Friday, August 24, 2012

A racist wound in north-east India infects the body politic

The following first appeared in The National on August 20, 2012

On Thursday, news from 2,000 kilometres away ruined my plans to spend Eid in Old Delhi. Overnight, thousands of Indians had fled Bangalore after wild rumours about Muslims' attacks on people who "looked north-eastern" and a flood of text messages promising more violence after Ramadan. Many of the people leaving Bangalore were Assamese, headed home to a state that is being devastated by ethnic violence.

As the rumours spread and some credible stories of violence against north-easterners living in other parts of India began to be reported, my wife panicked since I look vaguely like an Indian from the north-east. She refused to let me out of the house for a day, despite the fact that the attacks were happening on the other side of the country. The fear that day was palpable.

The events underlined several of the most unsavoury aspects of Indian society. First and foremost, the mass flight showed that despite decades of relative calm and broad efforts to incorporate north-easterners into the rest of the country, they remain as a group uncomfortable in the rest of India.

The seven states of north-east India share closer ethnic, cultural and linguistic links with neighbouring South-East Asia than the rest of India. Since India's independence, those links have made the allegiances of north-easterners suspect. A myriad of long-running insurgencies have added to suspicions.

Those fears had largely abated as violence decreased over the years, but many north-easterners still feel like outsiders in their own country - a sentiment not helped by incidents of outright racism that occasionally occur.

No one quite knows who started the rumours, but it does seem that the text messages and dire warnings on social media were unfounded rumour and incitement. Ramadan ended without widespread violence.

The Indian government is blaming Pakistan, saying that websites there published inflammatory images and messages designed to rile Muslim sentiment inside India. There may be an element of truth to the allegation since many of the most inflammatory images seem to have been first posted on Pakistani sites, and subsequently picked up by Urdu dailies in India.

On Friday, India's parliament made a rare showing of unity, promising to protect north-easterners. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made a speech on the subject with little outcry from the opposition, something that has become a rarity in recent months.

While this was a welcome sight for many Indians - and north-easterners in particular - the truth is that politicians bear a large part of the blame for the climate of fear.

Indian Muslims' anger did not arise in a vacuum. Much of the public outcry against the violence in Assam has put the blame solely on the Muslim community in the state.

When the violence broke out in Assam last month, the Hindu nationalist opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was quick to blame the ruling Congress party. LK Advani, a BJP leader, accused the government of encouraging illegal immigration by Muslims from Bangladesh to bolster its voting base. Leaders of various right-wing Hindu organisations followed suit, proclaiming that Bangladeshis squatting on tribal lands in Assam were the cause of the violence.

The allegation is based in part on anecdotes and census figures, which show a growing majority of Muslims in many districts of Assam. Most of these Muslims, however, have been in Assam for generations. A large portion of them come from families who fled to Assam during the 1971 war between India and Pakistan, which ended in Bangladesh's independence. No doubt some are illegal migrants, but to assign one-sided blame and to imply that all Muslims in Assam are there illegally reeks of religious prejudice.

In response to the one-sided dialogue on the causes of the violence in Assam, several Muslim organisations staged protests in Mumbai over the past two weeks, which turned violent. Three people have been killed and dozens wounded. During a similar protest in Lucknow, a right-wing anti-Muslim group posted pictures on Facebook purporting to show Muslims attempting to tear down a Buddhist statue.

The heads of some Muslim organisations have behaved little better than their Hindu counterparts. Some of these groups have accused - without offering proof - right-wing Hindu fundamentalists of being behind the rumours of post-Ramadan violence.

One Indian online news site carried an account that neatly encapsulated the confusion: Firstpost related a story of an Assamese security guard in Hyderabad who was accosted by two men on a motorbike who told him that if he stayed in the city past Eid, he would be killed. A week later, All India Majlis-e-Itthadul Muslimeen, a Muslim political party based in the city, offered him protection; the next day, a member of Vishva Hindu Parishad, a Hindu nationalist group, made the same promise. Each side had, in effect, promised to protect him from the other.

Meanwhile, over 10,000 Indians have fled back home to the north-east, where an estimated 400,000 are displaced from their homes in Assam alone. Little has been done to end the violence except to institute curfews and issue shoot-on-sight orders to the increasing number of military patrols. The continuing violence highlights just how ineffectual the government response has been.

