Friday, December 30, 2011

HatTrick Mamata

Pandemonium in the Rajya Sabha over Lokpal Bill

Bengal’s mercurial chief minister Mamata Bannerjee has scored a hat trick of sorts – she has stalled three major measures which her senior ally - the Congress had sought to bring in this year.

But this time round, it may be Congress which may be cheering the self goal she scored through her lieutenants in Delhi by stalling the Lokpal legislation in the upper house of Parliament.

First, was the Teesta pact with Bangladesh, which she scuttled by disagreeing with a very basic and simple sharing of river waters in order, so say Congress leaders, to arm twist the centre into giving more funds to her cash strapped state government.

Her brash and extremely un-diplomatic act at the penultimate hour, left Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and India as a whole, red faced on the Prime Minister’s maiden visit to Dhaka.

The Teesta river which starts out as a mountain rivulet in Sikim flows down as a broad river through North Bengal to enter Bangladesh as a tributary feeding into the mighty Brahmaputra.

The deal promised water sharing on an equitable 50:50 basis at Gajoldoba barrage near Siliguri in West Bengal. With the deal falling through, despite Singh’s other gifts for Bangladesh – duty free garment exports, border enclave swaps which gave Bangladesh large tracts of Indian land etc. - India was painted a fickle friend.

Her second, was to force the ruling alliance to place in cold storage Commerce Minister Anand Sharma’s move to bring foreign direct investment in retail. She left a loophole in her protest against the move, by uttering something about doing what was good for farmers. Again a signal, Congress Mandarins say, that she wanted more funds.

In a sense, the Congress was not really unhappy with her tantrums that time as it gave them an opportunity to cold store a necessary but unpopular move which would have hit millions of mom and pop stores ahead of  key assembly elections to Uttar Pradesh state, India’s most populous province.

The move to open up to the Walmarts and Tescos of the world would surely have been used by opposition parties such as the pro-trader Bharatiya Janata Party and regional outfit Bahujan Samaj Party to accuse the ruling alliance of selling out to transnationals and turning the issue into an election trump card.

The Congress rather cleverly used this stalling as a chance to tell farmer-voters of how mindless opposition had nixed a chance to bring a legislation which could have helped them sell produce at better prices.

This time round Mamata’s party, after making noises of unhappiness with the Lokpal bill ended up supporting it in the Lok Sabha or the lower house of India’s Parliament by not seeking divisions on amendments moved by it.

Later, on her express instructions, Trinamool Congress MPs in the Upper house or Rajya Sabha made it clear that they would seek a vote on their key amendment to the bill which seeks to set up an independent Ombudsman.

The bill suffers many defects, but as one Central Minister said at least it was being enacted and later Parliaments would have the luxury of improving upon it. Trinamool’s amendment in the name of defending federalism, sought to keep out a clause which would have allowed states to set up their own Ombudsmen to be called Lokayuktas.

Trinamool’s stand, encouraged a clutch of parties such as Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party and Rashtriya Janata Dal, which had earlier in the week walked out in the Lok Sabha or lower house making it easy for the ruling alliance to pass the bill, to decide to stay and vote against the bill.

This meant the ruling coalition did not have the numbers to pass the bill, forcing the Congress to stall for time and take the cover of an ensuing chaos in the house to put everything on the backburner and prepare for another day.

Congress did not specifically blame its ally but rather pleaded helplessness as  some 189 ammendments had been brought by lawmakers from among opposition and allied parties which needed study nd scrutiny.

India's Parliamentary affairs minister Pawan Bansal said he needed more time to respond, arguing “If we want to be true to the cause we need more time to go through the (opposition proposed) ammendments."

But the Congressman on the street is already whispering `Mamata does not want any oversight body to look into the affairs of her government.’ Till now, they had little ammunition to attack her. Her popularity seemed teflon coated and every little thing they said against her seemed petulance on the part of an ignored partner in a stale marriage.

Mamata’s honeymoon period after her landslide victory earlier this year will soon be over. People at large and newspapers in particular will soon start asking more critical questions. Who slept over lack of safety measures at AMRI hospital? Why are farmers unable to get announced support price for their grain?

At the same time, repeated bids to trash the Congress while asking for more money, may see the Congress coming up with more procedural wrangles which reduces the flow of mullah through the federal pipeline.

Turning an uneasy ally into a hidden enemy may not exactly be a great strategy for Trinamool in the long run.  The Communist Party of India (Marxist) learnt that the hard way in the last elections.

See Also:  Anna Checkmated

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Anna Checkmated

Anna Hazare before ending his fast

The government seems to have managed to checkmate anti-graft campaigner Anna Hazare using a judicious mixture of whisper campaigns, populist slogans and a halfway house Lokpal bill which sets up an independent Ombudsman panel without giving it control over the country’s premier investigative apparatus.
At the same time the ruling party signalled that it listens to its Prince Charming – Rahul Gandhi, grandson of the charismatic leader Indira Gandhi – but does not necessarily support him as yet, by defeating a parallel bill which sought to give constitutional status to the Ombudsman panel.
The bill after a series of brisk political horse trading over amendments, passed muster in Lok Sabha. The man, the treasury benches should really thank for this feat is this government’s Chankaya – finance minister Pranab Mukherjee.
His deft handling of the politically explosive situation  saw the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party as well as recalciterant allies like the Trinamool Congress joining hands with the Congress to help pass the bill while regional parties like Mayawati’s BSP, Laloo Prasad Yadav’s RJD and Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party `cooperated’ by walking out instead of voting against the bill.
Rahul `baba’ had sought constitutional status for the Lokpal panel, terming it “a game changer”. The young Gandhi is being touted as the leader of Generation X  in Indian politics and the party will certainly be positioning him as the next prime minister for the general elections to be held in 2014. However, when the issue came up for a vote, some 15 Congress MPs went missing as did a dozen crucial allies. With the BJP voting against, the bill collapsed and the Congress Party heaved a sigh of relief. An Ombudsman was bad enough, an Ombudsman with constitutional powers could be a bigger threat to politicians.
As one MP privately told this writer, none of the political parties except for perhaps to an extent the Left parties, really wanted a strong Lokpal panel which could start nit-picking and bringing graft charges unexpectedly against any of them. For forty years, governments had paid lip service to the issue and dilly dallied on bringing the bill.
Yet such was the power of the civil society movement led by former army truck driver Anna Hazare, that the bill to set up a Lokpal had to be brought. Parliament’s sitting extended beyond Christmas by three days and the bill debated upon and voted on.
However, Hazare himself was left weakened and with divided support, because of a clever whisper campaign launched against him. His links with the right wing RSS, his praise for communal riot tainted Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi were carefully highlighted. This saw the rising Muslim middle class which had like their Hindu, Sikh or Christian brethren, supported Hazare in the early days of his movement, veer away from him.
Small `scams’ in which his acolytes were allegedly involved also came out in the press. This saw more doubts among lay supporters surfacing.
Bringing in a minority sub-quota within the Other Backwards Castes quota in civil service jobs which could then be extended to reservation for minorities on the Ombudsman panel was another masterstroke. ( see:  Lokpal, Quotas, Hazare)
It brought support for the ruling alliance even as it divided the opposition political parties and marginalised Hazare’s demands.
When the Lokpal bill was taken up by the lower house (which is also called the house of people and is more powerful) of the Indian Parliament, earlier this week, Hazare sat on fast in Mumbai. However, unlike August, when his fast had attracted anything between 40,000 to 70,000 supporters daily, this time round just 5,000 turned up. The vast grounds were a picture of emptiness.
The house passed the bill which Hazare termed as “useless”, mainly because administrative control of the Central Bureau of Investigation was left with the central government and not passed on to the Lokpal. The Ombudsman panel could ask the premier investigative agency to take up a case or a lead but had no real time control over it.   
But by now, few if any were listening to Hazare. As one newspaper said “as far as the people were concerned, the fact that the government agreed to a Lokpal was proof of their success.” Asking for more, to the man on the street, “sounded like seeking the spoils of war” and consequently, Hazare’s lieutenants - Arvind Kejriwal (right to information campaigner) and Kiran Bedi (former award winning policewoman) - came across as people “desperate to promote themselves” by asking for much more than the `aam admi’ (common man) had asked for.

