Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Chronicle of a Death Foretold

An Essay written to make sense of the situation in Darjeeling after the grusome daylight murder of an opposition leader Madan Tamnag. It was first published in Sikkim Now, a english daily published from Gangtok, Sikkim on 26th May 2010. The essay is also available at Darjeeling Times .

Photo from Outlook India

It has been four days since the assassination of the All India Gorkha League (AIGL) President Madan Tamang. There have been some developments in the Darjeeling hills which are being interpreted as anti-Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) mood by commentators. The candle light vigil, the mass of people who joined the funeral procession are but welcome signs of a civil society that has been shaken awake.

In the opinion of this commentator, it would be pre-mature to read more into these developments as they are a result of the shock and dismay at the barbarism of the act. As much as all discerning observers wish to see such developments, it would be recommended that one wait for the dust to settle to see the evolving situation.

There are many ways in which the situation in Darjeeling could evolve. One is the path of escalation. With the naming of GJM leaders in the First Information Report (FIR), the resignation of the ‘intellectuals’ and the general resistance of the common folk, a cornered GJM would make efforts to raise the bogey of the ‘threat’ to Gorkhaland, the ‘West Bengal government to gain’ conspiracy to reiterate their relevance and spread rumors, conspiracy theories which thrive in a charged context. And the observed lack of any alternative leadership being thrown up either by the opposition or from within the GJM ranks will prompt the GJM to regain the lost space. This trajectory might result in violence due to resistance by the police, people and the opposition parties.

The other option is that the confusion and the dissociation in the GJM ranks, over the allegations of the brutal slaying of the AIGL President, sinks the party. In such a situation, the Gorkhaland movement would need time to re-group and build momentum. The United Front of opposition parties can take leadership to capture the momentum and take it forward. But these are all estimations which might fall short owing to the sheer complexity and unpredictability associated with human affairs and the number of actors involved in the conflict. However, there are a number of lessons to be learnt from the developments and dynamics of the past three years of the GJM led movement.

The vital issue over which the tensions in the hills were raising is over the leadership of the movement. When the talks continue, who will be at the table? This is a key issue and has determined the trajectory of GJM’s politics in the past three years, with their exile of Ghising and then the efforts at brow-beating AIGL. In simple terms, the GJM is unwilling to share the leadership of a movement they had captured with their imagination and fortitude. But what is also true is that the GJM’s claims to represent the people of Darjeeling is a trifle doubtful having never participated in the electoral process. If there was one party which could claim such legitimacy it is the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF), which will of course not be acceptable to most of the people of Darjeeling. In such a situation, it makes sense to have an all party group participate in the talks, which was exactly the point being made by Madan Tamang repeatedly.

The heart of the matter for those grieved by the turn of events for the fate of Gorkhaland should not be the lost time or momentum. The crux of the matter should be about the inability of the leaders to come together and form a united front for achieving the goal of statehood and to achieve the objectives without giving into the politics of violence. It has been observed all over the world, that movements which are violent, intolerant of dissent and undemocratic, practice the same politics after their aims have been achieved. The struggle mode of dictatorial politics is explained away by the non-negotiable nature of their aims of ‘independence’, ‘identity’ or statehood in this case. But it is difficult to imagine a social group or organization to turn a new leaf after they have achieved their objectives and they continue to not let go of power. These are the reasons why methods of struggle become vital as they create a culture which becomes institutionalized.

The legitimacy of a movement is also judged on their means and methods of struggle. In both instances 1986-1988 and the current phase, the Gorkhaland movement falls short in terms of democratic modes of struggle and the GNLF was accused of intolerant politics and we see the same with the GJM. While the GJM led movement carried out their struggle via ‘Gandhian’ methods, there were enough bursts of violence against the dissenting, social ostracization (of GNLF members) and consistent use of threats. The diktats on traditional attire, the harassment and browbeating of the Naari and the Vidyarthi Morcha, the school students on hunger strikes were a few examples where the GJM was treading the fine line between people’s support which was voluntary or support gained by the fear of reprisals. The illegal alcohol ban also falls into the same category of controversial methods. It is tempting to compare, rhetorically, these methods which are meant to invoke the spirit of Mahatma Gandhi’s Civil Disobedience Movement but they fall flat owing to their vigilante imposition. There might have been a delicate balance on some issues where the party could claim a certain level of people’s consent but the case of the Gorkhaland Personal (GLP) was an outright case of holding out the threat of violence to those who disagreed or did not toe the GJM line. The GLP is illegal and threatening despite the GJM claims of innocence.

It was the success of the GJM owing to people’s support which turned the party into their arrogant posturing. It was the people’s tolerance and connivance at the earlier instances of coercion which brought the matter to such an impasse. As has been mentioned before, journalists and intellectuals ceased to be non-partisan participants and became sloganeers for the GJM. This is where Shri Madan Tamang became very important through the course of the struggle, as the sane voice, fighting for democratic space, speaking for his right to disagree despite GJM efforts to hound and scare him away from the hills as was done to the GNLF leadership.

