Monthly Archives: February 2010

You Disagree? Terrorist!!

In a shocking move by the Delhi Police, it has named several human rights activists in its charge-sheet against Maoist leader Kobad Ghandy, who was arrested in September last year.

The 800-page document includes accusations that a number of groups, including the People’s Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL), People’s Union of Democratic Rights (PUDR), Association for Protection of Democratic Rights (APDR), suggesting that they met with Ghandy and are continuing to offer what Home Minister P Chidambaram has called “intellectual support” for the Maoist movement.

I attended a press conference in Delhi yesterday, where a number of leading activists, including retired judge Rajindar Sachar and writer Arundhati Roy, decried what they see as an attempt to silence critics of the government’s treatment of tribal people in Naxal-affected areas. In their press statement they said:

The chargesheet is yet another instance of the state’s attempt to criminalise any resistance or protests against its actions in the areas covered by Operation Green Hunt … these allegations constitute an unprovoked and unwarranted attack on these democratic and civil liberties associations.

I’ve met quite a few of these activists over the past couple of weeks, and the idea that they are front organisations for the Maoists is laughable. While their rhetoric may lean somewhat heavily against the government, this is because they focus on the exploitation and deprivations of the tribal people that underlie the insurgency – not because they support violence in any form.

There are a number of human rights cases currently going through the Supreme Court in which the states’ counsel simply accuse their opponents of being Naxal supporters.

Fortunately, it seems that many judges are growing tired of this reasoning. The day before the press conference, a Supreme Court judge came down hard on the Andhra Pradesh government for deploying an anti-Naxal police unit to quell violence at Osmania University, on the shaky grounds that  some of the students were “Naxal sympathisers”.

At the moment the government lacks a political strategy for dealing with the Naxal insurgency that can balance its desire for security with its interest in exploiting tribal lands. This leaves it little capacity to stomach the criticism of academics and activists who point out its short-comings. While the government struggles to think up a comprehensive strategy, it is likely to find it increasingly difficult to find enough judges willing to keep up the line that retired professors are in fact violent extremists.

My Posco, Your Posco: Mining in Orissa

The POSCO iron ore mining project in the state of Orissa is the largest foreign investment project ever undertaken in India. POSCO is a South Korean firm, although after the 1998 Asian financial crisis, the majority of its shares were more or less forcibly bought by US investors, particularly Citigroup.

According to this Sanhati editorial, the $12 billion project needs some 4,000 acres of land. Unfortunately, some pesky tribals live on some of this land. Technically, they are only entitled to 10% of that particular land, and the government is free to sell the rest. Activists say that if you go down and have a look, tribals live on quite a lot more of it and under the Forest Dwellers Act 2006, you cannot shunt them off without their agreement. The locals are also rather miffed about the way mining projects in the area have already polluted their drinking water and the fact that the completed project would require  70,000,000,000 litres of water per year to run, which is quite a lot.

That’s clearly all horrible and any right-thinking individual would surely consider such a project tantamount to stabbing their mother to death with a wooden spoon.

But then you read about the same project in Business Week and you get a pretty different picture. From the economists’ point of view, POSCO’s mining project is vital to South Korea’s development and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is rightly going to ensure that a few unspecified “local problems” don’t get in the way of progress. And look what Warren Buffet thinks of POSCO – lovely, cuddly old Warren Buffet who so generously gives all his money to poor people:

Last week, Buffett gave his seal of approval for Posco, calling it “a wonderful company.” Buffett said after meeting Posco’s chief Chung on Jan. 18 that he wished he had purchased more Posco shares when they were cheaper in the past year.

I’m sounding pretty facetious, but I think this small example is quite a neat demonstration of how incredibly divergent discourses emerge when the number of variables grows beyond easy comprehension. POSCO pays the wages of a huge number of people and sits in competition with a large number of other mining companies who would like to do the same thing they are. They are answerable to investors all over the world, who are themselves answerable to a huge number of clients. Throw in the importance of such projects to the economies of South Korea and India, and those countries’ geostrategic importance to the world as a result of their position in dangerous neighbourhoods, and the picture starts to look a lot more complicated than a few tribal people’s rights. That is the structural violence of the system – a system which naturally creates its own legitimising language of development and progress through which individuals are then blinded to the many of the consequences of their actions.

