From Dharma to Chaos

Jatin Gandhi has covered politics and policy for over a decade now for print, TV and the web. He is Deputy Political Editor at Open.
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Both the Congress and BJP are finding it increasingly hard to retain their allies. They have only themselves to blame

The Congress has perfected the art of compounding crises of its own making. It may or may not be able to pull itself out of the temporary crisis created by the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’s dropping out of the United Progressive Alliance, but it will still have to appease the Samajwadi Party for the support of its 22 MPs. With the DMK pullout worsening the Congress’ problems, the SP too wants to teach the Grand Old Party a lesson for failing to keep Steel Minister Beni Prasad Verma on a leash. Verma insulted the SP chief and his former boss Mulayam Singh Yadav and may have to pay with his job. Even if these issues are resolved, the Congress will be left with a handicap that will not disappear on its own: its inability to keep allies sufficiently satisfied.

The DMK’s dumping of the tainted Congress-led alliance was probably catalysed by its spying an alternative alliance with Vijayakanth’s DMDK, which could fetch the DMK greater electoral dividends, and its fear of losing its Tamil plank to Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK. These were the DMK’s own motives. But the Congress’ SP problem is an unnecessary one for which it has only itself to blame. Verma, who the Congress poached from the SP, was unrestrained in his words against Yadav. “Mulayam takes a commission for supporting the UPA,” he had said.

It was barely a few months ago that the Congress let Mamata Banerjee walk out of the UPA. For the last three years, the Congress had been sending her party, the Trianmool Congress, signals that it was unwanted in the alliance—despite its dependence on it for its Lok Sabha majority. After the UPA returned to power in 2009 with the Congress winning 206 seats, the party—egged on by Rahul Gandhi’s spreadsheet politics— has been harping on going it alone in the belief that it could get closer to the majority mark on its own. It was Manmohan Singh who set the ball rolling in 2008 by dumping the Left parties and going back on the UPA-I’s assurance to them on the Indo-US Nuclear Deal. The UPA-I traded principled allies for opportunistic vote-hawkers to survive its July 2008 trust vote. From that point on, ally management has been a portfolio held by the Congress’ dirty tricks department.

Coalition partners had become important, briefly, in the pre-Rahul Gandhi era of Congress politics after the party realised it could not regain power at the Centre on its own. In its Panchmarhi resolution of 1998, the party had rejected the option of ruling in a coalition. It wanted exclusive power, and this kept it away from Parliament’s treasury benches for longer than it expected. The 1999 general election saw the BJP-led NDA return to power. By the time the next all-India polls approached, the Congress had reconciled to coalition politics as the only way to wrest power back from the BJP and its allies. In 2003, the party’s conclave in Shimla ended on a less arrogant note. Its Shimla Sankalp (resolution) concluded: ‘The Indian National Congress fought for Independence and secured it for our people. We must now fight to preserve it and its time-tested values in their truest form. Our unshakeable commitment is to the politics of principles, to democracy, secularism, economic growth and social empowerment. We now seek the support of the people to bring India back on the path of Progress with Congress under the leadership of Smt Sonia Gandhi. We invite all progressive-thinking men and women, institutions and political movements who share our understanding of India’s past, our concerns with India’s present and our vision of India’s future to join us in this historic endeavour.’

Aided by the wily Harkishen Singh Surjeet of the CPM, the Congress forged an alliance of secular parties and won power at the Centre in 2004. At the Hyderabad plenary of the Congress in 2006, the Congress reiterated its commitment to coalition politics. The 2009 general election brought the UPA back to power, but the Congress’ gain in seats spelt an exponential increase in its arrogance. Contrast the party’s 2006 attitude with its resolve at the 2010 plenary held in New Delhi: ‘The necessity of coalition politics at the central level does not prevent our state-level workers from hoping and dreaming of a larger political space wherever they may be and we as a party must be cognisant and supportive of their aspirations…The Congress has shown itself adept at adjusting to the ground realities of coalition politics. The Congress remains dedicated to restoring the primacy of the Party at the Centre and in all states.’

The BJP says it will not try to topple the current dispensation, but wait for the UPA Government to collapse under its own weight. The current state of the NDA is a good reason for the BJP’s restraint. It has few other options anyway, given that its own coalition management is far from satisfactory. The NDA is no longer the large group it was when Atal Bihari Vajpayee was Prime Minister. What remains of the NDA is the BJP and a few allies like the Janata Dal (United) in Bihar, Shiv Sena in Maharashtra and Shiromani Akali Dal in Punjab. In Bihar, where it is the junior alliance partner in the JD-U-led state government, the BJP’s relationship with its ally can at best be described as strained.

Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s show of strength at his Adhikar rally in New Delhi last Sunday has left the BJP uneasy for good reason. On the face of it, Kumar’s rally was held to demand ‘special status’ of the Centre for the state. On Monday, Kumar followed it up with meetings with Planning Commission Deputy Chief Montek Singh Ahluwalia and later Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Kumar’s rally was a message both to the BJP and Congress that the JD-U is willing to partner whichever party grants it what it wants. “Either you give it now or after 2014… you will have to give it,” Kumar announced from the dais, referring to his ‘special status’ call. “You will have to accept the demand, given the circumstances that will prevail after 2014. Only one who feels for backwards and backward states will [get to] occupy the seat of power in Delhi. We do not have to look either to the left or the right. We have to look straight. The Government in Delhi should be one that looks after our interests,” Kumar said, making it clear his party was out for a bargain.

Notably, Kumar has always taken a hard stance against the BJP’s poster boy Narendra Modi. In fact, Bihar’s CM rarely misses an opportunity to show his contempt for Gujarat’s CM. “We will leave everyone behind...There is talk of a development model these days. We will present [Bihar’s] model to the world. This is a model under which everybody is taken along. This is the real development model for India,” Kumar declared, directing a barb at Modi, whose recent visits to New Delhi have been focused on tomtoming his ‘Gujarat model’.

Even as Kumar occupied Delhi with thousands of his supporters, back in Patna the BJP held a state executive meeting that was boycotted by a few state ministers. Bihar’s Deputy Chief Minister Sushil Kumar Modi, often criticised within the state unit for his pro-Nitish Kumar leanings, made a turnaround in the face of his party’s misgivings and said the BJP state unit would contest the next Lok Sabha election “under the leadership of Narendra Modi if the party decides so”. For good measure, the deputy CM issued Kumar a warning: “The Congress has become a sinking ship and those ready to ride it will sink automatically.”

