Friday, May 17, 2013

Reforming the Cockatoo Bureau of Investigation, aka CBI

Of all the acronyms that Indian public associate with investigation, CBI (Central Bureau of Investigation) is the most common. However, if its functioning is anything to go by, the motto ‘Industry, Impartiality, Integrity’ would be one of the longest-running jokes in the history of the country.

Over the decades, the agency that was originally established to tackle corruption and serious crimes meriting attention of the Central government has been turned into a tool of political coercion and vendetta. Any political leader, business house and organisation that fell foul of the ruling establishment have learned this the hard way.

Once the era of coalitions began at the Centre, the CBI has been used extensively for arm-twisting allies and opponents. There is hardly any major party that has not borne the brunt of this. One day you find the CBI filing cases, chargesheets and talking about ‘clinching evidence’ against a political leader, but once he/she yields to the demands of the Centre the process reverts to snail’s pace.

The investigative agency’s diligent efforts played a crucial role in the success of the ‘carrot and stick’ policy that has made Lalu Prasad Yadav of RJD, Mayawati of BSP, Jayalalithaa of AIADMK and Mulayam Singh Yadav of the SP die-hard supporters of the Congress-led government at the Centre.

“It’s not easy to fight with the government. It has a thousand hands and can use the CBI and put one in jail,” said Mulayam recently. A disproportionate assets case against him and his son has been under investigation by the CBI since 2007 — and he has been a loyal UPA fan ever since.

The exemption to the CBI from the Right to Information (RTI) Act has made it virtually impossible for any independent verification of the legality in its manner of functioning.

Angered by the CBI allowing the PMO and law ministry to make changes to its investigation report on the infamous ‘Coalgate’ scam, the Supreme Court admonished the country’s premier investigating agency for acting shamelessly as a ‘caged parrot’ that repeats after its master — the Central government.

At least two former CBI directors have conceded in interviews that the agency was subject to political influence. Former CBI chief Joginder Singh has gone on the record to say that he was forced out after refusing to be the government’s stick in the Fodder Scam. And the current chief Ranjit Sinha, too, has admitted that autonomy does not exist for the agency.

Embarrassed by the stinging observations of the Supreme Court, the government has formed a group of ministers (GoM) to draft a law to free the caged parrot. One can’t help but be cynical considering the huge number of GoMs and EGoMs and their dismal record of delivering the goods.

An investigating agency that can function independent of political control is the need of the hour.
Unless the Aegean Stables of the CBI is not cleansed of the political filth accumulated over the decades, there is no hope for this country.

(This article was published as the editorial column in Postnoon on May 15, 2013.)

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Cowering kitty, roaring dragon

The ghosts of 1962 are back. With China’s People’s Liberation Army entering and digging in almost 20 km inside Indian territory, our reaction shows that not much has changed despite in 50 years despite our tall claims of packing enough deterrent military punch.

If then it was a myopic Jawaharlal Nehru with his utopian ‘Hindi-Chini Bhai-Bhai’ trust in the aggressively expanding giant neighbour, now it is another statesman prime minister, Manmohan Singh, and his team who have been caught off guard by the Chinese military manoeuvre.

At the time of India’s second round of nuclear tests, the then defence minister George Fernandes had rather undiplomatically, but candidly, said that the nukes were aimed at the country’s most dangerous enemy — China.

With the establishment touting India’s nuclear arsenal and long range missiles, the public may feel the country has enough capability to stop any Chinese adventurism. However, even a quick scan of last decade’s news reports on military preparedness would show that such an impression is merely an illusion.

The armed forces are woefully short of officers and low on morale due to unending line of massive corruption cases involving top level officers. The army is under-equipped and lacks modern artillery pieces and equipment for high-altitude warfare. If former army chief VK Singh’s letter to the government is anything to go by, there isn’t enough ammunition to fight a war.

The navy too doesn’t fare much better. Half of its ageing submarine fleet is always under repair and the relic of an aircraft carrier is virtually kept afloat by faith — on rare occasions when it hits the blue waters between ‘refurbishments, upgrades, repairs and improvements'.

Though Su-30 MKIs and Jaguars add some punch to the air force, lack of infrastructure and adequately protected bases near the border reduce them to defensive roles. The Chinese side is well connected by high-quality road networks, and their air-defence capabilities are nearly impenetrable to the rest of the fleet.

