Friday, August 31, 2012

Close call?

The political class has let down India

By Gautam Sen

Is the future of the Indian Republic in doubt? Surveying published opinion and gauging political postures, one gets ambiguous answers. Many retired senior administrative, intelligence and defence officials write dispiritingly of India's immediate prospects, which should cause worry. It also points to their lack of confidence in the political masters they once served. The political masters can be divided into three categories and views that can be reasonably imputed to them judged accordingly. The first is the overwhelming swathe of political representatives who currently dominate political life in States and, increasingly, the Centre. The second are a smaller group of influential senior political leaders, chairing parliamentary committees, etc., and have an impact on party stances. The final and most significant are the politicians who are senior ministers, led by the prime minister, a coterie privy to state secrets and approving policies.

The first group of politicians are ingenious locals, possessing social clout, village cunning and, often, felonious instincts. These skills allow this growing breed of politician to win by twisting electoral outcomes and attain wealth and status. Although an essentially malevolent group, they are tolerated while they cast their votes as required, which is also the purpose of the occasional cine star nominated by political party leaderships. The second group of politicos are largely managers of the political apparatus inside Parliament and the assembly and retire into obscurity unless elevated to ministerial status, the aspiration that consigns them to faithful servitude. The prime minister and senior ministers, with final oversight, actually make decisions though that does not automatically guarantee action. Contemporary policy boasts, with eye-watering budgetary allocations, seem to frequently fail in implementation, but manage to enrich a variety of governmental insiders and their collaborators outside it.

The prime minister has always been the critical component in times of crises and when major policy decisions are on the radar. In the past, India's ultimate decision-makers, especially the prime minister, trusted ministerial colleagues and advisers, have been of rather variable quality. The quality of this leadership in India has only been effective twice, during Indira Gandhi's tenure and Atal Behari Vajpayee's brief period in office. Indira Gandhi may have had her faults, but it would be erroneous to overlook her uncompromising defence of India's national honour, personal courage and ability to identify good advisers and listen to them. Atal Behari Vajpayee steered government by force of personality, despite lacking the requisite numbers in Parliament and acquiescing in some wrongdoing by those close to him. However, he mostly managed to deter the kind of egregious malfeasance that has become routine following his departure. Since May 2004, the grievous disempowering of the prime minister's office has become the single most important reason for the virtual collapse of administrative decision-making and governance. It has become so serious that it now threatens the viability of the polity.

How very important is the quality of leadership at the pinnacle, especially for India, cannot be understated. A multitude of domestic divisions, dire poverty and grave international challenges combine to constantly probe the durability of the Indian polity. Excluding the hugely significant setback of Partition in 1947, India has survived and indeed advanced on many fronts, industrialising the economy, educating its people, feeding a vastly increased population, although not as adequately as it should, and empowering disadvantaged groups. These are respectable achievements that have occurred in the context of fractious democratic politics. At the same time, India's political leadership was rarely sagacious, but an essentially patient populace prevented recurrent setbacks from becoming insuperable crises. Jawaharlal Nehru's self-confident but shallow leadership at the outset was balanced by the astute and decisive Sardar Vallabhai Patel, as the record of the Kashmir and Tibetan imbroglios demonstrate. But Nehru persisted with his half-baked grasp of the wider world, on which he imagined himself to be an expert, inviting the calamity of the Himalayan blunder.

In the aftermath of Nehru and his redoubtable daughter, Indira Gandhi, a succession of mediocrities and amateurs, with the exception of P.V.Narasimha Rao and Atal Behari Vajpayee, has beset India. And they have been succeeded by a rank novice, with little understanding of India's vast complexity, and a powerless prime minister. The latter, shamefully, needed his finance minister, Pranab Mukherjee, to call Cabinet meetings to order to begin them. Such weak leadership cannot either inspire talented advisers or embrace their advice. The fact that a periodically tottering India was not altogether prostrate earlier has been significantly due to some of its committed and outstanding public servants, the likes of V.P.Menon, L.K.Jha and some I have the privilege of knowing personally, among them, M.K.Rasgotra, Ronen Sen, Shyam Saran, Prabhat Shukla, Ajit Doval, Lieutenant- General JFR Jacob, and the late Ashok Saikia. But they cannot run India, however capable they might be, since policy legitimacy and its decisive implementation must derive from the political leadership.

