June 30, 2003, Chandigarh, India
Death dance in Valley
Best Bakery verdict
What others say
What price justice in Modi’s Gujarat?
Living in an un-lettered age
Cong to look for winning mantra
Are swimming pools safe?
Death dance in Valley
THE terrorist attack on an Army camp at Sanjawan, near Jammu, on Saturday morning, claiming 12 precious lives, seems to be an attempt to reverse the course of history that began with Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee expressing India’s readiness for peace talks with Pakistan. Those who believe in the ideology of violence will do everything possible so that the people on the two sides remain at daggers drawn with each other. The nation has to maintain its cool in this hour of agony. A knee-jerk reaction will amount to falling into the trap of terrorist masterminds and their patrons. It is also time to closely review the security arrangements made at all sensitive places and plug the loopholes. Apparently, there was no foolproof system to prevent a terrorist strike at night at the Sunjawan barracks. Those responsible for this serious laxity in security matters may say that their attention was diverted to providing impregnable security to President A. P. J. Abdul Kalam, who was on a three-day visit to Jammu and Kashmir. But that is no excuse in a situation that exists in the militancy-torn state.
In any case, the President’s visit has generated a new hope. He is, perhaps, the only high-level dignitary whose presence in the Valley did not lead to a bandh in Srinagar at the behest of the Hurriyat Conference. One explanation is that the Hurriyat leadership wanted to convey the message that a person like Dr Kalam, who always talks of development issues, was welcome to the troubled state. Interpreted differently, this also means that development is the best weapon to defeat terrorism. It can, however, bring about the desired results only if there is wholehearted cooperation from the local population.
Terrorists today have very few sympathisers at the local as well as international levels. The security forces, however, have to do a lot to gain the confidence of the locals. The latter should be made to realise that the security personnel are there to ensure the safety of their lives and property, and not to harass them. Every case of killing of the innocent should be thoroughly investigated and the culprits brought to book. Such killings strengthen the wall of suspicion between the people and the security forces. As President Kalam highlighted in his speeches, under no circumstances should an innocent person be harassed or killed in the ongoing fight against militancy. This is a challenging task, but not impossible to accomplish once the security forces become “sensitive to the pain of the people”. This is the best method to win over the hearts and minds of the masses.
Best Bakery verdict
THE acquittal of 21 Best Bakery carnage accused is almost as serious a blot on the image of Gujarat - rather India - as the murder of 11 members of one Muslim family owning the bakery, including women and children, and their three Hindu employees by a rampaging mob itself was. These hapless persons were burnt alive in the Vadodara bakery on March 1 last year two days after 57 karsevaks in Sabarmati Express were torched to death in Godhra. The acquittal leads to a premonition that the fate of other riot-related cases would be no different. The way eyewitnesses were turning hostile, the acquittal was a foregone conclusion. The judge has passed severe strictures on the quality of prosecution, but is silent on the role of the judiciary in ensuring that witnesses are able to depose freely.
Survivors of the massacre publicly recounted the horrifying tale and named those who attacked them. But when the matter came up before the fast-track court, they went back on their word. The men about whom the witnesses had said voluntarily before the National Human Rights Commission that they masterminded the attack and actually set the bakery on fire, were later identified by them as the very people who had saved them. The witnesses were apparently either coerced or cajoled into doing so. The way a BJP MLA escorted prime witness and complainant Zahida Habibullah Shaikh, one of the survivors who later turned hostile, in and out of the court tells its own story. The girl is reported to be “missing” after her deposition.
The judge has said that “it is not safe to convict the accused. There is not an iota of evidence for that”. He has pointed out that it is a common experience that in riot cases, investigation is mostly inadequate and weak. The police reaches the spot after the culprits have escaped and then picks up bystanders and presents them as accused. In this particular case, much worse was happening. The prosecuting agency seemed to be engaged in weakening its own case. The message that goes out is that if the administration is unwilling, it is almost impossible to get justice. The riot cases of Naroda Patiya and Gulmarg Society in Ahmedabad and Sardarpura village in Mehsana district in which more than 250 persons were burnt alive, are still being investigated. The desire of the state government to whitewash the whole sordid affair is well known. But is the judicial system so feeble that it cannot prevent such a heinous cover-up exercise?
