Friday, December 31, 2010

Indian justice: punishment by trial?

High-profile human rights activist gets life for treason, exposing cracks in justice system.

By Jason Overdorf
(GlobalPost - December 31, 2010)

NEW DELHI, India — Consider the following scenario: A much-admired man points out gross human rights violations committed against tribal peoples — including alleged rapes, murders, etc. But the state consistently seeks to cover up the incidents this man exposes, and instead uses a colonial-era law against free speech to sentence him to life in prison.

If this were China and its Nobel Prize-winning dissident Liu Xiaobo, it would come as no surprise. But, brace yourself, this is cuddly India we're talking about.

One of India's biggest selling points, particularly in contrast to China, has been its progressive attitude toward human rights and its commitment to the rule of law.

But the conviction and subsequent sentencing of human rights activist Binayak Sen — and the similar sedition charges leveled against novelist Arundhati Roy and several other outspoken Indians this year — show that India's commitment to democracy is more fragile than anyone believed.

The question now is, will it be enough to threaten India's image as a progressive, democracy-loving state?

Here's a play-by-play: On Christmas Eve, a lower court in the eastern state of Chhattisgarh sentenced Sen, a celebrated pediatrician and activist, to life in prison for his alleged links to the Maoist revolutionaries.

Sen and his supporters say he was targeted for exposing the state's involvement in the large-scale clearing of villages. In 2005, Sen led an investigation that pegged so-called economic development — in the form of Chhattisgarh's booming mining industry — as the culprit in driving indigenous tribes off their ancestral lands and turning them into beggars.

After Sen received his life sentence and the judgment was made public, outrage began mounting almost immediately among India's intellectual circles. Some asserted that Sen was railroaded through the system as payback for exposing alleged rape and murder committed in the name of the government.

Many critics said his treatment once again exposed the weaknesses in India's legal system. Corruption and politically motivated trials, critics said, have now joined incompetence and sloth to make a travesty of justice.

"The judge has become a willing instrument of the state to victimize people who are raising their voices against [its] human rights abuses," said Supreme Court lawyer Prashant Bhushan. "It's not merely a gross miscarriage of justice, it's outrageous."

So, what's the impact going forward?

The court decision has further polarized an India already deeply divided over the path its economic development should take. One side says develop at all costs, even if that means stealing land and giving it to mining companies who destroy the environment and ravage indigenous cultures. The other side says that further subverting the rule of law in favor of crony capitalism promises a disastrous future.

Already, street protests have mushroomed across India and associations of every stripe — including police — have condemned the verdict. But even if it is eventually overturned by a higher court, the apparent misuse of the legal system as a political tool could have broader implications.

Indian students, teachers and activists protest in New Delhi against Binayak Sen's life sentence, Dec. 27, 2010. (Raveendran/AFP/Getty Images)
"The whole judiciary system is a mess at so many levels — delays, process, sanctity of evidence — and [a judgment like this one] really shows you how vulnerable it is," said Pratap Bhanu Mehta, who heads the Center for Policy Research, a New Delhi-based think tank.

Some of those problems are notorious. An overburdened system has created a vicious cycle of continuances, appeals and a mounting backlog that some estimate will take hundreds of years to clear. Petty corruption — fees to access files and the like — is ubiquitous, and hardly a day goes by without a report of a witness recanting his testimony when challenged over lack of evidence.

But in recent years allegations of higher level corruption have been given seeming validity by the supreme court's refusal to make judges' assets subject to public scrutiny under the Right to Information Act (RTI).

Increasingly, high-profile judgments like the Allahabad High Court's decision to divide into three parts the disputed Ayodhya site [2] of the destroyed Babri Mosque and the decision to reopen the case and dole out a harsher sentence to the policeman accused of molesting Ruchika Girhotra have showed that India's courts are all too willing to ignore the letter of the law when it is expedient or popular to do so.

More and more cases like Sen's have demonstrated that the legal system's other deep flaws make it ideally suited for abuse for political, or even criminal, ends.

"We often say punishment should be after due process," said Bhanu Mehta. "In India, due process can be the punishment."

That doesn't make India look good in the eyes of investors. An unknown wag once quipped that an Indian civil suit was the closest one could get to experiencing eternity. A simple property dispute — such as evicting a delinquent tenant — can take decades of monthly court appearances to resolve. And corporations have by and large dismissed the Indian legal system as a means of enforcing contracts, writing in clauses that mandate arbitration or litigation in foreign courts.

But for the Indian people, who must depend on the courts to protect their rights and enforce their laws, it's chilling.

The Chhattisgarh court found Sen guilty of two counts of sedition and conspiracy based on charges that he carried letters from a jailed Maoist leader to his comrades in the field and opened a bank account on behalf of another rebel.

But because the evidence presented by the prosecution hinged largely on circular reasoning — proof of links to people whom the police claim are Maoists but who themselves have not been convicted, for instance, and the letters that Sen allegedly carried contain nothing incriminating — critics say that it's nothing more than another attempt to silence peaceful support for the tribal people caught between the Maoists and the state.

Most ironic of all, Sen earned his life sentence for the same crime — sedition — that India's British colonizers used against Gandhi and other freedom fighters.

Typical of persecution laws, the storied history of the supposed crime gives its perpetrator an added aura of legitimacy, much like China's old standby, "exposing state secrets" — which implicitly acknowledges that the dissidents jailed for it speak the truth.

Worse than that, to apply it to Sen's case, legal experts say the Chhattisgarh district judge had to ignore a landmark supreme court ruling that mandated that sedition could only be allowed to curb free speech when there is a direct incitement to violence or serious public disorder.

"It's a hideous judgment; it's a hideous case," said Ajai Sahni, executive director of the New Delhi-based Institute for Conflict Management, which researches terrorism and other Indian security concerns. "They had no business taking this to court in the first place. They had no evidence."

