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Archives for September 2010

Ayodhya verdict: A happy compromise?

Soutik Biswas | 12:50 UK time, Thursday, 30 September 2010


Muslim man in Ayodhya

On the face of it the Indian court's decision to award the disputed holy site of Ayodhya to both Hindus and Muslims sounds like a pragmatic compromise. It seeks to assuage the sentiments of both communities. But has it made them happy? Early reports say that both Hindu and Muslim lawyers will appeal against the ruling in the 60-year-old case to the Supreme Court, which is likely to delay a final decision still further.

As one commentator said, the judgement can end up "making everybody happy or making everybody miserable". Questions can be asked about whether courts should get involved in matters of faith: the verdict states unequivocally that the disputed site is the birthplace of Ram. (There is no evidence that the hero of the popular Indian epic Ramayana was a historical character.) The court's observation that the "disputed structure cannot be treated as a mosque as it came into existence against the tenets of Muslims" - that it was built over what it says was a destroyed temple - may also be contentious for Muslim groups.

Most people I speak to remain confident that the verdict - whether it is accepted by all the parties or is contested in the Supreme Court - will not spark off any unrest. At the most, they say, some radical Hindu groups may make triumphal noises that Hindus will keep the area where a small tent-shrine to Ram has been erected.

2010 is not 1992. 1992 was a dismal continuum of one of India's most miserable years. Remember, in 1991, former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by Tamil Tiger rebels. India was on the verge of economic collapse, left with just enough foreign exchange to pay for roughly three weeks of imports. Helped by a humiliating IMF bailout after pledging its gold as collateral, the country was struggling to stay afloat. By 1992, the economy was wheezing with a growth rate of 4%, inflation in double digits and the unshackling of the economy had just begun.

A tsunami of Hindu nationalism triggered off by the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party and more radical Hindu organisations associated with it had tapped into this all-pervading gloom. With self-esteem sinking and all seeming to be lost, many clung onto religious identity to assert themselves. Muslims were blamed for all the ills afflicting the nation. An overwhelming sense of victimhood led many Hindus to believe that Muslims were being appeased. Only the future would tell how distorted and misplaced this notion was.

A peace march in Mumbai on the eve of Ayodhya judgement

2010 is different. For all its failings - and there are many - India is a more confident nation, thanks to a buoyant trillion-dollar economy. In a nation of a billion aspirations, mobilising the young around religion will not be easy. Radicals on both sides have turned down their incendiary rhetoric.

Urban India - one of the BJP's biggest support bases in the high noon of Hindu nationalism - is happier waging Facebook revolutions than taking to the street. Many of the firebrand Hindu leaders of 1992 are ageing, ill or dead. No political leader can risk stoking or being a callous spectator to religious rioting in his backyard in the glare of a vigilant and energetic media. Times have changed.

But the eventual fate of the wrecked site at Ayodhya holds the answer to the contest for the possession of India's state - and soul. Will India continue to plod along towards what Sunil Khilnani, author of the seminal The Idea of India, once described as an "untidy, improvising, pluralist" society or opt for a "neatly rationalist and purifying exclusivism"? Will it stay firmly faithful to its secular underpinnings or will it pursue the chimera of a homogenous Hindu India?

In other words, will the idea of India, as thought of by its founding fathers, be threatened at all? Or will India cosy up further to its perplexing and colourful diversity?

Also, what should be done with the site? Should a temple and a mosque be built on the site now that both sides hold ownership of the land? Or should it contain a monument to India's secular identity? Or, as some say, should a well-equipped hospital or college for the locals be constructed?

There are cheekier suggestions floating in the trivial chatter of social networking sites. Should a cricket ground be built on the site considering that the game is a glue which holds India together? I liked one tongue-in-cheek tweet though. "The only way to appease Hindus and Muslims in Ayodhya is clear. Build a shopping mall. All will come to pray there together," it said. Just goes to show how much some of India has changed - it has learnt to laugh about what historian Ramachandra Guha calls a "pseudo-religious" controversy.

Kashmir: A good initiative?

Soutik Biswas | 05:13 UK time, Tuesday, 28 September 2010


Anti-India protests in Kashmir

"I think it's a good first step," responded a writer friend from Srinagar after the Indian government announced moves to ease the crisis in Kashmir over the weekend.