Over many months now, India's highest decision-making apparatus has at best been going through the motions of operating pretty much stalled policies and their implementation indefinitely deferred. The shocking lapses of the UPA coalition must include the dismal circus at the 2009 Indo-Pak meeting in Sharm-el Sheikh, where a high-powered Indian delegation was shamefully wrong-footed by the Pakistanis, mendacious and crafty as ever. It has been followed by a government floundering over serial revelations of massive corruption and apparent befuddlement over the on-going communal crisis in Assam and its serious fallout across India. Government responses can only be deemed laughable unless they have been maliciously intended to aggravate the situation for unfathomable political purposes. And twenty more months remain before the general elections. Unfortunately, it can be almost safely predicted that more impasse and confusion are likely to ensue after it because the Indian Parliament is no longer fit for purpose. Opposition leaders are mainly preoccupied to jostle for future ministerial position and the Congress party paralysed by fear of losing power and the consequent fate of its ruling dynasty. And nefarious regional satraps harbour the utmost danger for the integrity of the Indian Union.

India's rulers seem somewhat unmindful of the urgent issue of collapsing economic performance, heightened communal tensions, which begin to look like a prelude to widespread armed conflict, and the possibility they could invite foreign assault. There is even a suspicion that the two major political parties are colluding to avoid political reform, since both are compromised on many counts, and choreographing displays of faux contention to confound a gullible electorate. The Indian media, with its reputation deeply tarnished by the Radia tapes for acting as creatures of politicians, industrial houses and its obsession with celebrity, is conspicuously self-serving and conceitedly amoral. It performs little constructive role in sustaining the health of Indian society by informing honestly and judging wisely.

The question that might be posed in these troubled times is how entrenched constituents of the Indian establishment respond when the national applecart is threatened with being comprehensively upset. Serious countries retain an embedded capacity, short of a military coup d'etat, to thwart the dismantling of the State, with all the incalculable consequences implied. On recent form, one may plausibly doubt if higher echelons of India's decision-makers are capable of providing the imperative breakwater today, although they may have proved invaluable for India's welfare and functioning in the past.

Dr Gautam Sen taught Political Economy at the London School of Economics.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Demographic aggression

S.K. Sinha

Sparks from Assam started dangerous fires in Mumbai and some other places last week. Mercifully, these did not last long. But they have the potential to start a gigantic fire engulfing the entire nation. This is a chilling reminder of the Partition holocaust, one of the greatest human tragedies in history.

Muhammed Ali Jinnah announced that his party would observe August 16, 1946, as Direct Action Day. He declared, “Today we bid good-bye to constitutional methods. Today we have forged a pistol and are in a position to use it. We mean every word of it.” Bengal was the only province in the country where the Muslim League was in power. Direct Action was launched in Calcutta. Suhrawardy, the Muslim League chief minister, released his goons, as per plan.

There was a massacre of non-Muslims on the first two days. It was surprising that the British governor did not exercise his special powers to dismiss the Muslim League ministry and impose Governor’s Rule. He remained a mute spectator. From the third day, non-Muslims, primarily Sikh taxi drivers and Bihari labourers, started retaliating in a big way and Muslims now suffered equally. Suhrawardy asked for help from the Army to restore order. He now turned on East Bengal, which had a hapless Hindu minority.

Hindu women were targeted and there was complete mayhem in Noakhali region. The Mahatma undertook a padyatra in Noakhali to restore peace. Thousands of Hindu refugees from East Bengal poured into Bihar seeking shelter. They narrated their tales of woe. Hindus in Bihar got inflamed and started attacking the local Muslim minority with a vengeance. Widespread communal violence in rural areas took place for the first time. This was difficult to control as it was spread over a vast area, devoid of suitable communications. Hitherto communal riots used to be an urban phenomenon.

The Bihar government promptly asked for Army assistance and normalcy was eventually restored. Several thousand Muslim families were massacred and their houses destroyed. The only redeeming feature was that Armymen remained totally impartial. Muslim priests from Peshawar, Rawalpindi and Lahore visited Bihar, saw the mayhem and went back with pictures of the atrocities. Soon the whole of North India, from Delhi to Peshawar, was in flames. The civil administration virtually collapsed; the Army was widely deployed. Most of the soldiers came from that region.

