Saturday, 24 June 2017

GOVT'S KASHMIR POLICY IS HURTING THE INDIAN ARMY

                 
   The Govt’s inflexible, mute and muscular  policy on the internal disturbances in Kashmir is getting nowhere fast, forcing a plaintive Chief Minister to wail: “ Kashmir hamare paas hai, zamin hamare paas hai”, stopping just short of asking the obvious question: “lekin kya Kashmir ke log hamare paas hain?” The Center appears to be playing the role of a real estate developer in the Valley, grabbing the land and to hell with its occupants. Things have only got worse during its three year rule and Kashmir is, surely and not so slowly, being pushed into the lap of radicals and Islamists. The demand is gradually shifting from a tenuous, ill-defined “azadi” to a Nizam-e-Mustafa and adopting of sharia law: a reaffirmation of an identity that is not being acknowledged. The number of local militants has more than doubled to almost 150; India Today reports that about 3000 new Wahhabi mosques have sprung up, spreading incendiary jihadist ideology. Two mainstream politicians have been killed in the last month and banks are looted on a regular basis. 16 policemen have been killed this year alone, the highest number so far. More than 60 Whats App groups with a membership of perhaps 5000 dangerously motivated youth have begun to actively coordinate anti-govt. protests. Even school girls have turned stone pelters. This precipitous slide will not even be acknowledged by Delhi’s rulers who seem to have carved their indifference in stone.
   While the politicians continue to win elections on the back of this ersatz nationalism, it is the security forces, particularly the Army, which is paying the price- in blood and reputation. According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal the number of soldiers killed in 2014 was 32; it shot up to 68 in 2016 and had reached 17 till March this year. Since March 2015, when Mehbooba assumed office, 457 people have been killed, including 134 security force personnel. Almost 40 soldiers have died since the surgical strikes. But the BJP has won 4 states and 3 Municipal Corporations since then, so obviously the policy- or lack of it-is working for someone ! Hence the current policy: If it ain't broke, don't fix it !
   Casualties apart, however, there is the growing concern that the Indian Army, one of the finest fighting forces in the world, is taking a beating to its reputation, ethos and values. The reason is that it is now being used as a police force in Kashmir, a role which any armed, highly trained, professional force is uncomfortable with. Armies are meant to counter external forces, not suppress their own citizens for extended lengths of time. The latent danger in this is that, over time, army personnel can acquire the same disregard for legal processes and human rights for which our police is infamous. This is the reason why the Army is kept insulated from the civil administration on a day-to-day basis and not involved in the maintenance of law and order, except in emergencies. But by deploying our jawans as a third line of police( after the state police and the CRPF) for years on end, the govt. was just asking for an incident like the “ human shield” to happen.
   When Farooq Ahmed Dar was strapped to a jeep and paraded through seven villages by Major Gogoi, alarm bells should have gone off everywhere. This was abduction and kidnapping, pure and simple, for Dar was no criminal, there were no charges against him, he was not even a stone pelter but a citizen who was returning after casting his vote. Law abiding forces don’t take hostages, terrorists do. One cannot uphold the law by breaking it, for that is the road to a Duterte like tyranny. But even worse was the reaction to the incident. The Army we know would have admitted that this was an aberration and would have apologised to the Kashmiri people, Major Gogoi would have been spoken to, and that would have been the end of a regrettable chapter. Instead, the govt. lauded the Major as a hero, the COAS justified his unlawful behaviour, he was allowed to appear on TV programmes, and the Army even awarded him a commendation. Retired Generals of various vintages, moustaches quivering on prime time TV, conferred on him the status of a war hero. Moderate voices like those of General Panag and Hooda were drowned out in this nationalistic hysteria.
   The COAS, General Bipin Rawat, has been making ill advised statements more suited to a politician. By accusing the Kashmiris of waging a “ dirty war” he has toed the govt. line but brought into question his understanding of his role: one doesn’t wage “ war” against one’s own citizens, nor does one treat them as enemies, as the General does. By terming students and stone pelters as “ overground supporters of terrorists” he has again revealed a shocking mind set that largely explains the political controversies that the Army has now got embroiled in, perhaps for the first time in its history. Any professional army simply does the job- sometimes difficult, sometimes distasteful- assigned to it by the government of the day, but it should refrain from aligning itself with any political judgements. And it should certainly not term its own citizens as terrorists without distinguishing between terrorists and protesters.
    By cosying up to the govt. and stepping into the realm of politics the Army is walking into the trap set for it . Mrs. Gandhi infamously wanted a “committed” bureaucracy: the BJP is more ambitious- it wants a committed Armed Forces. Towards this end it seeks to make the Army another emblem of its own version of   "nationalism”, along with the cow and yoga. And by the rules it has itself set out, any questioning of these symbols is anti-national. This is why we have all this sound and fury every evening on TV when any adverse question of, or comment on, the Army is vilified as unpatriotic. For the BJP has its own version of “ patriotism” too, as pointed out by Appu Esthose Suresh in a recent article: a concocted, toxic blend of nationalism and Hindutva.

