Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Shibu Soren is guilty… not just of murder. He is guilty of having subverted Democracy!!!

JMM leader, Shibu Soren is out of the Union Cabinet once again. And unlike in the past instance (in July 2004), Soren was sent out of the Cabinet within hours of his conviction for murder. Recall the earlier instance, when a Sessions Court in Jhakhand issued an arrest warrant against him and Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh was unable to even locate his cabinet colleague or even talk with him over the phone. Dr. Singh had to convey through the minister’s secretary that he wanted his resignation and it took a couple of days before Soren would exit from the Union cabinet and help avoid a situation where a Union Cabinet Minister is arrested and sent to jail.

That was an instance when the Prime Minister’s authority (or the lack of it) was out in the open, revealing in the process, the ugly face of the politics of blackmail that has come to mark the political discourse in recent times.

Take for instance the response from the ruling benches in Parliament when the opposition, led by the BJP, demanded that the Prime Minister explain as to why Soren was re-inducted into the cabinet after it was known that the CBI, directly under the Prime Minister (all the notion of the CBI being an autonomous body notwithstanding), was engaged in prosecuting the JMM leader for murder. The Congress members maintained that this was, in no way, different from Atal Behari Vajpayee’s act, in 1998, making L.K.Advani, M.M.Joshi and Uma Bharthi ministers in his cabinet.

There is, indeed, a lot of merit in this. But then, it is only an instance of the pot calling the kettle black. The problem, however, is that the issue involves larger concerns about democracy and institutions that were intended to nurture the democratic edifice. Hence, the form and the content of the debate too cannot be reduced to such low levels as a street brawl or a show of strength between members of extortionist gangs fighting for their ``rights’’ to collect hafta space in a vegetable market. In other words, the concerns here cannot be restricted to whether the Congress party is holier than the BJP or the other way.

The facts in the Soren case bring this to the fore. Here was a leader, who at one point of time had stood up for the cause of the tribals in the Jharkhand region, who could galvanise the adivasis to bare their chests to the armed policeman, having degenerated into a power broker in the worst sense of the term. Soren ended up bartering away the goodwill and the loyalty that the poor and oppressed adivasis had towards him for several crores and the July 1993 scandal was only one such case of bartering. It was established then that he, along with the other JMM MPs collected large amounts from the Congress ministers in exchange for his vote in support of the P.V.Narasimha Rao Government. His private secretary, Sashi Nath Jha (had nothing to do with the adivasis cause) wanted a share of that ill-gotten money; a plain and straight case of blackmail and extortion. And Soren ended up getting Jha murdered.

It was established several years ago that Soren took money from Narasimha Rao’s men in July 1993. But then, Article 105 of the Constitution, provided him with immunity, from being prosecuted on charges that his vote against a no-confidence motion against the then Government in return for that. It was one of those strange instances when the apex court held the bribe taker innocent not because evidence was lacking but because the Constitution provided him immunity from being sent up for trial.

It has now been established, for the second time, that Soren was paid off in July 1993 and that his secretary, Jha, knew about that and got killed because he tried blackmailing Soren and part with some of that ill-gotten money. And Soren has been convicted because all this, including the fact that he took money from Narasimha Rao’s men in July 1993 just about the time when the Government was almost falling but was saved because Soren and other JMM MPs voted for him in the Lok Sabha, was established before the sessions judge.

And yet, there is no way to prosecute him and try him on a charge of subverting democracy by facilitating an extended life for the Narasimha Rao Government beyond July 1993. If Soren had not voted against the motion then (and voted in the manner he did only after he was paid off), the Government would have fallen then and there. It survived until May 1996! This, indeed, was a case of subversion and a more heinous crime than murder.

Hence it is necessary that the scope of Article 105 of the Constitution and the privileges it entails on MPs and MLAs is revisited once again and its scope redefined. The MPs and the MLAs must and shall be entitled immunity from vexatious trials in the lower judiciary when they do their jobs. And the job of the legislator, apart from participating in the passage of laws, is to check the vagaries of the Executive and expose scandals. Article 105 of the Constitution intends this and this was used by such veterans like Feroze Gandhi (to deal with the Mundra scandal), Jyotirmoy Basu (to deal with the Maruti scandal) and Madhu Dandavate (to deal with A.R.Antulay’s scandalous engagement with the Indira Pratishtan).

