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The Minority Vote

2 Sep

This post is a reaction to media reports and analyses that look at the population size of various minority groups and anticipate how it may affect the political outcome in elections. In India, the Modi-Gandhi face-off has led media to calculate Hindu-Muslim ratios in various states and accordingly predict the result of the upcoming elections in 2014. With respect to UK, it was recently reported that ethnic minorities, especially Indians, can significantly affect election results. The need to reach out to the growing population of Asian-American voters was similarly felt in the US. These reports highlight the need for politicians to connect with the minorities to woo voters from minority groups.

My difficulty with such analyses is that they sometimes tend to treat minorities as a homogenous class and are disrespectful of their autonomy. They treat minority groups as a uniform group of voters whose interest lies only in specific issues that interest them, like racial equality or secularism. There seems to be an underlying presumption that other political issues like the economy or foreign policy or healthcare or corruption are not of much concern to them. If minority groups form a sizeable part of the voting population, it is in fact ironic that these other issues will not attract them. Equality is offered as the candy that will lure all minorities. Such reporting may also somewhere sub-consciously affect actual voting, by presenting members of minority groups as part of a broader alliance who must vote for a particular party in order to prove themselves to be loyal members of their group.

In different ways, these reports also tend to both recognize and undermine the autonomy of the majority group. On one hand, they seem to recognize that majority voters are likely to evaluate different issues, policy choices and political promises offered to them, and vote accordingly. Unlike the homogenous minority group, a majority voter might be rich, poor, capitalist, socialist, conservative, and so on. Whether the political party’s orientation is in line with the voter’s ideology and demands is what is likely to determine the outcome in case of the majority voter. However, on the other hand, such reports may present the majority as a group unaffected by the issue of equality. It is assumed that political concerns of the minorities are of no concern to the majority.

Such analyses do tend to direct the attention of political parties and people to important and legitimate concerns of minority groups, especially regarding equality. But equality as an issue should not be treated as an exclusive concern of the minorities in a nation. Further, what about groups that form an insubstantial minority in a country so as to not have sufficient voting power? Should equality for these actual ‘minorities’ be of no concern to the nation? For example, Indian politics seems to be dominated by the majority (Hindus), and the majority within the minorities (Muslims), without much space available to persons following other religions like Christians, Parsis, Sikhs (often clubbed with the Hindus, along with Jains and Buddhists) or Jews.

There is a need to shift focus from identity to issue. Identities may help reveal issues. But addressing issues should be the end, not alluring identities. It can be said that this is how politics works. But at least the media and analysts can try not to present this as legitimate and unproblematic. If offering baits to different groups works in reality, then instead of encouraging this trend and presenting it as a legitimate way of running the polity, we should seek and highlight better ways to make our democracy function.

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The Naxal, the Tribal, and the Doctor

19 Jun

Recent news reports state that the Chhattisgarh government has asked International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to suspend its operations in the Bijapur district where it had operated for the past two and a half years. ICRC had been providing medical help to violence hit people in the tribal dominated area. This order of suspension raises important questions about (a) the duty and ability of the state to provide medical services to the tribal population in that area, and (b) the willingness of the state to allow medical services to affected people in an area affected by Maoist violence.

 

Bastar district is a predominantly tribal area, with more than two-thirds of the population belonging to the Scheduled Tribes category. Ninety percent of the population is rural, more than 87% of the population is employed only seasonally, and literacy levels are among the lowest in Chhattisgarh. Two thirds of the Village Reports, or Jan Rapats prepared by the villagers themselves (Jan Rapats are prepared by all villages in Chhattisgarh, and reflect the needs and views of the villagers) state that health facilities in these areas are very poor.

“Most villages emphasise that the availability of medicines, appointment of health personnel, improvement in the quality of health care, Government aid, and the availability of clean drinking water are areas that require attention.”

 

Though 6.25% of Chhattisgarh’s population is based in the Bastar district, the area had 3 hospitals, no dispensaries, and 57 Primary Health Care centres as of 2001. Forty percent of the population had no access to toilet facilities, safe drinking water, and electricity as of 2001.

(Human Development Report Chhattisgarh, 2005. Available here.)

 

Bastar has also been in the news recently owing to the naxal attack on Congress’ Parivartan Yatra convoy on May 25, 2013, during which senior Chhattisgarh Congress functionaries and security personnel were killed.

ICRC first expressed its willingness to enter Naxal affected areas in Chhattisgarh in 2008, and was welcomed by Chief Minister Raman Singh (Sourced from here):

“Certainly, ICRC plays a vital role in mitigating the sufferings of people in conflict zones across the globe. With the kind of resources and expertise ICRC has at its command, its presence will benefit the poor tribals of the region where a huge population is suffering and hundreds of children have been orphaned in the conflict…”

Interestingly, he went on to say,

“We have no problem even if such organisations provide medical assistance to Naxalites injured in encounters with security forces…We also do the same thing. Whenever Naxalites are injured, they are hospitalised so that they can be punished by a court of law for their crimes.”

 

Since 2010, ICRC has run a Primary Health Care centre, mobile clinics, and a hand-pump rehabilitation programme to ensure safe drinking water for the tribal population. According to another Times of India story, international agencies have helped play a crucial role in providing essential health care facilities in the region:

“Last year, when a diarrhoea epidemic broke out in South Bastar, killing nearly 100 people, Bijapur administration had enlisted the support of MSF and UNICEF, apart from calling doctors from other districts. But in Dantewada, in the absence of such an intervention, and in the face of an acute shortage of doctors, a large unknown number of people died without medical support.”

