Friday, February 22, 2013

Analysis: Hyderabad bombings raise specter of Hindu-Muslim violence

With elections approaching, terror attack could lay foundations for riots.
By Jason Overdorf
(GlobalPost - February 22, 2013)
NEW DELHI, India — Almost as soon as the bombs ripped through a crowded Hyderabad street on Thursday, fingers started pointing at Pakistan. 
Given the recent execution by Indian authorities of Kashmiri militant Mohammed Afzal Guru, many assumed a Pakistan-based terror outfit like Lashkar e Toiba was seeking revenge. Many braced for heightened cross-border tensions.
But, some say, the real fallout may be new conflict between Hindus and Muslims within India, rather than a further deterioration of New Delhi's relations with Islamabad, especially with 2014 national elections looming.
“Investigations have just begun,” said Hashmi, “but the media is already saying it is the [Lashkar e Toiba-backed] Indian Mujahideen, and taking all these names."
"There's almost an atmosphere of terror where Muslims live together. Nobody knows whose son will be picked up for this.”
Crackdowns on young Muslims in the wake of 2007 bombings that struck the Mecca Masjid mosque in Hyderabad have left the minority population angry and suspicious of the government.
Neither the November 2008 terrorist attacks on Mumbai nor subsequent incidents like the August 2012 bombings in a shopping center in Pune, Maharashtra, or the September 2011 bombing of the Delhi High Court have triggered Hindu-Muslim riots.
But some observers fear that such a backlash grows more likely as 2014 national elections get closer, since Indian politicians have long used interreligious violence to win votes. Most famously, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) first rose to national power in the wake of Hindu-Muslim violence over the destruction of the Babri mosque in 1992.
“None of those guilty of communal violence have ever been punished," said Manisha Sethi, president of the Jamia Teachers’ Solidarity Association (JTSA).
"There is a general systemic tolerance of crimes of communal violence and this impunity creates possibilities of further violence.”
In the leadup to Thursday's blasts, Hyderabad had been aboil over hate speech by Muslim politician Akbaruddin Owaisi of the Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (MIM). Released on bail on Friday, Owaisi allegedly sparked outrage by suggesting at a rally that Muslims should attack Hindus, though he has denied those charges.
Subsequently, Pravin Togadia of the far-right Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) retaliated with some inflammatory comments of his own, bringing the issue to national prominence and further alienating the Muslim population.
And there are countless disputes over religious sites in the offing in other locations like the Kamal Maula Masjid in Madhya Pradesh, where Hindu extremists claim that a Hindu center of learning once stood, and the Bhagyalakshmi temple, which is located in the Muslim area of Hyderabad and which some claim threatens the city's most famous historical site, the(Muslim) Charminar.
Activists who work on behalf of India's Muslims worry these developments could spell danger for the minority group in the leadup to polls — especially following the bombings in Hyderabad on Thursday.
“There have been several low intensity riots at least since last year across the country,” said Sethi.
“This will certainly only rise in the run up to 2014, as both BJP and Congress compete for the right wing space.”
Already, more lives were lost to interreligious riots in 2012 than in any year since 2004, when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh came to power, according to India's Hindustan Times newspaper. Nearly 185 people were killed in so-called communal violence over the first 10 months of last year for which statistics are available.
Sethi, Hashmi and others suggest that most of these incidents are not spontaneous eruptions of anger, but orchestrated by right wing political groups like the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).
Those charges have not been proven, and RSS national spokesman Ram Madhav categorically denied that the organization encourages violence of any kind.
“Allegations of Sangh groups trying to stir up communal tensions are false and [politically] motivated,” Madhav told GlobalPost via email. “We appeal for calm and we want [the government] to act tough with terrorists and their sponsors.”
But whether orchestrated or spontaneous, a series of terrorist incidents, violent altercations and police reprisals hints at a disturbing disintegration of religious harmony in India.
Over the past several months small-scale riots have flared up across India in Faizabad and Kosi in Uttar Pradesh, Gopalgarh in Rajasthan and Dhule in Maharashtra — with the last incident generating disturbing video evidence suggesting that police may have purposefully targeted Muslims when bullets were fired to disperse the rioters.
Meanwhile, from Delhi to Hyderabad, local Muslims and activist groups say police have arbitrarily rounded up, detained and even tortured young Muslims in the wake of bombings or terrorist threats, resulting in the further alienation and demonization of the community.
A report by Sethi's JTSA, for instance, documented 16 cases in which the so-called Special Cell of the Delhi police arrested young Muslims on charges related to terrorism, only to see the cases against them collapse for want of evidence — after the accused had spent as much as 14 years behind bars.
Similarly, doubts still linger about the killing of two young Muslims in a supposed shootout with police in the “Batla House encounter” following five serial bomb blasts in New Delhi in in 2008.
And in Hyderabad itself, blame for the 2007 Mecca mosque bombing, which killed 14 people, shifted from local Muslim boys allegedly affiliated with a foreign terrorist cell to members of a homegrown, Hindu nationalist group called Abhinav Bharat when a former RSS activist named Swami Asseemanand allegedly confessed to the crime. (He later recanted).
“We consider the allegations as baseless,” said RSS spokesman Madhav. “All the cases are still at the investigation level. Initially more than 100 Muslim youths were arrested for the terror acts. They had confessed to their involvement too. But later the investigators started claiming that Hindu youths were responsible.... The RSS neither supports, nor sponsors violence and terrorism.”
But the idea that both Hindu and Muslim groups might gain from terrorist attacks — and from the associated intercommunity tensions and violence they engender — could bode ill for next year's campaign.
“The point is that any such strike only allows the cementing of a jingoistic hardline ‘nationalism’,” said Sethi. “It’s anybody’s guess who this helps.”