Evidently, the BJP has been throwing its weight behind Modi at the cost of alliance possibilities. With ever more regional outfits ready to dump old partners for new bargains, the BJP’s rigidity in supporting Modi’s candidacy for the top job will only make it tougher for it to convert Congress losses into gains for itself. The Shiv Sena too has reservations about Modi’s candidacy. The late Bal Thackeray, the party recently said, had given Sushma Swaraj his approval as the NDA’s candidate for the PM’s post. The alliance with the SAD in Punjab, where it runs the government, is another opportunistic arrangement that is unlikely to outlast the octogenarian Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal. Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Singh Badal’s contempt for the BJP is no secret, and he wants to turn the SAD into a party that doesn’t rely only on rural Sikh support for victory. He is working at it, and this is not good news for its ally.


Jagan Plans NCP Model in Andhra

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His aim is to replace the Congress in the state while supporting it at the national level

The YSR Congress Party (YSRCP) headed by its jailed scion, YS Jaganmohan Reddy, is shaping itself in the mould of the Sharad Pawar-led National Congress Party (NCP) in a bid to deal with the Congress. After his father and former Chief Minister YS Rajasekhara Reddy’s death in September 2009, Jagan has had a rollercoaster relationship with the Congress, which eventually led him to walk out of its embrace and float the YSRCP.

Though the YSRCP has given him electoral dividends with 17 MLAs and two MPs and poses a threat to both the Congress and TDP in coastal and Rayalseema districts, the party is aware that it may not be able to translate the bypoll gains into something huge. That is why the party wishes to see the Congress as a forgiving partner. On the YSRCP’s second anniversary last week, Jagan’s mother and party working president YS Vijayamma announced that she would support the UPA after the 2014 Lok Sabha polls and ruled out any truck with ‘communal forces’ led by the BJP. Though there was nothing new in her stand—she was only reiterating what Jagan had said before he was packed off to Chanchalguda Jail—it has nevertheless left political parties in the state bitter as they see the YSRCP pursuing an NCP model in Andhra by the time the state goes to polls in 2014.

Faced with criticism from other parties, including Andhra Congress MPs, Vijayamma later made a U-turn and ruled out any such support. Party insiders say the YSRCP is testing the length of its friendship band with the Congress as the CBI is due to file chargesheets against Jagan by month-end. “His family is desperately seeking bail for him by making appropriate political noises. The Supreme Court had earlier made it clear when Jagan sought bail that it would wait till the CBI filed the chargesheet. Such friendly gestures to the Congress would go a long way in watering down the charges and enable bail,’’ a family member says.

Jagan is in jail for allegedly profiting while his father, YS Rajasekhara Reddy, was Chief Minister between 2004 and 2009. As quid pro quo, 33 companies and individuals who benefitted from YSR’s largesse invested in Jagan’s companies, says the CBI. The Kadapa MP is one of the richest in India and had declared assets worth Rs 365 crore in April 2011.

The YSRCP feels an NCP model would do it good since it can then remain independent and choose its stand vis-à-vis the Congress. “The Congress is not expected to come back in AP nor will it be able to replicate the numbers it got in 2004 and 2009 that helped the UPA come to power at the Centre. The YSRCP wants to fill that vacuum and will be realistically able to form a government with Congress support in the state while it can win a handful of Lok Sabha seats and help the UPA shore up its numbers, something that the NCP has been able to do,’’ says a source.

Pawar quit the Congress to form the NCP when Sonia Gandhi’s foreign origins became an electoral issue. Though it’s in alliance at both the Centre and in Maharashtra, the NCP has managed to maintain a separate identity despite talk of merging his outfit with the Congress. The same formula may work for Jagan now as he sees himself playing a key role in the selection of the next Prime Minister.

Jagan has had several confrontations with the Congress High Command, which stymied the rise of YSR’s son, then a first-time Kadapa MP. He tried to split the party several times while K Rosaiah was at the helm. It eventually replaced Rosaiah with Assembly Speaker Kiran Kumar Reddy to halt desertions. He also went ahead with his odarpu or thanksgiving yatra to console families of victims who attempted or committed suicide in shock after YSR’s death.

After floating the YSRCP he won the Kadapa Lok Sabha seat while his mother retained her Pulivendala Assembly seat. In June last year, with Jagan in jail, the YSRCP won 15 of 18 Assembly bypolls across AP and the lone Nellore Lok Sabha seat in June 2012. This landslide bypoll victory was the first electoral confirmation that the YSRCP was gaining popularity over the Congress.

In AP, Telangana’s statehood and the YSRCP’s rise dominate most of the political discourse. While the TRS and BJP are on the same page on the Telangana issue, the TDP and YSRCP have not made their stand clear and are waiting for the Congress to make the first move. At the height of the Telangana movement that spawned political instability in 2009-10, the Congress had committed itself to carving out a separate state. Jagan’s ambiguity on the issue will only help him consolidate numbers even as his party works out a grand strategy to replace the Congress in the state while supporting it at the national level.


False Glory

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The farce of Police Gallantry Award nominations

The Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) is one of India’s largest paramilitary forces, operating in all zones of conflict—in Jammu & Kashmir, in Naxal-affected states, and in the Northeast. Often, many CRPF soldiers are from such areas themselves. They take on a big risk by joining the force, given the threats their families sometimes have to face from insurgent groups. In the recent suicide attack on a CRPF camp in Kashmir Valley, one of the five slain soldiers belonged to a Naxal-affected part of Jharkhand. Likewise, many men who come from J&K serve with the CRPF in Naxal-affected regions.

Under an unwritten policy of such forces, those who brave adverse circumstances to sign up and serve their country are encouraged so that they feel proud of their decision. But on the ground, sadly, things are far from ideal. More often than not, those serving at the lower rungs are frustrated because of low salaries, pathetic working conditions and the apathy of senior officers. 

What follows is a sordid tale from the Naxal belt of Bihar where a senior CRPF officer, a senior Indian Police Service officer and an inspector connived to get themselves nominated for the prestigious President’s Police Medal for Gallantry (PPMG), while sidelining two brave soldiers from J&K. There is clear evidence to suggest that the senior IPS officer and the inspector were not even present at the site of the operation for which their names were recommended for the medal. And the person blowing their lid is a young officer of the CRPF itself.