Then why the order of suspension?

The order of suspension has ostensibly been given by the district administration because “…ICRC is yet to enter into a Memorandum of Understanding with the state government” regarding its work in the region. State government sources have said that since ICRC is an international organization, it needs “certain clearances from the centre” for carrying out its operations.

If ICRC has operated in Bastar since 2010, how was it able to function without obtaining clearances from the central and state governments for almost three years? How was it able to bring in medical equipment, and (presumably) foreign personnel into a security sensitive area, and operate without the required permissions for all this time? Does the state and district administration seriously expect people to believe that they allowed ICRC to work in a Naxal dominated area for close to three years without the proper paperwork?

 

News reports indicate that other reasons may also be at play here. In 2011, the police in south Bastar and Dantewada had alleged that ICRC, along with MSF (Doctors Without Borders) which had been operating there since before ICRC started working there, was facilitating the treatment of Maoist rebels. Two Maoist rebels who had been arrested claimed that they were being treated by ICRC and MSF.

“These two organisations are deliberately going to Maoist camps and spending weeks. The foreign doctors should know what they are doing. I am from an enforcement agency and can’t welcome them having extra love for Maoists, but not for people injured in Maoist brutalities.” – Senior Superintendent of Police, Dantewada (Sourced from here)

 

According to him, people from the two organisations could be prosecuted under the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act that prohibits direct or indirect contact with Maoists.

 

The recent order of suspension, coming soon after the Maoist attack on May 25 can then also be seen through the lens of an overzealous state and district administration irked by the fact that ICRC is treating Maoist rebels. If in fact this is the case, several questions beg to be asked: What prevents doctors from treating Maoist rebels injured in conflict, especially after the Chief Minister himself expressly stated that he would be fine with such treatment? Does the duty of a doctor to treat injured people depend on whether a person is suspected of being an insurgent or terrorist? Does such treatment in itself make a doctor an accomplice in the crimes the injured is suspected of having committed? If yes, should lawyers representing suspected terrorists also be made accomplices to crimes committed by their clients?

 

The central government has repeatedly touted its plan of combining development with improving law and order as a solution to Naxalism in these regions. ICRC is one of the most reputed health care agencies operating in Bastar, an area with a clearly documented lack of health care facilities. The administration at all levels clearly needs to reconcile its twin goals of development and security enforcement in a transparent, and rational way. Essential health care for tribals in a conflict-ridden area, and the work of doctors cannot be left to the alternating prioritization of security enforcement and development. This is especially so when the Jan Rapats reveal how miserably the state has failed in meeting the expectations of the local population.

 

Kashmir as it stands today – I

17 Jul

The recent violence in Kashmir has dealt a great deal of damage to the gains made there in recent years.  In this and the next blog post (will be up soon), I encapsulate a summary of the main events concerning Kashmir, and also an attempt at making a timeline of recent events there.

Main events in Kashmir’s history (as taken from “Understanding Kashmir“):

1846: Jammu and Kashmir(J&K*) State is created under the Treaty of Amritsar between the East India company and Raja Gulab Singh of Jammu who buys Kashmir Valley from the East India Company for Rs.75,00,000 and adds it to Jammu and Ladakh already under his rule.

1931: The movement against the repressive Maharaja Hari Singh begins; it is brutally suppressed by the State forces. Hari Singh is part of a Hindu Dogra dynasty, ruling over a majority Muslim State.

1946: National Conference launches Quit Kashmir movement demanding abrogation of the Treaty of Amritsar and restoration of sovereignty to the people of Kashmir.

1947: On 15 August, the Indian subcontinent becomes independent. Kashmir signs Standstill Agreement with Pakistan. Rulers of Princely States are encouraged to accede their States to either Dominion – India or Pakistan.  The Maharaja of Kashmir delays his decision in an effort to remain independent.


In Spring 1947, internal revolt begins in the Poonch region against oppressive taxation under the recently imposed direct rule by the Maharaja; Poonch was a predominantly Muslim area. Maharaja strengthens the Sikh and Hindu garrisons in the Muslim areas and orders the Muslims to deposit arms with the police.

In August, Maharaja’s forces fire upon demonstrations in favour of Kashmir joining Pakistan, killing innocent people. The people of Poonch evacuate their families, cross over to Pakistan and return with arms.

In September, massacre of Muslims start in Jammu by armed bands of Hindus and Sikhs with active support from the State forces. Hundreds of thousands of Muslims flee Jammu.

On 22 October, thousands of Pathan tribesmen from Pakistan, recruited by the Poonch rebels, invade Kashmir along with the Poonch rebels, allegedly incensed by the atrocities against fellow Muslims in Poonch and Jammu. The tribesmen engage in looting and killing along the way. The tribesmen and the Poonch rebels are unofficially supported by various individuals and high ranking officials in Pakistan including Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan and Chief Minister of North West Frontier Province.

The Maharaja of the State of Jammu and Kashmir signs the Instrument of Accession (IOA) on 26 October, acceding the 75% majority Muslim region to the Indian Union, following invasion by the tribesmen from Pakistan, according to the 1948 Indian White Paper; India accepts the accession, regarding it provisional until such time as the will of the people can be ascertained by a plebiscite, since Kashmir was recognized as a disputed territory.

