Thursday, March 22, 2012

The UNHRC Vote on Sri Lanka

First of all, let’s make no bones about the influence Tamil political parties had on India’s vote today at the UNHRC. Without their pressure, the government would likely have abstained or even voted against the US motion calling on Sri Lanka to “keep its promises” on rehabilitating its decimated Tamil population.This is Indian democracy at work. It certainly isn't the work of "churches & mombattiwallahs" as one cynical observer put it.

That said, let’s now weigh what India stands to win or lose with its stance. For starters, Sri Lanka will feel indebted to the Chinese for sticking by Colombo and making efforts to defeat the US motion. 

And, miffed at having been told off on the world stage, Mahinda Rajapakse’s government may well go slow on its own promises to do right by the Tamils. 

Let’s address the “China threat” first. I believe it is exaggerated. Answer these two questions and you’ll understand why for yourself. One, did Sri Lanka’s affinity to China begin after the US proposed its motion at the UNHRC? Two, would Sri Lanka’s affinity to China have reduced if India voted against the US's motion?   

The answer to both questions is an obvious 'no'. In other words, China’s influence in Sri Lanka would not have reduced or ended even if India supported Sri Lanka today.

Sri Lanka's Permanent Representative, to the UN called this an "intervention by powerful countries in the internal affairs of other nations". He forgets that India worked hard to guard explicitly against such outside 'intervention'. New Delhi introduced a last-minute amendment that said any international efforts in Sri Lanka would be "in consultation with, and with the concurrence of, the Government of Sri Lanka". 

While we’re on the subject of China, let’s remember the term 'geo-politics'. Sri Lanka cannot escape its geography. No matter how diplomatically close Colombo and Beijing get, the two cities will always be 5,000 kilometers away. On the other hand, India will always be just across the Palk Strait. These distances will play on Colombo’s mind every time it thinks about making a clean break from New Delhi. 

As someone said today, by the time the Chinese navy gets halfway across the Indian ocean, IAF fighters would returned from their 50th sortie over Sri Lanka. This is an exaggerated situation. No one in their right mind expects, much less wants war, but it illustrates the hard realities of geo-politics. 

Then there’s economics. 14% of Sri Lanka’s imports come from India. Indian companies have deep roots in Sri Lanka, creating thousands of permanent jobs. It won’t be easy for Beijing to immediately bridge this gap. 

For all intents and purposes, Sri Lanka isn’t going anywhere. It was time for Delhi to call Colombo’s bluff. And it did so. In addition to the 9 votes Sri Lanka’s diplomats cobbled together at the UNHRC, China could manage just 8 more, barely nullifying the 8 abstentions (many abstained after India's stance was made clear). This only solidifies my belief that China’s clout is exaggerated.

Lastly, but most importantly, what of the Tamils? Will Sri Lanka truly go slow? Unlikely. International pressure on Colombo has never been greater to act quickly. The world may have turned a blind eye to Colombo’s excesses during the war to oust the terrorists. But it is now firmly trained on how Colombo takes responsibility to heal wounds and build bridges. That is exactly what the resolution called for. Rajapakse will close himself off to this attention at considerable diplomatic and economic cost. India has ensured that the just, non-violent struggle of Sri Lanka’s Tamils for equality will not easily be forgotten.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Time for a New Mandate

By most accounts yesterday's budget showed no signs of the 2nd generation reforms the government needs to carry out. On the same day the Chief Economic Advisor told the India Today Conclave that he expected growth to reduce further to 6.5% from the present 6.9%; figures he himself admitted were disappointing.

So here's the situation. The prime minister has on several occassions maintained the need to grow at 9% to create sufficient jobs. That hasn't happened for 4 years.

To achieve such growth in the current environment (and to sustain it in the long run) his government must enact second generation reforms ranging from new tax codes to new land & labour laws. It must also announce new policies that will increase investor confidence in critical sectors such as retail, agriculture, even telecom, rail and roads.

None of these reforms have seen the light of day. To be fair, when the government has tried to introduce new policies - FDI in retail, pension reforms and rail fair hikes come to mind - these have been scuttled by its own allies. Even petrol price hikes, no longer a domain of the government, in theory, meet stiff political opposition.

In short, this government is now unable to enact the reforms needed to provide Indians with sufficient jobs and livelihood. This is a dangerous situation. Aspirations, particularly among the youth, are high; and when they remain unmet the country risks great tensions.

With no sign of things changing, it is time for the government to do one of two things.
First, it could re-engineer its coalition to reflect the mandates from states such as Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh, and jettison its current non-cooperative partners from West Bengal. This will be hard and come with its own political costs.

Second, having lost its majority in the Rajya Sabha, and with its Lok Sabha alliance is in tatters, it must seek a fresh mandate from voters. It may not win, but what we have at the moment cannot be called a government by any stretch of the imagination.

