are sharp religious differences. Muslims account for 30% of Assam’s population and Christianity is widespread – it is the major religion in three of the states, Nagaland, Mizoram and Meghalaya.

north-eastWith only about 3% of India’s population, the area is usually out of the focus of most of India’s central government – until disaster strikes, as it did on December 23 when 80 people, mostly women and children, were shot dead by a local terrorist group.

That led to rapid security-oriented government activity from Delhi, but it generated far less media attention, in the rest of India as well as internationally, than the slaughter just eight days earlier of 134 school children in more newsworthy north-western Pakistan.

That indicates why the area feels it is “on the map, off the mind”, which was the title of a discussion I joined at the Guwahati Literary Festival in Assam’s capital on December 27. Bitterness about being out of the country’s mainstream was evident during that and other discussions at the festival, as was a beleaguered sense of sacrifice and misery. Poets and writers revealed a society rocked helplessly by decades of violence since it was officially classified as “disturbed” over half a century ago.

In the 1980s, on a visit to Srinagar, the capital of Jammu and Kashmir, a state government minister asked me during an interview which flight I was getting “back to India”. That reflected the wish in the state, whose territory is disputed with Pakistan, to have considerable autonomy (and maybe even independence) from Delhi, but the north east does not want that. There have been separatist movements, but the cry now is for Delhi to take more notice and be more involved, not less, in developing the region within India’s federal system.

The situation is complicated by the area’s location at the intersection of South, South Eastern, and Eastern Asia, bordering Bhutan, Bangladesh, Myanmar and China, plus the adjacent state of Sikkim’s frontier with Nepal.

The Brahmaputra River at Guwahati

The Brahmaputra River at Guwahati

The geography makes Delhi apprehensive and protective about what happens, especially because of China’s growing assertiveness in the neighbouring countries and its disputed border with India. Further complications arise from porous borders with the neighbours that provide access points for people seeking work as well as terrorists’ escape routes to safe havens. Myanmar has been reported as the most likely destination after the killings on December 23 for terrorists who reportedly belonged to an extreme faction of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB).

The Bodos are the biggest of the region’s many tribal communities and in Assam see themselves as a deprived minority deserving special treatment. As Aditi Phadnis wrote recently in the Business Standard, successive Congress state governments have given them “moral and material assistance, sometimes covertly”, using them as a counterpoint against a regional Assamese party.

Several of the seven sister states have been carved out of what was a much larger Assam, either to stem violence by the Bodos and other local pressure groups or for some other short-term political gain. The borders are often unsatisfactory because, having been drawn as quick-fix solutions, they do not reflect ethnic or religious boundaries. For example, Naga people live not only in the state of Nagaland but also in Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh and Assam as well as in Myanmar.

A Bodo Territorial Autonomous District (BTAD) was created with its own Council eleven years ago, but this is only a notional homeland because the Bodos make up just 35% of the population alongside 20% Muslims and 15% other adivasis (tribals). “As a result, the Bodos have political power and wealth on the strength of arbitrage and rental income (largely from the funds that flow in for the development of the BTAD), but no real economic power,” says Phadnis.

Political fixes

Such short-term political fixes, aimed at placating some groups (or courting others such as Muslims) are typical of the way that Congress Party governments have operated in many states. In Assam that has led to Bodo violence not only against the other adivasis but also Muslims who include many migrants from Bangladesh and last came under major attack in 2012.

“Once the government through its paramilitary action corners the leaders of one militant outfit and arrests some of its leaders, the outfit agrees to talk to the government and comes overground,” Subir Roy wrote in the Business Standard last week. “This is signal to the section that has not been a party to the talks to start their own militant violence. The process of government action then gets repeated with this second faction”.

Delhi’s answer has also been to placate troublesome groups by flooding the states with the development funds, most of which never arrive at their destinations because they are syphoned off by group leaders, plus a heavy presence of the army and less effective para-military forces. The chief minister of a state like Assam will be glad he has the highly disciplined army at hand and that he can liaise with the local general and a unified command about what is needed.

But the presence of so much security, backed by a highly controversial special powers act, adds to the sense of a region under siege and riven with terrorism, which it is not, despite the killings.

For the vast mass of India, this is all just too complicated and distant to comprehend. As my host at Diphlu River Lodge on the edge of Kaziranga put it, people in the north-east know a lot about the rest of India, but the reverse if not true. Abroad there is even less awareness. One of my sons, who lived in India when he was young, emailed me yesterday saying, “The national park looks amazing. Just looked it up (on Google) and didn’t realise India went that far across!”

Mark Tully, the veteran BBC broadcaster, said during our “on the map, off the mind” session that the north east should not only look to Delhi for salvation, but should take more steps itself to develop the region. That of course is correct, but it requires leadership from Delhi that should go beyond misallocated funds and flurries of security-oriented activity.

Rajnath Singh, India’s home minister and a top BJP leader, rushed to Assam after the December attacks and there were highly publicised security operations, which achieved little because the leaders had found refuge elsewhere. I could find no-one in Assam, nor have I read, any credible explanation of why the militant Bodo faction struck at four different points on December 23.

There are signs however that Narendra Modi’s government intends to take more positive action: indeed the north east provides the prime minister with an opportunity to show how he intends to mend the way India is run. That needs to start with national political leadership for effective economic development, implementation of long-delayed projects, action to stem human rights abuses by security forces, and development of trade pacts and routes with neighbouring countries.

That would begin to transform the region’s prospects and tie it more into the life of the “mainland”. In the past, prime ministers have not had the time or interest to focus on such a distant problem – and that includes Manmohan Singh who was elected to the Rajya Sabha from Assam. Can Modi do better?

This article appears on the Asia Sentinel (Hong Kong) news website  http://www.asiasentinel.com

Posted by: John Elliott | December 24, 2014

Merry Christmas!

