Aseemanand: Conspiracy of Silence or Silence of Convenience?

Image

As usual, February began on a chilly but calm note. In days to come, the political mercury was to go up with Parliament back in business for a vote-on-account in an election year and to play midwife to deal with the troubled pregnancy of Telangana. Delhi had in store a script ready to play out – cacophony and disruptions in Parliament, protests at Jantar Mantar and unfolding of a possible political alliance against Congress and BJP. However, these predictable acts, repeated every year as a ritual, were disturbed by interviews rightwing terror accused Swami Aseemanand gave to ‘Caravan’.

It was not his life story but a comment on RSS supremo Mohan Bhagwat and senior leader Indresh that made to the headlines. Aseemanand claimed that Bhagwat and Indresh knew about their terror plans in 2005 and gave their blessings, puncturing claims that the Sangh had nothing to do with subversive acts. Bhagwat rose to become the RSS Sarsangchalak four years later.

Predictably, BJP and the Sangh trashed it as “concocted” and even managed a denial from Aseemanand now in Ambala Jail. The leaders knew the person making such claims was not an ordinary member but a VIP in the Parivar, who was among the chosen few who were honoured with a Rs one lakh award and Shri Guruji Award named after M S Golwalkar. The Sangh was understandably shocked as the allegations touched a raw nerve.

With the transcript of the interviews now in public domain, Aseemanand emerges as a key figure of the Parivar. It chronicles the journey of Aseemanand from a poor boy born to a freedom fighter in a nondescript Bengal village, where Ramakrishna Paramahamsa was born, to an old man who stands accused in three terror cases, including the Samjhauta blasts. Aseemanand, who talks about how he and his six brothers joined RSS ignoring the warnings of their Gandhian father, remembers himself as a Paramahamsa follower celebrating Eid and Christmas.

Aseemananda, a postgraduate in Physics, remembers his indoctinaration by a local RSS pracharak. He decided that his mission for life would be that “no more enemies of Hindus are born, and if anyone has converted then to bring them back to Hinduism”. He travelled across India – to Andamans, to Kerala, to Chhattisgarh and later to Dangs in Gujarat where he was tasked to establish the stranglehold of Hindutva.

Image

The saffron-attired Swami spoke unapologetically about his involvement in riots after Godhra carnage, his anger against Islamic terror attacks, his meetings with co-accused Pragya Singh and slain Sunil Joshi and the run up to his alleged involvement in terror attacks. Aseemanand believes, according to the transcripts, whatever he has done is good for his community.

With Parliament in session and controversial comments on tape, the conversation had the recipe for a political thriller in an election year. The magazine had by then released the tapes and transcript to counter the Sangh allegations of concoction.

As the interview made its way into headlines, there were occasional sound bytes but no leaders worth their salt except for Mayawati, Digvijay Singh and Salman Khurshid vociferously spoke about it. AAP and CPI(M) issued statements and their leaders demanded a further probe into the claims. CPI(M) believed that the reported actions of RSS leaders have “grave implications” and it is essential for the NIA to urgently investigate the matter. AAP asked the BJP what action it proposes to take against the “violent and divisive” actions of its sister organisations.

But the secular wing among the political class was not generally enthusiastic about raising the issue. Aseemanand, whose retracted confessions before court spoke about Hindutva groups’ involvement in terror strikes, had given Congress, the beleaguered ruling party at the Centre, on a platter enough ammunition. Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde, who stirred a hornets’ nest in Jaipur AICC session last year with his reference to Hindutva terror, was tame in his response when he remarked, if Aseemanand has said it, it could be true.

Image

To be fair to Congress, its leaders did talk about their party stand during prime time TV debates but it ended there. The otherside was not that evasive as an obscure rightwing outfit ‘Hindu Sena’ staged a protest outside the magazine office and used a south Delhi based PR company to send its press releases to media outlets. It was curious to see Congress shying away from the offensive and its government not taking any credible action when legal experts opined that the revelations merit a more serious look as the interview taped. The magazine on its own offered the tapes for forensic examination but the government did not do any administrative follow up.

The transcript of the interviews gives an interesting aside on CBI, which initially investigated the Hindutva terror cases. Aseemanand says that CBI was ahead in its investigations and knew much before the arrests of the accused.

