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Demonetisation: The objective of accountability behind the ordinance extinguishing old notes

What was the agenda behind the cabinet approval for promulgating of an ordinance extinguishing the Reserve Bank of India’s liability for cancelled Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes? Was it a mere fulfilment of legal formality so as to prevent chances of someone claiming his right to encash disbanded notes on the basis of a promise to pay the bearer? If it was to fulfil only mere legal formalities, then the obvious question will be on what basis circulation of these very currency notes were made illegal with effect from 8 November midnight? Being a layman in legal matters, I leave it to the concerned experts to ponder over it.

Representational image. PTI

Representational image. PTI

What else could be the motive behind the move now? Out of Rs 15.4 lakh crore scrapped currency notes, already Rs 14 lakh crore, which is a whopping 90.9 percent, have already come back to the banking system. By any standard, the current step is a major success, one aimed at making unaccounted income accountable. This is a clear indication of the grip of the incumbent government. It also indicates how seriously people take decisions initiated by the prime minister.

Assuming that still around Rs 1 lakh crore do not get accounted, nobody would have shown guts to claim its value merely on the basis of promise to pay the bearer. That would have remained as mere pieces of paper. At the most, these scrapped notes would have got the honour of getting exhibited under palliate clubs. Anyway, the government’s treasury would have got enriched by an amount equivalent to unclaimed part of scrapped currency notes which may not be more than five percent of the scrapped notes.

What could be the hidden agenda? What would be implications of the ordinance? It definitely reflects determination of the prime minister to tackle menace of black money for which he was given mandate by the people. Among those who declared their income, there will be those who end up paying penalty for not filing returns on time. At the most, their social image may get tarnished. But they don’t have alternate escape route under the determined government.

Who are these persons who don’t mind their ill-gotten wealth getting drained away? Obviously, these are the persons who simply cannot afford to declare their income and pay penalty as other simpletons have done. In this case, resolving of one problem means getting trapped into a much more dangerous web. How can corrupt politicians and bureaucrats declare black money and get away by simply paying penalty? Instead of resolving the problem, it would lead them into a deeper trap. It would automatically lead to investigation about sources of their income. They would end up accepting bribe which means likely end of their career and jail term.

It also has to do with nature of the person called Narendra Modi. Once he takes initiative to reach the target, he is known for trying to achieve it at any cost and go forward with the killing spirit. Perhaps the prime minister is determined to clean up the entire political spectrum and government machinery without sparing anybody. In the process, he may have to sacrifice many of his own colleagues apart from taking on political opponents. No doubt, it is really a bold step. It looks like the prime minister is aware of tremendous risk involved. His real support and strength in this fight against black money is from common men. Despite facing hardship of standing in queues for hours together, they still stand by the Prime Minister. In fact, the measure initiated by the prime minister to tackle black money has become a true people’s movement today. Any movement blessed by people is bound to be a success despite numerous hurdles.

(Dr Jagadish Shettigar is a former member of Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council and currently, Economics Professor at Birla Institute of Management Technology, Greater Noida.)

First Published On : Dec 31, 2016 17:25 IST

Newsroom diaries 2016: From Kashmir to Syria, a year in terror

Editor’s note: This article is part of a series of newsroom diaries by various members of the Firstpost team. These diaries will provide you with the journalist’s recollections of a particular bit of news coverage in 2016 in which she/he was deeply involved.

In 2001 the world saw the devastating 9/11 attack, with awe and shock. That moment changed everything. We became a more scared group of people. Abandoned bags and clothing choices made us scared. This situation grew worse in 2016, for this year, we got normalised to terror attacks.

It was 2 January and a group of terrorists attacked an airbase in Pathankot, killing 8 people. This set the tone for the rest of the year and it was all downhill from there on.

The year saw some of the most incredulous attacks by Islamic State or IS-inspired terrorists. This included the Brussels airport attack where a coordinated attack by suicide bombers killed 32 people. Then was the Nice attack where a cargo truck was deliberately driven into a group of people on Bastille Day killing 86 and injuring 434. In December, the Syrian conflict had one of the worst repercussion beyond its borders with the assassination of Russia’s ambassador to Turkey in Ankara. A 22-year-old Turkish gunman Andrey Karlov shot dead the 62-year-old diplomat in what appeared to be revenge for Russia’s part in the violence in Syria.

Russia’s ambassador to Turkey was assassinated in Ankara at an art exhibit by a lone Turkish gunman shouting “God is great!” and “don’t forget Aleppo, don’t forget Syria!”. The assassination was photographed and it presented one of the most chilling moments in 2016.

An unnamed gunman shouts after shooting the Russian Ambassador to Turkey, Andrei Karlov, at a photo gallery in Ankara. APAn unnamed gunman shouts after shooting the Russian Ambassador to Turkey, Andrei Karlov, at a photo gallery in Ankara. AP

An unnamed gunman shouts after shooting the Russian Ambassador to Turkey, Andrei Karlov, at a photo gallery in Ankara. AP

The frequency of terror attacks in 2016 was so great that changing the Facebook display pictures became a daily activity for people who sympathised with the victims of these attacks. There were regular fights on social media over the media coverage allotted to a particular attack. The logic was that when a western country was attacked, people noticed, as opposed to when the middle-eastern belt or Asian and African belt was hit. This is probably why 2016 remained etched in people’s memories, for the rise in hits on the European civilisation.

United States suffered the worst attack since 9/11

People take part in a protest against police brutality and in support of Black Lives Matter during a march in New York. ReutersPeople take part in a protest against police brutality and in support of Black Lives Matter during a march in New York. Reuters

People take part in a protest against police brutality and in support of Black Lives Matter during a march in New York. Reuters

This year, the United States suffered under attacks of gun-violence, fundamentalism and racial tension. The ‘Orlando terror attack’ where a 29-year-old Islamic State-inspired radical entered a gay nightclub and killed 49 people, was perhaps the biggest attack on the LGBTQ community. A hate-crime like this one spoke volumes about the rise of intolerance in a Trumpian era. The Orlando attack was the second major terror attack on the US soil since 9/11 and this reign of terror was further fuelled when the major movement for equality — Black Lives Matter — turned violent after the death of police officers during the protest rallies in Dallas and Baton Rouge.

Tentions escalate between India and Pakistan

Representational image. ReutersRepresentational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

In 2016, there was palpable tension between India and Pakistan and one of the possible reasons was how the year started for the two nations. In January, the Pathankot attack happened and it was the beginning of the signs of mistrust between the two nations. On 8 November, when news about PM Modi’s address to the nation came in, we all thought he was going to announce something in relation to taking strong action against Pakistan.

This notion was not unfounded. For 20 minutes between the announcement of address and the actual address, theories about war were floating on the desk. This was because a month ago, on 29 September, a military confrontation between India and Pakistan began. India claimed that it had conducted “surgical strikes” against militant launch pads across the Line of Control in Pakistani-administered Azad Kashmir, and inflicted “significant casualties”. This was touted as Modi’s surgical strike against Pakistan and was instigated by the 19 September Uri attack where 17 Indian soldiers were killed. The Uri attack was reported as “the deadliest attack on security forces in Kashmir in two decades”

The number of ceasefire violations had increased manifold since then. Out of the total number of 151 ceasefire violations in 2016, 110 of them happened since September.

The palpable tension between the two nations put everyone on edge.

The normalcy of terror attacks hit a raw nerve

There wasn’t just one moment or one incident which affected me the most this year. The normalcy of the situation hit a raw note. “What terror attack are we covering today,” was a frequently heard adage on the desk. The clinical process on the desk when one of these strikes happened was: prep the live blog, write the death toll copies, write analysis copies, do reaction copy, etc. Everybody got the hang of this process after the first few attacks.

However, the efficiency of the desk meant that too many of these attacks had happened and too many people had lost their lives. 2016 had ushered in a new era of normalcy.

First Published On : Dec 31, 2016 09:24 IST

Newsroom diaries 2016: Marathwada, elections, Olympics, demonetisation and how we covered them

This past week Facebook has resounded with plangent laments about the year that will not end.

Most timelines are lengthy dirges punctuated with cries of cashlessness, Aleppolessness, musiclessness and Baracklessness. Annus horribilis is the Latinate of choice.

There hasn’t been a better year for journalism in recent history. The sordidness of 2016 has presented our estate with sufficient opportunities to peel open and consider the human condition. It has allowed us to recount such stories that newsmen and women don’t often get to tell. This is especially true for a band of journalists relaying reports, opinion and analysis from a newsroom freed of the constraints that tie down a print publication — no curbs on article length, supporting media, revisions and improvements, narrative possibilities, and so on.

Firstpost is one such outfit.

The Firstpost newsroomThe Firstpost newsroom

The Firstpost newsroom

Four stories we’ve reported in the past year should serve to showcase the breadth of material (and digital reporting opportunities) 2016 has provided the Firstpost newsroom.

The first came early when a visiting former chief minister of Maharashtra told us of the seriousness of drought conditions in Marathwada. We dispatched three writers to the region, each equipped with a small camera — none had used one in the course of reporting — to record the extent of damage. The series that resulted from their month-long journey, encrusted as it was with rich media, helped set the general course of debate on state intervention and the failure of successive governments in instituting any lasting solutions to address water scarcity in Marathwada.

In preparing for elections held to elect members to five state Assemblies, in May, we resolved to replicate a television newsroom online; in-studio political analysts, an anchor, multiple video and audio feeds from the five states, data visualisation, combined with on-ground reportage, gathered by writers applying — many of them for the first time — the fundamental tenets of print journalism to digital storytelling methods.

Soon after, the sports desk — frugally peopled — came up against the Rio Olympics, which afforded them the chance to run one of the lengthiest live blogs Firstpost has operated thus far, spanning 16 days, book-ended by the two ceremonies at the Maracana Stadium.

The fourth story is a biphonic texture of two stories that occurred almost simultaneously, over the course of 24 hours, beginning 8 November: Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s surprise announcement that 86 percent of currency in circulation would be rendered invalid in 50 days‘ time, and an election in the US that advanced the likelihood of an orange-haired real estate huckster with tenuous grasp of policy occupying the Oval Room.

Both offered Firstpost the occasion to set off a lengthy, live, accretive discourse drawn from analysis that combined text, video and audio; we hadn’t embedded such a large volume of fragmentary opinion pieces in live blogs until then. The election allowed us to build on what we’d learnt in May — we ran an eight-hour broadcast on the website, with commentators weighing in live from Toronto, New Orleans, New York, Delhi, Dubai and Mumbai.

And from all accounts, those last two stories have yet to coil themselves to a close.

The fading days of 2016 could well serve as prologue for the year before us.

A newsroom is made not by the technology or resources at its disposal, but by those who inhabit it. For a more personalised view on the experiences of various members of the Firstpost newsroom while covering specific stories, check out the following accounts:

First Published On : Dec 31, 2016 08:51 IST

Demonetisation Day 50: Why Arun Jaitley is wrong in painting a rosy picture of economy

Union finance minister Arun Jaitley is a good communicator. Well articulate and sophisticated in his arguments to convincingly present a case to any audience. On Thursday, Jaitley demonstrated this ability yet again when he listed out the gains of demonetisation to the economy citing data to say why the critics of note ban are wrong. Following is the main points Jaitley made in his address yesterday.

In all the categories (of indirect tax) till 30 November, there has been a significant increase in tax collection. Till 19 December, direct tax mop-up rose 14.4 percent, indirect tax grew 26.2 per cent, central excise is up 43.3 percent percent and service tax by 25.7 percent, Jaitley said.

Secondly, life insurance and mutual fund sales, tourist arrivals and fuel consumption have gone up. The flow into mutual funds was increased by 11 percent. “Assessment can be unreal but revenue is real,” the FM said.

Finance Minister Arun Jaitley. PTIFinance Minister Arun Jaitley. PTI

Finance Minister Arun Jaitley. PTI

Jaitley is missing the point here or is simply being selective in choosing his data to assess the impact of demonetisation over the last 50 days.

First of all, the above sets of numbers do not reflect the segment that has been hit badly by the demonetisation — the small traders/ service providers and those in informal economy.

Small traders with annual turnover less than Rs 1.5 crore and service sector with turnover of less than Rs 10 lakhs are not reflected in the indirect tax net. If one talks about impact on account of demonetisation, shouldn’t the segments that got hit most be factored in first?

Second, November typically shows a spike due to festive season. This will reflect in the indirect tax numbers too, including the excise duty. The full impact of the demonetisation will come with a lag.

Already there has been a slowdown in indirect tax collection in November, when the kitty swelled by 21.8 percent as against 34.6 percent in October. Similarly, growth in excise duty collection declined to 31.8 percent in November against 40.9 percent in October. Now , look at the monthly data on service tax. The growth in November slipped to 13.3 percent from 66.5 percent in October. (see the table below).

indirect tax collection table - Dec 30, 2016indirect tax collection table - Dec 30, 2016Third, the sudden spike in fuel consumption at a time when the overall economic activities are slow is dubious. Part of the reason could be that black money hoarders were smartly using the government-permitted window to dump the old notes in petrol pumps.

Fourth, FM Jaitley ignored the pessimistic GDP forecasts from various forecasters, including that from the Reserve Bank of India, which has lowered the full year forecast to 7.1 percent from 7.6 percent even while stating that it hasn’t fully taken into account the full impact of the demonetisation resulted cash crunch. Private forecasters are even more pessimistic.

Fifth, the spike in mutual funds and insurance premiums isn’t a good set of data while discussing the impact of demonetisation. According to the Insurance Regulatory and Development Authority of India’s (IRDA) 2015-16 annual report data, the life insurance penetration in India is 2.72 percent. Similarly, as a share of GDP, mutual fund penetration in India is still around 7 percent. The section of the population in the cash economy who are affected by the demonetisation has nothing to do with spike in life insurance premiums and mutual funds. Also shouldn’t the spike in insurance premiums also take into account the digital incentives rolled out by the government?

Sixth, Jaitley was also silent about the number of jobs lost in the informal sector post demonetisation. There is no official estimate for this. But, various estimates say about 4 lakh jobs could be lost due to the note ban.

According to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), unemployment rates rose to 6.1 percent in the week of 4 December and further to 6.6 percent in the week ended 11 December and then to 7 percent in the week ended 18 December. The impact comes with a lag and we need to wait for fresh numbers. The full impact of the demonetisation resulted cash crunch will only unfold in the next few months. If the cash crunch prolongs, things can get worse .

Seventh, Jaitley missed crucial indicators such as PMI data when assessing the economic situation. The consumption story has taken a hit. The services sector PMI sharply fell to 46.7 in November from 54.5 in October — that is the biggest monthly drop since November 2008, just two months after the global financial crisis hit the economy following the US investment bank Lehman Brothers going bust in September. The manufacturing PMI too fell with the index shrinking to 52.3 in November from October’s 22-month high of 54.4. These signals are hard to ignore. Here again, one need to wait for further data.

The bottomline is this: Full impact of demonetisation on economy will be visible only with a lag. May be next few months should offer more clarity. What FM Jaitley has done is presenting selective set of data and use that to prove demonetisation critics wrong and, finally, conclude that demonetisation has helped the economy in 50-days. This is too early an assessment and an incorrect presentation.

(Kishor Kadam contributed to this story)

First Published On : Dec 30, 2016 15:30 IST

Can Viral Acharya, RBI’s new deputy governor solve Mint Street’s communication block?

It’s been only a few hours since his name was announced as the new deputy governor of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) in charge of monetary policy, but Viral Acharya is already a star. Media reports describe him as ‘Poor man’s Rajan’, picking the phrase from one of his old interviews, while some wrote about how the cricketer, singer and poet Acharya also has a music album to his credit.

The newfound stardom and fanfare accompanying Acharya in Indian media reminds one the initial days of Raghuram Rajan, former RBI governor, who was often called as a ‘rock star’ governor of Mint Street and James Bond who’s put the “sex” back into the Sensex’. At 42, Acharya, is the youngest deputy governor of the RBI. One needn’t be surprised if he morphs into a ‘junior rock star’ in media.

Viral Acharya - RBI Deputy Governor. Image courtesy - NYU-Stern.Viral Acharya - RBI Deputy Governor. Image courtesy - NYU-Stern.

Viral Acharya – RBI Deputy Governor. Image courtesy – NYU-Stern.

But once the welcome party is over, there is a trial by fire awaiting Acharya, who is entering the RBI at a time when the economy is fighting a self-imposed demonetisation crisis and the central bank itself is fighting a major trust deficit and credibility crisis, due to the way it has handled the Modi government’s decision on the evening of 8 November to demonetise Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 currency notes.

Acharya needs to hit the ground running making the RBI’s voice heard in the monetary policy committee (MPC) on the course of interest rates in a challenging economic scenario. Since there is already an MPC with experts in place, Acharya’s task wouldn’t be too tough as in the old days when the monetary policy was solely the central bank’s responsibility.

Nevertheless, there is likely to be pressure from the ruling political dispensation for steeper rate cuts in the backdrop of a sharp decline in economic growth due to the demonetisation-induced cash crunch.

The RBI itself has lowered the GDP forecast for the fiscal year 2017 to 7.1 percent from 7.6 per cent while forecasters have gone even more pessimistic forecasts (one even predicted 3.5 percent for current year).

Acharya isn’t a big fan of ultra-loose monetary policies though. He believes such a policy stance ,when introduced in a weak banking system, can turn out to be disastrous. In an interview given to Bloomberg Quint, Acharya had said, “We are yet struggling to figure out what the global economies are from the ultra-loose monetary policy. Whereas, now we are seeing emerging evidence of the unintended consequences that these policies have had. So, the biggest problem that I worry with low interest rates is when parts of your banking sectors aren’t healthy; it’s a recipe for disaster.” This was in the global context, but applies to India as well.

On the bad loan issue, one of the big headaches for India’s policymakers, Acharya had made two important remarks in the same interview.

First, to hive off bad loans into a separate entity. Acharya had said that Indian banking system need to create a bad-loan bank to separate the good assets from the bad. “I am absolutely proposing, either explicitly or implicitly, that we separate the unhealthy parts of the troubled banks from the healthy parts,” Acharya said.

Secondly, he warned that taking profit from the RBI and using it for the recapitalisation of state-run banks is a solution to the capital problems of India’s PSU banks.

“I don’t think half-baked solutions like taking the RBI’s profits and putting them into public sector banks is the way to go. I think that is just like putting on a band aid and actually it’s a pretty bad band aid in my opinion, because it, kind of, distances the fiscal authority from the monetary, it reduces the distance of the two. It, kind of, almost says that central bank should generate profit because you have to recapitalise the public sector. Everything smells wrong about it.”

Interestingly, one of the thought processes within the Modi government when it announced demonetisation was that the exercise will create some fiscal boost in the form of a ‘windfall’ profit from the RBI when its currency liability goes down.

The idea didn’t work since most of the money demonetised returned to the banking system and RBI governor Urjit Patel clarified that there is no such plan to transfer a one-time surplus to the government on the cards. India’s PSU banks are reeling under heavy bad-loan burden (totalling Rs 6 lakh crore as on September) and need huge capital to meet their Basel-III credit requirements, credit expansion needs and bad loan provisioning.

In a research paper co-authored with Krishnamurthy V. Subramanian of Indian School of Business — State intervention in banking: the relative health of Indian public sector and private sector bank — Acharya had said that many of the problems faced by Indian public sector banks are due to their lack of efficient human resources (he cited the P J Nayak committee report here), their inability to adapt to a rapidly changing technology and the issue of dual regulation of these banks by both the RBI and finance ministry. In the paper, Acharya strongly advocated that in the due course some of the public sector banks will have to by privatised.

“Over the long run, some of the public sector banks can be privatised or their assets reallocated. Some of them could be acquired by the relatively well-capitalised private sector firms; the ones with worst asset quality could be wound down; and, greater entry of smaller and newer banks can be enabled to yet maintain healthy levels of competition,” Acharya said.

As Patel’s deputy in charge of monetary policy, there is no clarity whether Acharya will have a say in the bad loan resolution issue. But, if he continues to argue for some of the above recommendations in the past, he may run into trouble with the government, especially on the issue of using RBI profit to recapitalise state-run banks.

But, beyond these two issues — monetary policy and banking sector NPAs — what one needs to watch is whether Acharya can offer a solution to the communication block the Reserve Bank is suffering ever since Patel took over as RBI governor. Over the years, especially during the tenure of Raghuram Rajan, the RBI has taken serious efforts to improve the central bank’s communication to the public also using public engagements of the RBI top brass to converse and clarify key policy decisions with various stakeholders. This was done with the assessment that effective communication is equally critical for a central bank as much as taking policy decisions.

But, arguably, the RBI under Patel has been a failure to carry forward this effort, especially during the demonetisation rollout. Former RBI deputy governor, Usha Thorat, in a column in The Indian Express, criticised the RBI for not communicating to the desired extent on certain critical aspects of demonetisation. “The RBI top management must communicate more through the media and speaking opportunities. This is necessary in the interest of transparency and credibility. It generates confidence that the RBI believes in honest communication,” Thorat said. Governor Patel’s prolonged silence since 8 November, despite uncertainty on cash crunch gripping the public, had attracted strong criticism.

Can Acharya, an articulate academic, fill the void of the effective communicator in the central bank? “Perhaps he can,” said Gaurav Kapur, an independent economist. “ Not just on the demonetisation issue, but on other policy decisions as well. Acharya can be the person to communicate the RBI’s policy decisions more effectively, which was largely missing during the demonetisation episode,” Kapur said.

Over to you Mr Acharya.

First Published On : Dec 29, 2016 12:38 IST

If Narendra Modi’s demonetisation drive isn’t successful, it’s down to our cynicism

It’s misplaced, but it exists. We have this inordinate cynicism about the removal of corruption. With the central government’s demonetisation drive about to complete its second anniversary next month, the army of doom and gloom is increasing its numbers.

We hear people saying Prime Minister Narendra Modi cannot eliminate corruption, and how his whole exercise is not worth a spit in the wind, because the crooks and the charlatans, the hundis and the hawalas, the gangsters and the hoarders will all be back collecting bribes in a couple of months, just wait and see.

The “wait and see” is said with a certain ill-concealed glee, as if we would be disappointed in case the fruits from the poisoned tree were actually squashed.

Narendra Modi. AFPNarendra Modi. AFP

Narendra Modi. AFP

I am not pro-Modi or anti-Modi, but I have just been thinking, what the heck, why are so many of us detracting from the herculean effort? No one else ever did it.

Though there are many hiccups and flaws, and we can point to all of them and exult in the mess, the fact is that the man has gone out on a limb and done something. Look at it this way: World War II lasted five years; many a battle was lost before the Allies pushed the Axis powers into a corner; many strategies were changed mid-way, campaigns reworked, troops repositioned. Nothing happened according to some preordained master plan.

Often they bumbled along, hoping for a break. England was one night away from considering surrender after the brutal Battle of Britain, Rommel thought his Afrika Korps would singlehandedly destroy the Allies, Japan blasted Pearl Harbor and let the US into a war it did not want to enter.

Modi too is at war. In a way, all of us are the troops. It is a massive undertaking and he needn’t have done it at all. But he has set the ball rolling and it is gathering speed.

That his PR machinery is weak and rickety and totally eclipsed by the mainstream media is a tragedy. Large sections of this mainstream media has found comfort in projecting Modi’s mission as having failed. If the prime minister has failed at anything, it’s in his inability to share the message effectively with the public. When you do something so drastic, you don’t put timelines on it. That was the one big mistake, because it was easily exploitable. Every time a correction has been made or a deadline reworked, we have screamed foul and mocked this as evidence of the BJP frontline groping in the dark.

“They do not know what they are doing, they have changed the deadline again!” This is now a mantra.

No one second guessed when the Vietnam War would end. Nobody in 1971 said we will have Pakistan surrender in the East by 16 December.

But we are doing the death dance over the 31 December deadline and getting all pointy fingered again.

Be fair. Public suffering and long queues have reduced; the discomfort is abating. Even at the worst of times, Indian resilience kicked in and the poor whose suffering has been sculpted into a sledgehammer hung in there. The anger that we, the media, showcase is only triggered by our highlighting scuffles. If things were indeed that bad, there would have been riots across the board.

The public took it on the chin; they are nowhere near being stirred into a rebellion, so lets not exaggerate their rage.

Point two: Millions of jobs have been lost. Really? Greedy bosses may have closed down their small scale and cottage industries and not paid their labour force by shrugging and claiming no cash, but they are going to open doors again and the slack will be pulled in because now that the cash flow has commenced, there is no cause to shut the companies. So, millions of jobs are not lost, just temporarily frozen.

Finally, point three: The filthy rich are happy bunnies. They have escaped the net. Not true. They may not confess it or even show it, but the underground is hurt, mortally hurt. The rich have been slapped in the fiscal face. This money did not fall from the skies, it belonged to someone who had concealed it. Hidden wealth has been discovered, so let’s not make it less than it is.

Oh, these guys are so smart they will make it again? Fine, let them start from zero, and if you want the truth, they can get going if you and I let them get going. If we become customers to the corrupt, what price on Modi or anyone else winning the war?

He will lose. Thanks to us.

Like I said, why are so many of us so confident that corruption is in our DNA and why do we speak of it with such misplaced pride.

First Published On : Dec 28, 2016 17:54 IST

Demonetisation: Urjit Patel must come out of Modi’s shadow to arrest RBI’s unmaking

Demonetisation has shown its many faces to various stakeholders since 8 November. A bold, high-risk reform experiment for the Narendra Modi-government, a big learning for 125 crore Indians on what a disruptive reform actually means to their daily lives and, finally, a trial by fire for the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) that is now fighting to save its image and credibility. The demonetisation episode has inflicted severe damage to RBI’s integrity–something that hasn’t happened in the past even when the central bank had to walk a tight rope through multiple economic crises that originated both in India and abroad.

As Usha Thorat, a former Reserve Bank of India (RBI) deputy governor writes in her Op-ed for Indian Express: “There have been times when the Old Lady of Mint Street was criticised for being too conservative and cautious — for not being able to keep up with innovation and markets — never has she been accused of not knowing her job. Never has she been the butt of as many jokes as in the last few days.”

RBI Governor Urjit Patel. PTIRBI Governor Urjit Patel. PTI

RBI Governor Urjit Patel. PTI

Thorat is probably the only voice, so far, among former RBI top brass to speak up openly on the issue of RBI’s eroding credibility. As far as the demonetisation issue is concerned, the RBI has been in a sad state clearly overshadowed by the Modi-government in all respects.

Beginning with the decision-making, the roll out and repeated U-turns on rules, all along it appeared that the North Block is in command, rather than Mint Street, when 86 percent of the currency in the country was scrapped in one go by PM Modi in a televised statement. The RBI has remained on the sidelines since then.

The RBI, one of the most reputed institutions in the country, known for its credibility and independence (operational) is now reduced to an object of jokes on social media. Thorat acknowledges this in her Op-ed when she wrote, “it is indeed a sad day to see one of the most respected public institutions in India becoming an object of ridicule and scorn”.

It appears that the RBI remains clueless at a time the common man is exposed to such massive disruption in his daily life as a result of an executive decision, making it largely inaccessible for him to draw his own money on account of curbs.

What was the turning point? Demonetisation has probably been only a trigger to expose the change in the working style of the central bank post the Raghuram Rajan era. The RBI leadership under Urjit Patel has so far been a near-failure to carry forward the virtues the central bank has guarded over several decades. There have been major shortcomings on many accounts, some of which Thorat has mentioned in her piece.

These can be summarised mainly into two issues — lack of transparency and absence of effective communication.

Beginning late evening of 8 November, government functionaries have dominated the demonetisation scene with the RBI largely reduced to an agency whose job is to only notify what is already there in public domain. At a time when the common man was gripped with panic seeing closed ATMs/ bank branches, long queues (which continues to an extent even now) and uncertainty regarding how long the cash crunch situation will continue, the RBI should have addressed the public to calm nerves and offer firm guidance, but Patel chose to remain silent for a long time. About 60-circulars in just one month of demonetisation doesn’t give a sense to the public that the RBI had any plan or conviction about the demonetisation rollout.

Thorat talks about the pressing need for more transparency and effective communication in RBI’s functioning. “The RBI top management must communicate more through the media and speaking opportunities. This is necessary in the interest of transparency and credibility. It generates confidence that the RBI believes in honest communication.”

Further, the former deputy governor tells RBI management. “Be transparent. It is good that the RBI has started giving some information on the notes issued and deposited periodically. Doubts have been expressed on the double counting of old notes returned to the RBI. There are press reports that the data furnished by the RBI on notes issued between December 10 and December 19 do not tally between the pieces and values. Data on notes returned to the RBI after December 12 has not been officially released — this is generating enormous speculation whether the notes returned exceed the notes issued.”

Transparency has been an issue all along.  This was true for the timely availability of information on the amount of old currency deposits returned to the banking system or regarding the break-up of the new Rs 500, Rs 2,000 denominations infused.  As far as the total chunk of currency infused, the last available data is as on 10 December, which was released on 13 December. According to this, banks have garnered Rs 12.44 trillion (Rs 12.44 lakh crore) in banned notes till 10 December, while they have issued Rs 4.61 trillion.

According to Thorat, “The RBI would do well to release every week, say, every Monday, data on the notes issued, denomination and value-wise, as also on old notes returned, to set all speculation to rest.”

There are two other instances worth mentioning that gives clues on a break from the past in the central bank’s mode of functioning and preparedness. One is RBI’s decision (read the Firstpost column here to not invite a number of journalists for the policy presser, the first after the Modi-government announced demonetisation. The second is its major flip-flop on the decision to cap deposits in old currency at Rs 5,000, which was later withdrawn due to public anger.  On 19 December, the RBI issued a notification imposing restrictions which it had originally promised time till 30 December (as also the Prime Minister) to accept old currency deposits without any limit.  “Could it (the RBI) not have refrained from issuing the circular of December 19 that clearly went against earlier assurances and had to be rescinded immediately?,” Thorat asks.

It is unfortunate to see an institution of RBI’s repute, which is regarded as one of the best central banks in the world, fighting a trust deficit of this magnitude. The loss of central bank’s credibility will have disastrous impact on Indian economy and lead to bigger problems. There is an immense responsibility on governor Patel, whose credentials for the role at RBI are second to none, to get his act together and take control of the situation, thus regaining the lost image of India’s central bank.

Here, Patel would do well to pay heed to Thorat’s caution.

First Published On : Dec 28, 2016 13:50 IST

Aamir Khan wins Dangal: Jingoism loses to Indians who don’t tolerate intolerance

It doesn’t need a genius to know who won the Dangal between Aamir Khan and the trolls who wanted his film boycotted. Numbers speak for themselves: In only the first three days, the film has grossed Rs 100 crore and become the year’s biggest hit after Sultan.

The impact of the film could be compared to Geeta Phogat’s dhobi paat — when the rival is lifted, swung in the air and then slammed like wet cloth on the mat — on those who wanted to teach the actor a lesson by boycotting the film. Hopefully, they will have realised that India doesn’t tolerate such intolerance.

Nobody would have missed the irony of Dangal. In a theatre where we watched the film first-day-first-show — the standard response to any call for a ban or boycott — the loudest cheers and slogans (some actually chanted Bharat Mata ki Jai) are triggered by the camera panning to Aamir’s face as the National Anthem is played in the climactic moments of the film.

Jana Gana Mana, courtesy the Supreme Court’s decision — is played twice in the film. Before the film’s beginning, when the National Anthem is played, it is seen merely as a duty imposed on an audience that needs to learn the virtues of nationalism and patriotism. But, when it coincides with Aamir’s triumph and elation, the audience reacts spontaneously, stands up in rapt attention, exults with both pride and joy felt by Aamir. In those few seconds alone, the pseudo-nationalists would have died a million deaths watching an actor they had branded anti-national lead the collective rush of love and respect for the country.

Aamir Khan during the shooting of Dangal.

Aamir Khan during the shooting of Dangal.

But then, this essentially is the real India — liberal, tolerant and patron of cinema that is loyal to just one ideology — entertainment. It is an antithesis to the bias, bigotry and hate peddled on social media by a few in the name of bogus nationalism.

This is not the first Dangal Aamir, and by extension the India he represents, has won. Social media campaigns based on chest-thumping jingoism and barely-concealed religious biases have always been given the dhobi-paat by real India (as against the handful carrying carry out their jihad through keypads).

Aamir’s PK was the biggest hit of 2014 even as the Hindutva brigade railed against it for “targetting and mocking” their religion. Snapdeal, whose boycott was sought by twitter jihadis because of its association with Aamir, grew in the aftermath of the onslaught. On Diwali, Ae Dil Hai Mushkil made pots of money in spite of calls for a ban and boycott. Chinese products continue to fly off the shelves even when keyboard-nationalists fly into a rage.

Why does the boycott brigade often lose the Dangal? The simplest explanation is that they are just an irrelevant fringe that sometimes entertains and sometimes irritates. But nothing more than that. To quote poet Rahat Indori:

Khilaaf hain, to hone do, jaan thori hai,

Ye sab dhuaan hai, koi aasman thori hai

(If they are opposed to you, let them be, they are just smoke, not the sky.)