In the headiness of the movement, a number of issues started fading as people became short sighted and the logic suggests that such sacrifices are necessary to achieve their aims. One need not be a puritan for non-violent methods to sense the coercive undertones of the supposed ‘Gandhian’ demeanor. There are other greater sacrifices that a movement aims to achieve in its struggle rather than the ones forsaken by civil society in the hills. One is reminded of Gandhi’s tolerance of his critics, Ambedkar, Jinnah without resorting to the sort of tactics the GJM indulged in and Gandhi also called off the Non-cooperation movement after the violence at Chauri Chaura. However, to expect such bravado from the leaders our societies throws up in these times, maybe a trifle too high a moral. In order to take lessons from the recent events, it is of foremost importance that no group, organization seeks to banish and exile the GJM leadership. It is a matter of the law and order agencies to pursue that agenda, which of course, is not the most reliable option. However, it goes without saying that we cannot have our cake and eat it too. To expect the rule of law to function, we need to respect the rule of law and amidst the events in the past three years during the GJM led agitation, none of us even bothered to raise question regarding the rule of law. Shri Madan Tamang was a victim of such an anarchic context.


Thursday, March 25, 2010

Peace and Conflict Studies at Sikkim University

A small essay written for the purpose to disseminate the idea of Peace and Conflict Studies and generate awareness of the discipline. It was published in Sikkim Now, a english daily published from Gangtok, Sikkim on 25th March 2010. The essay is also available at Beacon Online. Please click on it to enlarge it.


Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Chinese Incursions into Indian Territory: Seeking an Explanation

It all began in mid-July with a TV story on Chinese incursions in the Finger Tip area of North Sikkim. This was the first of a series of press reports that continue to emphasize the conflict element of Sino-Indian relations. The public response has also been in sharp contrast to the ‘all is well’ that normally permeates the External Affairs officialdom. In an unprecedented coverage of China in the Indian media, we saw an article by an Indian defense expert on how a ‘nervous’ China would attack India by 2012, another article, this time by a Chinese defense expert speculated how the Indian federation can be broken up if the Chinese concentrate on supporting the various secessionist movements. But the most potent was saved for the last, in the past month we have been witnessing a series of media reports about the Chinese violations of Indian territory in many sectors of the Sino-Indian border.

The slew of such news pointing towards an aggressively intent China set the local rumor mills rolling. For instance, the information that the Indian army was moving tanks up to the Chinese border for which the National Highway 31A would be closed for 3 days was only denied by the authorities after it had swirled and even engulfed the neighboring Darjeeling district, where as a friend mentioned, the rumor went around that the tourist season in Darjeeling was looking good as the Indian army had occupied all the hotels in Sikkim!

The more fascinating aspect of the various incursions by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) into disputed and even into non-disputed areas has a peculiarity which has so far never been verified. These are not the first instances that such reports are finding their way into the mainstream press; they have been highlighted in the past years as well. The Home Ministry reports that there were around 270 ‘violations’ by China on India’s western, middle and eastern sectors in 2008, while 60 such incidents have been reported so far this year. Sources are invariably unnamed and predictably the Government of India downplays these Chinese forays into Indian territory. Even this time around, the Minister of External Affairs suggested that the Sino-Indian border was one of the most peaceful of India’s borders and that there are mechanisms in place to resolve any violation. The reasons for the incursions are not difficult to fathom in the disputed or the undisputed areas as there is no exact demarcation of the mountainous border. Any logical extrapolation would also suggest that the Indian military also perhaps violates the Chinese/ Tibetan borders and that any violation is based on the respective interpretation of the border.

In such circumstances, how is one to make sense of the profusion of these reports (mostly delayed, some of these incursions date back to January 2009) on one hand and the mild-mannered response of the Indian establishment on the other? It sets the stage for conspiracy theories and for the more rational-minded, an exercise in myriad and competing interpretations. The essay you are reading purports to be of the latter category.

An interpretation that is frequently cited in explanation of the selective highlighting of the border violations is that the armed forces do so, for their organizational interests which can be interpreted as seeking a bigger pie in the defense budget or winning some turf battle against the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) or other services. It is important to keep in mind that the military has a monopoly on information from the border areas since these areas can be accessed by civilians or journalists only with their support. Any disagreement or divergence from the army’s point of view and the journalist will find his access cut. Another interpretation which came from an informed journalist and a friend was that these leakages were part of the Research and Analysis Wing’s (RAW), the external intelligence agency, turf battle against the super-cession of seven of their officers which is being interpreted as the first step towards the merger of the RAW with the Intelligence Bureau (IB).

As one has already suggested, there can be many informed interpretations of an event and it is the work of the trained to predict the most likely set of circumstances linked together by cause and effect. The predictions are not meant to be literal but merely plausible and the interpretations can be used singularly or as an assortment to explain an event. One line of thought runs along the following lines.

There is no doubt that Sino-Indian relations runs into potholes in the security sector. There are a number of reasons for this, among which the respective nations self perception as future great powers is a key variable. There is also little doubt that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has hardened its stand in the border talks to resolve the disputed territory, from the simple basket approach to now insisting on the centrality of entire Arunachal Pradesh as Chinese territory occupied by India. The basket approach, first broached during the first phase of the border flare up in the 1950’s, was a suggestion from Chou En Lai that China keeps what it occupies, Aksai Chin, while India keeps what it occupies, Arunachal Pradesh. Nehru disagreed with this political approach to take on a more legal approach of insisting on the sanctity of the borders as drawn by McMahon.

