Pranab sets tone for India’s future relationship with Palestine

A woman soldier shouted:

Is that you again? Didn’t I kill you?

I said: You killed me…and I forgot, like you, to die.

(Mahmoud Darwish/In Jerusalem)

As the poet believes, the idea of Palestine refuses to die despite being under siege for so many years. That is why President Pranab Mukherjee’s just-concluded historic six-day visit to Jordan, Palestine and Israel would not remain just a symbolic celebration of its ties even if it was a first for an Indian head of the state since its independence 68 years ago. The visit came at a time when there are doubts whether India would continue with its “unwavering” support to the Palestinian cause or would it water down its pro-Palestine policy as desired by Tel Aviv. The President did not leave anyone in doubt on where India stood with its unequivocal support to Palestine and an eagerness to have stronger relations with Israel, both independent of each other. His tour was a message to both the international community and domestic players.

Wherever he visited, be it Amman, Ramallah, Abu Dis or Jerusalem, Mukherjee made clear India’s position through reiteration of the historical positions New Delhi took at various junctures and the changes it underwent. While he reminded that India was one of the only three non-Arab countries to vote against creation of Israel, he also acknowledged the importance New Delhi attaches with Israel referring to cooperation with both countries can have in the fields of defence, agriculture, science and technology among others. Mukherjee had no doubt about India’s “unflinching commitment to sustaining and expanding relations with the Arab World” as the ties with them are “ancient and civilisational”. He said in no uncertain terms that India’s “traditional” support to the Palestinian cause remains “steadfast” while it pursues “strong relations” with Israel. India wants “sovereign, independent, viable” Palestine live side by side at peace with Israel as endorsed in the Quartet Roadmap and relevant UN resolutions, Mukherjee said at various fora during his visit.

Mukherjee’s visit came at a critical juncture when there was thinking in the BJP-led NDA government to nuance its relationship in favour of Israel with a stand-alone visit to that country by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. However, it was decided that the President would first visit the country. There were reports that Modi government’s proposal to the President was that he visit only Israel. Tel Aviv too wanted that. However, it is learnt that the President was not comfortable with the idea and then officials worked out the contours of a three-nation tour. Israel did hit back by initially not allowing computers for a Palestinian institute. Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu too expressed his displeasure with Mukherjee on India’s stand on Palestine during their luncheon meeting on the last day of the President’s tour. When Mukherjee skipped reference to Israel-Palestine conflict in his address to the Israeli Parliament ‘Knesset’, Netanyahu did forcefully put up his country’s case against Palestine, saying it has to recognise that Israel is home to the Jews and that they have to end “terrorism” from their side. Mukherjee also did not mince words when he said the current spiral of violence should end though he did not put the blame on anyone.

India had covered a long road on its ties with Israel – from earlier passports showing that it is “valid for travel in all countries except Israel and South Africa” to inaugurating diplomatic relationship 23 years ago and having extensive cooperation in several areas. However, Mukherjee was clear about the need for reinforcing pluralism and diversity when he said religion cannot be the basis for a state. To a top Israeli Opposition leader Isaac Herzog, he said cited the example of creation of Bangladesh and the numerous “Muslim” countries in the Arab world. In a subtle way, he also had a message to the domestic audience when he said this as India is witnessing some sort of a polarisation. He was in a way telling the establishment in New Delhi that its policy towards Israel should not be based on religion. By reinforcing his belief in pluralism, the President believes, it seems, that he was speaking what any sensible person would be saying. When people forget to say the right thing, somebody has to step in.

On Palestine, he sends another message by visiting Palestine. US President Barack Obama flew in to Ramallah and spent a few hours before flying back to the safety of Israel, so did others. But Mukherjee stayed overnight in Ramallah and became the first Head of the State to do so in this troubled spot in its history. By doing so, India was sending a message to the international community that morality still has a place in international diplomacy.

With the President setting the tone, Indian diplomats believe that it would be difficult for a paradigm shift on the ties with Palestine as it could end up New Delhi losing its standing in the international community. A compromise would end up with India having egg on its face. Netanyahu is banking on his “dearest friend” Modi with whom he “speaks quite often” for this paradigm shift. Before taking the final plunge on a decisive shift, it is better Modi read what Mahatma Gandhi, whom he quotes often these days, wrote about the conflict. In 1938 Gandhi wrote in Harijan, “Palestine belongs to the Arabs in the same sense that England belongs to the English or France to the French. It is wrong and inhuman to impose the Jews on the Arabs. What is going on in Palestine today cannot be justified by any moral code of conduct.”