1948: India takes the Kashmir problem to the United Nations (UN) Security Council on 1 January.

1949: On 17 October, the Indian Constituent Assembly adopts Article 370 of the Constitution, ensuring a special status and internal autonomy for Jammu and Kashmir with Indian jurisdiction in Kashmir limited to the three areas agreed in the IOA, namely, defence, foreign affairs and communications.

1951: First post-independence elections. The UN passes a resolution to the effect that such elections do not substitute a plebiscite, because a plebiscite offers the option of choosing between India and Pakistan.

1953-54: The governments of India and Pakistan agree to appoint a Plebiscite Administrator by the end of April 1954. Abdullah procrastinates in confirming the accession of Kashmir to India. In August 1953, Abdullah is dismissed and arrested. Bakshi Ghulam Mohammed is installed in power, who then gets the accession formally ratified in 1954.

1956-1959: On 30 October 1956, the state Constituent Assembly adopts a constitution for the state declaring it an integral part of the Indian Union.

1962: India and China go to war on account of a border dispute in the Ladakh region; At the end of war, China occupies 37,555 sq. kms from Indian held Kashmir at Aksai-chin and Demochok in Ladakh.

In Aug 1965, Pakistan undertakes Operation Gibraltar and sends in a few thousand armed infiltrators across the cease-fire line, and incidents of violence increase in Kashmir valley. A full Indo-Pakistani war breaks out which ends in a ceasefire on 23 September. In January 1966, Tashkent Declaration is signed by both countries agreeing to revert to pre-1965 position, under Russian mediation.

1971: India backs sends troops to East Pakistan to defend its secessionist movement against the repressive Pakistani army. Pakistan launches an attack from the West including Kashmir. India defeats Pakistan and East Pakistan becomes independent Bangladesh. The cease-fire line in Kashmir becomes the ‘Line of Control'(LOC).

1984: Indian and Pakistani armies engage in clashes in Siachen Glacier, a no-man’s land at an altitude of 20,000ft with extreme weather conditions, where the cease-fire line had been left undefined by 1972 Simla Agreement.

1987: Farooq Abdullah wins the elections. The Muslim United Front (MUF) accuses that the elections have been rigged. The MUF candidate Mohammad Yousuf Shah is imprisoned and he would later become Syed Salahuddin, chief of militant outfit Hizb-ul-Mujahedin.

1988: Protests begin in the Valley along with anti-India demonstrations, followed by police firing and curfew.

1989: Militancy increases with bomb blasts. On 8 December, Rubaiya Sayeed, daughter of the Home Minister Mufti Mohammed Sayeed is kidnapped by the JKLF. She is released safely on 13 December in exchange for the release of five JKLF leaders.

1990: In January, Jagmohan is appointed as the Governor. Farooq Abdullah resigns. On 20 January, an estimated 100 people are killed when a large group of unarmed protesters are fired upon by the Indian troops at the Gawakadal bridge.

On March 1, an estimated one million take to the streets and more than forty people are killed in police firing. Massive protest marches by unarmed civilians continue in Srinagar.

The JKLF tries to explain that the killings of Pandits were not communal. The rise of new militant groups, some warnings in anonymous posters and some unexplained killings of innocent members of the community contribute to an atmosphere of insecurity for the Kashmiri Pandits.

Most of the estimated 162,500 Hindus in the Valley, including the entire Kashmiri Pandit community, flee in March.

1991 – 2000: In April 1991, Kashmiris hold anti-Pakistan demonstrations in Srinagar following killing of a JKLF area commander by the Hizb.

JKLF militancy declines. The JKLF faction led by Yasin Malik announces unilateral ceasefire in 1994 and pursues political agenda under the All Parties Hurriyat (Freedom) Conference (APHC) umbrella, followed by Amanulla Khan’s JKLF faction’s ceasefire in 1997.

The most serious incident of a communal nature namely the murder of sixteen male Hindus in Kishtwar in August 1993 is condemned by the JKLF and the Hizb. According to official reports, 307 Hindus and 377 Muslims have been killed in the Doda and Rajouri districts as of 1998.

In June 1998 A Farooq Abdullah instituted Regional Autonomy Committee (RAC) proposes devolution of political power at regional, district, block and panchayats levels and allocation of funds according to an objective and equitable formula.

In June 2000, the State Autonomy Committee( SAC) Report is discussed and an autonomy resolution is adopted in the J&K Assembly. The SAC Report recommends restoration of Article 370 to pre-1953 status with Indian jurisdiction limited to defence, foreign affairs and communications. The Indian Cabinet rejects the autonomy recommendation in July.

Do strict laws really help when nobody enforces them?

23 Jun

In another move by the government to show its doing something about the pressing inequities in society, the Home Ministry has proposed framing stricter laws to rein in Khap Panchayats and their extra-constitutional activities.  The issue simply put, is: will stricter laws help in ensuring that the laws of the state are applicable to Khap Panchayats who function as extra-constitutional bodies?