They saw how their kith and kin had suffered. The impartiality of the soldiers got seriously affected. With the announcement of Partition on June 3, 1947, the extent of violence increased further. Soldiers earmarked for different dominions now had divided loyalty. Millions perished and millions were uprooted in that holocaust.

The current violence in Assam has had a serious impact in several places. Pakistan launched a cyber war by sending SMSes and MMSes to Muslims to inflame communal passions. A mob of 50,000 Muslims collected at Azad Maidan in Mumbai to protest against atrocities on Muslims in Assam and Burma. Some burnt cars, targeted media, attacked shops, molested policewomen on duty and desecrated the Amar Jawan Smarak. Several policemen were injured. In Lucknow, mobs burnt shops, smashed cars and desecrated Buddha’s statue.

There were similar incidents in Allahabad. Besides, thousands of SMSes were sent threatening students and others from the Northeast in Pune, Bengaluru, Hyderabad and Chennai, asking them to quit. Knowing how Delhi police had failed to provide security for students from the Northeast, they panicked. An exodus of over 20,000 people took place. Intelligence about these messages was available but no preventive measures were taken by the Central and state governments. Against this background it was irresponsible for the state government to permit the holding of the protest rally at Azad Maidan. It also failed, miserably, to stop the mayhem.

The Opposition in Parliament has very rightly announced full support in tackling the grave crisis and not to take any political advantage. Yet we must identify the fault lines. The biggest problem facing the Northeast has been demographic aggression by the unabated influx of millions of illegal migrants from Bangla-desh. Our vote-bank politicians have been blatantly assisting this with total disregard for national security. If a repeat of what happened at the time of Partition is to be avoided, the government must shed its slothful and “chalta hai” approach. Good governance, prompt preventive action and ability to foresee situations rather than be overcome by them are imperative. National interests and security must never be ignored.

The writer, a retired lieutenant-general, was Vice-Chief of Army Staff and has served as governor of Assam and Jammu and Kashmir

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Muslim Europe: the demographic time bomb transforming our continent

The EU is facing an era of vast social change, reports Adrian Michaels, and few politicians are taking notice

Britain and the rest of the European Union are ignoring a demographic time bomb: a recent rush into the EU by migrants, including millions of Muslims, will change the continent beyond recognition over the next two decades, and almost no policy-makers are talking about it.

The numbers are startling. Only 3.2 per cent of Spain's population was foreign-born in 1998. In 2007 it was 13.4 per cent. Europe's Muslim population has more than doubled in the past 30 years and will have doubled again by 2015. In Brussels, the top seven baby boys' names recently were Mohamed, Adam, Rayan, Ayoub, Mehdi, Amine and Hamza.

Europe's low white birth rate, coupled with faster multiplying migrants, will change fundamentally what we take to mean by European culture and society. The altered population mix has far-reaching implications for education, housing, welfare, labour, the arts and everything in between. It could have a critical impact on foreign policy: a study was submitted to the US Air Force on how America's relationship with Europe might evolve. Yet EU officials admit that these issues are not receiving the attention they deserve.

Jerome Vignon, the director for employment and social affairs at the European Commission, said that the focus of those running the EU had been on asylum seekers and the control of migration rather than the integration of those already in the bloc. "It has certainly been underestimated - there is a general rhetoric that social integration of migrants should be given as much importance as monitoring the inflow of migrants." But, he said, the rhetoric had rarely led to policy.

The countries of the EU have long histories of welcoming migrants, but in recent years two significant trends have emerged. Migrants have come increasingly from outside developed economies, and they have come in accelerating numbers.

The growing Muslim population is of particular interest. This is not because Muslims are the only immigrants coming into the EU in large numbers; there are plenty of entrants from all points of the compass. But Muslims represent a particular set of issues beyond the fact that atrocities have been committed in the West in the name of Islam.

America's Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, part of the non-partisan Pew Research Center, said in a report: "These [EU] countries possess deep historical, cultural, religious and linguistic traditions. Injecting hundreds of thousands, and in some cases millions, of people who look, speak and act differently into these settings often makes for a difficult social fit."

How dramatic are the population changes? Everyone is aware that certain neighbourhoods of certain cities in Europe are becoming more Muslim, and that the change is gathering pace. But raw details are hard to come by as the data is sensitive: many countries in the EU do not collect population statistics by religion.

