Friday, November 24, 2006

Riding the Chinese Dragon

A few days back I watched Karan Thapar’s show “India Tonight” on CNBC-TV 18 which discussed Indo-China relations and the presence of Tibet in our “cold” relationship. It set me thinking as to why despite all this hype about our catching up with China’s economic growth, we act like a “banana republic” ( that maybe harsh but that's a more emotional statement) in our foreign and political affairs. The two most crowded countries in the world cannot sit across the table as equals because we act in such a subservient fashion with the Chinese.

China’s supreme dictator. Hu Jintao, recently stepped on the Indian shores and a few days before that, we heard not-so subtle statements, emanating from Beijing, on Arunachal Pradesh and Tibet. And what is our response? We issue a press statement reiterating that Arunachal is an integral part of India but do not even reprimand the Chinese ambassador, Sun Yuxi, who told Indian television last week: "The whole of what you call the state of Arunachal Pradesh is Chinese territory, and Tawang is only one place in it, and we are claiming all of that." How diplomatic can an ambassador get and how pacifist can we be?

The position of Tawang, on the flanks of the Tibetan plateau, and its cultural affinity to Lhasa are at the root of a decades-old dispute between India and China. Historically, China says, the region was part of outer Tibet. Today it is part of the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh - but China lays claim to it in its entirety.

India's Foreign Minister tersely responded by reiterating that Arunachal Pradesh was an "integral part of India". The Chinese say that Tawang is a part of Tibet and since Tibet belongs to them, by extension of that logic, they have control over the place. Thousands of monks stay there as they try to sustain its unique culture from being marauded by imperialistic designs of Mainland China.

One of the primary tenets of democracy is the right to dissent peacefully but democratic India decided, last week, that this is dispensable. First, the police ordered Friends of Tibet activist, Tenzin Tsundue, to stay put in Dharamsala until Hu Jintao returned to Beijing. Then, the police asked Tibetan exiles to stay away from the city centre, fearing them to be a security threat - “Atithi Satkar” of the highest level that will surely make the Chinese happy.

Not only has the Indian Govt. accepted the Chinese claim of recognizing Tibet as a part of China, but it is also bending backwards to make them feel at home. Should a democracy like ours stoop to such levels to curb the rights of civil society, from protesting against Chinese aggression? Just imagine - I can protest against Manmohan Singh and Co. in New Delhi but not against Hu and his mandarins.

Our foreign policy follows a simple policy of status quo. Therefore, we neither do anything remotely out of the box nor stand up for anything (WTO was an exception) for fear of ruffling feathers. This does not bode well for a country standing on the threshold of world leadership and desiring to stand up for developing nations.

When ex-Defence minister, George Fernandes, proclaimed China as India’s “Enemy No. 1” a few years back, he was echoing the truth. But he was pilloried for raising the China bogey unnecessarily (India Today’s headline was “George in the China Shop”). While Beijing goes about wooing Africa and the rest of the world, building rail links with Tibet, supplying arms to Pakistan and fanning anti-India sentiments in Burma and Bangladesh, the Indian polity rests in peace, unaware of the changing geo-political realities that are dictating various foreign policies world-wide. We have no policy on Kashmir even after all these years, no idea how to tackle Bangladesh population infiltration and a total ignorance on the problems in the North-East.

Our home grown communists’ romance with China, however, continues despite all these “friendly overtures” by China. They are quick to pounce upon any human right violations of the rest of the world but silent when it comes to the Chinese. Our comrades refuse to break from the umbilical cord joining them to China, though there has not been any reciprocation of such interests from the other side. Wonder what Comrade VS and Comrade Hu have in common? Beijing has shed all pretensions of Marxism and gone capitalistic in a big way but messers Raja and Yechury continue to go gung-ho about communism.

Despite all their evident economic progress, China has a morally bankrupt leadership. It has built its wealth on the altar of thousands of coffins, without shedding tears for any of them. It is among the fastest growing economies but is also the world leader in death penalties with a conviction record of about 99%.A country that is so heartless that it steamrolls tanks to mow down thousands of its students, when they protest, cannot bring peace in the world.

I found this article in the Amnesty International Site (dated May 2003) which mentions that in an effort to improve cost-efficiency, Chinese provincial authorities have introduced mobile execution vans and the article goes on to give the advantages of this system over general execution systems!!! Economies of scale in mass murder!!! It would have been funny if it were just not so tragic and perverse.

