More en Sat Sep 14 18:41:11 IST 2019 race-of-death <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Bats did not bring Covid-19 to Brazil, the deadly virus came through the noses, lungs and throats of revellers eager for the Carnival. It was carried by upper-class Brazilians who had the means to escape to Milan, Aspen or Rome during the world’s biggest street festival. The arrival of the virus was not a surprise as we watched the news from Wuhan and YouTube videos of abandoned Italian streets, wondering if local governments would cancel the Carnival this year. They did not, and this country of 211 million saw more than 27 million people, from across Brazil and the world, take to its packed streets for seven days. And that is how Brazil, now projected to be the epicentre of the pandemic, became our collective nightmare. Added to the challenges every country is facing with lockdowns, illness, death and economic collapse, Covid-19 has thrown us off a cliff and into the chasm that is Brazil’s great social, economic and racial divide—our peculiar brand of tropical apartheid.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>I am not Brazilian. I am an African American singer who fell in love with this amazing country and moved here two decades ago. I live in what many refer to as “Black Rome”, the city of Salvador in the state of Bahia. Brazil received 40 per cent of all Africans who were enslaved and shipped as cargo to North America, the Caribbean and South America to provide the free labour that created great wealth for European merchants and nobles. This, unfortunately, is the story of the whole “New World”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>As Brazil’s first capital, Salvador and the surrounding rich farmland received huge numbers of enslaved Africans. Today, their descendants make up roughly 82 per cent of the city’s population, while the national average is 56 per cent. Most of them live in poverty, and they are seeing the highest mortality rates. Covid-19 has no racial or economic divide. There is simply the opportunity for transmission and infection in the midst of poverty, malnutrition, dense population and lack of sanitation.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>As of May 11, the Brazilian ministry of health has reported 1,62,699 confirmed cases of Covid-19 with 10,627 deaths. But researchers say the actual numbers will be 12-15 times higher. The Brazilian public health system has 2.62 beds for every one lakh inhabitants. Most of the beds are in the big cities, leaving the countryside at a big risk. Last week saw a 22 per cent increase in deaths and if the numbers continue to rise, the pandemic will break the national health care system, which is used mostly by poor Brazilians. “As the virus spreads to the outlying, poorer regions, the death rate will be much higher because it is going to join other epidemics like dengue fever and chikungunya and conditions like high blood pressure, diabetes and malnutrition. Putting all these together, you can see the situation of the poor, black population,” says Silvio Humberto, city councilman in Salvador, and professor of economics at the State University of Feira de Santana. “Covid-19 has come to make a grave situation of social vulnerability worse. The city of Salvador is cited in poetry and prose for its enchantment and physical beauty. But the pandemic has come to show us that Salvador has gained the title, not of the city of music, but of the city of the poor.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Slavery in Brazil lasted from the 1530s till May 14, 1888. But after their emancipation, the victims of slavery were left to fend for themselves by doing precarious, informal work, such as sharecropping or hard labour. At the same time, European immigrants were offered land and free passage in exchange for agricultural work. The result is that the south and southeast of Brazil, where the European immigrants settled, became more white, accumulating and distributing more wealth, while the north and northeast continued to be locked in a slavocracy with most of the land owned and controlled by descendants of the beneficiaries of the Portuguese land grants who maintained the racial, class and economic disparities of slavery. Humberto says the virus has only revealed the tip of the iceberg. “We had poverty, informal labour and people scraping for a living doing whatever they could in the streets, doing their hustle. Families sustained themselves this way. Now the streets are closed off,” he says.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Doranei Alves, an Afro-Brazilian social worker who lives in Salvador’s São Caetano neighbourhood, says the situation is dire. “There is a huge street fair where everything—from shoes to tea and natural herbs to fruits—is sold. Imagine what is happening to the people who make their living from this. This money pays for their food each day. With the pandemic, everything has stopped. The media says ‘stay home and use a mask’. But people need to eat. Money from the government is taking a long time to come. Many people have not gotten it yet.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>As a musician who is out of work because of the lockdown, I am not rich by any means. But the fact that I can stay home, alone, and live on money I have saved means that I am privileged. In many communities, people are weighing the risk of getting infected against the need to feed their children. “People cannot afford to stay at home anymore,” says Alves. “They have returned to street fairs and have started selling their products again. This reveals how much inequality is there in Brazil. Mothers go crazy when there is no food for their children.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The combination of financial, mental and emotional stress has led to increased domestic violence and also defiance that contributes to the spread of the virus. “Women are going crazy because of domestic violence. This affects children and their development,” says Alves. “Many old people are at home alone. Family members used to visit them every day and now they cannot visit. Physical contact is very important. It is hard when you are deprived of it.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>While the fear of getting sick has forced many people to comply with the norms of social distancing, others are rebelling, following the example of Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro. “There is a group that defends the president and the majority of them are men,” says Alves. “They are using the president as an example and are going against the recommendations. These men are going to play football, even though they know that they are putting their families at risk. They are going to bars. They are trying to show defiance through their actions. The fight against the virus is also an ideological and political fight.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Bolsonaro, however, insists that Covid-19 is just a cold and says Brazilians could “swim in excrement and still emerge unscathed”. He says his priority is the Brazilian economy, not Brazilian lives. He questions scientists who oppose his opinions, rails at the press coverage of the pandemic and refuses to wear a mask even at rallies where he shakes hands and hugs his supporters. He even planned a big barbecue at the presidential palace on the day when deaths from the pandemic crossed 10,000 in Brazil. It was cancelled finally following widespread protests and the threat of a lawsuit.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>For Bolsonaro, the pandemic has provided a convenient cover for rolling back land rights of indigenous peoples and Afro-Brazilian quilombos—homesteads where descendants of escaped slaves and indigenous people have lived for hundreds of years. Decree MP910 signed by Bolsanaro is before the Congress, and once approved, it will allow loggers, wildcat miners and farmers to lay claim to protected land reserves in the Amazon, traditionally inhabited by indigenous Brazilians. It has emboldened them to invade land and kill indigenous leaders even as they spread Covid-19 among indigenous people with no immunity or access to hospitals. Ivaneida Bandeira of the NGO Kanindé says the pandemic is being used as a cover by the president and corporations involved in agro-business, logging and mining.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Humberto, however, sees an opportunity for change in the ongoing crisis. “With so much uncertainty, we have an opportunity to stir things up,” he says. “We have a non-government. The president goes against science, against the 10,000 deaths. While our country is mourning, the president is jet skiing. This shows how insensitive, ignorant and incompetent the president is. He does not resolve problems, but creates crisis on top of crisis. But the light in this crisis is the empowerment that solidarity has brought to the Afro-Brazilian communities.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Humberto says there have been numerous examples of solidarity and brotherhood across the country. “The pope was right, there is no salvation individually. Salvation has to be collective and we have to be very careful about returning to the so-called ‘normal’ like it was before,” he says. “We need change, not just in the economy, which has been turned on its head. The economy cannot be the be-all and end-all. It should serve society. We have to be liberated from this hegemony of financial capital. It is going to be difficult, but we cannot keep having money generating more money to the detriment of everything, of the people. The people need to be the beginning, the middle and the end.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The newfound solidarity has given hope to millions. Marcia Marciel, a social worker from the neighbourhood of São João do Cabrito, says volunteers in the neighbourhood have decided to create a chain of solidarity. “The solidarity has multiplied,” says Marciel. “I hope that this chain will continue to remain even when this is over.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Alves says there was solidarity when he was growing up. “It is still present, even though today capitalism separates people and encourages individualism. But still, if you need some flour, it is your neighbour who will help you”, she says. “As the wheels of the government turn slowly in response to the pandemic, community organisations are providing for the residents using their own resources and money donated from friends, colleagues and others who feel that we have a shared responsibility to provide for those in need.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Humberto believes it is going to be a new beginning. “This is not just about Covid,” he says. “It is a vision of an African Utopia, an evolution and a new view.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>The author is an African American singer settled in Brazil.</b></p> Thu May 14 17:37:01 IST 2020 far-right-far-wrong <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Covid-19 cases in Brazil are growing at an alarming rate, with the number of deaths crossing 11,000 as on May 10. But for President Jair Messias Bolsonaro, it is all a big joke. “My name is Messiah. But I cannot work miracles,” he said. Hearing about the mounting death toll, he responded with supreme indifference, “So what? What do you want me to do?”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In most countries, presidents and prime ministers visit hospitals to comfort victims and support the medical staff. But not Bolsonaro. He was recently seen at a shooting range, grinning at the cameras in front of a bullet-riddled target, saying, “Pretty good, eh?”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Brazil faces a shortage of ventilators, masks and other essential items. But it hardly bothers Bolsonaro. He is more worried about the shortage of guns in Brazil. When governors are scrambling to get ventilators, Bolsonaro wants to see more guns. Last month, he shut down a military project that sought to use blockchain technology to track guns and other weapons. The public prosecutor’s office is investigating the constitutionality of this move.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>While presidents of other countries are meeting scientists and doctors for advice on dealing with the virus, Bolsonaro had an unusual guest on May 4. He received at the presidential palace Lieutenant Colonel (retd) Sebastião Curió Rodrigues de Moura, a notorious assassin who killed several left-wing guerrillas in the Araguaia region when Brazil was under military dictatorship (1964-1985).</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>As Covid-19 infections grow exponentially, mass graves are being dug in cities like Manaus, where a large number of indigenous people have lost their lives. The mayor of Manaus was in tears describing the acute shortage of coffins, medicines and equipment. Unable to get Bolsonaro’s attention, indigenous leaders have approached the World Health Organisation and even climate activist Greta Thunberg. Millions of poor, mostly Afro-Brazilians, live in the favelas (slums) of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo without adequate water and sanitation facilities. Even the drug-trafficking gangs have started helping them, but not Bolsonaro. The president has ignored WHO advice on Covid-19, but has targeted the world body, saying it promotes masturbation and homosexuality among children.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The president has not been supportive of officials who have been working hard to tackle the pandemic. He has sparked protests by sacking his popular health minister, Luiz Henrique Mandetta, after repeated clashes over handling of the crisis.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>According to a study by the University of São Paulo, Brazil may already have the most number of Covid-19 cases in the world. But testing is minimal in the country due to the lack of federal government support. Bolsonaro continues to downplay Covid-19, calling it a “simple cold” and a “fantasy” and “hysteria” promoted by the media to weaken his government. Such talk clearly misleads and confuses the general population. He criticises the lockdown imposed by state and municipal authorities and calls social distancing measures imposed by governors and mayors as “crime”. He goes around shaking hands and taking selfies with his supporters at rallies organised by his sons and allies. He wants to resume football games, arguing that players are less likely to die from Covid-19 because of their supreme physical fitness. Bolsanaro once said, “Brazilians could swim in excrement and still emerge unscathed”. He even launched a #BrazilCannotStop campaign which asked people to get back to work and normal life. The move was banned by a federal judge.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>At least 20 officials of the Bolsanaro administration, including national communications chief Fabio Wajngarten and National Security Minister Augusto Heleno, have tested positive for Covid-19, but the president scoffs at preventive measures. On May 8, Bolsanaro said he would celebrate the weekend with a barbecue at the presidential palace. But a day later, after facing widespread criticism and being threatened with a lawsuit, he called the news about the barbecue fake, blamed journalists, and was seen riding a jet ski on Lake Paranoá. He stopped to chat with a group of people who were barbecuing on a speedboat.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Bolsonaro attacks journalists day in and day out, often using the language of street thugs. Following his cue, his supporters have even physically attacked journalists at the president’s rallies. Bolsanaro and his sons spread fake news on social media, forcing Facebook and Twitter to remove some of their posts. The prosecutors are investigating fake news campaigns of the Bolsonaros.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The president does not even spare the Congress and the judiciary. He routinely incites his followers to shout slogans in favour of military dictatorship. The attorney general is investigating one such case of sloganeering outside the army headquarters when Bolsonaro was present. The defence ministry issued a statement on May 4 saying the armed forces were dedicated to their constitutional mission and democracy.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>For Bolsonaro, protecting and promoting his family comes first. He recently fired the chief of the federal police and appointed a family friend in his place to scupper ongoing criminal investigations against his sons and allies for murder, money laundering and disinformation campaigns on social media. Justice minister Sérgio Moro resigned recently after publicly accusing the president of criminal obstruction of justice. The supreme court subsequently vetoed the appointment of the new police chief and ordered an investigation on the basis of Moro’s charges. The president has now proposed another family friend to the post. The association of the members of the federal police has written to Bolsonaro to “keep the constitutionally-required distance” and not interfere in the day-to-day work of the police to maintain objectivity and public confidence.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Last year, Bolsonaro had tried to make his third son, Eduardo, Brazil’s ambassador to the US, saying ‘Eduardo and President Donald Trump’s sons are friends’. But Eduardo had to withdraw his candidacy following widespread protests against such blatant nepotism.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Besides polarising the country with his hate-speech, the Bolsonaro clan continues to burn bridges with the world. He had insulted the wife of French President Emmanuel Macron and made disparaging remarks against President Alberto Fernández of Argentina, Brazil’s neighbour and most important regional partner. He had provoked China, Brazil’s top export destination, by visiting Taiwan during his presidential campaign. Sino-Brazilian relations deteriorated further after Eduardo criticised the absence of democracy and transparency in China and also its handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. The Chinese embassy in Brasilia made a scathing counterattack, saying the president’s son had contracted a “mental virus” while he was in the United States. “Sadly, you are a person without any international vision or common sense. We suggest you don’t rush to become the US spokesman in Brazil,” said a statement by the embassy. The sharp reaction prompted some state governors and exporters to apologise to the Chinese ambassador, especially as they have been hoping to procure masks, protective gear and ventilators from China.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Bolsonaro’s ministers, however, are competing with each other to impress the boss with their own incendiary statements. Foreign Minister Ernesto Araújo wrote that Covid-19 “could be a global project to transform the world into a concentration camp and impose communism via the ‘comunavirus’”. Education Minister Abraham Weintraub tweeted that the pandemic would serve Chinese interests. In his tweet in Portuguese, he substituted the letter ‘r’ in ‘Brazil’ with ‘L’ so that it read ‘BLazil’, a style used to mock Chinese accents. The Chinese ambassador called Weintraub a racist and the supreme court has ordered an investigation into the minister’s action.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Critics fear that the Bolsonaro administration has managed to undo in less than 16 months the excellent work done by Brazilian diplomats over the past two decades. Bolsanaro has shocked the world with his bigotry on several issues, including global environmental concerns. Brazil today stands completely isolated on the issue in sharp contrast with the leading role it played during President Lula’s time. On April 20, Brazil voted against a UN General Assembly resolution co-sponsored by 179 countries seeking global access to medicines and vaccines to tackle Covid-19. It was ironic as Brazil had in the past successfully led developing countries in their fight for affordable HIV/AIDS medicines, even breaking a few international patents in the process. Marking a complete turnaround in its foreign policy, Brazil recently voted against a pro-Palestine resolution in the UN, further alienating several countries in the developing world.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The only bridge Bolsonaro has built so far is with Trump, his role model. But this is temporary and unsustainable. Although Bolsanaro wants total alignment of Brazil’s foreign policy with that of Trump’s, he has been restrained by his own foreign office and military. For instance, his decision to shift the Brazilian embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem has not been implemented.