Monday, June 24, 2013

Britain admits torture in Kenya,but no one talks of it in India

In our pre-occupation with petty politics -- like history's most pointless cabinet reshuffle -- we fail to notice the significance of some breakthrough developments around us. How many of us notice that Istanbul is not Cairo, or that Britain has done something astonishing by admitting that it used torture as policy in at least one of its colonies?

The citizens' protest in Turkey is nothing at all like the Arab Spring in Egypt which, ultimately, helped only the resurgence of political Islam, not the democracy the Tahrir Square movement was all about. The Turkey uprising is against the newfound authoritarianism of a once popular leader who was elected Prime Minister thrice in succession. It is a reassertion of liberal democracy, people saying that even a Prime Minister who took the country forward economically and strategically cannot be allowed to turn arrogant and dismissive of public opinion.

In Brazil food prices reached all-time highs while public services all but collapsed with medical costs in particular rising beyond acceptable limits. The misery caused by these reached ignition point when the Government began spending massively on preparations for the World Cup football. Even the heroes of the game came out in support of the protesting public.

Historically it is the unexpected turn of events in Britain that must engage our attention. Macaulay's country taught us that British imperialism was a civilising exercise that gave Shakespeare and the criminal procedure code to the natives with equal generosity. That picture changed for ever when the London High Court recently ruled in favour of Kenyans imprisoned during the 1950s Mau Mau rebellion and, even more significantly, when the British Government agreed to pay a compensation of £ 2670 to each of 5228 Kenyans who had complained of being tortured in jail.

The case turned against the Government when some 1500 secret files became public. They showed that torture was routinely used in Kenyan jails and that the decisions were taken by the Governor himself with authorisation by the British cabinet. These records were kept for future historians to unearth. Obviously there were British officials at the lower levels who did not like what they were ordered to do and wanted researchers of the future to discover that torture orders came from the very top.

That was precisely what conscience-stricken Americans did during the Vietnam war, the Pentagon Papers being the most famous of the revealed secrets of the time. Isn't that what WikiLeaks did, too, and also the new braveheart, Edward Snowden who revealed American internet spying secrets and is now hunted by the intolerant US system? America institutionalised torture in the Guantanemo prison camp. The CIA even invented a system called "extraordinary rendition" which simply meant outsourcing torture. At least 54 countries carried out procedures too brutal to be done on US soil -- or presumed to be so.

If the law the London Court upheld in the Mau Mau case were to be applied evenly, Henry Kissinger would have to meet the punishment due to a war criminal for ordering, among other things, saturation bombing of Cambodia which was then a neutral country. Ditto with George Bush for invading Iraq on the basis of a lie -- that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. But the world is so wired that war criminals of some countries stay above the law.

Kenya was no isolated case. At least two cases of British atrocities against freedom fighters in their colonies have become notorious -- the Batang Kali massacre of Malays in 1948 and the wholesale butchering of Yemenis in Aden in 1965.

There must be many cases in India similar to these; remember the "Moplah rebellion" in which soldiers stuffed natives into railway wagons to be suffocated to death. But no one has filed cases and no historian has unearthed incriminating files. It was a bold move when British Prime Minister Cameron visited Jallianwala Bagh some months ago. But compensation? Forget it. He even refused to apologise, merely expressing "regret for the loss of lives". Perhaps the greatest legacy of colonialism is outrage against the moral law.

Monday, June 17, 2013

London's speeding Minister is jailed; Our speeding MLA beats the cop

Ours is the only democracy in the world where people's representatives can commit crimes and still walk around with their heads held high as people's representatives. Sure, a few Suresh Kalmadis and A. Rajas have recently seen the insides of jails. But the notion that people's representatives are above the law remains firmly entrenched. The "I-have-done-no-wrong" statements issued by the recently sacked Ashwini Kumar and Bansal are the passwords of the corrupt.

Elsewhere Presidents and Prime Ministers pay dearly for their crimes. Look at what happened in the country with which we have the closest soul links, Italy. Silvio Berlusconi, fresh out of the Prime Minister's office, was sentenced last month to four years in jail. Ravishing under-aged girls was the least important of the charges against him. The ones that weighed more heavily were tax fraud, bribing lawyers and breaching confidentiality.

In Israel, a man who was President from 2000 to 2007, Moshe Katsav, was given a 7-year jail sentence for raping a woman and molesting two others who worked for him. Confirming a lower court verdict, Israel's Supreme Court said, "It is hard to see someone who served as an official symbol of the state going to jail". But to jail he went.