(An edited version appeared in Deccan Herald on Oct 20, 2015)

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Pranab now to write on Era of Turbulence but expect no ‘masala’

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President Pranab Mukherjee is bringing out the second volume of his much-awaited autobiography in December this year but he warns not to expect “masala” in it.

The second volume, which covers the period from Sanjay Gandhi’s death in 1980 and Narasimha Rao’s defeat in polls in 1996, will hit the stands on December 11, his birthday. The first volume, ‘The Dramatic Years’, was launched by the publisher Rupa Publications, last year on his birthday.

The keenly awaited book will deal with crucial years in Mukherjee’s political life and is expected to throw more light on the person as well as the period.

“Don’t expect ‘masala’ from me,” the President told journalists accompanying him on way back after the six-day visit to Jordon, Palestine and Israel.

The book is also expected to throw light on what happened in the flight on October 31, 1984 when he accompanied Rajiv Gandhi on a flight back from West Bengal to New Delhi, the day Indira Gandhi was assassinated. His apparent remark that the senior-most minister should become caretaker prime minister is said to be the reason for his exclusion from Rajiv’s Cabinet and his leaving the party only to return later.

While there are a lot of speculation on what happened on the flight, Mukherjee has never said anything in public or shared much about it in his private circle.

A close aide of the President told Deccan Herald that several “interesting bits”, which would have made headlines, in the first volume were chopped off from the first draft by Mukherjee himself. He is very particular that he is not there to make headlines for the sake of headlines.

“He has told us that certain secret would die with him and nobody would know about it,” the aide said. Mukherjee is also learnt to be keeping a diary and it is unlikely to see the light of the world during his lifetime, the Presidential aide said.

The first volume had Mukherjee’s remarks on Emergency where he said it could have been an “avoidable event” and Congress and Indira Gandhi paid a “heavy price for this “misadventure”.

(An edited version appeared in Deccan Herald on Oct 19, 2015)

Romila Thapar on Extremists and Religious Communities

Romila Thapar

Terrorists can be weakened if the communities that they claim to be defending and representing start disowning them, eminent historian Romila Thapar writes in a new book.

In one of the essays in the book ‘The Public Intellectual in India’ anchored by her, Thapar writes that communities are troubled by a fear that often rides on the back of a religious or a caste identity.

Thapar, who is an Emeritus Professor of History in Jawaharlal Nehru, writes, “the strength of Hindu extremist groups where they use terror tactics lies in the fact that they claim to be speaking for the larger community, and the larger community is not standing up to them and negating this claim.”

She goes on to add, “this is characteristic not only of such groups among Hindus but among Muslims as well.”

In an apparent reference to the recent surge in activities of fringe Hindutva elements, she says that the smaller groups and organisations that are part of the majority community and that indulge in terrorism are feared because they carry the “tacit support of the majority”.

As she questions the silence of the majority community, Thapar writes, “it is the responsibility of the majority to disown these activities of groups that are part of their fold. Why don’t Hindus come out in large numbers and condemn the desecration of churches? Does the larger community of Hindus condone the vandalising of institutions, the pulping of books and so on?”

“Intellectual differences are now being settled via assassination, as happened with Narendra Dabholkar and Govind Pansare and with death threats,” she observes.

In the book, which is a collection of articles by various authors, Thapar writes that in the last few months there has been, week after week, some activity or statement tacitly or openly supported by those claiming authority, that is unacceptable to liberal opinion. “Yet the protest is not always manifested in public,” she lamented.

“Religion and politics are now seemingly deeply entwined, although more often than not, the root cause for disruptive behaviour is not hurt religious sentiment, as is claimed, but a bid to assert power and control over some crucial aspect of civil society,” she observes.

(An edited version appeared in Deccan Herald on Oct 19, 2015)

More BOPs on Indo-Pak, Indo-Bangla borders

Augmenting the border security infrastructure, the government plans to reduce the distance between Border Outposts (BOPs) on Indo-Pak and Indo-Bangladesh boundaries.

The plan is to build more BOPs on both the borders — 80 on Indo-Bangla border and 50 on Indo-Pak border. More fencing, floodlighting and building of border roads are also in plan, according to the Outcome Budget 2015-16 of Union Home Ministry.

On the Indo-Pak border, the Ministry’s objective is to “curb infiltration and inflow of arms and ammunition from across the border by building 10 km of roads, floodlighting 10 km and setting up 50 BOPs.

“Border roads will increase from 394 km to 404 km, floodlighting will increase from 1,952 km to 1,962 km. The average inter-BOP gap will reduce from 3.2 km to 3 km thereby the effectiveness of the border management will improve,” the document said.