     Clearly, the ruling party is using the Army as its own human shield to buttress itself from any criticism of its Sphinx like silence and continued use of force against the citizens of the Valley. It has deliberately created a narrative, with the help of war mongering TV channels, that any  criticsm of the Army is an insult to it. It is not. Firstly, the criticism is usually of the govt., not the army- by deflecting it on the latter a deliberate untruth is being created, Trump style. Secondly, in a healthy democracy no institution is above questioning or criticism: the right response to this is transparency, not exaggerated jingoism. Equally regrettably, the Opposition is using the Army as its current whipping boy in order to attack the govt. By allowing itself, under prodding by the politicians and a rabid media, to take sides, the army is unnecessarily getting caught in a cross-fire not of its making. Its hitherto spotless image is being tarnished.                                                    The Armed Forces should be alert to this danger, and not allow themselves to be coopted into any political party’s design or narrative. They should strongly resist being “ appropriated” by any political outfit for electoral gains, continue to do whatever difficult job is entrusted to them by the govt. of the day without unnecessary comments, and keep politics at arm’s length. If they do not, they shall identify themselves too closely with a particular political party and make themselves vulnerable to political attacks. The Opposition has  already started questioning the Army’s loyalties, neutrality and respect for law; the COAS has even been called, most regrettably, a “ street goonda.” These are ominous portents, and it is for our Generals ( including the very vocal retired ones) to ensure that the Armed Forces are not dragged into the partisan political discourse that is the bane of our times. They should realise that the politicians are only making use of them, reaping the rewards while the soldiers pay the price. What kind of a deal is that ?   

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

THE ODDITIES OF AUDIT

       [ This piece was published in the New Indian Express of 9.1.2017 as " The Oddities of Auditors ]

   The difference between a Chartered Accountant and an Auditor is that whereas the former looks for Cash in Hand the latter looks for Hand in Cash. And this precisely is what makes the Auditor the bane of every DDO ( Drawing and Disbursing Officer, poor sod) in the government. Every once in a while the Audit party descends on govt. offices like a biblical plague, armed with annual targets of audit paras and a tunnel vision that would do a mole proud. Your typical auditor is adept at looking through key holes, but as all of us who have done our share of peeping through key holes during our college days would testify, this kind of opticism ( to coin a word) suffers from a loss of perspective and context: it may help one to focus on a particular part of the female anatomy but it loses the larger picture. Audit parties also like to be well looked after and it is acknowledged in govt. circles that a well turned tandoori chicken is worth at least a dozen “dropped” audit paras. However, if the said avian has flown the coop this is taken stern note of by the mole, and the resultant observations can be quite remarkable.
  Sometime in the 1940's a British forester arrived at a remote forest rest house in upper Shimla district at the fag end of a severe winter. He noticed obvious signs of a bear ( the area abounds in Himalayan black bears) which had spent the winter in the deserted rest house and, as the anecdotal and precise British are wont to do, recorded the following in the register: “ It appears that Mr. Bruno has been staying here these winter months as there are signs of his presence all over the verandah and the grounds.” When the accounts of the rest house were audited the Audit party noted that the Department had been extremely lax in allowing Mr. Bruno to stay in the rest house without paying the room rent, and directed that the rent for the entire winter months be recovered from him, and in future no one should be permitted to stay there without obtaining a permit ! The HP Forest Deptt. is still looking for the errant Mr. Bruno to settle the para.