In the mid-1990’s, when Prime Minister Narasimha Rao visited Beijing, there were efforts to freeze the border dispute and move the relationship forward on other areas. It was also decided that in order to build trust and confidence, the border dispute be examined through the lens of Mutual Understanding and Mutual Accommodation. Over the various summit level meetings in the past decade and despite a 2005 agreement on the Guiding Principles to resolve the border issue, we are now witnessing a Chinese approach that appears to be suggesting that ‘Arunachal Pradesh is ours and Aksai Chin is also ours’. The contentious border issue coupled with the Chindia discourse is also reminiscent of the 1950’s when the Hindi-Chini bhai-bhai phase was at its peak and within a few years it unraveled due to the occupation of Tibet by China and the subsequent border dispute resulting in the short war of 1962.

We can see a similar process at work under the veneer of Sino-Indian cooperation on multilateral issues and on the economic front. Trade figures have grown exponentially and in greater value than the figure predicted by the two governments and amounts to almost U$ 50 billion despite the economic recession. But the occasional troughs of the relationship remind us of the uncertainty of International Politics. As a caveat, it should be mentioned that this essay is not trying to imply that China is a threat or harbors aggressive intentions or that the incursions are a means to test the response of the Indian government, we are purely ascertaining the status of much bandied about facts.

The South West frontier of China, which is the Indian border, is perhaps the most sensitive for the Chinese government for many reasons. It is the only border along with the Sino-Bhutanese border which remains unsettled; it is the only border which has a robust nation-state similar to China with similar civilisational roots and on the trajectory to a powerful economic and military status. Lastly and most saliently, this is the border along which the Chinese state faces its persistent challenge by the self determination demands of the Tibetans and the Uyghurs in Sinkiang province.

Owing to a multiplicity of factors like the border dispute, the Tibetan government in exile’s residence in India, the global search for natural resources to power their economic engines, the strategic competition towards a more expansionist presence and the mutual self image of both India and China as great powers, that play into Sino-Indian relations, there is a high likelihood of a Sino-Indian conflict. However, it needs to be stressed that the distrust and differing perceptions need an immediate cause to ignite and facts suggest otherwise. In the context of the flare up in Tibet last year around the Olympics Games and the anti-Han Chinese riots in Sinkiang, it would be foolhardy on part of the Chinese military to test this frontier. Apart from facing an able and professional Indian army, the Chinese run the risk of a secessionist struggle in its restive provinces. Many analysts cite the Tibetan and Uyghur unrest as the very reasons for which the Chinese state might look for adventures abroad in order to divert attention and to unify the Han Chinese. However, in the opinion of this writer, if that were to happen it would not occur when Tibet and Sinkiang are restive, as the Chinese would not risk fighting with a soft underbelly.

A second plausible line of thought suggests that the press hullaballoo is an orchestrated affair and that the Indian government appears to be behaving innocuously to maintain the façade of being helpless while approving of the media reports to shore up a public opinion for an important event in November. In November, the Dalai Lama is going to visit Arunachal Pradesh. Last year, around the same time, due to Chinese pressure, the Indian government did not permit His Holiness to visit Tawang, but for public consumption it was suggested that the Dalai Lama had dropped his plans due to the impending Lok Sabha elections. It appears the Government of India does not want to be taken in by Chinese pressure and is preparing to fight off Chinese requests by citing public opinion, a useful tool in the best of circumstances especially in a democratic country.

The Dalai Lama’s itinerary is not known yet, but it looks likely that he is going to visit Tawang where he will inaugurate a multi-specialty hospital. The Tibetan leader’s visit to Arunachal assumes importance as it was through the Tawang region that the exiled leader made his way to India from Tibet in 1959 and for the more important fact that Tawang remains central to the border dispute between China and India. The status of Tawang also assumes significance as it has its origins to the Simla Accord in 1914 when the Tibetan Government, the British Indian government and the Chinese representative agreed to the McMahon Line that recognized Tawang as a part of British India. The line is named after Sir Henry McMahon, foreign secretary for the British-run Government of India and the chief British negotiator of the convention. Although its legal status is disputed, the McMahon line remains the effective boundary. The Chinese representative later renounced the Accord as being forced on him and China rejects the Simla Accord, contending that the Tibetan government was not sovereign and therefore did not have the power to conclude treaties.

And therein lies the significance for both India and the Tibetan Government in exile, as it supports their respective claims, for the Indians, claim over Arunachal Pradesh and for the Tibetans, the fact that they were an independent nation, one of the attributes of which is to enter into treaty relations with sovereign countries and the Simla Accord is an oft cited example. For China, this is exactly the problem and its consistent stance has been to debunk claims of Tibetan sovereignty, past or present, and to lay claim to the entire Tibetan region among which Tawang occupies an exalted space as it is an important centre for Tibetan Buddhists as also the birth place of one of the Dalai Lama's. Thus, the status of Tawang intricately ties up all the three parties.

The visit of the Dalai Lama also assumes significance because the stance of the Tibetan Government in Exile has been that Tawang is a part of India, an assertion that knocks Chinese monopolistic claims over Tibet and Tibetan history. It should be mentioned that this is not the first time that the Dalai Lama is visiting Arunachal Pradesh or the Tawang region, he has been to Arunachal Pradesh six times and to Tawang five times in the past. As suggested before the Chinese have hardened their stance on Tawang owing to various reasons, one of which is the Chinese insecurity with regard to its hold over Tibet and the Indian Government perhaps is looking to assert itself this time around. It remains to be seen though when November comes, whether the Government of India lets the Dalai Lama proceed with his planned visit despite incurring Beijing’s disapproval.

The piece was published on 15th September in Sikkim NOW, a daily published from Gangtok.