If there's any silver lining, it can be found in the encouragingly unified chorus against the verdict. However, most of the criticism has hinged on the claims that Sen is a good man, rather than a clearheaded assessment of the evidence and his legal rights.

And Sen himself — who was jailed for two years without bail after his arrest in 2007 — must be growing tired of all the support. In 2008, the cause celebre languished in jail while 22 Nobel winners lobbied for his release after he was chosen to receive the prestigious Jonathan Mann Award for his efforts to reduce the infant mortality rate and deaths from diarrhea. Who's to say today's protests will be any different?

"What you are doing right now is using what I describe as punishment by trial," said Sahni. "If he is innocent, how are you ever going to restore those years to this man? And if he's guilty, you should have brought the evidence against him. It's utterly disgraceful."

Copyright 2010 GlobalPost – International News
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Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Can telecom scam bring down India's government?

In scam central, corruption allegations alone might not be enough to engineer change.

By Jason Overdorf
(GlobalPost - Dec. 21, 2010)

NEW DELHI, India — As investigations continue into the most damaging corruption scandal to strike the Congress party in decades, Sonia Gandhi, the party's leader, had a go at flipping the script.

At the party plenary marking the Congress' 125th year on Sunday, Sonia stood up for beleaguered Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. She unveiled a five-point plan to root out corruption, and she blasted the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for its "despicable" attacks on Singh — they said he was asleep at the switch while his telecom minister allegedly defrauded the country of billions of dollars. But Singh, she said, is an "embodiment of sobriety, dignity and integrity."

It wasn't Sonia's remarks, however — or Singh's promise to appear before an investigating committee, saying "I have nothing to hide from the public at all" —that gave the best hint as to the Congress strategy for regaining control of the news cycle. That came from the party's general secretary, Digvijay Singh, in the role of hatchet man as he defended the 40-year-old prime minister-in-waiting, Rahul Gandhi.

Embracing Rahul's trepidations about "Hindu terror" — WikiLeaks' diplomatic cables revealed that Rahul told the U.S. ambassador that he feared Hindu terrorist groups more than Islamic ones — the general secretary attacked the BJP's Hindu nationalist parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). And by amplifying Rahul's rhetoric — he apparently sought to shift the focus from corruption to communalism, the word India uses to discuss its religious divides.

"The RSS in the garb of its nationalist ideology is targeting Muslims the same way Nazis targeted Jews in the 1930s," Digvijay told plenary attendees.

In a less corrupt country [2], the context for the general secretary's comments might itself be enough to reveal it as a transparent attempt to distract attention from the problems besetting his party.

Thanks to a series [3] of high-profile corruption scandals [4], the Congress party faces its biggest challenge in years. Every day, new revelations hit the headlines from leaked transcripts of tapped telephone conversations between an influential lobbyist and top politicians, billionaire tycoons and (formerly) respected journalists.

And even though the party has already ousted the chief accused — who is a coalition ally, rather than a Congress party member — the perception remains that the government is dragging its feet on a full-scale inquiry, as its resistance to an investigation by a joint parliamentary committee was at the root of opposition disruptions that prevented legislators even from meeting for all but seven hours of the month-long winter session of parliament.

"After the Bofors [defense kickbacks] scam in the '80s and various scandals of the Narasimha Rao government, this is the first time the opposition has something that it looks like will stick," said Delhi University professor Mahesh Rangarajan, a political analyst. "The opposition is united with an issue for the first time since the beginning of the UPA [the Congress-led coalition government.]"

Despite his impeccable personal reputation, the prime minister's two terms at the helm of the UPA have paid rich dividends in allegations of corrupt dealings — or what Indian reporters like to call scams. In the so-called rice scam, for instance, officials at state-owned companies involved in grain exports to Africa allegedly bent rules to help private players cheat the government out of $500 million.

In the Commonwealth Games scam, organizing officials allegedly bilked the state for $100 million in inflated rentals for furniture and other fixtures. And in the mother of them all, the 2G spectrum scam, former Telecommunications Minister A. Raja of Tamil Nadu's Dravida Munnettra Kazhagam party allegedly cost the country as much as $40 billion by allowing top industrialists to buy telecom licenses for what opposition politicians term "throwaway prices."

"People are struck by the magnitude of the scandal," said political analyst Praful Bidwai. "This is pretty outrageous."

But in scam central, questions remain whether corruption allegations alone — or even a smoking gun — is enough to engineer a change in government. One need look no further than the last election results to see that Indians — who by and large believe that all their politicians are equally corrupt — suffer from scam fatigue.

Despite new efforts to publicize the criminal records and outsized assets of politicians, the number of members of parliament who face charges of crimes including robbery, extortion and murder increased from 128 in the 2004 elections to 162 in 2009, while the average lawmaker's assets grew to $1 million apiece from around $400,000.

True to form, while this season of scams brought the legislature grinding to a halt, there was no sign that the government might fall. Moreover, with the next national election not scheduled until 2014, unless it loses a confidence vote the Congress will have more than enough time for damage control. And that's where the renewed focus on fundamentalism gets interesting — if we look back at the most famous corruption scandal in Indian history.

Though it certainly contributed to his defeat, the Bofors defense kickbacks scandal, revealed in 1987, was only the final straw for then-Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. Like the present, the late 1980s were halcyon days for the "India story." Rajiv, who had not yet turned 40, was hailed as India's John F. Kennedy, and his efforts to open up the economy ushered in industrial growth of 5.5 percent and manufacturing growth of 8.9 percent a year.

But during Rajiv's term, Sikh terrorism had spread, militancy had begun in Kashmir, reporters had begun to call his intercession in Sri Lanka's civil war "India's Vietnam," and two catastrophic droughts had struck the poor even as his economic policies drew criticism for pandering to the rich, according to Ramachandra Guha, the author of India After Gandhi.