Haku Shah %22Flute Player%22 2006

An essential skill for being a successful head of government is to manage the troublemakers in your own party. David Cameron is failing to do that now with the anti-European Union wing of Britain’s Conservative Party, but Tony Blair did it successfully in the late-1990s when he curbed the power of trade unions and left-wingers in the Labour Party.

Narendra Modi is turning out to be a Cameron rather than a Blair by failing to curb the unruly and often fanatical Hindu-nationalist anti-Muslim wing of the Sangh Parivar, the family of organisations that embraces his Bharatiya Janata Party and the primary Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).

Stories about mass Hindu conversions, anti-Muslim insults, and activists’ dreams of building a Hindu India have mushroomed to such an extent that Modi was reported by a Marathi language newspaper in Maharashtra two days ago to have warned RSS leaders that he could resign if they and others (including an least one government minister) do not curb their extreme Hind rhetoric.

Sadhvi Niranjan JyotiThis followed at least two other reported private warnings to MPs not to speak out of turn and not to stir up communal issues. Modi probably did not mean he would resign, if he ever said it – surely he is not the resigning type! But the story, which has spread across the media, serves as a warning to the BJP-RSS family, who know that they are only in government because of his electoral appeal.

Yet Modi is clearly reluctant to speak out publicly, especially on the current controversy of conversions where it is difficult for him, as a follower of the RSS since his teens, to disagree with the Sangh Parivar line.

The trouble started three weeks ago when a controversial new woman minister, Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti (left), reportedly implied at a political rally that non-Hindus (ie Muslims) were illegitimate: ” ‘Aapko tay karna hai ki Dilli mein sarkar Ramzadon ki banegi ya haramzadon ki. Yeh aapka faisla hai’ (You have to decide if you want a government peopled by the children of Ram or one full of bastards.)” She had made similar remarks on earlier occasions but eventually apologised, and Modi persuaded opposition parties, after long Rajya Sabha protests, not to insist on her resignation.  Another BJP MP has praised the assassin of Mahatma Gandhi a “patriot”.

Then the accident-prone human resources minister, Smriti Irani (below), caused a row when schools and universities were told by her ministry to observe Christmas Day (a religious public holiday, but also the 90th birthday of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the BJP’s last prime minister) with events marking it as Good Governance Day. Modi then controversially ordered ministers and top bureaucrats to stage events marking the day.

Mass conversions and ghar vapsi

The major issue now is widespread condemnation of mass conversions to the Hindu religion. The BJP says it is prepared to introduce national legislation banning forced conversions. Such a law is already in force in some states (including Modi’s Gujarat). It can be used to block freedom of choice (people are usually responding to offers of economic benefits rather than changing religious beliefs), but conversely it does not necessarily stop induced conversions.

Smriti IraniThere is no doubt that conversion is the aim of the RSS and its supporters. They say that all Indians were once Hindus and have been converted to Christianity, Islam and other religions over the centuries. They hold re-conversion events called ghar vapsi (coming home), which had been happening recently, and they are outspoken about their aims.

“We will bring back those who have lost their way,” Mohan Bhagwat, the chief of the RSS said yesterday. “They did not go on their own… They were lured into leaving,”

Our target is to make India a Hindu Rashtra [nation] by 2021,” the leader of an extremist Hindu organisation in Uttar Pradesh was reported to have said two days ago. “The Muslims and Christians don’t have any right to stay here. So they would either be converted to Hinduism or forced to run away from here,” .

We are going to take percentage of Hindus to 100 in country. Currently there are 82 per cent Hindus in India, and we don’t want this number to be halved. We won’t tolerate Hindus becoming a minority in the country,” a senior Sangh Parivar leader, Pravin Togadia (below) of the hard-line Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP), said yesterday, reflecting unrealistic fears of Muslims increasing from the current 12% of the population to a majority.

Such statements have often been made in the past, but they have more resonance, and are seen by supporters of a broad-based Indian society as being more threatening, when the BJP is in government and the Sangh Parivar is invigorated by the triumphalism of that power.

Opposition political parties have seized on all this with glee and are now pressing for Modi to make a statement on where the government stands on conversions. They have been stalling parliamentary proceedings on this and the other issues in the Rajya Sabha (upper house), where Modi’s BJP does not have a majority, blocking or slowing the passage of key legislation including sales tax, coal mining and insurance bills.

praveen togadiaThe Congress and other parties had not expected to be able to undermine Modi so early in the life of the government, just seven months after the general election. Nor could they have expected to have such an easy target as Hindu nationalism, which is Modi’s most vulnerable point. He finds it hard to stem the unpalatable flow because he himself is an RSS member, as are many ministers in his government, and he has tried to avoid making public statements on the issues. His priority is undoubtedly economic growth, but that does not necessarily go for everyone around him.

This must be galling for Modi, who has proudly paraded himself on the world stage as a new and powerful political figure, befriending world leaders and drawing massed crowds of up to 20,000 overseas Indians in New York’s Madison Square Gardens and in Sydney. London’s Wembley Stadium is rumoured to be his target when he visits the UK next year, and has the capacity to could hold up to 90,000 adulatory and applauding admirers.

Such displays lose some of their sheen however when the star turn lacks authority, and that is what has begun to happen to Modi, though he is still having some modest election successes.

The BJP has gained control of the Jharkhand state assembly in election results just announced (updated December 23), and it should win the New Delhi assembly when elections are held there soon. Other results just announced show it failed to win a tougher contest in Jammu and Kashmir where it has the consolation prize of ousting the Congress Party and a regional Congress ally to become the second biggest party in the assembly.

On performance and policy issues, Modi is delivering neither the reforms to change the way that government is run, nor the economic growth, that had been expected by this time. He has launched high profile schemes such as cleaning India, spreading financial inclusion and involvement, and boosting manufacturing (which has slumped along with fixed investment). But he has not shown how these are being, or will be, implemented.

He has new and competent ministers in charge of railways and defence (where substantial progress is being made on urgently needed equipment orders and other initiatives), but changes are evident in few other areas. Bureaucrats are turning up for work on time in some government departments, but this does not seem to have shown many results in terms of policy decisions.

This would have been politically tolerable if the government had managed to dominate the winter session of parliament that ends tomorrow, but it has not been able to do so because the opposition blocked proceedings. Some bills have been passed, but two potentially major measures have been stalled. One deals with urgently needed new coal mining laws and the other raises foreign direct investment in insurance companies from 26% to 49%, which has been pending for six years. [UPDATE Dec 24: The cabinet decided to introduce the calm and insurance measures through an official ordinance, but that will have to be approved when parliament reassembles in February for the Budget session].

Also awaited is a new Goods and Services Tax (GST), which has also been delayed for years. Arun Jaitley, the finance minister, has negotiated compromise legislation with individual states and other political parties and a bill has been tabled in the Lok Sabha (lower housed) but not the Rajya Sabha.

Modi is reported to have told BJP MPs last week: “Our party agenda is development and good governance and we should not dither in it. Nor will we allow anyone to deviate us from that commitment”. Now he needs to turn those words into reality – if he can.

Posted by: John Elliott | December 8, 2014

Uber taxi rape displays India’s social and institutional flaws

Uber logoWhen the international Uber taxi hire firm opened in India last year, it was seen as a potentially efficient and easily accessible alternative to creaky unreliable rival cabs.

That image was shattered late last Friday evening when an Uber driver allegedly raped a young woman in Delhi.

This demonstrated how little has changed since rapes hit the international headlines two years ago, when a young woman died after being gang raped in a bus. Death is now the ultimate penalty for those convicted, but that has not deterred young men and there are a stream of rape reports in the newspapers virtually every day.

The incident also showed how there is little respect for laws and regulations, and how they are appallingly applied in a society where institutional controls are frequently inefficient or even inoperative.

The 32-year old Uber driver, according to media reports, has told police that he was accused of rape in 2011 and spent seven months in prison, though was later acquitted. Yet Uber, whose operations were today banned in Delhi, apparently did not do sufficient checks to discover this, and it has no call centre for emergencies.

Rapes are common in India where sexually repressed young men often regard the act as an assertion of male superiority. They happen in villages, where women at the bottom of the caste system are regular targets, and they happen in cities where young men (probably like the taxi driver) are envious and aroused by the burgeoning wealth and social life around them that is beyond their reach – especially in an economy that is not providing jobs.

uber adThe woman, in her mid-20s, was returning home last Friday after spending the evening with friends in a Delhi pub, according to media reports.

One of the friends drove her part of the way, and she then called up an Uber taxi on her mobile phone app to complete the journey from the friend’s home at about 10.30pm. She fell asleep in the back of the car, and woke to find the driver fondling her. She resisted, but has told the police the driver raped her, and dropped her at her home at 1am. She then called the police, despite his threats that she should not do so.

The institutional failures were demonstrated when the Delhi police did not have contact details for Uber. To track the company down, a deputy commissioner of police downloaded an Uber application onto his mobile early Saturday morning, ordered a cab, and then told the driver to take him to the head office.

Operating in the virtual world of the internet, Uber does not seem to have allowed for the vagaries of operating in India, and instead assumed it could simply use its US based systems in this unruly country. It has no telephone call centre and has been running without full taxi operator approvals. It has also had regulatory problems with India’s central bank. The company’s website does have a support page, but it is uninformative and cumbersome, and clearly useless in an emergency – https://support.uber.com/hc/en-us.

A company spokesman in Singapore told The Indian Express that all drivers were personally vetted and added, in answer to a question, “No call centre, but they (customers) can send in feedback/complaints on multiple channels, in-App after the ride, email (reply to their receipt), through our website, or Twitter.”

2012 street protests

There were mass protests in Delhi and across the country in December 2012 after the gang rape and battering by four young men of a 23-year-old paramedical student, who died days later from her internal injuries. Driven around Delhi in a curtained bus, she was dumped with a male friend, virtually naked, on a dirt track beside a busy highway to the city’s airport. This provoked a national outcry and intense international and local media attention on widespread atrocities against women.

Public demands for the death penalty were met last year with new laws that provided for the execution of repeat offenders, and imprisonment for between 20 years and life before that. The four men in the bus rape case were sentenced to death, but the risk of severe penalties seems to have had little effect, and the police are frequently unsympathetic.

Two weeks ago, a cab driver was arrested in Delhi for sexually abusing a four-year old girl while ferrying her to school. A few days earlier, there was a report that police tried to set the husband of a rape victim on fire when he refused to withdraw allegations against men for raping his wife.

Rape is widely condemned across India, but there are sections of society, including leading politicians, who tend to see it as an expression of young manhood, often provoked by provocatively dressed young women.

Boys will be boys… they commit mistakes,” Mulayam Singh Yadav, a veteran politician and leader of the powerful Uttar Pradesh-based Samajwadi Party, declared (in Hindi) during the general election campaign earlier this year. Saying his party would try to change the death penalty laws if elected, he added, “First girls develop friendship with boys. Then, when differences occur, they level rape charges”.

Other politicians and rural leaders have suggested that the young should be married without any minimum age limit so that, as one put it, their “sexual desires find safe outlets”. Village councils sometimes suggest a victim should marry the rapist because, they argue, no other man in the locality will have her. Women are often blamed for being provocative, or the intercourse is dubbed consensual – a line often taken by the police.

The masses of demonstrators who took to the streets two years ago expected tough government action and improved policing. The last government responded quickly with the new laws, but there has been little improvement in police habits. This is the sort problem that Narendra Modi was elected prime minister to tackle, so pressure will now build up for him to deal with the institutional failures, and generate the economic growth that will improve employment opportunities for India’s frustrated youth.