How do you break out of that system? Well, the tribals and the activists have done a pretty good job so far, having delayed the Posco project for over a decade, so I guess supporting them is a pretty good place to start.

When A Bunch of Pseudo-Fascists Is Better Than No Pseudo-Fascists

Today is Budget Day in India, and the questions are pretty big: Is it too early to roll back the stimulus measures; how can rising food prices be brought under control (a political priority) while at the same time reducing public spending (an economic priority); and can India find a way to spread all this wonderful growth around the millions being left behind?

As it tackles these problems, the Congress government sits in a pretty comfortable position, knowing that its absolute majority in parliament puts it firmly in the driving seat. This has been looking like more and more of a problem over the past couple months, with an unthreatened Congress party starting to look complacent.

An opposition is needed, and unfortunately the Hindu nationalist BJP is the only other game in town. It was dealt a serious blow at last year’s general election from which it took several months to recover. But with new leaders appointed over the winter, there are signs of a comeback, particularly over the issue of rising food prices, which has been enough to topple governments in the past. It also seems to be realising that Hindu nationalism just doesn’t play with India’s hip, new image. Instead, as this article from WSJ argues, they are pushing economic progress and sensitivity to local cultural norms as the way to regain their lost influence.

It’s a bitter pill to swallow. The BJP has been intimately in numerous incidents of bilious fascism, from the destruction of the Ayodhya mosque in 1992 to the brutal anti-Muslim pogroms of 2002. But even they are better than no opposition at all, so perhaps we have to hope that the desperation to get back into power will have a dampening effect on their more rabid impulses and return some effective checks and balances to Indian politics.

If You Fancy Groping Some Women…

…why not get your wife to put on an international women’s film festival.

Director Jane Campion (The Piano) has formally complained after attending the India International Women’s Film Festival after the festival director’s husband kept feeling her up and banging on her hotel door.

I’m not sure she wrote the letter of complaint herself somehow (excerpt: “I am asked thrice to give them company by various Bhaskar cronies” is pure Indian media-speak).

Nice comeback from the accused: “Jane Campion is a racist from Australia.” If in doubt, fall back on the media hysteria about Indians being attacked in Australia. There’s an obvious connection, um, somewhere.

A Friendly Take on Murder in Maoist Country

Underlining their ability to call the shots, the Maoists yesterday responded to the home minister’s proposal of a 72-hour ceasefire by calling for a 72-day ceasefire. Then attacked a camp in West Midnapore.

While the government ponders its next move, it can at least rely on support from the press, which is largely treating the recent violence as that of evil terrorists sabotaging the government’s attempts to bring peace and prosperity. Take today’s news piece from DNA:

Waking up to the reality that the use of force alone won’t suffice in the regions hit by Maoist insurgency, the government has decided to unfold a Rs7,300-crore package for the development of these areas.

Here we have the government taking a sensible, holistic and caring approach to the underlying problems of the insurgency. But, of course, this is not the first time that has been said. In fact, then home minister Shivraj Patel said the same thing in July 2007 just after the Maoists killed 24 policemen in the same state as last week’s violence (see last post).  

But what is really amazing is that this latest promise was made during a case in the Supreme Court, which should have had nothing to do with the government’s overall Maoist strategy. The case was actually about the alleged murder of tribal villagers in Chhattisgarh by state forces – the case I mentioned in a recent article involving Sodi Sambo, who activists and journalists say was held captive by state police to prevent her giving evidence. In the end, the Supreme Court had to pass a specific order demanding that she and other witnesses be brought to give evidence.

Not that you would get this impression from the story in DNA which simply said:

The AG’s statement came during the hearing of the suspected ‘killing’ of 12 tribals by security forces in Chhattisgarh’s Dantewada district. Six of the supposedly dead tribals were found alive. The court has directed the presence of the remaining six. All of them had disappeared soon after they filed a petition demanding a CBI probe into the allegations of excesses by the forces.

Sodi Sambo’s claims are not reported in the story, nor her treatment by authorities in Chhattisgarh. The newspaper has clearly swallowed the government line that the human rights activists who want to investigate the alleged murders are just Maoists in disguise. Why else would anyone want to investigate a mass murder?

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The Pakistani Poker Game

There has been plenty of tub-thumping over this week’s capture of Taliban commander Mullah Baradar, but all it really signifies is that Pakistan holds all the cards in the strategic game being played out across central and southern Asia.