What cannot continue is more of the same. India will pay too heavy a price.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

India, Sri Lanka & the UNHRC

The debate on how India should vote on the Sri Lanka resolution at the UN Human Rights Council has gotten absurd. This afternoon I read the following argument from a very senior journalist on Twitter.
“Tomorrow EU could move a resolution at UNHRC against India for 'war crimes' against Maobadis. And back it with an Amnesty report. What then?”

I’ll respond to this twisted logic in a minute. But first, some perspective.

A former colleague visited Sri Lanka a few months before and then shortly after the war. I’ve spent much time discussing his visits with him. During the final days, my colleague was also given access to information from the battlefield through a source on the ground. What we saw and heard mortified us.

There can be no doubt of one thing: civilians were slaughtered by the Sri Lankan army. The final toll may be as high as 100,000. This is a mind-numbing figure. So let me put it in perspective. It is equal to seventy passenger planes falling from the sky - every day - for a week.  

But let’s be balanced. The army was not alone in these killings. The LTTE ‘contributed’ by butchering families that refused to serve as human shields. The LTTE also refused to recognize international laws that forbade the use of heavy weapons in civilian areas.

So how should India approach the UNHRC vote? There are several complications aside from the reprehensible crimes committed by both sides.
  • There are numerous reports of China’s attempts to ingratiate itself with Sri Lanka. If successful, India will be kept on the backfoot in its own neighbourhood.
  • India’s own dirty history with fighting terror groups from Kashmir to the North East. The senior journalist I quoted above believes an attempt to condemn Colombo could invite a tit-for-tat resolution against India’s own atrocities. 
  • Our own dirty history with the LTTE. As another friend and former colleague wrote to me in a tweet: We create LTTE, send IPKF, get the PM killed, sympathize, letting them [get] killed by SL forces, sympathize”.

I’ll take these one-by-one.  
I believe China-related fears are overblown. China cannot and will not replace India in Sri Lanka for one reason. Beijing is 5,000 kms away from Colombo. India lies across the Palk Strait. This proximity is the reason why 14% of all Sri Lankan imports come from India. Remember how New Delhi can’t annoy Tehran because Iranian oil accounts for 12% of our total fuel imports? Similarly, Sri Lanka cannot afford to be overtly anti-India.

On our own dirty history of fighting terror groups, I’ve always believed that the State risks undermining itself. India should be honest with the victims of its armed forces’ atrocities. We should admit grave wrongs and work swiftly to make reparations. We can’t afford to look away from grave wrongs in other countries because we fear being exposed. Superpowers take responsibility. As an aspiring superpower, we should too. 

On our own dirty history with the LTTE, it’s time to admit our confused policies over the past 30 years have failed. We failed to separate Tamil terrorists from Tamil civilians. It has now coming back to haunt us. Time, once again, for a clean break from the past. We must admit our policies have failed and make our future intentions clear. 

The way forward
On that note, let me conclude with what India can do. At the heart of this debate is the slaughter of tens of thousands of innocent people. This next bit is important: they were killed by both sides. India can introduce an amendment to the resolution to reflect this.

We should call for an independent investigation of war crimes by both the Army and the LTTE. Now, justice has already been done to LTTE war criminals. It’s time war criminals from the Sri Lankan army were also held accountable.

Monday, March 12, 2012

When Raj Kapoor Saved Me From a Russian Gulag

The following essay placed in the top-10 (humour) of the Youth Express Scribe Hunt for 2012
No one likes being cold, no one likes being scared and no one likes being alone. I was about to be all three in the middle of Siberia. As I crossed a busy road in the town of Omsk, I saw a giant policeman waving frantically at me. I immediately knew why he wanted my attention. As dumb ideas go, what I had just done was even dumber than my decision to spend the winter of 2006 in this snowbound town. 

I had just jaywalked. You see, Russian drivers, vodka notwithstanding, are surprisingly caring about pedestrians. Unlike in Delhi, they won’t try to run you down just because you crossed in front of their car. They stop and let you pass. In return, all they ask is for you to let them get through green lights without interruptions. By darting between cars, I had ruined that experience for at least two motorists. Now, the not-so-friendly cop wanted a not-so-friendly word.

At first, I pretended I didn’t see him. What was with these dumb ideas today? He was at least 6 feet tall and about half as broad; in other words, hard to miss. So I stopped and waved back. “Privet,” I ventured in broken Russian. “Minya zavut Pierre”. To the cop, this limited introduction was all the proof he needed that I could understand po-Russki perfectly well. 

A long explanation of my ‘crime’ followed. I was sure it was only an ill-judged jaywalk. But his ears were red and he wasn’t smiling. For all I knew he was charging me with treason. “Ya tourist”, I pleaded, half-truthfully. By then, a small crowd had gathered. He noticed it too. “Come,” he said gruffly in English.
People don’t usually scare me. Like the cop, I too am six feet tall and about half as broad. Still, I’d heard stories about Russian prisons. And this cop was about to take me away from the public eye. All I could think was “There won’t be any witnesses”. 

I followed him into a large police van. He motioned me to sit down. “Wait,” he growled and left. A lady cop sat next to a table laden with equipment. It was mostly radios and walkie talkies but all I could focus on was a black baton hanging from one corner. 