Moreover, instead of ousting an implicated cabinet minister — as Manmohan Singh has done — Rajiv sacked the man who had brought the irregularities to light.

Even then, Rajiv might have been able to weather the storm if not for the rise of Hindu fundamentalism. The BJP capitalized on a new enthusiasm for the god Ram and the claim that Rajiv had adopted a policy of Muslim appeasement to increase their tally of parliamentary seats from just four in 1984 to 88 in 1989 — tipping the balance in favor of the National Front coalition.

And three years later, after Rajiv's assassination, the Ram temple movement and the destruction of the Babri Mosque at Ayodhya — believed by Hindus to be Ram's birthplace — began the rise of the BJP as a legitimate national rival to the once unassailable Congress.

With the Congress itself now endeavoring to turn the national dialogue back to multicultural secularism versus Hindu nationalism, the Bofors comparison shows how much India has changed — and how much it remains the same.

Today, in stark contrast to 1992 or 2002, the Congress believes that the BJP's failures to whip up anti-Muslim sentiment after the 2008 terrorist attacks on Mumbai indicates that the opposition party's fundamentalist ideology is a weakness, rather than a strength. But at the same time, today's daily allegations about the back room deals behind seemingly every Indian fortune — and the public outrage that trusted journalists, too, might be corrupt — suggest that in the broader arenas of business and politics the wide-eyed enthusiasm for the "new India" was mostly plain naivete.

During the Bofors era, when a former gas station attendant built Reliance Industries into India's most powerful company by dint of his political connections, every large business house maintained lobbyists in New Delhi to lever an advantage from the so-called License-Permit Raj, according to Guha.

But cutting the red tape associated with the planned economy wasn't enough to destroy — or even dent — the culture of corruption, the ongoing 2G telecom license debacle shows. The corruption-free information technology boom of the 1990s was an aberration, because there were no regulations governing IT and thus no bribes to pay. But now that India's economic growth has shifted to mining, telecom, property development and public works, the continued dominance of crony capitalism is becoming clear.

The only thing that's changed in this era — often called India's Gilded Age, in allusion to the freewheeling decades that created the fortunes of America's robber barons — is the scale.

"Business has never been as powerful, as interfering, and as assertive and self-confident as it is now," Bidwai said.

Copyright 2010 GlobalPost – International News
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India Armed and Dangerous: Exploring the Prevalence of Guns

Inside India's trade in illegal guns.

Watch the video:

India: illegal guns plague cities

According to aid groups, India accounts for about 40 million of the 75 million illegal small arms currently in circulation.

By Jason Overdorf and Poh Si Teng
GlobalPost - December 2010

Editor's note: "India: armed and dangerous" is a three-part series on India's rising gun culture, the proliferation of illegal weapons and the middle-class fight to bear arms. Jason Overdorf and Poh Si Teng researched this project with the aid of the South Asian Journalists' Association (SAJA) Reporting Fellowship.

NEW DELHI, India — About a year after India's first school shooting, Soumya Viswanathan, a 26-year-old television journalist, was shot and killed on her way home from work. A pretty and vivacious girl with a broad, bright smile, she had stayed late at the station to help her colleagues finish editing a story. At 3 a.m., knowing that her parents worried about her, she called her father to tell him that she was on her way home. She never made it.

"She was not coming," Soumya's father, M.K. Viswanathan, said, remembering that night. "I told [my wife] I would go downstairs and see why she was not coming. And then she said 'No, no don’t go downstairs. It’s 3:15 in the morning."

He stayed in bed. But sensing something was wrong, he kept calling Soumya's mobile phone. After another hour, Madhavi, Soumya's mother, began trying from her handset, as well. "Somebody picked up around 5. They said, ‘Who is on the line? There has been accident.'"

Soumya was less than a mile from her house, within shouting distance of two police stations, when a car full of young men allegedly tried to force her to pull over. Most likely, they wanted to rob her. Or, like too many of Delhi's young men, they saw a girl traveling alone, in the dark, as practically asking to be raped. When she didn't stop, one of them pulled out a country-made pistol and fired.

In a terrible stroke of fate, the simple single-shot weapon didn't misfire or blow up in his hand. The bullet flew true, and Soumya became another of India's ever-increasing multitude of illegal guns.

According to the International Action Network on Small Arms, Amnesty International and Oxfam, India accounts for about 40 million of the 75 million illegal small arms currently in circulation.

Even more troubling, local experts say illegal factories produce a huge number of pistols and machine guns every year. In many places, police say, a so-called "katta" or country-made weapon, costs as little as $10, and picking one up is as easy as buying paan, the betel nut-based stimulant ubiquitous in the subcontinent.

"If you look at serious crimes for our national capital, the looting of cash vans, bank robberies, house robberies, car jackings — invariably country-made weapons are involved," said H.G.S. Dhaliwal, deputy commissioner of the Delhi police (South District).

After Jigisha Ghose, a 28-year-old IT executive, was killed in similar circumstances, police arrested five men they believe were responsible for Soumya's murder. But more than a year later, her shattered family is still waiting for justice — which in India might take a decade or more.

"Criminals are roaming free," said Soumya's mother. "It is we who are sort of put in a prison somehow. We are frightened and have to stay in the house. That’s the way it’s become. Even in house it’s not safe. Anywhere it’s not safe."

In 2008, the year that Soumya was murdered, only 73 people were murdered with guns in Delhi, compared with 292 in New York City — which now has one of the lowest crime rates of America's largest cities. But as police in the Big Apple are succeeding in bringing down gun murders by taking illegal weapons off the street, their counterparts in Delhi say the number of illegal firearms in India's capital is climbing steadily.

Already, there are eight illegal guns for every legal weapon in Delhi, and more than 90 percent of crimes are committed with unlicensed guns. Most of them are made in secret sweatshops in neighboring states with a reputation for lawlessness and political turmoil.