Thursday, July 30, 2009

Bandhs: Evaluating Modes of Protest

It has been a fortnight since the indefinite strike was called by the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) in the Darjeeling hills. When the strike began, the only national daily (if one can call The Telegraph, Siliguri edition, a national daily), one subscribes to, carried a number of stories on the difficult choice of boarding schools in the hill sub divisions of West Bengal. The schools are part of the Darjeeling brand, the first t of the three t’s, with tea and tourism that is the bed rock of the charm of the Bengal hills and its tradition. Some of the schools are more than a century old and attracts students from different parts of India and once again from abroad. The timing of the strike was unfortunate as most of the schools had recently re-opened after their summer break. It is a difficult choice in the best of circumstances but when a deadline is staring you in the face, it is an impossible logistical task to send the boarders home, in a matter of days, never mind, the rush that overwhelms the Indian Railways summer.

The events transported me, almost a quarter of a century back, to my own days in a boarding school in Darjeeling. My first years in Darjeeling coincided with the, peaking of the Gorkha National Liberation Front’s (GNLF) push for statehood in the years 1986-1988.

In the current round of the agitation for Gorkhaland and being located in Sikkim, I have perhaps been only marginally affected by the bandh. But I had an eerie feeling of having gone through it before, a ‘been there and done that’ feeling, what in French is termed déjà vu. The dictionary describes déjà vu, as an experience (real or imagined) of feeling sure that one has witnessed or experienced a new situation previously.

In the year 1986, not taking into consideration the flash strikes, we had two major strikes, for six days and thirteen days, respectively. These two bandhs occurred in June and September if memory serves me accurately. In 1987, the major strike was a closure of the hills for thirteen days around June or July. The litany of strikes were to continue, a regular feature of life, but in that period, the biggest, the mother of all strikes, was the fourty day strike in March, 1988 which was the beginning of the end of the movement with the establishment of the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC).

After school, I came back to the region only twice in the next 15 years and both times, one had to re-work thought out schedules to escape the noose of the bandh. The first was in August 2003, when a bandh in Siliguri, intervened leading to a change in our plans. In April 2008, I was in Darjeeling and yet again, due to a bandh in Siliguri, we had to hasten our departure to get to Bagdogra before Mamta didi’s goons’ took over the highway, narrowly making it to the airport on a thela.

It is a documented fact that the state of West Bengal experiences the maximum number of shut downs (average of 40-50 per year!), Assam is another state which has a high incidence of bandhs. In an almost cultural manner, uniform across the length and breadth of this vast and diverse country, political, social or religious organizations, call a strike. It is also accepted by all and sundry that bandhs are enforced with the threat of violence by party cadres, causing hardship, suffering and disrupting normal life and throwing normal life out of gear.

The bandh can be a relief to some, as it liberates them from their dull, dreary jobs and children from school. For the others who have travel plans, or an examination, an assignment to complete, it is a spanner in the works. However, when bandhs become regular, as it is in this ‘strategically’ important region of India, it becomes a nuisance, it restricts economic development, it discourages investors, it keeps away visitors and it gradually leads to a cutting off, of economic ties and integration to the national economy, pushing the region into a ‘periphery’.

This leads us to the question of the methods of protest. How should one protest? And what methods will generate the expectant, public and official, response to bring about the change in policy? We also have to consider, the question of violence and its efficacy in bringing about desired change. As, The New York Times correspondent for South Asia, wrote in an aptly titled dispatch, “Want to be heard in India? You'd better form a militia”, suggesting that, “[violence has]…started to replace hunger strikes, sit-ins and marches as the basic tools of Indian political life: guiltlessly deployed, fatally effective. Forget what you've heard about Gandhi and nonviolence in India. This is a nation of militias now.”

Ominous in any circumstances, the struggle for self determination and identity, the lack of development or the inequality of it, has generated remarkable discontent across the nation. The Kashmir, Assam, Manipur and Maoists issues have been endemic for a few decades and are noticed by the powers, only when the violence crosses a threshold level. In these circumstances, how is to one go about evaluating the bane of strikes? Are we to be gratified at the lack of violence?

Bandh's were declared illegal by a Supreme Court Judgement in November, 1997. However, it remains a common and an effective means of expression for the aggrieved and their right to the freedom of expression, the right to organise and protest. On the other side and to paraphrase the words of the then Chief Justice of India, Bandhs put others to inconvenience, depriving them of the freedom of movement, expression and go against the very right to life, denying people access to health care and hospitals. Political bandhs are expected to paralyze the life of the people and that is un-constitutional.

Should a bandh be illegal only if there is an act of violence and the life of the common people are affected? What are our choices? Are legal and constitutional methods of protests like peaceful processions, Public Interest Litigation, mass media campaign, fasting and political platforms like the Legislative assembly and Parliament not enough to be heard in India?

The piece was published on 28th July in Sikkim NOW, a daily published from Gangtok.


Sunday, July 05, 2009

Neighbourhood Watch: Testing Times Ahead in Nepal

Nepal has been in a state of perpetual crisis for most of the past two decades, beginning with the pro-democracy movement in the late 1980’s, the unstable and corrupt democratic governments, the start of the Maoists insurgency, palace massacre, the royal coup and the triangular struggle between the Maoists, the Monarchy and the political parties. It was only in 2006 that hope returned with the settlement between the Maoists and the political parties to corner the berserk monarchy that brought Nepal back from the brink of collapse. There was optimism, the monarchy blinked under sustained pressure, a cease fire was in place and the Maoists had been brought into the democratic process after the parties put aside their differences to work together.