There are other reasons too. It is difficult to sustain hate for too long. Indians don’t like to be told what to do in the name of various isms. Love for cinema and its stars transcends politics. And, obviously, social media jihadis get exposed and then buried under their own contradictions, like supporting construction of a mammoth statue that costs crore and simultaneously asking others to not spend Rs 200 on Dangal because that money can feed some poor.

Sometimes it is difficult to not pity those seeking a ban or pleading for a boycott. They do it in the name of self-respect, in the name of Hindutva, in the name of patriotism, for the sake of Malda, Bengal, soldiers, to teach Pakistan a lesson…almost anything. Bas, boycott kar de, Baba!

The success of Dangal shows India is indeed large-hearted and charitable. But, it gives its love, respect and, even hard-earned money, only to those who deserve it, not those who demand it as a token of acceptance of their misguided agendas.

Boycott calls, in the end, turn out to be haanikarak for those pleading for it.

First Published On : Dec 26, 2016 14:59 IST

Taimur is to India what Hitler is to Israel: Saif and Kareena, please pay attention

When I first read the following tweet by Karan Johar about Kareena Kapoor and Saif Ali Khan’s newborn son, I was flabbergasted:

This was equivalent to an Israeli Muslim naming his or her son ‘Hitler’.

How could anyone in India name their son after a man who ordered so much bloodshed in India?

Then I thought, perhaps this was just the parents liking the sound of the name and that ‘Saifeena’ did not know of Taimur, the genocidal maniac who not just slaughtered tens of thousands of Hindus in Delhi, but massacred countless Muslims in Iran and Turkey ending up reducing the world’s population by five percent (17 million back then). Not even Hitler came close to being such a marauding hate-mongering symbol of racial and religious fanaticism.

However, Kareena herself quashed the benefit of doubt I gave to the parents. It has been widely reported that in a candid conversation with actor Neha Dhupia, Kareena revealed the background to naming her son Taimur: “Saif is a historian and would want a traditional old school name”.

What this says is that it wasn’t some innocent affection of a nice sounding name that caught papa’s attention, but rather a well-thought out process to name his son equivalent to his own war-like name Saif Ali’ (the sword of Prophet Mohammad’s son-in-law Ali).

Perhaps Saif overlooked the record of Taimur vis-à-vis Hindustan and Delhi, where he ordered the slaughter of 100,000 Hindus in just one night.

DSC_3130

Saif Ali Khan, Kareena Kapoor and the newborn Taimur Ali Khan. Firstpost/Sachin Gokhale

Justin Marozzi, in his 2004 book Tamerlane: Sword of Islam, Conqueror of the world, writes:

The capture of the Delhi Sultanate was one of Timur’s (Taimur) greatest victories, arguably surpassing the likes of Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan because of the harsh conditions of the journey and the achievement of taking down one of the richest cities at the time. After Delhi fell to Timur’s army, uprisings by its citizens against the Turkic-Mongols began to occur, causing a bloody massacre within the city walls. After three days of citizens uprising within Delhi, it was said that the city reeked of the decomposing bodies of its citizens with their heads being erected like structures and the bodies left as food for the birds. Timur’s invasion and destruction of Delhi continued the chaos that was still consuming India, and the city would not be able to recover from the great loss it suffered for almost a century.

Notwithstanding the hatred Taimur had for Indians — Hindus and Muslims alike, the keeping of such warlike names for one’s son is also contrary to the Prophetic traditions of Islam and a betrayal of Mohammad’s guidance to Muslims. The late internationally renowned scholar on Islam and Sufism, Professor Annemarie Schimmel in her book Islamic Names, quotes a saying (hadith) by Prophet Mohammad that among the three obligations a Muslim father has towards his son “to select a good name for him”.

In suggesting a ‘good name’, the Prophet’s pronouncement was directed against ancient Arab custom of calling sons by frightening or harsh names like Harb (War), Sakhr (Rock), Murra (Bitterness). Or, may I add, Taimur (Steel).

Schimmel writes, “As outward signs are supposed to reflect the inner condition, children bearing such (harsh) names were certainly unfortunate, for a beautiful name — so one thought — was also the expression of a beautiful character: Adi guzel tadi guzel (Whose name is nice, his taste is also nice), as the Turkish proverb has it.

Alas, in the Indian subcontinent, Allah’s Islam is pitted against the mullah’s Islam and more often than not, the latter prevails.

Just imagine the outburst of goodwill in India if newborn Taimur Ali Khan had been named Tagore Ali Khan instead

I am told that countless other Indians outraged at the honouring of Taimur by Saif and Kareena have no right to interfere in their personal matters. I’m sorry, but unlike many star-struck Bollywood addicts, I consider critique of public figures, politicians or film stars; priests or princes fair game, especially when they are from my faith and when their actions have consequences on millions more.

This incident is not just about Taimur.

It’s a reflection of a larger ailment in Muslim society inside the Indian sub-continent. Its their comfort level with mass murdering invaders who still believe are their heroes. As one Islamic cleric told me on Zee TV, he considered invaders and marauders like Mahmud Ghaznawi, Muhammad Bin Qasim as his heroes, that he considered the murderous jihadi Mughal emperor Aurangzeb a saint.

As an Indian born in Pakistan and a Punjabi in Islam, I have often scratched my head wondering what is it about the culture and history of Mother India or Hindustan that we Muslims find unworthy of a tight cultural embrace?

What is so offensive about Bharat that hardly any of us in the last 1,000 years has been given a name that reflects this ancient civilisation nurtured by the Indus, Ganga, Narmada and the Brahmaputra rivers and protected by the Himalayas that rise in the West from Balochistan in the Arabian Sea, tower over us in the north across the K2 and the Everest before sweeping down into the Bay of Bengal in the Chittagong Hill Tracts.

Charity, or in this case ignominy begins at home so let me start by my own name ‘Tarek’ and ‘Mahmood’, my brother. Why would our parents give us names of two men who invaded and looted Spain and India?

We could have been named Dara (after Dara Shikoh) and Bulle (after Bulle Shah). A more daring Indian Muslim parents could even have named us Atish and Ashok, but no, both of us and countless other Muslim boys in the Indian subcontinents are given Arab, Afghan, Turkish, Uzbek, or Persian names, but never ever names rooted in Hindustan’s history. Not necessarily with Hinduism, but plain Indian culture.

For instance, there are countless boys names Shams (Sun in Arabic), but hardly any with the Suraj (Sun in Hindi, Punjabi etc). What is it about Shams that is so different from Suraj, I wonder? Could it be that we Muslims of the Indian subcontinent harbour contempt for the very land that gave the Prophet’s progeny sanctuary?

Around the world, Muslims of Indonesia carry Indonesian names; the Turks do too and the Iranians and Kurds as well as the Baloch and Bosnians have distinct names that are not Arab. After all Megawati Sukarnoputri and Brahamdagh Bugti are not lesser Muslim for not wearing Arab names not is Turkey’s Erdogan or Iran’s Dariush Forouhar.

And considering the racism and insults that Muslims from India-Pakistan-Bangladesh suffer at the hands of Arabs in West Asia, it makes the rejection of Bharatiya names by us Muslims even more tragic. Of course it’s the parent’s prerogative to name their children, but if Saif is a historian (as Kareena has claimed) and as a Muslim father, has sought a traditional Muslim name from history, I suggest he follow Allah’s Islam and ensure he does not violate the prophetic guidance in naming names.

How about Mansour? The great medieval Muslim rationalist and Sufi saint Mansour Hallaj who gave his life for standing up for the truth and who is admired universally.

In addition, the name Mansour should be familiar to you, isn’t it Saif? Or how about Tagore Ali Khan, that should ring a bell?

First Published On : Dec 23, 2016 14:10 IST

Demonetisation: Why Narendra Modi won’t have an easy win over India’s penchant for cash

The buzzword now in the post-demonetisation days is cashless economy. A change to ‘less-cash economy’ and then ‘cashless economy’ is the new punch line of Narendra Modi government’s changed demonetisation narrative. It believes in target-based massive disruptions in the social equilibrium to attain quick results, not gradual transition. For this reason, both the government and the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) are pushing the banking system hard to nudge the public to embrace alternative payment modes to cash transactions, mainly using mobile payment platforms and Point of Sale terminals. Is India prepared for this change?

Going by the data available so far, the citizens in metros are willing to try out the new way of payments but the rural Indian isn’t yet ready for an overnight transition to a cashless world. That’s the sense one gets when analyses the RBI studies and other private surveys. According to an SBI research report, though there has been an increase in the volume of card-based transactions post 8 November (When PM Modi announced demonetisation), however the value per transaction has dropped.

It isn’t hard to understand why this has happened.

1) There isn’t enough infrastructure to propel a sudden spurt in digital payment activities.

2) There is a broader impact on consumer demand thanks to a drop in economic activities following the artificial cash-crunch.

3) A good number of people still do not trust the security features accompanying the digital payment instruments.

4) Laws aren’t strong enough in India as in developed countries to support the customer to compensate him for possible financial loss.

5) Despite all the digital India talk, internet and mobile penetration is far inadequate in non-metros to support the connectivity for seamless mobile-based financial transactions. A significant number of India’s 6 lakh odd villages still do not have good mobile, internet connectivity. According to TRAI report, only 15 percent of India’s 1.02 billion wireless subscribers have broadband connection.

A shop assistant uses an eftpos system at a Specialty Fashion Group owned Katies store in Sydney December 11, 2012. Australia is being invaded by a swathe of foreign retailers, piling pressure on a local industry already battered by weak consumer spending and ruthless internet competition. Picture taken December 11, 2012. REUTERS/Tim Wimborne (AUSTRALIA - Tags: BUSINESS FASHION) - RTR3BNKDA shop assistant uses an eftpos system at a Specialty Fashion Group owned Katies store in Sydney December 11, 2012. Australia is being invaded by a swathe of foreign retailers, piling pressure on a local industry already battered by weak consumer spending and ruthless internet competition. Picture taken December 11, 2012. REUTERS/Tim Wimborne (AUSTRALIA - Tags: BUSINESS FASHION) - RTR3BNKD

Reuters

Nevertheless, why there has been an increase in non-cash transactions since demonetisation? This spurt is artificial and a forced one by the government’s decision to pull out 86 percent of the currency in circulation in one go.

It is like saying when you artificially spike the price of vegetables to an unaffordable level to common man, he will start using meat and egg products more. That’s not necessarily because of his sudden love for meat but simply because vegetable isn’t affordable for now. For the same reason, when the veg prices come down again, there is a likelihood of many of these people returning to their old consumption pattern. Even in such a scenario, many vegetarians would rather start eating less than beginning to eat meat.

The current scenario, where the government and banking system is pushing citizens is something similar to this. The current spurt in the volume of non-cash transactions isn’t likely to sustain when the cash-crunch eases, unless there are good reasons (clear incentives) for someone to shift to the new mode. This is something one needs to wait and watch.

The reason for decline in per value transactions could be attributed to combination of factors mentioned above, of which a dip in consumer demand and lack of trust of plastic money transactions. The government’s well-intentioned move to progress the economy to a cashless mode needs more than short-term monetary incentives and lucky draws. These are mere gimmicks that might get only some short-term responses but not lasting results as this Firstpost report points out. The government needs to have a well laid out policy plan for the shift to digital economy that should happen over a period of time by preparing the infrastructure.

As the SBI report points out, India is lagging far behind when it comes to providing adequate infrastructure for cashless transactions. “Additionally, we may require an additional 20 lakh PoS machines. Interestingly, the per value transaction in post demonetization period has declined (though the no of transactions has increased) possibly reflecting less number of PoS machines in the country compared to the demand (India has 15.1 lakh PoS machines),” the report said.

This improvement in banking infrastructure is already happening, albeit in a slower pace, with more financial institutions like payments banks and small finance banks that are technology driven coming to the picture and bank accounts are being made available to hitherto unbanked through Jan Dhan Yojana scheme. Along with this, the banking system should make the customer aware about new mode of payments, instead of forcing someone, who hasn’t even used an ATM so far, to do it overnight.

According to an RBI concept paper on Card Acceptance Infrastructure, the average number of card transactions per inhabitant in India is among the lowest in major economies. Between Oct 2013 and Oct 2015, ATMs increased by around 43 percent while POS machines increased by around 28 percent. As of end-December 2015, the number of ATMs has increased to 1,93,580 while PoS machines had increased to 12,45,447 in the country.

As far as the usage is concerned, “from April 2015 to December 2015, the usage of debit cards at ATMs continues to account for around 88 percent of the total volume and around 94 percent of total value of debit card transactions. Usage of debit cards at POS machines accounts for only around 12 percent of total volume and 6 percent of total value of debit card transactions. This is despite the fact that between FY2012-13 and FY 2014-15 the debit card usage at POS machines registered a growth of 72 percent in terms of volume and 63 percent in terms of value,” the report said.

India’s penchant for cash is well known and even post demonetisation this nature is evident with people using their ATM/debit card more than ever but mainly for cash withdrawals, not purchases. India has around 94 crore debit cards but most of it is used for only cash withdrawals (read this report in The Indian Express). Then there are severe concerns about security issue on such transactions and laws to support a common customer in the event of loss from using technology platforms for financial transactions (read here). If the government hopes that it can bring about such a massive transformation, even hoping a less-cash society, in such a huge country in short-term, it is nothing but asking for the moon.

Such a change should happen on a need-based model, wherein a customer who has seen his income levels and financial literacy improves feels the need to migrate to the cashless mode, where the inspiration to shift comes from the customer not the government or banking system.

Having said this, over years, there has been an increase in non-cash transactions in the banking system with more number of people get accustomed to newer modes of payments. Things will improve when confidence builds up in electronic payment modes and infrastructure improves. But, empirical evidence available so far suggests that more than availability of infrastructure, India’s penchant for cash transactions will be the biggest hurdles of PM Modi’s cashless dream. A change in the mindset will be gradual and can’t be forced. Even if it is forced, the results are unlikely to sustain. There is no easy cure for India’s penchant for cash.

First Published On : Dec 22, 2016 15:11 IST

Lt Gen Bipin Rawat’s appointment by Modi government creates unease: Here’s why

Soon after coming to power in 2014, the Narendra Modi government decided to honour the outgoing UPA government’s announcement on Lieutenant-General Dalbir Suhag’s elevation as India’s army chief. There was much speculation as his predecessor, General VK Singh who had done everything under his power to stop Suhag from getting the top job, was now not only in the BJP, but had been elected to Parliament.

Putting all speculation to rest, Modi decided to honour the well-established convention of the senior-most officer getting the top job and appointed Suhag. But, when it came to the navy, the Modi government overlooked the claims of the senior-most officer — Vice-Admiral Shekhar Sinha — and instead appointed the vice-chief and his junior, RK Dhowan as the Chief of Naval Staff.
But the navy is a smaller arm when compared to the over one million strong Indian Army. Naval supersession did not evoke much comment.

However, two years later the decision to appoint Lieutenant-General Bipin Rawat as the next army chief superceding two highly respected and competent officers, has come as a shock to many in the armed forces. Probably for the first time, two successive chiefs come from the same regiment — Gurkha Rifles.

Interestingly, Rawat’s appointment as army chief comes days after Pakistan appointed General Qamar Javed Bajwa as their new chief, both of them served in Congo as part of the UN Peacekeeping Force under General Bikram Singh, who later became India’s army chief.

File image of Lieutenant-General Bipin Rawat. Getty Images

File image of Lieutenant-General Bipin Rawat. Getty Images

Rawat’s appointment has bypassed two senior officers. Lieutenant-General Praveen Bakshi, commander-in-chief, Eastern Command — a highly respected officer, who was seen as a natural successor to Suhag. Across all ranks, the Indian Army looked forward to Bakshi’s appointment because of his exemplary credentials and the enormous respect he commands among both officers and men. The other officer superseded is commander-in-chief, Southern Command, Lieutenant-General PM Hariz, also held in high esteem.

Why did the government supersede two officers to appoint Rawat? The real reason will never be known and the explanation put forward by the government is far from convincing. The government explanation that Rawat has more experience in tackling counter-insurgency and of high altitude warfare sounds pretty facile. After all, no army chief leads formations to battle.

Bakshi, as C-in-C of the Eastern Command, is responsible for all counter-insurgency operations along the China border and in the North East region. He has served armoured brigades in Jammu and Kashmir and the western sector.

At a time when parochial interests dictate many decisions, the appointment of Rawat is bound to keep speculators busy for a long time.

There is media speculation that Bakshi might be in for a more coveted job, that of the CDS or Combined Defence Services Chief, a post which has been debated for several years but no political party has put its final stamp of approval. In a service where seniority was taken as a norm, the government announcement on Rawat is bound to stir regional and sectional interests a lot more. Senior officers are bound to use their regional and linguistic connections to play to the gallery and even lobby regional leaders.

The appointment of Rawat has already stirred a debate on the growing importance of officers from Uttarakhand in New Delhi. This tendency is not healthy for either the Indian Army or the nation to debate on.

Unlike Pakistan, in India, civilian control over the military has long been recognised and firmly established. Appointments and succession are decided by elected governments and accepted by the armed forces quietly. Even the supersession of Lieutenant-General SK Sinha by Indira Gandhi was quietly accepted, except by the general concerned who protested and resigned from the service.

Rawat’s elevation has become politically controversial

While the Opposition has every right to question the appointment the government is in no way expected to explain an executive prerogative. A privilege of the Executive, however, has to be handled with great care when dealing with sensitive appointments like that of the army chief. Historically, there has always been an undeclared war between infantry and armoured corps for supremacy.

In this battle, once again, the armoured corps represented by Bakshi was trounced by the infantry arm of the Indian Army.

First Published On : Dec 20, 2016 08:48 IST

Bipin Rawat as next Army Chief: Superseding three army commanders sets an ugly precedent

Superseding three active General Officer(s) Commanding-in-Chief of three ‘armies’ has never occurred since 1947, so let’s stop talking about precedents. That is complete nonsense. Why are we so nice about the mishandled manner in which the new army chief (Bipin Rawat) was announced with 14 days to go instead of the customary 90 days? The only one precedent was the clumsy bypassing of Lt Gen Mani Sinha in place of Lt Gen Vaidya and General Sinha did what Generals do — he put in his resignation. As a protest. Hardly a high-water mark in the annals of military history, the way he was set aside.

Which is exactly what Lt Gen PM Hariz, Lt Gen Praveen Bakshi and Lt Gen BS Negi will do — either retire or simply put in their papers.

Bipin_Rawat_380_GettyBipin_Rawat_380_GettyConsequently, we will have three top commands in Southern, Eastern and Central armies without leadership around the same time since none of these officers will serve a junior at this high level.

In army lexicon they have been bypassed, period. They will go home. Has anybody figured out that between these three Generals — who have not been made chief — commanded 70 percent of the active forces in the Indian Army? If they were so average, why were they in charge?

Yes, the government has the right to do exactly what it wishes in the selection, even if others find fault with it. In the ranks of this government is a former chief who fought hard to stay in the job by making an issue of his age thereby setting the most shabby precedent in the Indian armed forces.

The fact that the new chief is in South Block and his three seniors are in active command indicates a definite flaw. The vice chief like the Vice President is a goodbye gift. No one knows what he does. The job is largely a sinecure. So how exactly did he stand out?

To supersede three Generals commanding your armies is either an act of arrogance or such incredible military insight that even the famous strategist Sun Tzu would have been impressed. How do you, and why do you bypass three Generals in active command of your armies?

Not only does this cause dismay, it jump-starts the domino principle with at least 50 potential three-star Generals and two-star aspirants reworking their career paths thanks to this announcement. We suddenly have three degrees of separation and several three-star officers looking at retirement will now look at the possible fourth star and realign their priorities.

You cannot really believe for a moment that between bureaucrats and politicians, they have a clue as to how effective or of what calibre these three sidelined officers are. You have to be naïve to think they know who suited them most or was of the highest calibre. To put it bluntly, as a fellow Gurkha officer incumbent General Suhag probably advocated his brother officer’s cause — the fact that General Rawat was in Delhi gave him access or at least presence in the capital while attending meetings in these troubled times also helped. He was relatively familiar.

Unlike his three seniors who are commanding active armies. Compare their career records — all first rate.

All this said, the government exercised a right. Will it change the dynamics of the Indian army? For sure. The government has found a trump card to keep its top echelons pliable, pliant and obedient and, oh yes, politically non-ambitious. Today, the fourth, tomorrow who knows? (Maybe the ninth).

First Published On : Dec 18, 2016 20:31 IST

Rajnath Singh must forget his Pakistan obsession and let the Indian Army do its job

My heart sank as I read Home Minister Rajnath Singh‘s speech on Sunday at a Martyrs’ Day event in Kathua, South Jammu. My despair was caused not only by what he said but also by the very fact that he found it necessary to say it.

He said, among other things, that Pakistan is trying to divide India on religious lines and warned the neighbouring country that if it doesn’t stop supporting terrorism, it may get divided into “10 parts”.

Then a pearl of wisdom rolled from the esteemed tongue of Congress scion Rahul Gandhi, the world-renowned pacifist who is forever ready to place his own life on the altar of India’s unity. He said:

What Gandhi said was so wonderfully sagacious that it must have made the Pakistanis roll on their drawing room floors in sheer ecstasy. The joy of Pakistanis, in turn, would make India’s Left bauddhiks or intellectuals, whose superior wisdom stretches their mental horizons far beyond country boundaries and nationalism, grin with contentment.

Home minister Rajnath Singh must realise that talking too much about Pakistan can be seen as a pathological obsession. PTIHome minister Rajnath Singh must realise that talking too much about Pakistan can be seen as a pathological obsession. PTI

Home minister Rajnath Singh must realise that talking too much about Pakistan can be seen as a pathological obsession. PTI

It would seem that each time a BJP leader puts one foot in his mouth, Gandhi shoves both his feet in his mouth faster than you can imagine. But the picture of one foot-in-mouth isn’t any prettier than that of two.

That Pakistan is trying to divide India is a fact too well-known to be worthy of repetition, especially by a member of the government as highly placed as Singh.

We all know that the very purpose of Pakistan exporting terror to India – with the same ease as it exports cement, leather, almonds and such things to our country – is not to have some gory fun or to enjoy a real life snakes-and-ladders game, but to disrupt and divide India.

Singh didn’t say it, but we are aware that Pakistan’s ISI has been printing fake Indian currency with great efficiency; stuffing it into the pockets of jehadi thugs who then send it across the border.

Now about Pakistan getting divided into “10 parts”. Whether Pakistan gets truncated into two and a half parts or ten pieces or makes mincemeat of itself, it would seem that it’s none of our damned business. Let Pakistan worry about its problems, and we should worry about ours. And, we have many.

Apart from this, Singh also said:

– that despite repeated failures, India continued to seek peace with Pakistan;

– that even after the Kargil war, Atal Bihari Vajpayee offered friendship to Pakistan;

– that Prime Minister Narendra Modi went out of his way to keep Pakistan in good humour;

– that in return, Pakistan gave India Gurdaspur, Pathankot and Uri;

– that more Islamic sects existed in India than in Pakistan;

– that the jehadis didn’t get as much support in India as they had hoped, because Indian Muslims are loyal to India;

– and that Pakistan is our neighbour and, though one can change friends, one can’t change neighbours.

All these are facts with a ring of finality that brook no repetition. Think of a man running out on the street every morning, screaming that the sky is blue and that the sun rises in the east. He only runs the risk of being considered off his rocker.

Parrot-like repetitions can be somewhat pardonable if they come from lowly officials or party satraps. True statesmen know the worth of silence, aware that a stern look can often be more catastrophic than a shout.

Ask the Chinese. Rarely, if ever, senior Chinese leaders, leave alone President Xi Jinping or Premier Li Keqiang, shoot off with their mouths. They leave that job to spokesmen of their foreign ministry or editorial-writers of China Daily or an academic in a province like Guangdong.

Singh must realise that talking too much about Pakistan can be seen as a certain pathological obsession with that country; an obsession that we accuse Pakistan of having with India.

An obsession with Pakistan, which is one-fourth of India in area, one-sixth in population and which, as the world has certified it, is a rogue nation and a terror-factory means stooping to the depths of an abyss. India has better things to do.

And as for Pakistan’s adventures from across the border, the Indian Army knows what to do. Can we please let the army do its job?

Modi’s polite admonition in October to his party leaders against chest-thumping and speaking out of turn about the surgical strikes has not doused the enthusiasm of many in the BJP – be it Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar or Information & Broadcasting Minister Venkaiah Naidu – to talk, talk and talk.

Pardon me for not being able to resist the temptation of recalling a little dialogue between The Lady (Queen Elizabeth) and The Man (Shakespeare) in George Bernard Shaw’s comedy The Dark Lady of the Sonnets:

“The Lady: You talk too much, sir. Let me warn you: I’m more accustomed to be listened to than preached at.

The Man: The most are like that that do talk well. But though you spake with the tongues of angels, as indeed you do, yet know that I am the king of words –

The Lady: A king, ha!”

It seems that the BJP has too many ‘kings of words’, and the party can do without them.

Author tweets @sprasadindia

First Published On : Dec 12, 2016 18:48 IST

Demonetisation: Is meta-corruption and ‘jugaad’ getting the better of good intent?

Since 8 November almost 12 lakh crore in demonetised notes have been deposited into banks, the RBI recently said at a news conference. On Friday, while facing some tough questions on shoddy implementation, the Centre admitted before the Supreme Court that it did not expect 80 per cent of the scrapped currency to return.

We must be cautious here. Return of the money into the banking system does not mean that demonetisation has failed. Indeed, economists such as Surjit Bhalla of The Observatory Group, a New York-based macro policy advisory caucus, has stressed that even if all of the devalued currency were to return, tax revenues will jump and therefore the move would have achieved its objective.

Be that as it may, if we narrow down on the gap between the government’s hope and reality, it reflects a mismatch that should be scrutinised. It ought to tell us two things. One, the government perhaps underestimated the innate Indian talent for jugaad. Two, meta-corruption seems to be at work. When the tools of cleaning a system are also corrupted, any effort at cleansing the system is likely to face resistance.

A file image of people queuing in the line outside ATM. ReutersA file image of people queuing in the line outside ATM. Reuters

A file image of people queuing in the line outside ATM. Reuters

Black wealth isn’t just top-down corruption, it permeates nearly every strata of the society to create a parallel, rent-based system. Everything moves subject to greasing of the palm. It divides the nation into bribe givers and takers. While the economic repercussions serve to keep a major part of the population poor and out of the development loop, black money is also a moral hazard. While fighting this systemic problem, regulation can only serve a limited role. Unless the risk of generating black money exceeds its accruable benefits, hoarders may find ways to beat the system.

Critics and experts have hence warned the government that demonetisation must be seen as the means to an end, not an end in itself. It must be followed by structural reforms such as simplification of income tax, revoking of stamp duty, etc, to trigger a behavioural change. Since demonetisation’s success is also dependent on whether or not people see this as a personal battle against graft, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has repeatedly tried to vest the ownership to individuals, urging, almost imploring them to take up the cudgels on his behalf. Simply put, Modi has invested huge trust on the collective will for this radical policy to succeed.

Was he wise in doing so? Let us consider some pointers.

According to latest government data for fiscal ended 31 March 2012-13, only one percent of all Indians pay income tax. This was revealed when the Centre this year disclosed as part of a transparency exercise direct tax data for the last 15 years. According to a PTI report, a total of 2.87 crore individuals filed income tax returns for that year, but 1.62 crore of them did not pay any tax — leaving the number of taxpayers at just about 1.25 crore which was close to one percent of the country’s total population of about 123 crore at that time.

While this doesn’t necessarily indicate that a majority of Indians are dishonest, it certainly points to the fact that Indians have a complex relationship with notions of corruption and taxation.

R Jagannathan, in his Swarajyamag column succinctly explains the Indian mindset. “In the Abrahamic system, it is criminal to evade tax. Thus you are a good guy if you pay tax, and a bad guy if you don’t. The outcome is binary. In the Dharmic mindset that most Indians operate in, we both pay taxes and attempt to evade them, depending on what we think is just and acceptable. Tax is a matter of individual judgment and negotiation. Punishment for not paying tax is karmic – outside the ambit of the state.”

From temple donations, paying advance salaries, using Jan Dhan accounts of the poor, pressing the unemployed youth into service as money mules, using bank accounts of relatives to park unaccounted cash to buying and cancelling high-value train tickets, demonetisation has sprung some really innovative ideas.

While this is one part of the problem, the other part is plain dishonesty. Ever since the high-value notes were decommissioned, some duplicitous bank officials have conspired with the rich and corrupt to launder their existing black money and almost simultaneously create a pool of fresh black wealth even as the honest majority stood for hours on end in fruitless queues to get access to their daily quota of own legitimate cash.

In report after report, we find unscrupulous individuals subverting the system in collusion with some bankers to turn their black money into white. Livemint gives details about the biggest seizure of black money on Friday since the demonetisation, with I-T officials confiscating about Rs 106 crore in cash and 127 kg in gold from a Chennai businessman and his associates. In two other raids, the I-T department found Rs100 crore in an Axis Bank branch in Delhi, and Haryana police officials caught three men with Rs 17 lakh in new currency notes, according to the report.

A cartel that converted black into white with a hefty 35 percent commission was caught in Mumbai, a fake currency racket was busted in Hyderabad, a doctor in Kolkata’s tony Salt Lake area was found hiding wads of new Rs 500 and Rs 2000 notes worth Rs 10 lakhs in his chamber while I-T raids in Bengaluru unearthed Rs 152 crore of unaccounted wealth in new notes, old notes and bullion. In between, Enforcement Directorate has arrested two managers of a private bank for assisting the corrupt in laundering money. The picture isn’t pretty. We can only imagine the extent to which laundering has gone undetected.

These cases reduce the moral strength of the fight against black money. People, who have been very patient so far and have withstood extreme inconvenience with a degree of support and stoicism, may soon be feeling disillusioned. While previous opinion polls had indicated huge support in favour of demonetisation, fresh data from a new opinion poll suggests that the public support may be waning.

According to new data from a Huffpost-BW-CVoter opinion poll, “proportion of people who said that the pain of demonetisation was worth the stated aim of curbing black money continued to fall for the third straight week, while in semi-urban and urban India, support that was growing might now be reversing. Support fell the fastest among the poor and the middle class, and fell slower among the rich.” The poll’s margin of error is +/- 3 percent at the national level and +/- 5 percent at the regional level.

While demonetisation is an ongoing exercise that may throw new revelations each week, these findings do indicate that the government has less space to play around with unless some stability is quickly restored. Is corruption getting the better of good intent?

First Published On : Dec 10, 2016 17:02 IST

Triple Talaq violates Fundamental Right: Supreme Court should rule against it

On 8 December, the Allahabad High Court used strong words against the practice of triple talaq, describing it as “unconstitutional” and a violation of the rights of Muslim women, but such strong words do not mean anything practically and certainly do not settle the issue in law. More on that later, but first the court’s observation should be welcomed because it is significant insofar as it strengthens women’s rights movement in the country; sends a strong warning to Islamic clerics that time for them to change is now; denotes a pro-liberty shift in the higher judiciary’s thinking, and offers a bright ray of hope to Muslim women who are rendered destitute overnight by triple talaq.

The court observed: “The instant divorce (triple talaq) though has been deprecated and not followed by all sects of Muslim community in the country, however, is a cruel and the most demeaning form of divorce practised by the Muslim community.” It further said, “The question which disturbs the court is should Muslim wives suffer this tyranny for all times? Should their personal law remain so cruel towards these unfortunate wives?”

These are strong words that indicate that the Indian judiciary may be reaching a turning point where it is no longer willing to subordinate its sense of judgement to the whims of Islamic clerics and political correctness.

The court’s observation has come at a time there is growing awareness about constitutional rights available to Indian citizens, especially Muslim women in this case. Ever since the constitution began to be implemented from 26 January 1950, citizens are now more aware than ever about their rights. Indian society is passing through revolutionary times when the cause of Muslim women’s rights is widely supported by people, and significantly not by so called feminist women.

Representative image. Reuters

Representative image. Reuters

It is a sign of revolutionary times that even semi-educated Muslim women are knocking at the door of the Supreme Court to obtain their rights. The Allahabad court’s observation will strengthen their resolve to claim their fundamental right to equality.

However, it should also be noted that these are observations of the court, not a judgement, and therefore not consequential legally.

The Allahabad court said that it would “not like to say anything further for the reason that the Supreme Court is seized with the matter.” Only a judgement of the Supreme Court, therefore, can settle the issue in law that triple talaq is unconstitutional. However, there are practical issues. At present the Muslim personal laws come under two key legislations: The Muslim Personal Law (Shariat) Application Act, 1937; and the Dissolution of Muslim Marriages Act, 1939. Under the 1937 law, Muslims can contract marriage and divorce as per their religious practices.