The Indo-Pak border has around 700 Border Outposts.

However, it noted, the risk factors that could delay the targets include the failure of contracting agencies to execute the work awarded, delay in land acquisition, forest clearances and joint agreement for construction within 150 yards of the border.

The works at the Indo-Bangla border, the Ministry believes, would help in checking “illegal immigration and anti-national activities”.

The plan is to work on 30 km. fencing, 60 km. of roads, 300 km of floodlighting and 80 BOPs.

The coverage of fencing along the border will increase from 2,828 km to 2,858 km. Similarly, border roads will increase from 3,774 km to 3.834 km and floodlighting from 2,151 km to 2,451 km. “The average inter-BOPs gap will reduce from 4.73 km. to 4.3 km,” the document said.

On the Indo-China border, construction of link roads is of operational significance, as it would provide connectivity to ITBP BOPs.

However, the risk in this sector is that the roads to be constructed are located in high altitude areas between 9,000 to 14,000 feet. “Oxygen depletion limits working capacity of labour personnel. Other constraints are air support, hard rock, natural calamities and limited working season,” it noted.

On the Indo-Nepal and Indo-Bhutan borders, the Outcome Budget has identified development of roads of operational and strategic significance as one of the priority areas.

(An edited version appeared in Deccan Herald on Oct 4, 2015)

3,540 undertrials in jails for more than five years

Jail

This is one figure would not please the government. Over 3,500 undertrial prisoners are in jails across the country for more than five years, which will serve as a testimony for the failure of government in ensuring judicial and jail reforms.

According to latest official figures, there are 3,540 undertrial prisoners languishing in jails for more than five years as on December 31, 2014 without closure in their cases, which is an increase of 16 per cent from the previous year. Of this, 176 are women.

In 2013, there were 3,047 such prisoners while it was 2,028 in 2012, showing that the pace of growth in such prisoners was fast in the past couple of years.

Last year, majority of such prisoners come from Uttar Pradesh and they (1,022) accounted for 28 per cent while Bihar had 477 such prisoners. In 2013, there were 914 such prisoners from Uttar Pradesh and 464 from Bihar.

Punjab is the only major state, which had shown decrease in the number of such prisoners. While it had 317 undertrials languishing in jail for over five years, the number came down to 294 in 2013 and then to 180 last year.

Karnataka has 49 such prisoners now while it had 48 in 2013 and 51 in 2013. Delhi has 126 such prisoners last year.

The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has earlier suggested that undertrials should be released on bail after chargesheets are filed in courts. The Commission felt this would help in reducing overcrowding in jails.

According to the Prison Statistics India 2014 report of National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), except Goa, Jammu and Kashmir, Punjab, Uttarakhand and Daman and Diu, most of undertrial prisoners were detained for less than three months in majority of the states indicating good number of release of older undertrials from prisons during 2014.

A total of 12,052 undertrial prisoners were lodged beyond 3 to 5 years at the end of the year 2014. There were 3,479 such undertrial prisoners in Uttar Pradesh followed by Bihar (1,198), Rajasthan (1,088), Punjab (1,038), Jharkhand (839), Maharashtra (677), West Bengal (633) and Gujarat (614).

(An edited version appeared in Deccan Herald on Oct 3, 2015)

Depressing — Same story from Indian Prisons

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Overcrowded, under-staffed and rising number of undertrials — the sorry state of affairs continues in Indian jails with latest government statistics showing that 4.18 lakh people are in jail, with 117 sharing the space meant for 100.

The latest ‘Prison Statistics India 2014’ by National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) showed that nothing much has changed in the jails though one could argue that there is miniscule improvement in capacity.

At the end of 2014, the report said 4.18 lakh prisoners were staying in jails, which could only accommodate 3.56 lakh people. This comes at a time the states could only increase capacity by 8,702 in 2014 while the number of prisoners have risen by 6,544.

Compared to 2013, the authorities can claim that the occupancy rate has come down from 118.4 per cent to 117.4 per cent.

“Overcrowding is one of the biggest problems faced by good number of jails. Keeping in view the human rights of the prisons, it is essential that they are given reasonable space and facilities in jails,” the report said.

While 12 states, including the big ones like Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Gujarat, Jammu and Kashmir, Odisha, Tamil Nadu, Telangana and West Bengal, have an occupancy rate less than 100 per cent, the major culprits in the keeping the national rate above 100 per cent are Delhi, Chhattisgarh, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Assam and Jharkhand.

Dadra and Nagar Haveli reported the highest overcrowding in prisons at 331.7 per cent (199 prisoners occupying space of 60) followed by Chhattisgarh 258.9 per cent and Delhi 221.6 per cent.

