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BYLINES BY M J AKBAR (Chairman & Director, Covert)

CURRENT BYLINE :

The Parallel Streams of Anger
By M.J. Akbar | October 4, 2008

Dr Manmohan Singh said, on his return from France, that incidents in Orissa had shamed India before the world. That is important, but far less important than the fact that the violence in Orissa has shamed Indians in India. I measure what Indians do not by the standards of France, but by the values of modern India, which strengthened the spirit of our freedom movement against western colonialism and were enshrined in that noble document called the Constitution of India. The Bajrang Dal has shamed India before Indians.

Nicolas Sarkozy lives by French values, which is perfectly reasonable, for he is a Frenchman. But I am a little underwhelmed by the selective secularism of France, which permits schoolchildren to wear a small cross but will not allow a Sikh child to wear a turban or a Muslim to wear a hijab. One can’t complain: if those are the values of the French, they are entitled to them. If Mr Sarkozy wants to hand out medals to Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasreen [now given safe custody in India by Dr Manmohan Singh] that is his privilege. No one has accused Ms Nasreen of being a claimant to the Nobel Prize for Literature, but Mr Sarkozy is entitled to the nuances of his critical faculties. Dr Singh should perhaps be a bit wary of discussing domestic problems on foreign soil. I presume he would not mind, now, if the Saudis raised the killing of Jamia Millia students in Batla House by the Delhi police, or indeed communal riots in which Muslims are victims. Or does he have a separate standard for Saudis and the Organisation of Islamic States — the French can complain, but not them? The French could not care less about the plight of Indian Muslims, but Saudis or the OIC might care. France does not even pretend to hide its bias against Muslims: it objects to Turkey’s inclusion within the European Union because Turkey is a Muslim nation. [It must be noted that British policy is quite the opposite; it supports Turkey’s membership.] I imagine that Dr Singh forgot to raise the small matter of French involvement in African genocide. Rwanda has just published the findings of an enquiry which claims that France armed, trained and helped Hutu militias that killed 800,000 Tutsis, and those Hutus who gave shelter to Tutsis, in just 100 days in 1994.

The Bajrang Dal’s violence in Orissa shames me because it represents the destruction of the idea of India as shared space for all faiths, with each Indian guaranteed equal rights. This too is a form of terrorism. It has been pointed out that some of the conversion literature distributed by missionaries — for instance, a booklet titled ‘Satya Darshini’, where remarks have been made about Urvashi, Vashistha and Lord Krishna — is offensive. If that is so, there is a democratic way of addressing such issues. Who gave any fundamentalist the right to rape and kill? Governments that have tolerated this will suffer not only the shame of present censure but also the whiplash of public anger in the next elections.

There is a sullen mood across India, a sense of lowering clouds before a furious storm breaks. Every dimension of anger seems to be clamouring for expression. Secessionists in Kashmir taunt Indians by flaunting the Pakistani flag while the UPA government watches, impotent. There is a growing anger among many Hindus against such secessionist provocation, as well as against terrorists like those of the Indian Mujahideen who claim to act in the name of Islam: this effortlessly morphs into hostility against all Muslims. There is the rage of the Bajrang Dals who convert a perceived threat from conversions into irresponsible violence and worse. There is deep frustration among Indian Muslims who feel that they have been victimised for six decades and are being targeted on all sides now. They have faced the hostility of Hindutva; now they are dealing with betrayal by the Congress. The killing of Jamia students has crystallised this betrayal.

Political parties were meant to be guardians of public morality. That is too much to expect now. Their only purpose is to sip up votes from the parallel streams of anger, choosing whichever stream is compatible to their taste. To calm the nation’s anger would be injurious to their electoral interest.

Evasion and lies come easily to political leaders. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who has always advertised his probity, has absolutely no qualms about using deception. It would be boring to repeat the many kinds of deception that have characterised the progress of the nuclear deal with George W. Bush but the latest instance is useful evidence. Dr Singh always, and publicly, claimed that he wanted to be able to complete the negotiating process, and would return to Parliament before placing the final signature on any agreement.

On 30 June Dr Singh told the media, “I have said it before, I will repeat it again, that you allow us to complete the process. Once the process is over, I will bring it before Parliament and abide by the House.” On 22 July he told Parliament, “All I had asked our Left colleagues was: please allow us to go through the negotiating process and I will come to Parliament before operationalising the nuclear agreement. This simple courtesy which is essential for orderly functioning of any Government worth the name, particularly with regard to the conduct of foreign policy, they were not willing to grant me.”

The Prime Minister has walked away from this commitment without a hint of remorse. If Parliament protests, the government will simply adjourn the House. The credibility of politicians is not the real issue. The credibility of institutions cannot long stand the strain of irresponsibility.

This is a moment when the nation needs courage and leadership. Indians have, instead, to live with cynicism and misleaders. The disease stretches across the political spectrum. The country is getting infected.