What others say
has more security cameras per citizen than anywhere in Europe. Wherever you walk you are on video; your emails can be read; your DNA stored. There are more police on the streets than ever. And yet, we are gripped with anxiety. Journalists impersonating prison warders or celebrity minders daily reveal what they claim to be dangerously inadequate security. Yesterday's crop included the our-reporter-finds-door-to-David Blunkett's-office outrage at Westminster ('He could have been a terrorist'- Daily Mail) and the minding-Venus Williams scandal at Wimbledon ('Our reporter gets job guarding stars' - Daily Mirror). Both come on top of last week's 'alarming' breach of security at Windsor Castle where a bearded comedian in a dress walked into Prince William's birthday party and kissed the son of the heir to the throne. To those chilled by such stories, three questions: How shocking is it that a journalist pretending to be a journalist got into Westminster? Does Venus Williams need protecting? And should the security services stand ready for Osama bin Laden to appear (in drag) at the next royal party? —The Observer
Journalists impersonating prison warders or celebrity minders daily reveal what they claim to be dangerously inadequate security. Yesterday's crop included the our-reporter-finds-door-to-David Blunkett's-office outrage at Westminster ('He could have been a terrorist'- Daily Mail) and the minding-Venus Williams scandal at Wimbledon ('Our reporter gets job guarding stars' - Daily Mirror).
Both come on top of last week's 'alarming' breach of security at Windsor Castle where a bearded comedian in a dress walked into Prince William's birthday party and kissed the son of the heir to the throne. To those chilled by such stories, three questions: How shocking is it that a journalist pretending to be a journalist got into Westminster? Does Venus Williams need protecting? And should the security services stand ready for Osama bin Laden to appear (in drag) at the next royal party?
Blair feels the blues Tony Blair is, by any standards, a strong leader willing to take the difficult path. It was no small thing for a British Labour prime minister to face down party opponents and quarrel with other European leaders in order to join a Republican US president in waging war in Iraq. His reward for swift victory over Saddam Hussein has not, though, been increased popularity but a bout of mid-term political jitters. Some of it is Iraq-related. Failure to find weapons of mass destruction has emboldened Mr Blair's critics. He has been forced to defend his pre-war statements, such as a claim that Mr Hussein could unleash chemical or biological weapons within 45 minutes, and fend off claims that his office manipulated intelligence material. The killing of six British soldiers in southern Iraq has increased unease about the occupation. The apparent malaise goes wider, however. A cabinet reshuffle this month was badly handled: it involved constitutional changes affecting the judiciary that were badly thought through and made without consultation. —The Financial Times
Tony Blair is, by any standards, a strong leader willing to take the difficult path. It was no small thing for a British Labour prime minister to face down party opponents and quarrel with other European leaders in order to join a Republican US president in waging war in Iraq. His reward for swift victory over Saddam Hussein has not, though, been increased popularity but a bout of mid-term political jitters.
Some of it is Iraq-related. Failure to find weapons of mass destruction has emboldened Mr Blair's critics. He has been forced to defend his pre-war statements, such as a claim that Mr Hussein could unleash chemical or biological weapons within 45 minutes, and fend off claims that his office manipulated intelligence material. The killing of six British soldiers in southern Iraq has increased unease about the occupation.
The apparent malaise goes wider, however. A cabinet reshuffle this month was badly handled: it involved constitutional changes affecting the judiciary that were badly thought through and made without consultation.
—The Financial Times
What price justice in Modi’s Gujarat?
SINCE precedent plays an important role in the practice of law, the Best Bakery case judgement in Vadodara, Gujarat, where a fast-track court has acquitted all the 21 accused of burning alive 12 people on March 1, 2002, after the Godhra incident, is certain to influence similar cases waiting to be tried. These include the gruesome burning incidents at Naroda-Patiya and Gulmarg Society in Ahmedabad where dozens of lives were lost.