On paper, none of the planned measures are spectacularly imaginative or pathbreaking: mediators will be appointed to hold a "sustained dialogue" with all sections of Kashmiri society; young men detained for stone pelting in the anti-India protests will be freed; security will be scaled down; and consideration will be given to whether the controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act could be withdrawn from some parts of the valley.

Freeing the protestors, many of my friends in the troubled valley say, will have a positive impact. Putting together a group of mediators for a "sustained dialogue" conjures up in India images of never-ending deliberations involving crusty bureaucrats and obdurate politicians. It could also be seen as a sly game at stalling things and tiring the "opposition" out.

Many believe that if meaningful, time-bound fresh negotiations have to begin, bureaucrats and politicians with a lousy track record in the valley should be kept out - one federal minister says the government wants to "talk to anyone who wants to find a solution .. political leaders, social leaders, NGOs, even people with different ideology." Will this really happen?

Scaling down security is a welcome proposition, and will require a bold leap for the authorities. (No Kashmiri will believe it till it begins to happen.) And withdrawing the armed forces law from some areas will be welcomed as a good beginning.

All in all, the initiative looks like a decent bunch of proposals to soothe frayed tempers. It will not be easy to sell it to many Kashmiris, who have looked on hopelessly as over 100 young men and women have lost their lives in the anti-India protests that have rocked the valley in the past three months.

All the more so, because the proposals come on the back of what many have called the "farcical" visit of an all-party delegation of parliamentarians to Srinagar recently. Critics point to the fact that the politicians visited the valley in the middle of a curfew, were isolated in a posh hotel far away from Srinagar, and met only Kashmiris handpicked by the ruling - and largely discredited - National Conference party. Key people were left out. Fortunately, as critic Prem Shankar Jha says, two groups of people refused to follow the script - the media in Srinagar, and some of the parliamentarians themselves who broke away on their own and met and heard some "real Kashmiri voices", including the hardline separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani.

So will Kashmiris embrace the initiative? The separatists appear to have rejected it, insisting that people seek a political solution, not an administrative one. But a lot of things are rotten with the way Kashmir is run, and an administrative fix is in order. The mediators could begin exploring a political solution, unless the 'Kashmir intifada', as many commentators call it, erupts again.

Some Kashmiri friends of mine - and they are a minority in today's surcharged atmosphere - believe that Kashmiris need to get out of what they call is their quixotic and fuzzy romanticism about freedom and independence and get boringly pragmatic. "Let us extract as much autonomy as we can from India and get real about the fact that independence is not a realistic option," they say. Others say the protests will continue till aazadi (freedom) arrives.

But most Kashmiris say they have little faith in feckless federal initiatives and their own isolated, incompetent politicians whom they describe as "puppets" of India. The initiative appears to be a good first step to reach out to people. But will the struggling Congress party-led government walk the talk without messing up further?

Are the Delhi Games doomed?

Soutik Biswas | 11:38 UK time, Tuesday, 21 September 2010


Commonwealth Games village

Are the Delhi Commonwealth Games doomed? After creaky stadiums, leaky pools and allegations of dodgy deals come complaints from visiting teams that the athletes' village on the outskirts of the capital is filthy and "unfit for human habitation". Apparently more than half of the 34 residential towers at the village are still far from complete; and a quarter of the rooms for one of the visiting teams are flooded.

This is the same village that Delhi organising committee chief Suresh Kalmadi had praised recently as better than the one at the Beijing Olympics.... Except, critics say, the toilets in Delhi are dirty and the rooms waterlogged and stacked with debris, among other problems.

Critics say the Delhi Games village - luxury apartment homes which are to be sold for upwards of 20 million rupees each - represents all that is wrong with India. Officials have ignored protests that the site is on a flood plain in a zone more prone to earthquakes than other parts of the capital, environmentalists say. To make matters worse the Yamuna river is clogged with monsoon rains and areas nearby are a breeding ground for mosquitoes. But the authorities don't appear to care.