In my earlier post on Khap Panchayats, I had pointed out just one of many instances of extra-constitutional killings being committed by them.  And in another blog post, I had pointed to the high pendency of cases concerning atrocities against SCs and STs under existing laws specially designed to prevent untouchability and violence against lower castes.  This indicates clearly not a story of legislative lacunae, but of a lack of will on the part of the government to bring wrong-doers to justice.

And at the end of it all, we will have one more law which will not be enforced against those committing wrongs, and might instead be used to harass innocent individuals.  The government should ideally be ensuring local policemen who are often complicit in such crimes (by not registering FIRs or not investigating such cases, or harassing victims in some cases) do their jobs properly.

It is even more ironic that the government is an agency supposed to enforce laws, seeks to show its seriousness on social issues by framing new laws.  The framing of new laws is supposed to be the initiative of the Parliament, and its implementation is the responsibility of the executive.  It is weird therefore, that in our country, the government showcases its achievements by framing more laws instead of enforcing existing ones.

Commonwealth Games II: Delhi’s War on Beggars

22 Jun

Various anecdotal evidences from peers and one’s own experiences reinforce impressions of Delhi’s transition to a “world-class” city without the transition to world-class systems.  One aspect of this is simply how extreme the difference between the purchasing power of those at the top and bottom of the economic pyramid is.  However, when one hears reports of a government’s conscious attempt to create a false image of being “world-class” by getting rid of the poor, these impressions acquire a more sinister shape.

A recent story in Frontline showcases the Delhi government’s “war on beggars”.  The usage of the words itself shows how a welfare government’s self-declared aam-aadmi agenda to remove poverty has been perverted to an agenda of removing the poor.  The article makes the following points:

  • The Delhi government is sending back beggars found on the streets of the National Capital Region to the towns and villages from which they migrated.
  • Delhi’s Social Welfare Minister has been quoted as saying: “Beggars are a nuisance, and begging has to be stopped. When we make Delhi a world-class city, it will be compared with other world capitals. One does not come across beggars in other countries. Why should there be beggars in Delhi?” In another interaction with the press, he said: “We Indians are used to beggars. Westerners are not. So, we must make the city free of them.”
  • The government has invoked the Bombay Prevention of Beggary Act, 1959, which criminalises begging. It was not enforced until two years ago.  The Act prescribes punishment up to 10 years for a person found begging.
  • The universities in Delhi have been instructed to get their hostels vacated during the 12-day sports event, which means even students have to find alternative accommodation.
  • The article has quoted reports which say that expenditure on sports infrastructure is already 2,160 % of the initially projected budget, and the Union Budget allocation for the Games from the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports rose by 6,235 % between 2005-06 and 2009-10.
  • Funds for social expenditure have been diverted to manage the Games. Funds from the 2009-10 Scheduled Caste Sub-Plan worth more than Rs.2,500 crore have been diverted to cover the CWG expenditure from 2005-06 to 2006-10.

Some observations to support my initial observations can be made:

Is it not paradoxical, even grossly perverted, that the Social Welfare Minister of Delhi considers it necessary to “remove” beggars instead of rehabilitating them?

The facts presented in the Frontline story indicate a paranoia to give Delhi a sheen of wealth and prosperity while taking an easy way out of combating major infrastructural problems that could have been solved using the Commonwealth Games as an excuse.

Even more perversely on this front, the government has chosen to implement cosmetic changes instead of improving living conditions within the city.  There has to be a strong justification for implementing street-scaping instead of improving facilities for pedestrians, for demolishing slums instead of planned slum-redevelopment, for hiking auto-fares instead of increasing public transport facilities.

Criminally, the government has missed out on an opportunity to integrate clusters of social minorities with the larger population by improving roadways and transportation facilities.  Instead of creating an enabling framework for the poor to work their way up, the government has chosen to create systems where the poor finds the city unaffordable.

All these contribute to the image of a government attempting to create prosperity by removing the poor.  If Gujarat, Rwanda, and Cambodia were social progroms, the Delhi government’s actions constitute nothing short of an economic progrom against the poor.  Its ironic however, that in our country (and Delhi), it is the poor who constitute the majority.

Survey on SC/ST Atrocities: The Crimes we never talk about

15 Jun

Media coverage on crime is heavily skewed in favour of reporting urban crime as opposed to rural, or caste-based crime.  Though we occasionally hear reports of honour killings, or entire community households being burnt down, they are reported more as examples of a malaise afflicting society.  This malaise itself is not talked about.  This post captures some recent information on practises against Dalits and atrocities against them.

Open magazine, along with a number of other news papers have carried stories on a report published by a group called the Tamil Nadu Untouchability Eradication Front (“an umbrella group of more than 150 labour, Dalit and human rights movements).  They set off on a comprehensive survey three years ago. They started documenting all manifestations of untouchability,  2010. They visited 1,845 villages in 22 (of 32) districts in the state.  The survey recorded an astonishing 80-odd practices of untouchability—new, bizarre, vintage. It further recorded 22 atrocities committed against Dalits.”