Game to the ruling alliance, Let us now wait for the Set, if there is one.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Yen, Rupee and Risk Swaps

Worried by the rate at which the rupee has been falling against the dollar with currency speculators beating down the Indian currency, the government has reacted with alacrity to a Japanese offer to renew a currency swap agreement which had lapsed June, this year.
Japan of course wants to do more than just swap financial risks. Lurking behind the two nation's economic enagagement, are serious strategic considerations which could shape Asia in the future.
The last forex swap deal between the two nations, was for $ 3 billion and provided for either side pitching in with $ 1.5 billion to help shore up the other’s currency. This time round the war chest will be larger at $ 15 billion, with both sides committing $ 7.5 billion which the other side can use.
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda who arrived on Tuesday, December 27, is expected to finalise the deal. Japan’s forex reserves are at a high of $ 1.3 trillion, the second highest forex reserves globally but it has still signed up for currency swap deals with a number of key countries.
The arrangement will allow the Reserve Bank of India to borrow dollars from the Bank of Japan to sell in the forex market to stabilise the rupee. BoJ will have similar rights in case the Yen is under attack.
India’s currency has been under attack in recent weeks. Partly, because foreign institutional investors who play in the bourses of this country  have been selling stocks, converting their earnings into dollars and taking it out to invest in other markets. The rupee's value has fallen by some 20 per cent since June, 2010.
In part, the rupee is falling as it is also under attack from currency speculators who are betting against the currency. India, despite having one of the largest forex reserves, globally, holds much of this reserve in the form of debt inflows. Of India’s $ 302 billion reserves, net foreign liabilities which include Non Resident Indian (NRI) deposits, FII investments, foreign borrowing by Indian corporates, stand at $230 billion or so. This high proportion of debt in India's forex assets makes the rupee vulnerable to speculative runs on it, especially near dates when large portions of this debt come up for redemption.
Large bits of the NRI deposits and some of the corporate debt mature in the coming year, which perhaps explains why currency speculators have started pulling down the rupee and also why India is in a hurry to sign up on swap deals.
Japan, has a stake in the rupee's well being. India, an important trade partner for the island nation, whose auto parts and capital goods sales to the South Asian nation, has been impacted by the rising price of the Dollar/Yen. Japan probably feels if it can help check the erosion of the value of the rupee, it can protect its market share here. A stronger rupee could enthuse Indians to import more Japanese goods as the Japanese prices would then look more affordable .
Japan’s competitors in the Indian market are China and Korea and China has already started floating Renminbi loans so that India can purchase  power and telecom equipment from it at attractive rates bypassing the strengthening Dollar.
But underlining all this economic bonmhomie are strategic considerations. Japan is also wary of a militarily rising China, which has been making territorial demands on it, and has been consequently looking to balance China by engaging with India both strategically as well as economically.
The Japanese government is alarmed by aggressive Chinese naval moves in the East China Sea, where it disputes Japanese control over the Senkaku islands as well as by anti-Japanese demonstrations in China, and has been quietly advising its firms to look westwards towards Vietnam in the Asean region and towards India.
The Japanese currency swap deal should be seen in this broader strategic and economic context.
Luckily, Japanese businessmen too feel India is a better business bet in the long run. A survey conducted some time back, by the Japan Bank for International Cooperation for the island nation’s Ministry for Economy, Trade and Industry, shows some 75 per cent of Japanese businessmen considered India as “the most promising country” ahead of China, Brazil, Vietnam and the US.
More than 1,200 Japanese firms have already invested in India including Suzuki, Honda, Nissan, Toyo, Mitsubishi, Panasonic, Daikin, Toyota, Komatsu, Sanyo, Nissin and Shimadzu. While a second wave of investment by small and medium Japanese enterprises as well as major players expanding their business has started earlier this year.
The two main political parties in the island nation - the Liberal Democratic party which ruled Japan  for more than 40 years since 1955 and Democratic Party which currently rules it - are both agreed on the need for closer strategic and economic ties with India.
Takeshi Iwaya, LDP’s shadow defence minister and member of the Japanese Diet had told this writer when he visited Japan, in Autmn this year, : “threats surrounding Japan are increasing, China is expanding its military technology and  capacity at a ferocious speed …  Japanese alliance with US will remain our cornerstone  …(but) we have to work out common strategic objectives and economic agenda with India.”
A case of double risk swaps both ways?

Hours before Prime Minister Noda left for India on Tuesday, Japan's security council relaxed a four decades-old arms exports ban. Though India was the world's top weapons importer last year, the lifting of the ban is seen as a move which could be used by firms like Mitsubishi to cooperate with Indian shipyards and factories in building defence vessels and  missile defence systems, rather than India buying off the shelf hardware from the East Asian powerhouse.
Mitsubishi has a deal with India’s L and T Shipyards and defence analysts say that the two could use the opportunity to co-produce a wide range of Naval vesels. As it is the two countries are working in the words of  former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, so that "sooner rather than later, Japan's navy and the Indian navy are seamlessly interconnected."
India has cooperated with Israel in missile design, while Japan has deals with the US on missile development. Well known Indian defence analyst Brahma Chellaney in an article in Japan Times on December 28, mooted a deal between the two Asian powers – India and Japan - in this sphere.    

Related Reading:
To read a very US-centric take on the US-Japan-India trilateral in mid December, readers maybe interested in Josh Rogin's blog at the Cable : .

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Lokpal, Quotas and Hazare

Congress has all its life, before India became independent, fought against quotas based on religion. The argument was, once you have such quotas, you segment national life and condemn minorities to a Ghetto existence.

However, ever since the Justice Sachar Committee came out with a report which said the obvious – that most Muslims living in India, who are converts from the poorest strata in Indian society -remained poor and had few jobs in civil service, the thinking has changed.

Now, the same Congress wants to bring in a  job reservation for Minorities, who in the Indian context mean mostly Muslims, and is vacillating back and forth on demands for a minority quota in the Lokpal (Ombudsman) panel. Sounds good. Secular India taking care of its minorities.  Sounds good electorally too. At least for some years, the Congress could reap some `grateful’ minority votes.

