Thursday, August 30, 2012

Policy is foreign to Government

By Swapan Dasgupta

At a time when the governance of the country is in total disarray, foreign policy is the least of India’s national preoccupations. Yet, thanks to a blundering government that has lost its balance, India has committed one astonishing blunder and may be on the verge of another diplomatic boo-boo.

The first, predictably, centres on Pakistan, a country which is internally beleaguered and externally short of credibility and friends (barring China). Last week, in an astonishing show of cynicism, the Union Home Secretary accused forces in Pakistan of disseminating fraudulent and inflammatory propaganda aimed at inciting communal troubles in India. The purpose was charmingly blunt: to suggest that the tensions all over India flowing from the troubles in Assam’s Kokrajhar district were the creation of the proverbial ‘foreign hand’.

It is no one’s contention that forces in Pakistan, both official and non-official, are not inimical to India. For a very long time, official thinking across the Radcliffe Line has salivated over the likelihood of an eventual break-up of India. The war of a thousand cuts that General Zia-ul Haq launched in the early-1980s was aimed at encouraging every separatist trend in India, be it in Jammu and Kashmir, Punjab or the North-east. Since 1993, Pakistan has also been hyper-active in fermenting Islamist terrorism and its role in the Mumbai attack of 2008 has been extremely well documented. Even to this day, the promoters of the notorious Lashkar-e-Tayiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed are allowed a free run within Pakistan to disseminate their hateful anti-India message.

That certain Pakistani websites run by extremist elements (with or without official backing) did their bit to promote and nurture a sense of Muslim victimhood over events in Assam and Myanmar isn’t in any doubt. Some jihadi elements within India also echoed these themes in their websites.

However, it is one thing to be alert to the dangers of cyber disinformation. It is a completely different matter for the Centre to argue that the mobs in Mumbai, Lucknow and Allahabad were instigated by Pakistan.

The argument that otherwise good Muslims were cynically misled by dark forces may be good for TV chat shows. The problem arises when the Government starts touting this as the official explanation. Naturally Pakistan has demanded proof. And never mind supplying evidence that would leave Islamabad squirming in embarrassment, the Home Ministry has failed to satisfy colleagues in the Ministry of External Affairs. Indeed, India’s diplomats are themselves shamefaced over this ham-handed bid to pin the responsibility for our internal failings on Pakistan. Apart from everything else, this amateurish buck-passing has ended up putting needless question marks over the credibility of the evidence on Pakistan’s culpability in the Mumbai attacks. If there was a well-directed self-goal, this was it.

The Government, it would seem, is so caught up with obfuscation that it can’t tell its rear from its elbow. This week, the Prime Minister is going to take a break from ‘coalgate’ and other domestic headaches and travel to Teheran for a completely useless Non-Aligned Movement summit. I am no kill-joy and would not like to deprive junketeers of the opportunity of buying Persian carpets at bargain prices. Yet, there is a compelling case for the PM to cite domestic preoccupations and despatch External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna to shake hands with President Ahmadinejad and other representatives of the Iranian theocracy.

That India and Iran has deep ‘civilizational ties’ is a cliché that often rivals the ritual boasts of us being a 5,000-year-old civilisation. No doubt both contain grains of truth which are supplemented by material interests. India still needs Iranian oil and needs Iran for an overland access to Afghanistan. The strategic importance of both should not be underestimated. If he doesn’t, it will be shameful. (END)

At the same time, there are some features of the Indo-Iran bilateral relationship that could do with some clarification. The most important of these is the question of Iranian involvement in international terrorism.

It is understandable, though not morally defensible, that India chooses to look the other way (and at times even condone), Iran’s activities in Lebanon, Syria and Israel. As a country that has a glorious track record of preachiness, India has chosen to keep remarkably silent about Ahmadinejad’s repeated threats to wipe out Israel from the face of the earth—the latest one being his Quds Day address on August 17. But why has India chosen to be silent when Iran exports its terror to New Delhi?

The Delhi Police, after an uncharacteristically unpublicised inquiry, has gathered enough evidence to indicate that three Iranian nationals, along with one Indian, were involved in the explosion that left an Israeli diplomat seriously injured in February this year. Despite the evidence linking the Delhi bombing with the Bangkok bombing where Iranian nationals were also involved, Teheran has chosen to brazen it out, in the understanding that India is powerless to do anything.

The issue is not merely that Iran must not be allowed to export its terror, but that India must make it clear that it will not countenance any physical harm to the representative of a friendly country—which is what Israel unquestionably is.

For too long, India has allowed its policy to be guided by spurious sectarian concerns. If the Prime Minister does go to Teheran at this inopportune moment, the least we can expect is for him to tell Ahmadinejad to lay off.  

Sunday Pioneer, August 26, 2012

The RAW story of our dull, mediocre spies

Spy thriller aficionados can be divided into two broad camps. There are those enthralled by the stylish James Bond who combines his taste for martini, pretty women and fast cars with a doughty determination to take on the likes of Dr No, Goldfinger and, of course, Smersh and Spectre. A smaller group would, however, swear by George Smiley, the MI6 functionary with a messy private life, who patiently pieces together disparate pieces of information in his cerebral battle with the brilliant Karla, the presiding deity of 'Moscow Centre'.

Although the annals of the Great Game speak of the Hindu pundits who played an important supporting role in the romantic intelligence-gathering operations of the Raj, it is fair to say that independent India never quite succeeded in establishing a popular espionage mythology. Was this due to the fact India was merely a playground of the Cold War and never a player?