Under this law, a Muslim husband can “give” divorce through the mediation of Islamic clerics or effect his own divorce through formal or informal means such as telephone, SMS, email, letter and so on. Significantly, a Muslim husband cannot go to court to seek divorce. He can effect his divorce through two paths: one, he can utter instant triple talaq via formal or informal means. Two, he can issue three talaq, one after each menstrual cycle. Lawyers do not advise the second path because the wife is most likely to file a dowry harassment case if he were to issue the first of the three monthly instalments of talaq.

The 1939 law was brought in to empower the Muslim woman to “seek” – not give – divorce. Under this Sharia-compatible law, a Muslim woman can go to court or to Islamic clerics to seek a dissolution of her marriage. Both the 1937 and 1939 laws are as per the Islamic Sharia and legally valid in India, which is in many other ways too a Sharia-compliant state. The provisions under these two laws are as per the Hanafi school of Sunni Islam practised in India. Unless the Supreme Court rules that these laws violate the Fundamental Right to Equality available under Article 14, mere observations that triple talaq is unconstitutional will mean nothing.

Alternatively, the Indian government can bring in a new law that is compatible with the 21st century liberties and values involving women’s rights, and replaces these two laws. This can also be done as part of a Uniform Civil Code (UCC), a first-ever draft of which was proposed and released by this writer last week. A third practical way of dissolving a Muslim marriage, though not widely known, is for either the husband or wife to convert to any other religion, thereby rendering the marriage dissolved. However, as things stand now, a Muslim husband cannot go to court to seek divorce, and therefore any Supreme Court order declaring that triple talaq is unconstitutional should also clarify under what law a Muslim husband can approach court for divorce.

At the intellectual level, the higher judiciary also needs to be questioned for a number of reasons. For example, the Allahabad high court’s observation carries many references to the Quran. The justices of many high courts fail to understand that many women are coming to their doors for the simple reason that they are in a certain difficult situation, whatever being the sources of that, which needs to be addressed within the framework of the Constitution. It should be the natural instinct of a justice to seek remedy within the Constitution, rather than start investigating what the Quran says.

It is equally a sad situation that the Supreme Court too has lost clarity on this subject.

For example, when a Muslim woman approaches the Supreme Court, the case is essentially between herself and her husband or ex-husband. However, even in such cases, the Supreme Court has allowed a number of religious organisations such as Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind to become a party to what is a disagreement between a couple to be settled by the apex court. Therefore, in some way, the Supreme Court empowers such as Islamist groups like Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind to rule over the lives of the affected Muslim women. Here, the apex court needs to not lose sight of the fact that the fundamental right to religion is available to the citizen, not to communities and religious organisations.

Last month, I met with Maulana Mahmood Madani, the leader of Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind, in Goa. “What do you think of triple talaq,” he asked me. I replied, “The number of talaq(s) is not important, what is important is that it is being used arbitrarily against women by Muslim husbands. And I am willing to even support triple or quadruple talaq if the husband can go to court and after hearing both the sides the court can fix a date for such a talaq to be delivered.” The way my conversation with him progressed, I reached a conclusion that Maulana Madani was not willing to shift even an inch, not even quarter of a centimetre.

I reminded him that in Pakistan, which follows the Hanafi school of Islamic Sharia, divorces happen in courts. To this, Maulana Madani responded that the law in Pakistan was changed under “Wahhabi influence” and he reminded me that he was using the words “Wahhabi influence” carefully. I also asked him about his position on the Uniform Civil Code. He said that let the government bring in the UCC first and then we will discuss it, because it will also apply to other religious communities. I reminded Maulana Madani that the Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind has a large number of lawyers and it should task them to draft a UCC and put it in public domain for everyone to discuss its specifics. He balked at the idea. I also asked him,”Then how is it that Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind has been leading protests against the Uniform Civil Code even without knowing what specifics will constitute it?” My conversation ended with a realisation that such Islamic clerics will not allow any change among Indian Muslims. So, the only hope for Muslim women are the Supreme Court and the people of India.

Former BBC journalist, Tufail Ahmad is a contributing editor at Firstpost, and executive director of the Open Source Institute, New Delhi. He tweets @tufailelif

First Published On : Dec 9, 2016 14:05 IST

One month of demonetisation: Let’s wait for more data before writing the epitaph

It’s been one month since the central government’s decision to discontinue high-value Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 currency notes, and an extraordinary amount of commentary has been generated in the last 30 days, most of it eager to write off demonetisation as a grand ego-fuelled failure.

Part of the anguish is understandable. The move has been hugely disruptive for an economy that was booming, and a populace unprepared to be at the receiving end of such a shock. Hardships, inconveniences and adjustment blues are inevitable in the event of such a disruptive change, but as we grapple through the temporal tremor, we must reflect whether it is too early to pen the epitaph of what must rank among the ballsiest of reforms ever undertaken.

People queue up to change their old currency notes outside Bank of India in New Delhi on Thursday. PTI Photo(PTI11_10_2016_000315B)People queue up to change their old currency notes outside Bank of India in New Delhi on Thursday. PTI Photo(PTI11_10_2016_000315B)

People queue up to change their old currency notes outside a bank in New Delhi. PTI

Vivek Dehejia, professor of economics at Carleton University, points out in a column in Livemint: “…the essence of politically difficult economic reform involves managing distributional conflict: Between gainers and losers today, between losses today and gains tomorrow, or some combination of intra-temporal and inter-temporal distributional impacts. This is the first law of political economy.”

Any analysis on demonetisation, at this stage, must take into consideration that nobody knows for sure what will happen for certain beyond educated guesstimates. An experiment such as this one, on such a scale, involving this complexity, affecting 1.25 billion people at the same time, has never been conducted before. There are simply no reference points. Even noted economists have resembled little more than punters, sometimes choosing to comment on the moral and ethical nature of the move than economic impact. Simply put, in the short to medium term, till there emerges better data and more macro-economic indicators, any “conclusive assessment” of demonetisation is more likely to be an indication of the commentator’s predilection than truth.

What is becoming clear a month into the exercise, despite the panic being spread from some quarters, is that this isn’t a Waterloo moment for Indian economy because the macro-economic fundamentals remain strong. Often, criticisms have conflated temporary trouble with lasting impact and a number of times, critics and political parties have tried to draw sweeping assumptions based on incorrect or incomplete data.

We have been repeatedly told, for instance, that farmers have been crippled by demonetisation and that Rabi crop (this being the sowing season) has taken a heavy beating, as farmers have been unable to procure seeds in absence of liquidity. And yet, latest data released by the agriculture ministry prove that far from farming taking a hit, total sown area for Rabi crop “has not only jumped substantially in the past one week, but also crossed the last year’s corresponding week figure by over 8.5 percent,” according to a report in The Times of India. The total area sown under Rabi crops (as on 2 December) stand at 415.53 lakh hectares as compared to 382.84 lakh hectare this time in 2015 — an increase of 32.70 lakh hectares, according to the report.

The gap between reality and fear-mongering could be the reason why the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), in a widely-followed press conference on Wednesday, kept the key policy (repo) rate unchanged at 6.25 percent, much to the surprise and even disappointment of bankers and the market, though its Monetary Policy Committee revised downward its FY17 growth forecast to 7.1 percent from 7.6 percent, taking into account the negative impact of currency ban.

Though a sharp reduction, it is still nowhere close to the two percent fall in GDP that former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had envisaged recently on the floor of the House, because RBI believes that transition pangs and growth slowdown are transitory in nature. Overall, the central bank gave an indication that it would rather wait and watch than jump headlong into rescuing the Indian economy, perhaps because it may not need any saving.

As quoted by Reuters, the RBI said, “It is important to analyse more information and experience before judging their full effects and their persistence…if the impact is transient as widely expected, growth should rebound strongly.”

This is the exact sentiment put forth by India’s Chief Economic Advisor Arvind Subramanian. In an interview to Economic Times, he praised the RBI’s move not to tamper with the repo rate and repeatedly stressed on the need for studying more data before committing on the medium to long term effects on demonetisation.

On whether North Block sees RBI’s estimate of a 7.1 percent growth forecast “too optimistic”, Subramanian said, “Because there are a lot of mixed signals coming, we have to wait, assess the data. We still do not have a proper macro read. Even the first macro read of what is going on. Once we have the data, we will analyse them very carefully and come back with a more considered assessment in the days and weeks ahead. At the moment, it is not very easy to make a really definitive call on the magnitudes of all these impacts.”

Some of the commentary has revolved around the figure of Rs 11.55 lakh crore, the value of scrapped currency notes that have crawled back into the system. It is being said that the final deposit amount before 30 December deadline may well match (or be marginally lower than) the figure of Rs 14.17 lakh crore, the value of notes in circulation during demonetisation. This argument has been stretched to a conclusion that this implies demonetisation is a failure.

This is too simplistic a contention and fails to take into account one of the purposes behind demonetisation — to increase the tax base and adopt more of the informal economy into the banking network. To quote Professor Dehejia again: “…the movement of some or many of the unbanked into the formal financial sector and the movement of firms from the informal to the formal economy (or, equivalently, the process of ‘creative destruction’, whereby new formal sector firms replace defunct informal sector firms) has a permanent and positive impact on the economy, even though the gains from taxing black money via the currency swap is putatively one time only.”

Also, there is no reason to assume that black money changes colour the moment it is returned to the system. As India’s revenue secretary Hasmukh Adhia clarified recently on the sidelines of a Brics event, “Depositing the money in a bank account (doesn’t make) black money into white…it will become white when we charge taxes, when the income tax department is able to reach to them and issue them a notice”.

Overall, we aren’t even remotely close to the end of demonetisation debate. And as the discussion rages, it would be worthwhile remembering CP Scott’s immortal lines: “Comment is free, but facts are sacred.” So, let’s wait for more facts.

First Published On : Dec 8, 2016 16:06 IST

Triple Talaq: Muslim Personal Law Board runs its own court and exploits govt

Firstly, I welcome the judgment by the Allahabad High Court.

It is important to understand here what the Sharia law is. It is widely believed that triple talaq is part of Sharia law and therefore cannot be interfered with because they are protected under Article 25 of the Constitution. Sharia law is the law of Quran and Hadith, and it encompasses issues that are economical, social, personal in any way they may affect an individual. But it is important to separate between practices that fall under the law and that which do not because the Constitution is often used as an excuse to justify these practices. While on one hand practices like Roza and Namaaz are protected by the Constitution, it makes no mention of marriage-related issues like divorce.

While the Quran guides you for everything, from business related to personal issues, it is impossible to understand why issues like divorce are quashed. If you are prepared to accept the Constitution then what is the problem with accepting the rights it provides as well? A woman has no rights to divorce as per the Quran. Hence, the argument that the issue in itself is addressed within the Sharia law is baseless. Which only begs the question that what exactly is the Constitution protecting here?

Representational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

We need to understand that this has not been just a case, or a ruling, this is the women fighting for their rights in a male-dominated society. And it definitely does not help when all of your Islamic scholars are only half-bred. They learn certain aspects of Islam and stick to it. There are no comparative studies. Whether you talk to a Mufti, or Maulvi or an Alim, their arguments, more often than not, tend to be self-centered, and not universal. I think that is out of fear, because that may result in their shops closing down.

Coming to the Uniform Civil Code, it is crucial to remind ourselves that even Islam calls for a universal law for people regardless of their religion or caste. Upon that, if there exists a uniform criminal law, then why not the same for a civil one. Part of the reason there I believe is because the criminal law was introduced by the British. After Independence, India became secular, and laws like the Sharia, successfully bargained for its existence, even in the modern world. I think it is the very character of secularism of our country that the people protecting Sharia law exploit. But I see the Supreme Court is very serious about bringing in change.

The All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) runs its own court which means they decide civil issues. The fact that they have their own courts, is reason enough to call for a uniform civil code, which is not only gender-just but also unbiased across religions and cultures. These organisations do nothing but only exploit and pressurise the govt.

I must also mention the role of the media here. Social media has changed so many things in our fight for justice. Previously, getting our voice to the people was so difficult. Even today, not a lot of people read newspapers or watch the television for news. Social media is where everything is happening. And it has to a great extent championed our cause as well, and brought us support, not only at a national level, but international as well. I can only be thankful that such means now exist, which may eventually speed up this slow process. Because I’m convinced that it will happen. This ruling is only an indicator and when the Supreme Court passes its judgement, I’m sure it will be in the favour of banning triple-talaq, polygamy and whole host of other issues that we are petitioning for at once.

The author is the president of Rashtrawadi Muslim Mahila Sangh

As told to Manik Sharma

First Published On : Dec 8, 2016 16:02 IST

Thirty days of demonetisation: The death of the Rs 1,000 note is a sad news for Indian economy

Exactly a month after the Rs 1,000 note, lovingly known as “Ek Hazaar” and its younger brother the equally loved “Panch Saw” were taken into custody by the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), it is believed that the older brother has met its end under mysterious circumstances.

Tight-lipped RBI officials declined to give any details of what occurred and attempted to divert the attention by underscoring their success in releasing a slimmer and more robust avatar of the younger brother into circulation.

2016-12-08-PHOTO-00000001 (1)

Since Panch Saw has refused to make any statement, what transpired behind the closed doors is not known, but the sad, if yet unconfirmed demise of the highly loved Ek Hazar has sent a wave of sorrow through its supporter and fans.

A weeping businessman said that the bringing in of a muscleman twice the size of Ek Hazaar and then falling back on the weak younger brother of the deceased was a dreadful situation. Asking not to be identified, he confided that the inside story indicates there are irreconcilable differences between the newly inducted bully called “Do Hazaar” and the popular Panch Saw, the gap between them being literally unbridgeable.

“They are not even on speaking terms,” he said, “But don’t quote me on it.”

It is believed that Panch is deeply upset about the way his older brother was treated and sees Do Hazaar as an impostor and a nuisance.

Official RBI sources rejected the theory that there had been a bungling within its premises leading to the death of Ek Hazaar.

Even now the RBI spokesman was not prepared to confirm the passing away of the once powerful leader of the fiscal party whose influence had been all pervasive.

When confronted with the fact that not a single bulletin had been issued over the past thirty days with regard to the health of the Rs 1,000 note and the public’s right to know what exactly the position was, the RBI spokesman said Ek Hazar was in custody as a precautionary measure against corruption, and was hale and hearty and would soon be released.

But exactly thirty days after being stripped of its powers, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Arvind Kejriwal and Rahul Gandhi were seen making a beeline for the RBI main office. The RBI governor was closeted with them on the top floor leading to the speculation that something had gone wrong.

If Rahul Gandhi had gone there it could only mean the note had gone to its heavenly abode.

As people began to gather outside the RBI one staunch supporter of Ek Hazaar said, “If the news is true we now have no second line of defence. No economic pyramid. The people have been left in the lurch and no one is telling us what has happened.”

According to sources Ek Hazaar, once the bulwark of the Indian financial system was a victim of shortsightedness and poor medical treatment. Seeing as how the younger brother was resurrected it is pretty much inconceivable that the older sibling is allegedly dead.

A famous economist who had been flown in from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) said he believed this was a case of eco-medical malpractice because nowhere in the world is the top currency followed by one worth 25 percent in value.

“The trauma is so massive,” he added, “That an amputated currency totem pole will forever limp along despite any prosthetic that may be recommended. If Ek Hazaar is actually dead, it is indeed a very sad day for the Indian economy.”

First Published On : Dec 8, 2016 13:36 IST

Frigate INS Betwa’s collapse in a dry dock is beyond comprehension

Accidents happen. But ships, especially major naval vessels do not fall on their sides like beached whales.

Yachts collapse. Little fishing boats might keel over. A canoe can overturn. Ride the rapids and your rubber dinghy might flip.

But to have a 126-metre frigate topple over in dry docks is unbelievable. It is not only unbelievable, it is incomprehensible.

That two sailors were killed makes it manslaughter by neglect.

The frigate INS Betwa lies on its side. PTI

The frigate INS Betwa lies on its side. PTI

Does anyone know what the size and weight of a warship of this genre is? For one, it is over 4,000 tonnes when loaded and has a crew of 450 people officers and men and is literally a floating township with aircrew for choppers. The INS Betwa is a Brahmaputra class guided missile frigate.

That is no little ketch.

Now she lies on her side, like a crumpled can in the naval dockyard in Mumbai.

They say she slipped from her dock blocks. Technically, that cannot happen unless there was a change in the centre of gravity, the blocks were loose or malfunctioning or what should be a normal operation was so botched up that a lot of somebodies did not do the calculations and were cavalier about it.

We have lost ships before. The INS Khukri went down in 1971, ostensibly victim to an aided attack from Pakistan. We have lost several ships including the INS Andaman because she was not seaworthy. In 2014, there were a spate of incidents when there were 11 separate incidents resulting in the loss of 22 lives, forcing the then naval chief Admiral DK Joshi to do the most honourable thing and resign by taking responsibility like a good sailor should. It set a precedent in grasping the nettle in the truest traditions of the navy.

Clearly, it was a sacrifice in vain. For such an accident to occur, short of some bizarre genie coming out of a bottle and casting an evil spell there is just no reasonable explanation for such an unprecedented collapse of a vessel this size in a dry dock. While the eggheads can do their maths and figure out exactly what caused the ship to topple over, there has to be a thorough investigation of the strength and maintenance of the dock itself and whether procedures were followed.

Elements like docking position, docking drafts, docking displacements, docking conditions and shipyard docking plans are all integral to such an undertaking. All these should be really routine.

Most accidents that occur in dry docks are slips and falls because of worker error, fires and loading accidents or equipment malfunction.

But to have a whole ship that size fall off is almost unheard of in these hi-tech times.

The most generous explanation that can be given is: This is embarrassing, it simply does not happen.

Even freak accidents would not account for such an occurrence.

Clearly, this was not a singular error. Just like with most aircraft accidents that defy the norm, the INS Betwa fell victim to a series of slip-ups and goof-ups, not just one. It is always one thing that leads to the next and then the domino principle kicks in and you have a frigate on its side with no way of lifting her up.

And worse, two deaths as a result of incredible negligence.

First Published On : Dec 7, 2016 10:14 IST

Battling radicalism with Sufism: Is Jamiat-Ulama-i-Hind using Ajmer Sharif for political gains?

In March this year, a Firstpost article had noted that the World Sufi Forum, an initiative by an apex body representing Sufi Muslims in India, was an effort showcasing the community’s resilience against extremism and as “an effective antidote” to terrorism masked as “religious ideology”.

Explaining this “religious ideology”, Syed Muhammad Ashraf Kichhouchhwi, key organiser of the World Sufi Forum and founder-president of All India Ulama and Mashaikh Board (AIUMB), had told Firstpost: “A specific ideology which is not part of Islamic tradition is motivating radicals who are wrongly interpreting the Quran and its narrative from their own ego pursuits and politics.”

Ajmer_PTI_380

A file image of Ajmer Sharif in Rajasthan. PTI

He went on to say, “Any extremist organisation waving Islamic flags and misusing the holy Quran such as Daesh (Islamic State) have actually no endorsement in the ambit of Islam…” and, “this is an extremist ideology which spreads hatred if someone does not subscribe to it. Enormous resources are invested in perpetrating violence. Therefore, it is important to realise and unearth the propaganda of such people and organisations that are funded by foreign entities to spread hatred and intolerance to disrupt peace and harmony in a country such as India”.

The World Sufi Forum, held in March 2016, was slated as the first-ever mega Sufi event of counter-extremism with more than 200 international dignitaries from 20 countries. Though seen as the first and last event as such, it, however, seems to have begun an unending onslaught on the particular ideology which the Sufi forum believes is a grave threat to the country’s pluralistic ethos.

According to a front-page news report in the leading Urdu newspaper Inquilab, World Sufi Forum held a similar conclave entitled, “Sufism and Humanity” in Lucknow on 4 December. Sufi Sunni ulema and intellectuals with various backgrounds spelled-out their opinions on the current ongoings. Several Indian Sufi clerics, who run some of the largest Sunni Islamic seminaries in India, seemed worried about the growing phenomenon of pseudo-Sufism or “neo-Sufism” dressed in diametrically different political forms.

A systematic research on the mystical strain of Islam reveals that the origin of Sufism has its roots in a spiritually-inclined notion of “close personal relationship with the Divine”. Therefore, meditation has been exhorted by Sufi saints as an inner spiritual channel to attain this exalted relationship. But today, this spiritual path to eternal salvation is being turned into a phenomenon of political dominion.

Recently, the largest Sufi shrine in the country, Ajmer Dargah — perhaps for the first time in the Indian history — was dragged into a well-worked-out political campaign by Jamiat-Ulama-i-Hind (JUH), an avowed supporter of the Congress party. The key members of the JUH whose ideologues have clearly and categorically declared Sufism as “anti-Islamic”, chose to hold their 33rd annual conference in the prime Sufi Dargah in India, Ajmer Sharif in Rajasthan. It was an out-and-out political attempt to woo the mainstream Indian Muslims anchored in age-old Sufi traditions.

Going by the media reports, more than one lakh Muslims of a certain religious faction from across the country assembled at the shrine of the Sufi saint Hazrat Khwaja Gharib Nawaz Moinuddin Chishti. The JUH invited Deobandi leaders and a few Barelvi clerics who theologically endorse its political motives, with a view to debating the burning political issues of the Muslim community, ranging from the Uniform Civil Code to Triple Talaq to the upcoming UP Elections.

Given the fact that Maulana Mahmood Madani, the JUH general secretary has been a Rajya Sabha member with support from Ajit Singh’s Rashtriya Lok Dal and has dabbled in electoral politics, the 33rd annual conference of the JUH held in Ajmer cannot be seen apolitical. With the 2017 Uttar Pradesh Assembly Election around the corner, the JUH leaders and other religio-politicians are trying to forge a new narrative to woo the gullible Indian Muslims.

But, by any stretch of the imagination, the JUH Ajmer conference will not be able to garner the support of the Sufi-oriented Indian Muslims to achieve its ulterior motives. Tellingly, while the JUH has celebrated Sufism as an effective channel for “unity of the ummah” or “Islamic unity” (note that only Muslims are included in it), it maintained deafening silence over the pernicious “religious ideology” which the World Sufi Forum accuses to be playing havoc across the Muslim world, particularly striking the non-Muslims, Shia and Sufi Muslims in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. It was distressing to note that the JUH did not even castigate the radical Islamist ideology of bigotry in its so-called “Sufi conference” in Ajmer.

Isn’t it ironical that the same leaders of the JUH who organised the Ajmer conference lambasted the World Sufi Forum as a political ploy of the Indian government to divide the Muslim community over “Sufism vs Wahhabism”? The JUH chief Maulana Madani went to the extent of loudly claiming that “Sufism is nothing” while branding the World Sufi Forum as an NDA bid to “divide the Muslims”. In the wake of the three-day World Sufi Forum which came crashing down hardcore philosophies in Islam, Maulana Arshad Madani blatantly stated: “Sufism is no sect of Islam and is not found in the Quran”. He also accused the Modi government of trying to create animosity among the Muslims.

While the World Sufi Forum’s key participants — mostly global leaders of Sufism — exhibited great zeal in strengthening the foundations of Sufism to combat all the forms of violent extremism, the JUH and the ilk disparaged these Sufi practitioners as “pseudo-Sufis”. So, how would the JUH like to brand itself now when it has held its 33rd largest annual conference in Ajmer using the prime Sufi shrine in India for its own political ends?

Remarkably, while the World Sufi Forum stressed on composite nationalism (muttahida qaumiyat), inclusive democracy (jumhuriat) and pluralism (qaumi yakjehati) in its final-day declaration, the Sufi conclave of the JUH in Ajmer promoted the religionist and sectarian narratives.

The JUH Ajmer conference mainly discussed three points: first, the unity of ummah (ittehad-e-ummat), a JUH unification proposal for Muslims in India which actually calls for a truce between the Deobandis and Barelvis — the two largest Islamic sects in India opposing each other in the foundational religious principles. Second, it called for social condemnation of the practice of Triple Talaq while at the same time strongly theorising its Islamic legality and thus opposing any proposals for a uniform civil code; and third, it called for Dalit-Muslim unity.

But one can find the JUH’s duplicity on the above two points distressing in many ways. Just as theorising the narrowed concept of the unity of ummah, which includes only Muslims in the common perception, is akin to promoting an exclusivist ideology among Indian Muslims. Similarly, publicising dubious views on a daily-life issue of paramount importance — Tripple Talaq — is celery misleading.

As for the truce between the Deobandis and Barelvis, it cannot be simply overlooked that the Ajmer conclave was led by Maulana Mahmood Madni, the third generation of Deobandi cleric Maulana Hussein Ahmed Madni who could not reconcile with the Barelvi ulema on religious grounds. So, the JUH could very well bring together a few known faces of the Barelvi and Deobandi ulema on its stages without which it would be merely a mirage to form the unity on the ground level.

A noted scholar on the Barelvi and Deobandi sects in India, Dr Arshad Alam has pointed it out: “The demand for sectarian unity is nothing new among Indian Muslims. We know that the community is divided internally among Shias and Sunnis. Among the Sunnis, there are divisions like the Deobandis, the Barelvis and the Ahl-e-Hadith. These are not just superficial divisions but their ideological roots run deep and have a history of nearly 150 years on the Indian subcontinent. Curiously enough, the initiators of schism within the community were the Deobandis themselves who through their various publications and sermons decided in their wisdom that the Barelvis were something of a lesser Muslims”.

In the latest event of the World Sufi Forum held in Lucknow on 4 December, it was buttressed that the sole purpose of organising Sufi conclaves is the promotion of an ideology which calls for unity in multiplicity, tolerance and acceptance and respect for all humanity. Sufi clerics like Shaikh Anwar Ahmad, a senior scholar at Baghdad University in Iraq who now runs a female-oriented Islamic seminary in UP, proclaimed: “the aim is to help the people build a peaceful, progressive and pluralistic nation through the Sufi teachings”.

Despite the vehement opposition from the leading Islamic organisations like the JUH, these Sufis claim that they do not believe in opposing others, but rather engaging actively in peace activism. A Firstpost article has also noted that Sufis are now trying to come out of their conclaves to tackle the ideological extremism stemming from the hardcore philosophies in Islam.

It was also stressed in the Lucknow conclave that Sufism belies all the notions which Salafism stands for. Traversing from Central Asia to the Indian subcontinent, Sufism incorporates harmonious local practices like music and qawwali which are rejected by the radicals in Islam.

The author is a scholar of comparative religion, classical Arabic and Islamic sciences, cultural analyst and researcher in media and communication Studies. Views are personal. He tweets at @GRDehlvi.

First Published On : Dec 6, 2016 13:09 IST

National Anthem verdict: Supreme Court order is only ‘interim’, there is hope yet

I am reminded of the slow-motion chopper landing sequence, filmed at the Siachen Glacier as Jana Gana Mana plays in the background, a regular feature in many theatres. Going by the examples given in the order (of the National Anthem being used as a tool to test the reactions of prospective job candidates), it is tempting to think that it is exactly this sort of contextual misuse of the National Anthem that the petitioner in the National Anthem case seeks to curtail: The kind that charges up our ever-willing keyboard warriors on Twitter and Facebook to wax eloquent about the sufferings of soldiers on our borders at every opportunity.

Representational image. PTI

Representational image. PTI

But there is an insidiousness about the ‘interim measures’ issued by the Supreme Court that was not immediately apparent. Back in 2004, three judges of the Supreme Court, in Karan Johar versus Union of India, had observed: “the National Anthem which is exhibited in the course of exhibition of newsreel or documentary or in a film, the audience is not expected to stand as the same interrupts the exhibition of the film and would create disorder and confusion, rather than add to the dignity of the National Anthem.

The Supreme Court at the time was dealing with the challenge to an order authored by Justice Dipak Misra, penned in his usual verbose style. Misra was then a judge at the Madhya Pradesh High Court, and is currently in line to become the next Chief Justice of India. Unusually, the petitioner before the Madhya Pradesh High Court was the same gentleman who has now petitioned the Supreme Court — Shyam Narayan Chouksey.

Ordinarily, judicial discipline would call upon Misra to follow the earlier ruling in Johar’s case — especially since three judges decided that case while the present National Anthem case is being heard by a bench of two. But there is a catch: In 2006, following a Review Petition by Chouksey against the judgment in Johar’s case, the ‘issues of law’ raised in the matter were reopened for determination in an ‘appropriate case’. The earlier order was recalled.

It is rare for the Supreme Court to even hear Review Petitions — a remedy usually reserved for ‘errors apparent on the face of the record’, but the apex court appears to have done so in this case because not all the questions raised before the Madhya Pradesh High Court were covered by the original Supreme Court order.

After a 10-year wait — an ‘inordinate delay’ going even by our slow disposal rates — Chouksey had his ‘appropriate case’, and (most fortuitously) his ‘appropriate court’.

In all fairness, would such happenstance make this a fit case for recusal on the ground of subject bias? Judges are occasionally afforded the opportunity of overruling their own decisions; others prefer to simply recuse themselves and let another bench decide the case. Only time will tell what this court will do. There is hope yet that the unfortunate pontifications on nationalism in the order may be reconsidered at the final hearing stage. After all, the order is only an ‘interim measure’ and circumspection based on the current backlash may prompt a different view later on.

The author is a practicing lawyer at the Bombay High Court

First Published On : Dec 2, 2016 08:56 IST

Demonetisation: Old Rs 500 notes for fuel, air ticket only till tomorrow; repeated U-turns do not augur well for Modi govt

Despite the hardships to common man, the Narendra Modi government always had the moral ground to defend its decision to demonetise 86 percent of currency notes— a bold step for the larger ideas of killing black money, fake notes and usher in an era of cashless economy. But, the government doesn’t have any excuse to justify the repeated flip-flops on the roll out.

Representational image. ReutersRepresentational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

On Thursday, when the government announced that the deadline for using old Rs 500 notes at petrol pumps and for airline tickets at airports has been cut short to 2 December, instead of December 15, as announced earlier, it became the latest of the U-turns during the implementation of demonetisation exercise.

The last was on 24 November when it abruptly stopped the facility to exchange old Rs 500, Rs 1,000 notes at bank counters as against the earlier promise by the Prime Minister himself and the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) that the facility will continue till 31 December. No adequate explanation was offered even then for going back on the earlier promise.

Now, the question is why on earth the government wants to promise something to the citizen, only to roll back the facility or go back on the promise just a few days later? What has changed between 24 November and now to stop the use of Rs 500 notes on petrol pumps and buy air tickets? If the fear is that people will misuse the airline booking leeway (to book and cancel to get rid of the old notes), why was this allowed in the first place?

Even the abrupt termination of old note exchange facility at bank counters, some one month before the promised date, was an avoidable decision and only points to lack of foresight. Such breach of promise could even upset those standing in long queues but still support the PM thinking of a larger national cause.

According to a PTI report, the government has also dropped its earlier announced plan to allow the use of Rs 500 notes for payment of toll at national highways from 3 December. Toll payment in both old Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes was accepted till 2 December, and from 3 December, it was to be limited to Rs 500 notes. But now, this facility too has been withdrawn.

This sort of U-turns are unfortunate because despite the widespread criticism in the way demonetisation was implemented, the very idea of demonetisation was never a hated concept by the common man on the street, forget economists and experts. Even though the peasant in the rural village didn’t understand the whole concept, he knew that this was being done for some good of the society. Hence, it is necessary to live through the difficult days.

But, the flip-flops confuses him and prompts him to doubt all other rules in place. There is a difference between reacting to the situation on ground during the roll out of a complex exercise in a large economy and failing to frame the fundamental rules that defines the implementation of the larger plan. The frequent changes in the cash withdrawal limits at banks/ATMs can be tagged in the first category, while the U-turns on deadlines to exchange old notes at counters and now asking not to use them for certain essential activities falls in the second.

Ever since the demonetisation announcement on 8 November, there has been a series of changes in rules by the government. In the case of exchange, the daily limit was first set at Rs 4,000, then increased to Rs 4,500 and later the limit was reduced to Rs 2,000. Then the government introduced a new method — of marking people who come to exchange notes with indelible ink and late to stop the exchange facility itself one month ahead of the promised time. Today’s (Thursday) announcement to discontinue use of old Rs 500 notes in petrol pumps and airline ticket booking marks the latest.

Once again, former prime minister, Manmohan Singh‘s comment in Parliament on demonetisation implementation becomes relevant. “It is no good that everyday the banking system comes with modification of the rules, the conditions under which the people can withdraw money. That reflects very poorly on the Prime Minister’s office, on the Finance Minister’s office and on the Reserve Bank of India. I am very sorry that the Reserve Bank of India has been exposed to this sort of criticism which I think is fully justified.”

The short point here is flip-flops in rules by the government do not augur well for the two main stakeholders in this gigantic exercise—the government itself and the common man. It breaks the trust element and give rise to suspicion. The government should refrain from such adventures, especially given the persisting cash crunch on the ground.