Since then, the experience has been topsy-turvey of unending jockeying, pushing and then withdrawal of the varying interests being represented and negotiated since the formation of the Constituent Assembly. The present state of affairs can be interpreted in different ways, it is perhaps the result of the prevailing distrust and the clash of political cultures, the authoritarian Maoist one and the resistance of the mainstream parties to the Maoists efforts to have their way or it is about a recalcitrant general testing civilian supremacy in a fractured polity.

It all began with the National Games in April as the narrative goes. The Nepalese Army (NA) refused to play ball with former Maoist rebels also participating in the games. The received wisdom that sports is war by other means proved to be right in the case but in an inadvertent manner as the NA refused to engage with their former rivals and walked out of the National Games.

But the incident was merely another round in the running battle between the Maoists government trying to assert its will over the NA. One of the institutions among the few along with the judiciary that has not been brow beaten by the Maoists deluge that is sweeping all aspects of Nepalese society. The Maoist government accuses the NA of disobeying it over several issues and couches its argument in the supremacy of the civilian over the military. In March, the army chief's recommendation to give three-year extensions to eight retiring officers of Brigadier's rank did not go down well with the Maoist government. Prior to this, the NA, refused to toe the government’s order to not go ahead with the recruitment to fill vacancies in the NA.

The Army Chief’s, Gen Rookmangud Katawal, personality clashes with the Defence Minister, a Maoist, who is hardly seen at army programmes, fresh recruitments to the army, the National Games walk out and the dogged opposition to the induction of the Maoists’ guerrilla combatants into the NA have brought things to the brink in Nepal.

The rehabilitation of about 20,000 former People’s Liberation Army (PLA) fighters in the U.N.-monitored camps is a major issue of contention between the Maoists and the military, with senior officers led by the Army Chief, resisting the integration of the indoctrinated Maoist fighters into the army. The PLA fighters have had their weapons locked away under the 2006 peace deal. The UN’s tenure will expire in July 2009 and any delay in the management could threaten the tenuous peace.

The 2006 peace deal also stipulates that both the NA and the PLA will not add to their ranks and any recruitment would be a violation of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement. The Army’s enrollment drive was taken up by the Supreme Court which upheld it but asked the authorities to not make any further appointments till the final judgment. The Army officials have said that they did not violate the peace accord as it was just filling up the vacant positions. The Defence Minister and Maoist Army's commanders have strongly opposed the NA's move to recruit new soldiers and the Maoists PLA has even started to recruit new PLA personnel to counter the NA move.

In light of these developments and the walk out of the National Games, the Maoist government demanded a clarification from the Army Chief. Katawal submitted an explanatory note promptly, but it was found unsatisfactory by the Maoists who are decided on dismissing him. The General's contention is that he could be dismissed only by the President of the Republic, who is of the opinion that the government should take action against Katawal after reaching an understanding with other parties. The move to remove the army chief does not have the backing of most of the parties and even the CPN (UML), Maoists ally, is divided on the issue. Thus, while the parties agree that the army should heed the elected government's orders, they do not support the move to fire the army chief and there is an effort to forge consensus on the issue.

The Maoists have the most seats in the Constituent Assembly. In some views, the major parties like the Nepali Congress (NC), the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist) or CPN (UML), and the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum (MJF) are standing up to the Maoists efforts to steam roll their agenda on Nepal. The coalition government was possible with parties compromising to cross the impasse in the larger national benefit. After ceasefire, the Maoists have committed themselves to multiparty democracy and democratic elections. The task of the coalition is to draft a new Constitution taking into account the multi-ethnic character of Nepal.

The Maoist government sought to sack Katawal in early April but failed after opposition by its main ally, the opposition parties and even major foreign donors, including India, the US and UK. Maoist sources assert that the ruling party is still bent on removing Katawal and was waiting for main ally UML to reach a decision. The UML’s Standing Committee decision has refused to support the Maoist move to replace General Katwal by Lt. General Khadka. The CPN-UML suggested a “middle-path” approach to resolve the crisis that proposed to remove Katawal and the second-in-command, Lt. General Kul Bahadur Khadka and settle for a third person to lead the Army, besides getting rid of Defence Minister Ram Bahadur Thapa. In effect, the two factions have their backs to the wall and any outcome will result in a loss of face for one or the other. It appears that with the lack of UML support, the Maoists are isolated. UML’s middle path compromise formula has been rejected by all parties including the Maoists. While the Maoists say they are determined to take action against Katawal, they are trying to reach a consensus among political parties. But what is certain is that any action along the lines is likely to further sour relations between the army and the former guerrillas.

Katawal’s term ends in August, the urgency to sack him stems from the Maoist desire to appoint as his successor, the second senior-most general, Lt-Gen Kul Bahadur Khadka. While Katawal staunchly opposed the Maoist bid to induct its over 19,000 People’s Liberation Army (PLA) fighters into the Nepal Army (NA), saying they would have to meet international recruitment criteria, Khadka is assumed to be more flexible but there is a catch, that Khadka needs to be promoted soon or he will retire next month.