Many of the issues raised by this story are discussed in my book IMPLOSION: India’s Tryst with Reality, which has just won Asian Publishing Convention’s non-fiction Gold Award 2014 for the “Most Outstanding Project in Best Insights into Asian Societies”

This article appears on Asia Sentinel, a Hong Kong based news website – http://www.asiasentinel.com

BHOPAL: India’s central government and the state government of Madhya Pradesh are in denial over the scale of the tragedy that occurred 30 years ago when at least 5,000 people died here in a devastating Union Carbide gas leak that has caused continuing ill health for some 500,000. Neither government has even begun to deal adequately with what needs to be done in terms of compensation, health care, and cleaning up the factory’s contaminated 70-acre site.

Tomorrow night (December 2) will be the 30th anniversary of the moment when toxic gases from the pesticide factory swept in a fatal wave through nearby slums and spread across the city.

Union Carbide site in 1984 - photo by Raghu Rai. Image courtesy Amnesty International © Raghu Rai / Magnum Photos

Union Carbide site in 1984 – photo by Raghu Rai.  Image courtesy Amnesty International © Raghu Rai / Magnum Photos

The situation has not changed since I last reported here on the 25th anniversary, and it seems likely that nothing will change for another five or ten years or even longer unless Narendra Modi, India’s new and energetic prime minister, decides that enough is enough and that this blot on India’s record of social awareness and government action should be, in all senses of the word, cleaned up.

the site today - more photos below

the site today – more photos below

If Modi does not step in – and there is no sign yet of him doing so – an unsatisfactory equilibrium will continue embracing the refusal of US-based Dow Chemical that now owns Union Carbide to accept any liability, the reluctance of the Indian government that mixes indolence with a fear of upsetting potential American company investors, the astonishing inertia of the Madhya Pradesh government whose capital is Bhopal, the apparent indifference of the vast mass of the city’s 1.8m population, and the demands of a clutch of non-government activists who have built a life-style around their worthy campaigns and health-care camps and have a virtual stand-off with the state government.

CHINGARI - IMG_6341

photo courtesy Chingara Trust

The people who suffer are successive generations, almost all poor, whose ill health now affects babies and young children of parents who may not have even been born in 1984. Last night, the Chingari Trust, which deals with handicapped children, staged a play and candlelight vigil in Bhopal’s old city. They have 700 children registered with autism, behavioural problems, sensory disorders and developmental delays, some not able to utter any kind of vocal sound.

Suraj Raghuvanshi (below in the picture in the arms of his mother) is 19 years old and cannot sit, walk, talk or eat without help. Others have similar incurable ailments. Everywhere people talk of the effects of the gas. Raja Khan, a hire car driver born a year after the disaster, says he and his brother have some breathing problems and their parents suffer from tuberculosis.

Medical experts report a high incidence of lung cancer, adverse outcomes of pregnancy, and respiratory, neurological, psychiatric and ophthalmic problems among those exposed to the gas. ‘No consolidated record exists to show how many people are still suffering. As a result, even after the government paid compensation, however little, to more than half a million victims, fresh claims are still pouring in,’ says the Delhi-based Centre for Science and he Environment (CSE) in a book, Bhopal Gas Tragedy – After 30 years, published today.

Iqbal MaidanNo formal official detailed records have been kept of people’s ailments, and most are classified as temporary injuries which denies access to permanent injury compensation. There is a serious lack of specialist doctors and of high quality medical equipment.

The disaster happened when water accidentally entered a methyl isocyanate (MIC) storage tank, triggering an uncontrollable chemical reaction and blasting a cloud of toxic gases across nearby slums. People died instantly, coughing and choking, while the gases burned into the survivors’ eyes and lungs to cause early death and ill health, with weakened immune systems and respiratory problems. Some estimates put the death toll as high as 30,000, while estimates show that around 570,000 people were exposed to the gas in two-thirds of the city’s districts (the city’s populationn then was 900,000).

I came to Bhopal a couple of days after the disaster to report for the Financial Times. There was a continuing acrid tang in the air. Bloated carcasses of dead animals lay in the streets, and funeral pyres were still burning. It rapidly became clear that the accident had happened because Union Carbide of the US had tired of its Indian investment that had not come up to over-egged corporate expectations. Wanting to close it down, it had allowed safety standards and management controls to decline disastrously, along with staff morale.

The key issues and demands after 30 years are that: Dow Chemical accepts responsibility for the toxic site and pays for the cleaning up; the Indian government re-examines the numbers of people affected and raises compensation and then increased its legal demands on Dow from $1.2bn to $8.1bn. Activists are also calling for Dow’s company secretary to be extradited to India to face trial, following the recent death of Warren Anderson, who was Union Carbide’s chairman in 1984.

photo 5On the site, gaunt steel structures are rusting and dilapidated factory buildings are decaying. The ground remains contaminated by chemicals that were dumped in the years preceding the disaster. The state government and the voluntary organisations have clashed over plans to turn the site into a Nagasaki-style memorial, which activists say the government has “no moral right” to implement. In any case, that cannot happen till the area has been de-contaminated and there are disagreements over what this involves.

The government has begun tests and tenders to remove and incinerate 340 tonnes of toxic raw materials, which could be done within a year, and it would also remove topsoil from the rest of the site. But the activists want much more, which the CSE estimates would take five years to complete. Sathyu Sarangi, a leading campaigner who runs a successful ayurvedic-based medical clinic for gas victims, says there is a need to excavate and remove as much as 25,000 tonnes.

The CSE estimated five years ago that groundwater 3kms from the site contained pesticides 40 times India’s acceptable standards – the water will have seeped further since then.

Throughout the 30 years, there has been a lack of effective official assessments of the health and environmental problems – and without precision about what has happened and what is needed, it is easy for the years of inaction to continue.

Women with heath problems at a protest meeting

Women with heath problems at a protest meeting

There was a glimmer of hope last month when Ananth Kumar, the chemical and fertiliser minister in Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party-led Government, agreed after meeting activists’ groups on three occasions to verify the facts and figures.