All this comes at a time when India should be celebrating the north-east, home to the majority of its Olympians. The Manipuri boxer Mary Kom, one of India's great heroes of London 2012, said in a recently published interview: "We are Indian. Ya, the face is different. But heart is Indian." That she had to say this at all should have all of India engaging in some introspection.

Ethnic violence in Assam is rooted in Delhi's negligence

The following first appeared in The National on July 27, 2012

The north-eastern Indian state of Assam, best known for its beautiful tea plantations and endangered rhinos, has erupted in ethnic violence. Yet to anyone who has been paying attention to the state, the past three weeks of bloodshed were no surprise.

Two separate murders of Muslims of Bengali-descent on July 6 and July 19 sparked retaliatory killings against the indigenous Bodo tribe on July 20. Bodos are the second largest community in Assam, after the Assamese. Both the Bodo and Muslim communities are now up in arms. Lynch mobs have been going from village to village burning down homes.

Hundreds of villages have been razed and around 170,000 have been made homeless. Dozens have been killed in the unrest. The Assamese state has responded by instituting a curfew and issuing a shoot-on-sight order to security forces should they find arsonists or armed gangs.

But it would be a mistake to see these killings as religiously motivated. Rather, the conflict is ethnic, driven by centuries of grievances and motivated by unequal economic opportunities and uneven development.

How did this happen?

North-east India is a powder keg of ethnic, inter-religious and sectarian tensions, and has been since the partition of the subcontinent in 1947. The Assamese resent the Bengalis. During the British Raj, Bengalis helped institute policies that almost wiped out Assamese language and culture.

The Bodos resent the Assamese for similar reasons. Post-independence, successive Assamese governments instituted pro-Assamese regulations, such as the promotion of the Assamese language, and preferential Assamese-only hiring policies. Although many of these policies have been done away with, the legacy colours the current conflict.

Failed efforts to create space for Bodos in an Assamese-dominated state led to the creation of the militant separatist Bodo Liberation Tigers Force (BLTF) in 1996. This group signed a peace treaty in return for the creation of a semiautonomous Bodoland Territorial Autonomous District in 2003. BLTF fighters were folded into the federal paramilitary police force and its leaders joined state politics.

There is also intra-Bodo tensions as militant outfits dissatisfied with the peace treaty have sprung up. The head of the Bodoland Council made allegations that these groups were behind the recent attacks. The Bodos killed last Friday were reportedly former BLTF fighters.

Today, the major source of ethnic tension is between the Bodos and Assamese, and what are referred to in Assam as Bangladeshis, that is Muslim Bengalis. Many of these Bengalis are refugees from the partition of East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, in the 1970s who fled to India and never left. Some are illegal migrants. The Y-shaped state of Assam shares a porous border with Bangladesh at two points. It's likely that illegal migration from the much poorer Bangladeshi state is significant.

No one knows for sure how large the migration is, but Muslims are the fastest growing community in the state, according to census figures from 2011. This no doubt worries the Hindu-majority Bodo and Assamese people.

It is also instructive to note that the fastest growing communities were majority Muslim districts along the border with Bangladesh. Most importantly, the majority of these Muslim-majority districts are in the region governed by the Bodoland Territorial Council.

There are legitimate grievances on all sides of this conflict, which is what has helped sustain the hatred through the decades. The latest killings are only the most recent proof that those hatreds are still simmering. Yet, too little has been done to alleviate the tensions.

The north-east has always lagged behind the rest of India in terms of development, access to education and health care. This is partly due to geography. The North-east is connected to the rest of India by a thin corridor referred to as the "chicken's neck"; 98 per cent of the borders are with foreign states. The roads are poor, the landscape often mountainous, and the people often divided by culture and language from the rest of the country.

Many of the problems are due to an utter, and at times wilful, failure of the Indian government to encourage development in the region. The extremely poor quality of roads is in part due to fears that improving them would provide China with an easy invasion route.

Solutions to this Gordian knot are not simple, which is probably why successive Indian and Assamese governments have avoided dealing with the core issues of unequal development.

But these killings also make clear that the status quo is unsustainable. Shoot-to-kill orders and a heavy military presence will no doubt quiet the violence eventually, but not solve the underlying problems.
Delhi has been largely silent on this issue, despite the fact that the Punjab-born prime minister, Manmohan Singh, is a four-time member of the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of parliament, representing the state of Assam. Only a blanket statement from his office has been issued condemning the violence and promising reform.