Thursday, February 14, 2013

India: 'Love Commandos' fight back against honor killings

As inter-caste 'love marriages' become increasingly common, a Guardian Angels-style vigilante group has emerged to protect young couples.
By Jason Overdorf
(GlobalPost - February 14, 2013)

NEW DELHI, India — Forbidden love is blooming in India. But so is war. And the“Love Commandos” are fighting on the front lines.
“Today, on our heads there is a bounty of around 20 lakh rupees [$40,000] from different khap panchayats,” said Love Commandos' founder Sanjoy Sachdeva, referring to the illegal village councils that are notorious for sanctioning the so-called “honor killings” of young couples who violate social taboos to marry across caste lines.
He's not exaggerating. Young Indians are fast adopting Western lifestyles. But as the parallel forces of affirmative action and women's empowerment increasingly bring young people from different castes and religious backgrounds together in colleges and call centers, defying the country's centuries-old tradition of arranged marriages can get you tortured, arrested, or even killed.
Official statistics aren't available. But Shakti Vahini, a non-profit, documented 560 such cases across India between 2007 and 2010. And other experts have estimated that at least 1,000 honor killings take place in India every year.
That's where Sachdeva's “Love Commandos” come in.
Started in 2010, the Love Commandos rescue and shelter young couples who face threats from their families because they've chosen to defy barriers of caste and religion for the sake of love.
Operating a help line, secret shelters, and a kind of underground railroad for India's Romeos and Juliets, the Love Commandos rescue and protect couples from their parents, the police and, all too often, the courts — as filing false cases of kidnapping and abduction and even rape is one of the angry parents' first responses to forbidden love.
Fielding an average of 300 calls a day, so far, the group has helped as many as 30,000 couples to marry.
“It is a war against fundamentalists,” said Sachdeva. “It is a war against orthodox people — whether they are Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians or of any other religion. No religion preaches to hate love.”
Take 28-year-old Rahul Acharya and 23-year-old Puja Singh — a couple opposed by their parents because Acharya belongs to the priestly Brahmin caste and Singh the warrior Rajput caste.
After meeting Singh at a wedding in Kolkata, where her family lives, Acharya returned to his life in Mumbai. But the couple maintained a long-distance love affair in secret, on Facebook and their cellphones.
When Rahul eventually proposed, however, Singh's parents took away her phone, banned her from the computer, and put her under house arrest. For six months, with the help of another cellphone smuggled to Singh by a friend, the couple planned their escape.
But the family never let Singh out of the house alone. Finally, when she took her younger brother to his after-school tutor, she saw her chance. As soon as the boy was inside studying, she called Acharya and the two of them hopped on a plane to New Delhi — where Sachdeva's Love Commandos immediately secreted them away in one of the outfit's seven shelters.
Singh's father, an important businessman in Kolkata, immediately filed charges of kidnapping and abduction, and soon flew to Mumbai with the Kolkata police to visit the bank where Acharya was working. All they knew was that he'd taken his vacation days.