So, with military action guaranteed to deliver another round of humiliation, India is at an unenviable position where it will have to lap up whatever breadcrumbs the Chinese will throw at it and walk away.

What is deplorable is that successive governments and military bosses have dragged their feet on achieving minimum deterrence capability and 50 years after the humiliation of 1962, we are pretty much in the same position.

The reactions of our government are palpably weak-willed, divided and confused — and it is obvious to any keen observer that it is dealing from a position of weakness and hoping for a face-saver rather than problem-solver.

In China, a new leadership has taken over. They would use this crisis to improve their domestic standing and to curry favour with the military. This incursion tactic is also a not-so-subtle message to India that its newfound bonhomie with China’s ‘hostile’ neighbours such as Vietnam, South Korea, Philippines and Japan, and of course, the United States, will have serious repercussions.

Tiger can take on the dragon. However, what we have now is a kitten, whose feeding bowl says ‘Tiger’. Tough luck boys, try better next time.

(This article was published as the editorial column in Postnoon on May 1, 2013.)

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Sexual predators have our support — mindsets matter

The Lok Sabha has given its approval to the Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill, 2013 that prescribes stringent punishment to sex offenders; however, the voices of prominent parliamentarians show how the mindsets have hardly changed.

JD(U) leader Sharad Yadav’s ‘humorous’ reminder, “Who among us have not followed girls,” may have evoked peels of laughter in the House, but there is nothing funny about it. Even while passing a law to protect women, he has indirectly supported stalking.

I am sure thousands of women across the country who are stalked do not agree with the JD(U) leader. There are frequent reports of stalkers attacking women for spurning their advances or refusing proposals of marriage. May be the likes of Sharad Yadav should see the faces of those women disfigured in acid attacks by jilted Romeos before coming up with these funny one-liners.

Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav was also equally worried about the law being misused or abused to settle personal scores. He also fears that co-education will have to be abolished to protect boys from legal trouble. SP parliamentarian Shailendra Kumar expressed his worries about the provocative dressing of female actors in television serials and movies.
For all the thunder over the ‘controversial’ law, hardly one-third of the members were present in the House.

If these satraps think that the good old way of life should continue, they are also supporting institutions like khap panchayats that order physical and sexual abuse of women as modes of punishment. The recent incident of Punjab cops thrashing a woman who approached them to complain about eve-teasers speaks volumes about what is ailing our system.

Every time there is a sexual assault, cops, politicians and ‘spiritual leaders’ don’t waste time in blaming the victim. How can there be any hope for women of this country when those in charge of creating and maintaining the machinery that is supposed to protect have a mindset that approves and justifies the actions of the perpetrators of sexual violence?

In this great land (Bharat included), assault on women start from the foetal stage itself. If she survives sex determination and selective abortion centres, she enters a world where predators don’t differentiate between children and adults. Throughout her life she is forced to restrict her freedoms for fear of sexual assaults. With every incident of reported sexual violence, her movements are further restricted and this, in turn, curtails her opportunities and makes her more dependent on the patriarchal male (father/brother/husband/son).

No matter how many laws we make, unless we are willing to change our mindset about the inalienable rights of our women, they will never fulfil their objectives.

(This article was published as the editorial column in Postnoon on March 20, 2013.)

Friday, March 15, 2013

We can’t bank on their honesty

The CobraPost expose of open money laundering done by three top private sector banks (ICICI, HDFC and Axis Bank) has caught everyone off guard. The finance minister immediately came out with a statement that two of the three bosses have ‘assured’ him that their organisations weren’t running any such operation.

May be the nation should believe him and stomach the assurances on faith. However, anyone with the most miniscule of common sense would know that so many executives won’t go on maverick missions without clearance from their bosses. The extent of knowledge and expertise that has gone into creating these ‘schemes’ for money laundering show that these aren’t overnight developments.

Years of planning and organisation have gone into it. Next time those private bank bosses flaunt their success statistics we know where the ‘critical inputs’ come from. This is a wake-up call for the government, banking sector regulators, law enforcement agencies and the nation.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Pak bad, Uddhav good for Ajmer Shrine Diwan?

