Monthly Archives: March 2012

The limits of anti-Maoist strategy in the Saranda forest

The National, Mar 28 2012

SARANDA FOREST, INDIA // The Indian government hopes a combination of security and development can help counter the threat from Maoist rebels, but its attempt to implement the plan in the Saranda forest of eastern India reveals a daunting challenge.

The village of Jambaiburu does not officially exist. It has never been surveyed, and its residents – members of the Ho tribe – have never been able to vote or receive rations cards.

Recently, an activist there managed to secure job cards for the villagers, theoretically entitling them to 100 days’ paid work from the government. But the section that lists their district, province and administrative block are still blank.

“I do not know where to go to get this work,” said Tupra Surin, a 30-year-old man from the village.

For decades, the Saranda forest, 800 square kilometres of dense woodland that straddle the states of Odisha and Jharkhand, have been largely off-limits to the government.

Instead, they have provided the headquarters for the eastern regional bureau of the Communist Party of India (Maoist), a rebel group waging a war against the government in a string of central and eastern states with an army numbering between 10,000 and 20,000.

The Maoists have returned to the international spotlight in the past two weeks after kidnapping two Italian tourists and a local politician in Odisha.

On Tuesday, they set off a landmine in the state of Maharashtra that killed 15 policemen, part of a steady stream of violence that has claimed more than 5,600 lives since 2005, according to the South Asia Terrorism Portal, a Delhi-based think tank.

The government is hoping the Saranda forest will become a showcase in its latest attempt to combine paramilitary operations against the rebels with development programmes designed to win the support of the population.

Jairam Ramesh, the rural development minister, has made this a pet project, promising new houses and roads in a 2.5 billion rupee (Dh179m) development plan, as well as the distribution of bicycles and solar lamps.

But for now, the area is a war zone.

To open the way for development, the government sent 60 companies of Central Reserve Paramilitary Forces (CRPF) to bolster state forces in Saranda last summer. Troops patrol narrow forest footpaths on foot and motorbike, and bursts of gunfire regularly crackle over the trees.

The sound is so routine that it no longer draws a response from local villagers, but they live in fear of the huge security presence that has suddenly descended on their home.

Read the rest here…

UN probe into Tamil killings is testing India-Sri Lanka ties

The National, 22 March 2012

NEW DELHI // Pressure from Tamil citizens is pushing India to back a United Nations resolution calling Sri Lanka to account for human-rights violations, threatening diplomatic ties with its southern neighbour.

The US-led resolution to be discussed tomorrow at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva aims to hold the Sri Lankan government to account for the carnage that occurred in the last days of its 30-year war with Tamil separatists in 2009.

A UN panel last year said that 40,000 people were killed in the final months of the war. Hundreds of thousands were forced into camps as the government hunted down remaining members of the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

India, which has close relations with the island nation, initially refused to support the resolution when it was put forward last week, but uproar from its own Tamil population in the southern state of Tamil Nadu forced it to backtrack.

“We do not yet have the final text of resolution but I would like to say that we are inclined to vote in favour of [the] resolution,” Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told the upper house of parliament on Tuesday.

His change of heart came after the DMK, a Tamil Nadu party, threatened to leave the ruling coalition over the issue. Already struggling to keep its fractious alliance together, the Congress-led government can ill-afford further discord.

The Sri Lankangovernment called its actions in this period a “humanitarian rescue operation” and has strongly objected to any international involvement in the reconciliation process.

But media reports have presented video footage of suspected Tamil militants being lined up and executed. A recent image from Britain’s Channel 4 news appeared to show the 12-year-old son of LTTE leader Prabhakaran, shot five times in the chest at close range.

Tamil activists in India are pleased to see the government backing the resolution, which includes calls for investigations into extra-judicial killings and disappearances, and the devolution of powers to Tamil areas.

But they fear it may dilute some of its clauses, particularly plans for the UN to oversee the process.

“The resolution is already quite weak – if the Indian government manages to dilute it any further – it will be a huge betrayal,” said Father Gaspar Raj, a Catholic priest from Tamil Nadu who ran a pro-Tamil radio station during the war.

He said many Tamil separatists would prefer to see the resolution defeated – leaving the door open for another, tougher resolution in the future.

“That would be better than a diluted version in which the accused are left free to investigate their own crimes,” said Father Gaspar.

The issue has brought a rare political consensus to the fiercely competitive parties of Tamil Nadu, with even the local branch of the Congress party criticising the central government.

“Smaller groups in the past five years have been hijacking the pro-Tamil sentiment of these main political parties, so there is an element of political competition in these protests,” said N Sathya Moorthy, a political analyst with the Observer Research Foundation in Chennai.