First Published On : Dec 1, 2016 14:38 IST

Supreme Court’s National Anthem order mocks judicial process, Constitution

The interim order of the Supreme Court of India in the National Anthem case is a mockery of the judicial process and the Constitution.

The travesty of forcing people to stand up for the National Anthem in a private setting has been highlighted here, here and here. The larger illegality of such an order apart, the directions themselves are silly and unimplementable, suggesting a lack of thought on the part of the court or concern for the law. This piece will try to parse the directions and what they mean.

Remember, none of these directions have any statutory backing. There is no law which is being implemented, nor are any fundamental rights being violated in the absence of such a law. That, however, does not stop the court as it assumes for itself the role of the legislature, executive and judiciary in one go, claiming an extra-constitutional power that is the hallmark of absolute tyrants.

Representational image. AFP

Representational image. AFP

The first direction is “there shall be no commercial exploitation to give financial advantage or any kind of benefit”. If that were not clear enough (it isn’t), the court adds that the “National Anthem should not be utilised by which (sic) the person involved with it either directly or indirectly shall have any commercial benefit or any other benefit.” This “clarification” only raises further questions: Is it acceptable to refuse to pay a person for singing/performing the National Anthem? Are all copyrights of an artiste performing the National Anthem automatically void?

Now that the Supreme Court has said that fundamental rights and freedoms are “constitutionally impermissible” when it comes to the National Anthem, does that mean that the prohibition against forced labour (under Article 23) or the right to property (under Article 300-A) are no longer enforceable? We don’t know and state governments being free to interpret this as they choose, so good luck enforcing any fundamental rights you may have.

The next direction goes even beyond the Prevention of Insults to National Honour Act, 1971. No film, drama or show of any sort can have the National Anthem as part of the show. This is the clearest indication that Justice Dipak Misra is peeved that the Supreme Court had the temerity to overturn his earlier decision banning Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham for having played the National Anthem in the film, and has now decided to make this law for the whole country, the rights and precedent be damned. Move aside, Cinematograph Act, 1952 and the Central Board for Film Certification, there’s a new super censor in town and there’s no appeal from its orders.

Next, Justice Misra effectively prohibits the publication of a copy of the National Anthem or even specific words of the anthem. This is of course the logical conclusion of a direction which says “National Anthem or a part of it shall not be printed on any object and also never be displayed in such a manner at such places which may be disgraceful to its status and tantamount to disrespect.” The next line is a total non sequitur and despite reading it multiple times I have not been able to make any sense of the words “the concept of protocol associated with it has its inherent roots in national identity, national integrity and Constitutional patriotism.”

The clearest direction is the next one. It issues a grand proclamation, like the firman of a Nizam, that all theatres must play the National Anthem before the feature film starts and all citizens, whether they be old, infirm, physically challenged, or just tired, must stand for the National Anthem. How it expects to enforce this direction the court does not say so. It may not know. Or possibly care. Perhaps it intends to leave it to “patriotic” citizens, free to use any means necessary at their disposal, to instill patriotism in their fellow old, infirm, physically challenged or just tired citizens.

In the next direction, demanding that entry and exit doors be closed while playing the National Anthem, the Supreme Court ignores its own earlier judgment in the Uphaar tragedy case where the court, for good reasons, had held that under no circumstances should doors to a cinema be shut from the outside. Perhaps this bench of the Supreme Court is unaware that unlike laws made by institutions, the laws of physics can’t be suspended or struck down by a judicial order, and if a fire breaks out, all the patriotism in the world won’t save you from a horrible death in a closed room.

After having donned the role of the legislator, the court then decides to wear the hat of a director, demanding that the National Anthem be played only with the image of the National Flag on screen. Whether such flag should be a static image or wave patriotically is not clear.

The last direction, that the abridged version will not be played, ignores the Home Ministry order which specifies the occasions where it might be played. This is a minor technicality and given that the government was only too happy to have the court legislate entirely new norms, it should have no difficulty in changing its orders.

There is no logical reasoning or law cited to justify any of these directions. They have all been made on the pure say-so of a judge, with the collaboration (if not the urging) of the central government. When anyone in the government next complains about “judicial over-reach”, perhaps this order should be pointed out to them. Here, the government has willingly abdicated its responsibility and powers. At no point does the Attorney General even resist the suggestion that the court should pass these orders. At no point does anyone question the court on the wisdom of its actions. Perhaps the central government was aware that it had no powers to enforce the singing of the National Anthem in private spaces but preferred to collude in getting a judicial diktat issued for the same. We can never know for sure but such collusion only works to shake the faith of the independence of the court as an institution.

First Published On : Dec 1, 2016 14:29 IST

Flight landing delay: IndiGo debunks Mamata’s conspiracy theory; her life was not in danger

New Delhi: Conspiracy theories form an integral part of Indian politics, like perhaps politics anywhere else on the planet. So it was no surprise when Trinamool Congress (TMC) leaders alleged today that there was danger to their leader Mamata Banerjee’s life, after the commercial flight she was travelling on made an emergency landing at Kolkata yesterday. A landing, which required all emergency procedures to be put in place and which happened after an hour’s delay. Not just TMC, members of other Opposition parties also echoed these sentiments, with BSP chief Mayawati saying this was a dangerous situation for Opposition parties.

File photo of Mamata Banerjee. PTIFile photo of Mamata Banerjee. PTI

File photo of Mamata Banerjee. PTI

Remember, Mamata Banerjee has been the most vocal critic of Prime Minister Narendra Modi over the last few weeks on his demonetisation push and has also vowed to finish Modi’s rule at the Centre. What better than to allege a threat to her life to gain fresh political currency? And get other Opposition parties to also join this chorus? But when Mamata’s party MPs began speaking about a threat to her life because of the delay in landing of the aircraft carrying her – never mind the fact that it was carrying hundreds of other aam aadmis and aam aurats as well – it was sounded like a desperate attempt to gain attention, not a plea for enhanced air safety.

“The plane was about to crash…we want to bring to notice that life of Mamata Banerjee is in danger,” an NDTV report quoted TMC MP Sudip Bandyopadhyay saying this in Rajya Sabha today. “Is there more to this than meets the eye?” asked Derek O’Brien? “There is a school of thought that this is a conspiracy,” he said in the Rajya Sabha.

Mayawati said this was a serious issue and sensitive issue and “we condemn what happened. We want the government to take the issue seriously and conduct an enquiry. This is dangerous situation for those in the Opposition parties. What happened was wrong.” Sharad Yadav of JD(U) also wanted a probe into the incident.

MoS Civil Aviation Jayant Sinha assured members in Rajya Sabha that passengers were not in danger (on that aircraft) at any point and standards of safety were in place. And that safety regulator DGCA is looking into claims that the aircraft was short on fuel. O Brien interjected to say that if there was no danger, why were emergency measures taken? Sinha replied O’Brien should be glad that precautionary measures were taken to ensure nothing went wrong.

While all this verbal gymnastics was going on in the Upper House, no one really bothered to gather details of the incident. What had exactly transpired, no one seemed to know clearly, not even the junior minister of civil aviation.

But here’s what IndiGo, the airline ferrying Mamata, had to say: The captain of this flight neither declared an emergency nor did he, at any time, say that there was a fuel shortage. The airline pinned the blame on the ATC controller at Kolkata for the mess up and said the delay in landing was due to congestion issues at Kolkata airport. All very routine stuff really. Where is the threat to Mamata’s life?

Anyway, Ms Banerjee and her party should ideally be giving a piece of their mind to the ATC concerned, instead of blowing their top in Parliament and making wild allegations of her life being in danger.

The IndiGo statement said “Flight 6E 342 from Patna and Kolkata made a normal landing at the Kolkata airport on Wednesday, November 30. The flight was kept on hold for landing due to air traffic congestion at Kolkata. The pilot operating 6E 342 had informed the ATC that he has eight minutes of extra holding fuel over Kolkata (destination) before commencing diversion to the planned alternate. However, this information was misunderstood by the ATC who assumed that the aircraft had only eight minutes of total fuel left. The misinterpretation of the information by the ATC led ATC to instruct fire engines and ambulances to be stationed at Kolkata airport. We would like to clarify – IndiGo captain at no stage declared a fuel priority or an emergency. Subsequently, the air plane made a normal landing at Kolkata airport at 8.40 pm, delayed by an hour due to congestion”.

If some questions still remain, they should be about congestion at India’s airports, language issues or fatigue of ATC personnel which could have lead to the mixup. As for an emergency landing, it was surely a precaution well worth taking.

First Published On : Dec 1, 2016 13:08 IST

Lesson from Nagrota attack: Military, financial ‘surgical strikes’ haven’t deterred Pakistani militants

The Nagrota attack by Pakistani infiltrators on 29 November — heavily-armed terrorists stormed the premises of the highly-protected 166 medium artillery regiment and held Indians hostage — has belied the claims of our government that we have broken the back of the cross-border militancy with our ‘surgical strike’ across the Line of Control. This is not the statement of an Opposition leader who wants to take potshots at the Narendra Modi government. This was an argument advanced by Yashwant Sinha, a senior BJP leader and former minister for external affairs (in the Chandra Shekhar and Atal Bihari Vajpayee governments).

Sinha made this statement on Tuesday night while delivering his presidential address in a lecture organised in the memory of Digvijay Singh, who had served as the junior minister to Sinha in the external affairs ministry in both Chandra Shekhar and Vajpayee governments.

Clearly, Sinha is not a run-of-the-mill politician who shoots from the hip. He knows his stuff when he makes a point.

Army personnel take position during encounter after militants attacked an Army camp in Nagrota on the outskirts of Jammu on Tuesday morning. PTI

Army personnel take position during encounter after militants attacked an Army camp in Nagrota on the outskirts of Jammu on Tuesday morning. PTI

Sinha made another devastating argument to puncture the claim being made by the relatively uninformed intelligentsia that India has succeeded in isolating Pakistan on the world stage with its astute diplomacy. On the contrary, Pakistani diplomacy has mostly outwitted Indian diplomacy in drawing international support, he said.

The former external affairs minister cited the example of the $46 billion support extended to Pakistan by China, in order to build the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. In fact, it is China’s biggest investment in the economic development of another country, he said. Chinese support will keep Pakistan at the centre-stage of South Asian politics, instead of marginalising it, Sinha said.

Pakistan has even succeeded in winning over Russia — a traditional supporter of India — to hold joint military exercises in September this year for the first time in the past seven decades of its existence. It only goes to show that Pakistan, instead of being isolated, is being courted by the major powers of the world, Sinha asserted.

This assertion must not be taken at the face value.

Those who were gloating that the demonetisation of high-denomination notes has virtually driven the Pakistani infiltrators out of work must have been squirming after the fidayeen attack at Nagrota took place. It is indeed alarming that Pakistani militants are repeatedly and successfully taking on the hardest of the targets — the military establishment — considering they have not taken the soft option of targeting civilian settlements. After the daring attacks in Patnankot and Uri, Nagrota has exposed the vulnerability of the Indian defence forces.

That a group of heavily armed militants succeeded in infiltrating the local unit of the 16 Corps headquarters — the largest corps in the Indian Army — and managing to kill two officers and five jawans before being killed, highlights a stark fact: Even after being on the receiving end of militant attacks for years, we have not been able to devise fool-proof measures to check Pakistani infiltration and safeguard our soldiers, let alone the civilians.

In Pathankot, Pakistani terrorists infiltrated into an Indian Air Force base and unleashed mayhem at the start of this year. Six Pakistani militants again launched a daring attack on an army brigade headquarters in Uri in September this year and killed 19 of our soldiers.

The fact that we have been repeatedly failing in making our core military establishment attack-proof from stray militants speaks poorly of our professionalism. In the face of it, when we make tall and loud claims about our military and strategic accomplishments, we tend to become a laughing stock.

When we launched the ‘surgical strike’ in October that supposedly paralysed the military muscle of Pakistan militants and, moreover, when we unleashed the demonetisation drive that purportedly sucked out their financial muscle, Pakistani authorities did not scream from the rooftops that they would take ‘revenge’ against India. They took revenge in action, as evident in Nagrota yesterday.

It is an age-old lesson of diplomacy, military or otherwise, that it must be conducted away from the limelight.

Strong actions must speak for themselves. They need not, nay, must not, be bandied about or be gloated over. This is because every action invites a reaction. And in today’s world, no country, howsoever powerful it may be, can claim unilateral victory over another. That is more so, when two countries, as is the case with India and Pakistan, hold nuclear deterrents.

Will the Indian leadership take the lesson and reflect quietly and take decisive action without whipping up jingoism and hyper-nationalism?

That is the only way to protect our borders, our brave soldiers and our distraught citizens.

First Published On : Nov 30, 2016 13:55 IST

National anthem: Why do we even play it before a movie begins and then bully people to stand?

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on 17 January, 2016. It is being updated to reflect Wednesday’s ruling by the Supreme Court of India that the National Anthem must be played in public theaters across the country before a movie, minus any dramatisation. It also ordered that the National Flag be shown on screen when the anthem is played.

On Tuesday, 26-year-old Neeraj Pandey, a resident of Mumbai’s suburb of Kandivali, went to watch the matinee show of Wazir. Like in all of the city’s theatres and cineplexes, the National Anthem was played before the screening of the film. While the entire audience stood up, Pandey decided otherwise. What do you think happened next?

We all know the answer.

Pandey was first heckled by a group of people because he was sitting while the Anthem was playing and then he — along with his group of friends — was peacefully escorted from the premises by the manager. A good friend of his later posted this on Facebook:

ये Neeraj हैं. अच्छे दोस्त हैं, और प्रतिभाशाली लेखक.कहानी ये है कि कल रात इन्हें पुलिस ने धर लिया. क्यों? क्योंकि गोरे…

Posted by Ankur Pandey on Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Pandey was given tickets for the next day’s screening, and he watched the film with his friends. But the aspiring scriptwriter and a poet waited outside the hall until the National Anthem was over.

Many have argued for standing up during the National Anthem. “What’s the harm in standing?” they’ve asked. Actor Anupam Kher, after one such incident, was quoted as saying, “You must stand up for your pride in India. You must stand up for the soldiers on the front protecting you. It’s a matter of just a minute. It’s not that you are being pushed into doing something unbelievably bad.”

So, there must only one explanation when people don’t stand up for National Anthem — you have zero respect for the soldiers protecting our international borders, laying down their lives for us.

Is national pride forced? It’s surely not under your control where the National Anthem is played, but if you genuinely don’t feel the need to get up, should you be heckled because that feeling doesn’t naturally come to you?

Such incidents aren’t new. It has happened earlier and it will happen again. Starting from this latest incident involving Pandey to sedition charges filed against the youth in Kerala in September 2014, or that family of five — including a child — who was harassed, intimidated and forced to leave a cinema hall in Mumbai after some loutish moviegoers took exception to them for purportedly not standing up for the National Anthem.

This has nothing to do with national pride or our system or the government or the law or the police. It is a social problem and in everyday language we call it gundagardi.

The group of people who heckled Pandey probably returned home happy, thinking they made noise and some sort of impact when someone did not ‘respect’ the National Anthem. This is not patriotism, this is hooliganism and bullying.

This is similar to incidents when girls are blamed for venturing into gullies where they know boys will harass them. “Why did you go there when you know boys will tease you.” People who chose to sit during National Anthem don’t do so because they want to provoke a bunch of ‘patriots’.

indian-flag_AFP_380indian-flag_AFP_380

Usually, the National Anthem is played at the beginning of public gatherings to help promote a spirit of allegiance and patriotism. AFP

Unfortunately, the sense of patriotism does not kick in where it should for most of these people. The fact that Indians are famous for littering does not bother these so called desh-bhakts. But by jeering or heckling someone inside a theatre for a reason purely personal, and by making them leave out of sheer exasperation, it gives them a sense of dominance. It gives them this false sense of achievement where they think they stood up for their nation and its pride.

Well, they did nothing of the sort. They are just a nuisance and this is not about any notion of national pride. It’s about them and the various issues from which they suffer.

Legally, you are not bound to stand up when it plays. In fact, the Ministry of Home Affairs’s (MHA) Orders relating to the National Anthem of India says, “Whenever the Anthem is sung or played, the audience shall stand to attention.” The orders make no mention of any penalty for failure to comply. As senior advocate Iqbal Chagla told The Times of India, “Guidelines from the home ministry are not legislation. They serve an advisory role.”

Incidentally, Section 3 of the Prevention of Insults to National Honour Act, 1971, says, “Whoever intentionally prevents the singing of the Indian National Anthem or causes disturbances to any assembly engaged in such singing shall be punished with imprisonment for a term, which may extend to three years, or with fine, or with both.”

By this accord, those who force others to stand or leave if they don’t ‘respect’ the National Anthem, in turn are creating a ruckus and are in fact those who do not respect the National Anthem. And this argument can be substantiated by the MHA order, which grants one exception. “In the course of a newsreel or documentary, if the Anthem is played as part of the film, the audience is not expected to stand up as it would create disorder and confusion.”

Established Indian case law is of limited use in examining the issue. Given the lack of legislative and jurisprudential instances in India , it might be better if we considered a case from another country.

The Supreme Court of the United States in 1989 case of Texas versus Johnson, had shot down a law which prohibited the desecration of certain venerated objects, such as state and national flags, and proscribed the state from criminalising or penalising any action that did not satisfy the more tearing concept of either allegiance to the state or respecting national honour. According to the court, these acts were shielded by the First Amendment, which guarantees citizens the freedom of speech. The American law, unlike the Indian law, does not cite a ‘reasonable restrictions’ clause on these freedoms.

Another US case, dating back to 1919 (Abrams versus United States) supported a stronger argument against the suppression of ideas by those in power and offered the permission of dissent. The case was about distribution of pamphlets which criticised the US troop deployment in Russia during the Russian Civil War of 1918. Justice Holmes, in his opinion, said:

If you have no doubt of your premises or your power, and want a certain result with all your heart, you naturally express your wishes in law, and sweep away all opposition. … But when men have realised that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe even more than they believe the very foundations of their own conduct that the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas—that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out.

It would perhaps be too optimistic to expect such a dissenting opinion from an Indian court but this brings us to this third question related to similar cases.

Why do play the national anthem before screening of movies in theatres? In 2003, the then Congress-NCP government had accepted a demand from the Nationalist Youth Congress to restart and enforce the practice of playing the national anthem before each film, which had faded in the 1980s. The Home department was then headed by NCP’s Chhagan Bhujbal.

Exhibition of films is a state subject whereas the ‘sanctioning of cinematographic films for exhibition is governed by Article 60 of the Union List of the Constitution of India (seventh schedule), the (exhibition of) cinemas is governed by Article 33 of the State List. Most states have their own Cinematograph Act and Rules, which supplement the Cinematograph Act, 1952, administered by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting.

Till the 1980s, news reels screening important national or international events had the national anthem as a part of it. An executive order was issued in 2003 by the Maharashtra government, asking exhibitors to play the national anthem before the screening of a film. Exhibitors have produced their own versions of the national anthem which they are currently playing before a film screening.

Such a film, playing the full National Anthem (approximately 52 seconds), would fall within the category of short films, as per the Cinematograph Act, 1952, and is duly certified by the Central Board of Film Certification for exhibition.

But according to The Orders Relating To The National Anthem Of India, cinema halls are not listed as one of the places to showcase the National Anthem. The simpler argument, however, is that you have a captive audience which is there to watch a film and if you play the National Anthem just before the film starts, the audience has literally nowhere to go but be a part of it. It is a way in which the government is force-feeding you national pride.

But don’t you dilute the importance of the National Anthem when you play it in theatres before every film? Make it cheaper by forcing people to listen to it, and then add to this the hooligans who take it upon themselves to serve ‘justice’ when someone does not want to get up.

Usually, the National Anthem is played at the beginning of public gatherings and official functions as determined by the government and its respective ministry of internal affairs. This is to help promote a spirit of allegiance and patriotism.

This, however, is promoting a spirit that has nothing to do with patriotism of any sort.

First Published On : Nov 30, 2016 12:45 IST

Nagrota attack: Let’s make mobile commando units the arrowhead of army ops

The suicide attacks at Nagrota and at Samba on Tuesday morning highlighted the urgency of reorienting war tactics radically.

The key first response to such attacks is what the army calls a QRT (quick response team). Within minutes (zero minutes, ideally) after such a surprise attack gets going, the nearest QRT is meant to spring into action and take on the attackers in combat. That’s how it has worked in several of the attacks over recent months.

A QRT responded on Tuesday morning, just as another one had at the Uri brigade headquarters on 18 September, and during the attack on an army convoy on the highway at Baramulla on 17 August.

The way warfare is developing, war planners must examine how QRTs can become more central to the army’s range of tactical options.

Army personnel take position during encounter after militants attacked an Army camp in Nagrota on the outskirts of Jammu on Tuesday morning. PTI

Army personnel take position during encounter after militants attacked an Army camp in Nagrota on the outskirts of Jammu on Tuesday morning. PTI

The reason for this proposition is that suicide attacks and other forms of surprise attacks have emerged as the chief method of offence over the past quarter of a century, and seem likely to remain so in the foreseeable future. As in the past, shelling at the Line of Control and the border continues to be another major tactic in what passes for peace time. We ought, however, to come to terms with the fact that this is not peace. Undeclared war by other means (call it proxy war if you like) has become more or less the norm. It was in play in — or over — Kashmir from 1989 to 2005 and has returned with intensity over the past couple of years.

To be sure, it has been intertwined with an indigenous freedom struggle each time, but the Pakistani Army has taken on the Indian Army and the Indian State in tandem with that indigenous struggle. One might even say it has done so under the cover of the indigenous struggle — a point that a group of Kashmiri journalists made volubly to Pakistan’s High Commissioner to India not long ago.

It is the need to refine army tactics for that proxy war, rather than for the indigenous struggle, that the long series of recent attacks have brought into focus.

Most modern armies have evolved from the armies of Europe and West Asia, which were conceptualised around infantry and cavalry. Horse cavalry gave way to tanks exactly a century ago.
The nature of war underwent another sea-change after the Second World War. Nuclear weapons brought deterrence into play. However, armies have remained organised in the same ways, based on the same concepts about how wars are fought.

That changed radically in the battlefields of Afghanistan during the 1980s. Rag-tag forces with non-standard equipment but extraordinary mobility took on a superpower army, and forced it to withdraw.

No doubt the orientations of surrounding populations played a key role — vast support for those rag-tag groups, and antagonism towards the superpower.

Then came another phase of war — symbolised by the aeroplane attacks on New York’s World Trade Centre on 11 September, 2001. Surprise of every sort was the hallmark of this phase of neo-warfare. Surprise attacks can take various forms. And there has been no dearth of surprise tactics in Kashmir — from the emergence of suicide strikes to the coordination of public demonstrations and militant attacks.

The army has responded in many ways. It spawned the Rashtriya Rifles for internal security operations, for example. However, in many ways, RR has become little more than a variation of army units. The idea of the QRT needs to evolve now. Small, highly alert, extremely mobile, units should, ideally, be able to take on militant groups even before the latter get to their targets. Small units, tiny in terms of the strengths to which armies have got accustomed, should be able to operate relatively independently — the way contemporary attackers do.

Like them, these units would need to be trained for commando operations and survival so that they could operate without the sort of logistical and other sorts of vast support systems that armies are used to.

Of course, such units would need to be backed by far more sophisticated intelligence inputs than now seem to be available.

Given the inertia that sets into any established way of functioning, it will be very difficult to conceptualise — leave alone operationalise — refined tactics of the sort that the situation requires.

It is time the various flatulent security think-tanks put what minds they have to work on this challenge.

So far, they have done precious little to help the nation face these cutting-edge challenges.

First Published On : Nov 30, 2016 09:44 IST

Demonetisation: With a clueless Oppn, Modi can afford to try and create a cashless India

Cashless transactions? Why not?

Yes, it’s a big gamble, given the reach and awareness of banking in the country. Mobile connectivity is abysmal in many parts and a vast swathe of rural India remains under-penetrated when it comes to banking. For example, of 6,238 gram panchayats in Odisha, about 4,400 have no branches. About 47 percent of rural population in the state, according to a letter from Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik to Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, have no proper access to banking facilities. The recent experience with demonetisation revealed the limitations within the banking ecosystem.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi. PTI

Prime Minister Narendra Modi. PTI

But then, sometimes, shock therapy works well to revitalise a system trapped in lethargy. The demonetisation exercise would certainly help the banking system shift to the next level of efficiency. Similarly, the big emphasis on cashless transactions, disruptive in its potential as it might be, would definitely mark a big shift in how Indians transact. Sure, more than 230 million of them remain unbanked, the general confidence in the banking system remains low and there’s a massive unorganised sector in the economy that relies heavily on cash. But if Prime Minister Narendra Modi is serious about making India cashless, he has to step on the gas now.

It is difficult for countries to go entirely cashless, but the process has to begin somewhere. The idea coming close on the heels of demonetisation seems to have the timing right. If there was a fear of a public backlash to such bold moves, the results of civic body polls in Maharashtra and Gujarat settles it conclusively. If the overwhelming perception is that something good is in the air, people won’t mind small discomfitures. The prime minister has managed to convey to people at large that he means good. And the opposition’s argument against demonetisation has been less than convincing.

If the civic polls were projected as a referendum on Modi’s move to trash high value currency notes, then he has easily won the popular vote. In Gujarat, it was expected that the elections, coming on the heels of the massive Patel agitation and the OBC backlash to it, and the demonetisation now, would aggravate the BJP’s electoral woes. With 107 of 126 municipal and district panchayat seats in its kitty, the party remains as strong as ever. In Maharashtra, the party left all competitors far behind.

If the opposition expected frustrated people at ATMs and banks would teach Modi a lesson, that is not how it has turned out. So this should be a signal for Modi to press ahead with the cashless experiment. In the middle of his five-year term at this point, he can afford to take the risk. If it turns out to be a poor effort, he can still undo the damage in the rest of his tenure. Also, it helps that the opposition is unsure how to react to such moves. It has neither been able to capture the moral high ground nor has it been able to make a strong political statement.

Where Modi scores on is his clarity. Being a wonderful orator, he manages to break down otherwise complex economic concepts to simple messages for easy consumption of the masses. The opposition may have a valid point against demonetisation or cashless transactions, but none of its leaders has been able to transmit it in the language that the common people grasp easily. It’s possible none of these leaders understand in depth the actions of the government.

With all the advantages on his side, Modi should press with cashless transactions, which would save the country crores. So long as there’s no strong, coherent counter-narrative to his moves, he can keep on experimenting. The system needs a good, solid kick to rev up.

First Published On : Nov 30, 2016 08:35 IST

Demonetisation: Congress scored a self-goal by fielding Manmohan Singh to take on PM Modi

A man under whose watch India’s biggest scams took place and whose role in at least one of those at best was one of plausible deniability, described Narendra Modi government’s move to demonetise old notes of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 as “organised loot” and “legalised plunder”, daring the government’s effort (however shoddy, mismanaged, badly implemented) to root out endemic corruption from public life.

Let the irony sink in for a while.

Erudite, sagacious and humble, Manmohan Singh might be one of the greatest economists India has ever produced but his erudition does not bestow upon him the moral authority to take the high ground on corruption. He lost that precious power when he, as the Prime Minister of India, remained blind to the nefarious designs of some members of his Cabinet even as they were ripping-off the exchequer and deceiving the public.

A file photo of former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh with present Prime Minister Narendra Modi. AFP

A file photo of former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh with present Prime Minister Narendra Modi. AFP

To jog the memory, in the 10 years of UPA rule we were “presented” with — to name a few — coal scam, 2G spectrum scam, chopper scam, Commonwealth Games scam, cash-for-vote scam, Adarsh Housing Society scam, banking sector scam among other notable con jobs. And these were just the ones to have received wide publicity.

In a report published in February this year, The Indian Express revealed that 29 state-owned banks wrote off a total of Rs 1.14 lakh crore of bad debts between fiscal 2013 and 2015, way more than they had done in the preceding nine years. The report was based on RBI’s response to an RTI application filed by the newspaper. The apex bank revealed that while bad debts stood at Rs 15,551 crore for fiscal ending March 2012, they had shot up by over three times to Rs 52,542 crore by the end of March 2015. The central bank said they had “no information” when the paper sought details of the biggest defaulters.

Therefore, when Manmohan Singh on Thursday claimed to take up the cudgels for the poor while delivering a rare intervention on the floor of the House, he should have been reminded that it is the poor and the marginalised who took the gravest hit when the entire laundry list of UPA scams unfolded before our eyes.

Yes, the poor have been inconvenienced by NDA government’s move to demonetise the high-value currency notes and face a period of hardship, but unlike during the Manmohan Singh regime, here they didn’t have to cope with double-digit inflation that halved their meagre income and were not cheated of their hard-earned money through elaborate scams.

While wax eloquent about the 50 days of disaster that demonetisation has ushered in, Singh probably forgot about his own tenure.

As columnist and financial consultant V Anantha Nageswaran writes in his blog, The Gold Standard: “He (Singh) is right that even 50 days is too long for the poor to suffer. But, in that case, was it right to let them suffer for 1,830 days between 22 May 2009 and 26 May 2014? The annual average consumer price inflation was 10.1 percent in that period (based on CPI-IW) and food inflation was 10.5 percent per annum. The poor suffered enormously. The rupee plunged 50 percent. Businesses collapsed. Telecom licenses were handed out to cronies. Supreme Court cancelled them. Mining licenses were allotted arbitrarily. Supreme Court banned mining. Economic growth, which was flying high due to the global boom pre-2008 collapsed to 5-6 percent, thanks to UPA missteps, loot and plunder. The 50-days that the current Prime Minister is talking about must be seen in this perspective.”

Congress think tank may have banked upon the transitory nature of public memory but the truth is, they have weakened their case by fielding Singh to counter Narendra Modi. The incumbent PM was elected for the job on a promise of better future and a cleaner system. It points at Congress’ lack of understanding of the role probity plays in public life that they decided Singh would be the correct symbol of integrity to take on the charisma of Modi.

In an interview to Times Now in 2014, former Comptroller and Auditor General Vinod Rai had opined that Singh could have prevented high-profile scandals like 2G scam, Coalgate and the CWG scam had he used his stamp of authority. Rai also revealed that he faced pressure from Congress MPs, who were part of the Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) probing the scam, to keep PM Manmohan Singh’s name out of the report. The full text of the interview is available here.

In his speech, the former PM quoted John Maynard Keynes — “In the long run all of us are dead” — to hit out at Modi’s demand for 50 days of hardship. As Anilesh S Mahajan points out in Business Today “… ironically, India requires demonetisation because Singh as PM failed to implement the Keynes theory. And neither could he control the side-effects of corruption, nepotism and misuse of public spending.”

On the fallout in GDP numbers, the other key aspect of Singh’s brief but scathing critique of demonetisation, it should be pointed out that while the former PM’s views as a noted economist carry a lot of weight, experts in the field have been at odds with his claims.

In his column for Firstpost, R Jagannathan finds that “the best estimates of professional forecasters are far below what Manmohan Singh’s crystal-ball has indicated. Goldman Sachs sees a 1.1 percent fall, Care Ratings 0.5-0.3 percent, Emkay Global 0.9 percent, Icra 0.4 percent, and ICICI Securities by 0.4 percent. Barring Ambit Capital, which adopted a faulty methodology to come up with an unbelievable GDP drop of 3.3 percent from earlier estimates, there’s not a single projection that comes anywhere near what Singh has claimed.

Let us also take a look at how international rating agencies Moody’s Investor Service and Standard and Poor’s have interpreted the move. According to a report in Hindu Business Line, Moody’s sees a “disruption of economic activity” and dampening of economic growth in the near term, but predicts that demonetisation would boost tax revenue and hasten fiscal consolidation in the longer run. It added that that in the medium term, higher income declarations will boost tax revenues and the government could receive a one-off transfer of RBI’s gain. A report by S&P, according to the newspaper, said that “bank deposits would benefit due to demonetisation, though not all inflows will remain in the banking system on a permanent basis.”

Singh has questioned the “monumental mismanagement” in the implementation of the scheme and rightly so. But he appeared to vacillate between his views as a distinguished economist and his role as the representative of a political party opposed to the current regime. Therefore, his valid critiques were often followed by observations of a political nature that served to weaken the weight of his words.

Gita Gopinath, Professor of Economics at Harvard University, put it best in her column for Project Syndicate: “Modi’s policy intervention is bold, and the economic principles motivating it are beyond reproach. But a gradualist approach that includes the permanent withdrawal of large notes would have served the cause better, even if it did not generate the same “shock and awe” as the current policy.”

It is here that Singh failed. His political compulsions interfered with the objectivity of his assessment as an economist and he was never in a position to claim a seat on the high horse of morality. His intervention was badly timed.

First Published On : Nov 25, 2016 17:30 IST

Note ban: It’s a lonely miserable life for the unloved Rs 2,000

I am a newly born Rs 2,000 note and I feel as rejected as one of those potential brides on display. You know, when the other side ticks the boxes after having met you and checked you over and then goes home and sends a message saying, oops, nii..ii.ce but sorry, something is lacking.