President Barack Obama is well-known for his love of poker. It is a comforting image for the rest of the world: the stony-faced thinker, calculating the odds, in the game for the long haul. But when it comes to the bluff, no one can touch Pakistan’s military establishment. Consider the complexity of the game it is playing.

America’s enemies are based in their country, but they can still wring $7.5bn in aid from Washington. Their population hates the idea of colluding with the Americans, but Pakistan quietly allows US drones, platoons of marines and CIA agents to operate in its territory. It fights its own insurgency with some parts of the Pakistani Taliban while doing deals with its affiliates. Known terrorists are free to hold public rallies in broad daylight calling for attacks on India, and yet India still finds itself pressured into holding a new round of peace talks.

Read the rest here…

Operation Peace Hunt

The Maoists have heralded the start of their own campaign, dubbed ‘Operation Peace Hunt’, with a headline-grabbing attack on government forces in West Bengal. At least 21 soldiers are dead in an attack that demonstrates the weight of tactical advantage that lies in the Maoists’ favour. Able to appear from nowhere in trucks and on motorbikes, take the troops by surprise and then disappear back into the jungle, laying mines as they go to slow the progress of ambulances.

Maoist military chief Koteswara Rao – alias Kishenji – says their campaign is a response to the government’s Operation Green Hunt launched against them towards the end of last year. It seems clear that the issues underlying this conflict – the need for development, the dispossession of tribal lands and so forth – are going to get lost in all-out conflict that will ensure nothing gets resolved and lots more people get slaughtered.

UPDATE 17 FEB: The leader of this mission apparently had ‘mesmerising cobra eyes’.

An Oddly Small-Scale Attack in Pune

An attack on the German Bakery in the western city of Pune on Saturday might well be the first successful jihadist attack in India since the Mumbai attacks of November 2008.

Some sort of Pakistan-focused, Islamist extremists are likely to be behind the attack, given that it came a day after a date was set for talks between India and Pakistan. It is being pinned on Indian Mujahideen, a group which is presented as an off-shoot of Lashkar-e-Toiba, but whose precise relationship to its sponsors is unclear.

By attacking a tourist hang-out, the attack fits the jihadist MO, gaining international attention and hitting a wealthy neighbourhood. However, it seems oddly small scale compared with previous attacks. It killed nine people and injured 60, which is terrible obviously, but nothing on the scale of the Mumbai attacks. Previous attacks claimed by the Indian Mujahideen – in Uttar Pradesh, Jaipur, Bangalore, Ahmedabad and Delhi between 2007 and 2008 – have all involved a series of explosions in a short space of time. The Pune attack would represent an understated return to violence, especially when compared to the threats that have been spewing out of the Indian government for the past few months of potential plane hijackings, metro bombings and assassination attempts.

The inevitable Monday morning reports are that this is the first of many, with a number of other cities in Maharashtra as suspected targets. That might be the case, but the initiative has certainly been lost by not attacking multiple targets simultaneously since security will now be on high alert across the region and beyond.

At the same time, the fact that there is a much tougher security environment compared with 16 months ago is a good reason to avoid big, one-off events. A string of small attacks spread over a longer period of time limits the cost of individual failures and draws out the psychological impact of the violence. Just as the force of the Mumbai attacks was in the militants’ ability to make it last several days, a campaign of violence spread out over several weeks would be highly damaging to the credibility of the state and security forces, and provide a destabilising backdrop for the talks about to take place between India and Pakistan.

There are already rumours that those talks, scheduled for 25 February, will not now go ahead. Although they were unlikely to make much headway, they have been billed as the first step towards restarting the composite dialogue interrupted in November 2008.

The jihadists have not liked the sound of that and it is possible that the Pune attack was designed as speedily concocted plan to derail the talks. Just a couple of weeks ago, the Jaish-e-Mohammad organised a public get-together of jihadists in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, in which they vowed to “deal with India” and undermine any attempts at a peace process.

Despite the uneasy calm of the past year, there has been no change in the factors motivating jihadist violence against India. With the Delhi Commonwealth Games approaching, and the mounting possibility of a proxy conflict between India and Pakistan in Afghanistan, the Indian authorities have good reason to be on high alert.

India & Burma: Playing Nice With Rogues

Human Rights Watch do not like the turn India has taken in its international affairs in recent years. The more ruthless pursuit of its interests, they argue, not only costs India moral authority but wins it few tangible advantages, particularly in its approach to Burma:

India has moved away from supporting the democracy movement and honouring detained Opposition leader Aung San Su Kyi to deciding that economic and security concerns take precedence.