“But they also reflect genuine concern about the ethnic situation of the Sri Lankan Tamils among the people.”

The issue will not have passed the attention of the home minister in Delhi, P Chidambaram, who represents a constituency in Tamil Nadu. He only just scraped to victory in the last general election of 2009.

“The local Congress party in Tamil Nadu knows it won’t stand a chance in the 2014 election if it doesn’t speak out strongly on this issue,” said Father Gaspar.

With the LTTE banned in most western countries as a terrorist group, and its cadre decimated at the end of the war, human-rights investigations have become a last resort for Tamil activists.

But India is not a natural ally in the process. Its government once funded Tamil separatist groups in the 1980s but turned resolutely against them after the LTTE assassinated former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, husband of current Congress party president Sonia Gandhi, in 1991.

Nor does it want to encourage foreign prying in its own human-rights controversies, particularly in Kashmir where almost 3,000 bodies were found in unmarked graves last year. They are believed to stem from India’s own battle against separatist militants in the region in the 1990s.

India has sought to build closer ties to Sri Lanka in recent years, building new schools, housing projects and railway lines – partly to check the mounting influence of China, which has benefited from the blind eye it turns to questions of human rights.

Many other countries, including Russia, Cuba and Zimbabwe, have stated their opposition to the US resolution, saying the text will have no effect without the consent of the concerned country.

A dark game of protest in Manipur

The National, Mar 15 2012

NEW DELHI // Once a year, the “world’s longest hunger striker” gets a day or two of freedom from the hospital room that has been her prison for more than a decade.

Across India’s remote north-eastern state of Manipur yesterday, supporters of Irom Sharmila Chanu, known as the “Iron Lady” for her long-running protest against military violence towards civilians, lit candles to mark her 40th birthday.

But Ms Sharmila was not there to see them. She was already back in custody, 24 hours after being released.

Her crime of “attempting to commit suicide” only allows police to hold her for a year at a time – so an annual ritual has taken place for the past 11 years in which she is released and then quickly re-arrested.

The rules also mean she has to appear before a court every two weeks to renew her judicial custody, a process she has been through more than 500 times since she began her hunger strike in November 2000.

After each hearing, she returns to the 3 metre-by-3.5 metre room in the Jawaharlal Nehru hospital in the state capital, Imphal.

There she spends her time with one guard always by her side and two more in the room next door, a feeding tube lodged permanently in her nose to keep her forcibly fed.

Her room is adorned with a few books, toys and paintings donated by well-wishers from around the world, but access to Ms Sharmila is closely guarded by the state government with very few visitors – even family or her lawyer – allowed.

“A couple of years back, an activist friend came and gave her a candle through the hospital gates on the 10th anniversary of her hunger strike,” said Babloo Loitongbam, a rights activist from Manipur and close confidante of Sharmila.

“A photographer took a picture of this happening and it ended up in the newspaper. Within two days, the guard who had let this happen was transferred out of the hospital.”

At any moment, Ms Sharmila could end her hunger strike and walk free. Her determined refusal to do so has earned her numerous human rights awards and shone a light on one of India’s darkest corners.

Manipuri groups have been demanding independence for as long as India has existed. Neglected by a distant Delhi government, dozens of militant organisations sprouted in the region in a bid to win recognition for their community, and in later years, money and power.

Ms Sharmila’s protest is directed against the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA), which has allowed the army to operate among the civilian population in Manipur for more than 53 years.

Activists say the act has created a culture of impunity with the army. Ms Sharmila began her hunger strike in response to the alleged killing of 10 civilians by an Indian paramilitary force – one of many such incidents over the years.

India is preparing for a UN review of its human rights situation in May, and the law, which also applies in parts of Kashmir, is expected to top the list of criticisms.

With a powerful new mandate won in state elections last week, the chief minister, Okram Ibobi, is under little pressure to give ground.

But Ms Sharmila remains defiant.

“There is no place for AFSPA in a civilised society,” she told reporters during her brief release. “I will continue to agitate unless the draconian act is scrapped.”

Regional leaders smell blood

"You're going down, Pranab"

The National (print edition), March 14, 2012

The Indian government finds itself in a crisis of leadership as it heads into a crucial budget session, with a powerful set of regional leaders looking to exploit an increasingly weak centre.

The Congress-led coalition government in New Delhi is in trouble having been hit by a spate of corruption scandals and bruising defeats in state elections last week.

Smelling blood, several regional leaders have scuttled key reforms in recent months, including anticorruption legislation, opening the retail sector to foreign firms and the creation of a new National Counter-terrorism Centre.