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Most people voted for Bolsonaro in 2018, in a clear verdict against the corruption scandals involving the Workers Party and other mainstream political parties and leaders. There was a massive anti-incumbency wave across Brazil, which benefited Bolsonaro. But many of those who voted for him regret their decision now. People are horrified to see his inhuman approach towards the pandemic. People had hoped that the power and prestige as president might make him moderate and pragmatic. They are disillusioned to see that he has become worse and even incites anti-democratic attacks from the presidential palace. Millions are now protesting, banging pots and pans and yelling “Bolsonaro out” whenever the president comes on television. They are afraid that the longer Bolsonaro continues as president, the worse it will be for the country.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Sensible politicians, businessmen, civil society leaders and professionals consider Bolsonaro more toxic than Covid-19. The president does not have the support of any major political party. He has moved from one fringe party to another eight times so far. During his presidential campaign he was with the Social Liberal Party. He quit last November over a dispute on the control of campaign funds and launched his own party called the Alliance for Brazil with himself as president and his eldest son Flavio as vice president. But it does not have any other recognisable leaders.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Congress has already received at least two dozen impeachment petitions against Bolsanaro. It had impeached president Dilma Rouseff in 2016 for budget manipulation. It was nothing compared with the charges being levelled against Bolsonaro. However, he enjoys the support of the bible, bullet and beef lobby comprising evangelicals, rich landlords and the cattle and meat industry, which uses him to advance their own partisan agenda. Some other legislators are willing to support him thinking that this is the best time to bargain for favours and pork barrel (appropriations made for projects that are not essential but are sought because they pump money and resources locally).</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso cautioned that Bolsonaro’s authoritarian impulses could lead to the return of the military dictatorship. Rodrigo Maia, president of the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies, tweeted, “The whole world is united in the fight against the coronavirus. In Brazil, we have to fight against the coronavirus and the virus of authoritarianism.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>The author is a retired diplomat with extensive experience in Latin America.</b></p> Thu May 14 17:28:09 IST 2020 states-of-despair <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>A few months ago, Covid-19 was a distant threat for the United States, but the country now leads the world in terms of deaths and live infections, with New York City being the epicentre of the pandemic. The once glittering ‘centre of the universe’ is now largely deserted, with the silence broken only by ambulance sirens. As of April 29, the US has recorded 59,266 deaths, with the state of New York reporting 23,144 deaths.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Most Americans remain locked down, listening to the conflicting and worrisome news coming out of the Trump White House and wondering what’s next. Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has been the voice of calm and reason as Americans embrace social distancing and masks, and adopt a new normal for quarantined school and work.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Indian Americans are a prominent presence in the tri-state area comprising New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. Many members of the community have been affected by the pandemic and some, like the well-loved chef Floyd Cardoz, have lost their lives. But members of the community, including physicians, nurses and health care workers and a large number of essential workers employed in restaurants, grocery stores and small businesses, are also active in the fight back against Covid-19. Seema Verma, who heads the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, is a member of President Donald Trump’s task force to tackle the pandemic. Other prominent Indian Americans engaged in the endeavour include former US surgeon general Dr Vivek Murthy, Dr Kavita Patel of Brookings Institution, Dr Ashish Jha of Harvard Global Health Institute, Dr Rahul Sharma of Weill Cornell Medicine, Dr Nirav Shah of Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention and Dr Monica Bharel, commissioner of the Massachusetts department of public health.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>New York’s hospitals are Covid-19 hotspots as doctors try to save as many people as possible despite the constraints of space, personal protective equipment (PPE) and ventilators. One of the fierce battlegrounds is Mount Sinai Hospital which has several branches in Manhattan and Queens, and has dealt with hundreds of cases. “There is usually a variety of intensity within any intensive care unit, but here everyone is equally super sick. So there is no variation, no downtime, there is no easy patient,” said Dr Umesh Gidwani, chief of cardiac critical care at Mount Sinai. Dr Roopa Kohli-Seth, director of critical care at Mount Sinai, said the Institute for Critical Care Medicine had dedicated all seven ICUs and 45 physicians to treat Covid-19 patients.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A week ago, when the infections were at the peak of the curve, there was a nightmarish lack of hospital beds, ventilators and PPE, and cities and states were hustling to get their act together. In New York, tourist spots such as Central Park and business arenas like the Javits convention centre were turned into hospitals to solve the shortage. The federal government even sent in the USNS Comfort, a navy ship, to serve as a mobile hospital.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The delay in testing, coupled with the lack of equipment and adequate staff, has been the bane of many hospitals, not only in New York, but also in neighbouring states. “Our government failed us—it has repeatedly misinformed the public, it dawdled instead of manufacturing enough test kits, it has persistently failed to procure PPE for essential workers,” said Dr Sejal Hathi, resident physician in the intensive care unit at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. “Doctors and nurses were not prepared for it. But community by community, one by one, we are picking up the pieces and working together to confront the challenge ourselves.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>One Indian American doctor who is making virtual house calls during this difficult time is Dr Sanjay Gupta, surgeon and journalist who conducts ‘coronavirus town halls’&nbsp;on CNN with Anderson Cooper, helping house-bound populations to stay informed and calm. Health care workers are certainly proving to be the heroes of the hour. Dr Omar Manya, an emergency room doctor at Elmhurst General Hospital in New York, survived the virus and returned to confront it. “There is just so much need out there and such a shortage of supplies and people in the workforce that we are excited to get back on the frontlines,” he said.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Essential workers driving buses and handling groceries, too, have been infected and some have lost their lives. The Empire State Building in New York was lit up in red and six Swaminarayan temples from Atlanta to New Jersey were lit up in blue to thank them. The Swaminarayan organisation also donated thousands of&nbsp;N95 masks. Sikh gurdwaras and NGOs have been donating meals to health workers and those who lost their jobs. Restaurants, themselves out of business, are paying tribute to selfless first responders by providing meals to hospitals. Every evening at 7, New Yorkers gather at their windows and doors to clap and sound a grateful thank you through trumpets and bells. It is spontaneous, with the honking of car horns and applause from skyscrapers—a moment of goodness, joy and gratitude.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>For most people, life during the pandemic means adjusting their lifestyles and their expectations. Children and young adults are back home, trying to pursue their studies from their bedrooms with online learning; parents are trying to run businesses from their home computers. Life is on hold, but a new lifestyle may develop from this, as arts, leisure and social activities are reborn on online platforms.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>As Covid-19 continues to ravage nations around the world, the loss is not only in human life, but also in the very basics of health, food and livelihood. According to a Pew Research Center survey, 43 per cent of Americans have reported that someone in their household has lost a job or has taken a pay cut. Among the lower income groups, the figure is 52 per cent.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Indians in the hospitality industry have been particularly hit, especially the hotel and motel industry which was behind so many Indian success stories. “America’s hotel owners were the first ones to feel the economic impact of Covid-19 as meetings and events were cancelled, and they will likely be the last to recover as travel restrictions are lifted and economic recovery begins,” said Cecil P. Staton, president and CEO of Asian American Hotel Owners Association. “We are, however, gravely concerned whether many hotels can survive until we reach that point.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Restaurants and bars, once the joy of city life, are shuttered and Indian restaurants, too, have seen a complete shutdown except for contact-less deliveries. Some of the players like chef Chintan Pandya and owner Rony Mazumdar of Adda and Rahi, and Surbhi Sahni of Tagmo are cooking up meals and working with city agencies and NGOs to provide food to the hungry and the jobless. In New York, thousands of restaurants, owners, chefs, kitchen staff and delivery people are all concerned about the future. The danger is that many of these restaurants may never be opened again.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>While Americans wait for the federal government’s stimulus package to get their lives restarted, Indian American NGOs are trying to help alleviate the situation in the US and also in India. A group of Indian American entrepreneurs brought together by Indiaspora, a Washington, DC-based community organisation, has raised $1 million for food security in both India and the US in an initiative called ChaloGive for Covid-19. M.R. Rangaswami, founder of Indiaspora, said the funds were being directed to two credible organisations—Feeding America in the US and Goonj in India. NGOs like Share and Care, Children’s Hope India and Sewa International are delivering meals to needy New Yorkers. Sudha Acharya, director of the South Asian Council for Social Services, is delivering Indian meals to the elderly, the needy and the undocumented in the hard-hit borough of Queens.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>With the US economy in a tailspin, negotiations between the White House and the Congress on the next stimulus package are expected to begin soon. The White House is likely to seek a “liability shield”to protect businesses from being sued by customers who catch the virus. Many companies are reluctant to reopen while the virus still spreads, for fear of being held liable.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>As people and small businesses wait for more help from the federal government, there is concern that they may suffer as big corporations make a grab for the available funds. Bharat Ramamurti is an Indian American who will have a say on the issue. He has been appointed to the Congressional Oversight Commission which will oversee the $2 trillion fund to restart the economy. Announcing his appointment, Senator Chuck Schumer said Ramamurti would fight for transparency and would hold bad actors accountable.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>While some states are looking to ease the lockdown, many others are yet to hit the peak of the infection curve. New York, which has seen the worst, seems to have survived under the watch of Governor Andrew Cuomo. In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration has provided free meals for anyone who needs to eat, with no questions asked about their status or income. The homeless and the ones who are recovering from the infection and cannot be quarantined at home have been housed in city hotels with all costs paid. Children who are from vulnerable homes and do not have access to online devices for home-schooling have been provided with iPads and Wi-Fi. However, until millions of tests are done, opening of the economy seems impossible and the city remains fragile.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“Testing is going to be a major operation that happens from now until the situation is over,” said Cuomo. “It’s new, it’s technical, it’s complex. It’s a political football. But testing does a number of things for us. Number one, it reduces the spread of the virus by finding people who are positive, tracing their contacts and isolating them. That’s a function of testing.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>While most states are observing quarantine, some states like Georgia are tentatively reopening, although they have not yet reached the peak of the infection. Trump has asked governors to make the decision, so there is no unified national policy. New York plans to reopen in phases, based on more testing. Cuomo said reopening of parts of upstate New York could happen after May 15.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>There is, however, fear that the virus may return in a second wave in the fall. Cuomo has suggested that it is important to plan for a better health care system, a smarter telemedicine programme, better technology and education and importantly, more social equality for minority communities. The pandemic has hit low income groups and minorities harder and Trump’s new immigration ban has added more problems for them.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“You can see the disparate effect of this disease and how it reinforced the disparity and inequity in society,” said Coumo. “So it’s not just reopen, it’s not just build it back. It’s advance. Use this as a moment in time where they look back when they write the history books and they say, ‘Boy, they went through a terrible time, but they actually learned from it and they improved from it and they moved forward.’”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>The author is a New York-based journalist who blogs at Lassi with Lavina.</b></p> <p><a href=""><u></u></a></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>UNITED STATES</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>CONFIRMED CASES</b><br> 10,35,765</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>DEATHS</b><br> 59,266</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>NEW YORK</b></p> <p><b>CONFIRMED CASES</b><br> 3,01,450</p> <p>deaths<br> 23,144</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>(figures as on april 29)</p> Thu Apr 30 22:55:39 IST 2020 on-a-wing-and-a-prayer <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>IN MARCH, PRIME MINISTER</b> Sheikh Hasina decided to scale down the yearlong centenary celebrations of the birth of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, her father and Bangladesh’s jatir pita (father of the nation). The reason behind the decision was Covid-19.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>World leaders who were to participate in a public meeting in Dhaka on March 17 pulled out because of outbreaks in their own countries. Four days before the event, as the number of Covid-19 cases surged in Delhi, Mumbai and Kerala, Prime Minister Narendra Modi called off his visit to Dhaka and sent a video message instead.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>When Hasina decided to scale down the celebrations, only three Covid-19 cases had been reported in Bangladesh. A month later, there are more than 6,000 cases; 155 people have died. The country has been in lockdown since March 26, and it will remain so till May 5. A high-level committee headed by Hasina may decide to extend the lockdown.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The pandemic has already wreaked havoc on Bangladesh’s thriving manufacturing industry, which employs millions. With Ramadan having begun, the government is also bracing for a spike in the number of infections.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The authorities are struggling to prevent religious gatherings and enforce the lockdown. Last month, around 25,000 people assembled for prayers at a mosque in Raipur. On April 18, more than 10,000 people in Sarail violated the lockdown to attend the funeral of a well-known religious scholar who had died of unknown causes. The government said it had permitted only 50 people to attend the funeral.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“They violated the lockdown to send a message that they would not accept the government’s order,” Foreign Affairs Minister A.K.M. Abdul Momen told THE WEEK. “We will not accept such fanatic behaviour. Bangladesh is no longer a country of fundamentalists.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Momen said violations would be strictly dealt with from now on. “We have closed down almost all mosques and asked everyone to offer prayers at home,” he said. “Any violation would be dealt with a firm hand.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>According to the government, Bangladesh has entered the third stage of the Covid-19 outbreak. “We have detected community-level infections,” said Momen. “But things have not gone out of control and we are not in a horrible situation. The government is taking tough actions, like controlling gatherings—religious and otherwise—everywhere in the country.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>More than 3,000 Bangladeshis have been stuck in India. A few hundred of them had taken part in the Tablighi Jamaat event in Delhi in March, which later became one of India’s largest Covid-19 clusters. Momen said many people had gone to India without informing the government of their intention to take part in the Jamaat event. “About 60 of them have been infected and they are quarantined in Delhi,” said Information Minister Muhammad Hasan Mahmud. “They can only come back if they are fit enough to come.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Bangladesh is trying to arrange flights to bring back hundreds of citizens who had gone to Delhi and Chennai for health care purposes. “A number of tourists are stuck in Mumbai, Bengaluru and Rajasthan,” said Momen. “We will not be able to bring them back now. I am in touch with New Delhi and have learnt that they are being taken care of by the Indian government.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Bangladesh is also trying to help struggling expatriates. Hundreds of Bangladeshis have died in outbreaks in the US and Europe, and many have lost their jobs. According to the foreign affairs ministry, 164 Bangladeshis have died in the US because of Covid-19. In the UK, around 150 have died. “We estimate that 28 lakh Bangladeshis settled abroad are now jobless,” said Momen. “We have decided to bring them back in a phased manner. They have every right to come back to their own country.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The government has decided on a package worth Rs200 crore to bring the expatriates back. They will be given land and loans to start new ventures. A stimulus package worth Rs1 lakh crore has already been announced for the domestic market.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Bangladesh is one of the fastest growing economies in the world. Its labour-intensive growth and drastic improvements in health indicators had earned the praise of global experts. Covid-19, however, could have a lasting impact on the country’s future, since a major part of economic growth depends on exports of garments, food products and jute. According to Momen, garment companies have already lost export orders worth $2.5 billion, while remittances have fallen by 12 per cent.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>There are, however, opportunities. Garment companies have started mass-producing personal protective equipment and sanitisers. Some companies have begun making test kits and ventilators, which Bangladesh is currently importing from China, Japan and East Asian countries. “This crisis has given us unbelievable opportunities for building up our internal capacity,” said Momen.