As a reward to his ‘patriotic’ boycott of visiting Pakistan Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf, a Shiv Sena delegation honoured Ajmer Dargah diwan Zainul Abedin Ali Khan. After receiving a sword and a shawl as token of respect, the holy man reportedly spoke to Uddhav Thackeray on phone and invited him to the Dargah.

What puzzles me is that someone who claimed moral high ground to protest a single atrocity of Pakistan has no qualms in hobnobbing with a right-wing outfit that has used hatred and violence throughout its growth. Wonder what migrants from his state who were beaten up by Shiv Sena, and later MNS, goons for hurting job prospects of Marathi manoos.

Uddhav-Diwan bonhomie brings up some disturbing examples of politics of religion.

It is an open secret that several human gods and goddesses and their ‘charitable’ business are the biggest centres of money laundering. There have been several incidents of powerful godmen, who ran their empires for decades with total impunity from laws of the land, suddenly becoming targets for criminal investigations when they fall out with their political benefactors.

People who issues fatwas at the drop of a hat and instigate mobs to burn vehicles for insult to their religion in the US maintain deafening silence of barbaric social evils prevalent in the community under the guise of personal law — abuse of women being the most prominent. However, they find friends in politicians of all hues who endorse their ‘leadership’ in return for en masse votes.

Then there are the self-proclaimed ‘super patriots’ who will drive master artists to exile for insulting gods by making their nude paintings. No... they are not aware of thousands of sculptures that have been in existence for centuries that show gods in the nude. Their splinter organisations disrupt fashion shows for denigrating women by parading them in skimpy clothes. However, when it comes to dealing with sexual violence against women, they go into denial mode. 

Oops... my bad. The RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat did say rapes occur in the country. Rapes take place in India and not in Bharat, the saffron knight said. May be the rapes that take place in villages are part of an ISI conspiracy.

Our leaders were ‘shocked and outraged’ when Yasin Malik shared dais with Hafiz Sayeed in Pakistan, but why is there no similar anger or reaction when Sikh terrorists are conferred honours and declared martyrs by top religious bodies. Beant Singh’s killers have been on the death row for ever now but we don’t see any hurried hush-hush hanging.

To conclude let’s go to, ironically, God’s Own Country. A prominent Christian denomination’s top leader couldn’t stop speaking out in support of PJ Kurien, who is in the eye of a storm over the latest revelations by the Suryanelli rape case victim. There were also media reports of the victim’s church asking the family to stop coming to the church. Kerala’s swearing-by-god Congress and swearing-by-Marx CPI(M) try to outdo each other in pleasing religious leaders to secure vote banks.

We might call ourselves secular and democratic in the Constitution’s preamble. However, the toxic cocktail of politics and religion has reduced adherence to its principles to mere lip service, and we stand failed as a nation.

(This article was published as the editorial column in Postnoon on March 13, 2013.)

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

AFSPA: Sharmila’s chains shackle our conscience

What happens when the State, that is duty-bound to provide justice to its people, turns oppressor? None would know better than Manipur’s Irom Chanu Sharmila who has been on a fast for the last 12 years demanding repeal of Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) that provides unfettered power for the military in “disturbed areas”.

Irom Sharmila is not the first person in the country to go on an indefinite fast for a cause. While the country was outraged by a two-week fast by Anna Hazare, the silent battle of this lionheart has barely found any comparable reactions.

In addition to the virtual house arrest, crippling restrictions, intrusive monitoring and forced nasal feeding, Sharmila is forced to go through the charade of “annual booking” under IPC Section 309 — for attempting to commit suicide.

While appearing before a Delhi Court, where charges under this section have been framed against her, Sharmila said, “I do not want to commit suicide. Mine is only a non-violent protest. It is my demand to live as a human being.” Now, is that too much for an Indian citizen to ask for?
In 2004, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said the Centre would “sympathetically consider” arguments against AFSPA and appointed a committee headed by Justice Jeevan Reddy to submit a report on feasibility of replacing it by a “more humane Act.” The panel submitted its report in mid-2005 — one guesses that even after eight years the proposals are being ‘sympathetically considered’.

The military is vociferous in its defence of AFSPA, saying that lack of immunity from prosecution will blunt its operational edge in battling militancy. According to provisions of AFSPA, military personnel cannot be prosecuted for their actions in a disturbed area that requires implementation of AFSPA. The Central government, which takes a call on declaring an area requiring operation of AFSPA, cannot be challenged on its judgement in a court of law.