It is time that the Supreme Court defines and set out the parameters for use of this Constitutional provision and save it from being abused.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Making Sense of Rajinder Sachar’s report.

The Justice Rajender Sachar Committee report, now with the Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh, has caused a stir among the academic and political class. The last we know about it is that the Prime Minister has placed a print order of at least 1000 copies and that he intends circulating them among MPs cutting across the political parties and thinkers across the country.

Thankfully, some enterprising journalists in Delhi have managed to obtain copies of it even before the Prime Minister made copies and gave it to them!. Even if they managed to do this by unethical means, I will not quarrel with them. It is, after all, now impossible for those sections in the higher levels of the bureaucracy to hide the report and the truth. The truth is that large sections of our own citizens have been kept out of the instruments of the democratic state structure because they happened to be Muslims.

And there are reasons to believe that the report would have been concealed from the public realm because the guilty in this case are the same set of people who administered this country for several years and led to the present state of affairs. The report of the Mandal Commission, after all, was preserved without being acted upon for almost a decade because it contained recommendations that were unpalatable to the forces of status quo. Submitted in December 1980, it was kept under wraps during Indira Gandhi’s second coming (1980-84) and throughout the Rajiv Gandhi era (1984-89) and it will have suffered the same fate if V.P.Singh did not find merits in it in August 1990.

This is not to say that the aspirations of the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) would not have been addressed at all. The OBCs, on the other hand, had reinvented themselves in the democratic arena at least a couple of decades before 1990 and that was leading to OBC reservation packages unfolding in State after State between 1967 and 1980. The point is that a report of a commission, set up under the Constitutional provision (Article 340) that warranted the Government to place it as well as an Action Taken Report in Parliament was kept under wraps for 10 years by the elite controlled establishment.

The Justice Sachar Committee was not appointed under any provision of the Constitution. The elite-controlled establishment could have and will have confined this report to a safe-room and thus ensured that nobody knew the truth. The main opposition party – the BJP – would not have spoken about it and the Congress party, having been in power for the longest period after independence (1947 to 1977, 1980 to 1989, 1991 to 1996) could have escaped having to answer as to why the Muslims remained excluded from the mainstream administration.

All this cannot happen now. The Sachar Committee report is before all of us and even if Manmohan Singh’s 1000 copies are sold out, we will have many others willing to publish and distribute copies. And we will soon know for sure that the Muslims as a proportion of the several arms of the democratic institution are far and few and that they are entitled to some positive discrimination.
It is also important now to clarify that Justice Sachar is not a votary or supporter in any sense, of Imam Bukhari or an Osama bin Laden as the BJP and its saffron clad sanyasins would want us to believe. And he is not as ignorant, as some of the illustrious media barons are, to prescribe any reservation scheme for the Muslims on the lines of Mandal. Justice Sachar knows too well that large sections of the Muslims are already eligible for reservations as they are classified OBCs in the Mandal Commission liost itself.

The imperative for the Union Government is that it affect some changes in the OBC reservation package in a way that there are sub-sections within the OBCs and classify the OBC Muslims as one sub-section so that a non-Muslim OBC is rendered ineligible to apply and compete for jobs that are reserved for Muslim OBCs. In doing this, the Government shall also ensure that such caste groups that are Most Backward within the OBCs are also provided such segments so that no one caste benefits entirely out of the OBC reservation scheme.

This alone is not sufficient. There is the need to expand the school education network and in doing so, ensure that schools have the adequate number of teachers, buildings and black-boards. In other words, the sham called sarva shiksha abhiyan will not do. Similarly, it is also important that the clergy is not allowed to determine the way the Muslims will live, dress and what they study.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Recalling Melavalavu ..............

It was a function with a difference in Chennai last Monday. The presidents of four grama panchayats – Pappapatti, Keeripatti, Natarmangalam and Kottakachiyandal – were here to be felicitated by the Chief Minister, M.Karunanidhi and his son, M.K.Stalin, Minister for Local Administration. That the DMK decided to stand up against caste-based discrimination and with those who mustered courage to defy the unstated ``rule’’ that power shall not vest with the Dalits is indeed a positive development.