Some of the practices the magazine quotes from the report include:

  1. Not allowed to speak on the cell phone in the presence of caste Hindus. (A practice reported in the Nilgiri constituency, a reserved Lok Sabha seat, the current incumbent of which is, ironically, Union Telecom Minister A Raja.)
  2. Not allowed to keep male dogs. (Why? They might breed with female dogs from upper caste neighbourhoods.)
  3. Separate work timings under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme.
  4. No door delivery by postmen; postal department prevented from hiring Dalit postmen.
  5. Prevented from having their clothes washed or ironed, or assigned separate cupboards at the laundry for clothes of Dalits.
  6. Offered tea in coconut shells which they can drink only by squatting on the ground.
  7. Attacked if they call any caste Hindu as annan (brother).
  8. Dalit (Arunthathiyar) students compelled to clean bathrooms in schools.
  9. Forced to eat faeces.
  10. Murdered if elected as Panchayat President against the wishes of the dominant caste.
  11. Killing all dogs in a Dalit area if a dog of the Dalit area bites a dog that belongs to an upper caste community.

In the course of my work I have often heard of the Civil Rights Act, 1955, and the Prevention of Atrocities against SCs and STs Act.  I went through the website of the National Crime Records Bureau which would also record statistics on offences under these two laws:

  1. There were a total of 33,615 incidents of crimes being reported against SC’s in 2008.  Almost 25% of this was in Uttar Pradesh.
  2. Under the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act, more than 35% of cases were still pending investigation at the end of the year.
  3. The total number of cases for trial in courts in India under the SC/ST Act in 2008 was 40,963.  Out of this, 34,014 were still pending in courts at the end of the year.

Though there was a lot of other information available, I put in these three points to highlight how at all three levels starting from the actual occurrence of the incident, investigation by the police, and finally to dispensing justice  in courts, there is an overwhelming picture of the state and society having failed in resolving the issue of caste amicably.

Khap Panchayats: Krap or dangerously reasonable

26 Apr

Khap Panchayats have been in the news recently.  Following the conviction of some members for killing a couple who married against the wishes of the Panchayat, leaders of various Khap Panchayats have sounded a defiant note and want changes in marriage laws.  This post tries to look at the validity of their claim.

First, a little background: Khap is a cluster of villages united by caste and geography.  It is as old as 14th century started by upper caste jats to consolidate their power and position.  The main rule is that all boys and girls within a khap are considered siblings. Many village people also defend these caste panchayats as they deliver the verdict in one sitting whereas court cases drag for years.  According to them ,in many cases innocent people get harassed in the court and by police.  Here as everyone is known so they cross check everything to ensure neutrality.

The Court case:  On the 25th of March, 2010, the Karnal Sessions Court held six people guilty of killing a couple who married against the wishes of the khap panchayat.  The couple, Manoj and Babli was murdered in June 2007.  The Times of India reports that the families of the couple also faced social boycotts, and a fine of Rs. 25,000 since the couple were from the same gotra.  Even though a court had granted the two police protection, reportedly, the police constables were in constant contact with one of the Khap members.  One of the killers was protected by the Khap leaders, and it was only when pressure mounted that he surrendered.  Horrifyingly, he was even felicitated at a function for killing Manoj and Babli.

Aftermath: On April13, 2010 in an assembly, Khap Panchayats condemned the court ruling and pledged their support to those convicted.  They had also held an earlier meeting where they decided to set up a core committee to suggest amendments to the Act to disallow same-gotra and same-village marriages as per Jat tradition.  They also demanded an amendment to the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955, terming it unscientific.  Their specific demand is that the Act should be able to check whether the couple should be getting married or not.  It might sound ridiculous, but the fact is that the Act already does so.

The Hindu Marriage Act, 1955 prohibits marriage between Hindus on various grounds.  Two of them pertain to the relation between the two parties:

1.  They should not be Sapindas of each other. A Sapinda relationship is traced through common ancestor.  People within 5 generations of each other on the father’s side and 3 generations of each other on the mother’s side, or having common ancestors within 5 and 3 degrees of separation are treated as Sapindas.

2.  They should not fall within “degrees of a prohibited relationship”.  This includes lineal descendants and close family members.

I doubt these conditions were imposed on a scientific basis.  They are more probably, if not certainly a codification of the dominant Hindu custom which was being followed prior to the enactment of this law.  If so, the Khap Panchayat’s demand to have a law barring marriage within the same gotras is also merely a matter of codifying an existing custom prevalent within their community.

Their other practices of social boycotts, honour killings and fines are completely illegal, but on this one aspect at least, they can claim to have a legitimate issue.  I am not supporting the demand, merely stating that if a law were to be enacted validating their demand, there is precedent to indicate that such a law would be valid.

The issue however is whether such a law would be a good law.  Whether it is reformist, or populist, and whether a populist law is necessarily good law in the first place.  That is an essential contradiction our society will have to deal with.  The law-making process is supposed to be populist by nature, as laws are passed by a majority of our representatives.  Whether the law passed is any good however, is only proven by passage of time, when many people who the law affects have the weight of their horrific experiences to add to their arguments.

India No. 1on “The World’s Most Inappropriate Government Agencies”

20 Apr

A recent article in Foreign Policy Magazine titled ‘The World’s Most Inappropriate Government Agencies’ lists the Backward Classes Bureau as one the world’s most inappropriate government agencies.  The body is separate from the National Commission for Backward Classes, and implements schemes for Backward Classes.

Other such bodies in other countries include:

1. The KGB in Belarus. (Though the Russian agency has changed its name to Federal Security Service, Belarus persists with the old name.