However, it is opposed by civil society organisations and human rights groups as it is allegedly abused for torture, ‘disappearances’ and fake ‘encounter’ killings. Literally every international organisation that is working in the area of human rights, including the United Nations, have criticised the AFSPA and has called for its removal.

In March 2012, UN Special Rapporteur Cristof Heyns, after a 12-day fact-finding mission in the disturbed areas, concluded that ASPA is a symbol of excessive state power and “has no role to play in a democracy”. Here, it would be noteworthy to mention that India has NOT ratified the UN Convention Against Torture and the International Convention for the Protection of All persons from Enforced Disappearance.

There is no doubting that military needs special legal provisions/concessions to act effectively against militancy/terrorism, but these should come along with safeguards that provide credible accountability.

Numerous examples in history illustrate clearly that alienation of local population never helped any military campaign. The security forces should be trained not only in tactics but also in sensitivity. Those who abuse their immunity should be severely punished via internal disciplinary procedures. Unless faith of people is restored through effective and meaningful measures, AFSPA will continue to be a fountainhead for militancy and a blot on our commitment to enforcement of universal human rights.

Irom Sharmila can be shackled, but her ideas can’t be. Let not shrill calls of jingoism drown out the screams of our own.

(This article was published as the editorial column in Postnoon on March 6, 2013.)

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Sethusamudram Project: Reason should reign over religion

The proposed Sethusamudram project is back in the eye of the storm after its opponents have gone ballistic in their objection, with the issue rocking the Parliament.

The BJP is leading the charge on behalf of various Hindu groups who claim that the submerged land formation is what’s left of the bridge built under the supervision of Lord Ram to facilitate his invasion of Lanka. The saffron brigade is stubborn in its stand that damage to the ‘holy’ bridge is unacceptable, and their credo has backers in legal luminaries like Subramanian Swami — who are capable of keeping the project tangled in judicial knots forever.

The project faces stiff opposition from local fishing community, who say the present alignment would destroy marine life and corals. There are also concerns raised by some experts about creating an artificial breach in a natural barrier capable of buffering tsunami waves, thereby preventing extensive damage to the entire southern coast.

A government-appointed committee headed by Rajendra K Pachauri recently released its report terming the proposed project unviable from ecological and economic aspects — but the Centre has decided to reject it and go ahead.

Some say Sethusamudram Canal will provide India with the benefits akin to those provided by Panama Canal or Suez Canal — though the reality is that neither the distance reduced, amount of traffic, nor time saved is anywhere in that scale. It must also be noted that the 12 metre-deep channel cannot be used by ships above 30,000 tonnes. This would rule out most big container ships, let alone massive crude carriers. And when one considers the massive dredging costs, part of which will be recurring, things look less promising.

However, some are of the opinion that the advantage of reduced distance is dwarfed by strategic concerns. It would ensure better security for cargo and more effective monitoring by security agencies. The added benefit would be that smaller ports in Kerala and Tamil Nadu will see more business, and in turn, revenues.

In 2007, after filing an affidavit in the Supreme Court, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) came under heavy criticism for questioning the authenticity of Ram-built-it-theory. The officials, rather candidly, pointed out that mythology cannot be the basis of government policy. All hell broke loose in the land of the holy cow: the officials were suspended, ‘objectionable’ passages removed and the then law minister HR Bharadwaj smoothened ruffled feathers by accepting the historical and cultural relevance of Ram.

We have the dubious distinction of the highest level of judiciary entertaining cases where God is made a party... such periods in Europe are now known as Dark Ages.

Since we are a nation where people take offence at the drop of the hat, the mythological angle should be left out in the case of Sethusamudram project. Hardly any opinion can be made on any topic under the sun without offending someone or the other. And soon cases will follow for “offending the sentiments” of X community, Y caste, Z interest group and XYZ people who want their 15 minutes of fame by getting their names published in news reports for filing cases.

Allowing development issues to be hijacked by political and communal elements with vested interests would not only create divisions, but also open floodgates of questionable methods to stall anything and everything.

Reason, and not religion, alone should decide public policy.

(This article was published as the editorial column in Postnoon on February 27, 2013.)