The Foreign Hand
The biggest pressure not to remove Katawal before his tenure comes from Delhi. After the abolition of the monarchy, an institution Indian wanted retained, even if merely titular, the NA harks back to the traditional linkages with India and the Indian Army. Acrimony between the two armed groups that represent powerful but divisive tendencies would make the Indian neighborhood a lot worse than it already is, with three of its neighbors at civil war. The proximity of Nepal to the Hindi heartland, linkages between the Maoists and the steadily increasing Chinese influence under a Maoist Nepal has had the Babus in South Block anxious. The Indian ambassador to Nepal, Rakesh Sood met Nepalese Prime Minister Prachanda to express concern. India has been tight lipped about the whole issue and explains away the flurry of meetings, third in a week since the dismissal order, as discussions over issues of mutual interest. The strategic community in New Delhi is alarmed at the Maoist bid to turn the army into a Maoists stronghold and ignoring the fallout on the fragile peace process. The Indian envoy, though, was not alone in his mission and was part of an ambassadorial collective, representing the major donor nations among which the United States and United Kingdom are mentionable, indicating the concern at the breakout of new hostilities.

The fear is that the Maoists are trying to push the dismissal of the Army Chief in their efforts to control the army, the one institution which would in the event of a future civil war or turn towards a dictatorship, stand up to the PLA cadres. Though, the Maoists, call such allegations propaganda and express their commitment to multi-party democracy. Amidst all this, there has not been any effort to figure out the fate of the 20,000 odd PLA fighters and their absorption into society. The lessons from around the world of disarmed groups becoming a law onto themselves are not encouraging. It appears the only option remains their absorption in either the police or the military services but this also means the Maoists getting effective control of the institution, the proverbial dilemma between the devil and the deep blue sea.

The impasse has reached such proportions that Prachanda has had to postpone his eight day visit to China beginning in May where he was due to discussing fresh assistance and investment and negotiated a new peace and friendship treaty that Beijing is keen to sign with Kathmandu.

Despite the lasting military ceasefire, the current imbroglio severely challenges Nepal’s peace process by threatening the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, and also opens the possibility of the two armies inching towards armed confrontation and inordinately delaying the drafting of the new constitution.

The piece was published on 3rd May in Sikkim NOW, a daily published from Gangtok.


Saturday, July 04, 2009

India, Governance, the Railway Budgets and the coming future

The railway budget by Mamta Banerjee was surprising only in its details. We have known in India from the past that Railway Ministers (RM) reward their constituencies(in the case of the railways, it is their respective states). The earlier RM's Laloo Prasad Yadav, Nitish Kumar, Ram Bilas Paswan have done it within my political memory. So it was known that Mamta would provide the goods to Bengal in keeping with trend and this is what has happened in the Railway Budget for 2009.

My home state, Bihar, has been the beneficiary of the earlier RM's (from Bihar) munificence when I was living in Delhi. The rail connectivity to Patna from Delhi was one of the sectors which drastically transformed. The choices in numbers of trains, speed, as well as the services in trains improved considerably. However, since I have left Delhi and moved to the North East, I see the criminal neglect, AC coaches crawling with cockroaches, dirty, the negligent attendant, even in the premium class Rajdhani trains. After nine months in this part of India and many train journeys, it has led one to conclude that this is the norm. If you take the North East Express from NewJalpaiGuri (NJP) to Patna, in the non-AC sleeper coaches, which apart from being filthy are full of military men travelling home for holidays, the passage is lined with steel trunks and movement is a hazard. The journey from NJP to Guwahati in sleeper coaches is equally bad, with a large number of people who do not possess reserved tickets. In the last journey, I can safely assert that those without reservations out numbered us.

The litany of railway complaints is never ending, we all have our share of anecdotes, but the larger point I wish to make, is that in the challenges that India faces in the next couple of years, it would be difficult to improve or maintain the system in this political culture where essential services play the spoils of election victory. Important to note that financial health of the Indian Railways has not even been considered in this analysis, reflective of how the RM's think. There is financial logic, there is social logic and then there is political logic, the Indian system appears to be working only with the political. The current state of affairs will not improve the lives of the majority of Indians and nor will it help in keeping our state owned services in a healthy condition. Not being a blind liberaliser, especially of essential services, nor am I, a dogmatic 'privatisation is hell' believer but yet I am appalled at the details of how this country is run. In order to keep the essential services running without breakdowns, India needs to respect financial and social logic. The political has to take a back seat.

The RM's appointed by the government in New Delhi, are ministers for the entire country and not for any select province. We already have political leaders representing communities, tribes and caste. Are we never going to get the notional 'Indian' in the ministry? China's technocratic governance is a model worth examining. We, in India, should be looking to learn from China then perhaps, we can imagine competing.

The example of Air India and its request to the government for a bail out package, is a good example about the short sightedness of the way government services are abused in the country. If we imagine the railways in the same situation, imagine the crisis, it would result in drastic measures and lending agencies will demand their pound of flesh, they will run it in the basis of financial logic. In short sighted political greed, the political class has lost the larger picture. If after 20 years, Mamta Baneerjee were to become the Railway Minister again and the current trend continues, while importance of the railways will continue, the government may just not find the money to make social decisions, never mind political ones.

One would like to state something, one has been thinking over for sometime now, that central government ministries (to begin with) should be handled by experts. The Railway Ministry should be run by someone from the Railways, the Human Resource and Development Ministry by an educator. And these should not be political appointments rather they should be selected on the basis of merit and their appointment approved by the Parliament. It goes against the grain of the Indian system of representation but these experts could be collectively responsible to the Prime Minister and the Parliament. The Prime Minister can be appointment as it exists but his team of ministers should be 1. experts 2. non-partisan.