The Mitrokhin Archive narrates the sorry tale of nearly half of Indira Gandhi's Cabinet rushing to the Soviet embassy to peddle 'secret' documents. Some CIA papers in turn speak of a compromised cabinet minister and money poured into anti-Communist work. In both cases, India was merely a stage for a larger spy versus spy game. There are hardly any declassified documents and first-person accounts of Indian intelligence operations in a treacherous neighbourhood.

To the extent that Salman Khan glamorises, in the James Bond mould, the operatives of the Research & Analysis Wing in Ek Tha Tiger, there may be grounds for believing that India has finally filled the void. A few more muscular Bollywood interventions and we may even wallow in the patriotic myth that our RAW is the local equivalent of the CIA, MI6 and Mossad. Such a perception may even be very good for the self-esteem of the external intelligence unit that has got more than its fair share of adverse publicity.

The extent to which the robust patriotism of Ek Tha Tiger deviates from ground realities comes through in Amar Bhushan's Escape To Nowhere, an account (fictionalised to escape the Official Secrets Act) of the detection and defection of RAW's very own CIA 'mole' Rabinder Singh in 2004. As the man in charge of security in RAW, Bhushan mounted the surveillance on Singh and had to take the rap when the wily double agent used a long weekend and a purported family holiday to the hills to drive to Nepal and, with the assistance of his CIA handlers, fly to the US.

The story of RAW that emerges from this enthralling account is depressing. Far from being another "Circus" staffed by brilliant men and women who had been talent-spotted at university by dons who knew what the service needed, India has crafted RAW in its own bureaucratic image. Thus, the brilliant and the enterprising are weighed down by a system where an excess of discretionary powers has rewarded the plodder, the corrupt and the lackey . This may be the way to run the public works department but it is surely no way to protect and enhance national interests.

There is a compelling case for making the tale of Rabinder Singh into a film, if only to inject a note of realism into the system. Singh was no personification of evil or brilliance. He was dull, mediocre with low retentive powers, a taste for the good life and an over-weaning desire to be posted in the US. His modus operandi was remarkably simple: he simply photocopied every document he could lay his hands on, took them home and sent them by email to his handlers. The RAW bigwigs wanted to catch him red-handed passing 'secret' documents, quite forgetting that IT has made face-to-face contact redundant . In the technical department too, RAW isn't quite fit for purpose.

This was no battle of wits between a Smiley and a Bill Hayden. This was an exhibition match involving Inspector Clouseau and his mirror image.
Singh was not the first RAW operative who was compromised, and nor will he be the last. As long as Indian intelligence operates in a strategic vacuum, it will be vulnerable to corruption, leaks and inefficiencies . Good intelligence also demands a national purpose. India, tragically, doesn't have any.

The rise of modern Muslim leadership

By Swapan Dasgupta

The violence in Assam’s Kokrajhar district and its unsettling reverberations in the rest of India have ignited passions and triggered a return of identity politics.  This shift and its ominous implications have already begun to be dissected in politics, the media and society. There is, however, one aspect of the recent outbreak of sectarianism that has received insufficient attention: the definite emergence of Hyderabad MP Asaduddin Owaisi as the foremost pan-Indian Muslim leader.

Even before the troubles in Assam, the leader of the All-India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (MIM) was a familiar figure. As an uncompromising defender of ‘Muslim interests’ this bi-lingual, articulate, England-educated Barrister was a great favourite of the English-language channels. Unlike, say, Badruddin Ajmal, Azam Khan and Abu Azmi who were seen to be authentic but limited, Owaisi defied familiar stereotypes. His belligerence notwithstanding, he came across as someone familiar with the modern idiom of politics.

Although he is second to G.M. Banatwala, the Mumbai lawyer who represented the Mallapuram district of Kerala for the Muslim League for many terms, as a parliamentarian, Owaisi has made a mark in the Lok Sabha. His short intervention in the Lok Sabha during the adjournment motion on the Assam troubles may have earned him some notoriety—he warned of a possible “third wave” of Muslim militancy—but, in the process, he came across as the most decisive voice of the Muslims in Assam. Owaisi was the only Muslim MP who spelt out the demand for the immediate abolition of the Bodo Territorial Council, a body viewed by the immigrants as the impediment to its ‘rights’ in Kokrajhar and elsewhere.

Owaisi’s clear articulation of the Muslim community’s demands in Assam, as opposed to mouthing platitudes, wasn’t surprising. Since the troubles erupted in Assam, he personally visited the relief camps where Muslims have been sheltered and, in addition, organised teams of doctors and volunteers from his constituency. Increasingly, the scope of his interventions has been growing. He may be elected from a constituency in Hyderabad which has come to be regarded as the MIM’s pocket borough, but he doesn’t seem to be content confining himself to the concerns of the congested bylanes around Charminar.

True, his father Salahuddin Owaisi also attempted a wider role during the Ayodhya years and even floated his own Babri Masjid Coordination Committee (which rivalled the better known Babri Masjid Action Committee) but the Salar-e-Millat, as he is now reverentially called, never quite managed to break the dominance of the Muslim politicians from North India.

The younger Owaisi’s quantum leap forward in stature coincides with interesting developments in the Muslim community. After 1947, the idea of a single Muslim organisation representing the political interests of the community stood discredited. The community either rallied behind the Congress or, post-1996, attached itself to other mainstream parties. A separate Muslim party remained confined to the Malabar region in Kerala and the city of Hyderabad.