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A big worry is the extent of community spread of the disease. At around 1,300 people per square kilometre, Bangladesh’s population density is one of the highest in the world. If community spread is not contained, the result could be disastrous.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Bangladesh, however, has learnt well from the outbreaks in Europe. “[Not separating Covid-19 patients from other patients] was the mistake that Italy did,” said Mahmud. “But we have been segregating Covid-19 patients from the start. In fact, we are building a good number of Covid-19 hospitals across Bangladesh.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Mahmud said the government was worried about the eight lakh Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. To prevent an outbreak, the authorities have decided to increase testing in cities like Cox’s Bazar, which have significant Rohingya population. “The Rohingya issue is a major headache for us,” said Mahmud. “There are reports of fresh infiltrations from Myanmar. We are trying to hold them back. More and more Rohingyas are coming to Bangladesh because the health care facilities in Myanmar are in distress.”</p> Thu Apr 30 20:06:04 IST 2020 we-can-feed-our-people-for-a-year-at-least <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>A chartered accountant-turned-textile baron, Mustafa Kamal was president of the International Cricket Council (ICC) from July 2014 to April 2015. He was minister of planning in the Sheikh Hasina government for five years, before he was made finance minister in 2019.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Kamal spoke to THE WEEK about Bangladesh’s battle with Covid-19. He said Prime Minister Hasina has taken full control by constituting a high-powered team to lessen the impact of the pandemic on the economy. Excerpts from the exclusive interview:</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/Bangladesh has been in lockdown for a month. What would be the economic implication?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/It is very difficult to ascertain that now. It will take time to assess the damage caused by the lockdown and the disease.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/Economies all over the world are assessing the impact now.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/Every country is suffering; Bangladesh cannot be an exception. It is true that we, too, will see downward trends after a couple of months. But to what extent, we will be unable to tell you (now).</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/You went for the lockdown without assessing the situation?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/A high-level committee headed by the prime minister is in place. The HLC decided when to implement the lockdown; it will decide when to withdraw it.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/What about the support to different sectors of economy in this critical time?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/That is also being decided by the HLC. Incentives are being given based on the demands of different sectors.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/Why is it left to the HLC and not the finance ministry?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/The HLC headed by the prime minister has experts who are globally renowned and highly competent. The finance ministry is reporting to the prime minister as and when required.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>As an export-oriented economy, Bangladesh will have to rely on other nations.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Yes, our service sector makes up 55 per cent of our economy. So our economy is mostly export-oriented. Each and every factory is being assessed and a stimulus package is being worked on.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/What has the government done so far?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/The government would release sops for affected sectors. The prime minister is closely monitoring it through the HLC. She has completely taken charge. A stimulus package of $12 billion, which is 3.3 per cent of our GDP, has already been sanctioned.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/What is the role of your central bank?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/The central bank is working on multiple packages. Apart from infusing liquidity, it is also adopting a policy to help micro and small industries get loans at subsidised rates.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/Bangladesh had been witnessing double-digit GDP growth. It looks like history now.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/We need to save people first. If people are there, then the growth story could be redesigned and rewritten. Our main target today is to save lives.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/But would not the present global situation hit Bangladesh hard?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/Our domestic economy is very strong. We are among the top producers—I think seventh or eighth—in rice, fish and agro-products. So we have enough to feed our people.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/How will you produce food without labour?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/You will be surprised to know that we have turned to agro-based industries. We have undertaken automation in production. Within a year, nothing would be manual.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/Where will the labourers go then?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/Once the pandemic is over, we will need a large number of labourers for other kind of jobs. The food processing industry would need a huge number of labourers. Every sector will benefit from this automation process.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/How long can you feed the people without any production?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/For one year, at least. We are completely self-reliant. Our rice, wheat and pulse yields are among the highest in the world. We have revolutionised fisheries and poultry farming. People will not starve today.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/For what products are you dependent on foreign countries?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/Only cooking oil, sugar and onions. We are trying to become self-reliant in these as well. It will take some time. As I said, our main aim now is to control this pandemic and save lives.</p> Thu Apr 30 20:02:53 IST 2020 widening-gulf <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>It has been a week of damage control for the ministry of external affairs after social media posts blaming Muslims for the spread of Covid-19 in India snowballed into a major diplomatic crisis. Princess Hend Al Qassimi, a member of the Sharjah royal family, was the first to criticise an offensive tweet by an Indian national and come out publicly against “Islamophobia” in India as it battles the Covid-19 pandemic. The unprecedented step forced the Narendra Modi government to initiate urgent measures to defuse the crisis.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Maintaining cordial ties with West Asian countries, especially the Gulf monarchies, notwithstanding the BJP’s hardline hindutva image has been a key achievement of the Modi government. So, the prime minister—who was awarded the Order of Zayed, UAE’s highest civilian award, only eight months ago—appears keen to resolve the crisis at the earliest. Modi wrote on LinkedIn that Covid-19 did not see race, religion, colour, caste, creed, language or border before striking. “Our response and conduct thereafter should attach primacy to unity and brotherhood. We are in this together,” he wrote.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Indian ambassadors in the Gulf countries have been deployed to tackle the backlash against India. Pavan Kapoor, India’s envoy to the UAE, tweeted, “India and the UAE share the value of non-discrimination on any grounds. Discrimination is against our moral fabric and the rule of law. Indian nationals in the UAE should always remember this.” External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar reached out to his counterparts in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar and Oman. Minorities Affairs Minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, who usually keeps a low profile, has reportedly been instructed to speak out. The damage may have been repaired for now, but India’s domestic politics is likely to cause further tension in its ties with the Gulf states.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“What we are seeing with the UAE is an indication of how India’s policies and communal messaging at home can have real and deleterious impact on its relations abroad,’’ said Michael Kugelman, senior associate at Wilson Center, Washington, DC. “It is a similar pattern we have seen with Bangladesh, an important country the Modi government has prioritised in its foreign relations, but one that has reacted unhappily to what India is doing at home.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Threats against Mazhar Farooqui, features editor of the Dubai-based Gulf News, have added to an already explosive situation. “I found that many people who were asking for my passport to be revoked and talking about my daughters were followers of the prime minister,’’ said Farooqui.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“Modi has invested a lot in the region,” said Harsh Pant, director, strategic studies, Observer Research Foundation. “He has got significant returns. To disrupt that would not be in his interest.” According to reports, six Indians in the Gulf have recently lost their jobs because of social media posts. “The UAE is historically very uncomfortable with any kind of religious extremism, including support to the Muslim Brotherhood,’’ said writer and cultural critic Shajahan Madampat, who lives in the UAE. “They are now beginning to realise that hindutva is the Hindu version of the Muslim Brotherhood.’’ Madampat, however, said India’s ties with the UAE would remain strong.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The influence of the sangh among NRIs in the Gulf is growing. A fake video allegedly showing the crown prince of Abu Dhabi chanting Hindu hymns at a public function went viral soon after Modi’s trip to the UAE in February 2018. The video, which was telecast by a few Indian news channels, was formally denounced by the UAE government and it hurt India’s image. Recently, a tweet made by BJP’s young MP Tejasvi Surya in 2015 denigrating Arab women resurfaced mysteriously, further vitiating the atmosphere. Equally damaging was a fake tweet by an Omani princess warning about the expulsion of Indian workers from Oman.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Anil Wadhwa, distinguished fellow at the Vivekananda International Foundation, said the social media campaign was a well-orchestrated move by Pakistan. “They have also activated the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation.” Sohan Roy, a UAE-based NRI businessman, too, expressed suspicion that Pakistan could be behind the present crisis. “Someone is deliberately blowing up the issue. This will never happen otherwise,” said Roy, who recently courted controversy after the visuals used with a short poem he wrote hurt religious sentiments of Muslims. “If the government conducts an inquiry, the truth will come out.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>While it is easy to put the blame on Pakistan, the ongoing crisis has exposed a disturbing trend that is on the rise in India. Recently, 101 former civil servants and diplomats like Shivshankar Menon and Shyam Saran wrote to chief ministers and lieutenant governors, expressing anguish over the “harassment” of Muslims in some parts of the country. They highlighted the “othering” faced by Muslims, especially after the Tablighi Jamaat event in Delhi.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The UAE alone is home to nearly 33 lakh Indians. “There are a number of people, especially blue-collar workers, who have lost their jobs,” said Wadhwa. And, they seem to have overstayed their welcome. The Gulf region is India’s biggest source of overseas remittances and a key factor in the country’s energy security policy. With the Covid-19 crisis, the world is headed for a recession. Any misunderstanding with the Gulf countries during this period will be disastrous. India, therefore, needs to ensure that its ties with the region remain robust.</p> Thu Apr 30 19:57:33 IST 2020 i-fear-for-hindus-even-in-europe-and-america <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Princess Hend Al Qassimi has become the woman of the moment by taking on Indian entrepreneur Saurabh Upadhyay for his anti-Muslim comments on social media. Al Qassimi, who is a member of the royal family of Sharjah, warned that Upadhyay’s anti-Muslim remarks were not welcome in the UAE. She also wrote an article in a leading Gulf newspaper, criticising the growing “animosity against Muslims in India”. The issue turned quickly into a major diplomatic crisis, forcing India to initiate steps to protect its cherished ties with Gulf states. In an exclusive interview with THE WEEK, the princess said that a Nazi-like situation was emerging in India, which could hurt Indians across the globe.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Excerpts:</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ Why did you choose to speak out?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/ What is happening in India is not new. It has been going on for the past few years. Recently, the voice of hate has become louder and now we [see it translate into] action against Muslims, Christians and minorities. A single, select sect of Hinduism has been made the hero and the rest has become untouchable. This is the India that Gandhi tried to abolish. Suddenly, we see this Nazi-like system emerging. There is nothing Indian about it. There is nothing Hindu about what is going on.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>I have to admit that certain things that happened in the name of Islam was not very Islamic, like the destruction of temples. Muslim scholars will not like this, but it has to be said. In Islam, it is clear that no temple, church or synagogue can be destroyed, especially during a war. No priest must be hurt. Women and children must not be hurt either. Even a tree must not be cut…. I am talking specifically about the Mughals. But you have to remember that the Mughals were descendants of Genghis Khan, not Prophet Mohammad. Now, 700 years later, the Babri mosque was destroyed. It was wrong, because it was eye for an eye. But I can understand because it was raised on the ruins of a Hindu temple. What I cannot understand is the boycott of Muslims.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>I have read that many Hindus feel that Muslims tried to erase Hinduism. You cannot erase Hinduism, it will always be there. But you also cannot erase Islam from India, where it has a history of over 700 years.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ Has this social media campaign damaged India-UAE relations?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/ People in the UAE are becoming aware of what is happening in India, the way Muslims are treated there. People are shocked and upset. They are waiting for this damage to be undone. I have read that India is building detention camps. In China, there are 1.8 million Uighur Muslims, who are in concentration camps, called labour camps or detention camps. It is disturbing that it is happening in India, which, like the UAE, is a melting pot. We draw inspiration from India.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Indians have always been welcome in the UAE because we have never felt Indians regard us as competition or as the enemy. India and the UAE have strong links and an abiding friendship. I hope this violence and [Islamophobia] stop and India goes back [to its more pluralistic tradition].</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ Do you think the Indian government has done enough?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/ Unfortunately, the Indian government has not [done enough]. I am very disappointed. They think by ignoring it, [it will go away]. But [awareness is growing] not only in the Arab world…. The highest number of Muslims is in Indonesia. Do you think Muslims of Pakistan, Bangladesh and Malaysia will be quiet about this? The repercussions will be felt not only by Hindus in India…. It will have a domino effect.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ So, India has a reason to be concerned.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/ India does have a reason to be concerned. Even if the leaders are quiet about it, do you think the people will be? They won’t. I fear for Hindus, even in Europe and America. They will be viewed as neo-Nazis. [Islamophobia] will not go [unnoticed].</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ Will Indians in the UAE face backlash?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/ The UAE is a very tolerant country. But now there is distrust towards Hindus. This was not the case before. There has also been a number of cases of Indian businessmen declaring bankruptcy and running away. Indians are hardworking people. They don’t deserve to be labelled as Nazis. India is the only country which has never invaded another country. Look at how China invaded Tibet. Now Buddhist monks are not even allowed to practice their religion. India, however, welcomed the refugees.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ Do you blame the BJP or the sangh parivar?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/ I don’t know enough about Indian politics. Even when I spoke up [on Twitter], I was [accused] of defending the Tablighi Jamaat. I don’t even know what that is. I know they are Muslims. I was more concerned about this guy [Upadhyay] attacking my religion, my prophet, my country, my livelihood and my ethnicity. I just hope [the anti-Muslim sentiment in India] ends soon. I am sure it can be corrected.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ Do you see hope?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/ Of course. It is India.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ How difficult was it to speak out?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/ My mother simply reminded me, “Don’t say anything rude. But you have to speak truthfully.” India is our home. When I went to India, I felt I was with my family, even when I was living in a hotel. It is very heart-warming. All I can do is voice my concern. It breaks my heart when I see news [of discrimination]. I would not like to say that it makes me angry. Because then I will be no better.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ Are you planning another trip to India?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/ I hope to come soon after the Covid-19 pandemic. My father speaks fluent Hindi. He lived in India for two years.</p> Thu Apr 30 22:51:29 IST 2020 dragons-dreams <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Blame it on Henry Kissinger. The American Machiavelli’s secret trip to Beijing in 1971 on President Richard Nixon’s orders was the first step to bring China back into the global mainstream. Nixon and Kissinger thought that the move would make China a follower of the rules. Decades later, it seems things are not going according to plan.</p> <p>On April 14, President Donald Trump halted US funding—nearly $400 million annually—to the World Health Organisation, alleging that it worked with China to cover up the spread of Covid-19. Trump’s decision will hurt countries that need WHO’s assistance urgently. But beyond that, there is another fear: China will gain ground.</p> <p>“This only plays into Chinese hands, allowing it to blame the US for being irresponsible and to act like the saviour,” says Jabin Jacob, China expert at Shiv Nadar University. A state-owned think tank in China recently floated the idea of a Beijing-led alternative to the WHO, giving an indication about the Chinese thinking.</p> <p>In the past few decades, China has tried to create alternative multilateral organisations. While these institutions are yet to prove their merit, China has been spreading its influence within the United Nations systems. Last month, it was made a member of an influential consultative group of the UN Human Rights Council, which will oversee the appointment of experts for sensitive issues like freedom of speech and religion. China already heads four of the 15 specialised agencies of the UN.