On the night of 1 January 2012, Charlie Company of the 205 Battalion of Cobra, the anti-Naxal wing of the CRPF, received specific information on the presence of a Naxal squad in a jungle under Chutia Police Station of Bihar’s Rohtas district. Immediately, two teams of the force under the command of Deputy Commandant TN Singh swung into action. At about 2 am, the Cobra team of over two dozen men proceeded in three vehicles towards Matiyaon, about 10 km from Chutia Police Station. They were accompanied by two policemen from the Nauhatta Police Station. It is an operational necessity in Left Wing Extremism (LWE) areas that paramilitary forces be accompanied by state police personnel on an operation. They used headlights while travelling through the villages. Later, as per standard operating procedure, they switched them off and moved slowly, guided by torchlight shone by a soldier sitting next to the first vehicle’s driver. Afterwards, they walked stealthily for about 3 km through the jungle. While one of the teams, Team 9, stayed behind, five members of Team 8, led by TN Singh, moved forward. Over a small bridge, identified as ‘Pulia No 119’, they spotted a Naxal sentry who too saw them and alerted his squad. Within seconds, the Cobra team came under fire. The five, Deputy Commandant TN Singh, his radio operator Shailendra, constables Birju, Imtiaz and Mohammed Ramzan, took position in two places. A fierce fight ensued in which handgrenades were lobbed as well. It lasted about 20 minutes. Three Naxals died, one of them under odd circumstances, while a young Naxal guerilla, Sushil Kumar Chaudhary, was arrested.

Of the four who fought alongside TN Singh, two are from J&K: Imtiaz and Mohammed Ramzan. Two days later, a deputy inspector general identified as Umesh Kumar visited the soldiers and said that the two boys from Kashmir should be recommended for Gallantry awards. But when the final list was made, their names were not included. The list had the names of TN Singh and Birju, apart from two others who were not even present at the encounter: Rohtas Superintendent of Police Manu Maharaj and Chutia Police Station in-charge Arun Kumar Akela.

The injustice went unopposed for about a year. The overlooked jawans did not raise an objection. They were resigned to their fate, telling themselves that this was how the system worked. They stayed on in the force, but their morale fell. On crucial operations, they lost their will to take any initiative. It affected the morale of other jawans as well.

It was on an operation of the same company in the dangerously Naxal-affected Latehar district of Jharkhand that an assistant commandant of the CRPF noticed that his boys were just not interested in doing their job; they seemed to be dragging their feet. The CRPF officer’s name is Praveen Kumar. He has a Master’s in International Relations from Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, and had joined the CRPF with a single mission: to make a difference in Naxal areas, to change the local population’s perception of India and its paramilitary forces. One day in Latehar, exasperated by his sluggish jawans, he asked them: “Itna chotu jaisa kyun ban gaye ho?” Why had they turned so useless? It was then that the men revealed to him why they were so put off.

Once they were back in Rohtas, Praveen assembled his men and had them talk openly about the night of 1 January—an exercise that he recorded on his video camera. In that exchange, a copy of which is with Open, several jawans spoke up and make it clear that SP Manu Maharaj and Inspector Arun Kumar Akela played no role in the encounter, and it was more than three hours later that they arrived at the site. They testify that Maharaj and Akela did fire a few shots in the air, but this was much after the hostilities had ceased. Then Akela filed an FIR on the spot, falsely claiming that both he and the SP took part in the encounter.

The FIR reads like a comedy. In the first few lines, Akela claims that the whole operation was led by Manu Maharaj. On page 3, Akela claims that when they were proceeding towards the Naxal squad, a guerilla in black clothes saw them and shouted: “Arre Cobra commander, SP aur Chutia ka bada babu Akela police ke saath aaya hai. Yahin mauka hai in sabon ko maar do” (Hey, the Cobra commander, SP and Chutia’s main officer Akela have come with the police. This is the right time to kill all of them). What Akela forgot in his enthusiasm was that at about 5 am in the dense fog of that January night, it would not have been possible for the Naxal sentry to identify each individual, let alone how silly it would have been of him to alert his comrades with such a loud and longwinded message.

On page 7 of the FIR, Akela reports that the SP fired one round of his pistol and two of his AK-47 rifle, while Akela fired five rounds. The Cobra team, meanwhile, fired a total of 154 rounds plus five handgrenades. Imtiaz fired 26 rounds of his AK-47 rifle, while Ramzan fired 16. They lobbed one handgrenade each. The FIR goes on to describe in detail how bullets flew all around the policemen. On page 7, Akela states that the SP’s driver also fired one round. This is a blunder. According to the standard operation procedure, vehicles and drivers must be kept away from the main spot of the armed offensive. If the SP was in a vehicle, then how was it possible at all to catch the Naxal squad by surprise?

That is not all. Praveen then went on to record another conversation with one of the policemen from the Nauhatta Police Station who had accompanied the Cobra forces. Constable Arun Kumar Jha confirms at least twice that SP Maharaj and Inspector Akela were not present at the encounter. Later, Praveen assembles all his men once again and asks them to describe the sequence of events on the night of 1 January 2012. He reads parts of the FIR aloud and waves it at them.

Praveen: Isme bol rahe hein ki SP ne AK-47 aur Pistol donon se fire kiya (This says that the SP fired both his AK-47 [rifle] and Pistol)

One Jawan: Teen ghanta baad (three hours later) Laughter…

Another Jawan: … jab firing khatam ho gaya (after the firing had stopped)

In the first video shot on the CRPF campus, one of the jawans addresses Praveen and says: “Sir, aap poochche thhe na kaisa chotu jaisa ban gaye ho. Yahaan ka system ne bana diya hai” (Sir, you had asked why we have become so useless. The system here has made us so).

The most damning evidence of the farce is a video shot at the encounter site. It is daylight by now. Deputy Commandant TN Singh, without realising that the camera is on video mode, speaks to the SP on his mobile phone, guiding him to the exact spot: “Akelaji aa gaye hein, Sir… Matiyaon ke opposite mein, pul ke neeche… Jeep saawdhani se seedhe chale aayiye” (Akela has arrived, Sir… it is opposite Matiyaon, underneath the bridge… drive the Jeep carefully, straight). In another clipping, at two spots, gunshots reverberate in the air while jawans stand at ease just a little away. The bodies of the slain Naxals are visible too. These are the shots the SP and inspector had fired later.

Open also spoke independently to the two jawans from J&K who fought along with their deputy commandant in the operation. Mohammed Ramzan testifies that both Maharaj and Akela reached the site at least three hours later—after TN Singh had informed them of it via his mobile phone. “I never imagined that they would include their names along those who conducted that operation. It was only later when I read their names in the FIR that I realised what they were up to,” Ramzan says. “Humko bahut feeling hua (I felt very bad),” he says, “We were initially told that our names would be sent for the Gallantry awards, but later nothing happened.”