"There’s a joke in India which says if you want sophisticated weapons, illegal weapons you get it from the northeast of India [where several insurgencies are simmering,]" said Binalakshmi Nepram, head of the Control Arms Foundation of India. "If you want really crude weapons you get it from the heartlands like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh. In these parts of India, [the] cottage industry of guns is huge."

In just one rural district, Munger, Bihar — where the current chief minister has cracked down on criminals — police uncovered as many as 65 illegal gun factories last year. They estimate that the trade earns some $4 million a year for the rustic backwater. But reports suggest that there are thousands more such factories in manufacturing centers like Muzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh, across the country.

For nearly 10 years, 27-year-old "Sanjay," who asked that his real name not be revealed, was part of the problem. A short, muscular young man with a close-trimmed beard, Sanjay parlayed a job in a metal shop in Muzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh, into a lucrative career as a gun runner between 1992 and 2000. Then one of his own gang members betrayed him, setting him up for an ambush by a rival crew who had placed a false order for a thousand pistols.

"We had been given half the money. On the last day when we were doing all the packing up, they came and attacked us. Three of my men got killed, including our best gun maker, who was their target all along," Sanjay said. "He was a very close friend of mine. He was the one who saved my life. But in doing so he got killed. That's when I decided to stop the business."

In the beginning, Sanjay's crew made cartridges with gunpowder sourced from a local company licensed to make firecrackers and fuses contrived from feathers rolled with carbon and chemicals found in detergent and other household products. Then, he graduated to making .315 and .12 bore pistols in three different barrel lengths: "small," "quarter" and "half" — the same terms used for bottles of local whiskey. His best products, with barrels sourced from Rampur, another district in Uttar Pradesh, could be fired three times in rapid succession without overheating, and they never exploded in a customer's hand. He sold them for between $50 and $100, compared with nearly $2,000 for a simple legal .32 caliber revolver made by one of India's official, government-owned ordnance factories.

Villagers bought his weapons to show off and protect themselves from wild animals and bandits. Schoolboys and college kids bought them to protect themselves in the cutthroat business of student politics. But most of Sanjay's customers were criminal gangs who enjoyed the patronage of local politicians, who use thugs or "goondas" to influence voters and even capture polling booths during elections. And now with ethnic tensions, overcrowding and scalding temperatures causing tempers to flare, country-made pistols have come to the city, and it's not just hardened criminals pulling guns.

"Earlier guns were used as mostly status symbols," said Rajat Mitra, a psychologist and expert on violence who works closely with the police. "But now guns are seen as a way of solving problems, of resolving issues, of using threats and intimidation that were not considered necessary earlier. And there is a perception among a very large number of young people and even children that having a gun is not morally wrong."

Last year, in a typically petty incident, 22-year-old Himanshu Sharma was shot dead in an altercation over urinating on the street. This June, another 22-year-old was shot and killed in an argument over water, a married couple from different castes was gunned down in an apparent "honor killing" and a government employee shot three security guards, killing one, when they barred him from entering a building in the city's red light district.

In response to this kind of violence, India's home ministry has tightened the laws on licensed guns, which DCP Dhaliwal said "haven't been any problem at all," while allowing the rotten core of the illegal gun trade to fester. And insiders say that as long as pervasive corruption continues to make politics the country's biggest money spinner — turning elected officials with no real assets into millionaires in a single term — nobody will destroy the factories who arm the parties' musclemen.

"This game happens at a big level," said Sanjay, who now works as a police informer. "Otherwise it couldn’t happen. Mostly it’s politicians who help us. Police and politicians both together help us do business. Nothing happens without their sanction."

Monday, December 20, 2010

India Armed and Dangerous: Gun Rights vs. Gun Restrictions

In India, a new gun rights lobby is emerging to fight against gun control.

Watch the video:

India's own Charlton Hestons

A new lobby group modeled on America's NRA is pushing for Indians' right to bear arms.

By Jason Overdorf and Poh Si Teng

Editor's note: "India: armed and dangerous" is a three-part series on India's rising gun culture, the proliferation of illegal weapons and the middle-class fight to bear arms. Jason Overdorf and Poh Si Teng researched this project with the aid of the South Asian Journalists' Association (SAJA) Reporting Fellowship.

NEW DELHI, India — At a posh farmhouse outside Delhi, a group of gun enthusiasts gathered on a recent Sunday afternoon to compare weapons, do a little shooting and talk strategy. Software professionals, executives and salesmen in their 30s and 40s, they're typical upper middle-class Delhiwallahs. Except for one thing: While liberal India bemoans the gun culture taking over its metropolitan cities, they're fighting to make sure one day every Indian gets the right to bear arms — American-style.

"Everyone’s life is precious. And everyone has the right to defend their life and liberty. And that right is meaningless without the means to do so," said Abhijeet Singh.

With some 40 million guns in civilian hands making India the second-most heavily armed nation in the world and a steady rise in violent crime, the debate over gun control is heating up. Gun control advocates are pushing India to crack down on guns and sign a United Nations Arms Trade Treaty that would tighten restrictions on small arms, while supporters of gun rights are fighting to make the country's gun laws less restrictive. And with both groups citing Gandhi as precedent, at stake is the very identity of India itself.

A 38-year-old software engineer, Singh founded the web forum,, which brought these Sunday afternoon firearm fans together. But in late 2009, his hobby took on a new urgency when the home ministry proposed several amendments to India's 1959 Arms Act that would make it much more difficult to get a gun license and harder to buy ammunition. Already an old hand in disseminating editorials and raising petitions, Singh soon joined forces with another group — the National Association for Gun Rights India (NAGRI) — that's modeled on America's National Rifle Association and led by Haryana's Naveen Jindal, a member of parliament who studied in Texas.