He even sent a senior official of his ministry to the Jantar Mantar protest area in Delhi to symbolically end a protestors’ fast by giving them water.

That was significant because no other Indian minister has taken so much interest, but little has happened since then. The activists said Kumar had agreed to amend the government’s legal case against Union Carbide “on the basis of figures of death and extent of injuries caused by the disaster from scientific research and hospital records”. A spokesman for Kumar’s ministry told me however that the agreement was only that “the facts can be verified and the court case is continuing”. Kumar is not one of Modi’s closest ministers and, given the prime minister’s central control of the government, it seems unlikely that much will happen on such a high profile case without his approval.

photo 4The Madhya Pradesh government’s position is more curious because it has become one of India’s most successful states since 2005 under Shivraj Singh Chauhan, its BJP chief minister. Chauhan has transformed the state’s agriculture, irrigation, power, and roads, yet seems to have a blind spot about the Union Carbide impasse.

Salil Shetty, the London-based secretary general of Amnesty International, visited the area yesterday and called for Modi to recognise that tackling the problems would be in line with his Clean India campaign and would also clear up a foreign investment issue that could hurt his Make in India campaign. Shetty and others are calling on Modi to raise it with President Obama when he visits Delhi next month as the chief guest on Republic Day.

“After 30 years there has been no punishing of the multi-national corporation, no proper medical care, no cleaning up of the site and no proper compensation,” says Abdul Jabbar, who runs one of the activists’ organisations. In 2009 he pointed out to me that it took India 90 years from the first mutiny (or war of independence) in 1857 to achieve independence, and added: “We will wait”.

Will Modi intervene faster than the British did after 1857?

This article appears on Asia Sentinel, a Hong Kong based news website – http://www.asiasentinel.com

Posted by: John Elliott | November 10, 2014

Bribe-free Railways Minister in Modi’s reinvigorated cabinet

Suresh Prabhu, who has been made India’s new railways minister, is most famous for losing his job in 2002 as power minister in the last Bharatiya Janata Party-led coalition government because he was not collecting bribes for his Maharashtra-based Shiv Sena party. His party boss, the late Bal Thackeray, insisted that he was replaced by a more pliant minister and Atal Bihari Vajpayee, then the prime minister, obliged in order to placate a coalition partner – a gesture that became a habit for Manmohan Singh when he succeeded Vajpayee.

PTI11_9_2014_000057BPrabhu, a chartered accountant and former co-operative society banker (left, with President Pranab Mukherjee at the swearing-in ceremony yesterday), has been brought back into front line politics as railway minister in a big ministerial expansion announced yesterday that marks the second phase of Narendra Modi’s BJP government.

The first phase was notable for a lean council of ministers, most of whom were dominated by Modi, who let it be known that he preferred to deal direct with top civil servants.

The latest appointments involve ministers who are expected to take initiatives and responsibilities themselves within parameters laid down by Modi, which should broaden the effectiveness of the government in key areas.

The Congress Party however has today launched a detailed attack on the choice of several of the new ministers who have legal charges pending against them, ranging from a criminal case of attempt to murder to possessing unaccounted wealth. There were reports that a third of the total number of government ministers are facing some sort of legal charges.

In addition to Prabhu, a notable appointment is Manohar Parrikar (below), who till last weekend was the chief minister of Goa and is now the minister of defence. A metallurgical engineer, he takes over from Arun Jaitley, the finance minister, who held the portfolio on a temporary basis after the general election. Parrikar has a major job modernizing the poorly equipped armed forces and opening up defence purchases to Indian companies, which will boost India’s manufacturing industry and create new jobs.

Another key appointment is Jayant Sinha, son of former BJP finance minister Yashwant Sinha. He has been a successful investment banker in the US and becomes a minister of state in the finance ministry.

Prabhu had other ministerial posts before the power ministry and since then has been involved with moves to inter-link India’s rivers and others issues. He has had difficult relations with the Shiv Sena and resigned from the party and joined the BJP just before the new appointments were announced. This worsened a row between his old party and the BJP over the Shiv Sena’s role in Maharashtra’s new BJP-led state government.

05-manohar-parrikar-goa-cm-601The railways ministry has been regarded for many years by most politicians as a populist patronage post that enabled them to benefit their home states. Prabhu’s predecessor, Sadananda Gowda, failed to make a mark of any sort in the six months he had held the job and has been moved to the law ministry, taking over that job from Ravi Shankar Prasad who keeps his other role as telecom minister.

The railway network is badly run and prone to serious crashes that rarely lead to remedial action once the minister has fended off critics by awarding generous compensation payments to relations of those killed. Modi expects Prabhu, who is also one of his economic advisers and has a ‘Sherpa’ role at the coming G20 international conference, to carry out significant reforms.

Twenty-one new ministers were appointed on Sunday. Arun Jaitley has taken over the Information and Broadcasting Ministry, which makes him the government’s top spokesman.

Jaitley’s priority as finance minister is to prepare next February’s budget where he is expected to add shape to the government’s policies. Speaking at a conference over the weekend, he talked about changes to land acquisition laws that are being planned, plus introducing a long overdue goods and services tax, and steering through parliament a measure to raise the foreign direct investment limit in insurance companies from 26% to 49%.

There has been some criticism in recent months that too few of Modi’s ministers had adequate experience and clout, and that his central control was restricting government action. The test is now whether Modi will manage both to control and invigorate his new ministerial team, while at the same time following his preferred path of relying on bureaucrats for delivery.

This article appears on Asia Sentinel, a Hong Kong based news website – http://www.asiasentinel.com

troops boarding a ship in Dar-es-Salaam - the cover of Vedica Kant's book

troops boarding a ship in Dar-es-Salaam – the cover of Vedica Kant’s book

It has taken a century for Britain and India to commemorate more than 70,000 Indian troops who died fighting in World War One, and it has taken India over 60 years to decide fully to mark the fallen in that and later wars.