Ignored?Ignored?

Ignored?

Something to do with my colour so there is clearly racial prejudice involved. I just don’t look like real money, more like I was sort of toy money in one of those shelves with “Age 6 and above” written on me. Of all the colours in the world who pointed to this garish, gaudy option and said, aaha, perfect complexion for this note, let’s go on for a bit. Hardly fair and handsome.

Spawned in a crucible of confusion and conceived more by mistake than intent I have realised that I am an unloved offspring and no one chucks me under the chin or ruffles my hair or shows me off.

I don’t think people hate me, they just don’t like me. I don’t spark affection, more like one of those babies on a plane crying through the flight. Nuisance value.

I am now noticing people shy away from me.

I am at the bank waiting to be part of some human’s life, to be cared and loved, a kind of financial orphan eager to be adopted and given a snug and cozy home in a wallet.

Along comes a young man with a cheque in his hand and I sort of mentally pack my bags and begin to say my goodbyes to my siblings when the teller bypasses me and gives the man Rs 1,900, not Rs 2,000, only Rs 1,900.

I feel desolate but still a bit hopeful when this old lady comes in and hands over her cheque and it is for Rs 1,900 again.

The teller asks he if she wants more and she says, not now I’ll come with another cheque for Rs 1,900 tomorrow and then again on Monday until she has pulled out her pension and yes, she also wants a fresh cheque book.

At this point, a retired General walks in and gives a cheque for Rs 1,950 and the teller says, General sahib why don’t you make it a round two thousand and I get this little flutter of hope.

The General says, “No,no,no, this is enough, I have to pay the laundry and he won’t accept that note. No one accepts this note.”

By now not only am I growing older by the minute but I am losing all hope when this newly-wed couple comes into the bank all lovey-dovey and they fork out these two cheques for… goodness Rs 1,900 each and I could cry, the tears are forming in my eyes. The teller is also weeping because he has run out of hundred rupee notes and he turns to the young couple and says, tell you what I’ll put in a hundred each from my side and you take a two thousand rupee note each, agree.

They don’t agree. They laugh that scornful laugh that young people laugh when they are in love and are beating the system and they leave me there stranded.

What’s going on? Do you know what will happen if all the bank customers trot in with Rs 1,900 cheques…this whole exercise will backfire.

Someone better find me a better ‘half’ pretty damn soon so we can beget little ones quarter my age or else I am going to be a bitter old bachelor, unwanted and sitting on the shelf.

First Published On : Nov 25, 2016 16:54 IST

Kashmir unrest may be down, but it’s far from over: We could see a reemergence in 2017

The recent provocation at the Line of Control (LoC), in which a soldier’s body was mutilated, was one more indication that the troubles in Kashmir are not over. There are other indications too, which together paint a sombre picture of what might happen next summer.

Many in positions of authority hope that things would settle down since school examinations have been held, markets are bustling, and traffic is back on the roads. But their expectations ought to be tempered with caution.

The respite is tenuous and it might turn out to be temporary.

A file picture of protesters pelting stones at police in Kashmir. PTI

The first thing that one needs to recognise about the 2016 unrest in Kashmir is that it was not a repeat of 2010. There is no doubt that the internal and external dimensions of the challenge faced in Kashmir have been more intricately linked this year.

So, the return of traffic and exams can’t take away the heavy shelling — including high-calibre artillery — which has killed many people near the LoC and forced even more to relocate.

Besides, militant attacks have taken place sporadically, and there is no doubt that there are plenty of foreign and local militants in the Valley.

Stone-pelting too is not a thing of the past. There have been recent instances of it, including a major one in the Pulwama area on Wednesday.

Another big spurt?

A large-scale unrest such as that witnessed over four months this year could well be repeated next summer. All it would take is a trigger like the killing of militant commander Burhan Wani, which started the unrest on 8 July.

As more evidence continues to emerge, it is pushing analysts to the view that the unrest was planned for the period following Eid this summer. In fact, Lieutenant-General DS Hooda, the commander-in-chief of the Northern Command, is among the many who believe that this year’s eruption had been planned.

From the very next day after Burhan Wani was killed on 8 July, mobs across the Valley, showed a sort of uniformity in their tactics — as if they were following a pattern. The most significant of these tactics were mob attacks on police stations and paramilitary camps.

However, he says that if Burhan Wani had not been killed some other trigger would have been used. Further, those who had planned this year’s unrest are likely to look for an opportunity next summer too, adds Hooda, who is set to retire from the army at the end of this month.
Such a prognosis makes sense. And, the agents provocateurs who have taken control of coordinating the agitations in various parts of the Valley appear to be controlled from across the border.

Leading activists of several organisations including the Jamaat-e-Islami, have played key roles at the ground level. At times, they have benefited from a benevolent attitude from very high functionaries of the state.

In tandem, large numbers of foreign militants have infiltrated Kashmir in 2015 and 2016 —  a hundred during the first ten months of this year, according to Hooda.

A nuanced view

Unlike many of the military men who held control of state power during the 1990s, the erudite Hooda is keenly aware of the distinctions between different sorts of militants, and variations in the ideologies of those active on the ground.

He points out astutely that “the more (a) local is killed, (the more) you will have a reaction”. However, asked if this summer’s unrest might have been avoided if the widely popular Burhan had not been killed, Hooda replied: “We were not aware that Burhan specifically was there. But even if we had known, would we have done it differently?”

He alludes to the fact that the Indian Army cannot by itself make a distinction between one militant and another. He is, however, acutely aware of the need for political initiatives. “Everything cannot be fought kinetically,” he says.

Clearly, much needs to be done — on various levels, and through several channels. Such initiatives are very urgently required in light of the various prognoses that another summer of unrest is in the offing.

First Published On : Nov 24, 2016 12:21 IST

RBI’s idea to bring Sharia Banking into the fray is deeply flawed, writes Tarek Fatah

It is with astonishment that I read the announcement by the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) last week wherein it proposed the opening of an “Islamic window” in conventional banks for “gradual” introduction of Sharia-compliant Islamic banking in the country. What followed in the RBI announcement was either naivety or appeasement, but it revealed that Islamists within India now had access to the highest levels of the RBI and had managed to secure their place in manipulating the most vulnerable in the Indian Muslim community

The announcement said the introduction of Islamic banking was to ensure financial inclusion of those sections of the society (read radical Muslims) that remain excluded due to religious reasons.

That is utter nonsense. On one hand, India is being pushed into the 21st Century by the wise actions of digitising the economy and discouraging the cash economy, while on the other hand, Muslim Indians are being encouraged to move in the opposite direction towards their medieval past. So what exactly is Islamic Sharia Banking and why is it that hardly any Islamic country on earth practices this system and why should Indians be worried about its intrusion in their financial sector?”

Representational image. PTI

Representational image. PTI

Origins of Sharia Banking

Islamic banking traces its roots to the 1920s, but did not start until the late 1970s, and owes much of its foundation to the Islamist doctrine of two people: Indian-born Abul Ala Maududi of the Jamaat-e-Islami and Hassan al-Banna of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. While these two pillars of the Pan-Islamist movement propagated jihad and war against the West, they also recognised the role international financial institutions could play in carrying out their political objectives.

Since 1928 — when it was created, the Muslim Brotherhood has placed a high emphasis on the creation of a so-called Islamic economic system. Banna and his successor Syed Qutb even laid down principles of Islamic finance. Millard Burr and Robert Collins in their book Alms for Jihad claim that the Muslim Brotherhood watched, waited, and learned the management of money that was essential to finance a worldwide organisation devoted to spreading their Islamist ideology.

But the theory was only put into practice once the US-backed Pakistani military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq overthrew the government of ZA Bhutto and established Sharia law in Pakistan, forcing the country’s public-sector banks to run their operations based on Islamic principles and without the role of interest. Two senior Muslim banking experts-turned-authors have written scathing critiques of Sharia banking: Muhammad Saleem has labelled the practice as nothing more than deception, while Timur Kuran has suggested that the entire exercise was “a convenient pretext for advancing broad Islamic objectives and for lining the pockets of religious officials”.

Why would Indian banks contribute to this masquerade is a question for ordinary Indians, especially Muslims to ask.

Muhammad Saleem is former president and CEO of Park Avenue Bank in New York. Before that he was a senior banker with Bankers Trust, where among other responsibilities he headed the Middle East division and served as adviser to a prominent Islamic bank based in Bahrain.

In his book Islamic Banking: A $300 Billion Deception, Saleem not only dismisses the founding premise of Sharia and Islamic banking, but says, “Islamic banks do not practice what they preach: They all charge interest, but disguised in an Islamic garb. Thus they engage in deceptive and dishonest banking practices.”

He writes:

“Proponents of Islamic banking say that Islam bans all interest. But an understanding of pre-Islamic and Islamic history and keeping in mind the context would lead one to conclude that what the Quran bans is usury, not interest. Usury can be defined as interest above the legal or socially acceptable rate. Phrased differently, usury is the exploitative, exorbitant interest rate.”

Secondly, were these banks able to promote economic development in the Muslim world? In the words of Saleem:

“Sadly, the answer is a resounding no. There is absolutely no evidence that the Islamic banks have made any contribution in either of these two areas.”

The fact is that China and India, two countries that have had some measure of success in alleviating poverty and enhancing development, have outpaced all the Muslim countries put together despite their enormous natural resources and strategic locations.

Shariah Banking may not have alleviated poverty or generated economic development, but it has been a boon to the mullah class on one hand and, on the other, to the yuppie Muslim bankers and investment lawyers who have created a niche for themselves at the expense of the larger Muslim masses.

Saleem, who saw the functioning of Islamic banking from the inside, writes:

“In promoting the establishment of Islamic banking, the Sharia scholars have played a critical role. Lacking any knowledge of banking, economics and for many even Islamic history, in interpreting riba, they have confused interest with usury… Secondly, as Sharia advisers to Islamic banks, they have blessed many transactions as Islamic — meaning non-interest bearing — when in fact they are clearly charging interest, but interest payments are masked.”

Dozens of Islamic scholars and imams now serve on Sharia boards of the banking industry. Moreover, a new industry of Islamic banking conferences and forums has emerged, permitting hundreds of Sharia scholars to mix and mingle with bankers and economists at financial centres around the globe. In the words of Saleem, who attended many such meetings, they gather “to hear each other praise each other for all the innovations they are making”.

There are at least five international conferences every year and these have been going on annually for the past 25 years. Saleem estimates that the cost of each conference exceeds $2 million and so far more than $200 million has been spent just keeping the Sharia Banking circuit alive.

He cites one example of how Sharia scholars only care for the money they get from banks, and are willing to rubber-stamp any deal where interest is masked. Saleem describes one such incident as ‘comical’:

“I have first hand seen comical cases where the Sharia scholar of an Islamic bank only spoke Arabic, but a lending officer only spoke English and Urdu. A particular financing transaction was structured in English with such terms as x percent over Libor. So we had an interpreter who would translate from English to Arabic, explaining this convoluted transaction to the Sharia advisor. It was at times painful and other times comical to watch the proposal being presented to this religious scholar for his blessings to ensure that it was consistent with the principles of Sharia. The ‘Sharia scholar’, elderly and partly deaf, had little experience in modern banking and finance. However, mindful of the fact that the bank was paying him a generous retainer, he gave his blessing to the deal, after being fully made aware that the bank wanted to do this deal, even though from the look on his face it was obvious that he could not tell the difference between a trade deal and a leveraged buyout transaction.”

In the name of Islam, what amounts to deception and dishonesty are being practiced while ordinary Muslims are being made to feel that their interaction with mainstream banks is un-Islamic and sinful. As the Muslim banker asked:

“Through various devices — mostly cosmetic — (Islamic) banks end up with virtually no risk. If Islamic banks label their hamburger a Mecca Burger; as long as it still has the same ingredients as a McDonald’s burger, is it really any different in substance?”

To the Muslim homeowner who out of solidarity with an Islamic institution seeks Sharia Banking, the case of  UM Financial, a Canada-based Sharia finance institution gone bankrupt sheds light. The cost of owning a home became substantially more through UM Financial than what he or she would have to pay if they went through a conventional bank. As The Toronto Star revealed, “the purchaser… pays a monthly rental fee equivalent to a mortgage fee. (If the mortgage interest rate is 5.5 percent, the UM Financial/CUCO rental rate is 6.1 percent.)”

Saleem laments the fact that few people are exposing the deception of this exercise in the name of Islam. “We should be able to point out the failures and shortcomings of Islamic banking and economics without being accused of being anti-Islamic,” he says.

The Sharia Banking charade is a sad indictment of the Muslim community. Islamic banking is not some resurrection from a golden period — it is a 20th Century creation that flies in the face of reason, logic, and the spirit of Islam, yet it is being thrust on us for no fault of ours.

Islam’s essence is its quest for equality and social justice. Muhammad Saleem says that any banking or economic system that purports to be “Islamic” — including the current crop of Islamic banks — should answer two questions: By supposedly staying away from interest and sharing risks with their clients, were they able to help make the economic system more just, fair and equitable, and honest?

The proponents of Sharia banking rest their case on many verses of the Holy Quran, which in their interpretation outlaw any business or personal financial transaction involving interest. There is no unanimity among the Muslims who, in voting with their feet and chequebooks, have overwhelmingly rejected banks that operate in a supposedly interest-free environment. Most Muslims can see through the fog of deception, but we are a billion strong worldwide, and even if a small minority falls prey to the Islamist propaganda, there is lots of money to be made.

Quranic verses that address the question of the role and the question of loans and debts include:

Al Baqarah (2:275): “God hath permitted trade and forbidden usury.Those who after receiving direction from their Lord, desist, shall be pardoned for the past; their case is for God [to judge]; but those who repeat (the offence) are companions of the Fire: They will abide therein (forever).”

Al Baqarah (2:276): “Allah does not bless usury, and He causes charitable deeds to prosper, and Allah does not love any ungrateful sinner.”

Al Baqarah (2:278): “O you who believe! Be careful of (your duty to) Allah and relinquish what remains (due) from usury, if you are believers.”

Al Baqarah (2:280): “If the debtor is in a difficulty, grant him time Till it is easy for him to repay. But if ye remit it by way of charity, that is best for you if ye only knew.”

Al Nisa (4:161): “And their taking usury though indeed they were forbidden it and their devouring the property of people falsely, and We have prepared for the unbelievers from among them a painful chastisement.”

Ar Rum (30-39): “And whatever you lay out as usury, so that it may increase in the property of men, it shall not increase with Allah; and whatever you give in charity, desiring Allah’s pleasure — it is these (persons) that shall get manifold.”

From these Quranic verses, it is abundantly clear that the Quran is addressing the rich moneylenders to show compassion towards the borrower and give him or her more time to pay back the loan. In fact, the Quran suggests to the lender that it would be far better if the moneylender forgave the loan altogether.

To suggest, the onus of complying with Sharia rests on the weaker borrower is obscene and against the spirit of equity in Islam.

I say this because what the imams and self-styled scholars of Sharia banking are proposing makes it easy for the wealthy to be pious simply by not having to do anything, while the poor who need to borrow are told to stay away from banks that lend.

Representational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

Once more we see an example of Islam attempting to bring justice to the poor while Islamists make it difficult for the poor to access funds they don’t have.

Today, owners of Islamic banks are billionaires — the practitioners of Sharia Banking are among the richest men in the world, while the vast majority of Muslims still struggle to eke out a living beyond one dollar a day. Sharia banking fattens the bottom lines of the imams, the bank owners, and the lawyers who pull out their best to Islamicise anything that sustains their handsome hourly rate.

Every translation of the Quran into the English language has rendered the Arabic word riba as “usury,” not “interest,” yet Islamists have deliberately portrayed bank interest, the cost of borrowing money, as usury. For Islamists, there should be a cost to renting a car and renting a DVD, but when renting money for a period of time, there should be no cost of this capital. Instead, Islamists have created exotic products with names that are foreign to much of the world’s Muslim population

This is where interest can be masked under the niqaab of Mudraba, Musharaka, Murabaha, and Ijara — Arabic names given to various banking products to make them appear Islamic.

Whereas interest is the charge for the privilege of borrowing money, typically expressed as an annual percentage rate, usury is the practice of lending money and charging the borrower interest, especially at an exorbitant or illegally high rate.

In his brilliant book Islam and Mammon: The Economic Predicaments of Islamism, Timur Kuran writes:

“There is no distinctly Islamic way to build a ship, or defend a territory, or cure an epidemic, or forecast the weather.”

He says the effort to introduce Sharia banking “has promoted the spread of anti-modern currents of thought all across the Islamic world. It has also fostered an environment conducive to Islamist militancy”.

Indians will be well-served if the RBI and the Government of India read a bit more on this subject from Muslim critics of Islamic banking before giving the mullahs of India even more power over us than they already have through the Muslim Personal Law Board.

First Published On : Nov 24, 2016 10:16 IST

Is demonetisation BJP’s Waterloo in the making? Data certainly suggests so

The “surgical strike” on Indian currency notes has all the classical signs of quackery. People are dying in large numbers, there is pain and suffering all around, and the after-effects threaten to cause financial havoc. Yet, those responsible for the botched operation are prescribing more nostrum and promises daily. It’s all a cold play for them.

Almost a fortnight after notes of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 were outlawed, the complete lack of planning and competence is obvious. Here’s how:

– We were told that ATMs and banks would replace cash fast. But it may take nearly six months to print currency that could fill the void in the system. The mints just don’t have the capacity to print notes worth Rs 14 lakh crore that may have to be exchanged.

Narendra Modi. PTI

Narendra Modi. PTI

– We were told that counterfeit notes would turn into pieces of scrap. But banks are now reporting that large amounts of fake currency are being tendered at the counters and getting replaced with new notes. The overworked banking system just doesn’t have the time and wherewithal to check counterfeit currency. Besides, the cost of printing those notes and the effect of demonetisation on the GDP, make the counterfeit currency threat appear loose change.

- We were told that large amounts of illegal assets would be disclosed too. But that looks like another jumla now. Cash forms just about six per cent (that’s the most liberal estimate) of the country’s black economy GDP as this Hindustan Times report points out referring to Income-Tax probes between April 1 to October 31 in 2016. And, some of this may never return to the banks in the end since a major portion may have already been laundered or syphoned off to offshore accounts because some people could have had prior information about the government’s decision.

– We were told that outlawing old notes would break the back of terror networks and tame Pakistan. Well, just a couple of days ago, terrorists struck in Assam. On Monday morning, India woke up to the news of Pakistan shelling the border and killing one more jawan. For them, it is business as usual. And if you are reading too much into the silence in Kashmir, probably you are among those who believe that Kashmiris were throwing bricks of gold instead of stones at security forces.

It is obvious the surgery is not going to cure anything. Writing in The Economic Times, Amit Varma argues that even if this were implemented right, we would not have been spared the havoc it has caused. “Indeed, Burkean conservatives and Hayekian libertarians alike would be aghast at Modi’s actions, as he propels India towards the Soviet Union so admired by Nehru, with its state oppression, artificial shortages and infamous queues,” he argues.

Given that economics is not every politician’s cup of tea, what were the experts in this country drinking while rolling out this scheme? Did nobody tell the government that only 53 percent India has bank accounts? Did nobody tell them that printing Rs 2,000 notes will create more problems because nobody would have smaller notes to break them? Did nobody tell them that at the least they should print notes that could fit in the ATM cassettes, and print smaller notes first? Did nobody have the sense to laugh at the joke of moving towards a cashless economy with notes of higher denominations?

Ad-hocism, knee-jerkism and post facto wisdom are in circulation as cash disappears. Everyday rules for withdrawal change and new farmans are issued prompting WAGs to joke that one should quickly withdraw money while they are using indelible ink on fingers. For, tomorrow somebody might suggest the idea of blackening the entire face to mark people.

The government appears as clueless as a fielding captain whose bowlers are being thrashed all around the park. Out of desperation, the captain is changing the field placement after every delivery, in the hope that something may work.

Two days after the government unleashed surgical strife on millions of Indians through its policy of demonetisation of the poor and the honest, Firstpost had argued that this will be the BJP’s Waterloo. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his team should read the writing on the wall: change is coming.

The BJP’s core constituency of traders is despondent. Unorganised labour, farmers and small traders have suffered huge losses over the past fortnight and fear a financial freeze over the next two-quarters. The worst is yet to come, though. Some estimates suggest the GDP may fall by half, down to around 3.5 percent in the next financial year. According to Ambit Capital, the economy may get paralysed over the next few months.

Politics in India may run on empty jumlas but the economy can’t survive on empty coffers. So, when the full impact of demonetisation is felt by the market, growth shrinks, jobs disappear and cash goes out of supply. There will be a backlash. The final price of demonetisation could be heavy for the BJP.

They say you learn by reading and observing, but here the BJP seems to have dived into boiling oil to take some valuable lessons home. As a scribe friend said: only diehard bhakts wouldn’t mind that.

However, if the government is looking for lessons, I would suggest a Panchtantra tale: A king once befriended a monkey and made him his guard. One day, while the king was asleep, the monkey stuck a fly on the king’s nose with a sword. Morale of the story: Good intentions are nothing if not backed by common sense.

First Published On : Nov 21, 2016 12:46 IST

Demonetisation: Reddy was ready with cash, PM Modi, what about pyre of the honest?

‘Ghar mein shaadi hai, paise nahin hai…’ Prime Minister Narendra Modi said at an event in Japan a day after announcing ‘demonetisation.’

So, what happens when there is a wedding at home and there is no money at home?

If you are G Janardhan Reddy, you invite thousands of people, spend several crores, publicly display your opulence and laugh at the shaadi-but-no-money joke.

And, if you are Jagdeesh Pawar, 50, of Sikar in Rajasthan, you just die. Because, ghar main shaadi hai paise nahin hai. Since Pawar’s story is a metaphor of our times, this tale of a wedding and many funerals, needs recounting.

While people like Reddy, the intended victims of ‘demonetisation’ were spending their crores — presumably none of it was old stashed cash — at a wedding, Pawar, the intended beneficiary, was getting victimised.

Pawar’s two daughters were to get married on 3 December. On Wednesday, he left home before dawn to exchange currency at a local bank. But, unable to withdraw or exchange after queuing up till noon, he returned home, told his family that it seems he won’t be able to arrange money, complained of chest pain and died a few hours later.

People stand at a closed ATM in Guwahati. PTI

People stand at a closed ATM in Guwahati. PTI

Pawar, like all fathers who plan for ages to get their children married, may have saved for years. He may have even withdrawn this money from a bank, or may have kept it in a box at home. But, all of it turned to scrap one fine night after just one speech.

Everywhere in the world, the law of natural justice is based on this premise: Not one innocent should suffer even if a hundred guilty get away.

Tell this to Reddy’s family.

Tell this to Pawar’s wailing daughters.

Tell this to the dozens who have reportedly died, thousands who have lost employment and millions whose trade has come to standstill.

If the noisy narrative dominating India at the moment is to be believed, the government has conducted a surgical strike with its ‘demonetisation’ drive. It is aimed at the dishonest, deshdrohis, beneficiaries of the 2G scam, financiers of terror networks, purveyors of counterfeit notes and those who sleep on wads of thick notes.

Pawar was just a chaiwallah.

If this is indeed a surgical strike and it is killing people like Pawar, who is the real insurgent, who is the target? Reddy?

Writing for The Indian Express, Pratap Bhanu Mehta argues that a new kind of national project has been unleashed on the nation where all individuality has to be effaced. “Every citizen will appear, alternatively, as a patriot or a criminal: The histories of their individual life worlds, whether they have bank accounts, how much cash they use, how far they live from an ATM, all these questions pertinent to the distributive consequences of these actions will be immobilised,” he writes.

Pawar just got his life effaced for the cause. He died, perhaps, a criminal waiting for the state to declare him innocent.

Like Pawar, almost the entire country is on the road, queuing up for cash, a metaphor of their monetary, fiscal innocence. Some believe they are part of some moral, ethical ritual that would cleanse their own souls through suffering and make the country better. Others, like many Hindus, think by making an offering, like at temples while seeking forgiveness for their sins of the past, their past would be laundered.

Janardhan Reddy. PTI

Janardhan Reddy. PTI

Tell a fool he is making a sacrifice for the interest of the nation, religion, God, for the greater common good. Tell him it would be rewarded with a life in a financial paradise, in the company of 72 virgins. He would go laughing to the gallows, willingly detonate RDX tied to his vest or queue up at an ATM.

But, what happens when the sacrifice doesn’t lead to the promised paradise? When consumption demand falls, businesses get wiped out, unorganised labour in the private sector gets retrenched, economy stagnates, Rs 2,000 notes become the new currency of corruption, weddings get postponed, funerals hastened and everyone becomes a potential victim of a tax raid?

When har-har Modi turns into, to use Mamata Banerjee‘s quip, ghar-ghar chor?

When there is a shaadi at home but no money?

When Pawars are dying and the Reddys are smiling?

First Published On : Nov 17, 2016 17:29 IST

Demonetisation: Two numbers show how currency ban treats India’s rich and poor

In the chaotic days after the surprise announcement by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, two figures have caught public attention nationwide (at least at this stage). The first is 47 and the second 550.

What are these numbers?

Well, 47 is the latest count of reported deaths across India that have been linked to the demonetisation chaos — mostly, it was elderly people died waiting in the queues to draw money from their own bank accounts, or to exchange their own old Rs 500, Rs 1,000 notes. The actual death count may be higher or lower since there is no accurate estimate other than media reports.

The second number, 550, refers to the fancy figure of Rs 550 crore.

That’s the amount Karnataka-based politician and mining baron, G Janardhana Reddy, spent to arrange the wedding spectacle for his only daughter, Bramhani, on Wednesday — a wedding attended by politicians from both the BJP and the Congress. Reddy recreated a palace to surprise his daughter.

There aren’t any examples better than these two numbers to depict how the rich and poor in this society have been treated by Modi’s historic demonetisation exercise. Those 47 who died from exhaustion and trauma in long queues and the Reddy wedding are two ends of this society in which we live. These figures tell us how the ‘rich and the powerful’ couldn’t care less about the cash crunch and how it is the common man, the janata janardhan, who is the actual sacrificial goat.

File image of G Janardhana Reddy. PTI

File image of G Janardhana Reddy. PTI

Reddy is only a symbol of a club of the rich and politically-powerful in this country, who are immune to the general rules that apply to the janata in this country. This club never bothered about Modi’s currency ban.

The Reddy show

How did Reddy manage Rs 550 crore for his daughter’s marriage extravaganza? If this entire sum was plastic currency or electronic currency, Reddy holds the answer to how to turn India’s deeply-locked cash economy into a cashless one in a matter of days — he should be made the Union finance minister or Reserve Bank of India (RBI) governor, as the incumbents in these positions are struggling to achieve this goal.

Or else, even if a fifth of the money Reddy spent was in cash and if we assume that all of these aren’t Rs 100, Rs 50 and Rs 10 notes that Reddy had stored in his secret chamber before the currency ban, then the following question arises: How did Reddy manage to get new currency (to the tune of Rs 100 crore or more when common man is forced to  stand in queues for hours before so much as a glimpse of new currency notes or even the old Rs 100 note?

Did some banker or a childhood friend in the government help Reddy to get what was required to pay for the Rs 550-crore wedding gala?

The answer should come from the Income Tax Department, the police, the financial intelligence unit and ultimately, the Narendra Modi government. And it isn’t limited only to Reddy; all similar cases should be identified and investigated. The guilty should be brought before the law of the land.

It’s true that Reddy is known for the abundance of his wealth. He has every right to conduct the wedding ceremony in whichever way he wants. Nobody has any right to sneak into an individual’s private life and then analyse his personal affairs. But the current scenario warrants a closer look.

All of us — the salaried, the small traders, the vegetable vendors, the safaiwallahs, the chaiwallahs, the school teachers, the bank clerks and the taxiwallahs — have money in our bank accounts, although the figures may not be even a fraction of Reddy’s fortune.

But, logic says that the difficulties that apply to the common man should apply to Reddy as well, if the rules are same for every citizen. Right?

If that is the case, we need the government to tell us how the ‘pain of child birth’ is so different for two ends of society? Yes, all of us are eagerly waiting to see the baby and still curious to know why the double standard?

What the two figures — 47 and 550 — tell us is that the ones who are supposed to be taken care by the political establishment — the aam aadmi — are left to die near ATMs and bank branches, while life is much the same as before for the highly privileged in society.

The Reddy wedding is a case that needs to be investigated thoroughly. But, the big irony is the failure of the Modi government in governing the whole exercise. It’s ironic because the government itself agrees that it was planning the demonetisation exercise for some six months. That’s a lot of time to plan and make the contingency measures ready.

But, still the super-brains in the government couldn’t visualise what would happen to the order of life among the majority of common people, when the decision was finally rolled out. Perhaps they expected an ideal situation whenin every citizen practiced self-discipline and drew only the bare minimum from ATMs. But, what the government failed to understand was mob psychology.

Representational image. PTI

Representational image. PTI

The government should have thought through the process and realised that that people would withdraw the maximum possible amount each time (Rs 2,500 as of now in certain ATMs) and the machines would run dry in matter of hours, if not minutes. It failed to see that people will hoard their own legitimate money anticipating bad days ahead, further complicating the matter.

There are people still, mainly senior citizens, office-goers and housewives, who haven’t been able to withdraw money in the past eight days and have cut short their expenditure to the maximum extent possible, while on the other hand the wealthy like Reddy still have a magic wand to get their cash and spend it for their ‘humble’ needs.  Just to understand the picture let’s assume that a bank fills around Rs 2 lakh in an ATM at a time.

The amount Reddy spent — Rs 550 crore — would fill 27,500 ATMs across the country. While the Reddy gala took place in Karnataka, there were many fathers who committed suicide across the country, as they couldn’t buy groceries or to meet other expenses for their daughters’ weddings. The loss of lives cannot be treated as a temporary pain; the issue is very serious.

A death count of 47 or so — as is being reported — happens only when there is a natural calamity or a vehicle mishap or a bomb blast, not when a “well thought-out” economic reform gets implemented by a government. No matter the long-term benefits of the demonetisation exercise, the Modi government is answerable for the difficulties and loss of lives the common man has faced in the days since the announcement.

The two figures — 47 and 550 — should be an eye opener to Modi and his ministers.

First Published On : Nov 17, 2016 12:04 IST

Demonetisation: Narendra Modi has burnt down a forest to find a few black sheep

If you can’t trace money parked in Panama,
Target those who keep it in folds  of pyjama,
If you can’t scare a Vijay Mallya or a Lalit Modi,
Ensure every trader wets his vest and dhoti,
Can’t stop owner of Kingfisher Airlines from flying?
Haul up drivers of autos, ricks and Bluelines,
If you can’t identify and catch a thief,
Scan everyone right down to the briefs,
If you can’t win polls  with a surgical strike,
Let everyone experience financial strife.

This essentially is new Modinomics for you, defined by his monetary policy of demonisation and victimisation–of almost every Indian.

Its defining moment came two days ago in Tokyo, when ecstatic NRIs chuckled at the misery of “corrupt” Indians.

File image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. PTI

File image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. PTI

Kal ghar main shaadi hai, par ghar mein paise nahin hai (there’s a wedding in the family tomorrow, but there’s no money),” Prime Minister Narendra Modi said, slapping his palm with the other. On cue, those earning presumably in Yen began chanting ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai‘. The thought of a poor Indians running out of money on the eve of their daughter’s marriage must have been really cathartic.

Convoluted catharsis — that’s the phrase that comes to mind as the narrative on demonisation unfold. It seems everyone unhappy about financial restrictions is happy that everybody is in agony, especially those who use notes as mattresses and pillows.

Like the prime minister said, those who made money in the 2G scam are queuing up for Rs 4,000. Yes, look around. See that rickshaw-puller, see that woman in her 70s. See that mother running around for cash to buy medicines for her hospitalised child.

No, don’t get me wrong. All of us are completely in favour of curbing corruption, strict action against tax evaders and weeding out counterfeit currency and kaala dhan. Being part for the past 20 years of the one percent of Indians who actually file their income tax returns, I am all for widening the network, lightening the burden of those who shoulder it.

But, to burn down a whole forest to find a few black sheep is not the way to do it. To make everyone miserable, turn an entire country upside down could be dramatics and Modinomics, not economics.

How much currency is currently floating around in the market? Some estimates suggest we have currency notes worth around Rs 17,000 billion in circulation at the moment. Of this, around 85 percent is made of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes. Let’s presume half of this is kaala.

What is India’s GDP? Around $1.9 trillion (~Rs 128.7 lakh crore) in 2013. So, this means Rs 500 and 1,000 notes are 12 percent of the GDP and the black component in cash around six per cent of it.

So, are we to believe India’s parallel economy is just five to six percent of the GDP? Certainly not. It is much bigger and has been so for several decades.