The other jawan, Imtiaz, corroborates Ramzan’s version of events. “The SP was told over the phone. He came later and fired in the air pointing his rifle at the hills,” he says.

“I felt that since we are from Kashmir, we were not recommended for this award,” says Ramzan. He and Imtiaz are speaking freely for the first time since the incident. This is because they feel that a senior officer is finally ready to stand up for them. On his part, Praveen says that all he wants right now is justice for his boys. He has sent a formal complaint to various agencies, including the Director General of the CRPF, the Prime Minister’s Office and President of India, citing the evidence he has gathered to show how records were fudged for two police officers to get Gallantry awards. Writes Praveen in his formal complaint: ‘So who will and why put self life (sic) on the edge of death in such risky operations? These are a few lines which I heard from the subordinate officers and Jawans which poses the real picture of fading faith and trust in the nomination for gallantry medals and other rewards.’ Another question is Deputy Commandant TN Singh’s motive. What interest does a senior CRPF officer have in falsely stating that a state police officer led an operation that was actually under his own command? The answer lies in the faulty hierarchy of police forces in India. It is common for paramilitary officers to ingratiate themselves with IPS officers, even those with less experience on the job, because the latter ascend the hierarchy faster and are often deputed to the forces in positions of power.

The CRPF has not responded to a questionnaire sent to its Director General. But sources say that the two J&K jawans will now be recommended for the DG’s Commendation Disc, a decision they say has been taken recently. It is another matter that two other jawans of the same company got the same honour for the same operation months ago. Bihar’s Principal Secretary (Home) Amir Subhani, when contacted, says he does not act on the hearsay of journalists.

There has been a lot of pressure on Praveen Kumar since the fraud-peddling officers learnt that he is ‘up to something.’ “The SP has called me many times, asking me if my complaint has gone beyond Bihar,” he says. On record, both Maharaj and Akela stick to their version of events when contacted by Open. “Facts are being concocted,” says Manu Maharaj. But going by the evidence, it is he who has tried to do exactly that.

On the Contrary

In the Rape Court of God

Madhavankutty Pillai has no specialisations whatsoever. He is among the last of the generalists. And also Open chief of bureau, Mumbai  
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PJ Kurien is at the Vatican with the Pope while the Suryanelli rape case victim is asked to stay away from church

Last month, Open did a story on the Suryanelli rape victim (‘17 Years of Solitude’, 25 February). Shahina KK, who wrote the piece, has been following the case for over a decade. When she interviewed the victim and her family, one of the things that struck her was their terrible isolation. They had been forced to cocoon themselves from society. Their only respite was spending all free time exclusively in prayer. Shahina is an atheist but she remarked at the time that she understood why that family would completely turn themselves to God. It was the one and only thing that lent some order to the horrendous experiences they had been made to go through. This included, of course, the girl’s gangrape by 42 men spread over weeks. Then, soon after the girl pointed out the politician PJ Kurien, at present the Rajya Sabha vice-chairman, as one of her rapists, it became a political issue and the tide swung from sympathy to character assassination. Newspapers started insinuating that she was a willing party, the police started putting pressure on the family to not pursue the case, and, as Shahina’s story noted, one judge in his judgment said that because she had a habit of bedwetting she couldn’t take responsibility for her own actions.

Since that article was published in Open, yet another institution has joined the list of abusers, and this, as Shakespeare would say, is perhaps ‘the most unkindest cut of all’. The Church, that self-proclaimed middleman between God and his human subjects, betrayed the family not once, but twice in a span of a few weeks. The first instance was when the priest of the local St Francis Xavier’s Church in Kurinchi told the victim’s family to stay away from church. The cited reason: their names had started appearing in the media after they once again demanded action against Kurien. According to the victim’s mother, it was not a ban as much as friendly advice and they were told it was only until the controversy died down.

The same logic, however, did not apply to Kurien. Just this Tuesday, in a complete travesty, Kurien himself was at the Vatican leading a delegation to congratulate the new Pope on his ascension. And the Pope didn’t think the controversy needed to die down because you can see him in a photo looking at Kurien with saintly eyes and talking to him.

It is true that Jesus Christ asked for sinners to be forgiven but this sequence of events still doesn’t fit in with that exhortation. Forget about whether Kurien is guilty or not, between a crushed family that is soliciting God’s assistance daily and a politician out to redeem his image with the Christian constituency through deft public relations, the Pope should in fact have been embracing the victim. And the local priest should have been telling Kurien to stay away from church till everyone knew for certain that he was not a rapist. You can’t forgive the sinner and not forgive those he sinned against at the same time.

There are a number of things that the Suryanelli case tells us about the idea of justice, and it starts with it existing only among equals. If massive business houses are pitted against each other, as in the 2G scam, then there might be a fair outcome. But if the parties involved are akin to an elephant and an ant, as in this case, then justice is a mirage. It is not surprising that those who were convicted in the case are also from a ‘lower’ strata of society.

Justice is actually a very strange construct. It only exists among humans and all of us think we are entitled to it. Terrorists use denial of justice as an excuse to murder innocents, but even for them the concept is necessary. But in practice, there is nothing innate about it. Justice exists because men created it and those who wield its levers can just as easily usurp it. Not even a complete overhaul of society makes any change. For example, the Soviet revolution uprooted the entire structure because of its inequities and just ended up replacing class with party. The Suryanelli victim would have been leading a better life if she had not named Kurien. That is the sad truth of it.


Is Narendra Modi Smart?

Manu Joseph became a journalist because he did not have to crack any objective-type entrance exam to be one. He is the author of two novels -- The Illicit Happiness of Other People, and Serious Men, his first, which won The Hindu Literary Prize and was one of Huffington Post 10 Best Books of 2010.
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A review of a long speech

It is in the nature of public speaking, and what it does to the plumbing of an overweight man, to make even an orator of Narendra Modi’s experience appear somewhat nervous in the first moments. Especially when the event is indoors, and the audience is not a semi-literate crowd at a vast distance, but a class that considers itself the elite of Delhi, invited through 20-inch long invitation cards and seated around round tables in a banquet hall at the Taj Palace. And the speaker is a man who is acutely aware of hierarchies and probably judgmental enough to know the general cruelty of opinions. Also, a man who believes that everything he does is high stakes. Modi speaks slowly, enduring the involuntary shallow panting from his chest that public speakers dread—and the audience in the hall can hear. Then he makes a surprising move. Less than a minute after he began his ‘Leader’s Lecture’ at the India Today Conclave, he breaks his speech to say that everyone should now watch a video, and he goes back to his seat. About 15 minutes long, it is promotional material that announces the achievements of Modi’s leadership of Gujarat.