Delhi throws money at the troubled north-east to buy goodwill. When that fails, it responds with military might. That, however, is not governance.

The north-east's interaction with their national government is either through cash handouts or the wrong side of a gun. Until that changes, the problems will not go away. More worrying for India, the north-east will continue to think of itself as distinct from the rest of the country, feeding separatist sentiments and inter-ethnic rivalries.

Joygopal Podder: India's marathon author

The following first appeared in The National on July 2, 2012

“No, take a right,” says Joygopal Podder as he guides the driver to the rear entry of Gurgaon's Ambience mall in Haryana to what he claims is the best parking. “I set a gun battle here, that’s why I know this place so well.”

Podder, 53, is one of India’s most prolific novelists, but it is the speed at which he writes that is most astonishing. He is in the Limca Book of Records for writing the most crime fiction novels in the shortest amount of time.

The Limca records are akin to the Guinness Book of World Records, but contains only feats by Indians, such as “the most prolific writer ... in prison” and “first book launched by an elephant”.

When the new edition of the record book comes out in 2013, he will have shattered his own previous record of five books in nine months. To date, Podder has written 11 novels in the space of 21 months. His 11th book, Merchant of Dreams, came out on Tuesday. The 12th book, Vanished, will be out in August.

He is currently writing his 13th book.Podder was at the mall to stop by a bookstore to look at his books. “I write so much, because I like seeing myself in bookshops,” he said. He maintains a blistering publication schedule and tires to “publish a book every month” to ensure that a title of his is always a regular feature in the new arrivals section.

Each book is at least 40 to 50,000 words.While he enjoys the attention that has come as a result of his speedy writing, Podder said he never set out to break records. “It happened accidentally. I just happened to write fast and people happened to notice,” he said.Podder had his first novel published at 50, which he said fuels his desire to churn out novel after novel. “I am making up for lost time.”He began writing at the age of nine and had his first short story published in a children’s magazine at the age of 12. At 14, he created Ramesh, a teenage detective who featured in a dozen stories.

Eventually, adult life and a career took over and he left writing. It was Ramesh that made Podder want to start writing again. “Some time in my mid-30s a group of children showed up at my house, saying that they wanted to meet the author,” he said. “I had no idea what they were talking about.”

Apparently, one of his Ramesh tales had been placed in an English primer used in Indian schools. A decade later, a friend told him that a collection of stories from the defunct magazine that once published Podder’s works contained Ramesh stories. “This book has stories by people like Satyajit Ray, so I began to think that maybe there might be a future in writing for me, not in terms of writing, but as a career.” Satyajit Ray is a famous Bengali writer and filmmaker, and Podder, who is also Bengali, thought it a sign.

The final impetus came with the near death of his wife. “On January 19, 2008, my wife got blood poisoning. All her organs failed, and she nearly died,” he said. “I realised that life is fragile and if you have a passion, you should stop thinking about it and pursue it.”He knew he wanted to write, but did not know what to write. The inspiration came when Podder, a fund-raising manager with a charity in India, attended a conference. “I realised that there is a cornucopia of stories from experiences in the NGO sector – tragedy, successes, beating the odds.”

Those stories served as the inspiration for one of his first books, A Matter of Survival, in which “the successful test firing of India’s Agni III missile collides with a conservation campaign to save an endangered species of sea turtle”, according to the book’s dust jacket. Such unlikely plots arise easily from Podder’s self-confessed “childlike imagination”. He takes inspiration from his own experiences and from items of news, which he collects. “I write three kinds of novels: thrillers, murder mysteries and Bollywood crime fiction,” said Podder.

His latest novels, including Merchant of Dreams, are of the final category. He uses his seemingly encyclopaedic knowledge of Bollywood trivia, built up over years of watching Hindi cinema. “I am only a film fan, I’ve never been involved in a film shoot, and, obviously, I’ve never been party to a murder,” said Podder. “I do research about how films are shot, I always have a burning make-up van, a star with a supersized ego, somebody from the star’s past who wants to avenge past faults.”

Podder’s books also heavily feature his current home, Gurgaon, a burgeoning urban centre on the border with New Delhi. If Dubai’s Marina were somehow transplanted in Bur Dubai, it would closely resemble Gurgaon, a mess of hi-rises and tiny crowded streets, which Podder believes makes it well suited to be the setting of a murder mystery.

