Monthly Archives: January 2012

Winning Elections Is Really Profitable In Manipur

From my article on Saturday’s violent election in Manipur:

a new report has found that politicians seeking re-election in the 60-seat assembly have seen a four-fold increase in their assets since joining parliament five years ago.

Co-authored by two non-governmental organisations, the Association for Democratic Reforms and North East Election Watch, the report looked at how much money incumbent candidates had made during their five years in power.

Under election rules, every candidate must provide details of their finances, as well as any criminal records and their academic background.

For the 41 members fighting to retain their seat this year, average personal wealth increased from 2.3 million to 12 million rupees (Dh171,000 to Dh893,000), an increase of 414 per cent.

The 27 members from the ruling Congress party had an average increase in personal wealth of 563 per cent, the report said.

Read the rest here…

Also, check out my colleague Suryatapa Bhattacharya’s look at why today’s election in Punjab is crucial for the Congress party:

With 800,000 unemployed college graduates, a stagnant economy and rampant corruption, Punjab’s state election tomorrow could do irreparable harm to India’s government.

Punjab is one of five of India’s 28 states holding elections in the next month that may well reshape the balance of power in the upper house of parliament.

While the polls will mostly be played out on local issues, they could indicate how unpopular the ruling Congress Party has become after a year of high-profile scandals, a populist anti-corruption movement and failure to push ahead with reforms.

Punjab, one of India’s wealthiest states and its major wheat producer, is a key battleground for the Congress party, which hopes to retake control of the state.

India’s prime minister, Manmohan Singh, is a Sikh from Punjab, and analysts say it is essential to the credibility of his government that his party can win back the state.

“Punjab is a face-saving state for the Congress,” said Rasheed Kidwai, the author of a book published in 2011 that examined the inner workings of the Congress party. “If they cannot win here, it will be very hard for them to push through reforms in the coming months.”

Read the rest here…

State of the Republic: Masterly Inaction Takes Down Insurgency

Nothing says 'Happy Holidays' quite like a massive fuck-off missile.

There’s nothing like a long procession of Soviet-era ordnance to make the country feel safe. But even without the annual weapon-worshipping ceremony of Republic Day, the government has plenty to crow about when it comes to its record on internal security over the past year.

Dramatic falls in insurgent and separatist violence across India seem to suggest something is actually going right for the government for a change.

Kashmir, where separatist protests led to over 100 deaths in 2010, was relatively trouble-free last summer. Almost all the major rebel groups in India’s restive northeast are engaged in peace talks. Killings related to the Maoist insurgency – considered the “gravest threat” of all by the government – fell by half from the previous year.

In a back-slapping, end-of-year report card, the Home Ministry attributed these improvements to a range of policies it had implemented in recent years, from increased paramilitary forces to new rural development schemes.

But look into the details of each conflict, and these positive trends start to look less like the product of government policy, and more like a fortunate coincidence of factors.

Away from the glare of India’s urban-focused media, a steady stream of violent incidents continue to occur.

In the Maoist heartlands of central and eastern India, there have been no repeats of the massive ambush in April 2010 in Chhattisgarh that left 76 police officers dead and forced urban India to finally sit up and take notice of the 40-year-old conflict.

But there are frequent, less newsworthy attacks – primarily involving improvised explosive devices (IEDs) made out of materials looted from local mining companies.

On Saturday, a huge IED ripped through the mine-proof vehicle in which 13 police officers were travelling in Jharkhand. Any survivors were shot in the head at point-blank range.

“The police are sitting ducks whenever the Maoists want to strike,” said Rahul Pandita, author of a book on the Maoist movement. “If clashes are down, it’s because the police have scaled back their combing operations in these areas.”

More than 600 lives were still lost to Maoist-related violence in 2011, almost half of them civilians, and abortive attempts to open peace talks in West Bengal came to nothing.

“The Maoists use peace talks to give local villagers a breather,” said Aman Sethi, who covers the Maoist conflict in Chhattisgarh for The Hindu.

“But ultimately the Maoists want to replace the state, and there’s very little chance the government will agree to its own obliteration.”

In Kashmir, stone-throwing protests in support of autonomy and a withdrawal of the massive army presence still occur on a near-daily basis. They have not snowballed into the violent chaos of 2010, partly because the government has been very careful this year not to set off the cycles of violence that came with each new death the previous year.