Extra-ordinary times need extra-ordinary measures, the challenges that India faces due to its population are not and cannot be handled effectively by generalist bureaucrats or politicians, who merely win elections on the basis of their community support (a norm). The coming challenges need professionals. I will digress to illustrate the point I have in mind. I am at a new university, established in 2007. We are as basic as it comes, with infrastructure even smaller than a primary school at this stage. I have been here for the past nine months. It has been a learning experience at governance and how things work and the importance of individuals towards putting in place, systems which will outlive many a human lives. Any system being instituted or managed is reduced or elevated to the understanding, vision of the individual who mans it. There are systemic checks and balances but the individual space is enough to cripple a system or raise its level, in the discharge of its services. It is at this point where corruption finds its way into the system. Individuals are important and in the sheer rush of numbers, this country and its systems have forgotten the individual, having been reduced, by and to the lowest common denominator due to the numbers. It is going to be an individual's personal world view which will stamp it self on the country and its institutions. It is not merely about setting up structures, once set up, the individual (not the community, tribe, province, caste) is the key to interpret the space. The point is being well documented in how the various processes at my young university are shaping. A lot of it is in good hands but some of it leave much to be desired. But it does provide a convincing argument with regard to the importance of individuals.

The political class in the past few years have offered very few individuals who were above their sectarian or provincial parochialisms. But from the specialists, one can name, numerous individuals, who have excelled and instituted world class organisations while on government appointment. It is time, India turned to these men owing to their proven track record. And unfortunately for the votaries of corporate India, I do not have businessmen in mind. I have in mind people like MS Swaminathan, Verghese Kurian of Operation Flood (Amul), APJ Abdul Kalam for the service in Indian Space Research Organisation(ISRO), E. Sreedharan of Konkan Railway and now Delhi Metro, and many others of who I am not aware. The government sector individuals are used to illustrate the point as they worked within the 'social' world of the country with governmental briefs (a limiting system), at government salaries and yet managed to change their sectors. It is not to suggest that this is a fool proof system and will be perfect but it will definitely bring to better skills, decisions and a more enlightened governance for the nation.

In a similar manner, the various provinces in India could switch over to such a system with the Chief Minister as a political appointment and the team of experts as ministers responsible to the state assembly. It would be akin to the American system where individuals with detailed proposals in their respective areas are able to make it to the government. There remain problems with regard to the basic democratic system envisaged by the constitution but if we start with such an idea, we can improvise and tailor it to achieve the necessary ends, which is to provide good and durable services to all citizens of the country.


Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Trees, King Makers, Sikkim and Elections in India

It is election time in India and since am located in Sikkim, I am following the local election scenario. It entails following the local press and understanding the Sikkimese scene, issues and community configuration. The general sort of advice to anyone trying to make sense of elections in India is that they should look to understand the ethnic issues community, clan, caste, tribe, religion, language or race and you will have the larger picture of the contest, like the frame of a painting. In most parts of India, it is one of these factors or a combination of them which determine the ruling coalition. Issues play a certain role but by themselves alone, issues even if developmental, will not win you seats, if you are brazen or modern enough to claim ignorance of the identity of your constituents or if you consider it not relevant. Cynical but this is my understanding of Indian politics and I think of it as the norm. We do have exceptions to this generalization. Biharis would point out that George Fernandes, an outsider and a Christian always won his elections from Muzaffarpur. People from other parts of the country would mention the exceptions (and there are quite a few) from their region. However, the norm remains extremely primordial in the fact that identities decide the winner.

The Department also organized a talk on the issues and players in the Sikkim Elections by a prominent journalist from Gangtok, Joseph Lepcha. Joseph's talk was bare and focussed, on the election arithmetic with percentage of votes and seats. He also briefly looked at the issues in the past, for instance, the de-merger demand of the Sikkim Sangram Parishad (SSP) led by Nar Bahadur Bhandari (now in Congress),the effect of the Mandal Commission report and the Income Tax issues. Personally, for me the talk was so good, with the numbers at the finger tips and the easy flagging of important issues that I was tempted to churn out a piece for some journal on the Sikkim election scene. But I resisted the immoral, self fish call. Since I am on this confessional mode, I ought to admit, that most of the information I have is due to the kind indulgence of two friends, one of who is the editor of the largest selling newspaper in Sikkim, and the other, a bureau chief for a Hindi Daily.

The ruling party is a regional outfit called the Sikkim Democratic Front (SDF). The SDF has been in government for three terms and the last 14 years and in my opinion, it appears likely that they will continue for the next five. But that is not the interesting part of the story, the more exciting part is the Congress Manifesto, but some background first. The Congress is led by a man called Nar Bahadur Bhandari (mentioned earlier), who was the Chief Minister of Sikkim for 14 years before SDF under Pawan Chamling formed the government. When in Darjeeling as a kid, I used to hear suspicious stuff about Bhandari, I do not recollect the details, but the things were not cheerful, it had that smell of bullying. I have faint recollections that the stories were disturbing. Bhandari is/was in the mould of the regional leaders of the Door Darshan-days, leaders who were brazen about power and used it like imagined Hindi film villains. Bhandari has been out of the government structure for a long time.