What has happened to the Games village comes as no surprise to most Indians. Delhi has a reputation for badly constructed, leaky buildings as developers collude with authorities to cut corners and compromise on quality. It is also possibly India's most corrupt city. The current row comes as no surprise when you consider the fact that work on building the stadiums and most other infrastructure has gone down to the wire and become a shoddy race against time. All this while smug authorities told the people that all was well, and things would be fine. "It's the Indian way of doing things, which the West doesn't understand," was a common refrain. Clearly, the "Indian way" hasn't worked - and the Games are turning out to be India's bonfire of vanities.

As I write this comes the news that a bridge near the showpiece Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium - where the inaugural and closing ceremonies will be held - has collapsed, critically injuring a number of workers. This, after scores of workers have already died during the construction. What next? How much worse can it get?

Kashmir on the brink

Soutik Biswas | 15:28 UK time, Tuesday, 14 September 2010


Anti-India protests in Kashmir

The Indian government says it is "deeply distressed" by Monday's violence in Kashmir. Such fleeting concern may simply not be enough to restore peace. In the past two summers, incidents at home have proved how fragile peace is in the disputed territory: a land row in 2008, and the alleged rape of two women last year sparked off intense anti-India protests. This year, the protests began with a death of a teenager after he was hit by a tear gas shell lobbed by the police. The demonstrations escalated on Monday after reports of Koran desecration in the US - localised protests against the reports began in Shia Muslim-dominated areas and snowballed into full-fledged anti-India riots. The security forces did what they have been doing all summer - shooting into the stone-throwing crowds. Eighteen civilians died in Kashmir's bloodest day this summer, taking the toll to more than 80 in recent months.

This is clearly beginning to look like the biggest challenge to Indian rule in Kashmir in more than a decade. The protests have also begun to spread outside the valley - some recent ones have taken place in Muslim-dominated pockets of Jammu, the bit of Kashmir where Hindus are in the majority and which has been peaceful so far.

Most believe that the government has itself to blame for the current mess in Kashmir. The common perception is that it didn't fix the leaking roofs when the sun was shining in the valley - the months of relative peace, booming tourist traffic. Now the authorities are groping around for administrative solutions to fix the festering wounds - they are under pressure to water down or even scrap the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act or to move security forces out of the bigger towns.

But most believe that this kind of tinkering, however important, would not be enough. The time has come for the government to think big - and be imaginative - and launch the beginnings of a political solution to bring peace to the valley. Bringing the hardline separatists on board will be key to any solution - the octogenarian separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani, by default, is the only leader with credibility among people in the valley because of his consistently obdurate pro-Pakistan, pro-secessionist stand. Some believe that India's cussedness in refusing to talk to Mr Geelani is costing Kashmir dear - the leader appeared to have mellowed, leaving Pakistan out of the equation in his recent roadmap to restore peace in the valley. Pakistan could perhaps be worked into the matrix of a political solution at some later stage. But for the moment, India needs to show initiative and come up with some guarantees and time-bound plans to foster political reconciliation and sow the seeds of a political solution. Without this, the stone-throwing protesters may give way to Kalashnikov-wielding rebels from within the valley and across the border, in a return to full-blown bloody militancy.

Sonia Gandhi's challenge

Soutik Biswas | 04:56 UK time, Saturday, 4 September 2010


Sonia Gandhi

India's Grand Old Party can barely seem to breathe without the Gandhi dynasty at its helm. So, in a predictable ritual, Sonia Gandhi has been elected as the Congress party president for the fourth time in a row - unopposed. It is a bit of a meaningless rite because Ms Gandhi has been the unchallenged heir to the Nehru-Gandhi legacy for many years now.

For a woman who once loathed politics viscerally - she had famously recalled how she begged her huband, Rajiv Gandhi, not to become the prime minister after the assassination of his mother and former PM Indira Gandhi - Sonia Gandhi has come a long way. She is today seen as an astute politician, with liberal, pro-poor views. And her stature was enhanced after her famous refusal of the premiership following her party's win in the 2004 general elections. It's also been an incredible journey for a daughter of a well-to-do builder from Turin who - according to biographer Katherine Frank - had been a supporter of Mussolini during the war. By her own admission, she knew nothing about India before she met her husband in Cambridge, where both were foreign students, except it "existed somewhere in the world with its snakes, elephants, and jungles, but exactly where it was and what was it really all about, I was not sure."