But beyond this added restraint from the security forces, Ajai Sahni, director of the South Asian Terrorism Portal in New Delhi, says any reduction in violence has little to do with the government’s slow-moving attempts at a political resolution.

“People were fatigued after the violence in the previous summer and there was a backlash against the separatist leaders,” he said. “Pakistan, where the separatists have always taken their inspiration, has descended into chaos, making many of them question where they are headed.”

Violence is also down in the northeast, where the government has brought several insurgent groups to the negotiating table recently. Yesterday, Home Minister P. Chidambaram announced a huge rebel surrender in Assam, as close to 700 cadres from seven rebel groups handed themselves in.

“But look at Manipur,” Dr Sahni interjects, referring to another insurgency-wracked state in the northeast where violence has dropped off in recent months.

“It is completely inexplicable – it is a state that is utterly misgoverned, where the security forces have not had any extraordinary operational successes, and yet the insurgencies are collapsing.”

Where the government has attempted structural reform, it has largely failed.

The National Counter-Terrorism Centre, dreamt up in the wake of the 2008 Mumbai attacks that killed 170 people, was supposed to streamline intelligence and response capabilities. It would be useful against the Islamist networks that planted three bombs in Mumbai last July, and the Delhi High Court bomb in September.

But already a year overdue, it has been gradually undermined by competing government departments fearing a loss of responsibility.

“I don’t think the government has done anything much in recent years to improve the security situation anywhere in the country,” said Bibhu Routray, former deputy director at the National Security Council in New Delhi.

What ultimately saves the republic is perhaps its sheer size and bewildering variety, which make it difficult for any one rebellion or issue to threaten the state as a whole. The government’s lumbering response – referred to as “masterly inaction” in the corridors of power – can often appear effective.

“In the long run, the government’s indifference and inactivity bring everyone to the point of exhaustion,” said Dr Sahni. “The rebellions whither away, but nor they ever resolved.”

(A different version of this article appeared in The National today.)

The Rushdie Affair: Feel The Pain Of The Liberal Elite

Here’s my take on the Rushdie controversy at the Jaipur Literature Festival, which was a very fine event despite being dominated by this affair. I’ve extracted the juicy bit out of my feature in today’s National below.

You might summarise my view thus: If you don’t like your festival being ruined by retards, then go into teaching, not publishing.

Tarun Tejpal got plenty of applause in the debate yesterday evening, saying it was time to “roll up our sleeves” and do something, rather than sit back and allow these attacks on freedom of speech to keep occurring. If he meant anything, I hope he did not mean that we should all sign a petition asking for the ban on the Satanic Verses to be lifted, then have a heated discussion about it in a drawing room somewhere, then consider the job over.

Freedom of speech has emerged (and retreated) throughout history in line with broader processes of political, economic and social development (and regression). The cosmopolitan crowd at the Jaipur Literature Festival may exist in a world where freedom of speech feels like a natural and fundamental right, but clearly they are in a bubble, insulated from the rest of India.

Sanskrit scholar Alex Watson yesterday pointed out that people who feel offended about something are often revealing an underlying insecurity. We should ask ourselves why these Muslim communities feel so insecure that they would allow idiots to lead them into close-minded hatred.

From my National article:

“…it was notable that a far more provocative attack on Islam – and, indeed, all religions – by the high priest of atheism, Richard Dawkins, failed to incite a single complaint from the frothing fundamentalists outside the gate.

“I look forward to the death of all religions,” he told another overflowing audience on the Front Lawns on Monday evening. “Religion is deadly because it makes people willing to die and kill for it without a shred of evidence to back up their beliefs.”

What kept Dawkins safe from imaginary assassins was that he is not the political threat that Rushdie represents. Several observers have drawn the link between Rushdie’s banishment and next month’s state elections in Uttar Pradesh, where the Congress party is battling for Muslim votes.

But the festival’s success also plays out against the broader picture of 21st century India – providing another highly visible symbol of the yawning divide between the urbane socialites of south Delhi and the 800 million Indians who would never feel at home in the plush environs of the Diggi Palace venue.