In the past few years, a new trend is emerging. In Assam, the AIUDF led by perfume merchant Ajmal has emerged as the main opposition party, and is at loggerheads with Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi. In Uttar Pradesh, the Peace Party played spoiler in the Lok Sabha poll of 2009 but won four Assembly seats in 2012. Its ability to make a more decisive intervention in 2014 should not be underestimated. Certainly, a fresh wave of communal incidents in UP suggests that there are stirrings that are taking place outside the national parties. The activities of the Popular Front of India have received some attention.

The trends are still early but it would seem that a new sense of victimhood and the larger process of radicalisation in the wider Islamic world are tempting Indian Muslims into experimenting with interventions outside of the mainstream ‘secular’ parties. There is no indication, as yet, to suggest that these disparate movements will coalesce in an all-India body. However, it is certain that these different formations are seeking wider linkages that could see the emergence of a loose coordinating body that maintains the autonomy of the regional bodies and increases their electoral manoeuvrability. It is in this context that Owaisi, with his ever-growing connections and acceptability in the larger political class, assumes importance.

To see Owaisi as merely a modern face is, however, to ignore the baggage he carries. The MIM may be socio-cultural body which also dabbles in electoral politics, but its pedigree is dubious. Those familiar with history will recall that it acquired prominence after 1937 as the upholder of an Islamic state in the Nizam’s territories. Its two pre-Independence leaders, Nawab Bahadur Yar Jung and Kasim Razvi never made any secret of their desire to keep the erstwhile Hyderabad state as an Islamic outpost outside the Indian Union. Apart from the sinister terror launched by the MIM-led Razakars in the final months of the Nizam’s rule, the MIM was noted for its opposition to democracy, its contempt for non-Muslims and its belief in the innate superiority of a Moghul court culture that was preserved in Hyderabad.

Owaisi has often maintained that today’s MIM is different from the pre-1948 body. The unfurling of the Asafjahi flag in Delhi that Rajvi dreamt of is clearly an impossible mission. But has the MIM shed its social and cultural assumptions? Or, are the irredentist and supremacist assumptions of a ‘modern’ leadership going to shape the mindset of a community with an exaggerated sense of anger?

Deccan Chronicle/ Asian Age, August 24, 2012 

Saturday, August 18, 2012

‘Rumour-mongers’ have the last laugh

By Swapan Dasgupta

The official narrative describes them as ‘rumour-mongers’, ‘mischief-makers’ and ‘anti-nationals’. Call them these and much more but there is a hard truth that India must confront: that these vile creatures are boisterously celebrating the spectacular success of their mission.

Just look at the facts. On August 11, a mob of nearly 50,000 assembled in Mumbai’s Azad Maidan and went berserk. They torched vehicles, molested women policemen, smashed shop windows and even desecrated an Amar Jawan Jyoti while venting their anger at the persecution of Muslims in Assam and Myanmar. Within two days, following a few incidents of intimidation, a sinister message was mysteriously relayed to people from Assam and the North-east living in Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Pune and Chennai to quit the cities by August 20 or face the consequences. From last Sunday evening, the mass exodus of people began and by all accounts nearly 20,000 people packed a small bag and left their homes, their studies and their places of work and caught the first available train to Guwahati.

Even as the Government, Parliament and well-meaning citizens tried to reassure panic-stricken communities that they had nothing to fear, mobs assembled in Lucknow and Allahabad on August 17 and, like their counterparts in Mumbai, went on the rampage burning cars and smashing shop windows. In Lucknow, the mob—described by a quaint report in The Times of India (online) as consisting of 50 people “dressed as Muslims, wearing skull caps and scarves”  and “chewing paan and paan masala, which is prohibited during the fast in the month of Ramzan”—honed in on the Buddha Park and were photographed vandalising a statue of the Buddha. They too were protesting against the happenings in Myanmar and Assam.

In just nine days, these “mischief-makers” and “anti-nationals” achieved three definite objectives.

First, they demonstrated quite unambiguously that when it comes to Muslims, community prevails over geography. They made a mockery of the claim by the BJP and many Assamese leaders that the clashes in Kokrajhar were between Indians and foreigners. They flaunted, for the rest of India to see, their complete identification with the “outsiders” and “foreigners”.

Equally, they demonstrated that when it comes to Muslim interests, national boundaries are meaningless. In another age, the Caliphate in Turkey had briefly become an Indian issue. In more recent times, Palestine had become a symbol of victimhood. Now, the boundaries of rage have been extended to embrace the cause of the Rohingyas in Myanmar.

Secondly, the unnamed “mischief-makers” struck a blow at the emotional integration of India. For some time, cities in India have faced problems centred on the harassment of citizens from the North-east, particularly women. The people of the North-east have nurtured legitimate grievances about Middle India’s disdain for its people. This profound sense of alienation is almost certain to be aggravated once the victims of the silent terror reach their homes in Assam and the North-east and narrate their ordeal. In time to come, what may be remembered is not that the local police, administration and voluntary groups tried their utmost to instil confidence but that ‘mainstream’ India has become unsafe for people of the North-east, that they are being targeted on account of their ethnicity and that they don’t ‘belong’.

The emotional trauma of the 20,000 or so people who returned home in fear will take a long time to heal. Those who care to remember may ponder over the devastating impact that the profiling of Sikhs during the Asian Games of 1982 had on the psyche of that community. To avoid despondency from turning into bitterness, all steps must be taken to ensure that the majority of those who took the trains to Guwahati return to their adopted cities as soon as possible.