"The National Rifle Association in America is the standard by which all gun owners judge themselves," said Rahoul Rai, NAGRI's semi-official spokesman. "Here is an organization that has protected the fundamental democratic right [to bear arms] which has withstood the test of time. Which has brought gun ownership not just to the United States but to the whole world. For us in India, this is the beacon of hope."

NAGRI held its first meeting in January 2010, and so far few police officials or politicians take the organization very seriously. But that dismissive attitude may be misguided. According to several estimates, there are hundreds of thousands, even millions of Indians waiting for stalled gun licenses or smarting over rejections. In some regions, the desire to own a firearm is great enough that the government population control program dangles the reward of a gun license to convince men to get a vasectomy. With people like these, NAGRI claims, it's already struck a chord.

"The response is overwhelming," said Rai. "From all the corners of India, people have been sending us emails, giving telephone calls and personally meeting us, supporting the cause. ... We are now trying in a lawful and peaceful manner to organize all this energy, organize all these feelings to tell our elected representatives that this [move to tighten licensing restrictions] is wrong."

Already, it's extremely difficult to get an arms license, though many of the existing hurdles are not enshrined in the 1959 Arms Act, and the Indian government has itself argued to the United Nations that India has one of the most stringent gun control regimes in the world. Apart from owners of heirloom weapons, citizens can obtain a license only if they are a competitive shooter or they can demonstrate an imminent threat to life and limb. Prices for legal guns and ammunition are among the highest in the world, due to import restrictions that give a near monopoly to government-owned ordnance factories — which weapons enthusiasts say make some of the worst products on the planet. Licensing bureaus can impose limits as low as five cartridges per year on legal purchases of ammunition. And if all else fails, there's always reams and reams of red tape.

"The whole process of applying for a gun licenses is very humiliating for most people, which is why people who have firearms also decide to sell them and not continue with the tradition of owning firearms in their family," said Singh. "Because it is just so difficult."

But with pressure from the U.N. and arms control advocates, a host of simmering guerrilla rebellions and growing concern over gunplay spilling into the streets, India's home ministry aims to make owning a gun even tougher.

This July, the prime minister's cabinet approved a proposal requiring a "verification report" from the police before a license could be issued. Several more amendments are on the anvil, such as requiring license holders to produce a record of when, where and why they fired their weapon anytime they want to buy replacement ammunition. The ministry's justification for these changes, naturally, is the increase in violent crime and the apparent proliferation of guns. But that's exactly the reason NAGRI says every law-abiding Indian deserves the right to carry a firearm himself.

"How then is the ordinary citizen going to protect himself?" said NAGRI's Rai. "How then is the ordinary citizen going to take care of his loved ones, of his family of his property? This is the reason why there is a need to have legitimate weapons."

With less than one officer per thousand people, India has one of the world's most understaffed police forces. And while it's true that a third of Indian districts are affected by terrorism and the crime rate is increasing, only a tiny fraction of that violence can be attributed to licensed guns. For instance, National Crime Records Bureau figures show that just 574 of 4,101 gun murders were committed with legal firearms in 2008 — while nearly 30,000 murders were committed with knives and other weapons. Moreover, only about 5.5 million of the 40 million odd guns in India are legal.

"If a guy can get [an illegal] katta for 200 [rupees], on what moral grounds can the government deny a law-abiding citizen a license for a gun on which he will blow a packet and [then face] all sorts of restrictions and encumbrances?" Singh said.

Gun control advocates say that the climbing crime graph is all the more reason to crack down further, and cite the U.S. crime data to prove that the most thoroughly armed nation is not the safest.

"We have to leave it to the state to tackle the security of every Indian," said Binalakshmi Nepram, head of the Control Arms Federation of India. "NAGRI and the Indians for Guns have to understand the fact that the independence of India was won without firing a single bullet. India gave the world non-violence. [It gave the world] Mahatma Gandhi the epitome of non-violence."

With America replacing Britain as India's primary cultural influence, rethinking India's colonial history may not be so simple, however. Perhaps because India's colonial revolution was achieved through nonviolence, the constitution written shortly after it does not specifically guarantee Indian citizens the right to bear arms.

But in at least one court case, a judge has ruled that "the right to bear arms is embedded in Article 21 of the Constitution," which states "No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law."

And NAGRI and others point out that the Arms Act itself was not written to restrict the ownership of weapons. It was drafted to repeal British regulations that disarmed the general population after the Uprising, or Mutiny, of 1857 — of which Gandhi himself wrote, “Among the many misdeeds of the British rule in India, history will look upon the Act depriving a whole nation of arms, as the blackest.”

With that in mind, NAGRI stakes its own claim to the Mahatma's legacy.

"An armed society is a polite society," said Rai. "I think if people are armed, other people will think twice before attacking them. I think if a nation is armed other nations think twice before attacking them. This is how we get more ahimsa. This is how we get less lawlessness. This is how we get a better society."

Sunday, December 19, 2010

India Armed and Dangerous: Causes and Effects

Is rapid social change driving India to pack heat? Watch the video:

India: gun culture - and gun violence - on the rise

As India gets rich, it's trading Gandhi for guns.

By Jason Overdorf and Poh Si Teng

Editor's note: "India: armed and dangerous" is a three-part series on India's rising gun culture, the proliferation of illegal weapons and the middle-class fight to bear arms. Jason Overdorf and Poh Si Teng researched this project with the aid of the South Asian Journalists' Association (SAJA) Reporting Fellowship.

NEW DELHI, India — Three years after two teenage boys allegedly gunned down his 14-year-old son, Abishek, over a playground spat, Gurgaon businessman Rajinder Tyagi is dry-eyed as he describes the boy's senseless murder. A veteran of hundreds of media interviews, he's made himself numb in an endeavor to shield his wife and daughter from the press.

"My son was walking down the stairs," recalls Tyagi, his face set with grim determination. "They shot him from the back. Four bullets. He died on the spot." India's first school shooting at the posh Euro International School in New Delhi had claimed young Abishek Tyagi's life.