Over 1.4m Indian volunteers served in Europe, Africa and elsewhere between 1914 and 1918 in what has become known as “India’s Forgotten War”. They were scarcely mentioned by either side during the 50th anniversary in 1964.

India has now moved on from the post-colonial period that made it difficult for it to honour the troops who had been fighting with a variety of motives for an imperial power that then did not respond with rapid moves towards independence. The new Bharatiya Janata Party government is also nationalistically conscious enough to want to honour Indians who fought in wars before, as well as after, independence – and probably finds it easier to do that than past Congress governments. Till now, there has only been the India Gate memorial in Delhi, erected by the British in 1931.

Defence Secretary Visits IndiaThe common view that now unites the former colony and its old colonial ruler emerged unpredictably at an evening event held at the Delhi residence of Sir James Bevan, the British High Commissioner, on October 30. Arun Jaitley, India’s finance minister (who, till a government reshuffle today, has also been the temporary but very active defence minister since the general election), paid a tribute to those who had fought in the war. He announced that a war museum covering all India’s battles would be built, in addition to a war history in printed, digital and film form that he had talked about before.

The visiting UK Defence Secretary (Minister), Michael Fallon, (above, with Arun Jaitley) honoured those who lost their lives, and unveiled memorials to six Indians who won the Victoria Cross. India’s chief of army staff attended the reception along other senior officers and representatives of families whose successive generations had served in the Indian forces. When the event was first planned, it was not clear whether any senior Indian representative would bother to attend what might have been seen as an essentially British occasion. The top-level turnout was therefore significant in terms of recognising the history because the UK is not one of the current government’s top priority countries.

The commemorations continued today with a BBC World Service radio discussion, (recorded in Delhi a week ago) on the motives and impact of the volunteer force, and with traditional Remembrance Sunday ceremonies in Delhi and Mumbai.

Various books have been published to bring alive a part of India’s history that had largely been ignored. One of them is by Vedica Kant, an academic who has studied the Ottoman empire and has written ‘If I die here, who will remember me – India and the First World War, which is illustrated with original photographs (seen on this blog) and documents. Another, by Capt Amarinder Singh, a prominent Congress politician from the Punjab, comes with the eye of a former army officer – Honour and Fidelity, India’s Military Contribution to the Great War 1914-18.

Indian infantry in France with an early version of gas masks (photo from Vedika Kant book)

Indian infantry in France with an early version of gas masks

It seems strange, looking back, that 1.4m men should volunteer to fight in a war far from home that had absolutely no immediate impact to their country, and that politicians who were then beginning to campaign for independence should not have objected to the contribution of the people and of the costs that were fully covered by India.

Few of the soldiers would have ever travelled abroad before. When they arrived for battle, they had insufficient clothing for the cold climate and were given weapons they had never used before. They were certainly not “a patriotic army”, said one of the experts on the BBC programme.

Their contributions were controversially summed up in the broadcast by Shashi Tharoor, an author and former senior UN official who is now a Congress Party politician.

Putting the cost to India at £30 billion in current prices, he said: “It was Indian jawans [soldiers] who stopped the German advance at Ypres in the autumn of 1914, soon after the war broke out, while the British were still recruiting and training their own forces. Hundreds were killed in a gallant but futile engagement at Neuve Chappelle. More than a thousand of them died at Gallipoli, thanks to Churchill’s folly. Nearly 700,000 Indian sepoys [soldiers] fought in Mesopotamia against the Ottoman Empire, Germany’s ally, many of them Indian Muslims taking up arms against their co-religionists in defence of the British Empire.”

The motives varied and included, as Vedica Kant points out, the chance to earn good money – a reason that has often led them to be dismissed unfairly in India as mere mercenaries. Kant reckons their earnings were the equivalent today of a respectable Rs25,800 a month (about £260, $470). Some had loyalty to the King Emperor (though not as many as, it seemed, as the BBC programme presenter would have liked), and a very few maybe to King and country. For most however it would have been the natural loyalty and bonding of a soldier with his regiment, plus the pride of going off to war, and the respect that would be earned at home – though there were desertions and mutinies.

The politicians and independence leaders, including Mahatma Gandhi, who supported the war effort, did so in the belief that Britain would in return honour a commitment to hasten moves towards some form of autonomy or at least the sort of dominion status of Australia and Canada. That however did not happen, which sharpened the subsequent demands and agitation for independence.

With such a history, one might wonder whether the fresh awareness of India’s sacrifice might now lead to the First World War being listed among the horrors of British rule, such as the Amritsar Massacre of 1919 where 1,500 peaceful demonstrators for the independence that Britain had denied India were killed on the orders of a British general. But it seems not, because India has indeed moved on.

Temporary hospitals included Brighton's ostentatious oriental-style Royal Pavilion and The Dome,  where, some reports say, the auhtorities thought injured Indian troops might feel at home!

Temporary hospitals included Brighton’s ostentatious oriental-style Royal Pavilion and The Dome, where, some reports say, the authorities thought injured Indian troops might feel at home!

This article appears on Asia Sentinel, a Hong Kong based news website – http://www.asiasentinel.com

ganesh_chaturthi_001India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, has caused some consternation and controversy by saying to an audience of doctors and scientists last weekend that plastic surgery and genetic science existed and were in use thousands of years ago in ancient India.

That, he said at the dedication of a hospital in Mumbai on October 25, was how the Hindu god Ganesh’s elephant head became attached to a human body, and how a warrior god was born outside his mother’s womb.

The theme of Modi’s speech was that India needed to improve its (grossly inadequate) healthcare facilities, which is in line with campaigns he has launched for cleanliness and the provision and use of toilets in schools and elsewhere. Quoting the ancient Mahabharat epic, he extended this to say that “our ancestors made big contributions” in such areas and that those capabilities needed to be regained.