Why are the Congress and NIA then shying away from investigating the fresh revelations? Why there is a slow-down in the investigations or its follow up? As media quoted NIA sources’ doubts about the evidentiary value of the disclosure, the agency issued a statement that whatever appearing in print was “mere speculation and do not in any manner reflect the official position of NIA”.

There appears to be a conspiracy of silence. Or is it a silence of convenience when Aseemanand himself had qualms in talking? Will the government now walk the talk?

READ

The Believer: Swami Aseemanand’s radical service to the Sangh by LEENA GITA REGHUNATH

http://www.caravanmagazine.in/reportage/believer#sthash.e0TuyhOH.dpuf

#######################

The Swami Aseemanand Interviews http://www.caravanmagazine.in/swami-aseemanand-interviews

#######################

(PS: The article was written on February 12, 2014. Later NIA sought tapes and documents from Caravan. A revised article appeared in Deccan Herald on February 18, 2014

http://www.deccanherald.com/content/386940/conspiracy-silence-terror-accused039s-damning.html )

Advertisements

Ambedkar’s dead letter and a bit of Article 356 history

Image

NEW DELHI: The decision to impose President’s rule, the controversial provision in the Constitution that B R Ambedkar believed would remain a “dead letter”, in Delhi is the 121st such incident in the history of Independent India and the first for 2014.

The previous one was the invocation of the controversial Article 356 was in Jharkhand on January 18 last year when JMM withdrew support to BJP-led government in the state. In a striking similarity to the Delhi situation, the then Chief Minister Arjun Munda resigned and sought dissolution of the state Assembly.

The Article 356, which experts say is based on Section 93 in the India Act of 1935, is a much abused and debated provision of the Constitution and was hotly debated in the Constituent Assembly.

While members like H N Kunzru, P S Deshmukh, Shibban Lal Saxena and H V Kamath voiced concern about the provision, leaders like K Santhanam, Alladi Krishnaswamy Iyer and Pandit Thakur Das Bhargava supported it.

Summing up the debate in the Constituent Assembly, Ambedkar said he expected that such articles will never be called into operation and that they remain a dead letter. “If at all they are brought into operation, I hope the President who is endowed with these powers will take proper precaution before actually suspending the administration of the Province,” he said.

Image

The first Indian province to witness President’s Rule was Vindhya Pradesh on April 8, 1949 under the India Act as Constitution was not adopted. The section was invoked as the Chief Minister resigned and the President’s Rule was revoked after the first General elections in March 1952.

The first state to be out under President’s Rule after the adoption of Constitution was Punjab in June 20, 1951. According to political historians, the state was kept under suspended animation for almost ten months to help Congress to get its act together.

Among the states, Manipur was put under President’s Rule for the maximum of 10 followed by Uttar Pradesh (9), Punjab and Bihar (8 each) and Karnataka, Odisha and Puducherry (6 each).

According to an analysis by Bhagwan D Dua in his book ‘Presidential Rule: A Study in Crisis Politics’, the imposition of President’s Rule was highest during the 1966-77 period when Indira Gandhi was Prime Minister. Her government invoked the provision 39 times while it was nine during Morarji Desai’s Prime Ministership.

Another analysis by writer Subhash Chander Arora, the invocation of the controversial rule became on an increase not since the 1970s. The Article 356 was used 40 times in a decade in the 1970s while it was used 18 times in 1980s. From 1990, the provison was used 35 times.

(PS: An edited version appeared in Deccan Herald on February 15, 2014)

Air safety hits rough weather

Image

The mood was tense at the New Delhi headquarters of the Director General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) on January 31. Officials were waiting anxiously for the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) decision on safety ranking, as they were not sure whether they would pull it off with last-minute decisions like inducting more safety experts. But the FAA was clearly unimpressed as they bluntly showed India the red card.

After a mad scramble in the past few months to meet the shortcomings, India found itself in ignominy, downgraded to the risky Category II along with 10 other countries, including Bangladesh, Ghana and obscure ones like Curacao. To India’s embarrassment, others such as Bermuda, Suriname were among over 70 countries which found themselves in the good books of US aviation regulator. India had achieved the FAA Category 1 status in 1997.

But, this is not the first time that India faced a downgrade. Five years ago, the FAA was on the verge of dumping India in the rogues’ gallery due to an under-staffed DGCA, India’s aviation watch-dog. The government then sanctioned recruitment of around 500 personnel and managed to retain Category 1 status.