Finally, the conspirators who instigated the troubles must be gloating over the fragility and helplessness of the Government and the political class. Far from reacting with outrage over what happened over the past nine days, there was a disgraceful show of squeamishness. The Mumbai Police Commissioner is reported to have warned against too many arrests, a Chief Minister is understood to have pressed the Ministry of External Affairs to summon the Myanmar Ambassador and issue a formal demarche, and the Minority Commission has chosen to be in denial over the illegal immigration to Assam. Politically, the Congress is in blue funk because it is fearful that firm action against the instigators of the mob violence and the creators of the morphed photographs could have dire electoral consequences.

Even the Fourth Estate, otherwise fearless in exposing perceived injustice, has held back its punches. Part of this is understandable because exposing the whole truth also ran the risk of adding to the climate of fear and nervousness. However, to the ‘mischief-makers’ this noble-hearted restraint is likely to be interpreted as evidence of the Establishment’s fear of their muscle power and electoral power. Having successfully bared their fangs and made their point effortlessly, the ‘mischief-makers’ now know their full potential.

Within the Muslim community too, the extremists have demonstrated their ability to be the real movers and shakers. Last week, during the debate in the Lok Sabha on Assam, the MP for Hyderabad warned against a ‘third wave’ of radicalisation if Muslim grievances were not speedily. After the events of the past nine days, it is worth considering whether he was ‘warning’ of an ominous trend or trumpeting its arrival.

Sunday Pioneer, August 19, 2012 

Thursday, August 16, 2012

CITIZENS WHO MATTER - Thoughtful governance has given Odisha’s people confidence

By Swapan Dasgupta

Casual visitors to Bhubaneswar, the administrative centre of Odisha, may be struck by its resemblance to the company towns that sprung up in the 1950s and 1960s when space was not an unaffordable luxury. Its remarkably well-maintained grand public buildings—the Secretariat, the High Court, the Assembly, et al—reflect the unbridled optimism and the aesthetics of the 1950s. Its rows of whitewashed official accommodation for the upper echelons of the bureaucracy, ministers and MLAs are generously spacious but don’t exude the imperial arrogance of the bungalows of the British Raj. And, to add to the enlightened ‘bush shirt’ ambiance of a disappearing age, there are many tastefully landscaped public parks, at least two outstanding museums (including the Natural History Museum which, last week, unveiled the 47 feet-long skeleton of a Baleen whale that had beached in Gopalpur) and the Rabindra Mandap which hosted performances by Shubha Mudgal and Carnatic vocalist T.M. Krishna last week.

In the past 15 years, a non-official Bhubaneswar has also emerged, driven by the brash energy of IT companies and private educational institutions. With the mining boom having produced a visible spurt in consumer spending, Bhubaneswar now conveys the image of a purposeful city, one that has easily overtaken neighbouring Cuttack in the surge to modernity. Compared to India’s booming metros, Odisha’s Capital may be a relatively small town but it has long discarded the image of being a sleepy town.  

There is a quiet, understated regional pride that permeates today’s Odisha but which is not often appreciated in the citadels of metropolitan derision. Thanks to a drastic overhaul of the state’s finances which has seen chronically deficit Budgets being turned into surplus, Odisha is no longer dependant on the Centre’s charity for everything. This has meant that the Chief Minister doesn’t have to constantly rush to the National Capital with begging bowl in hand. Elaborate welfare schemes, such as the Rs 2 rice scheme for the poor, the special assistance for the Kalahandi-Bolangir-Koraput region and programme for rural housing, can be financed from the state’s own exchequer, a detail that adds to the state’s self-esteem.

The extent to which a well-functioning and stable government can both empower and boost the self-confidence of a people is often not fully grasped by the metropolitan mindset. The perception of Odisha as a backwater that can either be taken for granted or used as a toy, regrettably, still exists. The only difference is that Odisha now refuses to be taken for granted.

A recent controversy, relatively small in nature, highlighted the change. This week, a minor storm erupted over the decision of the Governor, in his capacity as the Chancellor of the Ravenshaw University in Cuttack, to award an honorary doctorate to a notable from Delhi whose connections to Odisha were both tenuous and, it later emerged, somewhat contentious. Following protests, the honour was withdrawn. But, the Governor, it emerged, had made a habit of doling out honorary doctorates from local universities where he is the Chancellor to friends in the legal profession in Delhi. So blatant was the cronyism that special convocations of Utkal University and Sambhalpur University were held at Odisha Bhavan in New Delhi because some of those who had been honoured didn’t bother with the convocations in Odisha.

That the discretionary powers of Delhi’s foremost representative in Bhubaneswar is now called upon to account for his flights of whimsy may appear surprising to those who still cling on to patronising stereotypes of ‘simple’ Odiyas who can be taken for a ride. The surprise is unwarranted. Since 1999, the state has elected a regional party to power, each time with a thumping majority. Unlike the 1980s and 1990s, when Biju Patnaik and J.B. Patnaik alternated as Chief Minister and kept Odisha very much in the purview of national politics, the story has undergone a major modification.

Naveen Patnaik, the political innocent who was thrust into public life in 1997 after Biju babu’s death, has no doubt built on his father’s formidable legacy. But whereas the larger than life Biju babu always had one eye firmly focussed on national politics, his political heir has progressively eased himself out of a battlefield where he was only a bit player. When he was elected to the Lok Sabha from Aska in a by-election in 1997, Naveen had fought on a Janata Dal ticket. By 1998, he dispensed with the national party which was in a shambles and established the Biju Janata Dal, a regional party. Although he joined the National Democratic Alliance and had an alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party in Odisha, he extricated himself from that entanglement in 2009 and won a spectacular third-term victory. Unlike Gujarat and Karnataka where the BJP had successfully marginalised the remnants of the old Janata Dal, Naveen obliterated the BJP in Odisha.