But, the real problem is that most of the unaccounted wealth is either parked in real estate or bullion in India or has been stashed away in offshore accounts.

So, it is the poor and the middle class that would be harassed more because of the demonetisation instead of the rich.

Look around. See those queues again.

There is another practical problem with the directive to deposit the old currency notes in banks. What if the currency was kept at home, saved for years, after paying tax on it? How will the tax authorities distinguish genuine income kept at home for several years from black money, especially by housewives and farmers, whose income has always been tax free?

Obviously, the poor would pay for the rich, who either have just a small proportion of their unaccounted wealth in currency notes or have enough resources to launder them.

In the end, the new instrument of Modinomics will hit everyone — rich, poor, middle class, evaders and payers. Ultimately, except for loose change, nothing would come out of it. So, those seeking solace in the presumed misery of the corrupt are actually laughing at themselves.

The government’s intention is right. But its execution, as many economists have pointed out, is faulty.

Real corruption lies in the processes that are entrenched in the system:  Electoral funding (parties do not open it up for public scrutiny), real estate transactions, the loot by private schools and hospitals, corrupt bureaucracy, crony capitalism and lack of action against loan defaulters and financial crooks.

Instead of acting against them in a systemic manner, the government has struck against the poor, farmers, traders, housewives and unorganised labour in this country.

Instead of going to Panama, he has picked the pockets of those in pyjamas and dhotis.

First Published On : Nov 15, 2016 10:36 IST

Demonetisation: Why I will give Narendra Modi 50 days to reset the system

The last few days have been tough.

Really tough.

Apart from the usual work-life pressures that accompany middle-of-the-road professionals, we have had to take time out from insanely odd schedules to stand in queues and convert non-legal tender. The missus and I took turns to visit our respective banks and despite not a small amount of chaos, emerged with cash in hand. The banking officials were cooperative under extreme pressure and deserve unqualified respect for pulling inhuman shifts in a thankless environment. As they toiled, the non-functional ATMs were a reminder that even the best-laid plans can sometimes go awry.

File image of Narendra Modi. AP

File image of Narendra Modi. AP

Although we have tried since 8 November to channel our domestic spending through digital and plastic platforms, many transactions in India’s largely cash-based economy still require cash. Guptaji, who runs the corner kiraana store, to our delight is accepting app-based payments, but a fishmonger has no such luxury and you cannot keep a Bong away from fish for too long.

The TV-based impression that there is anarchy on streets is wrong. But it would be fair to say that the initial euphoria that greeted Prime Minister Narendra Modi‘s shock decision to decommission the banknotes has slowly given way to worry, frayed nerves and tempers. And that is natural. If 86 percent of India’s total currency in circulation is outlawed in one stroke, it doesn’t take a CP Ramanujam to figure out that a country of 1.25 billion will face short-term, intense inconvenience. Given the sheer scale of the exercise and the total secrecy that preceded it, no amount of prior planning could have preempted the many glitches that have since erupted.

But how short is short term?

As daily lives remain suspended, the poor and the working class suffer losses, the economy grinds to a halt and the prospect of a deflation looms large just as the prime minister on Sunday asked for more time. He appealed for 50 days of hardship to rid the economy of black money and urged us to gnash our teeth and bear it. But is he justified in seeking that allowance? And should we give him that time?

There are two ways of looking at the decision to decommission the notes: Economic and moral. Both are intertwined.

The World Bank says India’s shadow economy forms 19 to 20 percent of the GDP; most economists disagree. They say the actual figure is much higher considering the fact that only 2.5 percent of Indians pay any sort of income tax. In truth, the parallel economy that drives the nation’s engine completely stays outside the tax net forcing the honest taxpaying citizens to pick up the tab.

Gautam Chikermane, journalist, author and New Media Director at Reliance Industries Ltd, says in his Facebook post: “Black money has become a culture, not paying taxes a best practice and laughing at taxpayers a national pastime… What may have begun as an idea to fill the pockets of politics for electoral funding (apart from personal coffers, of course) mushroomed into a culture that benefited the corrupt at the cost of the honest. The trickle down of this alternate economic system poisoned the mind of India. Essentially, it said: “Join us or be economically isolated. We have become the enemy in our own land, simply because we followed the law and paid taxes.”

The prime minister has struck at the very root of this malignancy and hacked away the branches that sustained the corruption tree. The argument that black money hoarders rarely store their moolah in cash is specious. India’s parallel economy is so huge that even if a part of it is converted into different asset classes, a mind-boggling amount of liquidity gotten from transactions that took place outside the tax net would still be around. Not only has this significant portion of black economy been rendered useless, in one fell swoop Modi also decapitated the fake currency industry that fuelled cross-border terrorism and nourished insurgency within our borders.

The parallel economy thrives on cash because unlike digital transactions, it leaves no footprint. Economists such as Richard Thaler of Chicago University or Harvard Professor Kenneth Rogoff believe that an economy overwhelmingly dependent on cash is more prone to corruption and in such a regime, the poor are the hardest hit.

While it is not possible for India to overnight rid the economy of all cash — neither is it warranted, demonetisation provides the government a great chance to press the “reset” button and actively move towards a regime that relies less on cash and more on plastic and digital money. According to the economists, that would make for a safer, fairer and a more resilient system.

If more money changes colour from black to white, the government will have more resources to spend and it may therefore target these spending towards social security schemes for the poor.

Now while demonetisation has sucked out the cash (both good and bad) almost in entirety, there should not be any illusion that the shadow economy will stay idle. It will absorb the shock and then proceed to rebuild. The legit question, therefore, is what was the point of this entire exercise?

Modi’s move will go a long way in raising the cost of hoarding black money in India.

The attempt is to make the shadow economy a less profitable and more risky enterprise and ultimately trigger a behavioural change.

Brookings India fellow Shamika Ravi writes in Livemint:

“Will this eradicate black money and corruption in India? Some ‘experts’ have warned that Indians are creative and will find ways to circumvent this demonetisation. That’s true — there are ways to bribe officials, make criminal transactions and evade taxes without Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes. But the removal of large bills will make several criminal and illegal activities more costly. Scaling back large denominations will not end crime, but it will force the underground economy to employ riskier and less liquid payment methods… This move will reduce corruption and several forms of criminal transactions in the economy.”

Now for the moral reason why I believe that Modi deserves our backing.

The chaiwallah at Delhi’s RK Puram, who backs the prime minister’s move despite taking a major hit in sales; the senior citizens who voice their support despite appearing visibly wary from standing in an unending queue, the grocer who has switched to digital payments and urges customer to take advantage of them, the housewife who believes the time spent in queuing up for cash will provide better dividends for the future are not “bhakts in awe of their ‘Supreme Leader’,” as a section of our commentators and elites would call them while being dismissive. They are the cross-section of our people who are fed up with the system.

Unlike the elites and so-called liberals, who can afford to be dismissive of any effort because they are used to bending the system to their advantage, these are representatives of the lower middle class, poor and the subaltern who have long paid a price for their honesty and integrity. In the prime minister’s decision, they have finally found a moral strength to take on the system and challenge it.

Modi’s move to trash the cash has armed them with a belief that they too, in their own small way, can be a part of the nation-building process and no amount of verbal chicanery and moral turpitude from the entrenched elites will sway them. Economic logic of whether this will trigger a deflation or recession doesn’t interest them. They have little patience for theory of positive shock that this move is supposed to bring. What moves them is the belief that in exchange for few days of hardship, they are helping the prime minister in building a better, fairer India.

Lastly, I would give Modi the 50 days that he has asked for because I am yet to come across any other leader who doesn’t mind irking his voter base for a higher national purpose. Modi would’ve done a cost-benefit analysis of the move before making it. He’d have known the insane risk involved in the project that may end up scalding him for good. I’d back him because he has shown the guts and moral certitude to be different.

First Published On : Nov 15, 2016 07:46 IST

Demonetisation: Narendra Modi has taken a political gamble by annoying his core voter base

The ‘Swachh Bharat’ slogan is on the Rs 2,000 note with a reason. The demonetisation is seen as the first step towards a clean-up of the system.

“But he is cleaning up our business,” says a resident of Hyderabad, who is into the business of arranging pilgrimage tours. Let us call him Mr Devout. For a trip, say to pilgrim spots in north India like Vaishno Devi etc, he charges around Rs 1.30 lakh per person, entirely in cash. He sends groups of around 40-50 people. He pays 0 percent tax and sits on piles of cash.

Another citizen is into the business of car accessories, with a turnover of Rs 5 crore per annum. Let us call him Mr Car. Even when he sells accessories worth around Rs 20,000, he does not take money by card or by cheque. He insists on cash. But look at his IT returns and you will find that Mr Car’s declared income is only around Rs 1.5 lakh per annum.

PM Modi addressing Karnataka Lingayat Education Society Centenary celebrations in Karnataka. Twitter @BJP4India

PM Modi addressing Karnataka Lingayat Education Society Centenary celebrations in Karnataka. Twitter @BJP4India

Mr Devout and Mr Car both voted for Narendra Modi‘s BJP in 2014. Since 8 November, when the PM dropped the bombshell on them, both have turned bitter critics.

Just like this person who deals with automobiles. On the morning of 9 November, he approached his neighbour asking him if he can help convert Rs 3 crore from black to white. “Modi ne achha nahi kiya,” he grumbled. “Business will become zero. We wanted him to increase our dhanda, not kill it.” When asked why he wouldn’t he pay tax to the government, his counter question was : “Why should I give my money to the government?”

When you come across examples of such citizens, you realise this ‘surgical strike’ was much needed. The black sheep had to be identified and weeded out. They now have no choice but to make their cash enter the system.

Not that they are giving up. Several experts at money laundering are in hyperactive mode since Wednesday, reaching out to known moneybags through SMSs, offering to exchange the cash at 30 percent commission. But experts estimate that even if Rs 5 lakh crore of the Rs 14 lakh crore worth of 500 and 1,000 rupees notes come into the system, it will take care of India’s entire fiscal deficit for at least the next one year.

Though it is estimated that 20 percent of India’s GDP or around $450 billion is unaccounted for wealth, experts estimate that the actual figure could be much higher. Most of it is stored in the form of cash or parked in real estate or bullion.

Which is why demonetisation has to be just the first step in ensuring India changes its shades –from black to white. Modi has already indicated that more steps are in the offing after 30 December. Sources say the gold holdings of high net worth individuals could come under the scanner next. The jewellery business again is a murky world with a large number of customers opting to buy with cash, without revealing PAN card number. Once the whip is cracked on the jewellery houses, this practice will be a thing of the past.

But the real effective surgical strike will be when benami real estate is identified by linking each land deal to PAN and Aadhaar card. Land is where most black money is parked and is a favourite mode of investment among politicians who do not take the Swiss Bank route. That explains the nervousness among the political class in several states, leading to incoherent statements.

Modi has clearly taken a huge political gamble by annoying his core voter base. Politically, his calculation seems to be that he has time till 2019 to ensure the benefits of liquidity in the system and with the exchequer percolate down to the people of India

Visit any bank or ATM and you will realise that the people who are standing in the queue to withdraw money are not the likes of Mr Devout, Mr Car and Mr Automobile. They are mostly the Form 16 kind salaried class or senior citizens. They are not sitting on black money and most likely, given that public memory is short, after this bout of inconvenience is over, will applaud the same Modi for teaching the law breakers a lesson. There is an element of shadenfreude at play here.

The jury is out on how Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Goa will react to this Modi-stroke next year. But Modi, I think, believes in a long-term systematic investment planning. Even if he pays a price in the short-term, he will look to book electoral profits only in 2019.

Of course, this is not to say that the Modi sarkaar handled this logistical nightmare well. In most places, especially semi-urban and rural India, people are struggling to get their hands on money they spend. Finance Minister Arun Jaitley made it clear that it will take three weeks for ATMs to normalise operations and the wild rumours on social media have only made life anxious and difficult for the common man.

It is only fair that we blame Modi for not keeping his word. He told us in 2014 that he will bring change. For the last five days, all of India is waiting in queue to get the change.

First Published On : Nov 13, 2016 16:13 IST

Narendra Modi in Goa: Will the PM’s chemo be enough to kill the cancer of corruption?

The crooked little man who lived in the crooked little house on a crooked little lane obviously lived in India.

The Great Modi Experiment, as history will record, was on track for becoming the finest hour in India’s search for fidelity and honesty and a new era. It might still be.

His speech in Panjim, Goa, this morning had the tone of a messiah and hit all the right buttons. He declared an open war on the venal and the corrupt and cancer in the system. After 70 years, give him due credit; a man stood up and said it like he meant it.

Narendra Modi PTINarendra Modi PTI

Narendra Modi PTI

But has the cancer reached the stage where even NaMo’s chemo cannot help?

The good intent has failed to factor in the power and the depth of Indian corruption and its tentacles. So widespread are the roots of this tree and overhanging are its branches that mere good intentions won’t let the sun through.

One example of this is enough to know that malignancy is still alive.

The very fact that a counterfeit Rs 2,000 note was in circulation and used to dupe an onion grower in Karnataka is indicative of how well-organised this sector is and in its monstrous hydra-headed avatar, the more heads you cut off the more swiftly new ones grow.

As a nation we are still willing to fight the good fight, but it is just that awful suspicion that some of the very people who are the ‘good guys’ have supremely overlap interests with the ‘bad guys’ and the ‘really bad guys’ and between hundi, hawala, satta, makta, deceit and deception and multi-functioning hierarchies in both private and public sectors (not to mention the political arena) that have made an art and science of corruption, I am beginning to doubt that the Modi government is going to win this war.

The Trojan Horse is within the gates and its troops will thwart the moves made by the authorities.

When the defenders of the faith are themselves party to the callous pact, can Modi’s strategies outflank these traitors in his midst.

How do you fight a political system that is the Fort Knox of corruption and built on black money and bribery?

Of course, we will have a few prisoners of war and pat ourselves on the back and fling impressive figures and what he said this morning will resonate and be thunderous in its ovation. In a perfect world it was a perfect speech.

You cannot criticise it even if you tried.

But will we say, hello, this is fine rhetoric so then why has the Punjab chief of the BJP not been asked why he had a photograph of the Rs 2,000 note in advance and who sent it to him. Ask him. Tell us.

Open up the investigation into the sale of those printing presses from Nasik with plates and dyes in tact. How did they get to Pakistan? Find out. Tell us.

When people can be happily interviewed and tell you they opened accounts for their domestic workers and divvy up what was in the cupboard, and social media is replete with helpful hints on how to beat the system, you wonder if the system is just shadow boxing and wants to be beaten.

Oh yes, Modi is absolutely on the right track and his juggernaut leaves tangible trails of righteousness. I am just afraid of his mechanics and the others in his legions who might set the chariot on fire. There are just too many of them deeply hurt not to conspire against this meddling chief.

Thing is, corruption has become a member of the family. We have espoused and accepted it. It is our lubricant and our weapon of choice and tolerated as chai paani until it has integrated into our DNA.

While we might cheer lustily, who amongst us can pick up the first stone? Cinema ticket in black? Bribe for a railway seat? Cutback to get a paper cleared? Paying for a gazetted officer’s signature. Using clout. Coughing up money to put traction on file movements. Lining a palm to jump the queue.

Jumping the queue… it’s our national sport.

First Published On : Nov 13, 2016 13:55 IST

Demonetisation: When chaos is artificial, it’s tough to forgive, never mind intention

Anyone of us who has seen the National Geographic channel knows what happens when panic hits a herd of gazelles or bisons or cattle. It’s the young, the sick and the weak that get crushed in the stampede.

People queue up outside a bank to exchange their old Rs 1,000 and Rs 500 notes in Lucknow on  Saturday.  PTIPeople queue up outside a bank to exchange their old Rs 1,000 and Rs 500 notes in Lucknow on  Saturday.  PTI

People queue up outside a bank to exchange their old Rs 1,000 and Rs 500 notes in Lucknow on Saturday. PTI

Who suffered the most at Uphaar cinema fire in Delhi or at the deadly stampedes in Sabarimala — women, children and the elderly. It is natural law that chaos takes its toll most heavily on those who are the weakest. The whole point of civilization and an ordered society in some ways is to safeguard those who can’t defend themselves. That’s why you have armed forces and police personnel and courts.

The recent ban on Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes have divided most of us into two camps. On one hand, we have the mockers: those who see it as a nuisance/publicity stunt which will do no good and only inconvenience the common man. On the other hand, we have the believers who believe that it will bring on the next wave of reform and prosperity and equality to all. Let’s face it, whichever side we are on unless we are not heavily impacted by the actions, we all have had our little fun with it. We have taken our guilty pleasures in the associated schadenfreude. We have all made it a point to parade our righteousness by loudly declaring how we have always been honest taxpayers and those who suffer probably had it coming.

This has also given most of us a chance to do what we like to do most but rarely get a chance to do: show off our patriotism in the safe air-conditioned confines of our homes/offices and restaurants. The popular slogan has been how “the hardships are a small cost to pay to end black money”.

To those, I ask what cost is too much? We have heard reports of suicides in rural areas, fights breaking out at money exchange counters, the currency associated delays causing deaths in hospitals and the utter shock causing heart attacks to a few. At what point do we say it is too much a cost to bear? Are ten deaths/suicides not too many? What about a hundred? What about a thousand? Is not even one life lost one too many?

If you let a system which thrives on cash rule for decades and then suddenly decide to take it away, it is bound to create chaos. It is bound to create panic. Rumour mongers (predators) are going to have a field day and try to make the most out of it. You needed to protect the prey — the weakest. Why can’t you run full day television and radio programmes on Prasar Bharati and Doordarshan to educate the people or was the temptation to make the story about your historic actions too much?

There were reports of people calling 100 to report about petrol pumps and hospitals not accepting the banned notes and the police telling them there is nothing they could do. Really, they can’t do anything? A simple warning phone call wouldn’t have sufficed in most cases?

The easier way would always be to opt for lazy policy and shrug away from the lapses in implementation but you know that the devil is in the detail. A smarter way is to take responsibility for implementation and make sure that the system is simple, easy to understand and clearly conveyed.

My point is: Is it wrong for us to expect more from our government? We have tolerated being screened repeatedly at malls/hotels and airports because the governments couldn’t keep our borders safe. At least there we could say, you were trying your best and some things are beyond your control. I don’t think we would be as forgiving when the problem is an artificially created one.

The writer is quant trader and data consultant.

First Published On : Nov 12, 2016 21:01 IST

Rs 500, Rs 1,000 ban: An ATM nightmare involving cops apart, I’ll surely get my cash

Ten thirty am on a Friday, sandwiched between a bakery and a hardware store was the ICICI ATM, set back from the road by some 20 feet. There was no problem parking my car right in front of it. Diagonally across the road was another ATM of SBI. It was the right place to park myself.

Both the ATMs had run out of money by 9 am, because people had queued up since early morning and took away whatever the machines had. I was not one of those people.

The security supervisor of my apartment building, who has a ear firmly to the ground about the goings-on in the two-kilometre radius around, had informed me that the ICICI ATM would get a refill at 11 am.

“At the most 11.15, sir. Go there in time and you will get money,” he had said. “All in hundreds.”

So I was there well in time. I looked back at the road and checked both ways. There were no policemen. So I gallantly lit a cigarette. Kerala is the only state where the ban on smoking in public places is enforced with some seriousness. Then I waited, my eyes not leaving the door of the ATM even for a moment.

Representational image. PTIRepresentational image. PTI

Representational image. PTI

I adjusted my mirrors in a way I could watch the SBI ATM behind me as well. I congratulated myself on being smart. I should be writing crime novels instead of news and opinions.

Logging onto Twitter on my iPad, I was amused to read some funny, and some not so funny experiences of people with ATMs today. It was not hard to find that the unfunny, tragic experiences in getting cash came mostly from journalists who had always tweeted venom on Narendra Modi, no matter he did. But forget that. They are fools. They just have no idea how to park themselves at the right place and at the right time.

It was 11.30 am now. And there was no sign of the cash-refilling van. But I knew I must be patient.

A feeling that I was being watched made me look up. The glass door of the bakery opened just enough for a Veerappan-like moustache to come out of it. It was followed by a suspicious face attached to it. The door closed as quickly as I returned to my iPad.

Fifteen minutes later, a car screeched to a halt next to mine with some violence on the brakes. It was a police car with CRV painted in bold red on its side.

An efficient-looking sub-inspector with a big mole on his nose got out of the Control Room Vehicle and sauntered to my window.

“Karnataka car,” he said. It was a statement more than a question.

“Yes,” I said.

“Your name?”

I told him. He thrust a hand in my face. I knew what he wanted.

He took the licence and passed the RC book to a constable inside the CRV. “Your address in the license is in AP,” he said. The constable shouted from the car, looking at a receipt tucked in the RC book: “The car was serviced last month in Chennai, sir.”

“You got any other ID?” asked the SI.

Getting out of the car, I handed him my Aadhaar card. His eyes came out of his sockets.

He said in one breath, “Your DL address is in AP. Your car is registered in Karnataka. You service your car in Chennai. Your Aadhaar card address is Kerala.”

I nodded.

The question came after a pause. “Where were you on 16 August?”

The constables got out of the CRV and stood by his side. The SI mumbled something into the ear of a constable who mumbled something into a walkie-talkie.

I had no problem remembering where I was on I-day and the day after. “I was in Chennai.” He wouldn’t have been more surprised if I had told him I was on Mars on that day.

“What are you doing?” the SI asked.

“Am waiting for somebody to put money into that ATM.”

His eyes turned blood-red. “I mean what’s the job you are doing?” It was surprising he hadn’t asked that before. His face remained sceptical after I told him what I did for a living.

“So you want to rob one more ATM, right?”

Then the sound of two vehicles stopping behind me made me turn.

One was an ICICI jeep, apparently with cash. The other was another police car. An officer who I judged was a Deputy Superintendent of Police got out of the car and pointed an ancient revolver at me. His hand shook as he spoke.

“You are under arrest for the theft of eight lakh rupees from the HDFC ATM in Kochi on 16 August. Your description fits the absconding accused,” he said formally.

I woke up in a sweat.

Sitting back on the bed in my apartment, I reached for my wallet. I still had Rs 365 including the Rs 10 and Rs 5 coins. I sighed. I needed to be patient. Even if a part of my country’s black money had to be done away with, there were inconveniences. I didn’t mind it.

Author tweets @sprasadindia

First Published On : Nov 12, 2016 09:59 IST

Rs 500, Rs 1,000 notes banned: The missing elements in Narendra Modi’s attack on cash

Let’s agree: demonetisation of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes will be disruptive in the short term. It may be three months before business and retail transactions return to normal.

However, the question is this: is it worth spending thousands of crores in printing new currency and forcing banks to focus on handling so much cash instead of fixing their balance sheets, all for an inconclusive attack on black money?

Representational image. ReutersRepresentational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

The answer is a yes, but.

Yes, it is good to take a swipe at the hoards of black money held in currency notes (though the bulk of it must be held in real estate and gold). It is worth imposing a cost on crooks. But, this alone will not be enough. You must target other things and cash in general. You must force Indians to think less cash, more digital money.

This morning’s newspapers were stuffed with front-page ads from Freecharge, PayTM, Ola Money, Snapdeal, Uber, and Big Bazaar, among others, exhorting customers to substitute cash with other forms of payment, including e-wallets, mobile money, credit cards and electronic money transfers.

This is exactly what needs to be done.

Another Times of India report says that the Tirupati temple, India’s richest, is now setting up debit and credit card swiping machines. Even God can do with less cash.

While government ads talk about fighting black money, fake currency and terror funding, it is private businesses that are focusing on shifting focus from hard cash to virtual money.

The whole demonetisation exercise would be sub-optimal if it is seen merely as an attack on black money, and not physical money itself.

There are two broad issues here.

First, smaller value transactions need to be digitised.

Second, the stock of illegal cash generated by evading tax must be both diminished and prevented from accumulating further.

The first challenge needs political will and systematic efforts at financial literacy and promotion of digital money. This needs not only private sector effort but direct government intervention to popularise digital and mobile payments.

But this is exactly what government seems unable to do. After opening more than 250 million Jan Dhan accounts, more than a quarter of them have either zero balances or are operated infrequently.

When an initiative is top-down, the people pushing it (bankers in this case) will game the system. They will open the accounts and say “mission accomplished” when the real mission should be about having active accounts and not dormant ones. Top-down schemes need a strong push for usage, and this can’t be done without a long-term campaign of financial literacy that will explain how to open and maintain bank accounts, how to pay and receive money using mobile phones, and how to use debit cards, among other things. Putting a little amount of cash in these accounts (not Re 1, but something more substantial) will work wonders. The pump must be primed before it will be used.

Given the huge commercial interest in mobile money, as evidenced by today’s ads in various newspapers, this literacy programme can be done through a public-private partnership, with a marketing professional at the top.

In dealing with the other issue, reducing the hoard of black money and tapering down the generation of future flows, several steps need to be taken.

The most important one is real estate reform – and states must partner this initiative. The bulk of the black money is held in real estate, for this is where crooked politicians, builders, and businessmen are invested. A simple way to demolish black money in real estate is to reduce stamp duties dramatically, allow the vertical building to bring down prices of land, invest in infrastructure and mass transport, and create transparent and time-bound methods of giving building permissions.

If floor-space indices are boosted dramatically, real estate prices will fall, and benami owners will be forced to accept losses on their black money. As prices fall, more genuine buyers will be encouraged to buy property and the realty industry will revive, especially if transaction costs, including stamp duties, are rationalised.

The way to “drain the swamp” — to use Donald Trump’s apt term — is to make the real estate market function like a real market, by opening up supplies. Realtors and their hidden benefactors make money by bottling up land availability, not by allowing the land markets to function. Once real estate stops being a one-way bet to enormous gains, black money will have nowhere to hide.

As for gold, its price is artificially high in India precisely because the government wants to discourage its imports. If gold can come in and go freely, with minimal restrictions and duties, Indian prices will equate with global ones, and black money holders will take note. Indians will still buy gold, but the metal will stop looking overly attractive to black money holders.

You cannot demonetise gold the way you did with currency notes. But when the gold market operates for real, it will no longer give buyers a guaranteed gain in future. Gold prices can go up or down.

Another important area to focus on is state funding of elections. The demonetisation of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes will impact the funding of the forthcoming round of elections, including Uttar Pradesh, but future elections will surely draw more black money as everyone adjusts to the new notes. The only way to end this need for black money is to fund elections through the state. It is a small price to pay for the elimination of dirty money.

Narendra Modi should thus take this opportunity to go the whole hog. He must attack cash, both when used for ordinary transactions and when used to hide illegal wealth from the taxman. Right now, a lot of the hoard is held in brick and mortar, not just cash.

Goodbye, my beloved Rs 500 note: An ode to the dearly departed

When it comes to kaala dhan, I have nothing to declare, except my regret. And, unlike the famous Oscar Wilde quip he probably never made, I really mean it.

I wish we had known and taken the bazaar gossip about demonetisation seriously, believed all those rumours about the new nuke-resistant, self-destructing, GPRS-enabled new Rs 2,000 notes. But, then, we suspended disbelief only for surgical strikes. I wish I knew, like Mikhail Gorbachev dismantling the Berlin Wall at Ronald Reagan’s plea that Prime Minister Narendra Modi would be dismantling the black economy to Baba Ramdev‘s applause.

I wish I knew — I could have kept a piece of it, like a piece of the Berlin Wall. I could have buried it in a book like a leaf to look at wistfully in old age.

But, the last note went, without a warning, without a goodbye, without looking back even once, without a farewell. Like, well, you know the feeling, don’t you?

Representational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

A wise man and his money are soon partying. It is their deserved destiny. So, the last Rs 500 note went wisely. It just left a hangover of nostalgia. A fool and his money, though, are soon parting.

And Modi has delivered the parting shot to all those who were foolish enough to miss the signs, to laugh at everyone that wears a khadau and wears bhagwa dhotis.

Banking transaction tax, the Baba chanted with every outgoing breath of his anulom, vilom before the 2014 General Election. We laughed.

“Declare voluntarily,” exhorted Arun Jaitley and his team till September. We laughed again, asking, “Who pays a 45 percent penalty?”

Now, par 200 percent. A fool and his black money are soon parting.

Let’s cooperate, build the nation, calls up my enthusiastic friend GP Goenka. He is a part-time trader and a full-time bookie, what we north Indians call a satoria.

After having accepted bets, managed betting books on the odds against anything — from who will win UP to how many dead bodies will come to a crematorium — for a lifetime, he is livid with the air of levity around Narendra Modi‘s action on black money. “Everybody with black money should suffer,” he says. You bet!

Newspapers are flooded with adulatory advertisements from builders the next morning. Having built their business on the ’70 percent kachcha, 30 percent pucca‘ philosophy, they are now ecstatic India is turning 100 percent white.

“What do you have to say about Modi now, ab bolo?” taunts an architect friend who takes a flat five percent commission on Rs 10 crore houses made by those with declared income of Rs 2 lakh.

With Rs 500 and 1,000 notes, irony also died on Tuesday night. (As did the great American dream).

When they burn all those gaddis, will they call it bonfire of hypocrisy?

You can’t withdraw money any more from banks, but there is no end to withdrawal symptoms.

I am stuck in a Mumbai hotel, three Rs 100 notes in my pocket and a debit card no ATM will accept till Friday, listening to the cawing of black crows.

No kaali peeli driver will take kaala dhan any more. Bars, markets, theatres have all, like in the WH Auden poem, decided to stop the clock, stop the dog from barking with a juicy bone, pack up the moon and dismantle the sun. For nothing now can ever come to any good with Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes.

Until a few days ago, I was looking forward to the tamasha of the Uttar Pradesh polls. Now, they will become such a low note affair. What will Mayawati do with all those garlands she gets on choosing the right candidates? Maybe she has a valid reason to choose candidates afresh. Start her poll pitch on a higher moral note, so to speak. Perhaps this is the end of the tiff in Mulayam’s Parivar. With the root cause gone, they too can start on a fresh note!

On a serious note, it belies convention, money market logic to rush in where economists fear to tread.

You just can’t suck 86 percent or so of currency in circulation out of the market and turn hard-earned cash into pieces of scrap. Abracadabra, gone.

What then is the idea behind statutory liquidity ratios, repo rates, reverse repo rates, rate cuts that are debated, argued for months? What then is the rocket science behind monetary policy?
How many people in rural India have easy access to banks, plastic money, ATMs? How many have enough valid notes to go through their lives with weddings, medical emergencies, constructions? Is this the return of tax raj?

In the long term, a lifetime of savings parked in real estate and gold will suffer. Who will buy those big expensive cars, build those lofty buildings, buy those expensive flats? Many traders who rely on cash circulation will just keel over. Consumption will fall, discretionary demand would vanish.

But, that, perhaps, is momentary pain. Some day, with the black economy, it will also be gone.

Only one regret will remain forever: You left without a goodbye. Now, I don’t have even a piece of you.

UP polls 2017: In Kairana, Rajnath Singh sets tone for election with ‘maa ka doodh’ speech

Bollywood must immediately find the identity of the BJP’s speechwriter.

It may finally discover an heir to the Salim-Javed legacy.

On Monday, while speaking at a rally in Kairana, BJP leader and India’s home minister Rajnath Singh thundered in his famed baritone: “Those using muscle power to terrorise people… hum dekhenge ki usne kitna mas ka doodh piya hai.”

Maa ka doodh, Bollywood has shown us, is the ultimate proof of courage; the elixir that separates real men from those brought up presumably on cow’s milk.

File image of Union minister Rajnath Singh. CNN-News18

File image of Union minister Rajnath Singh. CNN-News18

On the big screen, when Amitabh Bachchan bashed up baddies bred on dabbe ka doodh (Mard) and challenged goons who had partaken of maa ka doodh (Khoon Pasina) to come and face him, it evoked thunderous applause, inducing the audience to throw coins at the screen. One could almost imagine the taalis and seetis that rang out when Rajnath delivered those lines in Kairana.

When it comes to expressing a hero’s anger and machismo, it would rank just alongside Dharmendra’s biggest contribution to cinema: Ka****e, mein tera doodh khoon pi jaoonga (Sholay).
Rajnath is obviously angry. Perhaps he is fuming just the way he was when told that Hafiz Saeed was behind the JNU ruckus last year. So, unable to control his emotions, he is dealing in screen-shattering dialogue. (At the same venue he claimed to have told Pakistan “seena thok ke” about its terror links.)

But, who are these people whose childhood dietary preferences he wants to check out? And why?

Kairana, it is evident, is the new Ayodhya or Muzaffarnagar for the BJP. With elections on the horizon, it wants to hardsell Kairana as a symbol of the imminent threat to Hindus by you-know-who.

In the BJP rule book of politics, polarisation is always the basic denominator in a poll equation. Having benefitted from Ayodhya, Gujarat, Muzaffarnagar, “Love Jihad”, beef ban and other emotive issues that polarise, the BJP always keeps looking with a fine-toothed comb for issues that could be turned into its new poll cry.