But the visit soured them on their romantic employee — even if the three months he's spent in hiding in Delhi might not have. And his job prospects will no doubt dim somewhat without the network of family connections that usually help middle-class Indians get ahead.
“We got married on Nov. 26 and sent an intimation to the police and our parents that if any cases are there against us, they are to be closed,” said Acharya. “But the [charges] are still there.”
“I will try to convince the rest of my family to accept him,” said Singh. “But my father will never come around.”
Married life so far has been tough. The shelter where Acharya and Singh have spent their honeymoon is little more than a concrete cell atop the Love Commandos' headquarters in a crowded Delhi slum. They have no income, and no money to spend, and even if they did, they're not allowed to leave the shelter unescorted — for fear that Singh may be snatched back by someone hired by her father or that Acharya may be nabbed by the police for the kidnapping case against him.
“It's just like a prison,” said Acharya. “The only difference is that it's for our security.”
Not every Romeo is so lucky. Or so courageous. Consider a story from the city of Agra, Uttar Pradesh — home to the Taj Mahal, sometimes called the world's greatest monument to love.
When another young woman staying at the Love Commandos shelter, 23-year-old Archana, fell in love with a young man from a lower caste, her mother and four brothers allegedly tied her to the bed and beat her with a curtain rod until it broke — then folded the two pieces in half and beat her some more.
They then kept her prisoner from March to September 2012, she claims, bribing police sent to investigate a claim that her boyfriend lodged with the National Commission for Women (NCW) to file a report that she was living happily with her brothers.
By that time, sadly, her Romeo had given up.
“On Nov. 28, I took all my school certificates and my ID proof and ran away,” Archana said.
“I called him as soon as I could, and he said he would take care of everything, and asked me to meet him at the bus stop. But when I got off the bus, my uncle and my brothers were standing there with him waiting for me, because he had called them.”
Tied to the bed and tortured once more, Archana plotted another attempt.
“I thought, 'Now they already made a fake police report, they don't let me out of the house, they keep beating me, someday they may do something really wrong [a euphemism for rape]. If I can get just one chance to escape, even if I die trying, I have to get out of here.”
Finally, she sustained injuries from her daily beatings that were serious enough that she was able to convince her mother to take her to the hospital — where she walked in the front door and out the back.
Then she called the Love Commandos, whose local Agra network spirited her to New Delhi, where she and Sachdeva are pursuing her case with the NCW.
“If they ever find me, they won't ask why I ran away a second time,” said Archana, who claims that one of her brothers has powerful police connections. “They will kill me. They can pay someone any amount to have me killed.”

Monday, February 04, 2013

India: War on whistleblowers

Over the past five years, some 150 whistleblowers have allegedly been harassed or jailed for exposing corruption. As many as 20 have been killed.
By Jason Overdorf
(GlobalPost - February 4, 2013)