Among the lovers of Modi who hope or believe that he will be the next Prime Minister of India, there are highly educated Hindus who consider themselves reasonably humane despite their affection. They claim that they love Modi not because of the slaughter of Muslims in 2002 in Gujarat when he was the able Chief Minister of the state, but because he is smart, because he has ‘vision’. But they will struggle to cull the evidence of their claim from the substance of his many speeches. Nothing in them contains what people who can read and write would even remotely consider startling wisdom. Maybe he had to dumb down for the masses? And on other occasions, appease businessmen and non-resident patriots with valorous nothings? Maybe he was waiting for something like the India Today Conclave to show his depth of intellect?

When Modi returns after the commercial, he has fully regained his poise and there is no doubt he is an excellent orator. His topic is, ‘NaMo Mantra: Will it work for India’—meaning, can he do to India what he claims to have done to Gujarat? He says he has no “mantra or tantra”, and pitches his talk around the idea of “thinking differently”. Thinking, he says in English, “out of the box”. By way of example, he says that the Government’s employment guarantee scheme, which assures employment or wages to the poorest of Indians for 100 days in a year, must be positioned not as a social welfare measure but as a conscription call to the poor to dedicate 100 days of their lives to the nation. There is applause from some of India’s richest people, as if to drown out the canned laughter of the poor.

A few weeks ago, when he spoke to college students in Delhi, he was just as school boyish. About his extraordinary optimism: “I say the glass is always full—half with water, half with air.” And, about his textile policy: “…from farm to factory to fabric to fashion to foreign.” Now in slow motion, don’t miss the alliteration. When he reached the ‘foreign’ part, he dramatically pointed upwards as the audience, for some reason, erupted in ovation. The policy, which is called ‘5Fs’, is about making the whole biology that creates garments, and the garments themselves, in India, and exporting them to ‘foreign’.

In the Taj Palace banquet hall, there is a good moment when Modi says he went to meet Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and “nobody spoke”. He pauses for the laughter, and says, “Then only I was talking,” which, of course, leads to more laughter. He claims to have given an exquisite idea to the Prime Minister, something about converting solid waste in towns into fertiliser and selling it cheap to the farmers who farm around those towns, thus saving subsidy funds on chemical fertilisers. The cheap fertiliser would also, according to Modi, lower the price of food, thus ending malnutrition. The economist Prime Minister probably said the right thing in these circumstances: make a report. Modi took him seriously and sent a “2-kg” report. Applause.

Then, Modi says that the Prime Minister invited him to tea one day and since he did not want to have free chai, gave him another idea. A portion of the border between India and Pakistan runs through the deserts of Rajasthan and Gujarat. Because of the quality of the soil, “the fence keeps collapsing”. So Modi’s idea to Manmohan Singh was that the Government ask the Border Security Force to plant solar panels over hundreds of square kilometres on the desert. This way the border will have a fence that produces solar power even as it somehow prevents infiltration. Applause. What was the Prime Minister thinking when he heard this? Why don’t hostile neighbours usually have hugely expensive fences: for instance, millions of solar panels? Why is it that not a single country has large investments right on a border it shares with a heavily armed enemy? Is this idea worth the tea I gave this man?

Is it possible that after Modi left, the Prime Minister held his stomach and rolled on the floor with laughter? When the session ends, Modi steps down to sit at a high table and dine with a few chosen people whose seats have been marked by cards bearing their names. Industrialist Ajit Gulabchand discreetly switches two cards so that he can move to a chair closer to Modi’s.

People leave the hall, most of them in awe, even though it appeared that if Modi had given his ‘Leader’s Lecture’ in a school debate contest, he would have lost. But how did it come to be that those who would have won, some of them at least, are among his biggest admirers?


Lunacy is Not Policy

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An irrational stance on the 2009 suffering of Tamils in Sri Lanka will do no good

It took me some time as a Delhiwallah in Colombo to understand how important the politics of the various Dravida Kazhagams and some fringe groups in Tamil Nadu was to Sri Lanka. Soon after I landed in Colombo as The Hindu’s correspondent in 1995, their significance grew on me. Those were days that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was running amuck, striking the heart of Colombo time and again. They blasted the Central Bank of Sri Lanka and sent oil storage tanks in Kollonnawa up in flames. If there was an earth-shattering sound, you knew Tamil Tiger terror had struck.

In those pre-internet days, when the fax machine was God, I would get calls about reports published in The Hindu on what one or the other Tamil party had said in Madras (not yet Chennai). I would then pick up the phone and request a colleague in Madras to fax me the story.

If one knew in general terms that the politics of Tamil Nadu was linked to the Tamil-Sinhala politics of Sri Lanka, these calls from Tamil politicians in Colombo, sometimes even from Indian High Commission officials, came as confirmation. At that time, when the LTTE was battering the Sri Lankan state, picking off Tamil leaders like Ketheeswaran Loganathan and Neelan Tiruchelvam, killing innocent Tamilian and Sinhalese civilians alike, there was no protest from the various Tamil outfits in Tamil Nadu.

The LTTE’s reign of terror was total. And, Velupillai Prabhakaran, killed by the Sri Lankan army in 2009, was the unchallenged Tiger-in-Chief. I never mourned his death; he was a ruthless military genius who was responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of Sri Lankan Tamils, but I did and do mourn the deaths of ordinary Tamils killed by President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s forces around the time the LTTE boss met his end.

Yes, I do think there should be an honest, purposeful and finger-pointing inquiry into the deaths of these innocent Tamils as the Sinhala state triumphantly ‘mopped up’ the remaining insurgents in northern Sri Lanka. But the histrionics of DMK President Muthuvel Karunanidhi and his party’s withdrawal of support from the UPA Government have come four years too late to be taken seriously. The veteran politician could not but have been aware that India gave considerable behind-the-scenes help to the Lankan army as it went about the military campaign to decimate the Tamil Tigers. It was a subtle, dual approach that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his government, like others before him, had adopted. Help Colombo militarily, but keep pushing the Rajapaksa government on the issue of Tamil rights. If Karunanidhi were concerned about the fate of Tamils in Sri Lanka, then why didn’t he pull out in 2009 from the UPA? Why wait till now? Because he has nothing to go to the people with, come the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. So, with his senior leaders charged with corruption, the DMK chief is desperate to arm himself with something for the next general election. If nothing else, he will at least go down as ‘the giant defender’ of Tamil interests.