Fuse of self-destructive terrorism gets shorter
By M.J. Akbar | September 28, 2008

Governance is the easy part of being in power. You govern through systems. Systems are protected by institutions. Institutions grind their way forward on hierarchy, oiled by memory or precedence. When there is need for innovation, change is sifted through a time-consuming committee. The end product may not be brilliant, but it comes with minimal-risk insurance: it will not do damage, and might even do some good.

India’s bureaucracy may not be the steel-frame of old. Corruption might have left it a brittle plastic. But it serves. Very often the difference between a good and a bad Minister — the titular head of the bureaucracy — is no more than his or her ability to leave well enough alone. Lalu Prasad Yadav has created a favourable reputation by the ingenious tactic of non-interference. He lets the Railway Board get on with the job and only appears on the scene when it is time to take credit. Give him full marks. More has been destroyed by the deadly combination of ego and incompetence than has been achieved in Government through genius. As the Railway Board has proved, India could be much better off if Ministers left Government on auto-pilot while they concentrated on what they know best: spilling each other’s blood.

The difficult part of power is leadership. Any term of office is divided between phases of placidity and the roils of turbulence. If turbulence is not calmed it develops quickly into a storm. Terrorism has become a raging hurricane. The statistics are well known. There is no point wasting space on them. But there is no leader who can challenge this storm, manage its fallout and restore some balm to the jangled nerves of the nation.

Dr Manmohan Singh and Mrs Sonia Gandhi have, at best, the most banal phrases to offer. We do not need a Prime Minister to tell us that terrorism is a grave threat. That much wisdom is available from any taxi-driver, the familiar source of political perspicacity sought by a visiting journalist anywhere in the world. No one has yet written a speech for Mrs Sonia Gandhi that takes us anywhere near a remedy to this terrible disease.

An answer must begin with a question: when did terrorism begin? Too long ago. India is unique. Every faith has delivered its quota of terrorists. The Nagas who challenged Indian unity were Christians. The sister-regions of the Northeast gave us Hindu terrorists. Sikhs rose in Punjab, and Muslims in Kashmir. The overwhelming majority of Naxalites are Hindus.

And now some young non-Kashmiri Indian Muslims are playing with dynamite. Some three years ago, when President George Bush visited India, Dr Singh proudly told his American mentor that Indian Muslims did not believe in terrorism. As evidence he pointed to the absence of any Indian Muslim name in the rolls of Al Qaeda.

If this was true, then what has happened in the last three years? India has not been ruled by any party that Muslims consider hostile to their interests. Congress has been in power in Delhi. In fact, Indian Muslims believe that if they had not mobilised to an unprecedented degree the Congress would never have got enough seats in the last general elections to cobble together a coalition. Indian Muslims claim a sort of ownership of the UPA regime. Why have Dr Singh and Mrs Sonia Gandhi been unable to prevent a spurt of despair within the community?

The Congress will not even admit this question, so it is difficult to see how it can introspect its way towards an answer. There are two principal reasons for the renewed rise of Muslim despair. First, the community has not got the justice it expected from the Congress. One fact will illustrate. While those found guilty of terrorism in the Mumbai bomb blasts of 1993 have been, rightly, punished through the legal process, those found guilty of crimes against Muslims in the preceding riots have been left untouched. The constables found guilty of state terrorism during the awful riots in Mumbai after the Babri episode in the report of the Justice Srikrishna Commission are wandering around, free. Dr Manmohan Singh, Mrs Sonia Gandhi and Mr Sharad Pawar cannot “find” them.

The second major reason is a sense of helpless hopelessness. The history of economic deprivation long precedes the UPA Government, but its mistake was to believe that it could fudge through its term as its predecessors had fudged through theirs. Dr Singh should never have asked Justice Rajinder Sachar to find out the truth if he wanted to do nothing about it. The truth has become the ultimate betrayal, for the report is a devastating indictment of Congress neglect of its most loyal constituency. Muslim youth watched as Mr Arjun Singh reserved even more jobs for others, and maintained an ultra-secular silence on reservations for Muslims. As I have written before, other communities got jobs under Congress; Muslims got enquiry commissions.

This was fuel for a fire that could so easily mesh into an international conflagration. The memory of riots, particularly in Mumbai and Gujarat, was equally incendiary. Indian Muslims have had apostates and middlemen as leaders. In the vacuum, a number of youth found it easy to drift towards the malevolent attraction of evil. They convinced themselves that virulent hate mail and unpardonable killing of innocents was the means to display a destructive strength. This terrorism, of course, is already hurting Indian Muslims far more than it damages their avowed targets.