We have had no President or Prime Minister who violated under-aged girls, at least not as far as we know. But we have had senior ministers who "forgot" to pay income tax for decades, and who breached confidentiality to help foreign intelligence agencies. Not only did nothing happen to them; they remained venerated leaders.

The Philippines had a matinee idol, Joseph Estrada, as President. Philippine Presidents exercise power, like American Presidents, and Estrada took off like the hero of an action thriller, treating the whole country like a wild-west movie set. Half way through his term, he was forced out of office and into jail for corruption. The most serious of eight charges filed against him was "plunder". Another President, Gloria Macapagal, was also arrested, first for election fraud and a second time for "plunder".

In fact, some Asian countries whose democratic credentials we do not recognise have a better record than us about holding their leaders accountable. Taiwan's President, Chen Shui-bian was jailed in 2009 for corruption. Two years later he was given an extra term of nearly three years for forgery and money-laundering. Similar things have happened in South Korea. In Thailand Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra had to flee to avoid a jail sentence. He is still staying away although his sister Yingluck is the current Prime Minister.

War crimes are an altogether different-game where punishment is selective. Recently Guatemala's ex-dictator Efrain Montt was sentenced to 80 years in prison, primarily for the genocide of Mayan people. Last year Liberia's ex-president Charles Taylor was given 50 years in jail for war crimes.

The biggest war crimes of our age were committed by Kissinger-Nixon in Cambodia/Vietnam and Cheney-Bush in Iraq. But they will never be hauled up before any court -- the privilege of superpowers. We should look not at the US but at Britain if we want an object lesson in democracy.

Jonathan Aitken, a Conservative Party minister was imprisoned in 1999, and Conservative Deputy Chairman Jeffrey Archer in 2001 for perjury, violating an oath. Chris Huhne who was Energy Minister in the current coalition Government was caught speeding in 2003. He told the police officer that his wife Vicky was driving. This helped him escape a driving ban, but the wife had penalty points entered in her driving licence. Eight years later Huhne abandoned his wife for another woman. Vicky took revenge by revealing that he had lied to the police about the over-speeding. The case was re-opened and both were sent to jail for "joint offence". Huhne's party is still in office, but he resigned from parliament in disgrace.

Compare this with the police officer who booked a Mumbai MLA for speeding. He, the policeman, was suspended, then called to the legislative assembly and beaten up there by a gang of MLAs. In India people's representatives are a shame.

Monday, June 10, 2013

From the Western Ghats to the Andamans, we're playing a greedy, losing game

Prepare to lose not only our mountain-protected west coast but also the Andamans. Not because of terrorists or China, but because the greed of our politicians and business lobbies will make them go under the sea. So reckless is the exploitation of these regions that we can already see signs of the ultimate catastrophe taking shape.

The Western Ghats is the water source of the south, the Himalayas of the south. If there are no Himalayas, there will be no Ganga, and if there is no Ganga, there will be no Gangetic plane and no human settlements from Haridwar to Kolkata. Similarly, if there are no Western Ghats, there will not be any of the great rivers of the south or the rains that sustain coastal Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka and Kerala.

Irresponsible handling of these life-giving natural resources became a scandal in Maharashtra recently because unprecedented drought conditions and farmer suicides drew attention to Irrigation Minister Ajit Pawar's shenanigans. The tragedy was handled politically and the chapter closed with a "clean chit" to the Minister. But the tragedy on the ground continued because Pawar remained unrepentant and unreformed.

Warning signals from Kerala are worse. Last December, for the first time in history, all the districts of the state were declared drought-affected. Previously drought was experienced only in one or two districts and only once in a decade. Perhaps the warning signals were heard in the proper quarters. Delhi appointed a team headed by Madhav Gadgil to study the Western Ghats from the sustainability angle.

India's most authoritative ecological scientist, Gadgil proposed a series of protection plans including a ban on big construction projects like dams. Immediately vested interests rose in revolt. Delhi quickly appointed a new committee under former ISRO chief Kasturi Rangan. No ecologist, the career physicist gave the Government what it wanted: A report rejecting most of Gadgil's recommendations. Now there can be more destruction of forests, of rivers (by the sand mafia) and of paddy fields (by the real estate mafia). Stretches of the coast are already going under the Arabian Sea's angry waters every year.

The Andaman Sea is angrier than the Arabian Sea. Its remoteness from the mainland -- it is beyond the range of even our fierce television anchors -- has for long allowed government leaders to exploit the Andamans with impunity. Whole forests have been felled to feed plywood mills. Copper and chromite quarrying have left stretches of land looking like craters.