In the bakery case, all the accused were Hindus, the victims, barring three, were Muslims.
Judge H.U.Mahida, who delivered the Vadodara judgement, pointed out that “it was not safe to convict the accused. There was not an iota of evidence for that.” Calling the incident a “blot” on the face of the city, the judge sharply criticised the role of politicians, the police and the reservation policy which divided people.
Perhaps, the judge could not do anything else. In the trial, which lasted 44 days, 40 of the 73 witnesses turned hostile. After filing police complaints and naming people as perpetrators of the crime, they either denied their earlier statements or simply refused to identify the accused. The turnaround was such that some of the witnesses explained that the accused, in fact, had tried to save people from the bakery!
The main complainant, Zahida Habibullah Sheikh, who lost nine family members in the incident, once swore she would not marry until the guilty were punished. She kept the burnt and bloody clothes of the victims to remind her of her oath. She was not present at the court when the judgement was delivered and during the trial was often seen in the company of powerful local BJP MLA Madhu Srivastava against whom dozens of criminal complaints had been filed. He reportedly offered something to the families of the victims if the witnesses kept quiet. Zahida, according to local reports, had got married and left for either Mumbai or Delhi. The MLA, who is close to Chief Minister Narendra Modi, is sure of a quick rise in the hierarchy.
The case had other strange quirks. While it was to be expected that the defence lawyers were warm supporters of the BJP and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the public prosecutor was also close to the ruling party in the past and had been rewarded with the plum post. With both prosecution and the defence working together towards the acquittal of the accused, the judgement was a foregone conclusion.
Naturally, the judgement raises serious legal, moral and ethical questions. A legal verdict can be delivered only on the basis of the evidence presented at the court. Members of the local units of the PUCL and human rights organisations pointed out that the police seldom reached the scene of the crime on time. By that time, the guilty had fled. But the police had to make arrests, and they did so, often taking in custody innocent passersby.
Political pressure was applied at every level. If the arrested did include some political bigwigs, the police were sternly ordered to weaken the prosecution case deliberately and present a weak case which was certain to be dismissed. The eye-witnesses were bullied either to turn hostile or accept money and disappear.
Suddenly, politicians befriended some of the key witnesses and explained to them that nothing could be gained by raking up the past. Why blame others? Whatever happened has happened. We shall help you towards a better future. There was also the implicit threat that the witnesses who were determined to depose would regret their action and would be “taken care of”.
In the books of American lawyer-turned-novelist John Grisham, we are told about the FBI’s extensive Witness Protection Programme. Those who dared to depose against the Mafia crime syndicates or other powerful vested interests were offered plastic surgery to change their appearance, new identities, passports, jobs in the country of their choice and plenty of money. In criminal cases where everything hinged on eyewitnesses’ testimony, such a programme was of vital importance.
The judicial process was also seriously hampered because of political interference with the police. The Indian police was taking a beating all over. In Mumbai, where the city police was once acknowledged as second only to the Scotland Yard, the Anti-Corruption Bureau was arresting daily senior and junior police personnel for alleged graft. In most cases, the men were caught red-handed, accepting bribe ranging from Rs 5000 to Rs 5 lakh.
Under the existing political system, it requires great courage and honesty for the police to function independently. Any independent move can result in sudden transfers to remote areas. The police have to be doubly careful in handling cases related to communal disturbances. There have been hardly any convictions for the communal holocaust of Ahmedabad in 1969, the anti-Sikh riots in Delhi and elsewhere in 1984 and the Mumbai riots which followed the Babri Masjid demolition.
Society also suffered because no action had ever been taken on the so-called judicial enquiries which followed every communal riot. The judges spent several months on these missions on which huge amounts were spent. The reports gathered dust. The controversial Justice Srikrishna Commission report on the Mumbai riots severely indicted the Shiv Sena and the local police. While the Sena government naturally ignored the findings, even the Congress-NCP alliance which swore by secularism had taken no action. Why rake up the past and create fresh trouble?