Figures such as J Jayalalithaa in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, Nitish Kumar in Bihar in the north and the newly elected 38-year-old chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Akhilesh Yadav, may not be household names outside India, but they control populations greater than most countries and it has become increasingly difficult for the beleaguered central government to ignore their demands.

Uttar Pradesh, with 200 million people, would be the fourth largest country in the world if it were independent.

Even coalition partners cannot be relied upon. Mamata Banerjee, who came to power in West Bengal last May, is a member of the ruling coalition yet she has been a thorn in the government’s side.

She even undermined Indian foreign policy last September when she backed out at the last minute from a state visit to Bangladesh led by the prime minister Manmohan Singh, objecting to a landmark water-sharing treaty that she said would harm farmers in her state.

The problem, said observers, was that India’s national government is full of people like Dr Singh – a quiet and much- respected economist, but someone who lacks the political savvy and charisma of the powerful provincial leaders. Congress had hoped the void might be filled by the 41-year-old heir-apparent Rahul Gandhi, the son of the assassinated prime minister Rajiv Gandhi. But those hopes have been put on hold after he led a disastrous campaign in the Uttar Pradesh elections that left the party in fourth place, having failed to convince voters that he cared more about their problems than his longterm ambitions to rule the country.

“Most of the ministers in the central government are technocrats. They are good administrators but poor politicians,” said the psychologist and political commentator Ashis Nandy.

“In comparison, the chief ministers shine. They know how to take the people with them.”

Congress is reliant on the support of smaller regional parties as it goes into a crucial budget session of parliament this week amid concerns the economy is faltering. GDP growth fell to 6.1 per cent in the last quarter, down from over 8 per cent a year ago, and the government is struggling to contain a mushrooming fiscal deficit.

The government is likely to face a difficult time passing controversial reforms on mining, banking and taxation. Ms Banerjee has already stated her objection to planned increases in fuel and fertiliser prices.

But despite a flurry of speculation in recent weeks that regional leaders may form a Third Front to rival the central parties and perhaps even force an early election, most experts have said this is unlikely.

Few have much standing outside their home states, and coming from a range of different parties, there is little common ground beyond a desire to assert state rights.

“The aim is not really to take on the centre,” said Mr Nandy. “These are bargaining ploys to get more money and benefits.

“It may cause problems for national policy, but on the whole this is not a bad development. The centre had grown increasingly centralised over the years, walking roughshod over the rights of the states. This is a good corrective.”

Much of the criticism of regional leaders, said veteran journalist BG Verghese, now a member of the Centre for Policy Research in Delhi, comes from a certain snobbish view of the rough-and-ready politics at state level.

“State politics can be blunt and unsophisticated. These leaders crudely threaten to pull the rug from under the government’s feet if they don’t get what they want,” he said.

“But this is part of India changing and modernising. Local groups are morphing into regional parties and fighting for their place in the national picture. There will be a lot of bargaining and stalling, but this is the price of India’s revolutionary attempt at the time of independence to turn an illiterate and impoverished country into a full-fledged constitutional democracy in one leap.

“These are the growing pangs of a young democracy.”

A saving grace for Congress is that the only other party with national standing – the BJP – is also stuck in a crisis, unable to decide on who should take it into the next election.

The party leader Nitin Gadkari, ageing patriarch LK Advani, and riot-tainted but business-friendly Gujarat chief minister, Narendra Modi, are only a few of the possible candidates.

In the end, it all comes down to money – a fact which may save the Congress- led government, for a while at least.

“No one wants an early election – they can’t afford it,” said Mr Verghese. “The regional parties ultimately want money from the centre. If they don’t let the centre earn money and function properly, then they don’t get anything either.”

Indian Generic Drugs Industry Under Threat From Novartis Case

The National, Mar 12, 2012

NEW DELHI // “I used to know the undertaker’s phone number off by heart,” says Loon Gangte, remembering the dark days of the 1990s when he worked in a care home for HIV-Aids patients in Delhi.

Mr Gangte, a wiry 45-year-old, runs Delhi Network of Positive People, a support group for people with HIV.

He knows what it feels like to be given a death sentence.

“I was diagnosed in 1997. In those days, the only thing the doctor could say was ‘Think positive and pray to God’,” he says.

Medicines to control HIV then cost more than US$10,000 (Dh.36,700)  a year. In India, where per capita income is still about US$760 (Dh.2,800) a year, there were few customers. That changed in 2000 when the first generic drugs for HIV began to appear. Mr  Gangte now pays about $230 (Dh840) a year for treatment. “It’s thanks to those drugs that I’m alive today, and my wife and baby boy are negative,” he says.

India is a major source of generic drugs for developing countries, treating everything from tuberculosis to cancer. But a landmark court case threatens to choke off that vital supply.