</p> <p>“Chinese citizens heading international organisations is a bad idea,” says Jacob. “They are beholden to the Communist Party of China, and not to the organisation or international charter which they serve. The arrest of the Chinese head of Interpol by Chinese authorities a few years ago without consideration for his international role and profile and over protests of the organisation shows just how little Beijing cares about international bodies.”</p> <p>Chinese funding has emerged as a powerful force. China is already a world leader in terms of peacekeeping operations. With the US scaling back its engagement, China could become the biggest contributor to the UN budget, boosting its goodwill and influence.</p> <p>China, however, is also flexing its muscles as the world faces an unprecedented crisis. The South China Sea is emerging as a battleground as China has chosen to name 80 islands and geographical features recently. China has also ramped up its military production, and is working on supplying submarines and other weapons systems to Pakistan.</p> <p>It might, however, be too soon for China to claim a global leadership position. “We do not know what the world will look post Covid-19,” says Ashok Kantha, former ambassador to China. “There is a resurgence of populism and protectionist policies and problems are solved within nationalist confines rather than in multilateral forums.”</p> <p>This new order, then, coupled with the suspicion towards China, may impede its rise, especially as the pandemic leaves a trail of devastation. Trump is not the only one suspicious. Britain has said hard questions will be asked. Australia, too, has asked for a probe into the origins of the virus. Japan has chosen to offer 220 billion yen ($2 billion) to firms for shifting production back to Japan and 23.5 billion yen to companies seeking to move to another country.</p> <p>“China is trying for a leadership role,” says Alka Acharya, associate professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University. “On the one hand, they are trying to counter the American narrative, and on the other, they are talking about collaboration. After the crisis, the spotlight on them will become even more intense.”</p> <p>According to a Brookings India study, the total current and planned investment by Chinese entities in India is over $26 billion. The People’s Bank of China raising its stake in HDFC Bank to over 1 per cent has sent jitters across the government. The government has modified its Foreign Direct Investment policy to ensure that investment from neighbouring countries will require the nod from the Union government. The Chinese are less than happy with this. But India played it safe without naming China.</p> <p>Gujarat, a leading recipient of Chinese investment, is eyeing Japan. Manoj Das, principal secretary, industries, Gujarat, told THE WEEK that the state was working on a campaign to attract Japanese companies which are willing to shift their base from China.&nbsp;</p> Thu Apr 23 16:14:54 IST 2020 one-step-ahead <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Once bitten badly, twice shy. Learning from the past has paid rich dividends for Taiwan in its war on Covid-19. Taiwan is only 130km from China and more than 80,000 people travel between the two countries every month. It was no surprise that Johns Hopkins University predicted that Taiwan would have the world’s second most Covid-19 cases.</p> <p>But Taiwan has emerged one of the most efficient countries in terms of Covid-19 treatment, with just 425 cases and six deaths among a population of 23.7 million. On April 14, Taiwan’s Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC) announced that for the first time in 36 days there was no new case to report. A few cases have cropped up since then, but still within control.</p> <p>Taiwan had warned the World Health Organization in late December about Covid-19. But it says the warning was ignored. The WHO does not recognise Taiwan because of objections from China, which says the island is a breakaway province. Taiwan’s already fraught ties with the WHO worsened further with the Covid-19 crisis. WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus complained recently that Taiwan’s foreign ministry was linked to a hate campaign against him, which included racist attacks and death threats. Tedros, a former Ethiopian health and foreign minister who was elected to the top post with strong support from China, has strongly endorsed the Chinese position on the pandemic. It has led to a geopolitical tussle, with US President Donald Trump repeatedly blaming China for the pandemic. Trump has suspended US funding to WHO and has blamed the world body for ignoring Taiwan’s early warning about Covid-19.</p> <p>Taiwan, meanwhile, had drawn all the right lessons from its 2003 SARS outbreak experience, so much so that it started preparing for the Covid-19 pandemic even before the official declaration. According to Dr Steve Kuo, former head of Taiwan’s Center for Disease Control (CDC), the SARS outbreak was a wake-up call for Taiwan. Kuo had led the SARS taskforce in 2003 when the epidemic caused hundreds of Taiwanese to fall ill, and more than 70 died—the third-highest tally in the world. Since then, the Taiwanese have kept themselves prepared.</p> <p>Kuo said that Taiwanese authorities were monitoring social media networks, and towards the end of 2019, they picked up chatter about a strange outbreak being referred to as “atypical pneumonia”, around China’s Wuhan area. Wasting no time, Taiwan sent two CDC doctors to Wuhan to analyse the situation.</p> <p>Measures were set in place immediately. Every passenger arriving from the mainland was being checked for symptoms of any disease. If they showed any symptoms, there were further tests. Passengers who had travelled to Wuhan in the preceding weeks, too, were subjected to further testing.</p> <p>On January 20, the government activated the National Health Command Center that was set up during the SARS epidemic. The centre enables the government to communicate among departments, using a range of data. All arriving passengers were asked to register online in the incoming citizens’ database. They would then receive text messages of where to get checked before they crossed immigration control.</p> <p>From there, the government would monitor those with symptoms. Once a passenger’s belongings had been disinfected, her trip home would be in a government-provided cab all by herself. Once home, she would have to self-isolate for two weeks.</p> <p>Health authorities would call these home-quarantined travellers twice or thrice a day to check on them. If their symptoms worsened, they would be moved to a hospital; if they were all right, they would be provided with essentials. A big fine was imposed on those who violated quarantine. It was all done at the state’s expense, so there were no complaints. In hospitals, the triage system was followed.</p> <p>In a flash, the central command centre launched border restrictions, set up local quarantine rules and turned to technology. One phone app helps residents find stores with masks in stock. Another app provides information on all those who are Covid-19 positive, like the places they visited and the history of their cases. The government has also ensured that it has sufficient medical equipment and high-end negative pressure chambers for isolation cases to be put in. The law, amended after the SARS outbreak, requires hospitals to have stockpiles of all medical supplies for at least 30 days. The government took charge of making and distributing masks, even rationing them.</p> <p>Disinfectants could be found in all public places. Thermal scanners monitored those walking into public buildings. Those with high temperatures were immediately asked to go home and rest. The idea of physical distancing was also taken seriously by the people, which played a big role in containment. The handling of Covid-19 has proven Taiwan’s expertise on international health issues, which in turn has boosted the people’s trust in the government.</p> <p>The country is lending a hand to others, despite not being a UN member. Taiwan donated 1.6 crore surgical masks to medical workers worldwide, and is working with the US and the EU to develop fast-screening kits and vaccines.</p> <p>There has been some luck involved as well. Going by the statistics from the ministry of health and welfare, Taiwan does not have the ability to carry out large-scale testing. Currently, the country is expanding its test capacity to 34 centres, with a maximum capacity of 3,800 tests per day.</p> <p>Much of the preparedness for public health is about having the right infrastructure one could activate during a crisis. In this aspect, the Taiwanese invested wisely.</p> <p>—<b>The author is a PhD candidate in experimental condensed matter physics, National Taiwan University and Academia Sinica.</b></p> Thu Apr 23 16:01:24 IST 2020 helping-hand <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Five years ago, Parwish Kumar left his home in Helmand, Afghanistan, in the dead of night. He did not want his neighbours to notice. “My father needed blood,” says the Afghan Sikh. “But everyone refused. No one wanted to give blood to a kafir.” His father later died in hospital.</p> <p>“Those who have been left in Afghanistan are just waiting to leave,” says Kumar, who now lives in Delhi and is waiting to find a home in Canada.</p> <p>The March 25 attack on the Har Rai Sahib Gurdwara in Shor Bazaar, in the heart of Kabul’s old city, exposed the vulnerability of the Sikh community in Afghanistan. The gurdwara was home to more than 50 families, who have now been taken to another gurdwara in Karte Parwan. Kabul now has three gurdwaras; it had 70 in the 1970s.</p> <p>After videos of the terrorist attack went viral, the global campaign to save the Sikhs in Afghanistan was intensified. At the helm of this effort is Canada, which is emerging as the promised land of Sikhs. Jagmeet Singh, the leader of Canada’s New Democratic Party, tweeted, “The plight of Afghan Sikhs and Hindus is one of tremendous suffering....”, and called on the government to save their lives.</p> <p>In a letter addressed to the prime minister and Canadian ministers, poet Rupi Kaur wrote: “Canada is the best and perhaps the only country able to help this vulnerable population. Nearby countries like India are not an option.”</p> <p>The reasons cited for rejecting India include it not being “a signatory to international protocols and conventions on refugees”, and also the 1984 riots.</p> <p>There is precedent for Canadian concern. In 2015, Manmeet Singh Bhullar, the first turbaned Sikh to hold a cabinet rank in Alberta, started a project to help 250 Sikhs in Helmand leave. Kumar’s was one such family.</p> <p>Later the same year, Bhullar died in a road accident while trying to help a motorist, and his siblings took over the Manmeet Singh Bhullar Foundation. “We have helped 250 people [leave] the province,” said Tarjinder Bhullar, his sister. “That roughly translates to 65 families. Sixteen of them have since come to Canada.” The foundation provided the families with passports, visas, tickets and even homes in Delhi.</p> <p>Bhullar is not the only one. United Sikhs, a UN-affiliated organisation, has been helping Sikhs in Afghanistan since 2012, and has now stepped up its campaign. “We have launched a parliamentary petition,” says CEO Jagdeep Singh. “Unfortunately, with Covid-19, the parliament is not in session.”</p> <p>There is also a letter-writing campaign, wherein ordinary Canadians urge their MPs to take a stand. The idea is to liken their situation to that of Syrian refugees and point out the discrimination. “We are working with the US state department, too,” says Singh. “Our hope is that we can get a country like India or Pakistan to take the Sikhs, till they are granted immigration in Canada.”</p> <p>One of the big drawbacks, he admits, is the processing time. “It takes five or six years,” he says. In this time, families keep waiting. United Sikhs is hoping to at least push for a faster process of under a year.</p> <p>In India, too, there has been an outcry. Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh tweeted to External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, saying that 200 Sikh families wanted to be evacuated and must be helped. This situation fits the BJP’s Citizenship (Amendment) Act narrative, wherein India would welcome persecuted minorities from Afghanistan, among other nearby nations. Delhi, however, will be treading with caution.</p> <p>The Kabul attack comes at a time when Afghanistan is fragile. The Americans, desperate to leave, have chosen to throw in their lot with the Taliban. The government in Kabul is divided with both Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah claiming the presidency following the elections in September. While India has chosen to back the Ghani government, as the Independent Election Commission had declared him a winner, Abdullah Abdullah is also an ally.</p> <p>“India is an outlier in the US-Taliban deal,” said Kabir Taneja of the Observer Research Foundation. “It is in India’s interest to manage the security of the Sikhs through the Afghan government. India will not be seen as short-changing the government. India will also do nothing that will undermine the Ashraf Ghani government, which we back.”</p> <p>The April 4 arrest of the mastermind of the attack—Mawlawi Aslam Farooqi, a Pakistani national and the emir of the Islamic State of Khorasan Province—shows the Afghan government’s commitment to its minorities.</p> <p>Over the decades, Sikhs and Hindus have fled the country, the numbers dwindling from 25,000 to only 850. Yet, there are two Sikhs in Parliament. Anarkali Kaur Honaryar, the first non-Muslim woman, and Narendra Singh Khalsa. “This also riles the IS-K,” says Taneja.</p> <p>Narendra’s father, Avtar Singh, was killed in an IS-K attack in 2018 when he was on his way to meet Ghani. “The Islamic State is a good brand to band under,” says Taneja. But while the group has taken responsibility, it is not black and white, he argues. “The umbrella organisation of the IS, like in Iraq and Syria, does not exist in Afghanistan. There was an internal feud in 2015-16, where the Pakistan-backed people from LeT (Lashkar-e-Taiba) had started [executing] much more orchestrated attacks with ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence) backing.” The targeting of Sikhs, says Taneja, serves the purpose of both splinters. “It serves the theological purpose. They are kafirs and must convert or accept death. It also antagonises India,” he says.</p> <p>The situation has worsened over the years. Preeti (name changed) lost her father in the Jalalabad attack in 2018. “My mother refuses to let me even say Jalalabad out loud,” says Preeti. “She is so scared.”</p> <p>The story of discrimination is not uncommon. Attacked several times himself, Kumar claimed that approaching the police did not help. “My sisters could never go out,” he says. “We could not even go out to cremate the dead.” All last rites happened under the cover of darkness at the gurdwara.</p> <p>The Survey of Afghan Hindus and Sikhs, conducted by Porsesh Research and Studies Organisation between September 2018 and February 2019, corroborates his story. “Even now, they encounter hatred and are still unable to cremate their dead according to their traditions as most of the cremation sites are captured by warlords, and people living in the neighboring areas prevent them by means such as throwing rocks,” said the report. It also found that close to 97 per cent of Hindu and Sikh respondents fear for their safety and their families’ safety.</p> <p>“Sikhs in Afghanistan are Afghans and they have equal protection of local law,” says Amar Sinha, former ambassador to Afghanistan. “While they were harassed and stigmatised during the Taliban regime, the democratic governments of Afghanistan have made sure that they feel at home. Some social prejudices persist though. Sikhs, like other minorities, and countless other hapless Afghans, are all easy targets for the terrorists, who seek cheap publicity through such acts.”</p> <p>However, there is still hope. There are Muslim organisations that have come forward with offers to rebuild the Har Rai Sahib Gurdwara. And, the polarisation apart, the Sikhs and Hindus have left indelible marks on the Afghan landscape. In Gardez, Amardeep Singh, who is making a documentary called Allegory—A Tapestry of Guru Nanak’s Travels, stands at the spot where a gurdwara once stood. “A man came up to me and asked me to get the Sikhs to come back to reconstruct the gurdwara, so that he could eat the langar that he once ate as a child,” says Amardeep. In his journey across lawless Afghanistan, Singh found many such remains of a pluralistic past that have now become folklore.</p> <p>And then there are those who refuse to leave their homes, even if it means being killed. “What is there to be scared of, once you have lost your loved ones?” asks Preeti. “My father was martyred and he said he was born here and would die where he was born. I am not afraid.” &nbsp;</p> Thu Apr 09 19:31:21 IST 2020 behind-the-mask <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>The Chinese propaganda machine has been on an overdrive over the past few weeks, trying to justify how the country handling of the Covid-19 crisis. “China’s efforts and sacrifice have bought precious time for the world,’’ tweeted the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson. “Some people are attempting to make China the scapegoat for their own epidemic response. Mission Impossible.’’</p> <p>The reference to the Hollywood movie was seen as a message to the United States, which has been leading the campaign to pin the blame on China. President Donald Trump used to refer to Covid-19 as “Chinese virus’’. A recent meeting of the G7 foreign ministers concluded without a joint statement after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo insisted on calling Covid-19 the “Wuhan virus”.</p> <p>China, meanwhile, has been focusing on ‘mask diplomacy’, flying planeloads of medical supplies to affected countries ranging from Nepal to Italy. The Chinese private sector is also quite active, with Alibaba co-founder Jack Ma joining hands with the government in organising relief supplies.</p> <p>“Do those speaking ill of China rather want us to stand by while other countries suffer? No. It is our tradition to reciprocate kindness and help those in need...,’’ a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson tweeted on March 31.</p> <p>“China has taken to rebutting American accusations,’’ says Alka Acharya, professor of Chinese studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. “The Chinese point out that the US did not inform the world about the H1N1 outbreak. And, they have launched Covid-19 diplomacy by playing the role of the serious, responsible power in the time of crisis.’’</p> <p>China even reached out to India as part of its diplomatic initiative. On March 25, Foreign Minister Wang Yi called up Minister of External Affairs S. Jaishankar. In a series of tweets, Chinese Ambassador Sun Weidong praised India’s capability to win the battle against Covid-19. He said Wang criticised naming the virus after China and that Jaishankar agreed. The Indian foreign minister, however, did not completely endorse the Chinese line. “Global challenges require global cooperation,” tweeted Jaishankar after the conversation.</p> <p>“We do not want to take sides,’’ says Jayadeva Ranade, former additional secretary, cabinet secretariat. “We will take a safe line as we are still in the thick of it. We cannot shut out the sources of gloves, masks and supplies, because we are going to need them.”</p> <p>As cases began to rise exponentially, even the Americans had to turn to China for help. The first of the 22 planned consignments from China landed in New York on March 29. The shipment, which included 1.3 lakh N95 masks, 1.8 million face masks and gowns, 10 million gloves and thousands of thermometers, was the result of a public-private partnership led by Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner.</p> <p>While China leads the relief measures, there have been complaints about the quality of its supplies. The Slovakian government rejected Chinese test kits worth $16 million, as those could not detect the infection in its early stages. Spain, which purchased 50,000 kits, too, had the same complaint. Turkey says Chinese tests are only 35 per cent accurate. Czech authorities found out that the Chinese tests worked only on cases where the infection was at least five days old. These countries are also angry that China calls the supplies aid, despite charging for them.</p> <p>“China’s relationship with the west was already worsening,’’ says Jabin Jacob, Chinese expert at Shiv Nadar University. “This pandemic and the Chinese government’s role in letting it spread beyond the country’s borders will make things worse. And not just with the west, but with other countries as well, depending on how affected they are. China might find that its aid diplomacy will not always work.’’