As one sat through the function and as one saw a few hundred citizens from the four villages (from Madurai and Virudhunagar districts) get down from chartered buses to enter the Kalaivanar Arangam on Monday evening, memories of the gory massacre of Murugesan and six of his associates on June 27, 2007 came to mind.

Recall that murderous assault on democracy and the Republican Constitution. Murugesan was among those from Melavalavu who had defied the dictat of the intermediate caste members from the village that he shall not file nomination for the post of president of the Melavalavu panchayat even if it was reserved for the Scheduled Castes. And because he defied that dictat, he was killed in broad daylight on his way back from the Madurai District Collector’s office. Six others including three members of the panchayat and an employee of the panchayat were killed with him.

I remember having gone there to Melavalavu, many times after that ghastly display of caste arrogance and did not find any semblance of remorse among those who belonged to the same caste as the accused in the ghastly massacre. One did find members of almost all major political parties among them and they all felt that they did nothing wrong! It took several years for the prosecution to ensure conviction of the accused in the trial court and one also found that this was achieved only because the prosecution was assisted by a bunch of public spirited lawyers.

The appeal by the alleged perpetrators of the crime is now lying before the High Court and it remains to be seen as to whether justice is ensured in the final analysis.

Meanwhile, the citizens living in the Dalit colony at Melavalavu were struggling hard to keep themselves alive. And this was because they were denied of employment in the agricultural land in Melavalavu as well as in the several villages around. There were hardly anyone in that colony who owned land to take care of the livelihood concerns of all the Dalits and this meant starvation. Some able bodied men had gone over to Kerala to work as casual labourers there and some other were wondering if they should go to Chennai.

The children there had stopped going to school because the school was located outside the Dalit colony. The grama panchayat office remained locked for months on end. Those visits to Melavalavu convinced me that the social conditions in Tamil Nadu were not too different from Bihar. The story of Melavalavu was in many ways not very different from Lakshmanpur Bathe, Miapur and Narayanpur.
Recall the fact that the massacre of Dalits in Narayanpur (in 1999) had provoked the then President, K.R.Narayanan to recommend dismissal of the Rabri Devi Government in the State and the measure had to be reversed only because it was certain then that the move will not be endorsed in the Rajya Sabha; any dismissal of a State Government, even when the Constitutional scheme of things have failed will have to be approved by both Houses of parliament after the Supreme Court’s decision in the S.R.Bommai case.

It may be true that all this are stories from the past and the fact is that a lot of water has flown down the Tamaraparni by now. The fact is that the Dalits in the Southern districts of Tamil Nadu have risen to assert their democratic rights and the political establishment too willing to stand up with them. The DMK seems to have woken up from stupor and realized the need to revive some aspects of its past. In other words, it is a positive change from the 1996-2001 period, when the party, despite being in power, did precious little to ensure the protection of Murugesan and others; it did nothing to ensure elections in these four villages then.

This change, however, will have to be accompanied by concerted efforts to ensure the setting up of agro-based industries in these villages as well as in other parts of the region so that the Dalits are not forced into starvation. The fact is that they do not own substantial land. And even those who own land – the members of the thevar community – are not affluent in any sense of the term. Their concerns too will have to be addressed.

Lest it be mistaken, let me stress that a plea that the concerns of the thevars be addressed shall not mean, in any way, that their ``sentiments’’ that they be allowed to control the resources of the grama panchayat. This will have to be left with the elected panchayat heads and it shall be ensured that they control such processes as auctioning the fishing rights in the ponds that belong to the panchayat and also the land vested with the temple in these villages.

All this will require a firm conviction on the part of the DMK’s rank and file in the villages and elsewhere to the idea of equality as espoused by Periyar EVR and Annadurai. A tall order no doubt but it is possible.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Some Rambling thoughts…. On the railways, unmanned level crossings, accidents and suicides elsewhere…..

News of an accident involving an improvised auto-rickshaw carrying 17 people and an EMU train at an un-manned level crossing near Villupuram in Tamil Nadu a couple of days ago was flashed on TV screens and the front page of all newspapers in the State this week. And a couple of days later, we learnt that 7 more farmers committed suicide in Vidharbha in Maharashtra, taking the total number of such suicides in that region to a whopping1045 since June 2005.

Both these tragic incidents may appear unrelated on the face of it. But then, if only we think about it, there is a connection between the two. The connection is in the realm of the state policies.