The speech (at a hospital funded by the Ambani family of Reliance, one of India’s two biggest groups) is on the prime minister’s office website in Hindi (click here), and the Indian Express has published some of the paragraphs with an English translation (click here):

Modi speech, Reliance Hospital - Oct 25 '14“We can feel proud of what our country achieved in medical science at one point of time. We all read about Karna in Mahabharat. If we think a little more, we realise that Mahabharat says Karna was not born from his mother’s womb. This means that genetic science was present at that time. That is why Karna could be born outside his mother’s womb…..We worship Lord Ganesh. There must have been some plastic surgeon at that time who got an elephant’s head on the body of a human being and began the practice of plastic surgery.”

This is significant for three reasons. One is the unusual position of a prime minister who makes such utterances as fact, which caused the consternation and was debated earlier this week on the Headlines Today To the Point tv channel. The second is that, apart from that programme, there has been very little coverage of this part of his speech in the Indian media, which has been largely fighting shy of criticising or questioning Modi and his ministers since the general election.

ncEXroxpiThe third reason is that it controversially illustrates how Hindu nationalist views are moving to centre stage now that the BJP is in power. Activists have a simple vision of building a strong India that is respected worldwide as a modern version of an ancient Hindu civilisation, which is the pivotal point of their view of history.

It is this vision that drives Modi and many of his ministers, raising the question of how much they would disturb India’s broad-based traditions and view of history that have been built since independence by Congress governments to embrace Muslims and other minorities. Re-writing school textbooks is part of the government’s programme, as it was when the BJP was last in power,

That Modi supports theories such as Ganesh’s head is well known. He has spoken about them before and propagated them in schools when he was chief minister of Gujarat, writing the preface of a book that claimed the ancient inventions of motor cars, airplanes and origins of stem cell research.

In a similar vein, Modi’s water resources minister, Uma Bharti, has revived a geological search for the mystical River Saraswati, which is mentioned in Vedic texts and is alleged to flow roughly parallel to the Indus from the Himalayas to the Arabian sea.

god-ganesh-photos-hdEven under the recent Congress government, the Archaeological Society of India, an official body that is in charge of ancient monuments and sites, last year authorised a (fruitless) dig under an old fort in Uttar Pradesh after a seer had dreamed that 1,000 tonnes of gold were buried there

The Ramayana, the Hindu religion’s most popular epic dating from 3,000 years ago, has for seven or more years been the basis of opposition to a project to dig a shipping channel in the Palk Straits between the southern tip of India and Sri Lanka. It has been argued the channel would breach a crop of rocks known as Adam’s Bridge (or Ram Setu) that Lord Ram built across the straits so that his armies could rescue his wife Sita from the clutches of the Lankan king.

Such suggestions and actions need to be seen in the context of Indians’ every-day lives, which absorb mythologies and religions without necessarily questioning and analysing the boundaries between mythological and religious beliefs and modern reality.

What is unusual is to have a prime minister say Ganesh was the product of plastic surgery without acknowledging that accuracy cannot be vouched for in the empirical western sense of history, even though inspirational mythology usually has some basis in truth.

This article appears on Asia Sentinel, a Hong Kong based news website – http://www.asiasentinel.com

Narendra Modi and his fellow leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party believe they are on a ten-year mission to turn India into a successful world power with a strong nationalist base. Today (Oct 19) they have put two more building blocks in place with state assembly election victories in Maharashtra and Haryana, where they have ousted Congress Party governments and reduced that party to a humiliating also-ran role.

They have not however done as well as they had hoped because they have not won overall control in Maharashtra. Nevertheless Modi, who was the BJP’s star campaigner in both states, has broadened his and the BJP’s base in the country, and will now be able to implement his message and new policies more easily in the two states. The results also potentially improve the BJP’s minority position in the indirectly elected Rajya Sabha (upper house of parliament), where the Congress Party and other opposition parties can currently block the government’s legislation.

In Haryana, adjacent to Delhi, the BJP has won outright control with 47 seats in the 90-seat assembly, compared with just four in the last election. It has ousted a Congress government that has been in power for ten years and was widely perceived to have facilitated corrupt land deals involving, among others, Robert Vadra, Sonia Gandhi’s businessman son-in-law. Congress won just 15 seats, down from 40.

photo 3-4In Maharashtra, the BJP (celebrating, left) has won 123 seats and is by far the biggest party, but needs support to establish a majority in the 288-seat assembly. Maharashtra has been run by Congress-led governments for 15 years, and the outgoing coalition with the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) was riven with corrupt land and infrastructure deals that Prithviraj Chavan, who was shipped in as chief minister by Sonia Gandhi four years ago to clean up the government, has admitted he was unable to stop.

In an attempt to remain politically relevant (and maybe seek protection from corruption inquiries), the NCP has offered the BJP the support of its 41 assembly members. The Shiv Sena, a state-based chauvinist and often violent party which has 63 seats and has been a BJP ally for 25 years, is however a more natural supporter despite sharp clashes during the election campaign.

There will be some debate about whether the BJP’s failure to win outright in Maharashtra marks a gradual dwindling of the popular wave that swept Modi to power nationally in May, though the BJP line is that the wave has become “a tsunami”. He campaigned extensively in the state, but could not sufficiently reduce the grip of the Shiv Sena, which is renowned for its street-level gangs and clout, nor of the moneyed NCP, whose leaders include Sharad Pawar, a veteran national and regional politician, his nephew who faces corruption investigations, and Praful Patel, a rich businessman who was a controversial aviation minister in the last Congress government.

The main loser is the image and clout of the Congress Party, led by Sonia and Rahul Gandhi. They made tactical mistakes in both states and must have expected defeat because they made fewer than 20 appearances during the campaigns. That compares with a total of over 70 meetings addressed by Modi and Amit Shah, the powerful BJP president. Congress came third in Maharashtra after the BJP and Shiv Sena and with almost the same number of seats as the NCP. In Haryana, it came third behind not just the BJP but also the local-based Indian National Lok Dal, whose former leader and chief minister, Om Prakash Chautala, is in jail for corruption.