  On a more recent occasion an Audit party was auditing the accounts of a small Municipal Committee in Chamba district. To lighten its onerous burden it desired that some refreshments be provided ( at the expense of the Committee, of course). Since the lamb which is being led to the slaughter has very few choices, some gulab jamuns were duly served( note that the mandatory chicken was missing). When this particular bill came up for scrutiny Audit pounced on it with a vengeance and demanded to know the reasons for this “wasteful” expenditure. The Secretary of the MC, however, was equal to the task: he replied that the gulab jamuns had been purchased to feed to stray dogs in order to poison them ( this was before Mrs. Maneka Gandhi discovered her true passion in life). Now, auditors are a resilient sub-set of homo sapiens and, though initially taken aback by this impertinent reply, they quickly bounced back with this counter punch:           “ How many dogs were killed ? Please furnish documentary proof in support thereof.”  The Secretary, an experienced pugilist himself, delivered the TKO with this upper cut:  “ No dog appears to have died as it is reported that they have become immune to such gulab jamuns !” Ouch!!
  My own favourite anecdote was related to me many years ago by the then Director of the Delhi Zoo. Now, this Zoo has a large number of peacocks and at one point of time their numbers grew to more than what it could handle. The Director, quite sensibly in any one’s opinion but that of Audit, decided to sell the surplus birds. The process involved some minor expenditure which was duly reflected under the heading “ Retailing of peacocks.” When Audit saw this entry all its members emitted a collective Hallelujah for their tunnel vision had detected the mother of all audit paras. And what a para it was: “ Why was the retailing of peacocks necessary ? What happened to their original tails? Has responsibility been fixed for the loss of the original tails ? Has the quantum of loss been estimated? Were tenders invited for fixing ( retailing) new tails on them? Is the quality of the new tails similar to the original tails?”
  The Director sought an immediate transfer, thankful for his narrow escape- he confessed to me that he could not even imagine what would have happened if he had retailed a lion or a tiger !
  Acquiring the peculiar mentality of an auditor is no child’s play: it requires years of arcane training at the Yarrows Academy in Shimla and many more years asking probing questions. Rome was not built in a day, nor was Mr. Vinod Rai’s Coal scam report prepared overnight; it was preceded by years of probing questions by him on government functioning: Why were three biscuits served at the meeting when the rules permitted only two ? Why were tenders in newspapers ( costing Rs. 20000/) not published before purchasing pens ( costing Rs. 2000/)?  Why was expenditure on flavoured condoms ( for birth control) booked under the Family Planning Programme head and not under Food for Work ? Indeed, the Auditor is a prime example of reverse evolution and even the Gods do not tangle with him as the following parable indicates:
Two auditors died and arrived at the pearly gates. Just ahead of them were two clergymen but St. Peter motioned them aside and took the auditors into heaven at once. The clergymen protested: “ Why them ahead of us ? Haven’t we done everything possible to spread the word of the Lord?”
“ Yes”, said St. Peter, “ but these two guys have scared the hell out of more people than you ever did !’
Amen to that.


       

Thursday, 15 June 2017

THE STEEL FRAME : RUSTED, BUT NOT BROKEN

   June 12th, 2017 has to be a red letter day in the history of the civil services in India. For the first time ever 65 retired bureaucrats from a cross section of All India Services, who had occupied the highest echelons of the government, have written an open letter to Prime Minister Modi protesting against the growing authoritarianism, vigilantism, suppression of free speech, lawlessness, targeting of minorities and intellectual intolerance that has become the calling card of the present govt. at the center. Such a protest is remarkable because it did not happen even during the Emergency. The reason perhaps is that the Emergency was perceived as primarily directed at the country's political structure whereas the current actions of the BJP are seen to be destroying the social, cultural and legal foundations of the country, ripping apart a social fabric and communal harmony that has stood the test of time, inspite of countless riots and killings.
   It is not in the nature of civil servants to speak out, constrained as they are by draconian Conduct Rules and an overpowering political dispensation which is a toxic mix of punishment and patronage. ( This is not to defend their silence but to explain it). The carrot of a post retirement sinecure also has something to do with it, but it is not the whole explanation. Your average bureaucrat has few concerns beyond his posting, the perks attached to it, his Annual Confidential Report and empanelment at the Center. If he does not speak out on seminal issues it is not because he does not want to offend the powers that be ( and see !), but because the idea never occurs to him. His is not the silence of the lamb but the silence of the honey-badger, who doesn't give a shit ! The habit persists even after retirement: forget writing letters, posts or articles, they are even reluctant to comment on them ! Since my retirement in 2010 December I have published more than 150 posts and articles, but I can count the comments by my colleagues and peers on the fingers of two hands. Bureaucrats are used to living in a cocoon of perks and privileges and are loath to step out of their comfort zone. So when 65 of the most senior ones decide to go public and raise their voice it is time to take them seriously: the state of the nation's affairs must be close to breaking point for them to have broken with their nature and tradition. The significance of this letter does not lie in the fact that it will achieve anything or get a positive response from the govt. but in the fact that the civil service has stood up to a powerful Prime Minister for the first time. It is a timely message to Indian society at large, especially to the apprehensive but silent supporters of liberal and democratic values. It signals that the time has come for them- the artists, academics, writers, intellectuals, media, retired Generals- to also organise themselves and speak out, before they are silenced for ever.
   There will inevitably be sceptics and trolls who will deride and traduce this effort ( the counter campaign has already begun), asking questions like: What were they doing while in service ?Why did they wait to retire before speaking out ? What will writing a mere letter achieve ? There are answers to all these questions but it is not necessary to give them here, because such trolling is the classic diversionary tactic of the BJP sympathisers- attack the player, not the ball. The issue is not why they spoke out now, but whether they speak the truth and whether they have done the right thing by speaking out. The answer to both is an unequivocal YES.
   There is hatred, violence and fear abroad, on a scale never experienced before in this country. The machinery of the state colludes with vigilantes of all hues and the law abiding citizen is left to their mercies. Institutions are being destroyed systematically, both from within and without. Non-state actors dictate our diet, clothes, relationships, films and view of history. The apparatus of the state is used selectively to suppress dissent. The validity of a faith is tested on the crucible of just one religion only. It appears that the country is being given a simple binary choice- Democracy or Development ? ( Actually, it should be phrased Democracy or Promise of Development, since no real development has taken place in the last three years. But even this doesn't really mater, because the choice is also being dictated by Big Brother). In any case democracies don't work on binaries and this is not a choice but an ultimatum. This letter has been long overdue.
   A couple of caveats, however. According to my rough calculations there would be about 2000-2500 surviving retired IAS officers but there are only 65 signatories to the letter.  Mr. Jawahar Sircar and others should have made a greater effort to involve more of these officers in the campaign- they would have found very wide support. 500 signatures would have negated the criticism already being made- that these 65 are a minuscule minority and do not represent the civil services. After all, the BJP respects only numbers, not ideas! Secondly, the signatories should immediately issue a public appeal to political parties not to co-opt this letter into their anti-govt. campaigns, and they should scrupulously keep them at arms' length. Politics is the kiss of death for any citizens' movement.
   This letter will probably have no impact on a government and a party that keeps on winning one election after another, and sees this as the only validation it needs. But it will come as a mild shock to Mr. Modi who, like all authoritarian figures, likes to bask in the sunlight of public adulation. It will further affect his image in the global media, already disapproving of his style of leadership and human rights record. It might just provide another slim arrow in the Opposition quiver which was woefully empty till Mandsaur happened. But if you're waiting for the govt. to take note of the letter and alter course-- don't hold your breath.
  Breathe in- and speak out.

Monday, 5 June 2017

UPROOTING TREES TO DIG OUR OWN GRAVE.

         [ This piece was published on the editorial page of the New Indian Express on 24.5.17 ]

   It has just been reported that a Panchayat in Kerala has done what the entire might and resources of the Indian union could not- revive a whole river. The Kuttemperor river in Alappuzha district had ceased to exist a decade ago, smothered by effluents, sewage, plastic, weeds and devoured by encroachments. The villagers of Budhanoor Panchayat, with no budget but plenty of commitment and voluntary labour, spent months clearing out the old river course- and the river has recharged itself and is now flowing again as before ! It will again sustain the livelihoods of thousands of families. NO thanks to the governments, state or central.
  I am not surprised. The current govt. has demonstrated a remarkable insensitivity to the natural environment, even though Mr. Modi is supposed to have spent years in the Himalayas during his salad days: quite clearly, he was not impressed by nature. How else does one explain how his govt. is systematically dismantling the regulatory framework built by the previous govts. to protect our forests from a pillaging industry, and according approvals to projects that can only devastate the environment and our core green areas further ? I refer to three projects that have been sanctioned recently.
  The first is the PM’s personally blessed highway to connect the “ char dhams” in Uttarakhand: Gangotri, Yamunotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath, which today are finally accessed on foot only. All these are above ten thousand feet and located in the most fragile geological landscape. The road construction will involve the felling of at least 4000 deodar ( cedar)trees, many of them hundreds of years old, and result in dumping of millions of tonnes of soil and debris in the river valleys, choking them and causing landslides and floods downstream. Has Mr. Modi forgotten the Kedarnath disaster of just four years ago?
  And, as if this was not enough foolhardiness, he has now announced that the govt. shall also build a broad gauge rail line ( at a cost of Rs. 40000 crore) to further connect these pilgrim destinations ! Any sane person will only rebound in horror at this display of Kim  Jong Un type of megalomania. This 300 km line will lead to even more despoliation of forests and excavation of the mountains. Moreover, the four dhams are already reeling under an unbearable human footprint and anthropogenic pressures, the glaciers there are already melting at an alarming rate because of loss of green cover and man made warming, pollution is already stifling these rivers. These places have crossed their carrying capacity long ago. And this myopic govt. wants millions of more people to converge there !
  The third ill-advised project is the linking of the Ken and Betwa rivers in Madhya Pradesh to provide irrigation to an additional 6.35 lakh hectares in Bundelkhand. This has always been a controversial project which is being rammed through the supine Forest Advisory Committee without even conducting a full fledged EIA ( Environment Impact Assessment). Shocking figures of the devastation it will cause are only now emerging: 6017 hectares of prime forest land shall be diverted and more than 18,00,000 trees will be axed. Most of this forest land- 5803 hectares- falls in the Panna tiger reserve, which is a Critical Tiger Habitat. A spineless National Tiger Conservation Authority says that the loss of this area will be made good by planting an equal area. This is a farrago of untruths ( as Shashi Tharoor would no doubt have dubbed it): in the first place, what is being destroyed is an ecological habitat which contains 1255 species of plants, 34 mammals and 280 bird species, whereas what the govt. will provide is a poor, sterile plantation at best. Poor, because( and this is the second codicil) the survival rate of plantations is rarely more than 40% and compensatory afforestation has been a failure throughout the country, though it has enriched many a contractor, politician and govt. official. Sterile, because it takes dozens of years to create a habitat, by which time the native flora and fauna here would have disappeared permanently.
  We live in a country already on the brink of environmental catastrophe as borne out by successive droughts; heat waves which have killed more than 9000 people in the last seven years; farmer suicides ( 300,000 in the last twenty years, according to the NCRB ) which show no sign of abating; one and a half  million deaths every year due to air pollution. We have lost an astounding 10.60 million ha. of original forests in just the last 14 years, more than 60 million people ( mainly tribals and the poorest of the poor) have been displaced ( developmental refugees?) since Independence by projects that benefit urban India, 60% of our blocks are water stressed, we are killing off our wild-life faster than they can adapt- the list of endangered species has more than doubled in just two years, going up from 190 to 443 ( IUCN figures). It is, therefore, no surprise that the World Bank Index of Environmental Quality places us at 155 out of 178 countries. According to a new method of calculating a nation’s Ecological Footprint ( biologically productive area in hectares a country needs to fuel its resource consumption and absorb its waste)  India is the third worst country in the world, after China and the USA, needing 1.30 billion hectares for the purpose- land that we just don’t have. Our biological footprint, therefore, is in deficit by 0.67 ha. per person. What this means is that India needs approx.. 800 million more hectares of land than we have to absorb our consumption and waste. On a per capita basis even Pakistan and Bangladesh are better placed than us.
   The litany of environmental degradation in the country is long and depressing, and it is getting worse under a govt. that can’t see beyond GDP figures or think beyond vote shares. We will pay a heavy price in the years to come for our wilful depredation of natural resources, but who cares as long as the next election is won ?  