In Chhattisgarh jails, 16,525 prisons are cramped in space for just 6,382 while in Delhi it has 13,850 in the space of 6,250. Delhi had shown an increase of 4.8 percentage points from 216.8 per cent in 2013.

Karnataka jails, which have a capacity of 13,381 housed 14,221 prisoners at the end of 2014. Compared to 2013, the state could increase the capacity by 281 while the rise in prisoners was 103.

According to the report, the highest number of 88,221 inmates was in Uttar Pradesh jails followed by Madhya Pradesh (36,433), Bihar (31,295), Maharashtra (27,868) and Punjab (26,007).

The number of convicted prisoners has increased by 1.5 per cent in 2014 (1.31 lakh) over 2013 (1.29 lakh). Number of persons convicted for murder charge rose by 2.3 per cent in 2014 (69,773) over 2013 (68,199). Number of persons convicted for rape charge increased by 8.4 per cent in 2014 (8,879) over 2013 (8,188), the report said.

No of Jails — 1,387

Capacity — 3,56,561

Inmates* — 4,18,536

— Male : 4,00,855

— Female : 17,681 (4.2%)

Convicts —  1,31,517

— Male : 1,26,114

— Female : 5,403

Undertrials — 2,82,879

— Male : 2,70,783

— Female : 12,096

Occupancy

2012 – 112.2 %

2013 – 118.4 %

2014 – 117.4 %

* As on Dec 31, 2014

Undertrials Released in 2014 – 13,95,121

Undertrials acquitted in 2014 – 64,216

Among convicts

——————————————————–

Illiterate — 35,202

Below Class X — 56,469

Above Class X and below graduation — 28,853

Graduates 96,993

Post Graduates — 2,219

Tech Degree/Diploma — 1,781

Among Undertrials

———————————————–

Illiterates –82,735

Up to Class X — 1,19,370

Above Class X and below graduation — 55,605

Graduates — 17,000

Post graduates — 5,202

Tech Degree/Diploma — 2,967

Undertrials in 2014

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Hindus – 1,97,273 (69.7 %)

Muslims – 59,550 (21.1 %)

Undertrials in 2013

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Hindus – 1,92,202 (69 %)

Muslims – 57,936 (21 %)

Convicts in 2014

———————————–

Hindus – 95,348 (72.5 %)

Muslims – 21,550 (16.4 %)

Convicts in 2013

———————————–

Hindus – 93,273 (72 %)

Muslims – 22,145 (17.1 %)

(An edited version appeared in Deccan Herald on Oct 3, 2015)

No of death row convicts decreasing?

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At a time voices against death penalty are getting louder, a government report has shown that the number of death-row convicts in Indian jails and awarding of capital punishment are on a decrease in the past couple of years.

At the end of 2014, Indian jails housed 318 prisoners on death row, which also included eight women. In 2013, the figure was 382, including ten women, while it was 414, which has 13 women, in 2012.

Of the total 1.31 lakh convicts, the death row convicts accounted for just 0.1 per cent with Uttar Pradesh (82) reporting the highest number of such convicts while Karnataka jails finds a place in top five. UP alone accounted for 25.8 per cent of the convicts given capital punishment followed by Maharashtra (36), Madhya Pradesh (33), Bihar (28) and Karnataka (24).

The awarding of capital punishment is also coming down, if one goes by the National Crime Records Bureau’s ‘Prison Statistics India 2014’ report. While 125 people were awarded death sentence in 2013, it has come down to 95 last year. In 2012, it was 97.

During 2014, Bihar had awarded the highest number of capital punishment were awarded at 17 followed by Uttar Pradesh (16), Madhya Pradesh (12), Maharashtra (9), Chhattisgarh (8) and Gujarat, Jharkhand and Madhya Pradesh (5 each). Karnataka had one in this category.

Activists, however, are not seeing much in the decrease, as they believe that there is not much change in mindset. The latest Law Commission report had recommended the abolition of death penalty but the Union Home Ministry is learnt to be not in favour of acceding to the demand, as it feels that time is not ripe for such a move.

The report shows that the numbers of commuting death sentence to life is also increasing. While it was 61 in 2012, it rose to 112 last year. In 2013, it was 115.

Out of 112 convicts whose death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment in 2014, 18.8 per cent were reported from Bihar (21) followed by Delhi (19), Karnataka (15), Maharashtra (10) and Haryana and Uttar Pradesh (9 each). No convict was executed during the year 2014 while one – Yakub Memon – was done this year.

(An edited version appeared in Deccan Herald on Oct 3, 2015)

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