… However, what remains baffling is what exactly India can claim to have gained from supporting one of the most abusive regimes in the world. India has not won significant access to Burma’s energy reserves  … The Burmese military has not cooperated consistently with efforts to contain rebels in India’s Northeast. Nor has India been able to undercut China’s influence with the junta.

She goes on to discuss the blind eye India is turning the blood diamond trade in Zimbabwe and the support it gave to Sri Lanka in its war against the Tamils.

All terrible things, to be sure. But the question is: what good did India’s moral stance against Burma achieve in the past? Its support for Aung San Su Kyi certainly did her few favours. As we have seen from America’s attempts to support opposition movements in Iran, nasty regimes love a bit of outside interference because it allows them to label all protesters as ‘foreign spies’ that can justifiably be shot in the throat.

As this excellent article from Nader Mousavizadeh at IISS argues, the whole idea of trying to bully rogue regimes into compliance has failed miserably. Harsh words and harsh actions from the US and its allies have only hardened attitudes and closed off channels of communication.

Countries that have been locked out by the west – Venezuela, Iran, North Korea, Burma – are increasingly able to rely on each other for support. Moreover, they can turn to China, a country that considers sovereignty  and influence much more important than western conceptions of human rights.

It might not be pretty, but it is happening:

[The West’s] two-decade-old policy of isolating Burma now looks like a carefully constructed attempt to weaken Western influence and open the door to China, while devastating Burma’s legitimate economy and doing nothing to improve its people’s human rights. 

… Virtually no aspect of Western policy here has worked: the military junta is as firmly in control as ever; the democratic opposition is in disarray; and where Western policy toward Burma used to be primarily concerned with the regime’s domestic behavior, it now must contend with the generals’ suspected ties to North Korea, including in the area of nuclear cooperation.

He concludes that the best response would be to do what these regimes fear most: remove the sanctions, open up trade, allow unfettered travel for students and business people. Stop giving them excuses to be bastards. 

Obama might have been the man to do this, but his government seems incapable of thinking beyond the idea of more sanctions. And sadly, for large swathes of the American right, even Obama’s mildly more diplomatic approach to international relations is seen as proof that he is indeed a Satan-worshiping Communist agent sent to feast on the guts of small-time America, burn all its money and hand over the keys of the White House to the reanimated corpses of Karl Marx, Hitler and King George III. Things are so bad that the opposition in America has started taking on the character of an insurgency, with a beaming monstrosity as its figurehead.

So perhaps India has it right. Perhaps the job of publicly decrying human rights violations needs to be left to private organisations like Human Rights Watch, and governments should rely on quiet diplomacy, building influence through mutual benefit and only levelling their criticisms behind closed doors.

Despite what HRW says, there are signs that the quiet approach is getting some results from Burma: a recent meeting between their home ministers led Burma to agree that it would help track down Paresh Barua, leader of one of the most violent insurgencies in northeastern India. In return, India agreed to continue training Burma’s fighter pilots for the planes it sold them. It’s all a bit unsavoury, but hopefully India are also using these meetings to pressure the junta about its human rights violations ahead of elections later this year. It probably won’t do much good, but they will certainly get a better hearing than the Americans.

P.S. I almost had a really good headline for this – something to do with joshing with rogues – Rogue and Josh, something like that, but it didn’t quite work. Damn shame.

The United States of India?

Here’s an amusing article from a former American diplomat on how he thinks India should approach the next decade. It’s actually quite touchingly tragic. Basically, he wants India to be the new America – build up a massive navy, create its own Monroe Doctrine (against China rather than Europe this time) and find its “own Teddy Roosevelt”. There’s no suggestion that India try to fashion its own path for the 21st century. The poor man is deeply nostalgic for the days when America was a rich, ass-kicking, upcoming power, and he’s clearly hoping to relive that vicariously through India.

India has the fourth largest navy in the world—in terms of manpower. But wars are won by tonnage, not by headcount. In tonnage, India’s navy is currently seventh, behind France and at one half of China’s strength. India needs to be among the top three in navy: at par with China and behind only the US.

Hmm, that sounds quite expensive. Let’s hope no one’s listening.

[h/t Naxalite Rage]