NEW DELHI, India — In India, the truth might set you free. Or it might land you behind bars. Or even dead.
Take the case of Naveen Sorinjee, a TV reporter jailed in Karnataka for exposing an assault on young couples by a far-right Hindu group. Sorinjee has inspired a hunger strike and a slew of editorials. But more than a two months after his arrest, he's still in the slammer. And he's not alone.
India this year plunged to its lowest ranking on Reporters Without Borders'world press freedom index since 2002, falling to 140 out of 179 countries, as governments around the country cracked down on free speech and allowed criminals, political “workers” and armed groups to attack journalists with impunity.
Meanwhile, since the right to information law gave rise to the anti-corruption movement, the number of bureaucrats, activists, and even policemen who were harassed, beaten, jailed and murdered for daring to expose government and corporate malfeasance has continued to grow, according to the Asia Center for Human Rights (ACHR).
Though they're rarely considered together, India's crackdown on free speech and its assault on muckraking activists are both part of an escalating war on whistleblowers that is intended to squash any objection to the near-absolute power of the state.
Over the past five years, some 150 whistleblowers have allegedly been harassed or jailed for exposing corruption, while as many as 20 have been killed.
The latest trend: State and local governments are exploiting India's notoriously slow court system to land activists behind bars or saddle them with criminal charges that may take decades to resolve.
Even the national government has joined the fray, going after aid groups that receive international funding in a smear campaign intended to discredit them as anti-national and then starve them of cash.
“The government is absolutely complicit in these activities,” said ACHR's director Suhas Chakma. “Without the cooperation of the local authorities, these cases can never be done. In some cases you will see the complicity even of the judiciary.”
A reporter for a local channel called Kasturi Newz24, Sorinjee ran afoul of the authorities in Karnataka after a report on an incident in July in which members of a far-right group called the Hindu Jagarana Vedike allegedly attacked and beat up several young men and women for daring to attend a birthday party unchaperoned.
Though he'd exposed the incident — one of a string of alleged assaults perpetrated by far-right groups in Mangalore in the name of moral policing — Sorinjee was charged with participating in it.
According to India's Hindu newspaper, in November he was arrested and charged with“rioting with deadly weapons,” criminal conspiracy, unlawful assembly, and using criminal force on a woman with the intention of outraging her modesty, in Indian legal-speak. Citing the obvious video evidence, Sorinjee and his supporters say those were the activities his news report depicted — not anything he did himself.
In January, a group of reporters, editors and activists held a three-day hunger strike to highlight Sorinjee's plight. But nearly a month later, he's still languishing in jail. And even if Twitter rumors that the authorities are poised to drop the charges against him prove true, he will have spent nearly a quarter of the year behind bars. And, again due to the glacial pace of India's legal system, he will have virtually no recourse to the law for compensation for false arrest.
The case is not unique to Mangalore, to Karnataka, or to the Hindu right.
“It happens all over the country,” said Chakma. “It can happen anywhere, any day.”
So it seems, according to a random sampling.
In August 2011, 35-year-old activist Shehla Mahsood — who'd filed countless right-to-information applications and leveled allegations of corruption against local politicians associated with illegal diamond mining — was shot dead on her way to an anti-corruption protest in Madhya Pradesh.
In February 2012, 42-year-old Premnath Jha, who'd filed right-to-information applications regarding several construction projects in Maharashtra, was gunned down while riding home on his motorcycle.
In Gujarat in 2009, 50-year-old Purshottam Chauhan, who'd sought information about a costly project that the local village council had purportedly undertaken with government funds, was badly beaten by a gang of thugs.
Meanwhile, in October 2011 in Haryana, journalist Ramesh Singla, who'd been writing articles about the illegal mining business in the state, was killed in a suspected hit and run. And in September 2011, cub reporter Lingaram Kodopi, a member of one of Chhattisgarh's indigenous tribes, was arrested as a so-called middleman between nefarious activists and the Maoist rebels waging a simmering insurrection in his troubled home state.
And the list goes on.
The catalyst for these false (or dubious) prosecutions, assaults and murders was the passage of the groundbreaking Right to Information Act (RTI) in 2005.
By giving ordinary citizens the right to access virtually any government document, the law cracked open a tortuous, bureaucratic system that had been a virtual black box since the days of India's colonization. It made refusal to divulge information a jailable offense. And, even if it did not result in a rash of convictions, it began to make the corrupt nexus among politicians, career bureaucrats and corporations politically untenable.
Now that nexus is striking back — not only against right-to-information activists, but against all forms of scrutiny and dissent.
Cartoonist Aseem Trivedi, novelist-turned-activist Arundhati Roy and Kashmiri separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani, among others, have been charged with sedition for political speech that authorities deemed to be “anti-India.”
Right-wing gadflies have reported mysterious server failures for their Twitter accounts and blogs, following a government crackdown that was supposedly limited to the suppression of specific offensive or inflammatory images.
Anybody with something to say, it seems, is an enemy of the state.