</p> <p>There are also allegations that Covid-19 is a bioweapon developed by China, although most experts have discounted the possibility. “There is no evidence that this is actually a manufactured virus or a bioweapon,’’ says virologist Shahid Jameel, chief executive officer of Wellcome Trust/DBT India Alliance. “If a virus is deliberately modified, there will be signatures which look very different from evolutionary signatures. Evolution is a slow and continuous process; modification is abrupt. Multiple experts have done that sort of analysis and found that this was not a modified virus.’’</p> <p>China has launched its own campaign, saying the infection came from American soldiers who visited Wuhan for the Military World Games last October. “It is unlikely that anyone outside China will buy this,’’ says Jacob.</p> <p>Most observers, however, agree that China kept the news about the infection a secret for at least two months. “The Chinese authorities were covering it up,’’ says Ranade. China allegedly knew about it since November, but it was only by the end of January that it told the world about the person-to-person transmission of Covid-19. The pandemic has also highlighted the failure of the World Health Organisation, which allegedly sought to whitewash China’s role and co-authored with it a report on the outbreak. “WHO knows who controls the purse-strings,’’ says Acharya. Even the UN Security Council, caught in the US-China spat, has failed to respond effectively to the pandemic. China’s presidency of the 15-nation Security Council ended on March 31. Does that spell hope? “Unlikely,’’ says Jacob.</p> <p>Jameel, meanwhile, says Covid-19 is unlikely to be the last pandemic. “We should be prepared for the next one. We can do that only with knowledge and technology, for which research is crucial.”&nbsp;</p> Sat Apr 04 14:16:06 IST 2020 neighbourhood-watch <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>It was a small, virtual step, but it could be a giant leap for the entire south Asian region. Prime Minister Narendra Modi on March 15 connected with leaders of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) over video conference and discussed strategies about putting up a united front against Covid-19.</p> <p>“Our region is home to one-fifth of humanity,’’ said Modi, opening the conference. “As developing countries, all of us have significant challenges with access to health facilities. Our people-to-people ties are ancient. Our societies are deeply interconnected. We must all prepare… to act… and to succeed together.”</p> <p>The significance of Modi initiating the meeting—appreciated by the US and Russia—cannot be ignored. Equally important is the sheer magnitude of the battle ahead. All countries were represented at the meeting by their heads of state or government. Presidents Ibrahim Mohamed Solih of the Maldives, Gotabaya Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka and Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan, Prime Ministers Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh and Lotay Tshering of Bhutan were present. Nepal Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli, who underwent a kidney transplant in March, also attended. The only exception was Pakistan, which was represented by Zafar Mirza, special assistant to Prime Minister Imran Khan.</p> <p>This was the first time a SAARC summit was held after the Kathmandu meeting of 2014. Modi’s diplomatic initiative has come at a time when domestic issues in India, like the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, are hurting its external relations. Friendly neighbours such as Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Nepal are concerned about the Act and its implications.</p> <p>“I think the ‘neighbourhood first’ premise is behind the prime minister’s initiative,’’ said K. Yhome of the Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation. “The fact that SAARC has been activated means geographical factors have definitely influenced the decision.” Soaring number of infections reported from the neighbourhood seems to be a likely factor.</p> <p>“This is a case of Modi wanting to show regional leadership at a time when it is badly needed,’’ said Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia programme at the Wilson Center, Washington, DC. “India is often criticised for not taking on a global role commensurate with its size and stature. Modi's initiative is a way to showcase India's clout and convening power abroad.’’</p> <p>India has promised $10 million towards an emergency fund, which countries can dip into. Nepal has donated ten crore Nepali rupees (approximately $8,24,000) and Bhutan $1,00,000. India has also promised a rapid response team of doctors and online training. A meeting between health professionals of SAARC countries was held on March 26 to find practical solutions to deal with the pandemic.</p> <p>While Pakistan participated in the meetings, the distrust remains. “The meetings and the emergency fund were called by Modi. So, while it focuses on collaboration between countries in the region, it remains essentially an initiative driven and coordinated by India,’’ said Constantino Xavier of Brookings India. “This is why Pakistan has asked for the fund to be placed under the SAARC Secretariat. It is unlikely that India will accept this, but other countries may pressure Delhi to formalise cooperation under SAARC, which has its own history of public health cooperation.’’</p> <p>The video conference had its share of drama when the Pakistani representative chose to bring up Kashmir, only to be snubbed by Modi. Pakistan’s reluctance to be enthusiastic, however, plays perfectly for India. With the deep freeze in its relationship with Pakistan, India has turned its attention to BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation). External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar has made it clear that India’s attention during Modi’s second term will be directed towards BIMSTEC and not at SAARC.</p> <p>On the sidelines of the UN General Assembly last September, Jaishankar spelt out India's problem with SAARC: "Elimination of terrorism in all its forms is a pre-condition not only for fruitful cooperation, but also for the very survival of the region itself.” Trade is another area of concern. “You can't have regionalism without talking connectivity or talking trade,'' said Jaishankar at a meeting held in Delhi last month. “It is like saying I would like to do regional cooperation. But I am not going to allow connectivity, not going to give you MFN (most favoured nation status). Then, obviously, you are not serious.''</p> <p>So, does Modi’s SAARC move suggest a rethink? “BIMSTEC remains a weak organisation which is unable to offer any added value during this crisis,” said Xavier. “Pakistan may be one reason why India became reluctant about SAARC and eventually gave up investing in it, but there is a deeper reluctance in Delhi to invest in stronger regional organisations to foster multilateral cooperation with its neighbours.’’</p> <p>Covid-19 has given India an opportunity to earn back the goodwill it lost in its neighbourhood. But the gains may not last in the absence of systemic changes. “We have seen powerful regional cooperation during humanitarian crises in the past, like India's relief efforts to help Pakistan after the 2005 earthquake,” said Richard M. Rossow, who holds the Wadhwani Chair in US-India Policy Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, DC. “But despite these positive flashes, they did not translate into longer-term positive cooperation. So, while regional cooperation during the Covid-19 crisis is helpful, I suspect it will be difficult to enact it in practice, and any positive political effects will be short-lived.” &nbsp;</p> Sat Apr 04 14:13:33 IST 2020 wary-peace <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>US PRESIDENT DONALD</b> Trump made his first direct contact with the Taliban on March 3 as he spoke by telephone to Abdul Ghani Baradar, who heads its political office. The warm conversation between the erstwhile antagonists was a wake-up call for India. The US wants to get out of Afghanistan fast and the Taliban is now firmly in the saddle. Once again, it is advantage Pakistan.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“The Taliban is beholden to Pakistan as it operates out of Quetta and Peshawar,'' said Tilak Devasher, former special secretary, cabinet secretariat and member, National Security Advisory Board. The Doha agreement signed by the US and the Taliban on February 29 brought calm for barely 24 hours. The Taliban launched attacks across Afghanistan after President Ashraf Ghani refused its demand to release 5,000 militants before the start of formal peace talks among Afghan groups. Trump's phone call was aimed at stopping the violence. After the call, he said the Taliban would be killing “some very bad people”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>India is worried because the “very bad people” are unlikely to be its enemies. Moreover, the deal will put an end to sanctions against the Taliban and will help it return to the mainstream. In return, the Taliban only needs to ensure that it will not target the US or its allies. That promise, however, does not extend to India. “The deal serves the US and the Taliban,'' said Rana Banerji, former special secretary in the cabinet secretariat. “Whether it will lead to peace remains doubtful.''</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Apart from the security concerns, India is also faced with a diplomatic challenge. “We kept on talking about an Afghan-owned, Afghan-led and Afghan-controlled peace process when all others had moved on,'' said Rakesh Sood, former ambassador to Afghanistan. India is one of the few countries which has refused to engage with the Taliban. Baradar did not name India while thanking the countries that supported the peace deal, while Pakistan received a special mention.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The deal puts in jeopardy the fate of the newly-elected Afghan government, which is supported by India. The Taliban has been dismissive of the Ghani government, calling its leaders puppets. “To my mind, the real negotiations will start now,'' said External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar at a public event in New Delhi, referring to the upcoming intra-Afghan dialogue. The talks are bound to be difficult. The Doha agreement does not name the Ghani government as a dialogue partner. Instead, it says the Taliban will start negotiations with “Afghan sides''. Devasher said the agreement allowed the Taliban to keep the Ghani government out of the process and pick and choose its dialogue partners, enabling it to go for “separate ceasefires with separate groups”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>India is carefully assessing the situation. Foreign secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla was in Kabul on February 29 to meet senior Afghan leaders. He conveyed India's support for a reconciliation process which can lead to sustainable peace.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Any uncertainty spells trouble for India. “If Afghanistan descends into civil war or if the Taliban takes control, there will be security implications,'' said Devasher. “The Taliban will allow Lashkar-e-Taiba bases. It is problematic for us, especially as the government has been proactive about hitting back at terrorists. A lot of Afghan fighters will be freed from fighting. There is also the danger that Pakistan will shift its focus eastward.”</p> Fri Mar 06 12:47:03 IST 2020 modi-trump-et <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>US President Donald Trump used the four letter word several times in India—love. The presidential visit was a two-day “incredible’’ love affair for everyone involved, from Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the 1.25 lakh people at the Motera stadium in Ahmedabad and the thousands who lined up the streets to watch the Trump-Modi motorcade pass by.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>This is, however, a romance between two businessmen who acknowledge each other’s acumen. “Modi is a tough negotiator,’’ was Trump’s unabashed compliment to his “good friend’’. So, while the much awaited Trump visit was a gush fest of commitments and declarations—like elevating the bilateral relationship to a Comprehensive Global Strategic Partnership—in terms of deliverables, there was nothing much. The actuals can be summed up as three memoranda of understanding (on mental health, on the safety of medical products and a letter of cooperation between the Indian Oil Corporation and ExxonMobil), the sealing of a pre-concluded $3 billion deal to buy Apache and MH-60 Romeo choppers and an agreement to begin negotiations for a comprehensive trade deal.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The trade deal was not the focus of the visit. Even before the wheels of Air Force One were up at Joint Base Andrews, Trump made it clear that he was not going to sign a trade deal. He, however, was very articulate about his other expectation—of an overwhelming welcome. India upped its athithi devo bhava (guest as God) credo, and Trump was impressed that he had received the “greatest greeting given to any head of state’’.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Trump likes reciprocity, in trade and otherwise. He wanted the Indian version of ‘Howdy, Modi!’, and ‘Namaste Trump’ was just that. As Indian Ambassador to the US Taranjit Singh Sandhu said, “From the US perspective, there was a very significant messaging with the reception Trump got. It showed that at the people-to-people level, there was a great deal of warmth and affection.’’ In fact, at the Rashtrapati Bhavan banquet, Trump spoke about how comfortable he was in India and even wondered whether he could contest elections here.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>This visit was the first standalone tour to India by any US president, which is significant in itself. With Trump making it a family affair, including daughter Ivanka Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner in the delegation, along with First Lady Melania, he was not just acknowledging a business relationship, but a personal one, too. Mutual admiration was on full display. Modi termed India-US relations as the most important partnership of the 21st century, and Trump returned the compliment by saying his visit was diplomacy of great friendship and respect.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The visit was also a platform to showcase the trajectory bilateral ties have taken in the last four years. Uncle Sam is now a leading defence supplier and a key partner in defence manufacturing. “The two countries are part of each other’s supply chains,’’ said Modi. India has already done two important treaties, COMCASA (Communications Capability and Security Agreement) and LEMOA (Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement), which the US does to facilitate interoperability of militaries and sale of high-end technology. The third, BECA (Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement), is in the works.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“The strategic and military components in the bilateral have grown significantly,’’ said retired diplomat Vishnu Prakash. “The mention of a free and open Indo-Pacific is significant, just like the explicit mention of fighting radicalised Islamic terror.’’</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The energy partnership has got a big fillip in recent years. With India stopping its crude imports from Iran under US pressure, American crude and gas supplies have zoomed. Energy exports, as Trump boasted, have grown by 500 per cent on his watch. Trump’s visit, at one level, was a public nod of India toeing the US line on Iran. The future looks even more American, with the US now targeting Venezuela, another crude exporter to India. Establishing a permanent office of the US International Development Finance Corporation with a $600 million financing facility for renewable energy projects in India was a takeaway.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Counterterrorism and Pakistan came up for a long conversation. This is one area where Trump and Modi have different views. The US backed India at international fora to put pressure on Pakistan and the joint statement reflects this resolve, calling on Pakistan to ensure that no territory under its control is used to launch terrorist attacks, and to “expeditiously bring to justice’’ the perpetrators of 26/11 and Pathankot attacks.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But Trump was open about his good relationship with Pakistan. “Thanks to these efforts, we are beginning to see signs of a big change with Pakistan,’’ said Trump. He made it clear that India had a leading role in promoting peace in the region, hinting towards an American nudge to reduce tensions. Much before Trump publicly batted for Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan and suggested that “there are two sides to every story’’ while referring to Kashmir, Alice Wells, principal deputy assistant secretary for South and Central Asia, had welcomed Pakistani wrestlers competing in India, noting that sports could be an effective tool to build bridges.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Trump’s support for Pakistan has to be viewed in the light of the US-Taliban deal expected to be inked this week. Despite India’s obvious discomfort with the Taliban, Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla said India and the US shared an interest in Afghanistan and India was watching the developments carefully.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The elephant in the room was not the K-word, but the T one. Teams Trump and Modi continued the shadow dance over the “big trade deal’’. While Trump described India as tariff king and demanded reciprocity, Modi has thrown his weight behind the deal. From April to December 2019, “convergence had been reached on many issues,’’ claimed an Indian official. The twin issues of dairy and medical devices were resolved at the Indian end and it was at the American side that newer points popped up. India, which is still smarting from the revocation of the Generalised System of Preferences, is wary of inking something in a hurry that it may regret a decade later. The dairy settlement—if it happens—will be significant, given that it stood in the way of India inking the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). Significantly, US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross flew from India to Pakistan to negotiate closer economic cooperation.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>For Trump, India’s friendship is important on various counts: as a counter to China, in the Indo-Pacific partnership and also to impress the Modi-loving Indian diaspora in an election year. Thus, he was measured in his language and even admitted that he did not want to utter anything which would “blow up the two days’’. So while he acknowledged that a part of Delhi was burning even as he was on a visit, he refused to be drawn into any commentary on religious liberties. On the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, which is the catalyst of much of the unrest in India and is criticised even by the US Congress, Trump merely said, “I leave it to India. They will make the right decision.’’ When asked about religious intolerance in India, Trump responded with figures his friend Modi had provided him. He said the Muslim population in India was 200 million, and that it was 40 million only a short while ago.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>If that was not music to Modi’s ears, Trump turned poetic about cooperation in space and said, “We will be partners on our voyage into the stars.’’</p> Sat Feb 29 11:13:12 IST 2020 a-taste-of-india <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>FROM ANCIENT TIMES,</b> diplomacy and food have gone hand in hand. After the highs of ‘Namaste Trump’ on February 24, the state banquet hosted by President Ram Nath Kovind in honour of President Donald Trump the next evening showcased India’s royal splendour.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Rashtrapati Bhavan was lit up and there was attention to detail. At 7.30pm, guests converged at the regal Ashoka Hall, resplendent with the Persian painting of a royal hunt on its ceiling. The American delegation seemed fascinated by the paintings in the chandelier-lit hall, taking a few quick photographs and soaking in the experience. I had a chance to meet Ajit Pai, the dynamic chairman of the US Federal Communications Commission. There was a common connection and we spoke about 5G and internet speeds.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Soon, President Kovind and his wife, Savita, arrived at the Ashoka Hall, along with President Trump, who was in a formal suit and striped tie, and First Lady Melania in a pink gown. A short formal ceremony started with the national anthems of the two countries. After that, President Trump, President Kovind, First Lady Melania and Vice President M. Venkaiah Naidu met the galaxy of Indian guests. When President Trump shook my hand, I talked to him about Malayala Manorama and my experience in the US working with media mogul Rupert Murdoch. The president did not seem to be in a hurry. He was extremely personable and spent time with each guest. President Kovind, Vice President Venkaiah Naidu and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, too, personally spent time with each guest.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>There were more than 90 guests, including senior cabinet ministers, chief ministers of Haryana, Assam, Karnataka and Telangana, bureaucrats, business leaders like Uday Kotak, Azim Premji and Pankaj Patel, acclaimed musician A.R. Rahman and Michelin star chef Vikas Khanna. The American delegation included Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, American Ambassador Kenneth Juster, the president’s daughter Ivanka Trump who came in a Rohit Bal-designed suit and her husband, Jared Kushner.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>After the guests were seated in the 104-foot-long state banquet hall adorned with the portraits of former presidents, President Kovind welcomed President Trump, talking about the deep connection between India and the United States, especially about the vibrant four-million strong Indian American community in the US. Trump said he was not going to read out his prepared speech. Instead, he talked about two productive days he spent in India and promised that he would be back.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The military band, heard but unseen, played from the balcony a curated list of popular songs like ‘What a Wonderful World’, ‘We Are the World’, ‘Wonderful Tonight’ and the Bollywood favourite ‘Ek Pyar Ka Nagma’.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>President Trump’s fondness for fast food is well known. Last year, he ordered hundreds of burgers to the White House to celebrate a collegiate football win. Here it was different and the president was in for a gastronomic treat.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The banquet’s elaborate menu stressed on purity of taste. An amuse-bouche of smoked orange peel panna cotta was served, followed by lemongrass and coriander soup. The surprise dish of the evening was the tender fillet of cajun-spiced salmon, probably prepared to be less spicy for the American guests. The main course included regal Indian dishes: succulent raan alishan in rogani gravy, anjeer malai kofta in baby spinach gravy, dum gosht biryani and the famous Dal Raisina.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The royal meal also had an American touch. There was hazelnut apple pie with salty caramel sauce. Since everyone, including presidents, has a sweet tooth, a taste of malpua and rabri was the perfect choice to end the banquet. I am sure Vikas Khanna, the celebrity chef who has cooked for presidents, will give the meal three Michelin stars.</p> Fri Feb 28 15:55:52 IST 2020 changing-colours <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>YOU COULD CALL</b> them some of the most desirable voters in the US that any political party would love to have in their ranks. Indeed, Indian-Americans seem to be in all 50 states and are strong players in the American political scene. This is a 4.5 million strong community with 55.8 per cent in the 18 to 49 age group, and 73.2 per cent having a bachelor’s degree or higher in education.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>So, how is this viable block going to vote in the upcoming presidential elections? The answer changes depending on whom you ask. M.R. Rangaswami, chairman and founder of Indiaspora, a community organisation, has been in the United States for 40 years and has seen the changing status of the Indian immigrants. He observes that the Indian-American community now has a strong presence in the political scene, and is being sought after by both Republicans and Democrats.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“Indian-American community is by no means homogeneous,” says Rangaswami. “About 60 to 65 per cent Indian-Americans were born in India and another 30 to 35 per cent were born in the US. While those born in India are a mix of conservatives and liberals, the ones born here are younger and tend to be more liberal.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Karthick Ramakrishnan, who directs the National Asian American Survey and is founder of AAPI DATA, which publishes demographic data and policy research on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, says the Indian-Americans are still overwhelmingly Democrats. According to AAPI DATA, in 2016, 48 per cent Indian-Americans identified as Democrats, 22 per cent as Republicans and 30 per cent as neither. He says these figures remain stable in spite of the Donald Trump administration making overtures to the community and having appointed many Indian-Americans to prominent positions over the years.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Indeed, Indian-Americans have embraced the Democratic Party since the start. In the US Congress we have the ‘Samosa Caucus’ comprising four representatives—Ro Khanna (California), Ami Bera (California), Raja Krishnamoorthi (Illinois) and Pramila Jayapal (Washington). Kamala Harris, the high-profile senator from California, became the first Indian-American woman to run for the US presidency. Last year, Suhas Subramanyam and Ghazala Hashmi had victories in the state senate of Virginia and helped flip the state from red to blue for the first time in a generation.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Over $5 million have already been donated by Indian-Americans to presidential candidates like Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg, Tulsi Gabbard and Amy Klobuchar. In fact, Indian-Americans are a presence in almost all the campaigns, as donors, staff and volunteers. Shekar Narasimhan, founder and chairman of AAPI Victory Fund—the first Super PAC (political action committee) for Asians—has also seen the growing clout of the Indian-American community. “We have so many Indians on the staff of not just the campaigns, but in congressional staff as well,” he says.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>While acknowledging that Indian-Americans tend to vote for the Democratic Party, Rangaswami says President Trump could appeal to the more conservative voters in the community.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Richard Russow, the Senior Fellow and Wadhwani Chair in India-US Policy Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington DC, believes that Trump has made a concerted effort to engage India: “We have got some tensions, particularly around trade issues, but the president has not allowed that to pollute the waters, like it has with some other relationships. And so, even though he has been aggressively pursuing trade remedies in areas where we think the Narendra Modi government has closed the door, he has still continued to pursue and engage India very positively.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Russow believes that Trump’s India trip at the end of his first term is a pretty significant step. “I think by and large the view from India is that there is a significant chance that President Trump will be re-elected,” he says.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Ask Indian-American Republicans and they say it is a sure-fire Trump win. Raju Chinthala, a diehard Republican and founder of the Indiana Business Council, says: “The POTUS [President’s] visit to India will strengthen US-India relations tremendously in the coming decades.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Narender Reddy, a long-time Republican in Atlanta, has been involved in fund-raising for governors, senate and congressional candidates. He says that the Democratic Party’s agendas of “tax the rich”, and give “race-based affirmative action” in educational institutions are detrimental to the Indian-American community.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Reddy mentions Trump’s pro-business reforms, the high stock market and the merit-based immigration as beneficial to the community. He adds that the Trump administration stood by India for its stance of offensive-defence on Pakistan, and showed respect for India’s internal policies by not interfering in the abrogation of Article 370 or Citizenship (Amendment) Act.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Second generation Indian-Americans are also becoming prominent in the Republican Party. Niraj Antani was only 23 when he became an Ohio state representative. He is now the youngest elected Indian-American in the United States. Now 29, Antani is running for the Ohio state senate. Ask him why he thinks the Republican Party is good for desis, and he says: “We are the pro-growth, pro-business, pro-jobs party. Democrats are on the fringes, fighting for illegal immigrants, unlike legal immigrants which Indian-Americans have been. Trump also has a great record of nominating Indian-Americans for different posts.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Does Antani think there will be a swing of many Hindu voters towards Republicans because of Trump’s India visit and affinity for Modi? “The prime minister has great influence and has a conservative mindset,” he says. “The people want strong conservative leadership, and that is what the president and the prime minister provide.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Ramakrishnan believes a favourable opinion of Modi would not translate into support for Trump, and that is because for Indian-Americans it is not just what is going on in India that matters. He points out that issues like health care, education, immigration and the rhetoric on race are crucial factors deciding the voting pattern.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>He notes that many of the wealthy, highly-educated Indian Americans do not support the Republican Party because it is not strong on fighting discrimination whereas the Democratic Party is better at it. In research done in 2012, he found Indian-Americans who earned over $2,50,000 were quite willing for taxes to be raised on those earning that figure, including themselves.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>November is still a long way off and the race dynamics change by the hour. However, one thing is clear: Even though there are Indian-American Republicans, the bulk of the Indian-American community is solidly behind whoever wins the Democratic nomination.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Meanwhile Trump’s India visit provided high drama and pageantry and might have influenced some minds. As Rangaswami points out, Trump has put India and Indian-Americans in the mainstream by attending the ‘Howdy, Modi!’ event in Houston which was huge for the Indian community. Earlier such events were on the radar of only the Indian or Indian-American media, but Trump’s presence transformed it into an international event with every media from CNN to The Wall Street Journal covering it.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Says Rangaswami: “This shows the Indian-American community has come of age, whether you agree with Trump or not. So, for us, this is definitely a side-benefit. With his visit to India, we will once again be in the spotlight as a country and as a community—and that has been a very positive thing for us.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Lavina Melwani is a New York-based journalist who blogs at ‘Lassi with Lavina’.</b></p> <p><a href=""><u></u></a></p> Mon Mar 09 14:06:13 IST 2020 spectre-of-a-crown <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>AN AIR HUG</b>—that is all Liu Haiyan, a nurse treating novel coronavirus patients in Henan province in China, could give her young daughter when she came to drop off dumplings at the hospital. Both of them wore the mandatory masks and avoided contact, standing at a distance from each other. The daughter, amid sobs, told Haiyan that she missed her a lot. “Mum is fighting monsters,” replied Haiyan. “I will be back home once the virus is beaten. Be good.” A video of their conversation went viral, as did another one of a mother breaking down while visiting her doctor-son who had quarantined himself. She, too, had brought him food.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Medical professionals in China have been on the frontline of the country’s battle against a virus that has claimed more than 1,000 lives and infected more than 42,000 people since December 2019. The World Health Organization formally named the disease Covid-19, short for coronavirus disease 2019. The virus continues to be called 2019-nCoV, short for 2019 novel coronavirus. China, no doubt, is on a war-footing. But there is a fear that the number of cases is yet to peak because of the extreme cold in different parts of China, and that after Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak, it could spell doom for 17 cities including Beijing and Shanghai. “The virus will spread even after a month,” a Chinese government spokesman from Beijing told THE WEEK. “It is getting worse day by day.” But Dr Zhong Nanshan, who was lauded for his work during the SARS epidemic in 2003, reportedly said that the cases could peak by mid or late February and then plateau before easing.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>While President Xi Jinping is yet to visit Wuhan, capital of Hubei province, he chaired two meetings of the central committee and the politburo standing committee of the ruling Communist Party of China in 10 days, unprecedented in recent times, and warned citizens to adhere to the government’s instruction or face “stern punishment”. He also held a videoconference with the hospital staff at Wuhan. Anti-corruption units, too, have been asked to monitor everyone’s activity, even on social media.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“I think the way the chief (Jinping) is leading is simply phenomenal,” said Li Huan, an academician in Hong Kong. “He is doing more than what was expected from him. He is personally monitoring the situation on the ground and using drastic measures to lower casualties. These measures were missing during the SARS outbreak.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Jinping has put vice premier Sun Chunlan in charge of the operations in Hubei province. And heads have rolled since the outbreak. “The vice executive president of the Red Cross Society of Hubei province along with more than one and a half dozen magistrate or deputy director-general level officials throughout the country have been sacked,” Li Xiaojun, information director of the state council—the highest administrative body of the People’s Republic of China—told THE WEEK.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>While China has been able to narrow down the origin of the virus (2019-nCoV) to bats, a senior state council official told THE WEEK that there was a secondary carrier that is still unknown. Reports suggest that it could be pangolins.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The virus struck during the Chinese New Year, when five million people from Wuhan, the education and IT hub of China, reportedly travelled to other parts of the country and abroad. “Of them, one million are university students,” said Xiaojun. “Local gymnasiums, sports centres, schools and exhibition centres were equipped with hospital facilities within a few days.” David Chang, member of the National Commission of Science and Technology, Shanghai, however, said that it was a wrong notion that only Wuhan was affected. “Entire China is grappling with it. There is no room for containment. We are worried,” he said.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>There has been criticism over the way China has dealt with the outbreak, right from the initial lackadaisical attitude of the Wuhan administration to the reluctance in sharing the extent of the outbreak. The government thought that the outbreak would not be deadly as most Chinese were vaccinated against SARS. China reportedly faced a shortage of the rapid nucleic acid test kits to detect 2019-nCoV, nor did it have enough N95 masks to prevent its spread. China looked to the US for help, “but the US turned a blind eye to our cause,” said Xiaojun. “They only paid lip service.” Japan finally came to China’s rescue and supplied the masks. Many of the early victims died even before being tested owing to the lack of kits. All cases then were branded as coronavirus cases, said an official, hence the reluctance in sharing casualty figures. The new kits, which take just hours to confirm a case, are still not readily available, and therefore hospitals, at times, have to rely on the old ones that take three weeks for confirmation.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>While the WHO said that the first vaccine could be ready in 18 months, US firms in China came up with a solution—Remdesivir, an antiviral drug that was used to treat Ebola patients. “On February 3 and 4, we administered it to 270 patients, which proved to be very effective,” Xiaojun told THE WEEK. “Ebola medicine companies and some US companies in China have given us the much-needed help.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Chinese government also faced flak for ignoring the initial warning given by eight doctors about the “return of SARS” with a different genetic character. One among them was ophthalmologist Li Wenliang, who eventually died of Covid-19. He had said that the initial course of treatment that was followed would not work against the new virus.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Wuhan administration, instead of heeding to the warning, accused the doctors of rumour mongering. “We cannot blame the local police because Dr Li [Wenliang] called the secret disease SARS at the time. It was treated as a rumour because he was an eye doctor and not a respiratory doctor,” said an exclusive statement from the state council to THE WEEK.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Wenliang’s death raised international concerns about China’s handling of the epidemic. Countries in the west alleged that the actual number of deaths was three times higher than the official figures. The US alleged that China’s major crackdown on social media and hiding the actual death toll and number of those infected was making things difficult for other nations. Xiaojun, however, told THE WEEK, “China does not restrict social media. It only punishes those spreading rumours, violating the epidemic prevention law. The government uses social media to promote transparency, raise awareness of the problem and get good advice in the fight against the virus. However, we admit amid this there was the case where eight doctors were warned.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>There is unequivocal condemnation of the US response in China and even Hong Kong, which recently fought Chinese ‘high-handedness’. Jonson Choi, CEO of a Hong Kong-based communication firm, said, “Some Americans are so delighted to see China suffer—so short-sighted and racist. The impact of the coronavirus pandemic is beginning to affect the US oil and energy industry. Just a few days after the outbreak, daily oil demand in China went down by 20 per cent because of dwindling air travel, road transportation and manufacturing. Since China consumes 13 of every 100 barrels of oil the world produces, every oil company is being hit.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>However, there are those like Sally J. Yan, strategic adviser on Europe-China trade, who oppose such criticism of the US. “Last week, I oversaw the Chinese government’s purchase of over 40,000 protective suits from 3M (a US company) factories in Italy,” said Zurich-based Yan. “Throughout the whole process, no one from the government or the business procurement team was concerned of the US brand.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>More than 50 million people are estimated to have been affected by the lockdown in Hubei province. Other major cities, including Beijing, have turned into ghost towns, what with companies and establishments staying shut. Even cash transactions are being shunned for the fear of currency notes spreading the virus. The government has unveiled new tax policies to help industries hit by the epidemic.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The government’s priority, however, is to locate the five million Wuhan residents who travelled out of the city. China has developed a mobile app called ‘Close Contact Detector’ that enables people to check whether they were in close contact with someone infected with 2019-nCoV.