As a defender of Tamil rights, Karunanidhi is in competition with the state’s Chief Minister Jayalalithaa. She has been proactive on this front, recently ordering a school football team home from Colombo, even going to the extent of suspending a sports official. Under her watch as Chief Minister, ordinary Sri Lankans (including Tamils) have been heckled and harried in Tamil Nadu, and at least two monks have been beaten up in the past few days. This makes for a bizarre situation, with ordinary Sri Lankans being attacked and persecuted for the alleged crimes of their government. It makes a mockery of India’s efforts to sustain a good relationship with Sri Lanka and its people. What if these attacks provoke retaliation in Sri Lanka on the thousands of Indians visiting or living in Colombo and other parts of the island nation? What will Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa do then? Ask that India snap diplomatic relations with Sri Lanka? Or send in troops to defend Indian citizens?

Such a shortsighted approach to problems in Sri Lanka boggles the mind. Are these politicians concerned at all about what impact their actions might have on a country with which India enjoys good relations? The short answer: no. Karunanidhi’s faith in the United Nations and its organs to get justice for Sri Lankan Tamils is touching. We are all aware of the UN’s own record in failing to highlight the killings of Tamil civilians as the war wound down in Sri Lanka in 2009. Barring one statement from the UN, on 14 March 2009, that the actions of the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE ‘may constitute international crimes, entailing individual responsibility, including for war crimes and crimes against humanity’, an internal UN report found that the global body ‘almost completely omitted to explicitly mention Government responsibility for violations of international law’.

Let us not kid ourselves. The draft resolution before the UN Human Rights Council only calls upon Sri Lanka to conduct an investigation of Tamil civilian deaths in 2009. It would be a bit of an embarrassment for Colombo if the resolution is passed in its present form, but nothing it can’t live with. “All the talk about killings and atrocities must be balanced and include also those committed by the Tamil Tigers,” Mahinda Samarasinghe, Sri Lanka’s Minister for Plantation Industries, said at the Council’s meeting in Geneva, displaying little appetite for a credible probe into the actions of the country’s security forces.

The fact is that LTTE forces have been decimated. The fact is that the power of the Sri Lankan State, which demonstrates all the traits of Sinhala chauvinism, is total today. And, it’s not as if Colombo has no friends in the international community—just read the record of the debate on the draft resolution at the Council meeting for details. At the end of the day, any inquiry into the excesses that were committed (according to UN estimates at least 2,683 were killed and 7,241 injured between 20 January and 2 March 2009) during the war can be conducted only with the cooperation of the Sri Lankan State. And, while there is no doubt that the government should be pressured to conduct a credible investigation, the record of the past four years has shown that Colombo has little interest in a real probe.

It’s not just that President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brothers were responsible for taking the war to the Tamil Tigers (and to innocent Tamil Sri Lankans), it’s that there is no space for justice or Tamils under the Sinhala brand of politics that the Rajapaksas have patented. Realists would believe that after a massive victory in a bloody war that lasted a quarter of a century, the president would think it a good idea to codify and give greater rights to the country’s Tamil minority to forestall future disaffection. Instead, we see that the minimal 13th amendment to the country’s constitution enacted in 1987, which sets up provincial councils, is up for question. Far from getting more rights, there is every chance that Sinhala chauvinism may lead to the repeal of that amendment.

Much as we would like foreign governments to do what we want them to, they are sovereign entities with minds of their own. Rather than talk down to them, or pass resolutions in Parliament, it would be far better to engage them and hope they see reason in the future—or that the next government is more receptive.

If Rajapaksa is pursuing his brand of chauvinist politics, Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa are practising the competitive Tamil Nadu kind. None of them is interested in the rights and aspirations of Sri Lankan Tamils.

Once again, Indian foreign policy is at the mercy of regional satraps. Not Mamata Banerjee this time, but Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa. Any foolish dramatic act of ‘support’ for Sri Lankan Tamils by New Delhi to save the UPA Government would have long-term implications for India’s relationship with Sri Lanka. Moreover, letting Tamil chauvinists attack innocent Sri Lankans in Tamil Nadu is not justice. Nor is it good policy. It is just lunacy.

Amit Baruah, an independent Delhi-based journalist, was The Hindu’s correspondent in Sri Lanka from 1995 to 1997. He’s on Twitter @abaruah64


Waiting Forever to Break Free

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The agony of getting a divorce without mutual consent in India

But for a few details, it is a common tale. She is 33 and works as a business consultant in Mumbai. Her first meeting with the man she would eventually marry was in 2006. It was a meeting arranged by her parents. She was taken in by his charm and the way his parents embraced her. She married him six months later and moved to Pune. The problems began soon after. An architect, he would travel on work for months together, and while he was away, his father would hit her and his mother would berate her. The husband dismissed all these as petty issues. Meanwhile, he himself was emerging as a problem. “He would say that his money is his,” she says, “but my money had to be spent on maintenance of the home.” She remembers her father-in-law asking for a car on her husband’s birthday. “New age dowry,” she says. Despite all this, she says, she actually tried to make the marriage work. But, in 2009, her father-in-law beat her up and threw her out of the house. She went back to her parents and filed a case for divorce. It was the beginning of another ordeal.

Her husband denied that there was any problem between them. He swore he loved her and wanted her back. Each time she went to court, she was asked a trail of questions by the husband’s lawyer designed to prove that he was a good husband. Did they ever go on a vacation? Did he allow her to wear whatever she wanted? To counter this, her lawyers asked questions that tried to show how her husband and his family had inflicted mental and physical cruelty on her. Her husband denied that he had any knowledge of all that she claimed was happening to her in his house.

In 2011, several counselling sessions and court dates later, he filed criminal charges against her, alleging that she stole jewellery from his house when she left. When the police shut those cases on lack of evidence, he took them to a civil court. “It had now become about troubling me as much as he could,” she says, “I had to hire a criminal lawyer.” As a counter-offensive, she filed an application for alimony and maintenance. For this, she had to hire yet another lawyer, but it worked. The court granted her Rs 8,000 per month as maintenance. Her husband was also asked to compensate her for the expenses she had incurred on lawyers over a period of three years. “That’s when he buckled. I offered him a deal: don’t pay me anything, just give me my freedom.”