“This is it. He’s going to beat a confession out of me,” I thought. The lady cop, probably sensing my unease, offered a glass of water. I liked her already. But wait, was she just playing ‘good cop’? As I nervously twiddled my thumbs, the door opened. A squat, middle-aged officer walked in followed by Big Cop. Some gesturing and facial contortions followed. 

Then the older cop turned to me. “Passport?” he asked. His face betrayed no emotion. I was told to always carry mine when alone for exactly such situations. As soon as I handed it over, the older cop smiled. “Indie?” he asked again, his smile brodening. “Da,” I replied, slightly confused. 

Nothing, and I mean nothing, could prepare me for wht happened next. My passport in one hand and the big cop’s wrist in the other, the older policeman began to dance. And sing. “Awara hoon...! Davaye Indie!” he said encouragingly. “Awara hoon...” He wanted me to sing with him! 

I’ll commit sacrilege here and admit I’m not a Raj Kapoor fan. But I knew the song. So, I did as asked.
“Awara hoon,” we chorused a third time.  In my mind, I could only think one thing: “What the *%#@ is going on here?”   

Then the older cop stopped swaying. He seemed genuinely pleased at what had just happened. “I love Raj Kapoor”, he declared in a thick accent and handed my passport back. “You go! No problem”.

Had a popular 1950s bollywood song just saved me from a long, cold night alone in a Russian slammer? Or was my transgression far too minor for this gentlemanly Siberian cop to offend the memory of one of his favourite movie stars. I didn’t care to find out. With a silent vow never to jaywalk again, and a big thank you to Bollywood’s first international superstar, I sped off to my friends and a waiting dinner. Man, were they going to love my story!

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Appalling Security at the Delhi Metro

The stares were coming thick and fast. First, I noticed one man, then a young couple; then people from the queue next to me. ‘Why are they looking at me?’ I thought. So I turned around and there it was: a small black cylinder, lying on the platform just a few inches from my feet. 

I’ve been in one genuine bomb threat before in Israel. This though, was the middle of Rajiv Chowk, Delhi’s most crowded metro station.

I instinctively backed away to safety. Most of the crowd had already done the same. A private security guard, sensing something was wrong, walked towards the cleared-out area. What I’m about to describe is the unvarnished truth. It happened yesterday evening at about 6:15.

The guard first stared at the cylinder for several seconds; then hurriedly left. In that time, he did not even once attempt to form a cordon. He returned with another private security guard after about 20 seconds. This was surprising since direct threats should be reported to the CISF, which is primarily responsible for metro security.

The two guards now stood side-by-side staring at the device. After a brief consultation, one of the guards bent over, picked up the device and placed it near the edge of the platform. He then straightened up and walked off. End of story.

Some of you may say I worried too much. Metro stations use X-ray scanners and metal detectors, don’t they? Yes they do. I’ve experienced this procedure twice daily, five days a week, for the past six months.
Let me describe it to you. The average CISF policeman takes five seconds to pat down a passenger with his metal detector. The average X-ray machine takes about the same time for each bag. That’s roughly 720 passengers every hour during rush hour.

Compare this to the time it takes to get through security at an airport. Now consider the fact that the scanning technology used on the Delhi metro is at least one generation behind what is used at airports.
Are you entirely certain Metro security is spotting every suspicious device? I’m not.

That is why I am simultaneously appalled and frightened at how the private security guards reacted. They did not ask passengers to move away. They did not alert the CISF who are presumably trained to handle such an incident. They did not form a cordon until a more trained security staffer arrived. Instead, they picked up the device in their untrained, bare hands, while passengers stood just a few feet away. If that wasn’t bad enough, they then placed it near the edge of the platform instead of taking it to a secure location. And left! 

Contrast this to my experience at the Jerusalem Central bus station. There too, they have X-ray scanners and metal detectors. No one and nothing gets in without a scan (they even scan passengers coming in after their journeys). While waiting for a bus, I heard an announcement asking whether any passenger had left a bag in one of the bathrooms. The message was repeated after a few seconds. 

Later, I narrated the incident to a colonel with the IDF, he replied simply “We can’t take any chances” (emphasis his). I asked him what would happen if no one claimed it. He said the area would be cordoned off and the bomb squad would move in and destroy the bag, no questions asked.

Once earlier, my own bag became the subject of such an announcement. I had arrived in Zurich on a flight from Germany and was headed to Delhi. In other words, I had passed through security at one of the EU’s most high-tech airports.

While waiting for my flight, I walked over to a duty free store 10 feet from where I was sitting. My camera equipment was rather heavy, so I left it on the chair. I hadn’t even reached the store when an announcement came on over the PA system. “Please do not leave any baggage unattended”.

It hadn’t played out in the 30 minutes I had been waiting. I hurried back to my bags. It did not play out for the next one hour. I can only assume it had been directed at me. Security had reacted within seconds. Even in a transit lounge, where passengers had flown in from a very high-security airport, they didn’t take any chances.

In India, though, life is cheap.