For now, schoolyard gunplay remains rare. But thanks to a strange coincidence of Americanization and traditional machismo brought on by rapid economic growth, India has developed a gun obsession that makes Charlton Heston look like Gandhi.

Police say there has been an alarming rise in gun violence in and around Delhi over the past few years as weapons proliferate. Illegal factories have become so common that country-made guns are sold like candy in local bazaars. And as more and more people seek to obtain legal, licensed guns, an organization modeled on America's National Rifle Association has emerged with the mission to ensure every Indian the right to bear arms.

Delhi is no Peshawar — yet — but it's starting to look an awful lot like South Central. Police say Abishek's 14-year-old classmates allegedly followed him into a deserted stairwell, where they shot him at point-blank range with an imported .32 caliber Harrison pistol that one of the assailants had brought to school hidden in a sock. When Abishek arrived at the nearby Pushpanjali Hospital, he had two bullets in his chest and one in his head.

"He was our only son," Abishek's father said, holding up his boy's school photo. "He was a good athlete. He was good in his studies. He was good natured. I remember everything from his childhood till the day he died. I spent 14 years of my life with him."

Every few weeks there's a new story. A motorist pulls a pistol to clear a traffic jam. An armed gang shoots and kills a young woman returning home late at night when she refuses to pull over to be robbed or raped. A man pumps a bullet into the skull of his fiancee when she decides to call off their marriage. Thugs gun down a real estate broker over a business deal. A businessman — drunk and angry over losing his job — shoots his wife, daughter and son before he turns his gun on himself. A middle-aged woman who berates two roadside Romeos for harassing her daughter is shot dead for her trouble. Or the police shoot and kill traders trying to escape with a stash of smuggled guns. In north India, and increasingly across other parts of the country, it seems, the emergent "India Shining" of election campaign slogans may turn out to be nickel-plated.

Nationwide, around 40 million firearms — only about 5.5 million of them licensed — are in civilian hands. That's the second-highest total in the world, after the U.S., though it amounts to only four guns for every 100 people in India, compared with 90 guns for every 100 Americans. And despite relatively strict gun control laws, police and anti-proliferation activists say the number of weapons on the street is growing steadily.

"We have weapons ranging from homemade guns, which are called kattas, right [up] to [fire]arms as sophisticated as the [American] M-16 and Israeli Uzi," said Binalakshmi Nepram, head of the Control Arms Foundation of India. "And in places like Uttar Pradesh, they say gun shops are mushrooming like public telephone booths."

India's most populous state — and known as one of its most economically depressed — Uttar Pradesh has around 900,000 licensed gun owners, and several times that number of illegal arms. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, Uttar Pradesh, and two other northern "cow belt" states, Bihar and Jharkhand, accounted for two-thirds of India's gun-related homicides in 2008, the most recent year for which statistics have been collected.

But the killing isn't confined to the backwaters of these so-called "lawless states." Just as in the United States and other countries, gun crime is an urban phenomenon. Fearful city dwellers are clamoring for gun licenses to protect themselves from criminals. And, increasingly, the weapons of the mushrooming illegal rural factories of states like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh — along with the culture of the gun — are finding their way into India's cities.

"Everyone in our family has one. Our family has the largest number of guns in Gurgaon," said Rajje Yadav, a real estate developer who also owns a liquor store.

Yadav is a representative of north India's new rich. Over the past several years, the rapid economic growth of the “National Capital Region” (NCR) that surrounds New Delhi — and an accompanying real estate boom — has brought radical social change to the traditionally macho, honor-obsessed communities of rural Haryana and Uttar Pradesh.

Agrarian castes like the Jats and Yadavs have been propelled to fantastic wealth through the sale of their farms to real estate developers. But many have failed to integrate into the new urban society that surrounds them. For every new rich man there's a poor one who covets what he has.

And social tensions have been exacerbated as the educated members of the lower castes who once worked as bonded labor now leverage social programs to uplift themselves and overtake their one-time landlords. Throw in an obsession with izzat, or honor, and a fascination with guns, and you have the perfect recipe for violence.

"We and our relatives who are in the land and wine business have to handle enormous amounts of cash every day, so in order to protect ourselves we have to carry guns," said Yadav. But he admits that there's more to the phenomenon. "Guns have become a sort of status symbol," he says. "Possessing a gun takes a person to great heights."

Accidental deaths at NCR weddings — where revelers show off by shooting into the air — have become so commonplace that a council of leaders from some 40 villages in Delhi's hinterlands banned firearms from marriage ceremonies earlier this year. In a recent incident, for instance, bridegroom Pankaj Kumar was killed by a stray bullet at his wedding celebration when his father couldn't resist discharging his pistol into the air to show his status. No doubt today he feels much the same pain as Rajinder Tyagi.

"We pray to the almighty that something of this sort never happens to anyone, ever," Tyagi said. "The tragedy of losing a child is the greatest of them all."

But the rapid proliferation of guns suggests such tragedies are likely to grow more common. Already, in Meerut, another burgeoning city on the border of Delhi, guns accounted for nearly a quarter of accidental deaths in 2008.

"According to us, the reason behind this is the rapid industrialization and colonization in these areas,” an inspector general with the Meerut police recently told an Indian newspaper. “People are prospering and where there is money involved, there is always a fear of crime."

Because of that fear, it's not just rowdies, politicians and criminals who are arming themselves, and it's not only the newly rich of India's macho castes. It's doctors, lawyers and journalists, from the purportedly bookish Brahmin caste on down.

Consider Rakesh Singh, a native of Andhra Pradesh who has been a practicing doctor in Gurgaon for nearly 10 years. A few weeks ago at the private hospital he founded in 2007, located in a row of property dealers that hint at Gurgaon's red-hot real estate market, he gingerly pulled a licensed Indian-made revolver out of his desk drawer. He wasn't proud. He was angry.