Saturday, February 02, 2013

Inside baseball: Why Nandy's mistake matters

An Indian sociologist's remarks on caste and corruption should shine a light on stereotypes
By Jason Overdorf
(GlobalPost - February 2, 2013)

When the inside baseball of Indian politics makes it to the pages of the New York Times and the website of the New Yorker, it's time to weigh in. Leaving the background to the hyperlinks, here's my take:
Indian sociologist Ashis Nandy's remarks at Jaipur, and his later clarification, are not important simply because the attempt to prosecute him for insulting Indians from lower castes represents yet another attack on freedom of speech in the name of “sensitivity,” as Manu Joseph aptly lampoons in the New York Times andBasharat Peer ably explains for the New Yorker.
The main issue is the content of his statement, which sneakily confirms as “fact” a widely held public perception for which there is no hard evidence, and, in truth, seems patently false based on common sense.
The statement in question?
“It is a fact that most of the corrupt come from the OBCs and the Scheduled Castes and now increasingly Scheduled Tribes and as long as this is the case, Indian republic will survive.”
Much has been made of the context for that statement, which you can read in full here. But in my reading of it nothing undercuts the essential assertion.
Nandy is sincere and sympathetic. He is saying that the corruption of India's lower castes is justified, even desirable. And Nandy admits that corruption of a kind is common among the elites. But it's interesting, to say the least, that he compares the assistance of an old boys' network in getting into Oxford or Harvard to the “millions of rupees” amassed by “the only unrecognized billionaire in India today” Madhu Koda – which were allegedly earned through illegal manipulation of the mining laws and perhaps selling his support, by turns, to the Bharatiya Janata Party and later the Congress. (So much for the context).
Nevertheless, whether Nandy means well or not is immaterial. So is whether or not he suffers from some unwitting prejudices, even as he thinks he is being radical. The most important thing here is that he claims something as “fact” for which he offers no evidence and that he cannot support. Namely, he says that most of the corruption in India can now be attributed to the lower castes, which comprise the mid-level Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and the formerly untouchable Dalits or Scheduled Castes. (Yes, there's also the Scheduled Tribes, but only so much inside baseball for one blog post).
This is a widely held perception that I suggest is based solely on a handful of high-profile prosecutions: the notorious “fodder scam” case against Bihar's Lalu Prasad Yadav, the “Taj corridor scam” case against Uttar Pradesh's Kumari Mayawati and, more recently, the “2G telecom spectrum scam” case against former telecom minister Andimuthu Raja.
That's called “believing is seeing” – you only process the evidence that suits your preconceptions, if you bother with evidence at all.  Surely there were corruption cases against high-caste Indians as well.  And if they didn't generate as much heat, one might say with equal authority that Mayawati & co were targeted for serious criminal investigations, and the others ignored, precisely because of their respective castes.
As far as I know, there has never been any effort to cross-reference caste and corruption scientifically. Meanwhile, it is also commonly believed that all politicians are corrupt, so the premise that the lower castes are the “most corrupt” seems to based on the perception that they steal in higher amounts, or have fewer concerns about actually doing their jobs – which I suggest would be even more difficult to prove.
Another unproven but widely accepted belief is that India's large industrial houses – Mukesh and Anil Ambani's Reliance Group, ,Shashi and Ravi Ruia's Essar Group, Ratan Tata's Tata Group, and so on and so on – routinely make payoffs to politicians and bureaucrats so that they can skirt environmental laws and the like. I'm not suggesting that's true or false here. But if, as many Indians do, you hold that belief, then what are the castes of the Ambanis, Ruias, Tatas, and so on? And who are they supposedly paying? Only the low-caste leaders and bureaucrats? That would be a mysterious bit of selectivism. And how would the low-caste leaders get away with this corruption if their high-caste counterparts were so scrupulously honest?
Yes, you say (Manu Joseph), but India's lower castes make up 59 percent of the population, so it is imminently logical that they account for 59 percent of its corruption. Professor Nandy was simply delivering a lesson in demographics. Really?