This indicates a devastatingly declining role around the country, which there is no sign of Congress leaders doing much to reverse in the short term, despite criticism and dissension in many states and disagreements between Rahul’s 30-40-something generation and  older politicians about the way forward. Rahul is making occasional forays to individual states to rebuild the party with democratically elected local young officials – he was in Punjab last week. This is a very long-term task and seems, on present reckoning. to be unlikely to interrupt Modi’s 10-year prime ministerial dream and expanding role in state elections.

243955-prakash-javadekar-03Modi’s brand of personal showmanship and nationalism is currently winning, coupled with skilful election campaign management, but he now has to meet people’s aspirations with economic success and improved government administration and performance by public officials.

Yesterday the government introduced significant long-delayed economic reforms when it de-controlled diesel prices, ending subsidies, and raised natural gas prices.

Prakash Javadekar, (left)  minister for information and the environment, says that it is not just the much-discussed new middle class that is aspirational, but also the poor. “They don’t want to remain poor but to succeed through hard work and dignity,” said Javadekar on a visit to the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Delhi two days ago. Modi, he said, reflected those aspirations as a prime minister who could deliver, was honest, kept promises and provided good governance. “This is the new reality of India”, he added.

The messages of hard work and dignity rhyme with the broader nationalism preached by the BJP and by the RSS, its arch Hindu-nationalist mother organisation, whose activists have a simple view of a strong India that is respected worldwide as a modern version of an ancient Hindu civilisation. It is this vision that drives Modi and his ministers, raising the question of how much they will disturb India’s broad-based traditions that have been built up since independence by Congress governments to embrace Muslims and other minorities.

For now, such issues do not worry most voters who are more concerned with the price of food, the availability of jobs, and the overall well-being of their families. The Gandhis and their Congress Party failed to satisfy these ambitions, so Modi has a chance to show he can do better.

This article appears on Asia Sentinel, a Hong Kong based news website – http://www.asiasentinel.com

Tyeb BluePainting Sotheby's London Oct '14Two trends emerged from Sotheby’s auction of contemporary and modern India art in London on October 7, which achieved sales totalling £4.7m ($7.6m, Rs46.3 crore).

The top lot was Tyeb Mehta’s notable Blue Painting (left) with a bid of £930,000 (£1.12m, $1.8m including buyers’ premium), which was 50% above the lowest estimate.

The first trend is that, in the current highly selective and uncertain market, freshness plus provenance produce good auction prices for India’s established modern masters and earlier works that have not been trailing round the auction circuit and that have the cachet of being part of recognised collections.

These criteria produced astonishing prices for Kalighat paintings and also for other works including the Tyeb Mehta, though 24 of the 99 lots failed to reach their minimum sale price.

Subodh Gupta trolleyThe second trend is that the slump in prices for contemporary works that were fashionable a few years ago is worsening.

An oil on canvas painting of an airport luggage trolley (left) by Delhi-based Subodh Gupta went for just £116,500 ($187,000) including buyers’ premium. That was just above the top estimate but, allowing for inflation, it was far less than 10% of a record $1.2m achieved for a similar work in the heady days of 2008. It was also far less than a $250,000 sale in 2010 immediately after the initial crash. Gupta is more famous for his installations of shiny pots and pans. Two paintings by his wife, Bharti Kher, failed to find buyers this week.

Set of four KalighatsThe most remarkable prices came for four sets of Kalighat watercolours (right) on paper that originated with Bengal village painters who sat in the 1800s outside a Kali temple in Calcutta producing works for pilgrims. These works were collected by famous art historians and writers, William and Mildred Archer.

William Archer was head of the Indian department at the V&A museum in London 60 years ago, and the works (mostly around 17in x 10in) were found and brought to Sotheby’s by his son. Estimated at around £1,000-£1,500 a painting they were all bought by the same bidder for hammer prices of £6,000 to £8,000 each (plus 25% buyers’ premium).

There were good examples in this auction of works by members of the Bombay Progressives Group of the artists from the 1940s and 1950s, including F.N.Souza, M.H.Husain, S.H.Raza, Ram Kumar and Tyeb Mehta, though some works by all of them apart from Mehta did not sell, mainly because they did not pass the freshness test.

The star success after the Blue Painting was Akbar Padamsee’s oil on board, Prophet I, (below) which fetched a hammer price nearly three-times the low estimate at £440,000 (£530,500 including buyers’ premium). Painted in 1952 when Padamsee was establishing himself in Paris along with Souza and Husain, this work was the first of his famous Prophet series. The work was sold in 1968 by its first owner to a collector in Brazil, so it has been out of circulation over 45 years and was one of several works in the auction from the same collector.

The 45in x 35in Tyeb Mehta Blue Painting was acquired in 1992-93 by Masanori Fukuoka, a Japanese dealer and collector of Indian works that are kept in his Glenbarra museum in Japan.

Padamsee Prophet 1The auction was one of three this week staged in London for the first time by Sotheby’s as an Indian and Islamic Week, which together netted £13m. This breaks the pattern of past years, when Sotheby’s has held its annual London auction in June at the same time as Christie’s, it’s main rival and the leader in the market.

An Art of Imperial India auction netted £1.78m and included an impressive collection of 31 albums of over 2,000 mid-late 1800s photographs from the collection of Sven Gahlin, an Indian art historian. Apart from eight individual photographs exhibited in London in 1983, none of the albums had been seen in public for over 40 years. There was also a collection of Indian miniatures from the Duke of Northumberland’s collection. An Arts of the Islamic World auction netted £6.59m.

The modern art auction was in line, among others, with two successes. One staged by Saffronart Art in Delhi last month which netted $6.38m (Rs38.27 crore) and one by Christies in Mumbai last December – its first in India – which produced an astonishing $15.45m (Rs96.5 crore). The next one to watch will be Christie’s return to Mumbai this December.

This article appears on Asia Sentinel, a Hong Kong based news website – http://www.asiasentinel.com

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