At one level, Naveen has demonstrated a ruthless streak. At every step along his political journey, he has brushed away potential challengers inside the party and banished them into the wilderness. Odisha is littered with the political corpses of grandees who underestimated the political dexterity of the Chief Minister. The latest was Piyari Mohan Mohapatra, the proverbial juju man of Odisha politics. His coup attempt in May was snuffed out by public outrage. Naveen, away in England when the conspirators struck, was victorious in absentia.

However, my contention is that while Naveen’s guile and his reputation for personal integrity may have played its part in ensuring his dominance over the BJD, his political longevity owes much to the wider shifts in Odisha’s public consciousness. The Chief Minister has perfected the art of the regional party. Although personally a cosmopolitan who is naturally at ease in the most rarefied of circles on both sides of the Atlantic, not to speak of Lutyens’ Delhi, his political priorities are determined solely by his state. If there is a national intervention, it is because there is an Odisha dimension to it.

Delhi was always unfamiliar territory to a state where media consumers account for only 65 per cent or so of the population. By narrowing the focus of concerns to what happens in Bhubaneswar and the districts, Naveen may well be accused of enhancing the provincialisation of his state. However, the truncation of political boundaries can also be viewed as evidence of greater empowerment. What the average, concerned citizen of Odisha thinks of the goings-on in Delhi’s North and South Block has no impact. But his perceptions have a direct bearing on Bhubaneswar. By prioritising the local over the national, Naveen has offset the sense of despondency and alienation that would otherwise have crept into one of India’s most backward states. By making democracy provincial, Naveen has, ironically, enriched it substantially.

In recent months there has been intense speculation over how the BJD will conduct itself in the event of a hung Parliament in 2014. It is hazardous to prophecy the options Naveen will exercise, apart from saying that he will not support a Congress-led formation. But judging from the regional mould in which he operates, my guess is that he will prefer to also stay out of any NDA regime.  He will be content observing from the sidelines and bargaining fiercely for local benefits. Those anxious for his party’s participation must make him an offer so magnificently attractive that refusing it would mean letting Odisha down.  

The only effective pressure point for Naveen will be from below, from a people who, after 15 years, have the self-assurance to play on the national stage as citizens who matter. 

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Assam will never be same again

By Swapan Dasgupta

If I was a Bodo in Assam and listening to last Wednesday’s adjournment motion in the Lok Sabha , would I be mistaken in coming to the grim conclusion that the political establishment either doesn’t understand or doesn’t care about what happens in Kokrajhar? Would I be wrong in also concluding that the niceties of democratic politics are unlikely to save the community from complete marginalisation, even in the so-called Bodo ‘homeland’?

These are subversive thoughts and I hope that in the coming years I am proved completely wrong. However, judging from the complete denial of Bodo grievances by the ruling coalition and its many friends in the Opposition, some unpalatable home truths are in order.

The most important of these is the realisation that the immigrants from eastern Bengal (now Bangladesh) who began the colonisation of Assam sometime in the 1900s, are on the verge of a total and unqualified political victory. From the position of captive vote banks of cynical politicians such as Moinul Huq Choudhury, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed and that great buffoon Dev Kanta Barooah—all important functionaries in Indira Gandhi’s dispensation—the illegals have now acquired independent clout. They can still do with all the support they get from the misplaced secularism of the mainstream parties. But the more intelligent of their leaders—and the AIDUF leader Badruddin Ajmal, MP for Dhubri is just one of them—know that far from being a valuable stakeholder in the Ali-Coolie-Bangali coalition, it is they who are on the verge of calling the shots.

The process may yet take another decade to fully fructify. However, if as many in the know suggest, anything between 11 and 13 of the 27 districts of Assam are now Muslim majority, it is only a matter of time before the political consequences of this monumental demographic change begin to be felt. No wonder some of Sharad Yadav’s pointed questions to the government regarding the demographic composition of those in the refugee camps went unanswered.

This is a demographic upheaval that neither Assam nor the rest of India have begun to appreciate. Parties supportive of the Bodos continue to invoke the Assam Accord of 1985 and press for detection, disenfranchisement and deportation of all those who entered Assam from Bangladesh after March 1971. They don’t seem to realise that these demands are now horribly dated. Apart from the fact that 41 years have lapsed since the cut-off date, the demographic shift has made it impossible for any government machinery to conduct citizenship tests on the ground. Even the register of citizens that former Assam Governor Lt-Gen S.K. Sinha proposed in the late-1990s is certain to be flawed. Evidence from the Census operations clearly show that a disproportionate number of people tell the enumerators that they were born locally.

The likes of Ajmal know that the threats of detection and deportation are empty. This is why he has no inhibition about directing his fire power at the remaining pockets of indigenous resistance. If Kokrajhar falls and the Bodo Territorial Council becomes history, the march into Lower Assam and even the Barak Valley will be relatively effortless.

There is another facet of Ajmal that warrants attention, even admiration: the deftness with which he has enlarged the cause of Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh into an all-India Muslim cause. Confronted by one of the weakest Congress-led governments at the Centre, this approach is yielding returns.