That divide was on conspicuous display on Saturday night, as several hundred delegates piled out of the festival into a series of decadent after-parties sponsored by Penguin and Sula wine.

The latter took place within the beautifully crumbling walls of an old Rajasthani haveli, where guests were bemused to spot several local families staring down from the balconies up above. Equally bemused – and unable to sleep – they watched the increasingly drunken revelers falling over to a soundtrack of 1990s dance tunes long into the night.

As one guest, Nick Booker, a foreign university consultant with IndoGenius in Delhi, pointed out: “It was like the 19th century watching the 21st century dance to the 20th century” – an apt metaphor for how the majority of India must view the increasingly alien and westernised gaudiness of the urban elite.

The backlash against Rushdie may have been confined to a narrow band of bigots and their fawning political clients, but it nonetheless reflects that uncomfortable co-mingling in modern India of old and new, privileged and neglected.

There was no small irony in the idea of an anti-intellectual attack on those who have monopolised educational resources in India, and until the government finds ways of including the vast majority in the education system, such controversies will continue to surface.”

Read the rest here…

The Colonial Engineer Worshipped As A God

My article from The National:

PALLAR PATTI, INDIA // Claims that a century-old dam could collapse and kill up to three million people in southern India are considered blasphemy in one remote village, where its British colonial designer is regarded as a god.

The dispute over the Mullaperiyar Dam, in the border region between the states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu, has grown increasingly bitter. In recent months, violent attacks and even rape have been reported by workers crossing the border.

Kerala claims the dam, which was completed in 1895, could collapse at any moment, submerging three million people who live downstream on its side of the border.

For many on the Tamil Nadu side, which receives most of the benefits from the rivers created by the dam, such claims are sacrilege.

In the tiny hamlet of Pallar Patti, the man who built the dam, a British engineer called John Pennycuick, has achieved divine status.

His portrait hangs alongside that of Lord Krishna in the small temple in the centre of town.

Posters featuring his face adorn the walls of many homes and businesses, and a large billboard at the entrance to the village portrays him riding a chariot, with the faces of the current and former Kerala chief ministers superimposed on his horses.

“He has been elevated to the level of god here,” said P Andi, a resident. “On his birthday, we pour milk over his portrait – which we only do for the most sacred gods.”

The reverence is not hard to understand. Once an arid, dusty plain in which few crops could grow, this part of Tamil Nadu was one of the worst-hit regions during the famines that swept India in the latter half of the 19th century, taking millions of lives.


Today, Pallar Patti is rich and fertile – multiple crops of rice are grown each year, large banana and sugar plantations line the picturesque riverbanks and almost every villager rides a new motorcycle.

“If Pennycuick had not constructed this dam, these people would not have life,” said S Dorai Samy, a retired history professor who lives in Pallar Patti. “It is natural that he should become a god.”

From the crowd that has gathered around us, he points out three children called John.

Pennycuick’s story has the perfect ingredients for myth-making. According to the legend, he single-handedly spearheaded the creation of the dam against great odds.

When a monsoon storm destroyed two years of work and the British government backed out of the project, Pennycuick is believed to have sold his property and emptied his life-savings to see it through.

Read the rest here

Taming a raging bull for honour — and new kitchen appliances

He only wanted a hug.

My article in The National on the Jallikattu bull-running festival in Tamil Nadu – it was a lot of fun.

MADURAI, INDIA // The bull stops. Confused. Unaware that behind him is a straight run for freedom and glory. In front stand a hundred wild-eyed men, staring him down. They have their own glory in mind.

And also the promise of new kitchen appliances.

The bull charges and the men scatter, but one manages to grab hold of its hump and clings on desperately, his feet dragging along the hay-lined ground of the track as the animal bucks madly.

It takes more than three leaps of the bull to send the young man crashing to the ground. That’s enough to count as a victory.

He jumps up victoriously and rushes off to the judges to claim his prize. Moments later, he appears, beaming, with a new food processor in his arms. Before he can even reach the stands, another bull comes careering out of the gate at one end of the long track, barging its way through the crowd of young men.

This is the Jallikattu festival in the Madurai region of the southern state of Tamil Nadu – the ancient and often deadly tradition of bull-running that occurs during the Pongal harvest festival every January.

At least two people were killed and dozens injured this week in different races in the state.