It’s not just India but the entire world that stops shy of dictating terms to them. In business circles, Walmart, the world’s largest company, had to bow down to official dictates in China and allow the creation of trade unions there (their only trade union in the world). Google, the champion of free information, had to submit itself to censorship and remodel itself to survive in China.

Despite the Dalai Lama’s popularity and the entry of celebrities espousing the cause of Tibet, the movement is losing its steam and His Holiness has himself toned down his demand from “independence” to “autonomy” for the region. Its human rights violations may hog headlines occasionally but it has not stopped the Chinese juggernaut from rolling and crushing all its detractors on its way to capitalistic freedom.

Hu’s next stop is Pakistan where he’s expected to further the nuclear relations between the two countries by announcing the sale of nuclear reactors to them. The West knows this but remains a passive spectator while continuing to urge India to maintain restraint (as if we needed someone to say that). The American electorate did to Bush what the Iraqis could not but who will stop the Communist Party of China's hegemonistic plans???

Wonder if I am a bit too paranoid about the entire thing. The Chinese have a strong leadership unlike us and so I fear they may succeed. God forbids that this will be emulated else where as a workable administration model....

Friday, November 17, 2006

The Fourth Estate Trials

Sometimes, real TV can be so much more thrilling and entertaining than “Reality TV”. So, forget Rakhi Sawant’s attempts to milk a bovine and watch Ram Jethmalani’s performance on CNN-IBN as he makes mincemeat of a hapless Sagarika Ghose during a Jessica Lal case interview. He raves, rants and goes berserk in a no holds barred performance which would do any octogenarian proud and get him to replace Big B as the “Angry Old Man”. Though he is known to be a controversial lawyer and a rabble-rouser, this time, his outburst attracted a fair deal of publicity, especially among the blogging and journo world (Who else would discuss?)

Ram Jethmalani, in the course of the interview, raised a few pertinent points, albeit in his own inimitable whiplash style. He pounced upon Sagarika’s lack of legal know-how and ridiculed her claim of going against public opinion. He also blasted the media for passing pro-active judgments and undermining the judiciary.

We all, probably, believe that Manu Sharma deserves to be punished but can we advocate that he does not deserve the best defence available because of our opinion. Whether he should stand for the accused or not is his prerogative and not the press’s. The strength of the Indian judicial system is in its ability to provide a free and fair trial to both the accused and the victim and not discriminate on the basis of “informed” public opinion.

The now forgotten ISRO spy scandal represents in many ways the worst example of a case that was created and sustained by an overzealous media. What started of as an innocuous arrest of a Maldivian woman, Mariam Rasheeda, went on to become the biggest spy scandal in the history of independent India. The media (especially the vernacular one) in association with the police and political class weaved a thriller script, adding dollops of sex, money and flesh to make it a scandalous affair. A few top scientists, an IPS officer and few others were implicated without any iota of evidence until the case was eventually handed over to the CBI.

After its report and the subsequent Supreme Court judgment, the matter was finally laid to rest and everyone was acquitted. But the tattered reputations and the mental agony of the people involved can never be restored. No one has ever apologized to the people whose dignity was stripped in the public and all this from the “educated free press of Kerala”.

Remember the arrest of His Holiness Jayendra Saraswathi, where the press hauled his reputation across the coals without any evidence at all to support the accusations hurled upon him. He was accused of being a womanizer, a corrupt god man and so much more that would have put any self-respecting man to shame. While the Tamil Nadu Government was vindictive about the entire affair, the scribes went all the way exhibiting their “secularism” by making a villain out of him. Can you imagine the Pope being subject to such abuse? And where’s the case now? The Andhra Pradesh High Court had remarked in its judgment that there is no prima facie evidence against the accused despite malicious attempts by the press and the Tamil Nadu Government to do so. The press continues to be silent about this.

Of course, it’s no one’s case that the Indian press plays only a “super-judicious” role in our democracy. For years the media snuggled upto the State and ignored its primary role. After the Emergency, L K Advani had famously told journalists “You were asked to bend and you chose to crawl”. But times have changed and a free global economic order has also seen the media get down and ask questions – some relevant and some which were hitherto considered as too sacred to touch.