This election, it is trying to latch on to Kairana.

A few months ago, when BJP parliamentarian Hukum Singh released a list of Hindu families that had “migrated” from Kairana because of threat from Muslims, the BJP had pounced on the controversy like an eager child that has re-discovered its favourite toy. But, its enthusiasm was later dampened by reports that rebutted the claim. Several reports exposed the holes in Hukum’s theory.

It was established by several media organisations reporting from the ground that Kairana was battling a law and order problem. A war between gangs of local goons, unfortunately, was distorted by Hukum as an existential threat to Hindus. As Firstpost had argued then, it was yet another Malda moment — a mischievous misrepresentation of facts to raise the communal temperature of the state.

But, the BJP just can’t let Kairana go. It needs to continuously cry wolf to keep the electoral pot boiling. Why waste a good story for want of facts, no?

So, the BJP has entered the poll fray in Kairana with another Salim-Javed inspired slogan: Maa-behno ki aan mein, BJP maidan mein. Let’s hope they don’t forget to put Nihalchand Meghwal’s picture on posters to convey its concern for mabehen.

It is unfortunate that the BJP has to go back to communal dog whistles to win UP. With the current Mahabharata in the Mulayam Singh Yadav parivar, rising anti-incumbency, disarray in the Congress whose leader Rahul Gandhi is competing in dialogue-baazi with corny stuff like ‘khoon ki dalali’ and the confusion among Mayawati’s supporters, the election should have been a cakewalk for the BJP.

UP2017

Instead of going back to its regressive politics, the party could have worked on addressing the fault lines, healing the fragmented polity and society of the state and selling a development agenda for the state. But, its focus on emotive issues shows it lacks the courage to digress from its favourite formula.

Maybe, Rajnath is right. Perhaps it takes maa ka doodh to chart out a new path in a state as important as UP.

NDTV India ban: Freedom of Speech can’t be exploited to jeopardise national security

Flying abroad recently on an international flight, an erudite Indian journalist, well established in high-end social circuits at home and abroad, especially in our immediate neighbourhood in general and our western neighbour in particular, wondered aloud how the term ‘presstitutes’ came about in India, whether it was coined by a military veteran-turned-politician and why this term?

She had probably never heard of John Swinton, the former chief of staff of The New York Times, who addressed New York Press Club in 1953, saying:

“There is no such thing, at this date of the world’s history, as an independent press. You know it and I know it. There is not one of you who dares to write your honest opinions, and if you did, you know beforehand that it would never appear in print. I am paid weekly for keeping my honest opinions out of the paper I am connected with. Others of you are paid similar salaries for similar things, and any of you who would be so foolish as to write honest opinions would be out on the streets looking for another job.”

Swinton went on to say:

“If I allowed my honest opinions to appear in one issue of my paper, before twenty-four hours my occupation would be gone. The business of the journalist is to destroy the truth; to lie outright; to pervert; to vilify; to fawn at the feet of mammon, and to sell the country for his daily bread. You know it and I know it and what folly is this toasting an independent press. We are the tools and vassals of the rich men behind the scenes. We are the jumping jacks, they pull the strings and we dance. Our talents, our possibilities and our lives are all the property of other men. We are intellectual prostitutes.”

Representational image. Twitter @ndtv

Representational image. Twitter @ndtv

Whether ‘intellectual prostitutes’ is better than ‘presstitutes’ or vice-versa may be debated but speaking of the aforementioned reporter (who was part of an Indian delegation,) she announced in a bilateral discussion with a friendly country, “I do not agree with any of my delegation members that Pakistan should be called a terrorist state”. This was more shocking since no other country including Pakistan was present — this being a bilateral dialogue between India and the friendly country. When told later that she should have spoken this way, she shot back reasons A, B, C, D, and E why she cannot be faulted — the sum total of which was ‘Freedom of Speech’. When asked whether she saw any difference between a debate on TV in India versus projecting one’s own country’s viewpoint as part of an Indian delegation especially when Pakistan has upped its proxy war on India, she gave a blank look as if some gibberish was being thrown her way.

Not to mention that when told our response to Pakistan must include the sub-conventional, her query after years of journalism was, “What is sub-conventional?”. Of course she took umbrage when another delegation member (a former IAS official) told her that she appeared to be the elder version of a Indian television journalist and columnist who works as a consulting editor with a New Delhi-based TV channel.

Now let us look at the commotion over NDTV India being blocked for 24 hours for broadcasting sensitive information during the terrorist attack on the IAF airbase at Pathankot. The Opposition is delighted with added ammunition to disrupt the forthcoming Winter Session of Parliament, in addition to the OROP-related suicide by Subedar Ram Kishan Grewal, the disappearance of JNU student Najeeb Ahmad (could he have left the country?), surgical strikes, civilian casualties due Pakistani ceasefire violations and what-have-you — official work, including GST, be damned. NDTV India’s day-long ban is being equated with the years of Emergency. According to others, India is going the Pakistan way, with Islamabad having imposed restrictions on Pakistani journalist Cyril Almeida, putting him on the Exit Control List for breaking a story on the tiff between Pakistan’s civil and military leadership.

The intriguing part is that while Pakistan acted against Almeida almost instantaneously, the action against NDTV India comes almost 10 months after the event. Besides, what does the single-day ban convey? What type of token for having broadcast “sensitive information”? The decision reportedly was taken by an inter-ministerial committee (IMC) comprising joint secretaries from the ministries of Home, Defence, External Affairs, I&B, Health and Family, Women and Child Development, plus representative of the Advertising Standards Council of India — all in all, a diverse and august group. According to the grapevine, the IMC found the TV channel to have violated the provisions of the Program Code, specifically Clause 6 (1) (p) of the code, in its coverage of the Pathankot terrorist attack.

The Program and Advertising Code of the Cable TV Network Rules, 1994 has been incorporated in the Cable Act and is taken from the content code governing All India Radio. But when Clause 6 (1) (p) of the code was added in June 2015, doesn’t the action against NDTV after almost 10 months after the broadcast show the lackadaisical and callous manner in which we deal with what has been referred to as a leak of “sensitive information”? After the elapse of so many months, it is difficult to remember what the broadcast really was considering every channel was broadcasting continuous coverage of the terror attack. But what exactly did NDTV India broadcast that was not being broadcast by some of the other channels, if not all? If the information endangered national security, did the IMC inform the NSA? And, isn’t a one-day ban akin to the knee-jerk reaction of arresting Hurriyat leader SAS Geelani and then sending a delegation to meet him next day?

The Editors Guild of India is up in arms:

“The decision to take the channel off the air for a day is a direct violation of the freedom of the media and therefore the citizens of India, and amounts to harsh censorship imposed by the government reminiscent of the Emergency. This first-of-its-kind order to impose a blackout has seen the Central government entrust itself with the power to intervene in the functioning of the media and take arbitrary punitive action as and when it does not agree with the coverage.”

The case of a token ban on NDTV India and its justification can be argued by concerned parties, even the highest — at the Supreme Court-level, and one cannot argue whether it was right or wrong. However, as a nation we must acknowledge that our reporting is devoid of any sense of national security when needed most.

Some of the prominent examples include:

– Entire layout of Parliament shown post the terrorist attack, including who sits where and routes of entry and exit.
– Continuous coverage during terrorist attacks especially the 26 November, 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai giving location and movement of own troops, giving advantage to Pakistani terrorists.
– Pincers and arrows of Strike Corps objectives in enemy territory being shown after corps-level exercises.
– Options for future operations being openly discussed by TV channels with maps and models post the recent surgical strikes.
– Visuals and broadcasts that incite racial and communal violence.

Forget China and Pakistan, but name one other country where broadcasts like the above are made. They all are careful not to jeopardise national security. Where, and if, national security is involved, forget token bans, there should be prosecution — Freedom of Speech can’t be exploited to jeopardise national security.

The author is a veteran Lieutenant-General of the Indian Army

(Firstpost is from the same stable as IBN7 which competes with NDTV India)

Transgender bill fails to incorporate spirit of NALSA verdict, community fears denial of rights

At Koovagam, in the Villupuram district of Tamil Nadu, in April 2016, Jaya, a young transwoman reminisces about Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) member, Tiruchi Siva’s attempt to move a private member’s bill — the Rights of Transgender Persons Bill, 2014 — was successful as the Rajya Sabha unanimously passed it by voice vote. His was the first private member Bill to be passed in 45 years. Jaya calls it the Tiruchi Siva Bill, and notes that while she came out to her parents and friends in 2005 when she was 14, it took another ten years for her community to come out. Data from the Avahan III programme (Swasti Health Resource Centre) indicates that, on an average, individuals identify themselves as transgenders at the age of 14 years while being able to come out to their circle only at the average age of 18 years.

A transgender activist. AFPA transgender activist. AFP

A transgender activist. AFP

In August 2016, the Central government introduced the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill, 2016 in Lok Sabha. However, this was a much more diluted version of the 2014 bill. If passed, it would reverse all the gains for dignity and equal rights that the community has collectively championed for in the past several decades.

The bill imperils several of the rights guaranteed by the Supreme Court’s verdict in 2014 in the National Legal Services Authority (NALSA) vs Union of India case. In the NALSA judgment, the bench, consisting of justices KS Radhakrishnan and AK Sikri, broke down the heteronormative, binary gender constructs of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ that is deeply ingrained in Indian law, and affirmed that the constitutional rights and freedoms of the transgender community are absolute. The path-breaking verdict recognised a spectrum of different gender identities, as well as provided very sound rationale for upholding the rights of the community. It stated that “[…]the gender to which a person belongs is to be determined by the person concerned“, thus, recognising the right to personal identity, autonomy, and self-determination under Article 21 (the right to life) of the Indian Constitution. Irrespective of medical, legal or surgical intervention, the court also secured the rights of gender expression by every transgender person, under Article 19 (1) (a) — the freedom of speech and expression. Lastly, the court stated that all transgender persons shall have the right to equality and equal protection under Articles 14, 15 and 16 by prohibiting discrimination on the ground of gender identity.

By giving equal legal status to transgender persons established on fundamental legal principles of international human rights, the NALSA judgment secured for the third gender to enjoy “full moral citizenship” and the right to dignity, while at the same time, opening the doors for the legislature to codify these substantial legal principles into law. The Tiruchi Siva Bill of 2014 did this immensely well. It proposed two percent horizontal reservation for transgenders in education and employment and sought affirmative actions in the present system due to their historical struggle with violation of rights and social entitlements. A survey conducted by Swasti Health Resource Centre for Avahan III programme shows that on an average 27 percent of the transgenders have reported facing at least one form of violence in six months.

The bill also suggested special statutory commissions on the lines of an OBC, SC (Scheduled Caste) or women commissions for a more comprehensive protection of the community’s interests. Along with this, the bill upheld the requirement of legal aid, medical help and special fast-track courts for them. None of these provisions have a found a way in the Transgender Bill of 2016.

Most importantly, however, is the issue of self-identification of transgender persons. The Tiruchi Siva Bill was based on the NALSA judgment that upheld the right of any person to identify as female, male or a third gender irrespective of medical intervention, including gender change surgery. The 2016 bill, however, conflates gender and biological sex, thereby, blurring the distinct difference between a social construct and an inherent anatomical characteristic, and is in contravention to the guiding definition of transgender in the NALSA verdict – “Transgender [TG] is generally described as an umbrella term for persons whose gender identity, gender expression or behaviour does not conform to their biological sex. TG may also take in persons who do not identify with their sex assigned at birth, which include hijras/eunuchs who, in this writ petition, describe themselves as ‘third gender’, and they do not identify as either male or female […] Resultantly, the term ‘transgender’, in contemporary usage, has become an umbrella term that is used to describe a wide range of identities and experiences, including but not limited to pre-operative, post-operative and non-operative transsexual people, who strongly identify with the gender opposite to their biological sex; male and female.”

The definition in the 2016 Bill is also based on a binary and heteronormative exposition of gender. Section 4 of the Bill reads – “Neither wholly female nor wholly male; or a combination of female or male; or neither female nor male; and whose sense of gender does not match with the gender assigned to that person at the time of birth, and includes transmen and transwomen, persons with [themselves] inter-sex variations and gender-queers.” This definition is limiting and exclusionary – again, a blatant contravention of the NALSA judgment.

In addition to this, while the 2016 Bill provides for the right to perceived gender identity, it also makes it mandatory for every such transgender person to apply to a District Screening Committee, comprising the Chief Medical Officer (CMO), the District Social Welfare Officer, a psychologist or psychiatrist, a representative of the transgender community and an officer of the relevant government. This Committee would conduct an inquiry and ‘certify’ transgender identities for applicants. This is a gross violation of human rights and constitutional principles that a supra-constitutional body would determine the identity of transgender people. Involving a CMO for screening also means that the members of the third gender would be subject to arbitrary medical examinations and allied humiliation and that this would be sanctioned by the state.

The bill seeks to bring under its purview illegal acts of trafficking of gender nonconforming children and begging. However, it does not do so on sound logic. It operates in a void when proposing these clauses. Section 19 states that “Whoever,— (a) compels or entices a transgender person to indulge in the act of begging or other similar forms of forced or bonded labour other than any compulsory service for public purposes imposed by Government […] shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which shall not be less than six months but which may extend to two years and with fine.” The bill attempts to dismantle the age-old tradition of begging that hijras engage in for livelihood, by criminalising the person who coerces young transgender persons to take up begging. But it does so without determining other feasible livelihood options or reservations for transgenders. Today only 25 percent transgenders have found formal employment in mainstream society, 32 percent meet their survival needs through begging and an astonishing 67 percent through sex work. At least 20 percent are involved in both.

It must be understood that begging is an activity that has resulted from structural inequalities, due to a disbalance of education and employment opportunities. This may be used by the agencies of the State, like law enforcement and the police to criminalise transgender people, and subject them to further violence and stigma. This is a dangerous proposition as transgenders are often driven away from home, and find refuge in fictional families or Jamats – having a spurious legal provision like this can take away entire support systems of gender nonconforming youths who have nowhere to go. A whopping 74 percent of the transgender persons have had to leave home and their birth families because of being transgender and having faced violence and abuse, often leading to having little or no contact with them nor receiving any kind of support — financial nor emotional.

Section 13 states — “No transgender person shall be separated from parents or immediate family on the ground of being a transgender, except on an order of a competent court, in the interest of such person […] (3) Where any parent or a member of his immediate family is unable to take care of a transgender, the competent court shall by an order direct such person to be placed in rehabilitation centre.” This provision completely takes away the right of fictional families of transgender youth, many of whom run away from home or are driven out when they come out to their immediate families; and subjects gender nonconforming youth to the arbitrariness of courts and judges. It also coerces upon the youth the option of a rehabilitation centre by way of legal procedure, without explaining the need for such a provision in the first place.

A case study — from Social Action and Rehabilitation Association (SARA), Theni (Tamil Nadu), a community organisation for and managed by transwomen — where a 14-year-old gender nonconforming child ran away from home and came to the house of a transgender member to seek refuge. His parents informed the police, who in turn beat up all the members in the house and took the child away to his parents. When the child was produced before the district magistrate, he upheld the best interests of the child doctrine and stated that he may reside with whoever he chooses. The child chose the transgender gharana, and now lives with them. This was an unusual case from the field, where the judiciary ruled in favour of the transgenders and defended them from police and structural abuse. Another case from a community organisation called Salem Thirunangaigal Nala Sangam (STNS) in Salem (Tamil Nadu) faced charges of kidnapping when a child came to them for psychological support, and his parents found out. Members of STNS have also faced widespread police abuse since this incident occurred in December 2015.

Lastly, it does not provide an adequate definition of discrimination towards transgenders, which is necessary when public spaces — jobs, education, and the aspect of having families — is being opened out for them. It also does not align other laws that are based on binary gender identities to the transgender community — the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence (PWDVA), 2005, Sexual Harassment (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) at Workplace, 2013, the clauses on rape and sexual assault in the Indian Penal Code, 1860, the relaxing of gender barriers in laws that determine marriage — none of these have been brought at par with the NALSA judgment that expounds these rights under the right to life under the Constitution. At least 12 percent of TGs have reported sexual assault or facing violence due to their gender.

Most importantly, the bill of 2016 does not provide specific provisions for transgender health care — the Tiruchi Siva Bill mentioned free SRS surgery and allied medical treatment for transgenders. Findings have reflected that while on an average 79 percent transgenders have undergone SRS of which only 23 percent were able to undergo it in a formal medical facility, while the rest underwent the informal process called Nirvaan which is both unhygienic and dangerous. Their hurdles varied across availability of services, its affordability, and accessibility to the individuals. Societal stigma and dynamics within the community also played a major role.

For transgender persons like Jaya, who are trapped between the aspect of acceptance, justice and politics, this tug of war between the two bills marks another struggle — perhaps a longer and more grueling one over legalese and legality. One can only hope that the community’s interests are understood and the principles of human rights are respected.

All data sourced from Avahan III programme [Swasti Health Resource Centre]. (2016, June). Bangalore, Karnataka.

Orop issue, SIMI encounter, India-Pakistan ties: News stories come, collapse and never end

Indian news stories often have no ending and no one cares to ask why?

Like has anyone found the missing JNU student Najeeb Ahmed, who disappeared three weeks ago? Worse, is anyone interested in getting to the bottom of it? It is already a cold case. Like it never happened.

Eight SIMI activists were killed in an encounter in Madhya Pradesh after a ‘great’ escape from a maximum security jail in which they killed a warder. And it would seem they were shot in cold blood. All SIMI activists were housed together, which in itself is astounding. Only these eight escaped and how do you create a ladder with blankets to scale a 20 feet wall if there is no one on the other side to hold the knotted blankets down. No questions asked. And then go in a gang into a one way gully. Don’t ask.

The story is dead in the water. We should have a clear policy on terrorists. If they belong to such outfits don’t keep them locked up in a happy togetherness…it is not a club, it is a jail.

If eliminating them is the just course in self defence then let Parliament pass the bill and document it — terrorists will be killed. Read the writing on the wall and take your chances. But this escape defies comprehension.

Representational image. TV Screenshot

Representational image. TV Screenshot

A former soldier, committed suicide as a protest against One Rank One Pay (Orop). He was a village sarpanch, in good health with three hatta katta sons doing well. OROP is almost a done deal why would he get up now when the 7th pay commission is being implemented and the three chiefs are for once on the same page. Will we ever find out if there is more to it than meets the eye? Orop is no reason to kill yourself.

Rahul Gandhi, Manish Sisodia and Arvind Kejriwal should not be stopped from visiting the former veteran Ram Kishan Grewal’s house because he committed suicide. Ironic that it was Rahul’s grandmother who killed Orop. And how come none of them felt it necessary to get to visit Ramashankar Yadav’s family the warden in the Bhopal Jail – too far to stretch their affection and shock. Wears out over the miles to Bhopal. See, what I mean, the sheer breathtaking opportunistic arrogance of these people is unmatched. You really think they give a toss?

But they love being stopped so why play into their hands? Having scored brownie points, they will disappear to the next ‘mourning’ circle and do more of the same.

Wasn’t this the same Arvind Kejriwal who said the surgical strikes never happened and soldiers are fibbers. This story will collapse very soon unless someone discovers it wasn’t a suicide.

Last heard, Jayalalithaa had signed a paper with her left thumb because her right hand was inflamed. A week has gone by and there is nary a word about her condition and even the media seems to have wandered away. Seeing as how she is still technically the chief minister of Tamil Nadu doesn’t anyone want to know what’s up and who is holding the hot, little buck?

And we will let them off the hook because we do not expect better.

The country is still no wiser about the Cyrus-Ratan spat and probably never will be. A few more theories will be flung about the scandal is dying on the vine and will soon wither into history.

India is lagging 3 to 1 in the ‘off you go, diplomat’ stakes against Pakistan but even though the 48 hour deadlines expired some days back there is no story about their homecomings or what exactly happened. Pakistan upped the ante with two dismissals Wednesday so why not just throw the whole lot out and stop the pretence?

The Yadav family feud in Uttar Pradesh ran its course for a few days then like a river drying up simply dwindled into a little rivulet of non-news.

And we won the Asia Cup in hockey playing Pakistan in the finals after playing them in the round robin but where cricket is concerned the BCCI has told the ICC to ensure we are not in the same pool and what has the ICC said to this absurd demand…we don’t know.

And we don’t even have Arnab to tell us the nation wants to know…more’s the pity.

Damn ,we don’t even know where he is going.

Arnab Goswami’s resignation: Is his exit a sign of true change or churn in the Indian media?

Jack Nicholson’s iconic long punchline in A Few Good Men where he thunders that “we live in a world that has walls”, needs to be modified to “we live in a world of noise” to truly define what passes off as news, debates and talk shows today. Unremitting, round-the-clock, pounding, borderless noise. To borrow from Thoreau, news media across the globe has become the “sporules of fungi”, and “a parasitic growth”.

A careful observation of the manner in which media has evolved in the last 30 or so years shows — in terms of both quality and pace — that the casual brazenness of the currently pervasive usage of the word “content” is breathtaking. And let’s not even tread on the mine-filled territory of the ethical and financial scandals that have exploded from time to time.

Indeed, Thoreau’s dire warning, nay, prophecy has come horribly true today. Regarding the mind as “a ground sacred to thought”, he railed against allowing the “street dust” of “idle gossip” to invade this ground. Or as this prescient essay by Adam Cohen notes, “Thoreau could not have imagined television news shows endlessly yammering about Scott Peterson and Michael Jackson, or newsstands jammed with accounts of celebrity breakups.” And as we speak, the latest “viral news item” of monumental national significance doing the rounds is the breakup of actors Kamal Hassan and Gautami.

Arnab Goswami. Courtesy: TwitterArnab Goswami. Courtesy: Twitter

Arnab Goswami. Courtesy: Twitter

More than 150 years ago, Thoreau critically peeked behind the veil of what was regarded as news in his time and found that most news sources didn’t distinguish triviality from what’s actually consequential. If you take time out to really contemplate on what you read — news or otherwise — you’d not pay attention to trivialities, but to details and insights because there’s inherently nothing to ponder about trivialities except the fact itself. Put another way, what is a specific news item actually distracting you from?

Viewing Arnab Goswami’s resignation from Times Now in this Thoreauesque backdrop would probably yield the most benefit.

Perhaps the biggest success of Arnab is the fact that all other media houses are dedicating reams of paper and bytes to one of their own on an unprecedented scale and tenor, not to mention the fact that his name was trending on the top spot on social media or that his resignation is made out to be an event of national importance. Sure, there have been other high-profile exits like that of Rajdeep Sardesai and Shekhar Gupta, but they are no match to the furore-mixed speculation that Arnab’s resignation has generated.

Over the years, Arnab’s stupendous success has evoked envy-tinged attacks from his peers, some of whom took the despicable route of getting personal and insinuating that India should be worried because of him. Even those who grudgingly congratulate his media superstar status do so by taking refuge in adjectives such as “raucous”, “aggressive”, “brash”, “noisy”, and “loud”. As some have done, it could be argued that his exit is a sign of true change — if not churn — occurring in the Indian media landscape, what with veteran editors and journalists branching out on a spree via their own digital publications.

Other forces are equally at play. These can be encapsulated in what can loosely be termed the “Mumbai versus Delhi” media. Events of the 2004-14 decade showed how the Delhi or more accurately, the Lutyens, media almost single-handedly reduced the reputation of journalism to tatters thanks to the Radia Tapes, paid media, “Sonia is unhappy” journalism and other perversions. Equally, we witnessed shameful spectacles of channel heads who tweeted that his channel wouldn’t cover the North East because of “tyranny of distance”, but waxed in detail about his journey to a tiny village along the Adriatic coast of Sveti Stevan to meet the scandal-riddled Lalit Modi. Indeed, the true tyranny of distance appears to be that between Mumbai and Delhi.

This apart, for the overwhelming period since Independence, the ideological anchor of the Indian English media has remained firmly dropped in the waters of Nehruvian secularism, communism and variants thereof.

And so when Arnab Goswami raucously, aggressively, brashly, noisily and loudly takes the exact opposite positions of the Lutyens media on his nightly show, the efforts at branding and isolating him begin. As we shall see, I hold no candle for Arnab’s style but I’m on a more fundamental point. Over the years, the secular-left-liberal tendency has been to box people into a specific category — either deliberately or out of sheer intellectual sloth — ignoring merit.

Thus we have isolationist labels like “Right”, “Militant Right”, “Hindutva”, “Nationalist”, which deny human agency to the person upon whom it’s applied.

Perhaps the biggest success of Arnab is the fact that all other media houses are dedicating reams of paper and bytes to one of their own on an unprecedented scale and tenor

I agree with the widespread criticism that Arnab Goswami’s style of TV debate is nothing beyond a deafening slanging match with 50 different people yelling over each other. Whether this is better than debates on other channels that are heavily rigged in favour of a particular political or ideological strain is beyond the scope of this essay. But what is common to both is that they operate and thrive in the realm of form, not substance. And which is what Arnab seems to have cracked with aplomb. Arguably, he gets the largest screen space and airtime, night after night than all the 50 folks combined. As his stint with Times Now has shown, he has assiduously cultivated his audience with an eye on the box office.

Yet at the end of the day, his shows too, have significantly contributed only to the world of noise that I invoked in the beginning. Depth, detail, nuance and insight are slaughtered every night, and news and views are only as fleeting as the next mindless ad break. The counterarguments that are premised on the demands of TRP, people’s attention spans, and even worse, this-is-what-people-want, are flimsy excuses.

It’s worth recalling and applying to the media the advice of Padmashri Dr S L Bhyrappa: “Don’t make third-rate movies based on an assumption that this is what people want. Make classy movies, let people elevate themselves. But the real question is, do you have the capacity to make outstanding movies?”

In other words, whatever venture Arnab — or other famous media personalities — takes up, it must essentially be informed by this sense of idealism and purpose, which elevates the standard of its audience. His call that the “hegemony of Western media has to end” will resonate better and become meaningful in practice if it’s recalled that what’s valuable about something is not the same as how much it will fetch in the market.

This dominance of the commercial element almost to the exclusion of every other factor is among other ills that has contributed to the absence of depth and nuance. The other factor directly stems from an overabundance and not lack of information. Even a truly insightful and original piece or discourse today will be classified as and swept away by the force of this unending deluge of “content”.

Which harks back to Thoreau. Immortalised in his classic Walden is this warning: “We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas, but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.”

And out of this emerged his acid dictum to “read not the Times. Read the Eternities”.

Mandatory voting in army: With military facing disparaging assaults, why every soldier must vote

• It showed the rapid spread and growth of mafias and economic lobbies which have, over the years, developed extensive network with bureaucrats/government functionaries, politicians, media persons and strategically located individuals in the non-state sector; with some also having international linkages, including with foreign intelligence agencies.

• It established that any leakage about the linkages of crime syndicate with senior government functionaries or political leaders in the states or at the Centre could have a destabilising effect on the functioning of the government.

Naturally, the above report has remained buried somewhere because it poses the threat of “destabilising” the functioning of any government. India is not like Singapore, a country where 150 politicians and bureaucrats were jailed overnight when their equivalent of the Lokpal Bill came into being.

No wonder then that former Defense Minister AK Antony couldn’t sleep after discovering the capabilities of the army’s Technical Support Division (TSD). As a result, the TSD was killed off pronto, on trumped up charges, because it “could” have been intercepted by the “mafia”.

Never mind the fact that the mobile interceptors in question were actually imported by the Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA), which functions directly under the Ministry of Defence (MoD), and not the army.

China is known to extract value in strategic terms for financial gain. Similarly, the mafia can extract value by attracting foreign funding. As a result, the military is continuously put down and many of the defence-industrial complexes remain out-dated.

The prime minister may push hard for “ease of business” but the mafia gets massive foreign funding, and which country wants to see a strong India? The inability to act against the mafia makes it bolder. Remember the efforts under the previous government to hollow the system by pitting the IB against the CBI?

But then the realisation dawned that the IPS manning the intelligence agencies were also privy to the mafia dealings. So now, the mafia is going full blast against the military; even trying to pitch the CAPF against the military (remember the police baton charging military veterans at Jantar Mantar).

In terms of ranking and emoluments, the bureaucracy and civilian defence employees should be left aside. Of course, unlike any other country in the world, the same ranks and uniforms of the military, were quietly introduced into the police forces.

When some military veterans first gave a call for a protest at Jantar Mantar in 2015, an organisation called “Patriots Front” wrote a letter to the prime minister, warning him of a military coup and recommended that “anti-coup measures be put in place”.

Even today, the so called “patriots” dismiss the soldiers’ demands as just “whining”. The soldiers just want their status to be respected, as given in the Constitution and they want the serious imbalances and disparities between soldiers and other government civil employees be rectified, taking into account the average career earnings including pension benefits.

For example, the non-functional upgradation (NFU) demand of the armed forces was reportedly turned down on the pretext that it was applicable only to class ‘A’ officers, like IAS, IFS, IPS, IRS, etc. That begs the question: What is the class of the military officers who are commissioned by the President of India?

Does the government have an explanation for this? Why should 45 percent of the defence pension outlay be consumed by 22 percent civilians under the MoD?

In such an environment, what should the military do? There is no need for the service chiefs to bow down to such “unlawful commands”, even as the mafia appears to be hell-bent upon demolishing the military.

But aside from representing the hierarchy on specific issues, the least the service chiefs must do is to ensure that soldiers must not be denied their right to cast their vote, especially since many of their fundamental rights are already severely curbed as part of their service.

The manner in which caste, creed, and religion are played in our country clearly indicate that anything and everything goes, and anything can be sold for votes. Even US President Barrack Obama celebrated Diwali in the White House and so did the United Nations (perhaps on the behest of the US) with an eye on the Indian origin voters going into next week’s Presidential election.

Fortunately, the Election Commission of India has authorised every military soldier to vote during the elections (both state and local) at the station they are posted in — thanks to the efforts of Rajeev Chandrashekhar, former member of parliament.

Legislative Assembly elections are due in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Uttarakhand, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Goa and Manipur next year, and the battle lines are tightly drawn; especially in UP, where every vote will count.

When the army formations voted during the 2007 Uttar Pradesh Assembly Election, the change in the political attitude towards the army was electric. Interestingly, on discovering that army division at Allahabad would also participate in the 2007 election, a recent Congress defectee from Allahabad to BJP, had executed a summersault at par with perhaps Dipa Karmakar; from complaining against the army to becoming all sugar and honey, in all but a few seconds.

It is true that no political party wants the military to vote as the soldiers vote without a consideration for caste, creed, religion, in the true spirit of “India first”. This often upsets the political calculations. Not only will there be hints for the military to abstain, spanners will be put out like — first get your voter identity cards made; and that voting is impossible where soldiers with even one day of service are authorised to vote.

But, there is precedence to overcome this. In the 2007 Uttar Pradesh Assembly Election, serving soldiers were permitted to vote showing their service identity cards, and the list of eligible military voters was submitted to both the UP and the Election Commission well in advance. In fact, special voting booths were established within military cantonments, where soldiers voted under the supervision of Election Commission representatives.

With Gujarat passing a law to make voting mandatory, this approach should be adopted as dictum even in the military. With the military facing disparaging assaults, every soldier must at least get to vote. This should be the resolve of the service chiefs.

There should be no need for one chief to convince the other two. The three service chiefs actually owe this to their command. The routine instructions for getting soldiers voting cards fooled no one. The only question that remains is, do the chairman chiefs of Staff Committee and the service chiefs have it in them?

The author is veteran Lt Gen of Indian Army.

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Ease of doing biz: How minister KT Rama Rao transformed Telangana in a year’s time

In August 2015, Micromax got approval to start a Rs 200 crore mega project in Fab city on the outskirts of Hyderabad. Keen to ensure that the mobile handset manufacturer dialled into Telangana, the decks were cleared to ensure commercial production started in January this year with a woman power of 1200. Micromax chairman Rajesh Agarwal reportedly told the Telangana officials that never in his life before has a government chased him to find out if there are any more issues pending before production can start.

KT Rama Rao, Industries & IT minister, TelanganaKT Rama Rao, Industries & IT minister, Telangana

KT Rama Rao, Industries & IT minister, Telangana

It is this proactive attitude to make it easy for an investor to set up base in Telangana that has helped India’s youngest state to zoom from 13th position last year to the top this year (July 2015 to June 2016) in ease of doing business ranking, as joint number one with Andhra Pradesh. Chandrababu Naidu’s state moved one position from 2 to 1, dislodging Gujarat from the top spot.

Last year, Telangana’s score was an abysmal 42.45 percent. It worked systematically in fulfilling most of the 340 parameters listed by the Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion (DIPP) and World Bank this year, implementing 324 of them. At the same time, it focused on systemic improvement so that the jump in ranking also translated into an investor-friendly approach on the ground. The parameters relate to environmental and labour registration, obtaining electricity connection, online tax-return filing, construction permit, etc.

“The fledgling state has today become a role model for many states. Within a short span, we have proved the naysayers wrong,” says KT Rama Rao, Telangana’s Industries and IT minister.