Jallikattu is a sort of inversion of the Pamplona bull run in Spain. Here, it is the men that chase the bull – each hoping to grab hold of a hump for long enough to earn prestige for their village.
The men jostle violently for position around the gate, trying to balance their desire to get a grip on the bull without being directly in line with the horns when it charges. Many are battered senseless in the process.

At one of the most popular events in the village of Palamedu this week, it took less than half an hour before someone was badly injured, his unconscious body quickly scooped up by fellow competitors and taken off into the huge crowds that line the barricades.

Dozens are severely wounded every year. Many do not survive. In 2011, a 22-year-old spectator was gored to death at Palamedu after getting too close to the action.
The young participants are undeterred.

Masculinity is being tested here, and there are potential brides in the audience.

“I do this for honour,” said one competitor, a 20-year-old named Kumoransan Kovanam, head shaved, who was still waiting for a chance to get close enough for a ride.

Read the rest here...

The Nurse, The Sex Tape & Two Important Wrist Watches

That headline should draw a few extra people to the blog. My article in The National today:

It has all the trappings of a Bollywood thriller – a nurse is kidnapped, a sex scandal surfaces, body parts are found in a canal, and two politicians end up behind bars.

The state of Rajasthan has been gripped in recent months by the story of Bhanwari Devi, a 36-year-old nurse who went missing after trying to blackmail two senior members of the ruling Congress party.

Last week, the Central Bureau of Investigation confirmed her death after a search of the Rajiv Gandhi canal in Jodhpur found bone fragments – apparently all that was left after Devi’s corpse was burnt.

The fragments have yet to be confirmed by forensic testing, but the divers also unearthed a wrist watch, a ring and a locket that were identified by her sons.

A wrist watch crops up in another part of the sordid tale. Rumours had been circulating for more than a year of a video-CD showing then-water resources minister Mahipal Maderna, 59, wearing nothing else as he put himself in some compromising positions with Devi.

In a taped telephone conversation that emerged in November, quoted in India Today, Devi is heard saying: “Both the CDs are in a locker at a bank in Ajmer. I will give you the code. If anything happens to me, take the CD out.”

By the time the tape surfaced, something had already happened to her. But it was not until this week, when one of the main suspects, Kailash Jakhar, confessed to disposing of her body, that police began framing murder charges.

Mr Maderna was arrested in December, having already been sacked from the cabinet two months previously as the scandal gathered momentum.

According to a report in the DNA newspaper, citing unnamed police sources, Devi is thought to have demanded Rs 5 million (Dh356,413) from Mr Maderna to stop her from releasing the CD.

She reportedly also threatened another Congress politician, legislative assembly member Malkhan Singh, who she claimed was the father of her youngest child. She said she would announce their affair at a community event in his home town of Bishnoi on September 7.

Read the rest here…

Frisbee Naan

From 3 Quarks Daily:


Cow Dung Blocks Nuclear Radiation (and Why We Don’t Eat Horses)

First, here’s my article from The National on the bizarre justifications used for a ridiculous law against cow slaughter, and then below that, a spot of interesting ancient history from the days when horses were the protected animal:

NEW DELHI// Their dung blocks nuclear radiation, their milk makes children more obedient, touching them can lower blood pressure – just three reasons given for the introduction in Madhya Pradesh of the toughest penalties in India to protect the cow.

A workshop this week also heard only people who coated their house with cow dung, a popular insulation,survived the 1984 gas leak that killed up to 25,000 in Bhopal, the state capital, the Indian Express reported.

The Cow Protection and Conservation Board workshop was organised to celebrate the new law, which took effect last week.

Under the law, anyone convicted of killing a cow or taking it interstate to be killed can be jailed for up to seven years. The law also empowers police to enter a home if they suspect a cow crime has been, is being or is likely to be, committed, raising fears it could be used to harrass minority Muslims.

The state government, led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), insists the move is to protect the sanctity of the cow and fixes problems in an earlier law.

Academics say it may be a cynical move to bolster support for the party and the chief minister, Shivraj Singh Chauhan, who also announced the government would spend almost US$100 million (Dh367m) on a “mega-cow pen” to provide better conditions for young calves.

An article in The Hindu newspaper yesterday made a pointed comparison to the condition of people in Madhya Pradesh, which has the country’s highest rate of infant mortality and lowest rate of literacy.