The Yadav leaders of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh who have been seeing their votebank which at one time included members of the minorities, slipping from their grasp, have launched an  attack in Parliament on the just introduced Lopal Bill, asking for a minority quota on the Lokpal panel. The Lokpal bill seeks to set up an Ombudsman body which will keep a check on public servants from the prime minister down, and seek to investigate and prosecute any involved in bribery or other forms of corruption. 

The Congress is of course gleefully watching from the sidelines. If a quota on the panel is really passed by the Parliament, it could help reinforce Congress’s claim that its the greatest protector of minority rights. If it is not passed, then the opposition BJP can be blamed for being anti-minority and scuttling the issue.

In any case, Anna Hazare, the civil rights activist and former army-man fighting for a tough Lokpal bill, may have to travel into the wilderness as the agenda is now changing from how tough or weak the bill will be, to whether its sensitive towards India’s minorities and backwards.

The Left parties – CPI and CPM – who never really fully supported Hazare despite flirting with him, have picked up this chance to demand quotas for women, scheduled castes and tribes on the panel.

The problem for Hazare and his ilk is that they mostly represent upper class, upper caste Indians. The demands which are shifting the ground from under this bill are demands for giving representation to those who are considered on the margins of India’s society.

Till now, Indian Muslims like many other Indians felt that a formal structure like the Lokpal is needed to fight corruption which has been eating into India’s vitals. India had a 3.1 score on a scale of 10 in the global corruption index published by Transparency International. New Zealand with a score of 9.5 out of 10 is supposed to be the most honest country and Somalia with just 1 is supposed to be the most corrupt in this index.  

However, demands for quotas which some politicians have been raising for some time in different contexts, would obviously take precedence in the mindspace of many within the community, helping divide the by and large middle class movement to bring in a Lokpal.

Especially as the battle over what kind of a Lokpal will be brought forth really precedes the formalisation of a job quota for minority poor. India has a long held policy of positive discrimination which reserves jobs in civil services, state run corporations and educational institutes besides seats in colleges for marginalised sections of society. The Congress is seriously considering bringing forth rules which would give economically backward Muslims a sub-quota within the 27 per cent Backward Castes quota. A figure of 6 per cent is being bandied about. Though this may come down if other politically powerful backward castes object.

Post Script: Since posting this blog, the Indian cabinet has passed a 4.5 per cent quota for minorities within the overall backward castes quota in government jobs, state run educational institutes etc. It means out of every 100 jobs in government, 4 will be reserved for  the economically weak among minorities from all religions other than Hindus (who form the majority) whose communities are listed in the Indian Government's list of backwards. The main gain, if any, from this quota should accrue to Muslims families who have been traditionally weavers, leatherworkers, ironsmiths, armourers etc.. However, whether the beneficaries would be truly economically and socially backward minority families, is something which only time will tell.

Monday, December 19, 2011

14 Day War - A Soldier Remembers

This is the 40th anniversary of the liberation of Bangladesh. I am reproducing below excerpts from a piece written by my School Senior - Col Pradeep Saxena (Retd) on his personal experiences during the 1971 Campaign for Dhaka, which the Indian Army and Bangladesh's Mukti Bahini won. Pradeep was a young 2nd lieutenant then :
Col Saxena and friends atop a captured enemy tank
On 3rd Dec we heard the news of the Pakistani air attack on our airfields. Soon a flurry of orders reached us and at 8 PM that night our Artillery unit posted at the akhuara border opened with a barrage of 100 guns across in to East Pakistan amidst cries of `Bharat Mat ki Jai' (Victory to Mother India). Similar barrages opened all around East Pakistan from West Bengal to Tripura. THE WAR HAD BEGUN.

By 10 PM our infantry had captured early  objectives with very few casualties and there was a general sense of achievement.

The morning of 4 Dec saw the first Pak Sabres overhead attacking us with their machine guns and rockets. Our IAF MiGs arrived soon and the Pak Sabres disappeared as we cheered from down below. It was my first experience of being under an air attack.

By noon two of my course-mates as well as an  Artillery officer with an assaulting Infantry battalion had also made the supreme sacrifice. I was immediately asked to hand over my charge and leave to replace him.

I crossed in to East Pakistan 30 mins later amidst firing and bursting shells. Sticking to the road wasn’t a good idea, driving across  paddy fields was even worse and invited getting stuck. So I got on to the railway track and drove astride the rail track in between my jeep’s wheels, my driver cribbing all through about  the damage it would cause to the tires, even as we kept getting shot at by Pak bullets.

I joined the Paltan by 1.30 PM and moved along with them to capture the last Pak post holding out.

We now had our first Prisoners of War (POWs), some 30 or so, surprisingly no Pak officer amongst them. We had broken the crust and were on our way to Dacca.

We were then asked to move towards Brahmanabaria which was some 25 kms away enroute to Dacca. As we got moving on foot, we were attacked by 2 Pak Sabres.  The IAF was ready and waiting for them and they disappeared only to be seen by us after the war at the Dacca airfield. 

The Pak Army had meanwhile blown up the only rail-road bridge that existed over the Meghna River (as the Brahmaputra is called in Bangladesh). As we entered that town, my Commanding Officer drove up with another officer of our Artillery unit as my relief. He felt that I needed a rest, as I had been in battle since 3 Dec. I told him no way, was I going back.

My CO then said, "So you want to make History”, I replied "Sir aren’t we already doing that?” He burst out laughing, hugged me and said "OK son go ahead and make the most of it.” He then told me that I would be part of the first ever Heliborne Assault by the Indian Army in a War.    

The heli-lift over Meghna starts
By 12 noon, the first Mi-4 helicopters had landed in the town’s stadium and by 1 PM, we were on our way. As the choppers formed up in to two inverted “V” formations, we found that they were open from the back and we had to hold on to whatever we could to avoid falling-out; so much for air safety, but then  this was War. We were joined by a fighter escort of 4 MiGs who flew around us in circles.

The Meghna is nearly 5000 yards wide, a width most of us couldn’t swim despite knowing how to, and most certainly not in battle gear with 25 kgs on our backs, besides our weapons.

Pak MMG and Arty fire was soon on to us after the drop, and we raced across the open fields towards whatever cover we could get behind, even as we fired back at them. A fire-fight soon developed which lasted for nearly an hour, but then the Pak troops surrendered.

Mercifully neither side had any injured, so we tied them up, blind folded them and put them in the only space available which was the waiting room of the nearby railway station called Methikanda. The ferry-in of more troops followed all through the night and by 4 AM next morning we were all in.

The Infantry CO, had flown in the second batch and called for a briefing in the evening, sitting in the open on the platform. At the end of it, we heard Pak radio make two absurd pronouncements, i) that they were on the outskirts of Agartala and were about to capture it and ii) that a “desperate attempt by the Indian Army to heli-land troops in the interiors had been thwarted and all those involved in it had been killed; bodies were being counted. Two choppers had also been downed”.

The CO therefore felt that a drink was called for to honour our death and soon a few bottles of whisky, brandy and rum materialized from nowhere. We all had our choice of drink poured in to our white enameled mugs, used not only for our daily cup of tea, but also for shaving, bathing as also certain unmentionable acts!