Thursday, 18 May 2017

HORSES FOR COURSES .

  Horses and the IAS have never been on the same page or the same paddock, as it were. Their relationship is somewhat like that of Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un: wary apprehension on the one side and undisguised contempt on the other. Until the 1980's horse riding was compulsory for all IAS probationers incarcerated in the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration at Mussoorie, and if they failed in this activity they would remain Deputy Secretaries for life, with no parole. The " raison d'etre" for imposing such a vigorous activity on people whose greatest physical exertion in later years would comprise of nothing more than bending over backwards ( the                   "sir-namaskar aasan") or brushing files under the carpet, was aptly summed up by Mrs. Indira Gandhi when some stout probationers represented to her that the sport should be made optional. She is reported to have said: " An officer who cannot control a horse cannot control a crowd."
   And so, since no one, not even a pedigreed mule from Rohtak, argued with Mrs. Gandhi, uncounted generations of probationers were condemned to throbbing posteriors, cracked skulls and hyphenated legs which would have made any Shakespearean buff cry out in delight- " Yonder cometh a bloke in parenthesis !" We also acquired a healthy respect for these formidable quadrupeds, standing six feet at the fetters, loaned to the Academy by the Indian Military Academy or the Army Remount Corps and retaining all the contempt which the Army has for bureaucrats, even the budding ones. Riding became the biggest obsession in the Academy, second only to the urgent need to identify potential spouses from those states where one wanted an allotment but had not succeeded. In the process it threw up a whole collage of personalities, incidents and tales that we can now look back on with amusement, confident in the knowledge that our days of crowd and horse control are now well behind us.
  Take, for instance, Hazari Singh a retired Army Havildar, half dragon and half bear trap, our riding instructor. His avowed mission in life was to demonstrate that IAS probationers were the lowest form of invertebrates, and that it was a pure aberration in the Darwinian law of Natural Selection that such genetic mutants should be astride an animal as splendid as a horse. He lost no opportunity to constantly reaffirm this to us. If someone handled a horse roughly Hazari Singh would let out a roar in a voice that could be heard in Dehra Doon: " Aaram se, saar, that is an expensive animal, not some cheap trash selected by the UPSC!"
  For the smart alecks amongst us he had a trick up his sleeve: an eight year old, midnight black mare named Jaya whose memory, even today, induces incontinence among hard boiled Collectors and deep fried Secretaries. If Hazari Singh perceived any one of us to be a bigger streptococcus than normal, that lost soul was ordered to mount Jaya. Thereafter that poor sod was like clay, and Jaya the potter: she could ( with Hazari Singh's fond blessings, of course) do anything with him as she pleased, for she had a mind that was immutable, even by the standards of the female of the species. Madhavan mounted Jaya one day- and disappeared for two whole days! Even today, well into his dotage, he becomes incoherent when asked where Jaya had taken him.
  Varun Maira, who possessed a remarkable resemblance to a sack of potatoes, was once ordered to do a three feet jump on Jaya. The lady preferred carrots to potatoes, and at the last possible moment when Varun, like a lumbering 747 had committed himself to take-off, Jaya stopped! Varun continued over the jump in a perfect parabola, sans Jaya, and landed heavily on his head. Any apprehensions of a possible brain injury were dispelled by a smirking Hazari Singh: " No problem, saab, there is nothing inside that head that can be damaged!" He proved to be extremely prescient, I must admit, for Varun's subsequent career graph has been impressive- he retired as Chief Secretary, a post in which, as we all know, brains are considered to be a liability!
  About that time I had, with great difficulty, persuaded a comely female in Lucknow to agree to marry me. It was touch and go and therefore it was incumbent upon me to go to Lucknow every couple of months to ensure that she didn't change her mind. It was not easy to get leave unless one obtained a medical certificate from the Doc. On one such occasion I showed the Doc some bruises and cuts on my knee and asked for three days' leave over the weekend. " How did you get these ?" inquired the Doctor.
  I had acquired them while trying to scale the wall of the Ladies' Block the previous night but honesty was certainly not the best policy at the moment. " I fell off a horse, sir," I replied, in the tone of that stupid English King who lost his kingdom for doing something similar.
  " Ah !" said the medico with a glint in his eye, " the riding ground is swarming with germs ( I don't think he meant us probationers). You should immediately have three tetanus shots over the next three days. No leave, I'm afraid, can't take a chance." In those primeval days AT shots were given on the posterior, with a needle as thick as an RSS lathi, and so I spent the weekend lying on my stomach. Fortunately, my fiancee didn't change her mind, though now she wishes she had.
  And finally, there was George Mehra. He was straight out of a Zane Grey western, always with a cigar stuck in his mouth, and when he walked past you one could distinctly hear the testosterone sloshing around inside him. George was/is a satyr- half horse and half man- and loved riding: he was the only one among us who was on first name terms with Jaya. He spent eighteen hours a day in the saddle, even taking short naps there. Hazari Singh gave him the supreme compliment by announcing that he was a mis-fit in the IAS! For once, though, he was wrong. In later years George was to become famous when, as Collector of a notorious district, he personally beat up a politician on a main road for passing comments about his wife. Nobody tangled with him for the next thirty years after that . Maybe Mrs. Gandhi was right, after all ?

Friday, 12 May 2017

LESSONS FROM A JUDICIAL DEADLOCK

                                             