Her divorce was finally approved a few months ago, but she still has to get the documents that declare her divorced. “It’s a long process because you have to prove so much, and you don’t have the evidence to prove things like being beaten up three years earlier. The judges are fair and sharp, so they get it. But they are so overworked that the hearing dates are a few months apart and there is just too much paperwork. By the end of it, you have to strike deals. There is no other way. I am drained after the [experience] and have lost so much of my youth.”

Manjusha Khandekar (1), her lawyer, says that the law in India is devised in such a way that nobody gets away by citing flimsy reasons for divorce. “The system does take time, but that is also because there are so many divorces being filed. Also, mutual consent divorces are much fewer—because one spouse always has an ego problem. They don’t realise they need to let go. In India, proving your reasons is very important. Sometimes, you just need to do what you can to get a divorce. That’s why we adopted the alimony strategy.”

The biggest obstacle to getting a divorce in India is the need to establish that you deserve one, says Mrunalini Deshmukh, a lawyer who has co-authored a book on the subject with fellow lawyer Fazaa Shroff-Garg: Breaking Up: Your Step-by-step Guide to Getting Divorced. This book details different grounds on which you may be granted a divorce. It also offers guidance on alimony matters, maintenance (for both men and women) and all the laws you need to know if you are thinking of putting an end to your marriage.

There are two types of divorce: ‘contested’ and ‘by mutual consent’. The latter is easily dealt with. The husband and wife have to file separate petitions, undergo a set of mandatory counselling sessions, and then get another court date after a six-month cooling off period. If they still want a divorce on the second hearing, the judge usually passes a judgment to that effect. But cases of mutual consent are rare: only a fifth of all cases, in Deshmukh’s estimate.

Complications arise when one spouse resists a divorce. This makes it a prolonged process. If you want a divorce, you must devise a strategy to get one, file a petition based on it (tactically modifying it if need be), serve it to your spouse, go for a first date in court (where you will be sent for counselling), attend a second date to present the merits of your case, and then hope to get past this sticky stage to discuss ‘issues of consideration’ and measures of interim relief like maintenance, before you get a final decree nullifying your marriage.

Deshmukh and Shroff-Garg wrote this book in response to all the ignorance they encountered on matters of divorce. In India, Deshmukh says, you need to prove your case for a divorce thoroughly to get a judge to grant you one. “You can’t just say, ‘We are not getting along’. That happens in the US and UK, where if you have been apart for enough time, you will surely get a divorce. But in India, except in cases of divorce by mutual consent, you can’t say ‘I want a divorce because we don’t get along’. You have to prove it.” Since this is a subjective call, and can be contested by the spouse, a divorce on such grounds is rarely ever granted in India. The point of taking the testimony of contestants so seriously is to safeguard their dignity and interests, since most of India’s contested cases are of wives being left by their husbands. At lower socio-economic levels, desertion is a serious issue of women’s rights. “They need strict laws for divorce or they will get nothing,” says Deshmukh.

That also means that the well-off must wait for years for a divorce to come through. Some of Deshmukh’s clients have waited for over a decade. In the book, the two lawyers cite the example of a couple who were back together by the time they got their divorce. The authors do not blame the judges, but the system. “You first have to file an interim application, then formal ones, then work out details that both agree with,” says Deshmukh, “That takes time.”

Sometimes lawyers are hired just to stall proceedinbgs and create delays. The courts are usually understaffed and overburdened. One court typically handles around 50-60 cases a day. Deshmukh herself gets five-six new cases every day.

The book answers questions like ‘How do I prove my spouse is an unfit parent?’, ‘What do I do if my spouse watches a lot of pornography?’ and ‘What if my spouse is a sex addict?’ It also has some extraordinary case studies. The case of ‘Eijaz and Mala’, for instance. Eijaz demanded dowry. But when she filed for divorce citing ‘mental cruelty’, he contested it and said he wanted both of them to be together. Deshmukh initiated a settlement and Eijaz asked for crores of rupees, but finally haggled over the sum and gave Mala a divorce. There is also the case of ‘Rohan and Maya’, in which it was the husband at the receiving end. Maya, says the book, would curse and batter her husband. On Deshmukh’s advice, Rohan videotaped an incident that showed him being shouted at and slapped by his wife. A medical test showed that she was suffering from schizophrenia, and he was granted a divorce as well as custody of their children.

In many cases, it is not easy to determine one’s limits of tolerance. Thirty-year-old Avinash Patil, who works in the BPO sector, says that his wife was violent and wishes he had recorded it as evidence but did not because he “loved her and never wanted the marriage to end”. Now, he faces several criminal charges that his wife has slapped on him, all of them related to domestic violence. Patil says that he finds it hard to believe their marriage has come to this. Theirs was an arranged marriage and he says he did all he could to make it work. On their two-week honeymoon to Kerala and Goa, her behaviour struck him as weird—she would often complain of headaches and say she wasn’t well. This went on for the entire trip, and once they got back home, she complained that he didn’t look after her. She would use abusive words against his family, he says, and he discovered that she had a history of taking anti-depressants. Then came times when she started beating him up. When he went to the police, they refused to believe him. “Last year on Diwali things seemed better,” he says, “We did puja, bought new stuff and tried to be normal. But it was not to be.” She went to his parents’ house, and, according to him, beat herself up and filed a case against his entire family. They were put behind bars. “I will file a divorce case soon,” Patil says, “She has not turned up for counselling. I cannot keep waiting for her to take the first step [towards a split]. Maybe I will use a private investigator now to prove my claims.”

Lawyer and author Shroff-Garg says that the use of private investigators to bolster evidence in divorce cases is pretty common. And it is not as invasive as people often imagine; detectives are hired for plenty of reasons other than proving an extramartial affair. “It’s not as if they are putting cameras in people’s bathrooms,” she says. “Sometimes people ask for maintenance and say they are unemployed. But that’s untrue. They may be working and lying about it.”

Prashant Palekar, who runs Magnum Investigations, has been a detective for 15 years. He says that divorce cases are every investigator’s mainstay. He gets a case every second day. “If a woman is asking for alimony saying she doesn’t have a job, we get her salary slips. We have people everywhere. We can get a contact inside her office. Or we pose as loan advisors and say, ‘We will get you a loan…’.”

Divorce espionage is not entirely devoid of cinematic scenes, though. Palekar says he has had to follow targets to hotels and other love nests.