Next morning we were on our way to Narsingdi, some 30 kms away, this time marching along the railway track as no road existed. Midway we found a few empty railway wagons, so we loaded our guns and ammunition on them and pushed them along the tracks. Our march was uneventful except for the few times we had to dive for cover when we heard aircraft overhead, only to realize that it was the IAF heading for Dacca.

A few kms short of Narsingdi, we came across an abandoned diesel engine in running condition. One of the officers knew something about rail engines and soon the bogies we were pushing were attached to it and we were chugging along towards our destination, some of us running ahead to change signals and tracks or to ensure unhindered movement. We captured the town around 4 AM, having virtually walked 30 km non-stop. We had by then walked nearly 80-85 kms from Agartala and were still 42 kms North East of Dacca. Sleep overcame the brave and  we dropped off where we could in the open.

We the Arty (Artillery), were now required to reach the outskirts of Dacca at the earliest and so I took temporary leave of the Infantry Paltan and its CO. We boarded a so called `fleet’ of tractors, buses and local vehicles borrowed from the neighbourhood, and we were soon on our way towards Dacca, hoping to be the first to get there. A few IAF Caribou aircraft did fly overhead but we gave no thought to them. We were on the outskirts of Dacca’s by that evening and dug down in preparation for orders that were to follow. It was 12 Dec 1971 and Dacca was just a few km across the River.

That same night, we got our first letters, the Caribous had dropped the mail. I got two letters, one from my Mom and another from my Dehradun uncle informing me that my younger brother (also an XFAPSIAN) was now in the thick of things at a God forsaken place called Hilli and that my Uncle also an Army doctor had moved in to Bangladesh at some undisclosed location. So now it had became a family affair too !

Nothing much happened till midnight when the Pak Army made an unsuccessful bid to attack our guns position. Our battle continued till early hours of the morning when the remnants of the Pak Army withdrew across the River leaving behind about 20 dead and another 10 wounded. As they withdrew across the river, I lined up one of my guns and fired at the ferry in which they were escaping. We scored a bulls-eye and the ferry sank. The surviving Pak troops then swam back to the other side. The wounded told us that they had numbered about 90 and were shocked to learn that only 30 of us had driven them back. That was to be my last face to face encounter of the war.  

By next morning all the big-wigs had arrived to congratulate us and my CO took me aside to tell me that he was recommending me for the Vir Chakra. I took it in my stride as I had missed getting one earlier too and wasn’t surprised that I did not get one after the War either; others probably deserved it more, I guess.

We also learnt shortly thereafter that the US 7th Fleet led by its biggest aircraft carrier the USS Enterprise, had steamed in to the Bay of Bengal in support of Pakistan. My men looked at me for answers; so I told them plainly “From now on we do not wave at every aircraft we see”; we had been doing that the last few days taking every aircraft to be the IAF. Fortunately we did not get to see the USAF overhead.

By 13th Dec over 200 guns had been lined up from North of Dacca to its South and we opened up a barrage with them around 6 PM. The Battle for Dacca had begun. We fired 5 rounds every 15 mins from each gun till next morning. The lighter guns fired quicker while the heavier ones fired slowly. Consequently, it resulted in a virtual non-stop barrage on Pak positions through the night. It was truly a most beautiful sight as the whole sky remained lit all through the night, the cacophony really deafening.

We stopped at 6 AM, just as the first IAF aircraft swopped down to deliver their bomb loads.  They kept up their non-stop attacks all through the day till 6 PM. The moment they left we opened up and continued through the night. This continued for the next two days, IAF assaults during day and Arty assaults through the night; aimed at breaking the Pak will and forcing them to surrender.

We received orders around midnight 15/16 Dec that “Surrender Talks were in Progress and all firing was to cease by 06.00 AM next day, viz 16 Dec”. We knew the end was near and worked over time to pump in as many shells as we could in to Pak positions even as our guns grew red hot in color.

We stopped firing at 06.00 am though the IAF did carry out a few sorties till 09.00 AM. There was total silence thereafter and one could hear even a pin drop then. We were a little disappointed that it all ended so suddenly, but the truth was that WAR was OVER.

We were soon buoyed when we were told to get ready for the Victory parade in to Dacca at 1 PM that afternoon. We entered Dacca, led by PT-76 tanks, some infantry troops, my guns and me, followed by the others. I rode atop a flat-bed tractor trolley. The parade was accompanied by the entire Press Corps from across the world, with quite a few riding atop my tractor trolley.

We reached the Race Course shortly before 3 PM and formed a semi-circle on to one side as we waited for the surrender ceremony to unfold. People wept openly as we were mobbed, hugged and kissed by every one alike, shouting Joy Bangla and waving flags. Garlands were thrown at us and we threw them back to the crowds bringing in more shouts of Joy Bangla. There was nothing but a human sea as far as an eye could see. It looked as if the whole of Bangladesh  had converged on to Dacca.
Sheikh Mujib being recieved by an Indian guard of honour at Dhaka after his release from Pakistan in January, 1972

Friday, December 16, 2011

1971 : Vignettes from the Past

Dhaka citizenry welcoming the liberating Army, Dec16, 1971, Photo credit: Col Pradeep Saxena (Retd) 