EU numbers on general immigration tell a story on their own. In the latter years of the 20th century, the 27 countries of the EU attracted half a million more people a year than left. "Since 2002, however," the latest EU report says, "net migration into the EU has roughly tripled to between 1.6 million and two million people per year."

The increased pace has made a nonsense of previous forecasts. In 2004 the EU thought its population would decline by 16 million by 2050. Now it thinks it will increase by 10 million by 2060. Britain is expected to become the most populous EU country by 2060, with 77 million inhabitants. Right now it has 20 million fewer people than Germany. Italy's population was expected to fall precipitously; now it is predicted to stay flat.

The study for the US Air Force by Leon Perkowski in 2006 found that there were at least 15 million Muslims in the EU, and possibly as many as 23 million. They are not uniformly distributed, of course. According to the US's Migration Policy Institute, residents of Muslim faith will account for more than 20 per cent of the EU population by 2050 but already do so in a number of cities. Whites will be in a minority in Birmingham by 2026, says Christopher Caldwell, an American journalist, and even sooner in Leicester. Another forecast holds that Muslims could outnumber non-Muslims in France and perhaps in all of western Europe by mid-century. Austria was 90 per cent Catholic in the 20th century but Islam could be the majority religion among Austrians aged under 15 by 2050, says Mr Caldwell.

Projected growth rates are a disputed area. Birth rates can be difficult to predict and migrant numbers can ebb and flow. But Karoly Lorant, a Hungarian economist who wrote a paper for the European Parliament, calculates that Muslims already make up 25 per cent of the population in Marseilles and Rotterdam, 20 per cent in Malmo, 15 per cent in Brussels and Birmingham and 10 per cent in London, Paris and Copenhagen.

Recent polls have tended to show that the feared radicalisation of Europe's Muslims has not occurred. That gives hope that the newcomers will integrate successfully. Nonetheless, second and third generations of Muslims show signs of being harder to integrate than their parents. Policy Exchange, a British study group, found that more than 70 per cent of Muslims over 55 felt that they had as much in common with non-Muslims as Muslims. But this fell to 62 per cent of 16-24 year-olds.

The population changes are stirring unease on the ground. Europeans often tell pollsters that they have had enough immigration, but politicians largely avoid debate.

France banned the wearing of the hijab veil in schools and stopped the wearing of large crosses and the yarmulke too, so making it harder to argue that the law was aimed solely at Muslims. Britain has strengthened its laws on religious hatred. But these are generally isolated pieces of legislation.

Into the void has stepped a resurgent group of extreme-Right political parties, among them the British National Party, which gained two seats at recent elections to the European Parliament. Geert Wilders, the Dutch politician who speaks against Islam and was banned this year from entering Britain, has led opinion polls in Holland.

The Pew Forum identified the mainstream silence in 2005: "The fact that [extreme parties] have risen to prominence at all speaks poorly about the state and quality of the immigration debate. [Scholars] have argued that European elites have yet to fully grapple with the broader issues of race and identity surrounding Muslims and other groups for fear of being seen as politically incorrect."

The starting point should be greater discussion of integration. Does it matter at all? Yes, claims Mr Vignon at the European Commission. Without it, polarisation and ghettoes can result. "It's bad because it creates antagonism. It antagonises poor people against other poor people: people with low educational attainment feel threatened," he says.

The EU says employment rates for non-EU nationals are lower than for nationals, which holds back economic advancement and integration. One important reason for this is a lack of language skills. The Migration Policy Institute says that, in 2007, 28 per cent of children born in England and Wales had at least one foreign-born parent. That rose to 54 per cent in London. Overall in 2008, 14.4 per cent of children in primary schools had a language other than English as their first language.

Muslims, who are a hugely diverse group, have so far shown little inclination to organise politically on lines of race or religion. But that does not mean their voices are being ignored. Germany started to reform its voting laws 10 years ago, granting certain franchise rights to the large Turkish population. It would be odd if that did not alter the country's stance on Turkey's application to join the EU. Mr Perkowski's study says: "Faced with rapidly growing, disenfranchised and increasingly politically empowered Muslim populations within the borders of some of its oldest and strongest allies, the US could be faced with ever stronger challenges to its Middle East foreign policies."