Civil Aviation Minister Ajit Singh was “disappointed” with the FAA, as India had “fulfilled” all but two of the 31 ‘shortcomings’ pointed out by the FAA. Singh says India will fulfil the unaccomplished tasks – recruiting more safety officers and imparting training – by next month, an optimism not shared by experts. The FAA did acknowledge that India took steps to address concerns raised after its inspections in September and December 2013, saying it made “significant” progress to redress issues identified in the first assessment. It went on to say that, it looks forward to continued progress by India to comply with the internationally-mandated regulatory standards.

A senior official in the Civil Aviation Ministry told Deccan Herald that they have reasons to be upset as they were racing against time taking short-term and long-term measures to satisfy aviation agencies. They knew an FAA action could have a domino effect. Already the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore has stepped up ramp inspections on the Indian aircraft though it has not imposed any restrictions on Indian carriers. The European Union’s Air Safety Committee is also likely to discuss the issue next month.

Image

Announcing the decision after a reassessment in December, the FAA had said that the DGCA does not comply with the safety standards set by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the aviation safety auditor. The FAA initiated a review after the ICAO audit in December 2012 identified deficiencies in the Indian regulator. The American agency assesses on a uniform basis civil aviation authorities that operate or have applied to operate aircraft to the US. This assessment determines whether foreign civil aviation authorities are meeting ICAO safety standards.

The FAA pointed out that there was insufficient number of flight operations inspectors in India and that airworthiness officers do not have required training to handle different types of aircraft. According to the Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation (CAPA), a think tank in the sector, the DGCA has recruited just 67 full-time employees and 62 consultants when the vacancies were a whopping 528. A Parliamentary Standing Committee report tabled on February 6 says the manpower strength of DGCA declined by over 40 per cent compared to 2005-06 though passenger load, freight traffic and aircraft movement doubled during this period.

Kapil Kaul, CEO (South Asia) of CAPA, says shortage of manpower at the DGCA has been a recurring issue since the first ICAO audit in 1997. “At that time, the market was small enough to be manageable and corrective action could have been taken but instead the issue has been neglected by successive administrations”.

In its defence, DGCA said it had completed foreign licence validation and refresher training and finalised a methodology for determining flight operations inspector staffing requirements. It also publicised the 2012 ICAO audit findings, claiming that India has an effective implementation of 79.1 per cent, above the global average of 61 per cent.

Angry officials said aviation incidents in the US were higher than India since 2009 – India had two accidents involving scheduled commercial aircraft while the US had 105. The US action does not mean that Indian airlines are altogether dangerous. It was an assessment of the capabilities of DGCA in conducting regular safety checks and audit of airlines. The assessment brought to light India’s under-preparation in dealing with safety issues after it opened the skies for more private participation. The operations had witnessed an increase with more airlines, more services and more passengers but on the ground, the experts to check safety parameters were less than half of what was required!

Image

India could still fly its planes to the US – the existing 21 services a week by Air India and seven by Jet Airways. But the catch is that the Indian carriers could be prevented from expanding operations in the US or collaborating with American airlines. There would also be more stringent FAA surveillance on aircraft of other Indian operators who will not be allowed to launch any new international services. US-based United Airlines and American Airlines have suspended their code sharing agreements – an arrangement between two or more airlines to share same flight -with Jet Airways after the downgrade. The AI and Jet did not respond to emails seeking their reaction.

“The decision will have an impact on the two Indian carriers. There will be a domino effect as more markets will be under pressure to act. The general brand image of these airlines will suffer,” Rohit Bansal, CEO of Hammurabi and Solomon Consulting, told Deccan Herald.

Authorities may be taking swift action but India is staring at a possible long innings in Category II as it took considerable time for countries to get back into the club. The experience of Philippines and Indonesia may not be a solace for India – Philippines is yet to re-enter Category I after being banished five years ago and Indonesia is waiting for over six years. Israel took four years to re-enter the group. India must keep in mind that knee-jerk reactions will not help in the long run and such actions would be detrimental even as more investment is being pumped into the sector. What is needed is a pro-active approach to deal with the situation.