   The face-off between Justice Karnan and the Supreme Court has rapidly deteriorated from a Punch and Judy show to a Three Stooges burlesque with juridical invectives and challenges being hurled about with gay abandon by both sides. There has been very little public discussion of this, presumably because this needless drama is perhaps seen as an internal matter of the higher judiciary. Nothing could be further from the truth. The judiciary is the one remaining key-stone of our sorry democracy, when all the other three pillars have begun to crumble, and therefore the citizens have a right to involve themselves in this theatre of the absurd for two reasons. One, the likes of Justice Karnan hold, literally, the power of life and death over us and their behaviour, conduct and mental equilibrium concerns all of us. Second, in the absence of any other checks and balances on superior court judges, the Supreme Court’s ability or will to rein in a maverick judge has to become a subject of scrutiny by the nation. The question has to be asked: After all, how safe is the average citizen from a judge who has been defying the highest court of the land for months now, a judge who has ordered the registration of cases, seizure of passports and even imposed prison sentences on no less than seven Supreme Court justices ? The SC has now sentenced him to six months in jail for contempt but the unspoken question that haunts many of us- is Justice Karnan a one-of-a-kind aberration or are there more of his like embedded in the system?
   This unfolding drama, it has to be admitted, is partly the result of the judiciary’s own hubris and over-reach. The Constitution provides adequate safeguards to preserve the independence of the judiciary, but over time the Courts have added more layers of protection, to a point where the judges today have become almost divine entities. They are accountable to no one but themselves, they cannot be questioned, they appoint themselves, they are immune from any prosecution or investigation unless they themselves approve it, they are immutable and inviolate. The Contempt of Courts Act provides the final coating of teflon which the public or the media can penetrate only at their own peril. They have conferred on themselves almost a supernal status, and this has now boomeranged on them and come back to haunt them. It is precisely this celestial immunity which Justice Karnan has been using to cock a snook at the Supreme Court, trading arrest warrant for arrest warrant, medical examination for medical examination, passport for passport ! And, at least for now, the Supreme Court has been unable to find a way out of this “ chakravyuh”.
    This is not the first time that a superior court judge has gone wayward. In the past too there have been charges made and questions asked, the details of which it would be prudent not to elaborate here. But I do not recollect any tangible or substantive action being taken in any of those cases. There has recently been the case of retired Justice Katju, in which fortunately a way out was found by his tendering an apology. But these instances only  reinforce the feeling and aura of invulnerability among them, making them, literally, a law unto themselves. All the required ingredients were in place and Justice Karnan was simply waiting to happen, as inevitably as the being created by Dr. Frankenstein when the potion was just right.
   The dilemma the Supreme Court has found itself in is a constitutional one. A superior court judge can only be removed by impeachment by Parliament. This was tried once but was aborted: a fractured Parliament, riven by caste, regional and political rifts will always ensure that this clause can never be implemented.The Supreme Court 0stensibly has found a way out of this imbroglio by sentencing Justice Karnan to imprisonment for six months for contempt. But since he retires next month this amounts to his removal, and questions have already been raised by  many legal authorities whether this is unconstitutional. Knotty legal questions still remain: removal from service usually entails forfeiture of pension in government- will he be entitled to a pension now when he retires? Will he be disqualified in future from any service under the government ? Is the SC order in conflict with the constitutional provisions ? How robust and objective is the collegium system of appointment if it selects judges who show scant respect for even the Supreme Court? Will Justice Karnan now play the Dalit card and create further rifts within the judiciary itself? I have a feeling we have not heard the last on this matter.Justice Karnan has already moved a petition asking the SC to recall the order for his arrest, and the Court has agreed to hear it. In all probability a via media will be manufactured, the errant judge will be allowed to retire( perhaps prematurely to avoid more of his broadsides) and all will be well in Camelot again- till the next Justice Karnan surfaces somewhere else. It is time to address the real malaise and not just apply a band-aid.
  I am reminded of a mythological tale I heard in the remote Sainj valley of Kullu district in Himachal during one of my treks many years ago. Many centuries ago( so the local legend goes) the valley was ruled by a giant “ rakshas” known as Rakti Beej. He had been given a “ vardan” by the Gods that he could not be killed, for every time a drop of his blood fell on the ground a new Rakti Beej would sprout from it. Secure in his invulnerability, Rakti Beej set about killing all the Gods one by one! Finally, they appealed to MahaKali to save them. She grabbed Rakti Beej with two of her hands, cut his throat with the other, and collected the falling blood in a cup with the fourth, preventing it from falling on the ground. Thus was Rakti Beej finally defeated. Absolute power can be a double-edged sword, as even the Gods discovered !
    Unfortunate as this episode is, it presents us with an opportunity to devise a process by which judges who cross the line can be eased out of service without nuking the system. In most well administered countries moral pressure and the force of public opinion itself are enough to make a delinquent judge quit on his own. In recent times Lord Dennings, a British judge, stepped down after charges of racism were made against him. This, however, is unlikely to happen in India for two reasons: first, public criticism of a judge is stifled by the laws of contempt and hence the force of public opinion is missing, and secondly, we as a nation have no sense of moral responsibility. Therefore, we need to invent a  system to ensure that this type of situation never recurs, and that there must be a way to remove recalcitrant judges other than by way of impeachment alone. We need to revisit, for example, the Judges Inquiry Bill ( 2006) which proposed a committee of judges to enquire into cases of judicial misconduct. Parliament torpedoed this Bill on the ground that judges cannot be a judge in their own cause. So how about adding a couple of non-judge legal luminaries to this committee ? Surely this is not an unsurmountable impediment ? But for this to happen the judiciary must acknowledge that too much protectionism is not healthy for its own body fabric. It must accept that judges too are mortal and not infallible and that when they err gravely there must be a process to discipline them and remove them from service without having to invoke the brahmashastra of impeachment. The judiciary cannot evolve such an alternative system by itself- it must come down to ground and sit with the Executive to find the solution. And it must accept that too much power ultimately self- destructs, and takes all with it.