Eventually, Podder would like to be known for the quality of his writing rather than the quantity. To that end, he hopes to eventually write more Ramesh novels. “That writing is different. When I write thrillers, I write action scenes, go into descriptions, build up characters, but with Ramesh I had witticisms. I fancied myself a bit like P G Wodehouse when I was writing it.”

He acknowledges that the records are what is drawing attention to his writing. He embraces it as motivation to continue his writing. Eventually, he would like to break the Guinness World Record held by the Japanese spiritual leader, Ryuho Okawa, who published an astonishing 52 books in 52 weeks. “I can’t write one book a week – yet,” said Podder. He does, however, remain driven by his desire to have his work in bookstores and, more importantly, the new arrivals shelf. “I hate when they come off that rack. Five years from now you will see at least 10 or more of my books in every store.”

Rank populism governs Delhi's broken electricity scheme

The following first appeared in The National on July 1, 2012

I have a bone to pick with Delhi's chief minister. My bedroom stinks. I blame her ridiculously short-sighted electricity tariff scheme for the stench that permeates my house.

Despite five very fine air-conditioners that I use to fend off Delhi's searing summer temperatures, almost every morning for the past several weeks, I have awakened in a sweat-drenched swelter.

The source of this odoriferous transformation is the rolling blackouts shutting off power to households and businesses across Delhi. This is, admittedly, a fairly common occurrence in this part of the world.

A worsening power-generation deficit, an antiquated grid and the common practice of illegal tapping into power lines create chronic shortages during seasons of peak demand. It is ironic that Diwali is considered the festival of light, considering that power was cut for almost eight hours on the November holiday.

This summer, however, is far worse than normal. And the reason is that New Delhi state government, led by Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit, insists on perpetuating a broken subsidy scheme that has nearly bankrupted the companies that supply the capital with electricity.

Until last week, Delhi's power tariffs had been frozen for years and, as a result, electricity utilities have been running at an increasing deficit. Companies supplying New Delhi with power have lost 60 billion rupees (Dh 3.8 billion) over the past few years. As a result, some have began cutting supply to the city, and thus my pillows now smell like gym socks.

In the rogues' gallery of entities we generally wish harm upon, power companies rank with taxi drivers, Wall Street bankers and telecoms companies, but in this case they are the victims. For some reason - probably electoral politics - Ms Dikshit's government saw fit to ignore the rising cost of power generation and forced private and state-owned companies to take massive losses.

Now, Delhi's Electricity Regulatory Commission has approved power tariff increases of about 26 per cent, which will help utility companies to recover about 12 billion rupees. This is only a fraction of total losses, and more hikes must be on the way.

The reaction from the public and opposition has been shrill. The opposition has demanded an inquiry. Resident associations are demanding an audit of power companies' books and a rollback of the tariff. Ordinary citizens have gone on Indian TV to complain that they are being asked to pay more with no guarantee of better supply.

In a country where 40 per cent of the country lives below the poverty line and close to 60 per cent are malnourished, Indians are understandably sensitive to price rises, but this one was long overdue.

People's anger also stems from the fact that the richest parts of Delhi pay the least for power. Through a bizarre administrative happenstance, the areas where the city's VIPs live pay a fraction of what the rest of the city pays for electricity. They are managed by the city's municipal corporation, which gets power from state-owned, thus heavily subsidised, companies. Even after the hikes, ministers, diplomats and the city's wealthiest people will continue to pay the least. That is morally repugnant and must be changed.

The problem does not stop with power, however. The city is also experiencing a severe water shortage. For the past several weeks, about four million residents have had their water shut off for several hours a day. At the city's largest public hospital, surgeries were cancelled because they had no water to sterilise equipment and wash hands.

Delhi's power and water shortages are partly because of its exploding population and increasing middle class. The real problem, however, is politicians who take populist policies to their illogical conclusion: that poor people must never have to pay more and that people with money can make up the difference. In this case, Delhi has added a unique corollary: the city's power brokers, including Ms Dikshit, pay the least for water and power.

What is most infuriating, however, is that the problem was allowed to almost bankrupt power companies, leaving the people Ms Dikshit was trying to protect sweating in the summer heat.
India, the "I" in Brics and would-be superpower, can't even keep the lights on in its own capital. That more than anything, illustrates just how far the country has to go.