(The article appeared in Deccan Herald’s Spotlight on February 9, 2014)

FAA downgrade is not a surprise: Bharghava

Jitender Bhargava, former Executive Director of Air India and author of ‘The Descent of Air India’, is an authoritative voice on Indian aviation sector. A former journalist, Bhargava spent around 20 years in Air India after his stint in Coal India. I spoke to Bharghava for Deccan Herald on the recent developments in the aviation sector. The excerpts of the interview appeared in Deccan Herald’s Spotlight on February 9, 2014

The FAA decision to downgrade India has come as a rude shock. Was it inevitable? Could we have avoided it? How could we have avoided it?
The downgrade has come a rude shock if viewed from country’s standpoint but it hasn’t really been a surprise for those who have kept themselves abreast with the developments. One could in fact see it coming. The shortcomings observed by FAA were known to all and hence the downgrade would have been avoidable had only timely corrective action been taken to address the issues. As a matter of fact, the numerous shortcomings pointed out by FAA should have been noticed by the various persons who have helmed the DGCA, the Ministry of civil aviation, and the minister. All of them are thus in a way guilty of harming the interests of the civil aviation sector through inaction.
Does the FAA decision mean that the regulatory framework on safety has come down? What does the FAA decision mean to a common man? Does it mean, for him, that the flights he is taking may not be that secure?
The framework hasn’t come down because it had been inadequate for years. When the industry was growing, the regulatory framework ought to have kept pace, grown likewise. The downgrade has no bearing on safety of flights but there are always individuals in a society who are extra careful and can believe that since Indian carriers are operating in an “unsafe” environment other airlines should be preferred for international travel. This is more true for US passengers travelling to India.
The decision is not based on analysis of individual airlines but on DGCA. With lesser regulatory intervention due to lack of personnel, will it mean that the airlines are not scrutinised properly on its safety aspect and putting fliers on risk?
Yes, one can conclude in this way because it is a natural human tendency to avoid compliance as long as one is not being regularly supervised or monitored. The regulatory set up wouldn’t be needed if airlines were to religiously comply on their own by just being given the set of rules that they should be adhering to. The audit conducted by DGCA in 2011-12 had in fact shown that most airlines were lacking on various counts and not adhering to the rules in letter and spirit. I don’t think very many corrective actions were initiated post the audit.
Image
How is inadequate training and lack of personnel putting a question mark on safety? Who is to be blamed for putting the safety of people in danger?
Downgrading doesn’t mean that India is operating in an unsafe environment. As in aviation industry even being 99.9% safe isn’t good enough, regulatory checks have to be enforced and this can be achieved only if adequate number of trained personnel are available and checks are conducted as per pre-defined timetable. Periodic monitoring is important, in fact critical, for safe operation of flights. Government, in public interest, should fix the blame because safety has to be someone’s business. Not inducting personnel since 1998 or thereabout in DGCA or having heads oblivious to role of the regulatory authority can’t be an alibi for not performing key functions that the regulatory body is supposed to.
Where did the regulator err? What should the regulator do? What are long term measures you would suggest? 
Lack of oversight has been cited as one of the main causes for downgrade. Unless there is regular intake of technically qualified personnel commensurate with growth in the industry overseeing of flight operations of airlines will suffer. This is a very basic aspect that shouldn’t have been overlooked. If a repetition of what has happened has to be avoided in future we must first have a professional to head the regulatory agency and he should be fully accountable for its functioning. Today no such accountability exists. Even the media has failed to be a watchdog. No media personnel has found it fit to question the past DGCA’s as to why they erred in not inducting personnel.
Government has proposed a new regulator in place of DGCA? Will it help?
The union cabinet had accorded sanction to Civil Aviation Authority to replace DGCA in July 2013. What has happened since then? Aren’t six months enough to operationalise a new agency? The desire to accomplish is clearly lacking. CCA will be successful if it is managed and run by professionals otherwise it will only mean a change in nomenclature.
You have been in the aviation sector for long and is still a close watcher. What is the way out?When can we expect to be back in Category 1?
To regain the status of category 1 rating, DGCA needs to overcome the shortcomings pointed out. The minister’s optimism that this can be achieved by March-end is totally misplaced. It will take months to induct adequate number of people and train them. Even the 75 new posts (based on 2009 flight operations) sanctioned will not suffice as the industry has grown significantly since then. I personally have little faith in the ability of the current system to reverse the trend.
What is your advice for authorities in dealing with the sector?
Let professionals run the civil aviation sector and farther the IAS personnel are kept the better for the industry. It is ironic that the government for reasons best known to itself believes that IAS officials can deliver even though their past track record suggests to the contrary. The tragic story of Air India’s descent in recent years should have served as a lesson.

%d bloggers like this: