Caliphs and Clowns


By B.G. Verghese

Praise is due for the quiet, skilful diplomacy that has brought several Indian nurses and others home from captivity by the new Caliphate in Iraq. Many workers remain and there is a huge Indian population hostage to periodic political disruptions in the region. The situation remains potentially volatile. The proclamation of a caliphate may not portend much as yet; but it is a straw in the wind that Islamic fundamentalism is pushing forward and India is among its prime targets. Danger also lies in one brand of fundamentalism fuelling another.

It is disconcerting that at this time, communal agendas are being propagated anew in India. Recent manifestations of book banning and moral policing are disturbing. The RSS is asserting itself. The latest riot in Moradabad was spurred by a BJP MLA and his cohorts defying a ban on a maha-panchayat called to uphold the right of a local Hindu temple to use its loudspeaker during Ramzan. Protesting Muslims claim that loudspeakers have never been used in this temple before (at Ramzan), a fact that the BJP challenges. This is a needless provocation in the fraught post-Muzaffarnagar situation. In the process a police official has possibly lost an eye. It is a shame that festivals, religious processions and sacred places have become occasions and sites for what is essentially political contestation. And why cannot any legitimate conflict of interest be amicably settled? Mischief is afoot.

The BJP government too has not come out well in virtually black-listing GopalSubramaniam from the list of four approved names selected for elevation to the Supreme Court bench. The Chief Justice is outraged and has said that this kind of interference should not recur. The common belief is that the BJP disapproved of Subramaniam’s views as amicus curiae in the sensitive Sohrabuddinfake encounter case. Be this as it may, the intervention was crude and sends out a wrong message. The independence of the judiciary must not be allowed to be compromised.

Yet, governments of all hues want to bend public institutions to their will. More Governors have been eased out in the past few weeks merely because they are appointees of the previous regime. Yes, selections have been poor and partisan on occasion; but, honourable exceptions apart,merely substituting one such pensioner with another will not pass muster.

The Maharashtra government in turn has shown its reluctance to grant fuller autonomy to its police force under the Maharashtra Police Amendment Ordinance, February 2014. While incorporating some improvements in terms of the Supreme Court’s directive in the Prakash Singh case, the Ordinance falls short of the main thrust of police reforms made by successive high-powered commissions since 1978 in important respects.

To immunise the process of selection fromundue influence, the Supreme Court specifically required that the Chiefof Police be selected from a panel of three candidates chosen by the UnionPublic Service Commission. The Ordinance omits this, and allows the Chief ofPolice to be appointed on the sole discretion of the state government.
Instead, the DGP should be empanelled by the State Securities Commission established under the Act and have aminimum term of two years, irrespective of his date of superannuation.

There are problems with the composition of the State Securities Commission in the Ordinance. There is no judge as a member of the SSC as suggested by the Court. Instead, the executive is represented by the Home Minister, the Chief Secretary, and the Additional Chief Secretary (Home), thus compromising its independence. Again, the Court had stipulated that the recommendations of the Commission shall be binding; but the Ordinance makes them “advisory”. The status and powers of police establishment boards and police complaints board have also been diluted to give Government the final word.

Why is the Government shy of police autonomy? It is because all governments wish to keep the police as their hand maidens.And when the police is under the thumb of the political establishment one knows what happens. The Trinamool Congress MLA, Tapas Paul made the most indecent and murderous comments against his Left opponent, that went viral on video, but was let off with a grudging apology by Mamata who treated the matter flippantly as a routine party affair. The police was immobilised. The Centre was loath to move whether there or in Uttar Pradesh.

Sections of the media have been as irresponsible. The hugely sensational and even defamatory coverage and commentary on TV on the controversy raised over SunandaPushkar’s autopsy was disgusting. Rather than await due investigatory process, the media set itself up as a crude kangaroo court, mixing salacious gossip with charges of poisoning, murder and family and institutional intrigue. This cacaphony went on non-stop for days on end with all manner of busybodies channel-hopping to join the raucous debate. Equally pointless has been the time devoted to the PreityZinta and Ness Wadiaover a tawdry issue by of bloated self-importance by these socialites while far more urgent and important issues were ignored or glossed over.

The upheaval over the campaign to overturn Delhi University’s year-old innovation of a four year degree course, with optional intermediate stages, was also instructive. A bold move to introduce some freshness into DU’s stale curriculum was joyously aborted by mindless opponents and status quoists and those afraid of innovation and creativity. The Vice-Chancellor, Prof Dinesh Singh achieved a breakthrough in Indian higher education that has stagnated for years only to be thwarted by educational backwoodsmen. College autonomy too has been frustrated in many cases by those that fear change and accountability.

A silver lining in these clouds was the inauguration by the prime minister of the Udhampur-Katra section of the Jammu-Srinagar railway. While this will facilitate pilgrim traffic to Vaishno Devi, the real significance of the link is the historic opportunity it offers to make a politico-economic turnaround in J&K. This opening has scarcely been understood, let alone seized by the mandarins in Delhi and Srinagar. The media too has been asleep. Everybody ogles at the proposed China-Pakistan Karakoram corridor and the opportunities it promises. But what about the Delhi-Jammu- Srinagar corridor that has far more immediate promise for connectivity, community, trade, employment, Pandit resettlement and reconciliation. Has imagination fled?



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