There is now a big question mark over the judicial inquiries and the impartiality of the judges entrusted with this responsibility. Justice Nanavati, who is heading the enquiry into the post-Godhra Gujarat riots, had stated publicly that the state had done no wrong and that people were not coming forward to testify. “How can we testify before a judge holding such views” ask the hapless victims.
Indian society, unfortunately, is polarised to such a level that people who burn, kill and loot are regarded as heroes by certain powerful groups. Rather than send them to jail, we send them to state assemblies and even Parliament. Banarasi Pehalwan, who was accused of mass killings during the 1969 communal riots in Ahmedabad, was honoured in public and later wooed by the BJP and even the Congress and offered tickets to contest the state assembly elections.
In such a murky atmosphere, most of us look to the courts and the judical system for salvation. The judges, most of them good and honourable, often feel helpless at the lapses in the manner the prosecution presents its case. The Vadodara judge lamented, “It is common experience that in riot cases, police investigation is mostly inadequate and weak. They don’t reach the crime scene in time and had to fabricate statements. The Best Bakery case was no exception.”
Such an attitude has become common because errant police offices are protected by politicians. Court strictures on shoddy police investigation do not result in any disciplinary action against such officers and today such men flaunt their political connections. Perhaps, judges should now insist that such policemen must be punished. It is also necessary to introduce in some form a witness protection programme. Eye-witnesses need not fear to come out and tell the truth.
Living in an un-lettered age
WE don’t get letters any more, we get messages! Now that even e-mail has become passe in these days of instant messaging, thanks to SMS on cell-phones I pine for the good old days when I used to look forward to the khaki-clad man with wads of letters. It was such a pleasure shuffling through the envelopes and inland letters for my name on them. The familiar handwriting would send the heart aflutter and impatiently I would tear it open to read the contents. Sometimes the hand would be a scrawl, sometimes crow’s feet, sometimes speedy scribbling and at other times pure calligraphic joy. One could understand the writer’s mood, mental condition and intent from the handwriting alone. Letters smudged with ink, paragraphs spoiled by drops of tears, even the scoredout portion seeming mystical, challenging your eye, and deciphering ability.
Sometimes the letters would be fat containing sheaves of paper where the writer would have bared the soul. There were letters to be preserved just like photographs as sweet memories. The paper could go sepia-toned but the writer would still be there with all his feelings, his laughs and tears. There would be something in those letters that would just not go old tasting even better with the passing years just like vintage wine! That time would also come alive through the letters, the time that would be linked with many memories, the time that would have become an integral part of your life lived! It was not nostalgia but the past preserved on pieces of paper!
All those things are gone. Nothing could be more cold and impersonal than e-mail. The font, rich or otherwise, has replaced the handwriting. The writer is not there in those mails, just the information. And they don’t get long either; very matter-of-fact, very official like the age we live in. No time to waste on messages!
But even then it was better than what has come to rule us today-the SMS. The messages have got shorter and the spelling funnier. The other day I got a message on my mobile—“? R u”. At least the e-mail would bear, to whatever little extent, the style, individuality and flavour of the sender and you can keep it in your mailbox without deleting. But the SMS lingo has become universal it cannot have the stamp of a person. There is nothing to preserve; you cannot even preserve it. It is a message like a code word, cold and devoid of all feelings; read it and erase it.
I pity today’s lovers who are missing out on the fragrance of billet doux! Friendship and love, the softer feelings and emotions can only thrive on long hand. That’s why in today’s world of e-card the printed cards still hold sway come the Valentine’s day.
Postman continues to be a favourite with me although he no more brings letters. He reminds me of the days of letters and I am happy that I have preserved letters that are like mementoes of those bygone days.
Earlier, I used to wait for him for another reason too. He brought me cheques for articles published. But even that role has been taken over by the courier boy. And all that the good old khaki man delivers is bank statements telling me that I am left with a balance of Rs 135 in the saving bank account!