2. China’s Central Propaganda Department.

3. Saudi Arabia’s Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice.

The categorisation of our Backward Classes Bureau with the other bodies covered here seems intriguing.  The only other body which they covered was Zimbawe’s Ministry of Land, Land reforms, and Rural Resettlement.  In India, though there are vitriolic debates over the policy and implementation of reservation, people do not identify the implementing agencies in the same sense as security and propaganda agencies.

Bestseller III: Update on Bestseller spewing anti-Muslim Propaganda

4 Mar

I had written a couple of posts (Bestseller I and Bestseller II) on a High Court judgement banning a book spewing anti-muslim propaganda.  In today’s Indian Express, Pratap Bhanu Mehta discusses the judgement in a larger piece on religious freedom and freedom of expression:

“…courts have been unduly squeamish about protecting free expression. This squeamishness can be seen in a deeply confused recent high court judgment: R.V. Bhasin vs state of Maharashtra. While the judgment, based on a plausible reading precedent, banned a book, Islam: A Concept of Political World Invasion, the normative and methodological claims in the judgment tell you how precarious free speech is. While the court makes expansive rhetorical claims on behalf of free speech, it equally makes expansive jurisprudential claims on restricting it. So under Section 153 of the IPC for example, it is “no defence that the writing contains a truthful account of past events or is supported by good authority.” No wonder even works of scholarship can be banned. In terms of incitement to violence it reiterates a rejection of the “clear and present danger test”; even a remote possibility is sufficient to invite a ban. Third, it does what a court should try and avoid. It directly engages in an interpretive battle with the petitioner over certain ayats of the Quran, trying to produce an “authorised” interpretation. This is disturbing because it frames the issue of religion in a bizarre way. Indian courts keep going to great lengths to show that there can never be anything offensive or bizarre in a religious text (and come up with claims like no religion can even preach violence, all religions are progressive if not the same and so forth). In short, courts confirm an ideology of respect for religion that emboldens those who claim they are offended. The particular book in question has some insulting stuff in it. But the court casts the issue in an unhelpful way. It says criticism of any religion is permitted so long as it is “academic”. Really? Lampooning and heaping insult are as much weapons of progress as anything. Imagine the poor philosophes of the Enlightenment achieving progress through “academic” criticism. While the court is right in its concern for hate speech, it has given too much leeway to those who take offence.

P. Ananda Charlu, as early as 1886, had prophesied how mischievous Section 153 of the IPC would prove to be. He described it as “a dangerous piece of legislation by necessitating the government to appear to side with one party against the other. In my humble judgment it will only accentuate the evil which it is meant to remove. Far from healing the differences which still linger, or which now and then come to the surface, it would widen the gap by encouraging insidious men to do mischief in stealth.” Both prophecies, that clauses on offence will induce rather than diminish competitive communal politics, and create a culture of mischief, have turned out to be true….”

Commonwealth games: Child Labour galore

9 Feb

An article in Foreign policy highlights how contractors behind schedule are taking advantage of lax labor laws and coercing their employees to bring their children to work alongside them, promising payments of bread and milk.

The article makes the following points:

1. India has very weak enforcement of child labour laws.  In fact, it is preferable to not working or prostitution.

2. This week, the High Court of Delhi began cracking down on the national government over alleged failures to provide legally mandated benefits to workers involved with the construction of venues related to the games.

3. At construction sites, laborers are making well below the standard minimum wage, and working children receive nothing but a single meal.

4. Almost half of the city’s homeless shelters have been destroyed in order to clean up the city and clear room for infrastructure, putting over 100,000 onto the streets in the middle of winter.

Update on reservation for Minorities: Ranganath Mishra Committee Report

14 Jan

The government has asked ministries for feedback on the implementation of the Ranganath Mishra Commission Reforms (Govt eliciting views of ministries on Ranganath Misra report).  The ministries have been asked to report whether there are ‘insurmountable difficulties’ in giving identified minorities adequate reservation.  I had posted a piece on the subject some time earlier.  Please read if interested.

Bestseller II: How scholarly are our courts?

12 Jan

Yesterday I posted a piece on a judgement of the Bombay High Court banning a book.  I had mentioned the facts of the book and the main points raised by the author of the book.  Today, I am quoting the main points of the court’s judgement.  After that I argue that banning books on sensitive issues does not necessarily maintain or promote harmony in society.  It might in fact, curb opportunities for dialogue in society.

The judgement: The High Court upheld the ban on the book.  There were many procedural and substantive grounds given.  I am summarising only the substantive points:

The Constitution allows the state to frame laws to restrict our freedom of speech and expression in the “interest of public order”, and not just “maintenance of public order”.   Interest has a broader meaning than maintenance.

For a Notification banning books to be valid, the government’s opinion and reasons should be clearly mentioned in the notification.  In this case, they were clearly expressed.

An author has a right to put forth a perspective that a particular religion is not secular.  However, if a book reeks of hatred for a particular community…..one must pause and consider whether it is in the interest of general public to allow its circulation.”

According to us, the lurid details allegedly of Mohammad Paigambar’s life, the authenticity of which may be challenged by some, could have been avoided by

the author…..It is not possible for us to conclude that they are in the nature of historical research. We feel that the attempt is to show Mohammad Paigambar in poor light to hurt Muslim sentiments.”

Thus, Mohammad Paigambar is designedly painted as a debauched person and anything which can be said in his favour is discounted. “

We have no doubt that the author must be allowed to criticize Islam….But, here the criticism is not academic. The author has gone on to pass insulting comments on Muslims with particular reference to Indian Muslims.”