"Deep down there's a sense of insecurity," he said. "Even in this city. Or as such in the NCR — Noida, Ghaziabad, Gurgaon. Even when you're out with your wife on Saturdays with the children, or driving back [home] at 10:30, you have this insecurity."

Not long before, a car had forced him off the road while he was on his way home. Seeing a gun in one man's hand and realizing they planned to rob him, or worse, Singh threw his car in reverse as the man opened fire, shooting three times. Outside his clinic, he pointed out the place where one of the bullets hit the hood of his car. Next time, Singh plans to shoot back.

"[It's] survival of the fittest. If you want to live in Rome, you have to live like how the Romans do," he said. "I have a revolver. But I really wish I had a more sophisticated, easier-to-use weapon. Because I'm really angry about the whole thing and I wouldn't think twice about shooting back. ... Somebody needs to let them know, you're not going to take it lying down. You can't go around, get drunk and go shooting people, bully people around who are just doing their job."

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

A la Kathmandu

Rediscover the delights of a budget gourmet destination...

Outlook Traveler - Dec. 1, 2010

It’s lunchtime at Thakali Bhanchha, and the canteen-style restaurant is packed. One table over, a group of tourists wrestle with their menus before opting for the non-veg thali (160 Nepali rupees)which features hill tribe food from the isolated region of Mustang. In the corner, a table of working class Nepalis tucks in, their steel dishes piled high with tremendous mounds of dal-bhat. The smell of coriander and mutton curry is hypnotic and my new friend Anil Giri, a veteran reporter with the Kathmandu Post, has to shout to make himself heard over the din of competing conversations. “Thakalis are known for hospitality, so this is why they are very good at this business,” he says. “They are champions of cooking food and all these kinds of things.”

diners at Thamel House

He doesn’t need to tell me. Thakali Bhanchha, a home-style Nepali restaurant in the heart of Kathmandu’s busy tourist district of Thamel, has been my favorite eating joint in the city for years, ever since I was introduced to the place by my sister-in-law, a foodie who has lived here since 2000. Lighter and less heavily spiced than most Indian food, the food made by Nepal’s Thakali people—ethnic Tibetans from the Tukuche mountain in Mustang—features subtle accents of cumin and coriander that gives it a distinct, fresh flavour.

Most Indians are sadly ignorant of Nepali cuisine, which comes in as many varieties as there are ethnic groups

But there’s more to the story than that. Most Indians are sadly ignorant of Nepali cuisine, which comes in as many varieties as there are ethnic groups in Nepal. I’ve always loved the Newari food made by the Newar people of the Kathmandu valley. Heavy on exotic meats—including buffalo—and fiery traditional liquors, a Newari meal has a rich, ceremonial feel, even at a basic food stall. The coal-black dal, almost without spice, has a lovely, earthy richness that is unlike any you will taste in India. And you can’t afford to miss the fermented dried greens—especially gundruk—of the high-caste Hindu Paharis of the middle hills or the fermented bamboo shoot-flavoured dishes of the Eastern region. (All readily available at Zaika and Thamel House in Thamel.)

The Himalayan Blues Festival at Comfort Zone

Unfortunately, the ubiquitous airfare-hotel-casino packages that have for years dominated the India-Nepal trade have kept most Indians from discovering the best thing about South Asia’s first tourist city: Kathmandu is a budget gourmet’s paradise. From the pungent fermented bamboo and gamey wild boar of Nepali classics to top-class, expat-run Israeli, Italian, Japanese, Korean and Thai restaurants, Kathmandu offers more than the usual backpacker’s burgers and banana pancakes—and the market is increasingly expanding to include more flash eateries, thanks to the proliferation of Western aid agencies and NGOs.

The gateway to Nepal’s mountains, rivers and wildlife preserves, Kathmandu has attracted legions of foreign tourists since the 1960s, when the city’s Jochen Tole, or ‘Freak Street’, was the Mecca at the end of the Hippie Trail from Europe. But unlike other cities along the route, like Delhi and Mumbai, Kathmandu’s in-built, laidback culture and anything goes attitude convinced lots of them to stay. So Thamel’s top Western and Asian restaurants are not just favourite eating spots for foreigners; they’re owned and managed by them. And even though Anil tells me that, traditionally, Nepalis aren’t as keen on eating out as Delhi’s flash-and-spend Punjabis, Kathmandu’s current generation is fast picking up the gauntlet thrown down by backpackers-turned-businessmen. “The recent trend is the younger lot are taking up restos, and they have much more exposure,” said Kunal Tej Bir Lama, the 43-year-old owner of Café Mitra. “Especially over the last three years, the new restaurateurs know what they’re doing.”

Clockwise from above: The Factory, Kathmandu’s hip new bar; grilled mutton at Chez Caroline; and a spread at
Picnic Korean Kitchen

The result is a fascinating mix of old and new. From Thakali Bhanchha, Anil led me on a post-prandial stroll south through Thamel and Chetrapati to Basantapur Durbar Square, also known as Hanuman Dhoka, where the sixteenth-century palaces of the valley’s Malla and Shah kings still stand in majestic glory. Down the lanes branching from the main square, we dipped into dozens of tiny Newari restaurants—hidden behind green curtains in medieval alleys so narrow it is nearly possible to stretch out your arms and touch the walls of the buildings on either side—for a glimpse of locals tucking into fish head, mutton tongue, lungs and brain. Then we headed for the modern Kathmandu equivalent at Bajeko Sekuwa (meal for two: NPR 1,000) in Anam Nagar, a popular seven-branch chain, where the tongue and brains come with napkins and table service, and there’s a multi-cuisine menu with Indian and Chinese favourites if you’re travelling with timid eaters. In the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit that I’ve never been partial to tongue—which tastes you back—but I was very pleased with Bajeko’s mutton sekuwa. Tender and succulent, each bite-sized piece tasted of salt and fat and cumin, with just enough red chilli to bring out the beads of sweat on my (white man’s) forehead. And before we’d finished, we were lucky enough to run into Dinanath Bhandari, the 69-year-old owner of the venerable chain. “I started my first business with a kilo and a half of mutton outside Kathmandu airport,” he told me. “Now I sell 200 kilos a day.”

