Friday 11 June 2010

No visas for S Asia media dialogue (PO)

M D Nalapat

Wafting through the corridors of North Block, the abode of India’s sprawling Home Ministry, are rumours that Congress President Sonia Gandhi wants a more youthful face to her loyal government than the 77-year old Manmohan Singh, and that her choice is the athletic 64-year old, Palaniappan Chidambaram, who was shifted from Finance to Home after the 26/11 Mumbai attacks in 2008. The new minister in charge of internal security shares with the current Prime Minister the advantage (in Sonia Gandhi’s eyes) of having a zero political base, thus being unable to pose any political challenge to the Nehru dynasty, which was ruled the Congress Party (and usually the country) since the 1930s. Should Chidambaram be appointed PM, he is unlikely to repeat Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s feat of replacing the Bandaranaike family’s control over the Lankan ruling party with that of his own clan. Congress office-bearers say that the Congress President’s instruction to her new Home Minister was simple: prevent another terrorist attack, so as to prevent the BJP from staging a comeback on the back of public insecurity.

Chidambaram, who in his other life is one of the country’s top lawyers, knows that he has to deliver, and his chosen way has been to reinforce the system of bureaucratic control that he had favoured while Finance Minister from 2004 to 2008. During that time, he ensured that sweeping powers were given to the Income-Tax Department, so that in today’s “democratic” India, any taxman can - in his subjective estimation - accuse a citizen of evading taxes by concealing income, and freeze bank accounts and take over property. Several such actions have been taken out of the purview of courts by modifications in the rules introduced by Chidambaram, not that the courts in India can be expected to deliver justice in a single lifetime. For example, the Bhopal phosgene gas leak caused 15,000 deaths and more than 117,000 serious illnesses in 1984. Only last week (26 years later) has a token sentence of 2 years in jail been awarded to the officers of Union Carbide, the US company that operated the Bhopal plant. Naturally, the convicted officers all got bail immediately after the verdict, and went home to their families, even as the Bhopal victims still writhe in pain and starve because several are physically unable to work.

During the 1990s,then Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Aziz Ahmadi reduced the sections under which the company officers were prosecuted from manslaughter to negligence. Later, he became the head of a hospital set up by Union Carbide. Earlier, then Chief Justice Ram Pathak had fixed a very low total compensation of less than $500 million for the Bhopal deaths, and soon after, went to the International Court of Justice at Den Haag with the support of influential players in that institution. For decades, the Indian media have kept silent in the face of such “democratic” outcomes as judges landing - on their own merit of course - plum posts after delivering judgements that affect the rights of tens of thousands of the poorest of the poor.

However, these days, shamed perhaps by their complicity in the misdeeds of those in authority, a few sections of the electronic media are slowly adopting a more investigative approach to issues. Of course, while in Pakistan the army is largely immune from media criticism (which is directed at the civilian government, which has no control over the military or over much of core policy), in India the main opposition party, the BJP, routinely savages Prime Minister Singh while being silent on the actual ruler of India, Sonia Gandhi. Small wonder that in India, Sonia Gandhi is given the same kid glove treatment that is given to the military in Pakistan.

Under Chidambaram, the Union Home Ministry has evolved a knack for chopping off the head to “cure” a headache. Because the US national of Pakistani origin David Coleman Headley cased prospective terror attack locations in the country, these days, it is almost impossible for a US, Canadian or UK citizen of Pakistani origin to get a visa to enter India. And any visitor has to have a cooling-off period of 60 days between visits, a restriction not imposed by any other democracy on multiple-entry visa holders.

India is moving steadily back towards the era of Indira Gandhi, where the government had all the power and the people none. If any organisation wants to hold an international conference in India, they need to get permission in writing from the Home Ministry, the Ministry of External Affairs and the “concerned” ministry (for example, Commerce in a conference involving such subjects) before visas can be issued to international participants. Last week, the prestigious and picturesque International Centre at Goa held its annual South Asia Media Summit, the subject being “Media and Terrorism”.

Although media persons from several countries were invited, only the Nepalese turned up. The rest were denied visas. Among those from Pakistan who could not participate were Ayub Tarin, Imtiaz Gul and Zahid Hussain. From Sri Lanka, Iqbal Athas and Sinha Ranatunga were denied visas, while even UK nationals such as James Hider and Stephen Farrel and US citizens not of Pakistani origin such as Michael Yon were kept away. The organisers spent weeks seeking to cajole officials into giving these well-known media persons visas, but met with no success. These days, it is more difficult to hold an international conference in India (unless one has the blessings of the ruling party) than it is for a camel to enter through the eye of a needle.

There was an attack by Maoists on a train in West Bengal, killing a hundred. The Home Minister saw to it that all trains passing that region at night were banned. In order to “prevent” spy ware from being embedded in telecom equipment, he banned Chinese equipment manufacturers from bidding, even though these are 30% cheaper than the EU competition (who too can embed spy ware). In the name of fighting terrorism, a system of governance is being put in place that gives back to officialdom the rights they last enjoyed when the British were ruling, or when Indira Gandhji declared an emergency.

Will such measures create enough of a smile on Sonia Gandhi’s face to make her replace Manmohan Singh with Chidambaram? The Indian citizen is waiting to find out, as he digests one sweeping regulation after another in his “democracy”.

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