The Congress is twisting this damaged psyche further with its cynical response to terrorism. There is a suspicion, bordering on conviction, among Indian Muslims that the Government of Dr Singh and Mrs Sonia Gandhi has offered scapegoats in the form of students of the Jamia Millia University to appease majority anger after the terrorist attacks on Delhi. We do not know the full truth, but there is enough that is murky in the events of 19 September when Delhi police surrounded and killed two students of Jamia at Batla House, while two others apparently escaped. There are questions galore, not least being the manner of the “escape”: if there was only one entrance, how could the two “escape”? Police have shifted their version after every question. The “escape” now is meant to have been through the rooftop. Did anyone see them in the daylit skyline? Nor does anyone believe in the version offered of the death of Inspector Mohan Chand Sharma. It was first put out that he had been shot in the stomach. Then pictures were published of him walking after being shot, with no evidence of a stomach wound. The latest theory is that he died of a heart attack following loss of blood. One TV station claimed that the autopsy report showed he had been shot from the back, hinting at what is known as “friendly fire”. The UPA Government then sought to demonise the community when they covered the faces of suspects with the red, patterned, Arab headdress instead of the black cloth normally used. Who got these headdresses from the market? Home Minister Shivraj Patil, who claimed that he had personally supervised these operations? Was he telling India that these suspects were linked to Arab terrorism?

The questions grow each passing day, each one another fuse for anger.

Plants and Implants
By M.J. Akbar | September 20, 2008

You never know what you can pick up from the shambles of a large edifice, and little could larger than the financial architecture of American capitalism. Here is a nugget from Tom Friedman’s column as he talks about America’s energy planning and the economy. His particular reference is to Republican candidate John McCain’s idea that nuclear plants can meet America’s energy needs. Friedman writes: “McCain talks about how he would build dozens of nuclear power plants. Oh, really? They go for $10 billion a pop. Where is the money going to come from?”

Good question. An American columnist is convinced that nuclear energy is too extravagant for an economy as rich as America’s, but Dr Manmohan Singh insists on foisting it on the Indian taxpayer. To put the comparison in perspective, at over $1 trillion, the combined value of around half a dozen major American companies that collapsed in the last fortnight was near India’s GDP of $1.4 trillion.

As each deception is exposed, the goalposts keep changing. Now that people are becoming aware that even in thirty years nuclear energy will not contribute more than six or seven per cent to the energy mix, at prohibitive cost, a new fudge is in the works. Another energy plan will be formulated to increase, on paper, the share of nuclear energy. As for the cost, let those in charge in 2020 worry.

Former Prime Minister Vishwanath Pratap Singh has been asking the government for clarity on the cost to the consumer of this nuclear energy. He has still to get a satisfactory answer.

Almost every argument used by the government to sell the nuclear deal has been upturned by revelations. Dr P.K.Iyengar, former chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, summed up the American position in a statement on 4 September: “if India conducts a nuclear test, America will immediately abrogate the 123 Agreement, and take back all nuclear materials, including fuel, it has supplied;there are no guarantees of perpetual fuel supply or provisions to stock for lifetime; there will be no transfer of sensitive nuclear technology such as reprocessing technology;the US does not consider the 123 Agreement as the only document governing civil nuclear cooperation with India – its actions will also be dictated by the provisions of the Atomic Energy Act and the Hyde Act.”

The White House cited India’s vote against Iran at the IAEA as evidence of a pro-US Indian tilt in conformity with the provisions of the Hyde Act. Under pressure from the United States and Israel, we have also abandoned the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline, which would have provided much cheaper energy than nuclear power. Moreover, even in the event of the abrogation of the treaty by the United States, the mandatory inspections of India’s nuclear facilities will continue in perpetuity.

When such details became public, Delhi argued that we could always ignore Washington and buy from countries like France. On the evening of 18 September the French ambassador to India, Jerome Bonnanfont, clarified that the proposed Indo-French nuclear agreement is going to be on par with the American agreement – there will be no transfer of enrichment and reprocessing technologies to India. The Times of India printed this pithy comment: “Certainly, it’s a blow to all those who trumpeted that if the US wasn’t prepared to give things, let’s go to the French.”

Some long-time supporters of the nuclear deal, who accepted Delhi’s assurances about the negotiating process on good faith, like former Indian ambassador to Washington Lalit Mansingh, have now advised Prime Minister Singh greater caution before committing the nation. They have even suggested that he avoid a visit to Washington during his tour to America for the United Nations General Assembly session. But facts are unlikely to deter Dr Manmohan Singh from inking a one-sided agreement.

We might note that Americans, who are so anxious to sell nuclear plants to India, has not built a single new plant domestically since 1979, when the Three Mile Island accident took place. They do a more careful cost-benefit analysis when it comes to their own money.

One of the more interesting items lying in the debris of collapsing business reports is the only economic success story that George Bush can boast of during his eight years. He has been an unqualified triumph in arms sales. Eric Lipton wrote in the 15 September issue of the International Herald Tribune, which carries stories from the New York Times, “From tanks, helicopters and fighter jets to missiles, remotely piloted aircraft and even warships, the Department of Defense has agreed so far this fiscal year [March to mid-September 2008] to sell or transfer more than $32 billion in weapons and other military equipment to foreign governments, compared with $12 billion in 2005…Deliveries on orders being placed now will continue for several years, perhaps turning out to be one of President George W. Bush’s most lasting legacies…” And just in case you thought that Bush was not a good salesman, “most arms exports are paid for by purchasers without US financing.”