That in many senses was the driving factor. During the Telangana agitation between 2009 and 2013, there was indeed concern if Brand Hyderabad was taking a hit, driving away investment. There was apprehension if a political party that had been in protest mode for 13 years could also govern.

Industrialists in Telangana credit the leadership of Industries and IT minister KT Rama Rao and the two IAS officers – Industries secretary Arvind Kumar and IT secretary Jayesh Ranjan – for the ranking. Industrialist Narendra Surana says, “The combination has been proactive, going out of the way to get the biggies to invest money in Telangana. They have done well to compete with other global destinations and not just other states.”

While most states talk of time-bound clearance for projects, Telangana is the only state to pass an Act under which it will be the right of the investor to get a time-bound clearance. By the 16th day if the permission does not come, it is deemed to be approved. There is also provision for penal action, wherein Rs 1,000 per day will be cut from the salary of the employee who was responsible for the delay. It goes to Telangana’s credit that not a single rupee of anyone’s pay has been cut so far.

Arvind Kumar points out the experience of Ikea, the Swedish furniture giant that is to set up its first retail store in India in Hyderabad. “Ikea is also looking to set up similar shops in Bengaluru, Mumbai and Delhi. But the CEO Juvencio Maeztu told us that the bar has been raised very high by Telangana when he compares it with the response he is getting in the other three cities,” says Kumar. Inter-departmental coordination meetings ensure everything from power connection to building permissions get sorted out here in Telangana.

But while Telangana rejoices, it is a case of neighbour’s envy, owner’s pride. Karnataka next door is clearly not happy. The state has slipped from the 9th rank last year to 13th now, even though in terms of score, it has done well, improving from 48.5 percent in 2015 to 88.39 percent this year. The drawback is that Karnataka has implemented only 297 of the 340 reforms and lacks in 39 areas.

“We are quite surprised frankly,” says Priyank Kharge, Karnataka’s IT minister. He points out that the Centre has lauded its tax reform initiatives, making a special mention of investor-friendly measures likes e-filing, online payments, e-registration. “We have done well in attracting one of the highest FDIs in the country. So it is rather strange that Karnataka should actually slip in the rankings,” says Kharge.

The industry does not quite share that sentiment. Mohandas Pai, Chairman of Manipal Global Education, says entrepreneurs have horror stories to share regarding demands of bribes. “There is huge corruption in getting permissions for power connections, building registrations and pollution control certificates. This is why Telangana is getting the marquee names in IT instead of the companies coming to Bengaluru. We have good manpower, but we need to market our strengths,” says Pai.

Last year, Karnataka lodged a protest with the Centre over its ranking. “We ideally should be in the top five given that we have a better investment climate than many other states,” says Kharge.

Both Karnataka and Telangana agree on what a ranking can do to a state’s future investment. Pai says Andhra Pradesh which ranks number one, lacks in infrastructure but makes up for it by creating the right ecosystem and hence it will be the first port of call before Karnataka. Arvind Kumar believes the ranking is the icing on the cake and that it will make it easier to market the state.

Arnab Goswami after Times Now: ‘Star’ anchor needs reinvention to beat audience fatigue

Do you recall the last time a news anchor leaving his job raising sound bytes, digital space reporting it and newspaper columns being devoted it? Times Now anchor’s leaving his job, a normal step that most employees take, has become a talking point for the nation. Arnab Goswami, the editor-in-chief of Times Now, is a brand of his own and his absence will be reflected in the ‘low’ Television Rating Points (TRPs).

According to a report by the Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC), Goswami, commands nearly 76 percent of the English news viewership in the time band between  9 pm to 11 pm, when he hosts his show ‘Newshour’.

Goswami, an enfant terrible of Indian news media, elicits extreme reactions from viewers. They either love his style of journalism or dislike his in-your-face insults and jibes. However, his triumph is: No one can ignore the news anchor and his style of opinionated news.

Arnab Goswami. CNN-News18Arnab Goswami. CNN-News18

Arnab Goswami. CNN-News18

How will Goswami’s change of employer or entrepreneurship affect him? Will Times Now, the channel suffer on account of his departure? Will he be able to recreate the magic with another channel?

The extreme reactions that Goswami provokes with his channel leaves a bank of mixed viewership, not surprising given his forceful arguments, his lack of a patience on the show and his defensiveness counted in sheer decibels. Brand specialists see him as a brand that evokes extreme reactions but these qualities have worked for him and the channel. Experts rule out chances of his persona being impacted because he leaves a familiar territory such as Times Now where he has worked for a decade.

The ‘Brand Arnab’

‘Brand Arnab’ is a bigger part of Newshour, says Harish Bijoor, Chief Executive Officer of brand and business strategy firm Harish Bijoor Consults Inc. He says many brands are ensconced in ‘Brand Arnab’ like the channel – Times Now, Newshour Live and Newshour. “However, the anchor is the biggest portfolio among them all. The program is associated with the anchor,” says Bijoor.

What has worked for Brand Arnab are a mix of factors. The change in society from Doordarshan days of yore is one of them. Some of DD anchors were brands too. For instance, Tejeshwar Singh was known for his baritone or Minu Talwar was known for his impeccable news-reading. Bijoor says that Arnab’s face with the boy-next-door image and an earnestness to get to the nitty gritties is what has endeared him to his audience. “At the end of the day, you want an anchor you can identify with and Arnab fits that bill. When a news anchor talks to his audience, he looks into the eyes of the audience and then the voice and tenor takes over. Arnab succeeded on all counts,” believes Bijoor.

Goswami is credited for making news hour less about news and more about opinions which is often explained in his now-famous catch phrase, “The Nation Wants To Know”. He verbally pummelled his way through discussions, swatted off the ones who had contradictory views and tried hard to be heard in the din that the Newshour program is. “That was the gap in news programs in India that Arnab filled and got the audience with him,” says Bijoor, adding that his absence on Newshour was reflected in low TRPs.

The loyalty that ‘Brand Arnab’ commands is reflective of his popularity, say experts. He fulfills the expectations from a brand such as loyalty, brand recall. “However what stands out is his commitment,” says Bijoor.

Would ‘Brand Arnab’ work in another setting with this same format? Both agree it would not, unless he reinvents himself. “Times Now and ‘Brand Arnab’ are the yin and yang that worked with each other and both will have to reinvent themselves as they leave this partnership.

The future

When stand-up comedian Kapil Sharma decided to leave channel Colours and move his show to Sony TV, the audience took time to accept the change,  says Bijoor. He says that this is a possibility as audience association with the anchor and the channel is as one entity.

The fact that he is being talked about is a victory in itself, says Alpana Parida, Managing Director, DY Works, a Mumbai-based brand strategy and brand design. Parida gives an example of RK Laxman and his pocket cartoons that were eagerly awaited by the his fans. “I know the reference is a bit stretched but Arnab focusses on the issues that affect people and is bold enough to ask questions till he gets the answers.”

She says Goswami is a bigger brand than the channel. “Arnab’s loyal audience will follow him. His news program is more about opinions and analysis of facts. But he scored over the other channels because he asked the uncomfortable questions to his guests that people wanted to know and were afraid to ask. He has been teased, many have taken potshots at him but the fact is he managed to catch the ‘pulse of the nation’, as he would term it. And he is right,” says Parida.

The channel and the anchor will be closely watched in the future to monitor how they fare without each other. “As long as there are people who want to know what is happening in the country and want people in power to be questioned relentlessly, there will be an audience for Arnab,” says Parida.

Will it still be ‘The Nation Wants To Know’ or a new coinage. The verdict will be soon out as Goswami makes his views felt from a different channel.

OROP suicide: Ram Kishan Grewal’s death is not a solution to pension struggle

Of course, it is emotional and difficult to critique it when an ex-serviceman commits suicide. You come off callous, harsh and come under attack.

Except that soldiers fight; they do not take their own lives. I covered the 1971 war in uniform and come from the only family in the world where four real brothers made the rank of generals. So I do have some right to say suicide is wrong.

It is regrettable that Ram Kishan Grewal took his own life. One does not know his compulsions or his level of frustration and while thoughtless political capital will be made of this by politicians like Arvind Kejriwal (he never misses a chance), I didn’t see the Chief Minister go visit our troops on the frontline.

File image of people protesting against OROP. PTIFile image of people protesting against OROP. PTI

File image of people protesting against OROP. PTI

At least Modi spent Diwali with them.

In the case of OROP, even the diehards who stood in the sun for months outside Jantar Mantar will have to agree that their pensions have risen with the latest promise of a further hike, retrospective from 1 January, 2016 having come last week. And if one of these frail old men (some of them octogenarians) had died while spending weeks on strike at least they would have died fighting for their cause. Not taking their lives.

Indeed, there are four outstanding issues before the Anomaly committee that was formed, after the three chiefs sent a letter to the Prime Minister and the Defence Minister last month calling attention to the four points: the discrepancies in disability pay, the lack of recognition for JCOs by equating their military pay with soldiers they lead, the inequality in the pay brackets with Civvy street and the absence of non-functional upgrades which the IAS cadres enjoy.

None of these are major mountains to climb. In all fairness, the lot of the retired service officer has improved but the increments have been given in so niggardly a fashion and yes, ‘incremental’ in the disbursement that the fractured increases have lost their value. It is the gracelessness that has led to the sense of despair. Like crumbs thrown at the hungry. As much as they have been hit in the bottomline, the services have been made to feel secondary.

The current concern that the MoD is going about it unilaterally without involving the forces could well be because they are doing the ground work. After all, the initiative hasn’t shifted. The drafts can be rejected by the three chiefs as they did the 7th Pay Commission, only allowing it to be implemented after they were assured the four points that were unresolved would be taken up.

If you ask the service officers per se who have retired they will cavil about being treated as country cousins to the bureaucrats and the police in the order of things and their agitation has distilled to a basic call for equality nothing more, nothing less.

But they will also agree, albeit reluctantly, that things are not that bleak. They are better off.

While the difference between the bureaucrats and the men in uniform is still a burr under the saddle, committing suicide is not the answer, and even if the ex-servicemen take up the cause and bellow their approval in their hearts they will know this is not done, this is not the solution.

Public regret and public remorse will follow the death as is the norm but it would not edify the armed forces to take advantage of one former soldier’s act, sad as it is.

Zakir Naik case: Why Modi govt shouldn’t let the Salafis preacher play the Muslim card

The Narendra Modi-government’s move to choke funds for the two NGOs run by the controversial preacher, Zakir Naik is an action long overdue, undoubtedly.

As Firstpost has noted before, much caution needs to be exercised on any individual or organisation seeking to promote the idea of religious supremacy in a secular society.

This government is seemingly convinced that Naik’s speeches and the functions of his two NGOs — Islamic Research Foundation (IRF) and IRF Educational Trust — are detrimental to country’s religious harmony and an inspiration to terror elements, hence the action.

Naik’s style of preaching, which is centered around the supremacy of the 7th-century religion and his clandestine calls to wage war against the ‘enemies of Islam’ have allegedly inspired terror elements both in India and abroad.
Two questions arise at this juncture.

File photo of Zakir Naik. Photo: News18File photo of Zakir Naik. Photo: News18

File photo of Zakir Naik. Image courtesy: News18

First, why did the Indian government took so long to acknowledge that Naik is a threat and initiate actions? Going by Naik’s own claims, he has been doing it for some 25 years and the content of his speeches have been pretty much same all along. As this website has reported before, during the UPA-rule, in 2013, a communication had gone to the ministry of home affairs from the then Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, about the potential threat caused by Naik’s speeches. This was based on a complaint submitted at the PMO. But, the matter ended there.

It took the July 2016 Dhaka attacks for the Indian government to wake up to the problem (possibly due to media pressure) and initiate actions against the Islamic preacher. Naik is now a bird flown far away from the cage and is unlikely to return anytime soon. The preacher has even avoided attending his father’s funeral ceremony early this week, fearing arrest. As of now, he is out of reach of Indian agencies.

Also, Naik’s name has been linked not just to Dhaka attacks but even to the cases in Kerala where youth have been brainwashed to join the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Kerala police has claimed that Arshi Qureshi, guest relations officer of Mumbai-based Islamic Research Foundation, had indeed links with the Islamic State. For years, Naik’s NGOs have been receiving foreign aid. Given the findings of the Police, it is quite possible that these funds have been used for such acts. Only a detailed investigation on the money trail can reveal how this money has been utilised.

But, the point here is that had the investigative agencies acted well in advance, things wouldn’t have worsened to this level. This shows how our surveillance mechanisms are still grappling with problem of sheer inefficiency.

The second question is how prepared is the government to proceed from here in this sensitive case. Since the very beginning, Naik has been playing the victim card. He has termed the actions against him as attacks on Muslim community.

True, India’s larger Muslim community (about 172 million of them as per Census 2011 data), except in certain pockets, do not approve his radical, religious fundamental ideas and the idea of religious supremacy. But even then, a failure from the part of the government to corner Naik with a convincing, foolproof case could result in the preacher yet again shielding himself keeping the community in the front. Then, it could lead to more communal issues like one seen in other Muslim dominated areas of the country and could thus become a bigger headache for the Modi-government, which is already facing flak for its alleged pro-Hindu, pro-RSS ideology. It is in this context that the government should send a strong message that extremist elements, be it of any religious background, will be dealt with iron hand like it is currently doing with Naik.

Zakir Naik’s case is a classic example of government and investigators acting too late. And it is too sensitive a case for Modi-government to handle now. In an open letter he released in September, 2016, Naik had warned that if he and his organisation IRF are banned in India, he would be welcomed by other Muslim countries with a “red carpet” and such an action will be the “biggest jolt to the country’s democracy in recent times”. This language is that of a clear warning to the Indian authorities. The government would do well exercising caution while cornering the Salafi preacher.

Arnab Goswami’s Newshour: Flaws and virtues that made the show successful

Newshour won’t be the same without Arnab Goswami. Yes, many hated him. He smashed to smithereens the way we understood journalism in that primetime slot of his. He appeared arrogant, obnoxious, highly prejudiced, illogical and an unabashed champion of the ideological Right. He was impolite to the point of being rude to the guests on his show. He hardly ever allowed any point of view other than his to be heard. He became the judge, the jury and the hangman. Perhaps he is guilty of all of that.

But then he was a winner. He ruled the primetime slot for a good length of time till the biggest competitor caught up and inched ahead. Everyone loved to hate him, but could hardly afford to ignore his show. That was the beauty – call it irony if you please — of it all. If it’s already sounding like an obituary for Arnab the journalist, well, it is not. He seems, according to media reports, to have set his eyes on bigger goals in the profession. This piece aims to have a fresh perspective on how the force of his personality impacted an important aspect of news television and drove minor changes all around.

Arnab Goswami. Image courtesy: Facebook pageArnab Goswami. Image courtesy: Facebook page

Arnab Goswami. Image courtesy: Facebook page

He re-invented television for the age of social media. While many other journalists still perceived and visualised news television with the print journalism mindset, he broke free. He was quick to acknowledge the arrival of the new beast and its power and potential. He was also quick to grasp the tone and temper of the users of the new media. If his Newshour debates appeared quite similar to social media rants, then it could not have been anything but deliberate. He would choose topics that would resonate with the lay viewer and imbue with an edginess that carried a distinctive personal touch.

No one would give him credit for it, but he revived the relevance of common people in journalism again. He made journalism appealing to the new generation — the same generation which propelled Narendra Modi to power.

Newshour owed its success to it. It took off at a time journalism, like politics of the time, thrived on being condescending to the target audience. Faux-intellectualism ruled the roost and elitism prevailed. It required some incorrectness to change things. Arnab was bringing in plenty of it.

If anyone has been careful to notice, any news product — including digital — that became successful in this period sought to connect with its audience in intelligent ways. They were not correct always. Opinion drowned news, but that was okay since the reader was getting involved. If Arnab took the side of the viewer with no inhibition, never stopped reminding him that he stands by him, he was not setting low standards in journalism; he was going the right way.

He broke free of the old, fossilised template of journalism and set new standards. His arrogance and attitude sucked as did his irreverence to facts, but a whole generation of new journalists definitely has shunned docility and reverence for power inspired by him. Even the older ones are trying to bring in some aggression to their job, not without much success though. But they might be missing the point. Aggression was only a sideshow to his core ability. His strength lay in understanding his audience clearly and connecting with them well. Many news outfits are still way behind in this respect.

His next career venture, media reports say, could be an independent media house, with a bouquet of digital and other offerings. With a clarity of the target audience, chances are he won’t fail. Digital media, which has slipped into the old, lethargic mindset again, maybe in for a big shock.

Newshour didn’t change the world or didn’t tell all that the nation wanted to know, but it certainly made popular points in a forceful way. No one wants those regressive religious forces going berserk in the country; no one wants women to be harassed or VIPs riding roughshod over ordinary masses. No one gave them a better hiding than Arnab. His lack of politeness, feigned as it maybe, found appreciation rather than disapproval.

Yes, his flaws outnumber his virtues. But the virtues need to be discussed too. Newshour was a success because of these. The man succeeding Arnab will have big shoes to fill.

Gold dazzles on Dhanteras as sales go up by 25%; demand for coins surge

Dhanteras, the auspicious day today (Friday) to buy precious metals in the form of jewellery and coins has spiked consumer interest and they have been buying jewellery and silver utensils since morning.

It is still too early to say how much the demand will increase but so far the sentiment has been good with increase in footfalls and also increase in sales.

Gold prices tumbled after a month of steady run at Rs 31,000 mark to Rs 30,020 per 10 grams in the beginning of the month and since them consumer sentiment has been buoyed up.

ReutersReuters

Reuters

Somasundaram PR, Managing Director, India, World Gold Council said that the festival has been good for the trade. “It appears that, as was widely expected, this Dhanteras has ushered in a new phase of optimism around gold, particularly after an unusually difficult first half. Consumers who have been deferring gold purchases are back and the demand for gold jewellery and branded coins seems to be much better than the previous year’s Dhanteras and Diwali festival.”

He reasons that good monsoons as experienced in all parts of the country coupled with a softening of gold prices have improved the sentiment. Somasundaran was optimistic about the upcoming wedding season which he said would be promising for the trade and consumers alike.

Retail trade is gung-ho about their prospects after seeing a rush in footfall since the morning of Dhanteras. They are expecting sales to continue through to Sunday when office-goers get their holidays for the season and step out with families to buy gold.

Vijay Jain, CEO, Orra Fine Jewellery which has 32 stores across India says that sales have seen a much better demand in the northern markets after a sluggish growth in the past four years. Gold coins have been in high demand especially 1 gm coins at Rs 3,000, 5 gm at Rs 15,000 and 10 gms at Rs 30,000. “We outsold our stock within a few hours of opening the store across the country,” said Jain.

Kishor Narne, Head of Commodities & Currencies, Motilal Oswal Commodities, said that the bullion traders were bullish on gold and are not surprised that demand has been good at the beginning of this season. Prices have been upbeat in the last 3-4 months and with a price correction in the last 15 days timed at the festive season, demand for the precious commodity has gone up.

Some stores have seen increased demand on the back of schemes and freebies that they offer customers. Ghanasingh Jewellers, which has two stores in the country – Bandra, Mumbai and Hyderabad said that they have seen a 20 percent rise in footfalls through the day so far (6 pm) compared to the previous year. What has attracted customers is the 50 percent discount on making charges and assured gift on every purchase. “We have seen a lot of demand for gold jewellery of 10 gms at a price of Rs 30,250 and also small ticket purchases of gold rings and earrings costing between Rs 5,000 to Rs 25,000,” said Krishaa Ghanasingh, Director, Ghansasing Be True.

Asher O, Managing Director (India Operations) – Malabar Gold & Diamonds, said that though the demand for the precious metal was subdued till September, but after that demand has picked up during festive occasion and we are expecting many customers for Diwali. “Compared to last year’s Diwali festival, we are expecting a 20 percent to 25 percent increase in sales during the celebrations,”.

According to jewellers and MMTC-PAMP India, gold demand has picked up in the wake of good monsoon and favourable price levels. There was positive response and more footfalls. There was robust demand for gold and silver coins as also bars this time as prices are at favourable levels. People are buying for investment purpose. We expect 15-20 percent increase in sales from over the last year,” MMTC-PAMP India President (Marketing) Vipin Raina told PTI.

But more sales are expected in the later part of the day, with office-goers in big cities coming in for buying late in the evening, he added.

Gold prices are ruling at Rs 30,590 per 10 grams in the national capital, about 16.6 percent higher than Rs 26,230 on Dhanteras day in 2015. Silver traded at Rs 42,700 per kg as compared with Rs 35,410 per kg last year.

Echoing his point, Kalyan Jewellers Executive Director Ramesh Kalyanaraman said, “The advance booking for jewellery is up by 20-25 percent compared to last year. The update on sales figures will be known in the evening.”

“Prices are lower when compared to last two months. Prices are more or less stable now and also demand has revived in view of the good monsoon,” he said.

P C Jewellers MD Balram Garg said, “We are expecting 20 percent jump in volume and 30 percent in value terms as prices have gone up in the last one year.”

The country’s gold demand had fallen 30 percent to 247.4 tonnes during the first six months of 2016, from 351.5 tonnes in the year-ago period, as per WGC.

India is the world’s largest gold consumer and imports a sizeable chunk of its total annual consumption of around 900-1,000 tonnes.

All India Gems and Jewellery Trade Federation former chairman Manish Jain said, “There is good response in most parts of the country. About 20-25 percent increase in sales is expected at the end of the day.”

Jewelsify.com founder Hardik Kapoor said the company expects triple-digit growth rate this time compared to last Dhanteras.

There has been a drastic rise in diamond jewellery sale and customer’s preference has shifted from gold bars to diamond jewellery, he added.

Stating that there is revival of gold demand, Lucknow-based Lala Jugal Kishore Jewellers Director Tanya Rastogi said, “The recent drop in gold prices has triggered sales among watchful buyers. Footfalls have been good.”

Mumbai-based Manubhai Jewellers Director Samir Sagar said, “We are excited about the festive rush and are expecting an above-average footfall at our store, with a healthy 25-30% jump in sales of gold jewellery compared to last year.”

Anmol Founder Ishu Datwani is expecting demand build-up for both gold and diamond jewellery since gold prices have gone down. “We are expecting at least 20-25 percent increase in sales this Diwali,” Datwani said.

Waman Hari Pethe Jewellers Director Aditya Pethe, said, “This is our first year on e-commerce, and we have noticed a rise in sale on our online store too during this season where light-weight jewellery like pendants, earrings and rings have been popular.”

Narne of Motilal Oswal Commodities expects a 15 to 20 percent rise in prices despite lack of global appetite. Prices would go up 15 percent to Rs 34,000 for 10 gms by next year, he said.

Serious about uniform civil code? Stop making debate Muslim-centric; focus on Hindus instead

“…In a country no caste or religion should have separate judicial system. India needs a uniform civil code and practices such as triple talaq should come to an end. If a Muslim man rapes a woman, will he be tried under the shariyat law and lashed or lynched publically? Even Islamic countries won’t accept it…” said Union minister Nitin Gadkari in an interview with The Economic Times. He was replying to a question on his position on the ongoing uniform civil code debate.

Nothing wrong in what he said either morally or from the legal point of view. The only problem is it takes the same tangent as that of his party colleagues. It makes practices in the Muslim community the reference point for his argument while those in any other community could have served the same purpose. The mention of the Muslim community maybe unintentional but it reflects the flaw in the approach to the code debate.

Is it just happenstance that the uniform civil code debate invariably runs into Muslim personal law? No. Is it necessary that any discussion on the code must portray the Muslim community as the resisting party? No is the answer again. The uniform code involves several religious and ethnic communities, including Hindus who constitute above 80 percent of the country’s population. Why is it then the debate on it is so Muslim-centric?

Representational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

It is possible mischief has been built into it with some deliberateness. No one wants a code; they just want to keep the talk going – communalising an essentially secular debate has its uses, political and otherwise. The fact that the biggest votaries of it are linked to Hindutva politics adds to the suspicion. If they are really serious they would busy themselves preparing the draft code and seek its ratification from the Hindu community first, not get into the business of polarising debates. This idea, proposed by a panellist on a television channel, makes sense.

Uniform civil code is not a bad idea at all, at least theoretically. How it would tackle hundreds of communities, including tribals and dalits, following their own personal law, and using it as a social identity marker and instrument of group cohesion is a different matter though. Beginning the process with Hindus would take the rancour off the debate and create a positive ambience for the creation of the common code. This is possible if the real intention is not to have a Hindu civil code imposed on every community in the country.

At present, aggrieved individual members of any community can move court for justice under secular laws guided by provisions of the Indian Constitution. The decision of the courts overrides the decision of those dispensing personal law. Our Constitution, through a set of rights, ensures that the individual is protected against the whims of the community. This in some way blunts the need for a uniform civil code. Just as secular laws have not managed to break the stranglehold of the community over the individuals, the common code may not achieve anything significant. It might even lead to communities getting more rigid and protective about their personal laws.

Now, what is the real intention behind the demand for the common code? It won’t ever be known. Since it is favoured overwhelmingly by the members of the Hindutva Parivar, there is scope for suspicion that it could be driven by an agenda. The minorities, including Muslims, have already expressed concern. A BJP government raising the matter aggravates their apprehension.

If the government is really serious about having a common civil code, it should begin by stopping the debate from being Muslim-centric. It would be the first test of its actual intention.

Quetta Carnage: Dear Pakistan, don’t blame India; stop offering hospitality to terror groups

It won’t be too long before media and political leaders in Pakistan begin to find tenuous links between the terror attack in Quetta and Indian machinations or the ‘foreign hand’ behind it.

But if they do go down that ho hum route (and someone will because it is sort of mandated in the ping pong equation between the two countries), they will know from Karachi to Lahore that India does not have any sort of infrastructure even remotely capable of creating a launch pad on the outskirts of a cantonment stronghold like Quetta and then going in for such an attack or finding the ‘right’ people to do the dirty work.

Quetta is where the prestigious Command and Staff College is located, that being the equivalent of the Defence Services Staff College in Wellington, Nilgiris. It also has two airbases in Samungli Airbase and Khalid both of which were attacked by militants in 2014. It is also X111 Corps headquarter.

There is just no viable Indian fifth column and besides it being a populist talk show subject using that excuse will resolve nothing. Also, while it might be tempting to incite rage by saying that the Baloch police academy was placed in the cross hairs by Indian design to foment more trouble in that region the fact is that Indians don’t need to up the ante and certainly not through carnage.

A file photo of relatives waiting to hear about the victims outside the police academy in Quetta. Reuters

A file photo of relatives waiting to hear about the victims outside the police academy in Quetta. Reuters

The issue is already on the global stage.

Pakistan should also understand that there is no one in India who feels even a sliver of exultation over the death of 60 young men setting out on their careers. It would be safe to say that the condolences are extremely sincere and only underscore the Indian intention that terror cannot be an export and if you store it at home the risk of the ‘ammo’ depot blowing up in your face is very high. There is no such thing as selective extremism and it only points a sharp arrow to the article in The Dawn that the civil administration has warned the Pakistan army to stop giving succour to outfits that target India while hunting down those that place a red dot on the home front.

Placing restrictions on journalists like Cyril Almedia don’t resolve anything either. He had hit the nail on the head.

If at all, against the backdrop of multiple terror groups, affiliates and breakaways the outburst from ex-cricketer Imran Khan about India ‘imploding’ Pakistan seems superfluous. There are so many of these hydra heads now that even Pakistan is hard placed to keep track of them. Nor can it be an easy task to figure out who is for or against the country and at which juncture. By that token even if there are similarities between the Pathankot assault and this one, what difference does that make and how is it a mitigating factor? As far as India is concerned the only relevant common factor is that both attacks emanated from the same territory. There is nothing so complex about shoot-and-scoot tactics if you are prepared to die.

At present count, across the border there are officially 12 homegrown outfits that see terror as an option and 32 internationally linked groups that have no qualms about choosing soft targets. There are also four extremist trusts whose doctrine calls for violence. That is 48 active terrorist cabals in Pakistan.

By now there may be twice as many undocumented mini-groups that have started as off shoots of these organisations and formed their own AK 47 and suicide vest clubs.  The writing on the wall is simple. Dismantle the infrastructure for offering hospitality to groups that espouse violence and do it right across the board.

Dear Vivek Agnihotri, let’s be clear: JNU’s Najeeb Ahmad going missing is not a film script

In an extremely journalistic piece, filmmaker Vivek Agnihotri blamed the disappearance of Najeeb — the student from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) —on Jawaharlal Nehru University Students Union (JNUSU) and called it a larger conspiracy to overthrow the Narendra Modi government.

He has got ‘facts’ to back his argument which only God could have whispered into his ears because nobody else, let alone in the JNU, is aware of these ‘facts’. For lesser mortals like me and other readers I would like to counter his heavenly ‘facts’ with earthly ones.

Agnihotri argues that JNUSU is being controlled by the students wings of CPI(M) and CPI(M-L). “These are the same parties which are the strategic forces behind the Naxal/Maoist movement.” One should be aware that the Communist movement has many internal contradictions and not every party with a name communist in it shares its whole interest with the other such outfit. Politically-aware readers might remember that Maoists sided with the Trinmool Congress in order to overthrow CPI(M)-led Left government in West Bengal.

I hope Agnihotri starts reading newspapers too and stops relying fiction like he has written in his article:

“These are the same parties which are the strategic forces behind the Naxal/Maoist movement in India which alone is responsible for the loss of over 13,000 innocent lives in India. This is more than the killing of innocent people and soldiers in the insurgent Kashmir and North East.”

Kashmir alone has seen around 100,000 civilian deaths since late 1980s.

Now, coming to the 14 October incident, Agnihotri has written a good story but it is important for him to remember that it is not one of the scripts of his movies. At the very outset, one should understand that the whole incident is being investigated by the Delhi Police as well as the University Proctor. Since matter is subjudice, comments should be made very carefully about the case.

Only Najeeb or Vikrant and his two friends can tell what happened inside that room that night. While Vikrant’s version of the story can be confirmed through him and his friends other party in the case is still missing. Vikrant and his two other friends who were in that room came out with a public pamphlet on 23 October, eight days after Najeeb went missing, where they levelled a few charges against him. What the pamphlet claimed is that Najeeb slapped Vikrant ‘twice’ in an unprovoked manner and later pointed towards his wrist and asked that why did you wear this. Truth in this story is under investigation and a student is still missing. This pamphlet while gives us a description of what happened in that room it does not corroborate the “fact” any sort of “violence” perpetuated upon Najeeb.

Agnihotri's article on Najeeb Ahmed has nothing to do with facts. Image courtesy: News18

Agnihotri’s article on Najeeb Ahmed has nothing to do with facts. Image courtesy: News18

While there are no other witnesses to this incident, there are many who witnessed the violence against Najeeb. According to witnesses, he was beaten in the corridor, at the stairs and even in presence of the warden of the hostel.

Agnihotri, you have extrapolated the accusations levelled by one party in this case and totally ignored the other side of the story. Not just that, but Agnihotri’s article does not even honestly narrate Vikrant’s version.

Agnihotri’s article is not only not factual, it also makes sweeping statements about many things without really getting a good grip of his subject. While Agnihotri, in his article, sympathises with the turn of events and mentions that students like Najeeb are the future of the nation, he suddenly shifts gears and claims that the case of the missing student is part of the larger conspiracy by Left parties who are conspiring to overthrow the Modi government.

Fact: Left parties are fighting for their own existence.

By which stretch of imagination are the Left parties, the power-players in the Indian political arena? And the idea that “political parties pushing their own agenda” and “Opposition is bad-mouthing the ruling party” has no novelty to it.

Jumping from one assumption to another — that’s how Agnihotri’s article reads. Moving further, Agnihotri writes:

Soon, Bapsa began putting up posters on campus glorifying ‘Dalit-Muslim’ unity and presented Najeeb as a victim of Hindu oppression. They attacked ABVP, BJP and RSS. The posters screamed of Brahminism (a very old and stale plank of the Leftists). The posters mentioned the Una incident to underline their narrative. The tactics used during the Umar Khalid episode in February and later Rohit Vemula episode, start repeating again. Another poster by the SIO screamed, ‘Violence against Muslims can be seen as a common denominator of Indian social existence’. It seems these parties have already assumed that Najeeb is a victim of communal politics. How can they assume this? Or is it that they know the plot? Who is the author of this script? Why is this similar to the earlier Umar and Rohit scripts?

We don’t know where Agnihotri is getting these newsbits, but as far as official sources are concerned, no parties have come out with any poster. Bapsa and NSUI did, but after 23 October. JNUSU also did not come out with any pamphlet or poster till that day. Yes, ABVP of course has pasted a number of posters in order to try to shift complete blame on Najeeb.

Agnihotri has written a great piece and I hope that one day he makes another movie with this script.

Author is a research scholar of Modern History at JNU, New Delhi and inmate of the same hostel where Najeeb and Vikrant resides

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