Operation Deception
One of the best kept secret of the 1971 war was the fact that India laid out an elaborate deception game to beguile the enemy into believing that its war aim was to merely help the Mukti Bahini liberate Khulna, Chittagong and a few other districts, from where the independent Bangladesh movement would continue.
Inspired leaks to the international media hinted that India would help the Mukti Bahini create a liberated zone in East Pakistan and be satisfied with it.
However, when the war really began in December, many cantonments including Chittagong was simply bypassed. The orders had come that Dhaka, and only Dhaka would be the target. The order to  troops was to bypass towns, use subsidiary tracks and head straight for Dhaka.
The Pakistani army, consequently never realised that in 14 days time, Indian troops along with Muktis would be at Dhaka's doorsteps.
Indians and the Mukti Bahini  needed to be in Dhaka fast, before the United Nations acted and declared a ceasefire, before China could manouvere troops to intervene on behalf of  Pakistan.
One way was to para drop troops at Tangail who would link up with infantry and tanks moving up from the border and head towards Dhaka. Captain P.K Ghosh of  the Para Brigade and  Kader 'Tiger' Siddiqi, a flambouyant Mukti Bahini commander laid out the drop zone in Tangail almost a month before the actual drop.
The elite 2 Para commandos were dropped at Tangail, famous for its sarees, on December 11, to take over Poongli bridge on the Lohajang river and to link up with Mukti Bahini coloumn led by the `Tiger.' The combined forces would act as a vanguard and await reinforcements by tanks and infantry before the final push to Dhaka. While this threat to Dhaka  came from the North West, to the North East, 57 Mountain Division built up a position, again awaiting a link up with more reinforcements for the final push.
Troops of the IV Corp coming up from the East were heli-lifted from Brahmanbaria across the Meghna river in an operation codenamed `Cactus Lily`, bypassing strong Pakistani defences at Ashuganj and at a destroyed bridge over the giant river.
Dhaka was thus caught in a giant mouse trap laid out by the combined forces. Leading to Gen (later Field Marshal) Sam Manekshaw's famous All India Radio announcement that Pakistani forces in the city were surrounded by air, sea and land and had no option but to surrender and the city's ultimate liberation on December 16, 1971.
Tibetans who fought for Bangladesh
Among the unsung heros in the war in Bangladesh, was an elite force of 3,000 Tibetans led by a Tibetan Dapon (equivalent to Brigadier). These men were trained in cutting communications, blowing up bridges and other acts of sabotage behind enemy lines. The Tibetan commandos, armed with Bulgarian AK 47 and Tibetan knives, were on direct orders from Delhi, often bypassing the Eastern Command of the Indian Army. Among their aims was to destroy Kaptai dam and some bridges around it. The whole operation was codenamed `Mountain Eagle.'
At one stage, there was a move to use the Tibetans to capture Chittagong, but since these men did not have artillery support or airlift, they were instead asked to block units of the Pakistan army from escaping into Burma. They are believed to have helped check Pakistan's 97 Independent Brigade and 2 Commando Battalion in the Chittagong Hill Tracts.
Few know of the Tibetan `Phantom' army, whose dream must have been to liberate their own homeland but who fought for Bangladesh. This secret force was drawn from India's eilte Special Frontier Force.
Niazi's Fears
A sidelight of the war's end, was the near death of Gen A.A.K Niazi, who even after surrendering remained scared of losing his life: At Dhaka, where Niazi was to eventually surrender after last minute attempts to get the international community to broker a ceasfire failed, `Tiger' Siddiqui reached Dhaka airport with a handful of Muktis, at around the time Lt Gen `Jake' Jacob of the eastern Army was negotiating with Niazi the surrender terms. Indian Army lore has it that Siddiqui may well have shot Niazi long before the surrender was signed, if he had his way. Jacob managed to sweet talk that fiesty `gent' into letting things happen as they did. After the surrender ceremony, it took a strong contingent of Indian soldiers to save the General's skin from Mukti Bahini irregulars who weren't exactly in love with him.

See Also: 14 Days War: A soldier Remembers

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Idea of India - 3

 Akbar's court

Contd from :Idea of India -1  
and Idea of India -2

Great Mughals

Perhaps if India was defined as `Golden India' in the consciousness of the West, it was was during the Mughal Era.

True, the Greeks and  Romans had traded with  India before Christ was born, complaining of how Rome's gold was going to the Indies to feed Italian taste for fashion and spices. In the medieval era, European crusaders fought as much to `retake' the Holy Land of Palestine as to win control of the overland route to India and thus control over the lucrative spice trade, till then firmly in Arab and Jewish hands.

However, it was tales of the grandeur of Mughal India which European merchant-adventurers carried home from their perilous voyages round the Cape of Good Hope which firmly set the ancient land as a coveted place in the eyes of the westerner.

A Central Asian adventurer, Babur, who claimed lineage from twin lines of global scourges – Taimur and Genghis Khan – managed to audaciously win the throne of Delhi from an inept Ibrahim Lodi, in the early decades of the 16th century. His grandson, Akbar built the Empire which wowed the world and unified India once again, saving it from the darkness of  medievalism when political disunity and constant war between ruling princes ravaged the country.  

Before, Akbar took over as Emperor, for a while, India revolted against the imposed foreign dynasty. Sher Khan, later dubbed Sher Shah Suri, a nobleman from the east, whose ancestors had come from Afghanistan, led a successful revolt to overthrow Akbar’s father, Humayun.

Suri rebuilt `Uttarapath', the Mauryan highway, now known as the Grand Trunk road, linking Sonargaon, near Dhaka to Kabul and gave the country a sound and fair system of land revenue.

Akbar kept the lesson of this successful revolt which turned his father into a refugee at the Persian court in mind. Early in his reign, he started work to build a web of close alliances with the original residents of the land, working on refining what Suri had left behind rather than rejecting it and in trying to weld the nation into one.

He married Maharaja Bharmal of Amer (Jaipur)’s daughter, a Hindu Rajput princess, gave high ranks to local Hindu and Muslim noblemen, abolished Jizia, a discriminatory tax on non –Muslims, made grants to religious bodies, irrespective of the religion they represented, thus reinforcing the foundation of a secular polity which Ashoka had established, a millennium and a half back. The infamous divide between Shias and Sunnis was played down, with tolerance and the concept of Sulh-e-kul (Peace to All) adopted as official policy.

Hindusim, during his reign went through one of the periodic upheavals or spate of reforms which has ensured that it is the longest surviving religion in the world. This time round instead of asceticism, a new credo - the Bhakti (devotion) cult ' became popular.  Recognising the mass popularity of this movement, Bhakti saints Meera and Kabir were encouraged by Akbar as was Guru Nanak, the first of the Sikh Gurus. The Emperor also encouraged  Sufi Pirs, folksy Islamic mystics, who brought together poorer Muslims and Hindus at the ground level.

Naturally, Akbar was not very popular with hard-line Muslim clerics and noblemen who had come down with his grandfather from Central Asia,  but the unlettered Emperor, knew that to rule he needed to help reinforce `Indianness’ and project himself as an Indian emperor and not as a foreign invader, against whom the locals would always murmur and plot.

This realpolitiks of the Emperor who started his reign in 1556, became an act of faith for two of his successor – Jehangir and Shah Jehan – the last of whom died in 1666. These 110 years helped re-establish an Indian identity and project it outwards to the rest of the world, bringing to its shores -  hordes of refugees, traders, missionaries, adventurers and mavericks , attracted as much by the riches of India as tales of its tolerance which gave jobs and riches to people from all faiths and races.

Continued: The Idea of India-4 ; The Idea of India-5
Previous: Idea of India , Idea of India 2

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Shrinking growth, weakening Rupee and RBI's plans


Indian industry contracted 5.1 per cent in the month of October, the first time industry contracted since June 2009, with rain-hit mines reporting production losses and a sharp over 25 per cent contraction in capital goods production.
October figures however, could well have been an aberration partly because capital goods had grown by a high of 21.1 per cent last October against which the figures are being calculated, and partly because October is a month with many holidays, which firms often use to produce less to bring down inventories.
Production of all kinds of goods – basic, intermediate (which go into making other goods), consumer durables like cars and television sets and consumer non durables like soap and tomato ketchup – contracted slightly varying from 0.1 per cent to 1.3 per cent. Mining which remained hit by heavy rains which held up production in August through October, also reported a 7.2 per cent contraction. 
However, as a number of economists with whom I spoke today pointed out, “the rate of moderation may be explained as an aberration but the fact that there is a moderation in the rate of growth of Indian industry cannot be denied.”
The seven month period from April to October 2011 told a story of marked slowdown – compared to a 8.7 per cent growth in industrial output last year, this year’s first half posted a 3.5 per cent growth in industry.  Consumer goods grew just 0.6 per cent during this period compared to a 8.6 per cent growth during the same period last year. Durables like TV and cars had grown 15.7 per cent April-October, last year, but this year  growth was a mere 4.5 per cent. 
To make things worse, the poor industry data, sparked off heavy sales on the Mumbai stock market. The Bombay Stock Exchange's Sensitive Index fell 343.11 points in one single day when the data was announced- December 12, 2011. A fall of some 2.1% .
This in turn saw the Indian rupee falling to a record low against the U.S. dollar as foreign institutional investors who were the biggest sellers on the stock market, converted their rupees into dollars to take out of the country.
India Inc., naturally hit panic buttons with a flurry of statements about `The Crisis' (no more looming crisis). The Congress-led government of course kept trying to cool down nerves by pointing out that the India growth story still remained valid, but few seemed to buy it.
ICICI Securities in a note said : “Industrial sector has suffered a series of supply side issues this year, which has seen the output decline sequentially in six out of the first seven months of the financial year. Over and above the supply factors, demand moderation which was sporadic at the beginning of the financial year has gathered momentum as the months passed.”
What that means in plain-speak is that industry has slowed down and that demand too is slowing down. The reason, many especially business leaders, say is the Reserve Bank of India policy of ratcheting up interest rates which has made it tough for buyers of cars, homes, other big ticket items like plasma TVs, refrigerators, air contioning etc., to borrow and buy. Just as it has made it tough for businessmen to borrow to set up factories or expand existing ones.
RBI has increased interest rates some 13 times since  March 2010 by the Reserve Bank of India in a bid to batter down rising prices. This in turn translated to actual lending rates to consumers and businesses of between 12-18 per cent.
However, the government does not seem for the time being inclined to reduce interest rates as its worried that speculators in the food market could borrow cheap and use the money to raise food prices, a politically sensitive issue ahead of key polls to states which include Uttar Pradesh. One way out could be for the RBI to cut Cash Reserve Ratio or the amount of money banks have to compulsorily keep with the central banker,  in order to release fresh money into the economy.
Despite the tight money policy followed by the RBI, the headline inflation stood at 9.73 percent in October, remaining above 9 percent for nearly one year. So many reason, that while interest rates can be kept high to sap up inflationary tendencies, at the same time more money can be released to industry which seems to be demanding finance or refinance. However, how wise this would be is something only time will tell. Much of that demand is coming from sick firms like Kingfisher who may or may not be able to pay back banks the money borrowed plus the accumulated interests.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Idea of India – 2

Gupta Era Gold Coin 

Continued from Idea of India - 1

The Golden Age

After the Mauryan Empire fell to the vagaries of time, weak successors and rise of feudal overlords, India found itself divided by a chaotic medley of regional satraps. Rise of Brahmanical rulers also saw Buddhism, which under Ashoka had spread to the Greco-Bactrian ruled states of Central Asia, to Sri Lanka and Indian Ocean islands in the south and Burma in the east, slowly losing influence in the land of its birth.

For a while, this slide towards feudal chaos was stemmed by the rise of a new Indian Imperial dynasty – Guptas who ruled over the Indo-Gangetic plain between 320- 550 A.D. A strong unitary empire which promoted trade, the arts, science, medicine, astronomy and scholarship in general, gave rise to what later historians have described as a `Golden Age’, helping weld better, people still divided by fault-lines of caste, creed, language towards “Indianness”.

It was never truly a political pan-Indian empire of the kind that the Mauryans were able to establish. However, this empire of the North was in some ways even better in carrying forward the idea of India by influencing not only those within its boundaries but also the smaller though powerful kingdoms of the Deccan as well as lands far away to the East. Exporting abroad India’s thoughts, culture and religions and projecting to these countries, the idea of an India, which for many in South East Asia became a role model.

Sometime soon after Christ died, one of his apostles, St Thomas, was said to have landed in Southern India, probably in a spice trading Dhow, to spread the word of Jesus. Islam, was another religion not born in the sub-continent, borne again by spice traders who travelled across the Indian Ocean with the Monsoon winds, to the Malabar shores. Christianity and Islam preached an egalitarian society different from the caste ridden  Hindu four-fold’, created by religious and social orthodoxy which abandoned the Early Vedic principle that caste would determined by a man’s choice of profession  and instead turned into a rigid, divisive hereditary status in society.  Both found roots in South India, and were in turn `Indianised’ with adherents bringing in Indian traditions into the rituals surrounding the new faiths. 

Even before Thomas, Jews, had been visiting India as traders and some had settled down as refugees and émigrés. Followers of another religion, Zorastrianism, fled Iran after their faith was banished there in the 10th century A.D.  Both Zoroastrianism and  Judaism were not proselytising religions, but their adherents rapidly Indianised, adopting Indian customs, dress and languages, over the centuries.

To come back to the Guptas, repeated invasions by Huns, who were plundering almost every civilisation in Europe and Asia, near bankruptcy from a rash of military campaigns coupled with fiscal profligacy saw the empire crumble and replaced again by a feudal order of regional satraps who constantly jostled for influence and power among each other. Trade suffered, scholarship was constricted, yet `Indianness’ flourished as people moved long distances to survive the turbulent times, carrying with them unitary cross currents amidst rising regionalism. Bengal was ruled by Sena rulers, who claimed descent from military adventurers from the Karnatic. `Gaud’ (Bengali) Brahmins travelled to dominate parts of North India, Kannauji (from Kannauj in modern Uttar Pradesh) Brahmins and Kayasthas travelled east to dominate Bengal’s society, Rajputs travelled long distances to grace courts in Bihar and Orissa, to give a few examples of intra-Indian migrations which despite the divisiveness of the times, helped promote unitary tendencies in Indian culture and society.  

Reform movements within the main religion of the country – Hinduism – also tended to be pan-Indian, carrying with it not only religious messages but also `One India’ stories. The Adi Shankaracharya  (788-822 A.D) from Kalady in modern Kerala, travelled the length and breadth of India to not only take his theological message but also to unite people culturally.  This man, often called the St Thomas Aquinas of Indian thought, unified two seemingly different disparate philosophical doctrines – Atman and Brahman, and through a brilliant debating tour of the country unified warring sects within the Hindu-fold and re-established the Vedic foundations of the religion.

But that was perhaps not his biggest contribution to India - The four Mathas he set up in four parts of the sub-continent brought rare socio-cultural unity at a time when the land was riven by feudal overlords at constant war with each other, bent on creating sub-nationalism. His disciples ran these mathas and took the message of `One India’ to Himalayan principalities in the north, through a Matha at Joshimath in Garwhal, in the rich western coast through a Matha at Dwarka in Gujarat, to the eastern kingdoms through a Matha at Puri and to the powerful South through a  Matha at Sringeri in the Karnataka.