One of the most spirited interventions in the Lok Sabha came from Asaduddin Owaisi the MIM representative from Hyderabad. Apart from suggesting that the abnormal rise in Assam’s population over the years was a consequence of Hindu migration from East Pakistan and Bangladesh, Owaisi proffered the threat of Muslim militancy in the event of the community’s grievances not being addressed.

Owaisi was not alone. The aftermath of the July riots has seen the organised and unpublicised conducted tours of Muslim politicians cutting across parties to camps where the Muslim dispossessed have taken shelter. It is this group that has mounted pressure on the Congress High Command for action against Chief Minister Gogoi. It was a desire to placate Muslim sentiments in West Bengal that also propelled Mamata Banerjee to announce that the state would happily provide sanctuary to those unsettled by the violence. In Parliament, Trinamool Congress minister Sougata Roy even stated that his party disagreed with the Supreme Court judgment striking down the Illegal Migrants Detection Tribunal.

For the moment, the trends in Muslim politics are mixed. In most areas where the community is in a minority, the trend is to support and participate in the mainstream parties, particularly the Congress. However, in areas where the community is numerically strong, there is the emergence of Muslim parties. The Muslim League in Malabar, the MIM in Hyderabad, the AIDUF in Assam and the Peace Party in parts of Uttar Pradesh could suggest an emerging pattern. If this trend is reinforced and replicated in West Bengal and Bihar, we may see a shift in the pattern of national politics.

The Congress is aware of dangers arising from a Muslim electoral breakaway. This may be why there is every possibility of the Bodo cry for help falling on deaf ears. For the moment, one community has quite effectively exercised its veto in national affairs—to the detriment of the national interest.

Assam will never be the same again.

Sunday Pioneer, August 12, 2012

Why Assam is sitting on a volcano

By Swapan Dasgupta

It is not going to be a happy Independence Day for the many lakhs (estimates range from 2.5 to four lakhs) of people in makeshift refugee camps in the Kokrajhar and Dubri districts of Assam. The state, Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi, has ominously proclaimed, is “living on a volcano”, with the possibility of sectarian violence being aggravated by a bewildering array of armed groups linked to one or another ethnic group. Overwhelmed by incomprehension, the otherwise prickly liberal intelligentsia and editorial classes have turned away their gaze after mouthing the familiar platitudes about the need to preserve peace. Considering the magnitude of the explosion and compelling evidence of administrative lethargy, even the by-now mandatory demand for the Chief Minister’s resignation has not been mouthed with any measure of conviction.

Driving this squeamishness is the fear of taking sides. Rather than probe the specificities of the situation in the north bank of the Brahmaputra, the custodians of the national conscience have retreated behind a curtain of moral equivalence—the compassionate equivalent of the plague-on-both-houses approach. There have been lots of assertions about what the troubles were not: they weren’t ‘communal’, they weren’t triggered by forces from across the Bangladesh border, and they weren’t state-sponsored. Was it, therefore, a bout of monsoon madness that affected Assam? If not, what was it?

It is not that the answers are unknown. But it is a truth that dare not speak its name. The story of the July 2012 riots has escaped narration on the national stage because the story-line suggests inconvenient villains and incorrect heroes.

Leaving aside the competitive haggling over which community suffered the most and who struck first, what was witnessed in Assam was a general uprising of an exasperated Bodo community against an unending wave of marginalisation and loss. Equally, it was provoked by the growing belligerence of a settler community (known in many quarters as Bangladeshi Muslims and whose citizenship is contested) that now perceives itself as the dominant group in at least 11 of the 27 districts of Assam and its insistence that the special powers of the Bodo Territorial Council to prevent land alienation be scrapped. On display were two different forms of aggression. The Bodo violence was born of desperation, while the aggression of the settlers was driven by anticipation of a new conquest.

It is not unfair to suggest that is the Bodo wall that has prevented the entire north bank of the Brahmaputra from being overwhelmed by creeping settler colonisation—a process that began in the early decades of the previous century and continues relentlessly to this day. For the Bodos, one of the earliest inhabitants of Assam, the issue is not merely a question of habitat. It is twinned with larger questions of language and identity. The community which makes up a nominal five per cent of the state’s population have been caught in a pincer movement. First, there are the physical encroachments of land-hungry Bangladeshi Muslims who are already dominant in neighbouring Dhubri and who have established squatter’s rights over communal lands in Kokrajhar and Chirang districts. Second, there are the cultural threats to the Bodo language and identity from the caste Assamese.

It is true that Bodo leaders increased their community’s isolation by failing to strike strategic alliances with indigenous non-Bodo communities such as the adivasis and Koch-Rajbonshis. Giving these communities a stake in the Bodo areas would have given the resistance to settler colonisation a greater strategic depth. It may even have encouraged the Assamese to see Bodos as an ally in a common ‘anti-foreigner’ struggle.

However, this short-sightedness cannot distract from the fact that Bodos have a right to feel aggrieved by the indifference to their plight in both Dispur and Delhi. Today, the tragic predicament of the Bodos is being wished away by invoking the cruel but inexorable logic of history. In the process, what is being overlooked is that the colonisers are more than economic migrants. They are fast developing independent ambitions that may well go beyond the purview of both state and national politics. Allowing the Bodo wall to be breached may well have grave implications for the political geography of India.

Sunday Times of India, August 12, 2012 

Friday, August 10, 2012

Of Churchill, Lords & the art of retiring

By Swapan Dasgupta

In history, Sir Winston Churchill is remembered as the leader who stood up fearlessly to Hitler and rescued Great Britain from the brink of defeat. What is less remembered is that after his unexpected defeat in the general election of 1945, Churchill remained in active politics and led the Conservative Party to victory in the 1951 election.