The Jessica Lal, Priyadarshini Mattoo and Manjunath cases are there in the judicial space thanks to the active role of the media in bringing these issues to the public domain. A running democracy requires an active press that highlights issues and brings to focus all things hidden from public view. In fact, Amartya Sen says that a Free Press can play an important role in the mitigation of natural disasters by their active reporting. The RTI Act was not amended largely due to the role played by the media in highlighting the government’s intentions and attempts in sabotaging the law.

But what happens when the press decides to arrogate many of the State’s powers to itself. Many of us fed on a regular diet of news bytes do not question them and go by what is told to us by news anchors. We all know that there’s a thin line between bringing out an exclusive story and playing to the gallery. With so many channels fighting it out in the broadcasting and newsprint domain, there is always a temptation to go one up for exclusive “breaking news” at the expense of genuine news. Like various blogs, each channel carries its own subjective interpretation of facts and the casualty is the veracity of the news item. While everyone wants a well-researched story, what do you do in case it’s too tiresome to do so? Probably come up with “confidential leaks” or “reliable sources” and present it as “Flash News”.

The horrendous massacre of Dalits in Kherlanji went unreported for about a month till they took to the streets and lead massive protests in Nagpur. Is it that their stories do not carry the same shock value or they are not worth reporting? Sanjay Dutt has been accused of a very serious crime like possession of weapons but he gets a lot of sympathy in the media – recollect his visit to the Siddhi Vinayak temple and his “reformed” existence- but there are many others like Prof. Geelani (represented by Ram Jethmalani in the Supreme Court) who are subjected to the piercing eyes of media because they represent “no one”.

A vibrant democracy requires the media to act as a watchdog for the 3 legs of policy in India – the executive, the legislature and the judiciary. But it is tempting for the Fourth Estate to go overboard and try to dictate terms because of the unbridled power it has. This restraint is difficult to come by because at the end of the day, it is not answerable to anyone except maybe its shareholders. In defence of the press community, it must be stressed that is not enough to be fair but also important to appear to be fair, which is where many of our journalists have failed. Journalism should not be treated as an exercise in blogging where any smart alec who has an opinion (like me) decides to express it without checking out the facts of the case.

Tail piece: The sadistic streak in me enjoyed the Ram Jethmalani interview despite his haughty behaviour. I recommend it to people to watch it and judge for themselves the “entertainment” value in it, especially those tired of “Big Boss” antics.

Also watch the video of Ram Jethmalani's interview conducted by Karan Thapar in CNBC-TV 18 posted on Nov 19th for another slice of the action. The action never stops!!!

Friday, November 10, 2006

To Hang or not to Hang???

A young lawyer from Delhi, a Kashmiri militant and an Iraqi leader – nothing in common among themselves until very recently but now their fates are linked by the Hangman’s noose and a slender ray of hope. All of them have been convicted of different kinds of crimes and sentenced to the gallows. The circumstances relating to their punishment and their crime is quite different but most people agree with the verdicts decided in all the three cases ;what is not consensual is the sentence which has been given. These sentences have once again brought into focus the debate on capital punishments.

Afzal Guru, the militant, has been sentenced to death for his role in the attack on the Indian Parliament – an attack which not only disturbed the Indo-Pak peace talks (arguably) but also struck at the centre of India’s authority. It is a crime that we all agree deserves to be punished and other than his immediate family and supporters, there are no takers on his innocence (that aspect is of course beyond the scope of this post). Afzal has himself not asked for mercy; it is only the human rights groups have asked for clemency (wrongly reported in parts of the press as seeking pardon).

Santosh Singh, currently a lawyer in Delhi, had been stalking a young girl Priyadarshini Matoo for a long time before he finally raped and killed her. He was acquitted by a Sessions Court Judge saying that though he knows he’s guilty he cannot be punished due to the lack of evidence produced by the police and prosecution. The media uproar and the subsequent public outcry lead to the case being reopened at the higher court where he has now been convicted. He has been awarded “death penalty” for a crime which does not fit into the “rarest of cases”.

Saddam Hussain faced trial for his role in the slaughter of Shiites in 1982 in Dujail, in retaliation for the failed assassination attempt on him. The case was dogged by controversies right from the beginning. Two of Saddam’s lawyers were killed while the first judge quit. He was not given enough time and space to prepare his defence. Ironically, the conviction would have been welcomed had it followed proper legal and moral protocols and been conducted under the auspices of an international tribunal. The timing of the verdict – just before the Senate polls – and the judge’s conspicuous animosity towards the accused has also raised questions on the fairness of the trial.