The Swiss pharmaceutical giant Novartis is demanding the right to patent a cancer medicine called Glivec. If they win, they would have a 20-year monopoly and India could no longer produce its generic equivalent at a tenth of Novartis’s US$2,600 (Dh9,500) price. Health workers fear other big drugs companies would follow suit.

“If they win, it will open the floodgates for other companies to seek patents on all kinds of existing medicines,” said Leena Menghaney, a Delhi-based access campaigner with Medecins Sans Frontieres.

Read the rest here…

India elections: a setback for Congress, a snub to Gandhi

The National, Mar 7, 2012

Eric Randolph and Suryatapa Bhattacharya

NEW DELHI // Crucial state polls in five Indian states have dealt a crushing blow to the ruling Congress party and the hopes of its leader-in-waiting, Rahul Gandhi – the standard bearer of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty that has dominated the country since it was formed in 1947.

The party won just two states and came fourth in the barometer northern state of Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous.

In each of the five states – Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Goa, Uttarakhand and Manipur – the lack of development and the corruption at local and national levels dominated for disillusioned voters.

Despite more than 200 speeches and campaigning from his charismatic sister, Priyanka, the heir to the powerful Nehru-Gandhi dynasty failed to capitalise on a dramatic loss of support for the incumbent, “Dalit Queen” Mayawati.

The five-year term of Mayawati, a member of the low cast once known as the untouchables, was marked by corruption scandals and a hubristic obsession with building statues of herself and other untouchable icons at the expense of economic development in one of the country’s poorest states.

But Congress won just 28 seats in Uttar Pradesh’s 403-seat assembly, plus another nine through a local ally, a minimal improvement over the 22 it won in 2007.

Congress lost in the family strongholds of Rai Bareilly and Amethi in the heartland of Jawaharlal Nehru, Mr Gandhi’s great-grandfather and the man who presided over the handover of power from the British Raj.

“We have not done well,” Mr Gandhi told reporters in the state capital of Lucknow, breaking with a party line that had tried to insulate him from blame.

“The responsibility is mine, since I was there leading the campaign. I take it in my stride. This is a good lesson for me.”

Voters instead went with another young political scion, Akhilesh Singh Yadav, who led the Samajwadi Party to a thumping majority, with 224 seats.

Mr Yadav moved the party away from its thuggish reputation and Luddite aversion to computers and English-language education that it earned under his father, Mulayam Singh Yadav, a three-time chief minister.

“Akhilesh combined a sense of modernity while still speaking to UP’s rural population,” said SS Rana, a former civil servant and regular political commentator in Lucknow. “He also had a humble disposition which people flocked around.”

Despite his prominent role in the campaign, Akhilesh Yadav says the role of chief minister still belongs to his 72-year-old father.

The result may be a setback for Mr Gandhi, but it is unlikely to end his hopes of becoming prime minister.

In India’s fractious, caste and religion-driven politics, national parties such as Congress often fare poorly in state elections, where voters are more concerned about local issues.

“The fact remains that there is no contest for the position within the party after [prime minister] Manmohan Singh,” said Jatin Gandhi, author of a recent book on Mr Gandhi.

“The real question is whether the Congress is in a position to form the next government at the centre. If the elections were held today, the clear answer would be ‘no’ and if the Congress continues to perform in this fashion, both electorally and on governance issues, the scenario will not change in 2014.”

That the party failed to wrest back control of Punjab may be an even bigger concern than the Uttar Pradesh results.

It is the first time a governing party in Punjab has returned to power, with the Shiromani Akali Dal taking 68 seats to Congress’s 46 in the 117-seat assembly.

And that despite slowing economic growth and rampant corruption in the once-prosperous state, which has 800,000 unemployed college graduates.

Parkash Singh Badal, 84, will return as chief minister for the fifth time.

Congress also lost power in the tourist hot spot of Goa. Here it was local corruption – based around allegations that ministers were involved in a multi-million-dollar illegal mining industry – that helped the Hindu nationalist opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to victory.

In Uttarakhand, which borders China and Nepal, Congress squeaked through by a single seat over the BJP, but smaller parties and independents will decide who forms the next government.

This was a particularly unimpressive result for Congress given that the BJP chief minister, Ramesh Pokhriyal Nishank, was forced to resign just six months ago over corruption allegations.

A more emphatic success for Congress came from the remote north-eastern state of Manipur.

The state has suffered decades of secessionist insurgency, a series of corrupt and ineffective governments and, in recent months, crippling road blockades by competing tribal groups.

But with a weak and fragmented opposition, the Congress romped back to victory, taking 42 seats in the 60-seat assembly.