They say power corrupts, and that may be true. But what is definitely a fact is that you have to have power to indulge in corruption. Nobody will pay you a bribe if you can't do him any favors. And you can't extort money to do your duty as a government representative if those duties are confined to fetching tea and coffee. So how corrupt are the Dalits and OBCs? I suggest that they can only be corrupt in proportion to their representation in positions of power.
It's notable that it isn't easy to find a breakdown of the Indian parliament by caste, even though caste-and-creed mathematics is the key to winning elections here. But accounting for some margin of error, there's likely 300+ upper caste Hindus, 200- lower caste Hindus, 20-odd Muslims and a dozen or so Christians and Sikhs. So, if every member has equal power and is equally dishonest, the lower castes don't account for 59 percent of India's parliamentary corruption, they account for 37 percent, compared with the upper castes' 59 percent. And I'd wager if we look at the real power of the members, in terms of the committees they chair, ministries they control, and so on, then that percentage would have to be tweaked even further.
Yes, but most of the corruption happens at the bureaucratic level....?
Okay: What's the power breakdown in the bureaucracy? I invite you to help me update these figures, but the only numbers that I was able to turn up in a rather painstaking searchare from 1995, and limited to the Scheduled Castes (Dalits) and not the Other Backward Classes. Here goes:
In Class I positions – in other words top decision makers – the percentage of Dalits holding the seats has increased from less than 1 percent in 1953 to a little more than 10 percent in 1995. Let's say OBCs have down three times as well – for 30 percent of the positions. That still means two-thirds of the positions of real power, where you can really line pockets, are held by the upper castes.
In Class II positions, the percentage of Dalits has increased from 1.3 percent to 13 percent. So by my liberal guess, OBCs might account for 39 percent, leaving half of the wealth-generating posts to the upper castes.
In Class III positions, where you might turn up a few earning opportunities, Dalits have gone from 4.5 percent to 15.5 percent. So here Dalits and OBCs might account for a two-thirds majority.
And in the lowly Class IV positions, where the only corruption you can indulge in is deciding who gets tea first, or how clean the toilets might be? Dalits' share of the posts remained static at about 21 percent. So maybe 80 percent of the posts can be attributed to Dalits and OBCs.
What other numbers can we tap?
The only real information we have about corruption is the voluntary declarations of financial assets that India's politicians must make before contesting elections. They don't necessarily provide a smoking gun: A politician is allowed to get rich through legal means, as well as corrupt ones. But for the sake of argument, let's accept the commonly held perception that all Indian politicians are dirty, and look at some of the only numbers we have at our disposal. Unfortunately, we're also constrained because the candidates don't declare their castes when they file their affidavits, so we'll make some assumptions based on party affiliation: For the sake of argument, we'll assume all Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) candidates to be Dalits, all Samajwadi Party (SP) candidates to be OBC, and all BJP and Congress candidates to be upper caste Hindus – though in fact only the majority of the candidates fielded by those parties would fit the bill.
Upper caste:
Among the BJP candidates who contested for Lok Sabha seats in both 2004 and 2009, the listed increases in assets include one MP with a whopping 6000% increase in his net worth, another with a 2000% increase, and a third with a 1500% increase – among a lot where a brief scan suggests the average increase in assets is in the realm of 300-400%. (I wasn't able to convert the file to the right format to do the math).
Among the Congress candidates, there are MPs whose assets increased 1200%, 1700% and 3000%, and the average looks to be in the realm of 200-300%.
Lower caste:
Among the SP candidates there are MPs whose assets increased 1500% and 1000%, but the average increase looks to be substantially lower – perhaps only 100-150%.
Among the BSP candidates there are MPs whose assets increased 9000%, 1000% and 800%, but again the average appears to be lower (especially if you throw out the guy who boosted his wealth 90 times over).
So is it a “fact” that the lower castes are the most corrupt? The truth of the matter is that nobody knows. But it's irresponsible to make such claims based on prejudices and assumptions.