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Though China has not approached any country for help, Xiaojun said a few African countries donated money and materials. “We are deeply impressed by that,” he said. “Usually your poorest relatives are the most likely to give you help although they do not have much to offer.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Prime Minister Narendra Modi wrote to Jinping offering assistance—a gesture that was appreciated by China. India, with three confirmed cases of Covid-19 in Kerala, is also on alert. Tourism has suffered after cases were confirmed in 24 countries outside China, including Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam and Philippines (one casualty). With one case detected in Tibet, Indians are cancelling trips to states along the Indo-Tibetan border. Said Sudip Bose, a travel company owner in Kolkata, “We have seen a drastic drop in footfalls in Darjeeling and Sikkim, and also in bookings to Arunachal Pradesh and other northeastern states this year. The demand usually peaks in February.”</p> Mon Feb 17 19:53:04 IST 2020 united-fragmented <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>It was the moment when everything and nothing changed.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Britain left the European Union to become an independent trading nation. But nothing changed because the current transition period lasts until December 31. That is when Brexit really happens, when Britain walks out of the idea of a united Europe, after having shared the dream for nearly half a century. Rejoiced Prime Minister Boris Johnson, “This is a fantastic moment in the life of our country. There are very few moments in our lives which really can be called a historic turning point—and this is it.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It is a turning point, but some wonder whether the turn is forwards or backwards. No doubts smouldered in Parliament Square, where I mingled with ecstatic Brexiters on January 31, celebrating without fireworks or booze, but with flags and placards, chanting: “Rule Britannia, Britannia rules the waves; Britons never, never, never shall be slaves.” This was the venue of the sole public festivities. Dressed up in Union Jack regalia, town crier Tony Appleton exulted, “The war is over. We have won. We are free. We are our own boss.” This was Britain’s war to “take back control” from the EU. “We did it. We did it. Boris did it,” revellers chanted.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“No one ever put up a statue of a journalist,” Johnson famously said, explaining his passage from journalism into politics. In making history by delivering Brexit after a resounding election victory, Johnson could earn a statue, close to his hero Winston Churchill’s in Parliament Square. Johnson uncorked a £350 bottle of French red wine given by a donor and then celebrated with his cohorts with English sparkling wine in 10 Downing Street.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In London, Brexiters celebrated in mansions and clubs with menus headlined ‘New Dawn’. But it was a dark night for half the nation that wanted to remain in the EU. Some held candlelight vigils, others mourned in small groups in England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland. With them in mind, Brexit celebrations were subdued because Johnson wished to avoid “triumphalism”, an aide explained.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Reactions were also subdued in Europe with few commemorative events. European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said, “It is an emotional day. I will miss their pragmatism. It helped a lot. I will certainly miss their wonderful British sense of humour.” Brexit is a warning that EU leaders take seriously. French President Emmanuel Macron said, “Brexit is a historic warning sign that Europe needs to reform, become more democratic, simpler and closer to the people and to remember where lies can lead our democracies to.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Europeans are frustrated that the EU has bloated into a superstate, with unelected bureaucrats in Brussels regulating the curve of bananas and the length of cucumbers. EU officials fear that a successful Britain could encourage other nations to leave. Leading Brexiter Nigel Farage predicted confidently, “There is no turning back because there will be no EU to go back to.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Witty, iconoclastic and strong, Britain’s voice will be missed in the bloc. Especially by the small northern European countries that fired from behind Britain’s shoulder to trigger momentum for liberalisation, single market integration and fiscal discipline. Britain often needled France and Germany, but they relied on its military, intelligence, trading and diplomatic skills, which provided heft to the EU when tackling American unilateralism or Chinese ascent.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>With Britain’s exit, France and Germany emerge stronger in the EU, “worrying the southern, east European and non-eurozone countries that already resent their dominance” said German economist Henrik Enderlein. The EU now wants to focus on its big projects—green deal, reforms, integration and hi-tech makeover. But Brexit continues to distract.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>After one referendum, two elections, three prime ministers and nearly four years of wrangling, the Brexit process is far from over. Tough negotiations on the all-important trade deal begin next month and must finish by year end. Experts say 10 months are insufficient to conclude this complex deal—it took Canada seven years. Johnson projects toughness—no extensions, no convergence with EU regulations. Hard or soft Brexit, deal or no deal, Britain will leave or crash out of the EU on December 31, “come what may”. Sounds familiar, but Johnson has proved pessimists wrong before. But many see Johnson’s tough posture as a negotiating ploy.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The EU will watch out for devious manoeuvrings by the perfidious Albion, who has tried and failed many times to divide and rule and disrupt the EU’s decision-making. The UK wants access to the EU’s huge market, but to play by its own rules. The EU has dismissed such cherry-picking before. The EU’s main concern: Britain will subsidise industry, lower taxes, labour and environment standards to undercut the EU countries. Warned German finance minister Olaf Scholz: “There will be consequences. There cannot be an unfair competitive advantage from being outside.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Location assists. Half of Britain’s £1.7 trillion trade is with the EU, the world’s largest trading bloc. If the UK and EU diverge, manufacturing supply chains snap. Issues like data flow—essential for British technology, health and insurance businesses—face crippling obstacles. Britain will be “13th in the queue“ for an agreement, said EU’s data protection supervisor Wojciech Wiewiorowski. Over 75 per cent of UK’s data processing and transfers are with EU countries. Warned economist Thomas Sampson, “Leaving the EU will, in the long run, reduce UK living standards.” If Britain crashes out without a deal, the spectres of traffic jams, shortages of food and medicine resurrect.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Such “scare-mongering” does not dampen the boundless enthusiasm of Brexiters. Unchained from the EU, they envision roaming free, far and wide, striking juicy deals all over the world, buying raw materials here, selling goods there. Britain has so far only struck ‘continuity’ deals with Liechtenstein, the Faroe Islands, Georgia, Lebanon and a few others. The bumper bonanza will be a deal with the US, which will be the EU’s envy. But this could be a devil’s bargain, breaking EU shackles only to be shackled to the US. Alternatively, instead of straddling a multi-polar world with one foot in Europe and playing footsie with the other in US, China and former colonies, Britain could fall between the stools.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Johnson could also fall between the domestic devil and the deep sea, between his traditional elitist conservative voters and the disgruntled workers who defected to him in the last election. He follows an illustrious predecessor, Benjamin Disraeli, who strove to unite Britain’s two nations—rich and poor. Johnson must also fulfil his promise to provide better infrastructure, educational facilities, health care, end austerity and reduce crime and immigration.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>From cheers to jeers, Britain’s immigration story unravelled. Initially, the EU immigrants were welcomed because they brought affordable home repairs, filled pews in decaying churches and injected vitality to dying towns. But when Polish immigrants swelled to one million, memories of 70-hour waits for plumbers and electricians faded as resentful locals could not find jobs or houses in their hometowns.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Neighbourhoods changed. Clusters of Arabs and east Europeans thronged marketplaces, smoking and speaking strange tongues. Many locals found this threatening. In East England’s Lincolnshire, employers recruited cheap labour directly from Romania, bypassing the local employment exchanges. These locals, the left behinds, voted for Brexit. Now Johnson must find jobs and fend off immigrants to please them. But the industries rely on cheap imported labour and skilled workers to plump profits.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>At risk is also United Kingdom’s dissolution. Scotland prefers to be with the EU than the UK and will campaign for independence in the next Scottish elections in 2021. Invoking images of Mary, Queen of Scots, Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, warned that they would not be a “prisoner” of England. Northern Ireland could decouple from Britain and unite with Ireland. These separatist causes have huge political and economic costs, but Brexit shows nothing can be ruled out.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Johnson’s challenge now is to convert the ‘Get Brexit Done’ campaign slogan into a ‘Get things done’ governing strategy. With the opposition Labour utterly demoralised, Johnson is strong. But he must dodge the clouds and grab the silver linings. Losses can be severe, but Britain also has world class finance, legal, pharmaceutical, tourism, real estate, creative and education industries. There are 57 world leaders educated in British universities, second only to the 58 from United States. While Johnson’s “Global Britain” slogan is mocked as imperial nostalgia, the UK has deep economic, political, cultural and security ties across the world. It remains one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. Noted British academic Tony Travers, “Disruptive change can be beneficial for a country.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Brexit was a disruptive idea. As English writer H.G. Wells said, “Human history in essence is the history of ideas.” Brexit was not Johnson’s idea. He was conflicted before he converted. But now he has delivered. Historians will ponder: did Johnson make history or did history make him? A statue may or may not come up in the future, but Johnson will surely agree with German statesman Otto von Bismarck, who said: “The main thing is to make history, not to write it.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Roddy Sale, 60</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>investment banker/ elephant polo player</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>This is a </b>big moment in history. Indians will relate to this feeling, recognising the right to assume control over your own country, for better or for worse. I am connected to the British Raj. My grandfather was the collector of Bombay. My father’s first cousin, Sir George Abell, was private secretary to two Viceroys, Wavell and Mountbatten. This claim that Brexit is an expression of imperial nostalgia is total rubbish. Our younger generation has scant knowledge of history, let alone imperial history.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>I was too young to appreciate when we joined the EU. The beginning was positive, but the growth in EU regulation curtailed the independent spirit of the British. The EU should learn lessons from Brexit; it must reform, become less bureaucratic and more democratic. I celebrated at a Brexit party; there were many politicians, artists and media personalities.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Eleanor Stephenson, 23</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>artist who works for a leading auction house</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>I am disappointed,</b> potentially terrified. We step into the abyss of the unknown. I am most concerned being in the cultural field. How will Brexit affect us? Will Boris set up freeports (tax free storage for imported artworks) that are huge incentives for collectors and art dealers? Now we have freeports in Luxembourg and Geneva. Will London lose its status as a premium art destination? Will Asia take over, especially Beijing that is gathering momentum? I feel angst. The good thing is nothing will change for at least a year. Brexit divides even the art world. Several (anti-Brexit) galleries did not take part in the art fair. My mother is Dutch, she is an art teacher and lived in Sussex. She left Britain because she felt personally attacked. It is a different feeling to foreigners. Britain is a leading force in multiculturalism. It is beyond shame to let it disintegrate. I spent Brexit night in a sauna.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Fiona Watson, 55</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>businesswoman</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>I am a</b> bit sad, but resigned. I am British but I am also part of something larger. I have worked in Europe, I have worked in labs with 30 different nationalities. I am part of a household and nation that was accepting of different cultures. I live in a community of 800 people that is mostly pro-Brexit. We have many sheep and wheat farmers, mostly older people, and they feel EU rules constrained them. We have had no tensions between leavers and remainers. I believe passionately in democracy, the voice of the people. For the county to heal, trust in the political class must be restored. The youngsters just want to get on with it. I am relieved the uncertainty has ended and there is a path forward. Because of the uncertainty, my clients held their funds. Now they have begun releasing the money. For me, I hope not too much changes in the short and long term. On Brexit night, I went to sleep as usual.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Oliver Johnston-Watt, 25</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>works for his father’s bitcoin technology startup</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>It is exciting,</b> but also anticlimactic. We wonder: now what? I am relieved. This long wrangle has finally ended. Brexit will open up new opportunities. Colonial nostalgia does not resonate with the average youth, they are not really aware because it is not a big part of the history taught in schools. We look to the future. Boris Johnson is talking about big changes, being competitive. We must do different things to be globally competitive. Germany’s strengths are eroding. When it comes to efficiency improvements or innovative manufacturing, the United States is far ahead of Germany. Brexit allows us to get closer to the United States. I celebrated Brexit night with my Russian friends. Russians are big investors in the UK, in real estate, hi-tech, restaurants, fashion, film and commodities. They are veterans in dealing with uncertainty. They are not nervous. In the end, we all will continue doing what we always do: doing the best we can.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Harbinder Jhita, 58</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>builder</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>This is a</b> once in a lifetime moment. My wife and I travelled from Warwick, 100 miles away, to spend the night in a hotel in London to be in Parliament Square. I am happy because we can set our own path. We must control our laws. I am sure other countries in Europe will follow our example. Britain was losing its heritage, culture and business. I am in the construction business. We have to strictly follow EU rules that some of the other European countries were lax about. I do not believe Brexit was supported only by far right sections of society. Majority of the media is causing all the arguments.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>I did experience racism when I was growing up. I found the best way to deal with racism was to educate people, to integrate and work in the local community. There is a lot of anger against recent immigrants from EU countries who come in and take social benefits without contributing, without paying taxes. My father immigrated 50 years ago, starting as a cleaner. He never took benefits. Stopping uncontrolled EU immigrants creates space for immigrants from south Asian and Commonwealth countries.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Grzegorz Pytel, 54</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>business consultant</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Brexit will have</b> no impact on my decisions. I am Polish and have dual citizenship. The last three-year uncertainty was the worst even though it was a good negotiating tool. The country will move forward and make a success of it. Brexit gives the country more flexibility but this has to be tested. The more aligned the UK is to EU in the future, the better it is for all. Britain’s traditions and practices are different from Europe’s. They have proportional representation, so members of parliament do not represent individual constituencies like here. Here, MPs often had to tell their constituents they could not do anything to solve their problems because the decision was made in the EU. People were angry with both their MPs and the EU. Voters experienced a democracy deficit. Grexit and the EU’s treatment of an insolvent Greece touched a raw British nerve. Why be part of a club that treats you so badly? Instead of doing everything according to EU treaties, Britain will now evolve in a natural way.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Peter Nicastro, 50</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>cab driver</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>I am pleased.</b> I did not vote in the 2016 referendum because I did not have the knowledge. Then I sided with the winners. I am pleased because Brexit was getting on my bloody nerves. The first six months were good entertainment. It was good TV and radio. But then it would not stop. Every time I heard Brexit, I switched off the TV. We do not know what is going to happen. Even the bankers in London do not know. But I think it will be alright. We have been alone before. I know that was a long time ago, but there are other countries that are alone, too. The next few years will be difficult, but afterwards we will be better off. Other countries will want to leave and the whole EU thing will come apart. Now we can get on with our stuff—national health service, have more police on the street to stop knife crime. The youth in this country is out of control. I worry because I have three sons. Immigration is okay if controlled—now you see Roma people (gypsy migrants from Romania) camping in Mayfair! Brexit will all end up fine. The British people will make it work.</p> Sat Feb 08 16:30:25 IST 2020 course-correction <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>MORE THAN TWO</b> months have passed after Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected president of Sri Lanka and most people find him to be completely different from his brother, former president Mahinda Rajapaksa. Gotabaya, who was defence secretary under Mahinda, contested the presidential elections as the candidate of Mahinda’s Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna. But he seems to be plotting an independent course as president, despite appointing Mahinda as prime minister.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Gotabaya shuns the pomp and pageantry so loved by Mahinda. Sri Lankans were stunned when the new president opted for a simple ceremony to inaugurate the fourth session of the parliament on January 3. There was no ceremonial 21-gun salute or mounted police escort, which used to be the norm during Mahinda’s presidency. The two brothers have distinct sartorial styles as well. While Mahinda prefers the white national dress and the red shawl, Gotabaya delivered his inaugural address dressed in a dashing suit.