After this: Idea of India-3 ; Idea of India-4 ; Idea of India-5
Before: Idea of India

The Elephant slows down

The charge of India’s bull elephant economy slowed down to a 2-year weakest of 6.9 per cent in the second quarter of this financial year.
A long year of what many critics described as policy paralysis and rising interest rates weighted down the $1.73 trillion economy’s growth with manufacturing growing by as little as 2.7 per cent after growing by 8.2 per cent in the same period last year. A falling Indian rupee trading at Rs 52.16 to the dollar,  down by 18 per cent since August 1 this year, has also not helped bolster industry’s confidence. Fuel, machinery and spares imported by paying dollars, now need more rupees to purchase.
For almost a year, industry captains had been arguing vehemently that high interest rates were killing consumer demand and combined with a policy paralysis in government reducing India Inc.’s appetite for investment and that this would ultimately slowdown the economy.
Interest rates have been tweaked upwards some 14 times since  March 2010 by the Reserve Bank of India in a bid to batter down rising prices.  High food and fuel prices had seen headline inflation at near double digits for most weeks of this year, forcing the country’s central banker – Reserve Bank of India – to hike the rate at which it lends to banks to 8.5 per cent. This in turn translated to actual lending rates to consumers and businesses of between 12-18 per cent. 
All this, took its toll on consumer demand - sales of cars for instance shrank by some 23.8 per cent in October alone, a festive month when traditionally buying is considered auspicious. At the same time, high cost loans saw investment by companies and the government declining 0.6 per cent during the July to September 2011 period. Many firms including airlines such as Kingfisher and Air India, unable to pay interest on their loans started asking their banks to lower interest rates and to convert loans into equity.
“Inflation, policy induced high interest rate structure, combined with the fact that banks are unable to lend properly because of rising bad loans has slowed down growth,” said Prof N.R.Bhanumurthy from the prestigious government funded think tank - National Institute of Public Finance & Policy. A crisis in the Euro-zone and slow recovery of the American and Japanese economies, major markets for the Asian giant, has meant India’s exports  have slowed down – export growth in October was just 10.8 per cent compared to 36.36 per cent in September with little real expectations of a pick up in the months ahead.
India’s chief economic advisor Kausik Basu, was quoted  by wire agencies as agreeing on a slowdown in policy making. “There is some slowdown in decision making,” Basu was quoted as saying while explaining the causes of the slowdown which he also blamed on a global recession and inflation at home. An open letter written by captains of industry including IT Czar Azim Premji, Keshub Mahindra of M&M, Anu Aga of Thermax and HDFC's Deepak Parekh had also complained of a “growing governance deficit”
The rising chorus of complaints on this, however saw the government take a slew of policy decisions in the last few weeks – reservation for small businesses in government purchases, relaxation in norms on foreign borrowings, increased incentives for exports, allowing foreign investment in retail, clearance to opening up pension funds to foreign investors, among others. But economists say the long delay in policy decisions had by then taken its toll on the domestic investment climate.   
A global recession in 2008-9 had seen the Indian economy which had till then grown at an average of 9 per cent for three straight years, slowing down to 6.8 per cent. But since then, India’s economy, had picked up to grow by 8 per cent in 2009-2010 and 8.5 per cent in 2010-2011.
This year’s growth rate had originally been pegged at 9 per cent and then recast at 8-8.25 per cent, a couple of months back by finance minister Pranab Mukherjee. But somewhere down the line, the combination of tight money, slow policy decision making, high inflation, cheaper rupee impacted the India Growth story.   
The NIPFP has in a note said it expects growth to remain modest in the next two quarters too and the economy could end the financial year with a growth rate of just 7.2 per cent, far lower than what is being forecast by government circles – 7.5-7.75 per cent. Said Bhanumurthy “but the real worry is that our forecast says that the slowdown will persist next year too with GDP growth crawling up 20 basis points to 7.4 per cent in 2011-2012.”
Not that India alone has suffered. Of the much touted BRICS economies, China grew it slowest since 2009 by growing 9.1 per cent in the July-September quarter while South Africa’s economy expanded by a dismal 1.4 per cent during the same period. Brazil is expected to grow between 3-4 per cent this year. The silver lining however is that “among major economies India will still remain the second fastest growing one after China,” according to Bhanumurthy.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Idea of India

    Mauryan Empire Circa 265 B.C


The Indian republic maybe just 64 years old, however India as an idea has existed for nearly 5,000 years. When chiefs who ruled over the scores of tribes which inhabited India met in the battlefield outside Hastinapur (today’s Delhi) to decide who would rule over that city state – the Kaurava clan or the Pandavas, they called themselves princes of Bharat (India) and named their battle Maha- Bharata (Great Indian war).

Recent archaeo-astronomical studies, results of marine-archaeological explorations tends to place the year of the legendary war, chronicled as an epic Sanskrit poem as probably the year 1478 BC. There is still debate over that result, but more or less the epic is placed around that time and indicates that people from various parts of India shared a similar culture and considered themselves one people as early as then.

Being a sub-continent, bound by deserts to the west, high mountain ranges in the north, seas in the south and thick almost impenetrable rainforests in the east, India not only became a single geographic  entity but also a single cultural entity.

Long before the Aryans (historians place the advent of Aryan tribes at around 2,000 B.C) appeared in this sub-continent,  there was a civilisation which had advanced cities, whose ships plied the seas to connect with Egypt and Babylon, supported huge grain silos linked to ports, the people themselves (of proto-Austroloid extraction) had  fine taste in sculpture, coinage and pottery, had changing women’s fashion styles and  worshipped gods now found in Hinduism (Pashupatinath or Shiva, Mother Goddess – revered now as Tara, Durga or Kali). 

The people who lived in this civilisation (Circa 3300-2,500 B.C) spread over modern Pakistan, Gujarat, Indian Punjab, Haryana and parts of western Uttar Pradesh, were one people, if not one nation. They could be called the earliest Indians.

However, the spread of one unitary culture, socio-religious beliefs and belief in a single national identity had much to do with the Aryan tribes who seemed to have come from the Noth West, and spread through length and breadth of the sub-continent from Himalayas in the north to the forests of Assam, Manipur and Tripura in the North east to the seas of South India. They sometimes defeated indigenous tribes, sometimes assimilated them through a web of marriages and a process described as Aryanisation – co-opting local chiefs by cooking up Aryan ancestry for them drawn from the Sun or Moon gods and assimilating local religious and cultural beliefs within the umbrella of a pan-Indian religio-culture. The unitary religion created for want of a better name was called Dharma/Dhamma (meaning: Religion) and the culture Bharatiya (Of India).

Over centuries, the Aryans mixed with the original inhabitants – a people anthropologists call the Proto-Astroloids. To this mixture were added over time sprinkling of Mongol blood (mainly from Tibet, but also from Burma, Thailand, Central Asia), Negroid blood, Semitic, Iranian-Aryan and later European blood. As a result of  this intermingling, all Indians have at least two building blocks – Proto Australoid and Aryan and possibly a third – Mongol. Most have many more ingredients. The admixture over the centuries has been such that no caste or region in India can claim to be pure this or pure that - India, the melting pot has created a unique new race – Indian.

Legends which originated in one part of India (such as Ramayana and Mahabharata or Durga), became pan-Indian with translations in local languages and dialects. Architecture, arts, dance, music and drama forms followed prescribed similarity, with local variations and embellishments.  The dress all over the country was a variation of the same dhoti and saree. The court language in principalities and chieftaincies all over the country tended to be Sanskrit or its derivative Pali. Even texts on sexual practices prescribed for the sons and daughters of the rich were the same -Kama Sutra!

When the original Aryan religion which believed in a single nameless and shapeless God who encompassed all that was within the cosmos and beyond (defined as infinity) and who could be reached through simple prayers and contemplation of nature was replaced by the new myriad worship of local  deities (co-opted by the Aryan priests) who were believed to represent the original infinite god and when simple prayers were replaced by complex rituals, animal sacrifice and possibly priestly corruption,  religious challenges came forth.