However, his second stint in Downing Street left Britons underwhelmed. Assuming office at the ripe of old age of 77, his four-year tenure was marked by grumpiness, erratic behaviour and constant speculation over his health. Yet Churchill soldiered on, much to the exasperation of his party colleagues, prompting Lord Mountbatten to remark that “Churchill kept living and the pall bearers kept dying.”

Much to the amazement of his contemporaries who marvelled at his unending appetite for the high life, Churchill lived on till the age of 90. He refused to retire from the House of Commons till the election of 1964, barely a year before his death. His funeral became an occasion of national mourning and was certainly the grandest send-off given by Britain to a non-Royal. But those who lined the streets of London on that cold January morning and the larger numbers in the Commonwealth who heard the crackling short-wave broadcast of the memorial service, remembered the man who epitomised the doughty, bulldog spirit of a beleaguered nation during the Blitz. They blacked out images of a stubborn, senile grandee who overstayed his welcome in politics and had to be taken to the House of Commons in a wheelchair.

Churchill was always a bit of an oddball who loved to set his own rules. In 1955, after he finally allowed his chosen successor Sir Anthony Eden to move into 10 Downing Street, the Queen offered her first Prime Minister the exalted title of Duke of London, an honour that would have matched the honour bequeathed by a grateful nation to his illustrious ancestor, the Duke of Wellington. But for some strange reason, Churchill was unwilling to relinquish his parliamentary seat and move to the House of Lords.

He was being needlessly difficult. Ever since the primacy of the House of Commons was established in the early part of the 20th century, the Upper House became the resting place of politicians who, either because of age or the vagaries of politics, had reached the proverbial glass ceiling. When Stanley Baldwin was preferred by the monarch over Lord Curzon in 1923, a new precedent took shape: the Prime Minister of the country would have to be from the House of Commons. Thus, in 1964, Lord Home was compelled to relinquish his hereditary peerage and seek election to Parliament to meet the unwritten Constitutional obligation for a Prime Minister.

The way the House of Lords has evolved over the ages is a tribute to the British system of government. In the early-20th century, the issue was one of popular sovereignty, but after 1945, the Lords has come as a great blessing to the main political parties. It has contributed immeasurably to facilitating generational changes in the parties. Senior leaders who are in urgent need of superannuation are honoured with a grand title, elevated to the House of Lords where they can occasionally make meaningful speeches on issues that concern them, and are given some of the perks and privileges of politicians. The Lords, therefore, serves many functions: it makes the seniors feel grand and relevant, offers them a de-facto pension for past services, and clears the deck for a new generation. A casual look at the membership of the House of Lords will reveal a who’s who of politicians who were prominent in public life of a preceding era. It is probably the most exclusive club of has beens.

The British experience is relevant to India. For many years, political parties have been beset with problems centred on individuals who don’t know when they are no longer wanted. In many European countries, politicians maintain a lively interest in a world outside politics. Many are proficient writers, some have wide-ranging business contacts, and still others love gardening or stamp collecting. After retirement, these non-political interests are vigorously pursued.

In India, tragically, politicians rarely have interests outside politics. Consequently, they are unwilling to leave public life where boredom is coupled with a fanatical desire to cling on to the perks and privileges the state showers on political players. The Congress, which has been in power for the longest, has traditionally shown the door of retirement by nominating people to the various Raj Bhavans. But only a few can be accommodated—and there is competitive pressure from the retired bureaucrats. The Opposition parties have no such luck and lack options to cope with those who don’t want to fade into the sunset. For some parties, the self-image of being a parivar makes life doubly difficult. You can’t discard those who have served the cause faithfully and have no other purpose in life.

The constitution of a House of Lords is a non-starter in India, because the country already has two Houses. However, the National Advisory Council offers a safe way out. A body that is a vibrant talking shop, has no powers but could be showered with resources, can easily be expanded and made sufficiently bipartisan to accommodate those who need to enjoy their retirement while appearing to be relevant.

Asian Age/ Deccan Chronicle, August 10, 2012 

Thursday, August 02, 2012

TWIST IN THE TALE - Secular politics is harming the Bodo minority in Assam

By Swapan Dasgupta

It is an undeniable fact that in the hierarchy of what passes off as ‘national’ news, North-eastern India occupies the lowest rung. While periodic lip-service is paid to the need to rectify matters and bring this much-neglected part of India into the ‘mainstream’ discourse, the bewildering complexity of the region and its relative inaccessibility has ensured that the North-east remains an afterthought, a sort of Fourth World in the Third World.

So it was with last week’s violent clashes in Kokrajhar and Dhubri districts of Assam that left more than 50 people being killed and an estimated four lakh people being uprooted from their homes. A ‘humanitarian crisis’—the newest coinage of mediaspeak—of this magnitude should have led to a furore in the chat shows, with sundry human rights bodies joining the race for competitive indignation. After all, a far lesser crisis in the Kandhamal district of Orissa in 2009 had attracted far greater attention, not to speak of the Gujarat riots of 2002 which continue to dominate media space.