Sikkim is an organic state and grazing, felling of trees in forest areas are not permitted. The Sikkim State Congress's manifesto actually promises that fertilizers and pesticides will be distributed for free if the Congress is brought to power, it also promises free grazing everywhere and the felling of trees as also the development of saw mills to process the cut trees. I was shocked when I read this, after all this is the age of climate change, saving forests is of prime importance and global warming has also had its effect on Sikkim. On inquiring about the irrational promises, I was told that Bhandari's sole poll agenda is anti-Chamling and so he opposes everything the SDF government has followed and his explanation to the public is that new forests are generated every few years, so there are no problems in cutting them down! There is truth though in the matter that such steps taken by the SDF government did affect interests of the agricultural population but it seems oddly disturbing to actually turn the clock back on such a progressive state of affairs. But in many respects, such morbidity defines Bhandari, similar to perhaps, Mulayam Singh Yadav protesting in favour of students rights to use unfair means during examinations.

Rahul Gandhi was here in Gangtok lending support to Bhandari's campaign. He spoke for about eight minutes and in my view his description of the attributes of the 'North East' people were rather patronizing. Interestingly, Rahul also claimed that he was in Sikkim 18 years ago in the Sonam Gyatso Mountaineering Institute (SGMI) for over a month, for I think a rock/mountain climbing course. I was with Sikkim journalists who were just returning to the office after the public meeting at Paljor Stadium and with Varun Gandhi's (fake degrees from SOAS And LSE) in mind, I asked them to follow up, Gandhi's tryst with SGMI and check if his claims were legitimate.

I will perhaps follow this little introduction of Sikkim politics with another write up some time later about the community issues and the social engineering that keeps the SDF in power. It would suffice to say that, the Newar, Bahun and Chettri (NBC and Non Backward Castes) are the traditional support group behind Bhandari and the Congress while the Nepalese OBC castes are with Chamling and the SDF. In the SDF's kitty and essentially due to its conduct over the past 15 years is the confidence of the Bhutia-Lepcha (BL) group. As to how these and the other factors like money, individuals and the random factors work remains to be seen. I do hope I can do this before the election results in Sikkim are out and I am proven wrong, pre-election analysis, even if wrong, is an indulgence we all need.

But since, I am doing it, I will take it a little further and make some predictions. My hunch on the numbers is that out of the 32 assembly seats, at best, only 3-5 will fall in the Congress kitty, the rest would remain with SDF. I am marking out those seats for the Congress despite the fact that in the last Assembly SDF had the following numbers 31/32. Such numbers was due to the fact that a number of Congress candidates nomination papers were rejected in the 2004 elections. The other important issue to mention is that the SDF with its ticket distribution has effectively managed to blunt the anti-incumbency factor it could be facing. It did not give tickets to 21 of its sitting MLA's out of which 10 were ministers. Earth shaking for any party, anywhere in India but so far we see little or no discontent. This is undoubtedly due to Chamling's dominating leadership and the fact that he remains focussed on governance and the distribution of state benefits to a significantly larger section of the Sikkim population. It should also tell us something about Chamling's reputation and chances in the near future of Sikkim. And since the politician class is a wily lot and is prone to throwing its weight in whichever direction the wind blows, we can safely assume that, the wind is going to blow in the direction of the SDF. At the best of times, people during elections change parties in their search for tickets so my conjecture is that despite dropping 20 MLA's, if none have gone in search for another ticket, the results of the Sikkim elections, just requires intelligent guess work.

Staying with elections, psephologists, analysts and the insufferable TV herd is at it again, making predictions about who will form the next government in Delhi. I think everyone is certain that the Parliament is again heading towards a scenario in which no party will get enough seats to form the government on its own. The situation is even more lucrative for the TV clique, they can churn out millions of 30 second length stories, contradicting each other, about the 'king makers', who as the press continues in the same vein, wish to be Kings!

Mayawati is the flavor of the season. The adulation of Mayawati is centred on the imminence of her political party, the Bahujan Samaj Party(BSP) gaining in the North Indian belt at the expense of Pehalwan Mulayam's Samjwadi Party (SP) and the BJP. Thereby, holding the 'key' to who forms the next government at Delhi. Mukul Kesavan, in, Virago in Diamonds- Who’s afraid of Kumari Mayavati?, writes succinctly about the social attitudes to Mayawati. The Foreign Press also appears to be having a field day with Mayawati, Newsweek calls her India's Anti-Obama and WSJ titles its piece, Whose is afraid of Kumari Mayawati? (I am also wondering about the similar title in the Kesavan piece and the WSJ).

So the scenario is that we might have leaders of the regional parties, with only blinkered domestic agendas and no external experience or outlook, who are to perhaps come to power. Malvika Singh in her column Mala Fide, The Telegraph, 21st April 2009, suggests that the media, Should put them to Test Now, "Maybe the time is right for the anchor-persons to invite Mayavati and ask her how she would handle the havoc in Pakistan, how she plans to deal with the Taliban in the border, how she would work on the next phase of the nuclear deal with Barack Obama. India needs to know what its aspiring leaders are all about. Invite Mulayam Singh, Jayalalithaa, Nitish Kumar et al, get them out of their regional and local issues since they are desperately aspiring for the Dilli gaddi, and let us all hear their expositions on other — national and international — issues that plague the world — from global warming to terror. Parochial mindsets, limited passions, and predictable attitudes do not make national leaders. We have seen the rabblerousing skills on podiums, heard the hysterical rhetoric and hollow promises of a better life from all those who have been out of power. We must now hear them articulate their policy positions, then make our choice."