Cong to look for winning mantra
THE challenges faced by the Congress in its quest for power at the Centre are as daunting today as in 1998 when it held its last brainstorming session. The Congress has not been able to stem its decline in the parliamentary elections since it was voted out of power in 1996. Though the Congress now has governments in 15 states, apart from Bihar and Jammu and Kashmir, where it is part of the ruling coalition, it is still looking for a mantra that can catapult it to victory in the next Lok Sabha poll. The party’s three-day brainstorming session at Shimla beginning on July 7 is expected to finetune the road map for regaining power at the Centre.
The Congress continues to be weak in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, which account for over 200 Lok Sabha seats. Searching for an adequate response to the caste and religion-oriented politics, the Congress is witnessing attempts by the BJP to take over its planks of good governance and stability. The party has to also contend with comparisons often made between its top leaders and those of the BJP.
A realisation of its present limitations compelled party President Sonia Gandhi to announce at Srinagar in May this year that the Congress is willing to enter into alliances with like-minded parties, both at the Centre and in the states to defeat the BJP-led NDA. The details of the alliances in states, she said, will be left to the Chief Ministers and party chiefs.
The position taken by Ms Gandhi in Srinagar marks a shift from the party’s stance at Panchmarhi where it had said that the difficulties in forming one-party governments was a transient phase in the evolution of India’s polity. While pledging to restore the party to its primacy in national affairs, the Congress had then declared that “coalitions will be considered only when absolutely necessary and that too on the basis of agreed programmes which will not weaken the party or compromise its basic ideology.”
With a discernible change in the line of thinking of the party leadership, the Congress is striking partnernship in Uttar Pradesh with the Samajwadi Party. In Tamil Nadu it is apparent that the party must inevitably have a truck with one of the two Dravidian parties without which its fate is good as sealed in the southern state even if it amounts to getting a raw in deal in the sharing of seats.
A sizeable section of discerning Congressmen believe it is not possible for the Congress to make a worthwhile dent in the Lok Sabha if it does not strike pre-poll alliances with regional satraps enjoying spheres of influence. Also if the party has to make considerable gains in the number of seats as compared to its tally of 112 in the 13th Lok Sabha, it has become imperative to strive for workable coalitions in a calculated manner. This particularly so as the presence of the Congress all over the country cannot be underestimated.
In achieving this objective, the Congress will have to activate its grassroots workers who are disillusioned with the state of affairs and style of functioning of many of its pradesh Congress committee chiefs. The ordinary Congress worker finds that the road ahead is bleak because the party leadership has failed to infuse confidence in their ranks. They are desperately looking for a fresh spark to enthuse them.
Though the Bangalore plenary session of March 2001 had signalled the party’s growing realisation of the need for alliances, it was at Srinagar that Ms Gandhi gave indications about some of the party’s likely allies. She said that the Congress was working closely with the Samajwadi Party and the Rashtriya Lok Dal and this could transform into an electoral alliance in Uttar Pradesh.
Many Congress leaders see the “pro-rich” perception of the economic reforms initiated by the P.V. Narasimha Rao government in the early 90s as a reason for losing its traditional support base among the weaker sections. The party’s new slogan “Congress ka haath, garib ke saath,” (much like its seventies slogan of `Garibi Hatao’) is an attempt to retrieve the lost ground. Congress leaders brush aside the criticism about lack of fresh ideas. “Are poverty and unemployment not issues in the country? Even the G-8 nations face problems such as unemployment,” says senior party leader Pranab Mukherjee.
Reservations is another method through which the party is trying to widen its social base. After Rajasthan Chief Minister advocated a quota for the “economically backward sections,” Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Digvijay Singh has proposed enhancing quotas for the backward classes in the state.
Realising that the results of assembly elections in four states later this year will have a strong bearing on the Lok Sabha elections next year, the Congress is making determined efforts to retain Delhi, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chattisgarh. Assembly elections are also due in Mizoram, which does not have a Congress government. Faced with the anti-incumbency factor, the party is keeping up the tempo of its attack against the Centre, accusing it of discriminating with the Congress-ruled states in giving drought relief and stopping foreign visits of Congress Chief Ministers.