Let us discuss the ``accident’’ that occurred near Villupuram first. The plain and simple fact is that all the 17 people would not have died if the Indian Railways had done something, over the past few years to do away with this category called un-manned-level-crossings. It is not as if all the level crossings in India are un-manned. We have level crossings where a railway worker would ensure that road traffic is brought to a halt when a train crosses the path by closing the gate. We do have technology, put in place in many other level-crossing gates where the train is signaled to proceed only when the gates are locked and secured that way. And these are done without any men there but through a technology that ensures that the green light is on only after the gates close.

While the business of automatic-interlocking-signal-system is indeed an expensive proposition and is hence viable only on routes where the traffic intensity is high, the good old mechanism of employing gate-men in level crossings has been in vogue in the Indian railways for long. It involves employing two class IV workers, working alternately during the day and the night, at each of these level crossings.

While the exact number of such un-manned level crossings across the Indian railway system cannot be ascertained as such (the railways have stopped posting such data), it certainly will add up to several thousands. And records show that around 100 mishaps occur every year in these un-manned level crossings. There is no data available on the number of lives lost in such accidents. In other words, it is necessary that the Railways do something to prevent such accidents.

This is not impossible. It is not as if it requires huge investments. All that is needed is to convert all these un-manned level crossings into manned level crossings. Simple economic logic would lead us to agree that such men, when gainfully employed, will not think of committing suicide or end up resorting to criminal acts against the state and the society.

But then, the strategy of the Indian Railways, as spelt out in the Status Paper presented before Parliament in 2002 is to construct rail-over-bridges in order to prevent accidents at the un-manned level crossings. The paper does not mention the enormous costs involved in this strategy and the fact that this would mean a long wait for ordinary people. It will take several years before level crossings are replaced by rail-over-bridges given the state of Railway finances and also considering that it is not possible to attract private players and foreign investors in such projects! In other words, we will end up reading news about such tragic deaths for several years to come.

The trouble is that the most important concern for the Railway administration, particularly in the era of neo-liberalism is to cut down on staff. In the decade between 1991 and 2001, for instance, the Indian Railways effected a staff reduction of 2.62 lakhs. From a little more than 18 lakhs in 1991, the staff strength in the Indian railways came down to 15 lakhs and 45 thousand in 2001. And a Railway Board circular to the various Zonal Railways in 2000 called for an annual reduction of one per cent in the operational departments and a 0.5 per cent in non-operational departments. The aim is to bring down the staff strength to 11.8 lakhs by 2010. In other words, a further reduction by 4.5 lakhs!

This has been happening at a time when the number of zones and divisions have gone up (to serve the partisan concerns of Railway Ministers) and also when rail traffic has increased considerably due to the introduction of new trains. This means over-use of the available manpower particularly those in the operational departments. The drivers, guards, station masters and other operational staff will end up having to work more. This certainly will have its impact on their ability to steer clear of accidents.

While the railway’s share of freight movement have not increased in the same proportion as it should have due to the increase in quantum of trade and manufacture during the same period due to competition from the road transport, we do see that the Railways have registered a profit. It also means that the Railways can afford to employ more people, at least in the class IV categories.

Apart from preventing accidents in level crossings, this could mean that a few thousand men, across the country, who have been denied even primary education and hence could not dream of a career in the booming IT sector are gainfully employed. And this could mean that their children do not suffer the same fate but manage to go to school and end up with the ability to read and write even if they do not turn into management wizards. The least that can be achieved is that they will not be forced into committing suicides when their life is ruined by bad monsoons, floods, high cost of pesticides and fertilizer and indeed the debts they incur because of all this.

Lalu Prasad Yadav had insisted, in an interview recently, that he continues to be committed to the idea of socialism. A bold statement indeed, in these times when socialism is considered a bad word and even as part of a conspiracy against our national interest. He had also proved this as Minister for Railways when he ordered that khadi clothe be used as much as it can be as linen in the air-conditioned coaches or when he ordered the caterers against use of plastic cups in the railway premises.

He will do a lot of good by altering the strategy that Nitish Kumar, as Railway Minister, had thought of in 2002; to eliminate un-manned level crossings by building rail-over-bridges. And employ a few thousand gate-keepers there instead.