“The religious feelings of people need to be respected and therefore saving the cow is one of the top priorities of the government,” Nagendra Singh, the state public welfare minister, told the paper.

“Let there be no doubt that cow slaughter needs to be stopped, not only in Madhya Pradesh but throughout the country.”

The BJP has enacted cow protection laws in several states under its control, but these are considered the most stringent yet.

The law has come into force a decade after riots in the state that erupted when Hindu nationalists took to the streets over reports Muslims were secretly killing cows. The riots helped bring the BJP to power in Madhya Pradesh a year later, in 2003.

The BJP’s campaign against cow slaughter is seen by some analysts as part of its ongoing attempt to create a pan-Indian nationalism out of the myriad identities that exist in India.

“Outside a small section of modernised Indians, many still think of themselves not as Hindus, but in terms of caste, language and sect,” said Ashis Nandy, a leading social theorist with the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in New Delhi.

Promoting a ban on cow slaughter, he said, “is an attempt to steamroll these other forms of identity and have people think of themselves purely as ‘Hindus’. It is a cynical attempt to consolidate political support.”

But the sacredness of the cow and the Hindu belief that eating beef is a sacrilege is not without its questioners.

DN Jha, a retired professor from Delhi University, said the idea spread only in the 19th century as a way of targeting Muslims. His book, The Myth of the Holy Cow, brought him death threats when it was published in 2001.

“This whole concept of the sacred cow is limited to certain communities in certain parts of the northern, Hindi-speaking belt of India,” he told The National, adding cows are still eaten by the Dalit community (formerly known as “untouchables”), and even by the highest castes in southern states such as Kerala.

Eating beef is common among Hindus in Nepal and Sri Lanka.

“In the nineteenth century when Indian history was being written along modern lines, it became useful for Indian nationalists who were anti-Muslim to spread this idea that beef-eating was introduced into India by the Muslims, but there is clear evidence that cows were eaten in India long before the coming of Islam.”

A friend of mine, Alex Watson, a Sanskrit scholar who will be teaching at Harvard next year, also passed on some interesting information that goes even further back into history to a time when horses were the protected anima:

Among the ‘Indo-Europeans’ it was the eating of horse that was taboo.  These ‘Indo-Europeans’ were, at least according to the consensus among Western scholars, a tribe going back to as early as 4000 BC, living perhaps somewhere in the Russian steppes, who spoke a language that evolved into the north Indian languages and all the European languages apart from Hungarian and Finnish.  Their mythology, furthermore, evolved into Greek, Latin and Vedic mythology.  Hence the many similarities in European and North Indian languages (which are all completely different from Arabic and Hebrew etc. which come from a different source), and the similiarites in Indian and European mythology (e.g. the trident of both Shiva and Poseidon).

The Indo-Europeans were horse-riders, and also the inventors of horse-drawn chariots.  This, incidentally, gave them an immense military advantage over their enemies.  If you fire a bow and arrow from a horse, while riding, the chances of hitting the target are low, but if the firer is standing in a horse-drawn chariot, the chances of firing straight massively increase.  Anyway the Vedas, the oldest Sanskrit texts, bear witness to a major taboo against eating horses, and this Indo-European attitude is thought to be the source of the the present-day taboo in England, for example, against eating horse-meat.

The Indo-Europeans dispersed from their homeland (for what reason we do not know), some went to Europe, some went into Iran (whose ancient language, Avestan, and whose mythology is close to Sanskrit and Indian mythology), and those who went to India composed the Vedas and the rest of Sanskrit literature.  As their nomadic life ceased and they settled in India, cows became more important than horses.  Horses don’t survive so well over here.  Hence the taboo transferred to cows, which obviously have immense economic value here as the source of milk, butter, curd, cow-dung and pullers of bullock-carts.

By the way many Indian scholars do not accept the `Aryan-invasion / Aryan migration’ theory that the composers of the Vedas came from outside India.  They think that the Aryans always lived in India.

Doubts Over Claims the Indian Military Hacked US Officials

My article in The National today:

Intelligence sources in Delhi have cast doubts over claims that an Indian spy agency broke into the emails of a US commission that monitors economic and security relations between the US and China.