New Delhi's policy on refugees is proof of moral weakness

The following first appeared in The National on June 7, 2012.

It says something about the state of the subcontinent that India is a comparative sea of calm, and for nearly 200,000 refugees, India is a safe haven from oppression. However, India's refusal to sign the UN convention on refugee rights and its more baffling failure to establish a national refugee law has created gulfs in the network of protection for refugees.

The latest example has been the much publicised plight of the Rohingyas people from northern Myanmar, who in recent weeks have amassed in New Delhi to lobby for refugee status. Police responded by forcibly evicting the protesters.

Predominantly Muslim, the Rohingyas had fled persecution by the military in Myanmar. They are viewed with suspicion by the majority Buddhist population in Myanmar, largely because militant Rohingyas have been recruited to Harakat ul Jihad Al Islami, which has alleged Al Qaeda links.

As a result, they are largely stateless, and denied passports. Their mosques are boarded up or saddled with crippling taxes. Boys and girls are denied entrance to universities. Like other ethnic minorities in Myanmar, they are required to sign up for permits to get married.

Whether the potential terror threat is the driving purpose behind India's continued denial of refugee status to these people is unknown. But in the absence of any legal obligation to adjudicate the asylum claims of immigrants, India can simply wash its hands of the problem.

Tibetans and Sri Lankan Tamils form the overwhelming majority of India's refugee population. The Indian government has granted legal status to some of these refugees, but many fall under the jurisdiction of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

The reason India gives for the use of the UNHCR is that the organisation is better equipped to process refugee claims. In fact, New Delhi only steps in when the number of refugees reaches the point where the state's bureaucratic prowess is required. Thus India grants refugee status to Tamils, of which there are tens of thousands living on Indian soil, but not to the few thousand from Myanmar.

The end result is a situation where refugees from different states are accorded different rights and - in the case of the Myanmarese and other refugees from countries such as Iraq, Iran and Somalia - no certainty regarding their future right to live in India. Their right to stay in India is based on a refugee status granted by the UNHCR, which the Indian government is under no obligation to uphold, as well as legal precedent based on two articles in the Indian constitution. Asylum seekers can and have won the right to stay on in India in court. They ought not have to go that far.

India often pleads poverty when pressed to sign onto various international treaties. And with over half of its population living below the poverty line, it has a point. If India can barely feed itself, how can it be expected to feed refugees, too?

But India uses its lack of development as a shield against legitimate criticisms as well. It leaves the duty to process refugee claims of the Myanmarese to the UNHCR because that is easier. Meanwhile, it ignores claims from international organisations that there are many more refugees from Myanmar living illegally in north-east India.

The potential existence of so many undocumented refugees creates huge problems for a region already divided by tribal and ethnic rivalries. The north-east has witnessed several ugly incidents of violence by groups protesting against the incursion of some group or another into their ancestral territory.

The reasons India chooses to ignore refugees from Myanmar may be political. Since the mid-1990s India has been cosying up to the generals in Myanmar. The same motivations may explain why Tibetans receive comparatively princely treatment from the Indian government. India hosts the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile, thorns in China's side and an ace in India's negotiations with its larger neighbour.

But the Tibetans also show the danger in India's failure to hold itself accountable for the security and safety of the country's refugee population. As Indo-Chinese relations have warmed, so relations between the Tibetan people and India have cooled. If India had possessed a legal framework for the rights of refugees, the Tibetans may not have been accorded the host of benefits and political capital they now enjoy. They would not, however, risk losing what they had gained should India abandon them and embrace China.

That example is extreme, but Myanmarese refugees have a real and legitimate fear that their right to reside in India could disappear should the democratic reforms in their home country lead India and the rest of the world to forget the threat posed to ethnic and religious minorities there. This is especially true of the Rohingyas, who have been tarred with the brush of being Islamic extremists.

It is true that India has opened its doors to refugees since the country's incarnation, when millions from what is now Pakistan and Bangladesh fled across the border. But India must begin to hold itself accountable for the well-being of those people it has tacitly agreed to safeguard. At the very least, it must set up a formal framework to deal with refugee claims so that asylum seekers have legally guaranteed rights.

What is clear is that India's decision to ignore the problem when convenient is creating more problems for itself and laying additional burdens on people who came to India looking for succour.