Coal allocations by Delhi's mandarins became a big scandal because the media followed the story. In Andamans the arbitrariness of the authorities was worse, but no one -- except those in the islands -- became aware of it. Last December 38 quarry sites were auctioned off. Not only was "auctioning" something new; it was done in secrecy. The rewards that went into private pockets can be imagined. Even imagination will fail if we try to go into the details of the concessions and facilities given by the authorities to the quarry lobby. Andamans is on the way to becoming, like Goa and Bellary, a hole in the ground.

The sea is watching. Andaman beaches, famous once for its clear blue waters, are now toxic. In the most popular areas swimmers feel itchiness, burning eyes and sliminess on the skin. The rubbish from Port Blair is haphazardly dumped near a beachside site from where poisonous chemical fumes spread and solid waste quickly turn harmful. Some of the major quarries are also along the seafront. Only a rock wall left by the quarriers stand between the sea and the hollowed land. If the quarrying picks up as a result of the recent "green signal" or if a tidal surge comes, the sea will devour the land.

What's puzzling is the attitude of our politicians. After all, they make money for the next five and ten generations of their families. Shouldn't they also preserve the land for all those generations to enjoy? What's the use of all the money if the country disappears? Politicians are a mystery inside an enigma.

Monday, June 3, 2013

When fools still pay to watch cricket, it is time to dream of mosquitoes

Most of us will dismiss it as wild imagination if someone said that the ongoing cricket scandal was unleashed to save Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh from embarrassment. True, the Ashwini Kumar/Pavan Bansal disgrace had brought the trail of corruption to the doorstep of the Prime Minister, from where the doorstep of the Congress boss was not far. But now no one talks about the coal scandal or the Italian helicopter deal. All talk is about Srinivasan and Meiyappan, Sreesanth and cheer girls.

Does burying one scandal with another make any difference to us, the battered millions of this ancient land? Is there a difference between getting defrauded by politicians in the morning and by sports people in the evening? One way to answer that question is by asking another: Is there a difference between gang-rape in a taxi and gang-rape in a bus? The truth is that citizens are abused and exploited by everyone in a position to do so.

It's all about getting rich. Politicians become rich by robbing people, cricket becomes rich by cheating fans. When robbers joined cheats, cricket turned evil. This happened well before Cement Srinivasan became the Master of the Mess. Even those who engaged in blood feuds in Parliament became soul brothers in cricket's boardrooms. If the Congress, the BJP and the NCP could show in running the country half the cooperation they show in running cricket, our country would have been a happier place.

Actually they cooperate in cricket to milk the country. Their combined influence has kept the BCCI beyond routine laws such as the Right to Information. The richest club in the world, it gets largesse, exemptions and concessions at the expense of tax payers. All for what? To invent aberrations like Cheer Girls' Cricket and Fixers' Cricket? The chief inventor of this travesty of sport can't even live in the country because he would be jailed. They are the clever ones. The fools are those who still buy tickets to watch this insult.

Don't let the argumentative Indian tell you that you can't blame cricket as a whole for the transgressions of a few. Of course you can. The intransigent Srinivasan represented cricket as a whole, as did the steamrolling Sharad Pawar before him, and the cronies-first Jagmohan Dalmia before him. The great stars of old times who now bask in the BCCI sun without uttering a syllable symbolise cricket as a whole. So do the shining stars of today. The man who is dubbed God kept silent for two tumultuous weeks. The man who deserves to be dubbed Captain Cement is still silent, while pretending otherwise.

Those of us who look for a way out look in vain. For, ousting cement will solve nothing; sugar will take the spot, or jute, or politics. So, all we can do is dream -- of cricket getting banned, of politicians becoming decent. Why not dream of the lot becoming mosquitoes? Researchers are developing strategies to destroy the "notoriously keen sense of smell" of mosquitoes. If the magnetic pull of money, no less notorious, can similarly be destroyed, our country may be saved.

Mosquitoes teach us about parasitism, a phenomenon that afflicts everything from cricket to governance. Scientists tell us how parasites an also be parasitised. "A protozoan living in the digestive tract of a flea living on a dog is a hyperparasite". It is easier in public life. A protozoan party worker does not have to go inside the digestive tract of an MLA to live off him in hyperparasitism.

Cuckoos don't build their own nests, preferring to deposit them in the nests of other birds for hatching. This is called "brood parasitism", a familiar feature of politics. Yeddyurappa deposited his BJP eggs in Kumaraswamy's JD (S) and, after hatching, took his brood and flew away. There is also "social parasitism" where one species exploits another -- like bureaucrats fattening themselves on ministers and ministers returning the compliment, both species living happily ever after.

Moral of the story: Only science fiction holds any hope for our money-crazy, cricket-crazy land of crazy politics.