Groupism remains a bane of the Congress with the problem plaguing most of its state units. Recent admission by a Congress Working Committee member of groupism damaging the party’s prospects has forced the party leadership to sit up and take notice. The issue is likely to figure at the Shimla brainstorming session.
During her reign as the party chief for almost five years, Ms Sonia Gandhi has steered the Congress to victory in several assembly elections. While the assembly polls later this year will be a test of Ms Gandhi’s political skills, her biggest challenge is the 2004 Lok Sabha elections. Congressmen are keeping their fingers crossed on the possibility of either Priyanka Gandhi Vadra or Rahul Gandhi joining politics before these elections.
Are swimming pools safe?
CALLOUS indifference to safety — that’s what one finds in many swimming pools around the country. And the victims of such negligence are young boys and girls who visit the pools to learn swimming. Year after year there are reports of children drowning in swimming pools. This year is no exception. The death of young Ankit Sodhi last fortnight in a West Delhi pool has highlighted once again the poor compliance of safety laws by those who manage swimming pools.
Rules and regulations governing the licensing of pools in Delhi, for example, restrict the number of swimmers in a pool at a given time. Yet this is violated with impunity by pool managements. Pools are so overcrowded during the hot summer months that it is difficult to keep tab on those in the pool. In fact preliminary investigations by the police in Delhi showed that the West Delhi pool was overcrowded at the time Ankit drowned.
This reminds me of another tragic case — that of Sanjeev Patil of Belguam — which came up before the National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission some years ago. The safety measures in place at the Belguam Corporation Swimming pool where the Belguam Aquatic Club ran swimming classes were so poor that the absence of Sanjeev was not even noticed. So much so that when his parents went to the pool in search of him, they were informed that he had left the pool after completing his swimming lessons. It was only much later, after his worried parents lodged a police complaint that a search was conducted and the boy’s body found at the bottom of the pool
Similarly, in the case of young Kedar Dole of Pune, the National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission, pinpointed several acts of negligence on the part of those who ran the swimming classes. (a) The coach had left Kedar unattended in the pool to talk to a parent who had come to see him. The life guards were also not attentive enough to ensure Kedar’s safety. (b) There was no net or partition in the pool to prevent learners from entering the deep side of the pool. (c) Even after it was discovered that Kedar was missing, precious time was lost in searching for him in the bathroom and elsewhere instead of in the pool. (d) After Kedar was picked up from the bottom of the pool, the instructor wasted precious time taking him to a room nearby for first aid. He should have tried to revive him on the side of the pool itself. (e) No life saving mechanism was available at the pool site to deal with accidents. (f) The pool had no contingency plan and Kedar was first taken to a general practitioner who had no facilities to treat Kedar. By the time he was taken to a hospital, he had died.
In both cases, the consumer courts held those who ran the pool and the swimming classes guilty of negligence, thereby causing the death of the children and awarded the parents compensation. But then, no amount of money can really compensate the parents who have lost their children.
So be sure check on the pool before you send your children to swim. And do not compromise on safety. Find out whether the pool management has put in place a fool-proof system by which it ensures the safety of every person. Is there any restriction on the number of people who can be in the pool at a time? How do they ensure that learners do not enter the deep side of the pool? How many life guards do they have in place? Are they trained to handle emergencies? What about the swimming instructor? What are his qualifications and experience? What are the existing facilities for first aid and medical emergency? How far is the nearest hospital? Are there a few doctors on call —how long will one of them take to reach the pool in case of an emergency. Check on all these facts and if you ever find overcrowding at the pool, protest.
As users/consumers of the pool, insist on the management displaying prominently at the pool site all safety measures that have been put in place. It should also become mandatory for all pools to display prominently the rules and regulations governing the licensing of the pool and the telephone numbers of those to whom one can complain in case of violations. This cannot only ensure compliance of safety rules, but also force the licensing authorities to crack down on those who violate the safety laws. Those who run the pools need to be reminded that putting in place certain basic measures do not require huge investment, but only careful planning and execution. And they can well save precious lives.
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