A memo purporting to come from Indian military intelligence was posted by hackers on the internet this week, suggesting mobile device manufacturers Apple, Nokia, and Research in Motion (RIM), which produces the BlackBerry, provided the Indian government with access to their devices “in exchange for Indian market presence”.

The memo, which has not been independently verified, suggests this access was then used to hack into the emails of officials at the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, several of which were published online by a group called the Lords of Dharmaraja.

US authorities are investigating the allegations. The commission has not denied the authenticity of the emails, which discuss US companies, such as General Electric, becoming dependent on China for their operations and what the US government should do about Chinese currency manipulation.

The Indian government has declined to comment on the issue.

Apple denied that it had provided the Indian government with backdoor access to its products, while Nokia and RIM refused to comment.

However, a source within the Research and Analysis Wing, India’s external intelligence service, said Indian agencies were unlikely to strike deals with companies to gain access to emails.

“A year ago, these companies were under a lot of pressure to provide access to confidential emails,” the source said.

“But when they were not able to give it, the intelligence services just used their own hackers.”

Read the rest here…

Why has the BJP Fielded Such a Dodgy Candidate?

India’s main opposition party, the BJP, landed itself in an embarrassing pickle this week after it inducted a new politician into its ranks ahead of the Uttar Pradesh elections who is suspected of involvement in a multi-million dollar healthcare scam, the murder of two chief medical officers, and who was booted out of his previous party for being massively corrupt. (Read my article in The National here).

What were the BJP thinking? Well, the man in question, Bapu Singh Kushwaha, has a lot of influence among lower castes known as ‘Other Backward Classes’, and the BJP’s state organisation ultimately decided that this was more important than any graft allegations, regardless of all the hoo-ha about corruption and Lokpals and Anna Hazare that has dominated the news in Delhi in recent months. As a BJP spokesman tells me in the story: “…the reality of Indian politics is that you have to address different audiences. All the media chatter among English-speaking middle classes in Delhi has no impact on real politics in places like UP where Kushwaha’s influence works.”

One depressing conclusion is that, for all the debate and protest about corruption in the past year, little has really changed on the ground. A year ago, when I went to one of the first major rallies in Delhi organised by the anti-corruption movement (before Anna Hazare was wheeled in as the figurehead), it didn’t feel like a sentiment that would really catch on. A year later, the surprising torrent of support for Hazare’s campaign that occurred over the summer has once again died down – attendance at his last rally in Mumbai in December was poor – and just a few days into the new year, the second largest party in the country feels confident enough that corruption is so irrelevant to voters that they can induct a politician as tainted as Mr Kushwaha.

On a related note, Rupa Subramanya, over at WSJ, discusses a recent academic paper on why parties field criminal candidates in elections. In the last general election, a whopping 75% of seats involved a candidate with a criminal background. The paper argues that intense competition in Indian politics encourages the use of criminal candidates who can use violence and intimidation to pressure voters. As Rupa says, this explains low turn-outs and voter cynicism as much as it does India’s famous anti-incumbency.

I would argue that cases like that of Mr Kushwaha are a reminder that criminality, violence and corruption are an entrenched and accepted part of governance and power in rural, undeveloped areas. Voters are no more likely to reject a candidate on the basis of their criminal record than Republican voters in the US would turn against a candidate because he was a racist, homophobic idiot. It’s just par for the course.

Over the weekend, the BJP suspended Mr Kushwaha until he can “prove his innocence [sic].” But they only did so because it was embarrassing the party’s top brass in Delhi who had been banging on about their disgust with corruption. The truth is that the party in UP – and many within the top leadership – would gladly have held on to him, knowing that he would perform very well for them in next month’s elections.

PS> I also have a short article in The National today on UP Chief Minister being ordered to cover up all the statues of herself and of elephants. Not of Gandhi, though – he’s not running, apparently.

ALTERATION NOTE: The original version of this article referred to Mr Kushwaha as a potential candidate in the election. In fact, he is already a member of the upper house (the Legislative Council) and is therefore not taking part in next month’s election (which is for the Legislative Council). He would have campaigned for the BJP, but not actually contested a seat. The title of this post probably needs changing too, but I think that messes with the URL.
Thanks to @vikasbsingh for the correction.