The vast majority of democratic countries in Europe and Latin America have abolished capital punishment over the last fifty years, but United States, most democracies in Asia, and almost all totalitarian governments retain it. As per Amnesty International's latest figures, a total of 129 countries (including Canada, Mexico, Australia, Russia, South American nations and most European nations) have abolished the death penalty in law or practice. Of these, 88 countries and territories have abolished the death penalty for all crimes, 11 countries have abolished the death penalty for all but exceptional crimes (such as wartime crimes) and 30 countries can be considered abolitionist in practice, i.e., they retain the death penalty in law but have not carried out any executions for the past ten years or more and are believed to have a policy or established practice of not carrying out executions. Though 68 countries retain and use the death penalty, the number of countries which actually execute prisoners in any one-year is much smaller. In 2005, 94 percent of all known executions took place in China, Iran, the USA and Saudi Arabia (US and Iran on the same stage, interesting, right?)

Beyond the statistics, we need to ask ourselves what is the purpose of the death penalty?

--Is it to remove from society someone who would cause more harm?
-- Is it to remove from society someone who is incapable of rehabilitation?
-- Is it to deter others from committing murder?
-- Is it to punish the criminal?
-- Is it to take retribution on behalf of the victim?

Death is not merely a legal undertaking but has a strong social, religious and moral angle to it. It is not just priests or saints who look at birth and death as God’s handiwork; many of us also do so. There is also a strong religious notion that the act of suffering has a purifying effect on the human spirit allowing for salvation in God. The concept of death as a retribution for the sins committed is slowly losing ground. It has been argued that the person must be given an opportunity to repent for his sins and so death cannot be the way out. Is the idea behind a punishment to reform the person or to set an example in the society? Probably both and we need a more humane solution.

Death penalty supporters argue that it is a powerful deterrent to crime but there are no statistics to support this assertion. If death penalty were a proper deterrent, there would have been a reduction in crimes in such places and eventually their number would die out because the crime rate would have fallen to such an extent. On the contrary, these penalties seem to be on a rise in several countries, undermining the very rationale given for it. Death penalty sentences in India have been on the rise lately compared to the almost non-existent cases in the 60s and 70s. These are supposed to be given in the rarest of cases as per the Supreme Court ruling in 1983 but there’s a danger of the judiciary becoming “trigger free” in handing out capital punishments, especially under greater media glare (The Santosh Singh case is a clear example of that). Moreover, terrorist crimes, serial killer crimes or crimes of passion are not dictated by pure logic, so the rationale of using death as a deterrent does not work.

The next argument is one of infallibility of judgment and the irrevocability of the death sentence. The Liebman Report in 2000, concluding a 23-year study conducted by Columbia University, USA, found that 68% of all death sentences awarded were reversed due to serious legal error. In countries like India where the judiciary is over-burdened and cases drag on for years, would it be a surprise if the number of judicial errors is high. If a person is executed because of miscarriage of justice which is subsequently discovered the extinguished life cannot be restored. An innocent life lost due to callousness on the part of the law would be too heavy a price to pay.

Finally, at a slightly more emotional level, just think about the executioner who has to carry out the death penalty. It’s a profession which caries with itself the social stigma of killing someone but there are people who have to carry out this task. Leaders may take decisions but the final blood is in the hands of the executioner who has to act on behalf of the State. I strongly recommend readers to read Shashi Warrier’s soulful book “Hangman’s Journal” in which he brilliantly chronicles the agony that a hangman goes through when he has to carry out an execution. Similarly, Adoor Gopalakrishnan explores this theme in his movie “Nizhalkuthu”. In the words of Adoor, “The Hangman is conventionally considered to be one with no fine feelings. The public does not expect him to behave like a human being, the law wants him to be neutral, the State sees him just as an instrument of its operation.”

Should a civilized society use death as a tool to counter crime? It is arguable and when you consider the plight and sorrow of the victims, it is difficult to advocate the abolition of death penalty. It is an emotional issue but law must take a firm stance on this. In the Indian context, we could look at increasing the tenure of the life imprisonment since 12-14 years may seem on the lower side for extremely heinous crimes. The media must also be careful in its coverage of events. Repeatedly bombarding visuals of the crime and upping the ante for action can lead to public pressures on judiciary to hand out “populist” verdicts.

Is the Right to Life absolute? I certainly think so but then if I were to put myself in the shoes of Priyadarshini Matto’s father, would I feel the same??? Maybe yes or maybe no….