Ms Gandhi's re-election comes at a time when the government led by her party - now in it's second term - appears to be worryingly adrift. Kashmir is again spinning out of control with an indigenous popular uprising against India, Maoist violence is on the rise in vast swathes of the country, and the movement for a separate Telangana state is still boiling. The government earned the rebuke of the Supreme Court recently for allowing food grains to rot in storage. (Why does it keep purchasing more food from farmers than it can store and distribute to the poor?) Delhi's Commonwealth Games fiasco has done little good to the government's image. Runaway and brazen corruption is threatening to stymie India's progress, but Ms Gandhi's party and government do not appear to be bothered too much.

There is also a growing impression that the government and the party are not on the same page. Ministers and Congress party leaders openly differ on policies and snipe at each other - there is a sharp divergence of views on how to tackle Maoism, separatism and even building key infrastructure.

Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh

The much-hyped diarchy - Ms Gandhi's prime ministerial apointee Manmohan Singh runs the government, and she runs the party - doesn't appear to be delivering the goods. Mr Singh is seen as a hardworking, dour economist-technocract, while Mrs Gandhi is seen as a somewhat distant, slightly enigmatic figure, who does not spell out her vision on most issues. The problem is neither seem to be interested in taking the initiative.

Mr Singh, who has never won an election in his life and is an indifferent orator, has little political legitimacy. Ms Gandhi, who has political standing, maintains a studied silence on most issues. "The scandal of Indian politics is not simply that the prime minister is politically weak; it is that those who are politically strong are constantly running away from political responsibility," says commentator Pratap Bhanu Mehta.

"Sonia Gandhi has authority," says Mr Mehta. "But it has to be said that this is an authority studiously cultivated by distance and by avoiding issues that truly matter; its sole concern seems to be that no shadow is cast on her power. But this is not political capital that is ever used for resolved tricky national issues." The estrangement of politics and policy has never been so stark.

Many feel it is time for Ms Gandhi to step out, assert her authority and take responsibility. Right now, the buck does not appear to stop with anybody in the government or the party.

Amitabh Bachchan: Much ado about nothing

Soutik Biswas | 14:15 UK time, Wednesday, 1 September 2010


Amitabh Bachchan

India's biggest superstar Amitabh Bachchan has set off a curious kerfuffle with his recent comments on the upcoming metro railway in Mumbai, where he lives. He has written in his popular blog that the elevated railway line would run close to his house in the upmarket neighbourhood of Juhu where he lives. This, he believes, would mean the end of his privacy.

A number of people appear to have taken umbrage to Mr Bachchan's seemingly innocuous comments. A senior minister said the government had to think in the public interest in matters related to the development of the city. Another politician and a former friend of Mr Bachchan echoed these sentiments. Some respondents have been downright trenchant. "I have a solution for you sir," tweeted a fan. "Throw away your cars and try to travel in local trains."

It all appears to be much ado about nothing. Here is what Mr Bachchan actually wrote in his blog:

There is general happiness from the commuters, for, the misery of crowded locals and the uncertainties of the three wheeler or the yellow black cab shall hopefully be greatly reduced. But here is the killer ..its going to roll over Prateeksha [the actor's house]!! Yesterday the authorities came over to check externally the structural condition of all houses that would get affected by the rail car moving in its proximity and they came into Prateeksha. So bye bye privacy and hello fellow traveller.

Nowhere does he really rant against the railway. And doesn't he have the right to express his concern about his privacy in a movie-mad country where he is revered by millions of fans?

Many would say that Mr Bachchan may have inadvertently raised a key issue: Indians are almost never consulted on the building of infrastructure with a direct bearing on their lives. There is also the impression that the state tries to short-change its citizens - by buying land cheaply from farmers to build expressways and special economic zones or sell it to real estate developers.

At the same time, there is little evidence to show that Indian authorities have bent infrastructure building policy in cities to cater to the whims of celebrities. Many years ago, India's best known singer, Lata Mangeshkar, publicly protested against plans to build a flyover near her Mumbai home. I am told that her objections were overruled, but construction has been delayed due to some design tweaks.

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