To argue, as has often been done, that the editorial classes are naturally callous and prefer to focus on a relatively small protest in Delhi’s Jantar Mantar is only part of the story. The reality is that the media loves simple categories—as, for example, Hindu ‘fanatics’ versus helpless Christians in Kandhamal and the ‘mass murderer’ Narendra Modi versus beleaguered Muslims in Gujarat. The situation in the northern bank of the Brahmaputra, unfortunately, was too complex to present as a clash between ‘good’ and ‘evil’. Was it, as many insisted, a ‘communal’ clash involving Hindu Bodos and Muslim settlers who had arrived from what is now Bangladesh? Alternatively, was it an ethnic clash involving the indigenous Bodos and Bengal-speaking immigrants? The underlying presumption was that while a ‘communal’ clash was unacceptable, an ‘ethnic’ conflict was nominally less damning.

Then there were the invariable sub-plots that excite the TV channels. Was the Assam Government too slow to respond? Why did the Tarun Gogoi Government not take pre-emptive measures after the murder in Kokrajhar of , first, two Muslims on July 6 and the retaliatory violence that led to the killing of four Bodo activists on July 20? Was there any basis to Chief Minister Gogoi’s assertion at a press conference last week that the Army had refused to act until it got a sanction from Defence Minister A.K. Antony—a process that took two days? Is there any basis to the allegation by the Bodo Tribal Council chief Hagrama Mahilary that armed Bangladeshis from across the international border had incited the violence?

The answers to most of these questions will remain unanswered, even after the official inquiry committee eventually submits its report. However, what is clear is that in trying to slot the violence into pre-determined compartments and exploring the vexed question of administrative culpability, the media and the political class are taking evasive action. There is an uncomfortable dimension to this ethnic-communal flare-up in Kokrajhar and Dhubri that decision-makers would rather not address, not least because they have no answers to offer.

That the origins of the violence lie in demographic upheaval Assam has been witnessing for the past 100 years is undeniable. Thanks to waves of immigration from the region that is now Bangladesh, the population of Assam increased from 3.29 million in 1901 to 14.6 million in 1971, a 343.7 per cent increase compared to the all-India increase of nearly 150 per cent in the same period. Public intellectuals in Assam have stressed that the increase of the Muslim population has been disproportionate. In an unusual intervention last week, Election Commissioner M.S. Brahma suggested that the details of the 2011 Census may reveal that 11 of the 27 districts of Assam now have a Muslim majority.

While the issue of ‘illegal immigration’ from Bangladesh has formed an important part of the public discourse of the Assamese-speaking Hindus of the Brahmaputra Valley, it has become a paramount issue for the Bodo-speaking minority living in the areas that constituted the undivided Goalpara district. The Bodo-speaking minority which accounts for only five per cent of the population perceives a dual threat to their existence: a cultural challenge from the Assamese-speaking majority and a physical challenge from Bangladeshi Muslims who constitute the majority in Dhubri and whose presence is increasingly being felt in the Bodo heartland of Kokrajhar district.

The emergence of militant Bodo sub-nationalism in the 1990s was an attempt to cope with these twin challenges and led to the formation of the semi-autonomous Bodo Territorial Council in 1993. However, much of the political gains from militant identity politics have been offset by the growing assertiveness of the Muslim community. The rise of the All India United Democratic Front led by Maulana Badruddin Ajmal, the All Assam Minority Students Union and the Asom Mia Parishad has triggered a frontal Bodo-Muslim confrontation. Tensions have further risen following the AIUDF demand that the BTC be abolished because Bodos no longer constitute a majority in large areas governed by it. In an astute move, Ajmal has taken care to develop links with major Muslim organisations throughout India to ensure that the concerns of his social base are easily translated into ‘national’ Muslim concerns.

Confronted with this seemingly intractable situation, both Delhi and Dispur have fallen back on homilies. Following his tour of the relief camps earlier this week, (then) Home Minister P. Chidambaram took recourse to pious platitudes: “There are people from a variety of communities living in Assam now. Ultimately, people of all communities would have to learn to live together in peace.”  There was not a word about border fencing or possible modifications to the farcical Illegal Migrants Detection Tribunal Act. Dependant on Bodo support in Dispur but equally concerned with Muslim support at an all-India level, the Congress has very little space to manoeuvre. It can merely hope that any future conflict can be averted by more efficient administrative measures. Meanwhile, ground reports suggest an ongoing process of ethnic cleansing. Bodos in Dhubri are moving to Kokrajhar, and dispossessed Muslim of Kokrajhar are moving to Dhubri. Some may even find their way into West Bengal.

In the past, India’s liberal intelligentsia has been very vocal on the so-called ‘communal’ question, particularly the harassment of minorities. Yet, the usual suspects have been strangely quiet over this monumental upheaval that has shaken Assam. The reasons are obvious. The familiar stereotypes centred on brutish majoritarianism and vulnerable minorities don’t quite fit the bill in Dhubri and Kokrajhar. What we have instead is a very vulnerable indigenous tribal minority being squeezed from all sides, but particularly by the communal assertiveness of another minority that can leverage its national clout for local advantage.

In 2004, when the religious demography of the 2001 Census showed some strange results for Assam, the intelligentsia buried its head in the sand and ensured that all meaningful discussions on the subject were guillotined. The same process is once again at work over recent events in Assam.

In 1947, the Muslim community was a frightened minority, unsure of its position in an India that never took too kindly to the painful Partition in two wings. In 2012, Indian secularism is deeply entrenched and has ensured both dignity and political empowerment to religious minorities, sometimes by way of exceptional consideration. A problem, however, is likely to arise if the empowerment of minorities becomes a byword for injustice to others. For the Bodo minority of Assam, the practice of secular politics is coming to imply the possible extinction of their very identity.

The Telegraph, August 3, 2012