The two main early challenges came from a school called the Jaina school of philosophers – who built an austere version of the original Dharma – which has now metaporphosed into Jainism, a separate pan-Indian religion – and from Prince Siddhartha of  a little principality in the foothills of Nepal (who became Gautama Buddha after his ascetic contemplations in eastern India).

Buddha (Circa 56—480 B.C ) and his new religion (he did not describe it as a new religion or call it Buddhism, his followers eventually did and even then for a long time they too called their belief simply Dhamma, forcing adherents of the earlier religious belief to call their belief – Sanatan (eternal) Dhamma/Dharma ) soon became a pan-Indian religion, which again reinforced  a sense of oneness among Indians.

A century and a half after Buddha, India faced its first European invasion. Alexander the Great invaded the tribes living in north west India ( modern Pakistan to be precise). The short lived invasion touched just the fringes of India but impacted India greatly. The greatest power in India at that time was Magadha (modern day Bihar and parts of eastern Uttar Pradesh) – which had a huge disciplined army with separate elephant, horse and infantry corps, whose strength, some chroniclers said was one of the reasons why Alexander did not try to reach the “farthest end of the world”.

A Brahmin scholar who lived through the war in the university town of Takshshila or modern Taxila, Chanakya or Kautilya, propounded the theory that the culturally similar India needed to now politically unite as one nation to face external and internal threats. He picked as his candidate for the job of the first emperor of India, an unknown Magadhan – Chandragupta. Somehow the dreamer and schemer managed to combine and were successful in overthrowing the Nanda dynasty ruler of Magadha.

However, Chanakya’s aim was not just the throne of Magadha for his disciple, but the unification of his beloved motherland. What Garibaldi did several millenniums later, Chanakya did for India in the third century before Christ – united it under one emperor.  Chandragupta reigned over much of modern Afghanistan, Pakistan, Baluch province of Iran, the whole of the Gangetic plain and parts of modern Assam province. His descendants who together came to be known as the Mauryan dynasty extended this first Indian Empire to cover almost the whole of South India, except the tip near Sri Lanka.

For the first time, India experienced political unity which lasted for several centuries (321 B.C – 185 B.C). This facilitated commerce on a larger scale, prosperity and a pan-Indian ethos. The spread of Buddha’s teachings by Chandragupta’s grandson, Ashoka, a convert to Buddhism, helped unify the country to an even greater extent. For Buddhism was not merely a religion, it was a way of life. The traits which the world now associates with an Indian’s were helped formed by this religion, which India later kept aside.

Ashoka perhaps built the first highways which linked the southern corners with the north, the eastern epicentre of the empire with the western borders, bringing India and Indians nearer to each other. He gave the land a single set of just laws, brought law and order to furthest corners of his realm. Importantly for a country of this continental size, he also preached tolerance to his subjects, enjoining them to respect each other's religious beliefs and to live together without acrimony.

Missionaries and traders sent out by him to Central Asia and South East Asia not only brought fresh converts to Buddhism and riches to India's coastal provinces, but also projected the `soft power' of the great empire and civilisation he had wrought - which to the world was known as Indica, Indo, Indu, Hindu - names derived from one of the principal river systems of the country - Sindhu or Indus.   

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Mamata in Delhi

On Friday, October 21,  Delhi's corridors of power witnessed a new phenomenon - Hurricane Mamata.  Bengal’s chief minister Mamata Banerjee swept like an Aila unleashed in her quest for an elusive `big bang’ package for her home state. The centre says it wants to help, but not in a single Diwali bonanza.

A lunchtime meeting at 7 Race Course Road with prime minister Manmohan Singh, evening tea with rural development minister Jairam Ramesh at her flat, and a planned flight back to Calcutta tomorrow in Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee’s 14-seater Embraer, were all part of the chief minister’s `Get Money from Delhi’ mission.

Mamata complained bitterly to Singh that of every Rs 1 West Bengal gets, she ends up spending 94 paise in repaying a mountain of debt left behind by the Left front and in paying salaries and pension to her staff. “I have just 6 paise out of Rs 1 that we earn or get, to do any kind of development work … how can anyone do anything with that kind of money?”

The chief minister said after her meeting with the prime minister “on one side we have Junglemahal, on the other Darjeeling, besides 11 of our 19 district are backward … the Centre should help us.” A Rs 500 crore package for Darjeeling’s development which she has demanded still lies bound in red tape in Delhi’s corridors of power. Though Jairam Ramesh has written a letter to her indicating his ministry would declare two more districts – Bankura and Purulia – as Maoist infested and these would get funds from the Centre’s Integrated Action Plan, Mamata knows that money can only flow only after the home ministry and plan panel approves each fund release.

Mamata wants her states’ more than Rs 2 lakh crore debt recast and at the very least “a moratorium for three years” on repayment of interest. Mukherjee has tried to help out by setting up a high level committee on debt recast for the three most debt stressed states – Kerala, West Bengal and Punjab. But the committee’s report will have to pass muster through many layers of the bureaucracy and be acceptable to the country’s finance commission before a debt recast package is actually ordered.

North Block officials say Mukherjee wants to help but within rules. “We know Bengal is a special case because of the financial mess which the previous government left behind and will help under various schemes – money will come as each scheme gets approved … but a big bang package which she seems to be seeking is difficult … that would also cause heart burn elsewhere and we would be open to accusations of favouritism,” pointed out officials.

The centre’s problem with Mamata is that she not only wants her monies in one go but also as of yesterday. “In this five months (since the Trinamool-Congress alliance came to power), we have got nothing,” she told newspersons.

Money already sanctioned as central assistance to the tune of more than Rs 9,000 crore, is also similarly still lying in Delhi’s coffers, caught up in the red tape of checks and cross checks which the bureaucracy submits all pay-outs to.

To the extent that red tape is holding up her money, officials admit, she has a point, but in many cases she wants assurances of money for which schemes have yet to be drawn up by her state government and submitted. Ramesh, on his part, tried to keep the mercurial leader happy by stating “I have assured the chief minister that the rural development ministry is a friend, ally and a partner” and would clear her schemes within the shortest possible time after they are submitted.

Mamata also complained her state did not get its share of coal royalty. Something, which mines ministry official say they can’t get as it charges an `illegal’ coal cess which no other state charges. The cabinet had consequently decided four years ago not to give West Bengal the benefit of coal royalty as long as it continued to charge a cess.

Top officials say money can come out of special schemes to help hill districts, tribal districts, border districts, for earthquake relief in Darjeeling, to build infrastructure in Bangladeshi enclaves which will be transferred to India and even the truly big bonanza of a debt recast, but Mamata “must be patient.”

Officials also warn the Prime Minister’s Office to which she has been rushing with her demands and complaints isn’t exactly happy with her either. By jeopardising an agreement with Bangladesh over Teesta water sharing, she had also held up a transit treaty with that country which was desperately needed by the north east to link up with mainland India and in the process made the Prime Minister and the country lose face in Bangladesh. That’s something which the ruling Congress can’t afford to forget or forgive in a hurry.