Demography will force politicians to confront these issues sooner rather than later. Recently, some have started to nudge the debate along. Angel GurrĂ­a, the OECD secretary-general, said in June: "Migration is not a tap that can be turned on and off at will. We need fair and effective migration and integration policies; policies that work and adjust to both good economic times and bad ones."


Saturday, August 4, 2012

Calls for change to Indonesia's mosque loudspeakers

For Beringin Kusuma whose living quarters are only a short distance from a mosque, the Muslim month of Ramadan is not only a time for fasting, but also for plugging his ears before bed every night.

Year-round, like most urban dwellers in the world's largest Muslim nation that boasts 800,000 mosques, the 22-year-old university student has to contend with the "azan" that begins at dawn and calls worshippers to prayer five times a day.

But during Ramadan the mosques go into overdrive. Their crackling speakers blare out not only the azan, but also calls to worshippers to wake before the pre-dawn sahur breakfast that begins the day-long fast, and Koran recitations that go on almost all day and night.

"It's worse during Ramadan," complained Kusuma, who for the past three years has lived in a rented room only 20 metres (65 feet) from the closest mosque.

In Indonesia, Ramadan -- a time of year when Muslims forgo food, drink and sex between dawn and dusk -- started on July 21. Eid al-Fitr, the feast marking the end of the fasting month, falls on August 19. Dates may vary elsewhere.

But while it is regarded as one of the most spiritual periods in the Islamic calendar, for many it is also the most noisy.

"Most people wake up just before 4:30 am for a quick sahur, but the speakers start calling the people to wake up at 2:30 am," said Kusuma.

"They repeat it many times, along with Koran recitations -- and then comes the azan at dawn," he said.

Kusuma compares the sound to "someone screaming in my ear" and says he usually tries to return home after 9pm when at least the special evening Ramadan prayers are over.

"If it wasn't for ear plugs, I wouldn't get a wink of sleep during all of Ramadan."

With hundreds of thousands of mosques in this nation of 240 million people, most city and town dwellers are accosted every dawn by the intermingling cacophony blaring out of three or four mosques, each broadcasting its own azan.

For some people -- especially non-Muslim foreigners unfamiliar with the routine and naive enough to rent a place without checking the distance from the closest mosque -- it can all be too much.

Two years ago, an American running a guesthouse near a mosque on the tourist island of Lombok snapped during a prayer reading and yanked the wire connecting the speaker. He was sentenced to five months in jail for blasphemy.

Anita Rizki, a 22-year-old secretary at a private hospital in Jakarta, said the mosques were bad enough throughout the year, but became impossible during Ramadan, which is one of the five pillars of Islam.
"I feel guilty for my non-Muslim neighbours, because the noises keep them up all night," said Rizki, who lives 100-metres from a large mosque.

"People have different faiths. Our devotion doesn't need to be broadcast through a loudspeaker. It only shows a lack of religious tolerance."

According to ear specialist Ronny Suwento, "the noise level can reach dangerous decibels for those who live very close to mosques, and that can cause hearing loss over time."

Historically, the prayer leader at a mosque would climb the minaret and deliver the call to prayer without amplification.

Kusuma, the university student, said he believed that mosque loudspeakers are outdated.

"It doesn't work at all in our times. Thanks to technology, we can now even download an alarm which plays the prayer call at its designated time."

Mosques are still governed by regulations from the religious affairs ministry that are more than three decades old. The 1978 directives allow the use of loudspeakers for calls to prayer, Koran recitations as well as sermons and religious gatherings.

Earlier this year, Vice President Boediono called on mosques to tone down their noise and asked religious authorities for new guidelines on the use of loudspeakers.

"The soft sounds of azan heard faintly at a distance resonate more strongly and reach deeper into the heart than those that are loud, scratchy and too close to our ears," he said in April.

Boediono's remarks received mixed reactions, with some people berating him for saying that prayers to Allah should be toned down, and others praising his bravery for speaking out on a sensitive topic. But his comments encouraged others to speak up.

Before the beginning of Ramadan earlier this month, a governor in central Kalimantan province asked local mosques to refrain from having their soundsystems working overtime.

"Don't use loudspeakers when reciting the Koran. Take pity on people of different faiths who want to rest," local media quoted Achmad Diran as saying.