In common perception, Indian divorce laws favour women. Several lawyers flatly deny this, but Deshmukh and Shroff-Garg say that it is true to some extent. “In custody battles, sometimes the father is the better parent. But Indian courts are designed to automatically rule in favour of the mother. That should be changed. Fathers should not be begging for visitation rights,” says Deshmukh. “And even men can seek maintenance for the period of the divorce case,” says Shroff-Garg, “Why shouldn’t they?”

More often than not, says Shroff-Garg, divorce cases end in a wrangle over money. “There are never black-and-white cases. It’s all grey. In the end, it’s about buying your freedom. Either you pay money or take money. It’s that simple.”

(1) - A correction was made to this article after it was published


Nano News Is Bad News for Tata Motors

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The failure of Nano seems to have bogged the car-maker down, but perhaps JLR’s engineers can help revive its sales in India

The shock figure in business circles these days is 70 per cent: this is the tumble that sales of Tata Motors’ passenger vehicles have taken this February—it sold just 10,636 units—over the same month last year. Yes, the entire market has slumped, but Tata Motors’ performance is particularly poor, with its marketshare slipping to 8.8 per cent; it was in the teens some years ago and still in double digits till late last year. Its compact cars and sedans have taken a battering over the past six months.

The company’s diesel models are often put to commercial use, and so India’s economic slowdown has hit it harder than others. Even for personal use, its cars are aimed at the price-sensitive buyer, whose confidence has been hurt by a “slowing economy and inflationary pressure” in the words of Kapil Arora, partner, automotive practice, Ernst & Young. High interest rates on car loans have also acted to dampen customer enthusiasm. Moreover, “The Government’s recent push to incrementally align fuel prices with market rates has made the overall cost-of-ownership too high for the price-sensitive buyer,” says Sudarshan Shreenivas of India Ratings & Research. Diesel vehicles, Tata’s mainstay, are no longer seen as big fuel-expense savers.

The company has resorted to an array of special schemes to boost sales. For its Manza sedan, it has a buyback offer aimed at assuring this model a minimum resale value after some years of service. It may not be enough. In the sedan segment, say auto analysts, it has failed to keep up with style trends. While the aerodynamic ‘fluidic’ and ‘arrowshot’ designs of its Korean and Japanese rivals have stolen ahead, Tata’s sedans look too boxy and dated to appeal to urban sophisticates.

For Nano, sales of which were dismal in February, the company now offers same-day delivery at the swipe of a credit card. This model, hailed as the world’s cheapest car, is also the one observers pin most of the firm’s troubles on. As its former chairman’s ‘dream project’, many suspect, it has drawn too much management attention at the cost of other models. Also, Nano has had poor word-of-mouth reviews; its ownership seems to cause a peculiar kind of customer unease. Some say it is underpowered and thus too meek in the rough-and-tumble of Indian traffic. Others say it does not serve the status aspirations of its main target buyer: the upwardly-mobile two-wheeler user.

Of course, an intense re-dedication to research and development could solve such problems. Maybe Jaguar Land Rover’s engineers could lend the Indian operations a hand.

It Happens

The Nuisance of Bird Photographers

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A study of Karnataka’s Hesaraghatta Lake shows how bird photographers are messing up the ecology of the region

Hesarghatta Lake, which is situated around 30 km from Bengaluru, is a biodiversity hotspot. Ever since it turned dry in 2009, its vegetation is undergoing a transition, and it has started to attract a number of birds that prefer grassland or marginal wetlands. It is estimated that around one third of all birds found in Bengaluru can be found here, and some, like the Pied Harrier, are rarely spotted anywhere else in India.

However, as a recent study shows, another type of visitor has also started to frequent the space. And its presence has come to adversely affect the region’s ecosystem. In a study titled ‘Ruining the ecology of Hesaraghatta Lake: the role of bird photographers’, a group of ecologists and researchers detail the damage caused to the region by bird photographers.

According to the analysis, conducted in December 2012 and published on Conservation India, a non-profit portal that provides information about wildlife and nature conservation, 43 km of permanent tracks have been made by cars of photographers on the lake bed, harming the vegetation of the region. The study also highlights how photographers chase birds in their cars until they are exhausted and cannot flee. On an average, 20 cars visit the spot every day and spend three-and-a-half hours. The authors write, ‘Each vehicle was observed to drive at least five times in the entire study area. Some of these vehicles were driven at visually estimated speeds of 40-50 kmph to get to a perching bird which was then stalked carefully at speeds less than 10-20 kmph… Whenever a vehicle stopped near a bird, four to five vehicles converged on to the spot and circled around. If the bird flushed, there would be a frenzy to reach it first.’ In doing the study, the researchers also came across a rare species of butterfly called the Lilac Silverline. Protected by the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972, this butterfly species was last spotted in India 103 years ago, reportedly. But vehicle movement has crushed several of these butterflies’ host plants.

According to Dr MB Krishna, an ecologist and one of the authors of the report, the researchers had long been hearing complaints about the photographers. “I have even heard that photography classes are held here,” he says over the phone from Bengaluru.“There are also rumours, although we did not come across it during our study period, that some photographers offer snakes to birds of prey. There is nothing wrong in taking pictures, but it has to be done responsibly.”


Italian-Indian standoff

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Italy claims that the incident did not occur in Indian waters

The two marines who the Italian government refused to return to India, Massimilian Latorre and Salvatore Girone, are wanted for the killing of two Indian fishermen. They shot the fishermen on 15 February 2012, off the coast of southern India, from aboard a merchant ship. They had mistaken them for pirates.

A diplomatic row between the two countries ensued when the Indian Government arrested the two marines. While Indian authorities claim that the shooting occurred in the contiguous zone (this zone lies up to 24 nautical miles from the shoreline and falls within the jurisdiction of the coastal government), Italy claims that the incident did not occur in Indian waters and thus the marines cannot be tried by an Indian court. A number of meetings between authorities from the two governments were held last year, but the Indian Government refused to release the marines.

On 18 January this year, the Supreme Court rejected the Italian plea that the shooting occurred in international waters. It ruled that the incident occurred within the contiguous zone and that a special Indian federal court would be set up to try the two.

Late last year, the two were permitted, on the assurance of the Italian government, to visit home on bail for two weeks during the Christmas break. However, this time— allowed to visit Italy to vote in its general election—the Italian government reneged on its promise and refused to send the two back. The Italian ambassador in India, Daniele Mancini, had in fact filed a sworn affidavit with the Supreme Court promising to take the responsibility of securing the return of the two marines to India on or before the expiry of their leave period.

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