After saying goodbye to Anil, plunging from one extreme to the other, I met my wife and sister-in-law for dinner at Chez Caroline (meal for two NPR 5,000), an elegant French and Italian restaurant that came highly recommended by expat residents and restaurateurs. Housed in the Babar Mahal Revisited Complex—a restored Rana’s palace that also boasts some of Kathmandu’s best boutiques—Chez Caroline hints at the direction that the city’s Western fare is headed outside of Thamel. Somewhat reminiscent of Delhi’s Olive restaurant at One Style Mile, it’s a quiet, romantic locale in a shaded brick courtyard, with dramatic white archways leading deeper into the palace. Known for its salmon, trout and imported lamb chops, it does a somewhat better steak than the backpacker joints in Thamel—though its beef also comes from Calcutta—and on past visits I’ve had some excellent pasta here. But after a day of meat, I was content with a goat cheese appetiser and Niçoise salad, punctuated by a few bites of my sister-in-law’s steak and my wife’s pesto. Stuffed and contented, that night I slept like a dead man.

on the streets of Kathmandu

But that first marathon of eating was just the beginning. The next three days—like all the visits to Kathmandu I’ve made over the eight years that I’ve lived in Delhi—were an orgy of food and drink. Croissants, cheesecakes, steaks, Korean barbecue, Tibetan momos, Thai curry, bacon and eggs, beef burgers and aloo tama—I was eating to stock up on the stuff I either can’t find or can’t afford in Delhi, eating out of pure gluttony and calling it research. And because Nepal doesn’t bother with a killing import tax and Nepalis have none of India’s reticence about booze—with more than a few bars hosting their own Hindu shrines—I was washing it all down with the good stuff. Jack Daniel’s at 250 Nepali rupees a pop, or local stuff for as little as NPR 65.

Even at the bar at the Kaiser Café in the posh Garden of Dreams—a colonial style garden that’s popular with young Nepali couples, and rivals Delhi’s Imperial Hotel for atmosphere—I was drinking Kirs for just about 300 Nepali rupees. An hour and a half from Delhi, and better than Bangkok, I thought for the zillionth time. So why don’t I see any Indians?

a food corner on mandala street

A bustling thicket of bars, restaurants, Internet cafés and shops selling trekking gear and souvenirs, Thamel has a rough-and-tumble look to it—the only explanation I can come up with to explain the complete absence of Indian travellers. But the low prices mean that the stakes are low if you get a bad meal—and, frankly, you can’t go wrong with anyplace that’s thronging with customers. Most of the simple restaurant-bars, like the Northfield Café, do a pretty convincing imitation of Brit-American pub grub, and the stalwart tourist icons like Kilroy’s grill a passable steak (NPR 800) for a country forced to import its beef from Calcutta.

Thamel’s top Western and Asian restaurants are not just favourite eating spots for foreigners; they’re owned and managed by them

More surprising, perhaps, is the quality of Asian food on offer. Along with the Western tourists, Kathmandu has also been attracting more and more Japanese and Korean tourists over the past decade or so, and there’s a vibrant Asian expat community thanks to the development sector and missionary work—and that’s good for the travelling stomach. Along with more upscale restaurants like Kotetsu, opposite the Japanese embassy in Lazimpat, and Pyongyang Okryu-Gwan Restaurant, near the Yak & Yeti Hotel, that means there’s a host of tiny, fantastically cheap Japanese and Korean joints secreted around town. Momotarou, for instance, does brilliant gyoza and other non-sushi Japanese, while Picnic Korean Kitchen is a must visit. With fantastic kimchee pancakes (NPR 100) and beebimbap (NPR 280), this is the place to go if you’re keen on beef (NPR 350)—but, like me, turn up your nose at hanger steak from Calcutta.

a street food vendor

If you do a little exploring—and take a tip or two from residents—you quickly discover that the trick to eating in Thamel (and Kathmandu) is learning that almost every restaurant does something better than the rest. The Northfield Café, for instance, has the best bacon in Thamel and the option to order half-portion breakfasts (NPR 150-200) is a boon. The Pumpernickel Bakery makes croissants (NPR 45) worthy of a Parisian boulangerie. Or2K, a first-floor Israeli vegetarian restaurant on Mandala Street, has fantastic salads (NPR 200) and a brilliant mezze platter (NPR 300). Fire & Ice makes the best wood-fired pizzas around. And Sam’s Bar—with no frills and no food—serves the friendliest drinks in town, thanks to its Austrian owner/bartender, Verena.

And however timeless it seems, Thamel is changing.Kathmandu has always been a great place for drinking, with laidback pubs like Tom and Jerry’s, Sam’s Bar and the Jatra Café & Bar packed with gap-year trekkers and hardcore mountaineers retoxing after Spartan weeks at high altitude. But on my third night in town, I took Verena’s recommendation and checked out The Factory, a recent addition to the scene that’s run by a young Nepali named Max, and discovered a completely different kind of nightlife.

As the sound system thumped out a shuddering bass beat, I climbed the stairs from Mandala Street to a hip, retro-industrial style club that would not look out of place in Manhattan—except for its expansive size. It was too early for a big crowd but it was clear this was no backpacker’s dive, as a table of young Nepalis in designer togs ordered up a bottle of imported wine and, across the room, a couple of UN types pecked away on laptops. I ordered a Jack Daniel’s and settled in, ready to embrace the new Nepal.