But Nasir Zubaidi, deputy secretary-general of the Indonesia Ulema Council that is the nation's top Islamic body, said that mosque loudspeakers were important, especially to women at home.

"It's good to use loudspeakers to broadcast Islamic sermons. Women at home can listen while they are cooking so that they will eventually become enlightened."

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Being A Muslim Today: Who Is The Momin And Who Is The Kafir?

Asif Merchant, New Age Islam

All over the world, it is as if, only the Muslims keep trying to assert their religious identity at every stage. Even the world is divided into only two parts. A country can be ‘Dar ul Harb’ (Abode of war) or ‘Dar ul Islam’ (Abode of Islam or peace). How realistic is this? Can Pakistan be called an ‘abode of Islam or peace’, a Dar ul Islam?  Which Muslim country can qualify as a Dar ul Islam?  Are there other countries which would qualify, but cannot because they are non-Muslim majority countries? Our people should stop this hypocrisy. We should see through these attempts to communalise every issue into Muslim versus non-Muslim. Such ideas have contributed to disruption of peace the world over, and so can be said to be anti-Islamic.

When the Shah was ruling Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini had to leave the country for his own safety. There are many Muslim countries in the world, but he chose to go to France, a Dar ul Harb? Is it because most of the Western countries provided peace and security even when they disagreed with him? Till the events of September 2001, the Western countries were a haven of peace for all Muslims. Dar ul Islam? A region where one’s creativity could be fully explored and developed.

After that, when so many Muslims claimed credit for the events of 9/11 as proof of the greatness of Islam, it is natural that all over the world, even innocent Muslims have been treated with suspicion. All sorts of violent deeds are being committed in the name of Islam. For years, there was very little condemnation of this by Muslim commentators. Finally there came a ‘Fatwa’ that terrorism is un-Islamic. How shameful that a Fatwa is needed to state the obvious. Even more shameful was the patronising way with which non-Muslims applauded it. How low have we fallen?

It is being drilled into Muslims that Islam is incompatible with Democracy. The reasoning given is that in a Democracy, sovereignty is with the people, whereas Islam recognises only the sovereignty of God. Hence Democracy has no place in Islam. The question arises, “How is the sovereignty of God exercised”? Obviously through some humans, but who? Is this an attempt to have rule by the Ulema? Which country ruled by this so-called ‘sovereignty of God’ is an example to emulate?

In practically every legitimate field, Muslims are far behind everyone else. The Sachar Committee report bears this out. So we look for the government to lift us up. All this, while there is so much money with Muslims.  There is plenty of money with Muslims, but the culture of philanthropy is absent. An example is the Konkan coast of Maharashtra, in which there are many Muslim families. Practically every family has someone working in the Gulf. A lot of money is earned there and sent back home. How is it spent? It is spent in trying to purchase a place in Heaven. Mosques are constructed all over. Each one more luxurious than the other. However, there are no schools. Children have to be sent to one of the boarding schools of Panchgani.  There are no hospitals. The sick have to be brought all the way across the Mahabaleshwar hill down to Wai, which has decent Medical facilities. In Wai, there is a fairly large Muslim population, but not a single Muslim doctor. The only Muslim lawyers are from an earlier generation.

Muslims have definitely been led astray. Surely this is not what the Holy Prophet visualised. Now the emphasis among Muslims is on various rituals that will ensure a place in Heaven. Totally self-centred. The so-called ‘Pillars of Islam’ do not contribute in any way to the civilisational development of mankind, which was the Prophet’s mission.

Contrast this with the Hindus, who, many Muslims look down upon. A few years ago, my sister was admitted to a hospital. Every morning during the Ganpathi season, there would be a pooja conducted by the doctor. He would end with a prayer for all humanity. Our property had been bought by a Hindu family. They held a ‘Havan’ there and invited us. Muslims generally avoid having non-Muslims for their functions. I attended, and was even invited to sit with them for a while during the pooja. Here, each Sanskrit ‘shloka’ was followed by a Gujarati translation. This also ended with a prayer for all humanity.

Who is the ‘Momin’ and who is the ‘Kafir’?

Asif Merchant is an independent thinker, based near Panchgani, Maharashtra, India He writes an occasional column for New Age Islam.