Friday, 5 May 2017

CLUELESS BBC LOCKS HORNS WITH RHINOS

        [This piece was published on the op-ed page of the New Indian Express on 3.5.2017]

   Britain exterminated all its wildlife a hundred years ago, it still slaughters six million pheasants every year for “Sport”, and its last remaining carnivore( if you can call it that), the fox, will be doing its own Brexit within a decade. So its a bit rich for the BBC to be advising us on how to conserve wild-life, which is what it has had the gall to do in a recent documentary, KILLING FOR CONSERVATION, a short film ostensibly about efforts to protect the one-horned rhino in Kaziranga. Strangely, though, in this 20 minute misrepresentation the reporter ( Justin Rowlatt, BBC’s South Asia correspondent) completely upends the focus- from wildlife conservation to a flawed view of human rights! Short on facts and woefully lacking in perspective or understanding of what wildlife conservation entails, he is outraged by the killing of poachers ( he terms them “extra judicial executions!”), the eviction of illegal settlers from within the Kaziranga National Park( KNP) and alleged tortures for which he has no shred of evidence. To me he appears to be a bit schizophrenic, for while acknowledging that “ man is the most vicious predator” and that Kaziranga “ is an incredible story of conservation success”, he still goes on to find fault for just about everything the Park authorities do, and condemns them ( and the WWF, for good measure!) for their success.
   Lets just recapitulate the context here. Kaziranga National Park is vast, 900 sq. kms of the most difficult and inaccessible terrain, of which 228 sq. kms has been exclusively set aside for the protection of the Greater One Horned Rhinoceros ( Rhinoceros Unicornis), the horn of which fetches upto Rupees twenty million in China. Two thirds of the world’s population of these rhinos are in Kaziranga. The efforts of the KNP constitute one of the greatest conservation success stories in the world: the rhino population has doubled in the last 22 years- from an alarming 1164 in 1993 to 2401 in 2015. But the poaching has not stopped- 151 rhinos have been killed in the last 10 years, 89 in just four years between 2013 and 2016, something which Mr. Rowlatt was not bothered to find out. In fact, there has been a sharp spike in poaching in these years, which cannot but be a cause for concern.
  The BBC, in the throes of liberal humanism, castigates the KNP management for arming its forest guards and for permitting them to shoot at poachers within the Park boundaries. The documentary makes no mention of the fact that poachers are armed with AK-47 rifles or that insurgents of outlawed factions have also taken to poaching the rhinos for the enormous sums that can accrue to them. ( Ironically, the BBC itself covered another story recently to show how money from drugs and wildlife poaching follow the same trail to fund terrorism !).
  Yes, 55 poachers have been killed inside the Park in the last four years- that is the price you pay for breaking the law, and that is the price the nation extracts for protecting one of our most valuable natural heritages. The documented study of major parks in Africa has established that poaching has considerably declined in areas where forest staff were armed and authorised to “ shoot to kill”. Any genuine lover of nature would be happy that the Assam govt. has had the decisiveness to so empower its forest staff. The BBC film stresses, again without any solid proof other than statements of a few relatives of those killed, that innocent local villagers often stray within the Park boundaries and are shot. This is dishonest reporting. In the first place, the Park’s boundaries are defined and well known to the locals- there is no question of their “ straying” into it. Secondly, why should an innocent person go into the park at night, which is when most of the encounters have taken place ? And finally, according to the Park’s Director, only 4 of the 55 poachers killed since 2013 were local villagers- all the others were outsiders, clinching proof that they were there for the money and had no business to be there.
  The same lack of diligence and journalistic ethics is on display when the BBC reporter highlights the eviction of families from within the Park boundaries by force. He does not mention that all due legal processes were followed and that a large number of these families were illegal squatters ( an endemic problem in Assam) with no rights to the land. The reporter is wrong when he portrays the evictions as illegal, but I agree that the displacement could have been handled differently, with better planning and vision. Experience has shown that Conservation/ Protected Areas succeed in their objective only if the local ( especially displaced) villagers are co-opted into the effort. There is an inevitable loss of livelihoods and usufruct rights when such Areas are notified and governments must have proper plans in place for their rehabilitation. A stellar example of this is the Great Himalayan National Park in Kullu district of Himachal Pradesh, declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2014. The affected villagers here were given training and financial help in eco-tourism, handicrafts, vermi-composting, raising nurseries for medicinal plants, and provided sale outlets. They now derive gainful employment and incomes from the tourists/ trekkers that the GHNP attracts in ever-increasing numbers. They have now developed a vested interest in preserving the Park’s bio-diversity and natural uniqueness and have become stakeholders. This is the way for the Kaziranga authorities to go. Do not relinquish the gun, but don’t depend on it exclusively.
   The BBC documentary is irresponsible and misleading journalism, but so is the Govt’s reaction to it. It has blacklisted the reporter and barred him from entry to any of our Protected Areas. It has also sought to revoke his visa. This is not only overkill but also censorship. The battle of ideas should not be fought in passport offices or with bans but with facts, full disclosures and counter points. It does not behove the govt. to be churlish or bear a grudge- this puts it on the backfoot and makes it appear defensive. Kaziranga is doing a fine job of protecting one of our natural icons and one ill informed reporter with a bias should not detract it from its course.