My argument: These points were made somewhere in between nearly 100-pages of a scholarly ‘exposition’ by the court.  The court examined a number of extracts quoted from the book, and referred to other books it considered scholarly and definitive, and tried to examine the true nature of the words and phrases of Muslim religious texts which had allegedly been wrongly represented.

I would like to point out some features of the government action and the court’s judgement:

1.  The government acted in 2007 when the book was first published in 2003.  It would be interesting to ponder over whether they would ban a book had it not sold 10,000 copies.

2. Banning the book may have done two things: (a) it may have sent out a signal that the government is ‘pseudo-secularist’, and over protective of minorities;, (b) it might also have stifled genuine debate by deciding for itself that the book is derogatory, insulting, and a threat to public order.

3. The length of the court’s ‘treatise’ on the authentic interpretation of the sources used and mis-quoted form nearly half the length of the 150-page judgement!!  The court, even though it said it has no business laying down authoritative interpretation of religious law, went ahead and did exactly that.

In any society, debate on religion and culture (as indeed so many other things) should take part in civil society.  That the government should be able to regulate matters inciting violence and hatred is granted, but does not this particular form of regulation i.e. banning a book, also stifle debate likely to happen in civil society when controversial arguments are made?

Consider an alternative scenario: The government does not have the power to ban a book outright.  it can however issue an ‘advisory’ stating that a particular book is factually incorrect/ provocative/ misrepresents historical facts, and so on.  If such a book does subsequently lead to a direct role in violence or public disorder, the government can ask the courts to ban it.

In such a case, if the government issues an advisory stating its reasons for doing so, information about the book and its contents will be given wider publicity.  Wider publicity will also in turn attract greater public scrutiny, greater criticism, greater debate, and if the material is truly objectionable, even a case for defamation.

Greater public scrutiny, in my opinion would also help different sections of society voice their opinions more often, and may also help in the expression of pent-up voices that are otherwise expressed with destructive intent.

In the occasional situation that a particular book etc. is taken to court, the court may be in a position to resolve a dispute between two people from different backgrounds in society.  In such a case, its 100-page ramblings might settle a question of authenticity of cultural and religious texts in a manner that gives closure to at least one individual in society.

In the present circumstances, the court usually has to decide on the very legitimacy of the government’s action of banning a book.  It might appease a community, but still leaves individuals simmering.

Bestseller spewing anti-muslim propaganda banned

11 Jan

I recently saw a judgement of the Bombay High Court (RV Bhasin v. State of Maharashtra, January 6, 2010)  on censorship of a book.  The judgement is important as it deals with our freedom of speech and expression.  A book was banned by the government through an official Notification in 2003.  Normally, any story about censorship in Maharashtra involves books being critical of Maratha heroes.  This case is however, different.

The reasons given for banning the book were that the book made “several derogatory and false statements about Muslim religion, Muslim community, Mohammed and Muslim priests’.  Interestingly, the book has already sold 10,000 copies since publication (!!), which is a huge number for our country.  The notification also contained excerpts from the book, and I am quoting parts of the Notification below:
“(The Book)….has made derogatory and false statements on page number 4 referring to Muslim religious Book Quran that, Muslims should kill Kafirs (Non – Muslims) and if they do so it is stated on page number 4 that, they would be given 72 beautiful girls and 72 handsome youth….where-ever Muslims are ruling other religious people be killed and on page number 10 thereof it is stated that, Muslims do not consider and accept other religious people equal to them and that where-ever Muslim population is less they are increasing it in an attempt to make themselves equal with others….”

“Islam declares to its followers where political governance is in the hands of the believers, they are to act and crush any counter idea and where it still lacks political control then to lie on wait for the moment when through all other means, Darul-Herb gets converted into Darul- Islam.
Muslims do not and cannot accept any non-believer as equal to them and hence Modi of Gujarat too right when he cautions Indian people UNITE to safeguard themselves from the Muslim invasion who are waiting only to convert India from Darul Herb to Darul Islam and now openly say and believe in HAM PAANCH – HAMARRE PACCHIS.
I am sure regardless of what views people hold, the assertions made in the book hardly seem novel.  I did however want to point them out for the sheer venom the arguments seek to exhibit.  When the case came up before the Court, the lawyer for the author of the book made a number of technical and substantive arguments.  I have summarised below the ones I consider the most important ones:
1. The applicant was not aware of the Notification till when his office was raided. The Notification must be set aside as the applicant was not given a hearing.
2.  The Notification states in substance that in the opinion of the State Government, certain passages of the book as reproduced in the schedule were false and derogatory and “might have been” written without taking into account `Muslim sentiments’.The Notification gives no basis, reason or grounds for the State to come to the aforesaid opinion.
3.  The motive of the applicant in writing the book was to bring home to society certain features and facets of Islam of which readers might not have been aware. The book is not intended to promote feelings of enmity or hatred among classes of persons or to cause insult to any particular class or community.
4.  The bonafides of the applicant are clear from his statement at page 99 that we are a secular nation and from the fact that he has avoided reference to some of the `more provocative’ Ayats.
5.  Freedom of expression is not founded on the wisdom of the opinion or the amount of research put in before it is expressed; nor is it dependent on the quality of the literature, the art or the speech. It is founded on the inherent human right to express one’s views and is subject to a limited deterrent that this shall not be permitted if it is aimed at social unrest, hatred, etc.
6.  What has been stated in the book is not untrue or unknown and is borne out by the recent events and publication in the media. The concept of global jihad; the desire for Islamisation of India, the belief of Muslim leaders that all Muslims are born Mujahids and they expect all true believers to give completely their possessions and persons to jihad even in this day and age have been published and circulated in newspapers. These are
common perceptions of Indian society.
These, and one may make provocative arguments on either side, seem to be the gist of the justifications the author made in support of what he had written.  I shall write about the judgement of the Court tomorrow.

Ranganath Mishra: Mandal II? Not Really

5 Jan

Recently, The Ranganath Mishra Commission (National Commission for Religious and Linguistic Minorities) Report (RMC) was tabled in Parliament.  One of the most talked about issues discussed in the report was that of reservation for minorities.  That is neither the majority, nor the substance of the Report, as an op-ed in Indian Express also points out.  Before going further, let us look at the main terms of reference the government asked the Commission to consider:

To suggest criteria for identification of socially and economically backward sections among religious and linguistic minorities.

To recommend measures for welfare of socially and economically backward sections among religious and linguistic minorities, including reservation in education and government employment.

To suggest the necessary constitutional, legal and administrative modalities required for the implementation of its recommendations.

To give its recommendations on the issues raised in WPs 180/04 and 94/05 filed in the Supreme Court and in certain High Courts relating to para 3 of the Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order 1950 in the context of ceiling of 50 percent on reservations as also the modalities of inclusion in the list of Scheduled Castes.

As can be clearly seen, two of the four points explicitly deal with reservation.  As has been pointed out in the Express op-ed, if the terms of reference of the RMC themselves contain two issues relate to reservation, can the Report be trashed because it gave its findings based on the questions the government asked it to answer?  Let us also look at the other observations of the RMC:

1. The RMC looked at the National Commission for Minority Educational Institutions Act, 2004 which was enacted to constitute a Commission charged with the responsibilities of advising the Central Government or any State Government on any matter on education of minorities.  The Commission was to be given the task of deciding disputes a minority educational institution and a University on its affiliation to such University.  The RMC recommended that there was a need to amend the Act to make it more streamlined.

2. The Commission observed that provisions relating to untouchability under the Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1955 also applied to non-Hindus.

3. It was also felt that the provisions of the Prevention of Atrocities (SC/ST) Act, 1989 needs to be extended to cover OBCs, Minorities or the socially and economically backwards to protect them from discrimination.

4. Regarding religious composition:  (a) Level of urbanization – The 1991 and 2001 data show that Muslims are more urbanised than Hindus and Sikhs;  (b) Most urban minority group – Jains are the most urbanised as compared to any other religious minority group;  (c) Sex ratio – The sex ratio among Muslims at 936, is slightly above the national average.  However, the sex ratio for Hindus has declined from 942 in 1991 to 931 in 2001, Buddhists from 963 to 953 and Jains from 946 to 940;  (d) Gap between male and female literacy – Among the six major religions at the national level, the maximum gap between male and female literacy is among Hindus (23 percent) followed by Buddhists (21.4 percent) and Muslims (17.5 percent points);  (e) Educational level – Muslims have the lowest proportion of educated persons within the minority (3.6% have completed graduation, even though 65% have completed primary education);  (f) Ownership of houses – The ratio of those living in rented houses was highest among Muslims (43.74 percent);  Urban poverty – Muslims occupied highest share in Urban Poverty population with 36.92 percent; (g) Percentage of workers to total population – The lowest work participation rate of 31.3 percent at the national level is seen for the Muslims population.

5. Infant and child mortality rates among Muslims are highest in so far as Minorities are concerned but these rank lower than Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.

6. Language as a basis for determining socio-economic backwardness – The RMC stated that “there is no justification for making language as the basis to determine the socio-economic backwardness of the people, it was felt that in a multi-lingual society like ours, exclusive adherence to a minority language, which may be the mother-tongue of a section of population, does affect the socio-economic and educational development of that linguistic minority specially in the initial years. Therefore, steps for enhancing the skills of the linguistic minorities including learning/teaching of the majority language need to be emphasised.”

7. Regarding reservation –  The RMC noted that (1) reservation should be a temporary measure, (2) if an individual has benefitted from the reservation in the matter of employment, it may be worthwhile to consider his next generation for educational benefits only, (3) the entire system of reservation as also of the SC, ST, OBC Lists need to be overhauled. Since, BPL Lists are being prepared on the basis of social/educational and economic criteria, these are more scientific.

8. Reservation on religious basis – “It is claimed and agreed to by almost all sections of the society in India, in various context and especially in respect of the issue of reservations, that no special benefits can be given to any community or group on the basis of religion. At the same time, however it is generally insisted upon that the class of Scheduled Castes must remain religion-based. This seems to be illogical and unreasonable.

I have not mentioned above, the more discussed observations recommending reservations for religious minorities, but not for linguistic ones.  The purpose is to highlight the importance of other findings which have been made by the RMC.  It is also worth mentioning here that the Action Taken Report of the Sachar Committee Report on Muslims shows that the government is primarily engaged in raising social and educational standards of the Muslim community, and not discussing reservation.

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