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>One of Gotabaya’s first orders as president was not to have his photographs in government offices. When an enthusiastic supporter put up his life-sized portrait in a public place, he immediately ordered it to be taken down. When Mahinda was president, his photographs, posters and cutouts were seen at almost every street corner and in every government office.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Gotabaya seems to have a different approach towards handling dissent. The first street march by university students after Gotabaya took over ended in a discussion. The president tweeted that instead of the usual tear gas and baton charges that greeted student protests, he had invited them to his office so that they could discuss their issues with the officials concerned.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Gotabaya has adopted a direct approach towards policy issues. Last month, he accepted the long-standing demand of plantation workers of Indian origin for a minimum daily wage of 1,000 Sri Lankan rupees. The announcement came just before ‘Thai Pongal’, a major festival of Sri Lankan Tamils. The past two months have seen Gotabaya’s critics, especially the Tamils and Muslims, approving of his style of functioning and his policies.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Gotabaya was unusually forthright in stating that federalism was not the way forward for Sri Lanka. He told the Tamils that the unitary status of the country was paramount. Instead, he promised them economic equality, which he said would be implemented by a stable government and a powerful presidency. He also categorically ruled out diluting the powers of the president.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Gotabaya did not shy away from speaking out about the rights of the Sinhalese. He asked the Tamils and the Muslims to respect the will of the majority. “The people who elected me desired a profound change in the political culture of this country. They rejected political agendas founded on race. The majority of the people proved that it is no longer possible for anyone to manipulate and control the politics of this country by playing the role of kingmaker,” said Gotabaya, referring to political parties representing Muslims, which have a tradition of bargaining with the party in power. “I invite the concerned politicians to understand this reality. I call upon all of you to join together in the national undertaking to develop this country and to reject the politics based on petty agendas that have sown divisions in our society.” In a meeting with UN resident coordinator Hanaa Singer in Colombo, Gotabaya said he would develop the economy of the war-ravaged Tamil-majority Northern Province even if Tamil political parties did not support the initiative.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Responding to the president’s policy statement, Tamil National Alliance leader R. Sampanthan told the parliament that his party was prepared to work with Gotabaya. “Ever since the enactment of the 13th amendment in 1988, the Tamil people have decided at every election that they will work for the sharing of powers within the framework of a united, undivided, indivisible Sri Lanka,” he said. “Gotabaya Rajapaksa, as president, will work towards the achievement of those objectives. He will have the absolute support of our party.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>How Gotabaya will engage with the TNA in the longterm will be interesting. He has asked his ministers to help nearly 3,000 Sri Lankan refugees in India who have expressed the desire to return. Those who work with the refugees appreciate Gotabaya’s initiatives. “The president is keen to facilitate their safe return and to see that they resume their lives in Sri Lanka,” said S. Sooriyakumari, who heads the Sri Lankan operations of an organisation which facilitates the return of Sri Lankan refugees from India.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“We are trying to transport them from India by ship so that they can take their belongings as well. The cooperation we have received so far under the instructions of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa should be commended,” said Sooriyakumari. The first batch of refugees are expected to return this month and the Sri Lankan government has instructed that they should be resettled in their original land in the north and east of the country.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Gotabaya is also taking steps to induct more members of the minority communities into the country’s police force. As Sinhalas dominate the police and the army, minorities refer to them as “Sinhala police” and “Sinhala army”. Gotabaya plans to recruit 3,000 candidates from the north to the police force to fill vacancies at the constable and sub-inspector levels.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Meanwhile, Gotabaya did not go back from his decision to appoint Brigadier Suresh Sallay, a Muslim, as head of the State Intelligence Service, despite widespread opposition. Retired army commander and UNP MP Sarath Fonseka, in fact, argued in the parliament that such an important post “should not be given to a Muslim”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Well-known columnist and intellectual Ameer Ali commended Gotabaya for not giving into racism and relying solely on merit. Ali, a staunch critic of Muslim parties and Buddhist supremacists alike, however, warned that going forward, Gotabaya’s progressive vision might be hampered by pressure from Sinhala supremacists. “His focus is on meritocracy,” said Ali. “Reining in religious supremacists is the key and protection of pluralism is a must.”</p> Fri Jan 31 11:53:16 IST 2020 caught-in-the-muddle <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>FOR DIPLOMATS ACROSS</b> the world, the year 2020 has begun on an ominous note. The assassination of General Qassem Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, by the US has the potential to push the Middle East into yet another long-drawn conflict. Iran’s swift response—hitting US bases in Iraq with ballistic missiles—shows that it is unlikely to back off in the face of American aggression. But Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif hinted at deescalation as he called the missile strikes an act of self-defence. “We do not seek escalation or war, but will defend ourselves against any aggression,” tweeted Zarif.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The US, too, seems to be eyeing deescalation. In his formal response to the Iranian missile strikes, US President Donald Trump said he wanted to work with Iran in promoting peace in the Middle East. But he was sharply critical of Iran’s nuclear programme and threatened further sanctions against the country’s leadership. The immediate threat of an all-out war, however, seems to have dissipated following Trump’s speech.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But for countries like India, which share close ties with both Iran and the US, the coming days are likely to throw up further challenges and test their diplomatic skills. The official statement issued by the ministry of external affairs on Soleimani’s assassination shows how carefully India needs to tread. There was no reference to Soleimani by name in the statement. Instead, India chose to refer to him as “a senior Iranian leader’’. The statement also avoided the word assassination, and called for “restraint’’. “Peace, stability and security in this region is of utmost importance to India. It is vital that the situation does not escalate further,’’ said the statement. India sent a joint secretary to the Iranian embassy to sign the condolence book kept for Soleimani, in an attempt to stress its neutrality.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>India has been keeping a close watch on the rising tensions in the Middle East and has been trying to engage the key players. In a deliberate balancing act, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishanakar went to Tehran for the joint economic commission talks with Iran soon after the 2+2 dialogue held in Washington in December.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>For India, the concerns in the Middle East are manifold. The region is India’s largest supplier of oil. As many as 85 million Indian expats live and work there. “The US and Iran have started putting their naval vessels in the Strait of Hormuz. Our ships carrying oil pass through this region,’’ says Anu Sharma, associate fellow at the Centre for Air Power Studies, New Delhi.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>While India has chosen to bring down oil imports from Iran to almost zero under American pressure, there are other areas where India and Iran are partners. Any hostility in the region, for instance, puts the fate of the Chabahar port in jeopardy. The work on the port, which is India’s gateway to Afghanistan and Central Asia, has been progressing at a glacial pace, despite the active involvement of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. At the recent meeting of the India-Iran joint economic commission held in Tehran, the two sides promised to expand connectivity. But, India has been unable to generate much enthusiasm from private companies to invest in Iran, especially after the stringent sanctions imposed by the US. And, without private investment, the Chabahar project is unlikely to succeed.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The ongoing crisis has also revealed the limits of India’s diplomatic leverage, despite the goodwill it enjoys in both Washington and Tehran. Jaishankar did not figure in the call list of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo after Soleimani’s assassination, but Pakistan army chief General Qamar Bajwa did, demonstrating Pakistan’s growing importance in the changing scenario. Pompeo also reached out to Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas and French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian. It took a phone call from Jaishankar to voice India’s apprehensions. He called up Pompeo on January 5 to highlight India’s stakes and concerns in the region. He also reached out to Zarif and reiterated that India remained deeply worried about growing tensions in the region.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“We cannot play a mediating role between the US and Iran, because we have tilted more towards the US,’’ says Sharma. The dynamics of the relationship changed under prime minister Manmohan Singh, especially after India and the US signed the civilian nuclear deal in 2005. In 2009, India voted against Iran at the International Atomic Energy Agency, criticising its nuclear programme. When Jaishankar retired as foreign secretary, he said the Chabahar project was not moving forward because Iran kept on changing the goalposts. India and Iran have not been able to sign a deal on developing an Iranian gas field despite negotiating with each other for more than a decade. Modi did try to add some warmth to the relationship, but with India actively wooing Israel and Saudi Arabia—Iran’s sworn enemies—the leverage India enjoys with Iran is limited.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“Iran is somewhat annoyed about the oil imports,’’ says former diplomat Ashok Sajjanhar. “There is no other country, other than Russia, which does not need its oil. But China, which has its own problems with the US, and countries like Japan and South Korea had to fall in line with what the US wanted under the threat of CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act).’’</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Even more worrying for India is the fact that a conflict between the US and Iran could spill over beyond the Gulf. “Afghanistan is very worried,’’ said former Indian ambassador to Afghanistan Rakesh Sood. “Soleimani had been dealing with Afghanistan from the 1990s.” His death will have an impact on the non-Pashtun population, which is considered close to Iran. Any deterioration in the Afghan security situation is yet another strategic challenge that New Delhi will be desperate to avoid at the moment.</p> Fri Jan 10 14:26:31 IST 2020 iran-is-not-ready-for-a-war <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>The Iranian surprise attack on the US bases in Iraq on January 8 was meant to avenge the death of General Qassem Soleimani before his burial. His funeral, which was attended by millions in his home town at Kerman, had to be postponed because of a stampede.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Till January 7, though Iran had promised revenge, it was widely believed that an attack was not imminent. Iran chose not to kill anyone—though there were allegations that 80 people were killed in the attack—which is a message of deescalation. Foreign Minister Javad Zarif’s tweet reflected this sentiment.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>There have been celebrations on the streets because Iran had somehow stood up to the US might. Iran’s strike was inevitable, and it may further escalate the situation. But it was America’s assassination of Soleimani that pushed the region in this direction. President Barack Obama, too, had this option, as Soleimani had always been a target of the US. But Obama knew that it would escalate the situation to an unprecedented level. Countries in the region now hope that the situation does not deteriorate and both parties exercise self-restraint. In Iran, however, people did not want restraint. If Iran had not responded, it would have further emboldened the Americans.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Soleimani’s assassination has changed the situation on the ground. In the past few months, Iranian society was divided. The street protests in November showed that many people were against the government because of the current economic condition, the hardships and the lack of freedom. But Soleimani’s funeral procession showed that even those who were angry with the government and the establishment are now in mourning. Soleimani is a martyr. He was not just a senior commander; he was, in my view, the second most powerful person in the country after Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>President Donald Trump does not understand how important Soleimani was to Iran. Iranians are proud of him, and he led the anti-Islamic State fight in the region. He was also popular in Syria, Yemen and Iraq. The funeral procession was not orchestrated by the government. It could not have been possible to bring millions of people to the street by forcing them or luring them with the promise of food or money.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The funeral in Kerman demonstrated how important he was. The crowd was so huge that the officials could not control it. The population of Kerman is 50,000. But two to three million people, according to estimates, attended the funeral. Despite the postponement of his burial, people braved the cold and gathered steadily even as darkness fell.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Many mourners had demanded that the government take revenge. They wanted the harshest revenge possible. It was a sentiment that the government had to respond to. The supreme leader, according to sources, had made it clear to the government that the revenge must be taken by Iranian forces. He did not want any attack through proxies in Iraq or Lebanon. The attack on the missile bases leaves no doubt that Iranian forces were responsible for it.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Till January 7, top security officials in Iran were believed to have shortlisted 13 targets. The attack was carefully thought-out. Iran has indicated its willingness to deescalate. An all-out war is impossible now for Iran because its economy cannot support it. The oil sanctions have paralysed the economy. Iran is not ready for a war.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Khaasteh is a Tehran-based journalist.</b></p> Fri Jan 10 14:23:54 IST 2020 face-of-the-next-phase <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>SUPERMOM WITH SEVEN</b> children, she is slim, smart and stylish. She bakes cookies and inspects submarines with equal ease. A life-long high achiever who ran powerful German ministries, Ursula von der Leyen, 61, earned nicknames ranging from crèche mama to shotgun girl. As the incoming president of the European Commission—the executive branch of the European Union (EU)—she is now one of the two most powerful women in Europe. The other is her mentor, German Chancellor Angela Merkel. A powerful, bold, green and cohesive “United States of Europe” is what she wants. She says: “If we close the gaps between us, we can turn today’s challenges into tomorrow’s opportunities and emerge stronger as a Union.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But, she is off to a shaky start. Unlike the US, Europe is represented by a splintered European parliament full of squabbling conservatives, socialists, greens, liberals, populists and extreme left and right parties. A last-minute dark horse from the ruling German centre-right Christian Democratic Union party, von der Leyen won her job with a meagre margin of nine votes. Unlike her predecessors who secured parliamentary approval for legislation by brokering grand coalitions, von der Leyen is hamstrung by her weak majority in a fractious, fragmented house. Besides, all her predecessors were heads of government, experienced in cutting deals and unifying factions. German socialists say von der Leyen is “inadequate and unsuitable” for the high office. But her biographer Daniel Goffart observes: “She is used to being underestimated as a woman, but has beaten men throughout her political career.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Initial omens bode ill. She failed to assemble a team in time because the European Parliament rejected some of the questionable choices forced upon her. One was a tainted protégé of French President Emmanuel Macron, who had actually masterminded her elevation. Now Macron is furious with her. Unable to hire 50 per cent women in the EC as promised, von der Leyen desperately reached out even to the EU-leaving British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to suggest female candidates. Her green deal for making the continent carbon neutral by 2050 is contested, her aim to fast-track foreign policy decisions by dropping consensus is unrealistic and her desire for more capital-markets integration is controversial. Predicts EU expert Agata Gostynska-Jakubowska: “Her biggest challenge will be to show she can be assertive vis-a-vis the member-states.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Von der Leyen renamed the title for migration ministry as “protecting our European way of life” to address the resentment against Muslim immigration to Europe. Her rebranding provoked a firestorm of protests from liberals and leftists who described it as appeasing far-right groups.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>She is the first German in 50 years to become EC president. Though her start is marred by delays and hiccups, von der Leyen has made shrewd top appointments. Her three high-caliber “executive vice-presidents” symbolise her priorities. The Danish dynamo, Margrethe Vestager, is tasked with making Europe “fit for the digital age”. Vestager will continue as the trailblazing anti-monopoly EU commissioner—a role in which she made an enemy out of Donald Trump by forcing Apple, Google and Facebook to pay millions in taxes and fines. An anti-trust investigation into Amazon’s use of client data is already under way and a new inquiry into Facebook’s proposed digital currency, Libra, is being considered.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Dutch diplomat Frans Timmermans will be in charge of Europe’s “green deal”. Both Vestager and Timmermans were von der Leyen’s rivals for the EC presidency. Former Latvian prime minister Valdis Dombrovskis will manage economic and financial affairs. He will have a special focus on including the left-behind groups and the small peripheral European nations that resent their second-class status.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Opposing Macron, von der Leyen advocates expanding EU to include the Balkan states. She cites three compelling reasons: they have fulfilled all EU pre-membership demands; these border countries are buffers against migrant inflows; and if EU does not absorb them, they will become the playgrounds of Russia, China, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. In her geopolitical vision, the United States and China are Europe’s competitors. She wants to checkmate American digital hegemony and the Chinese acquisition of European business in strategic sectors.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>She began her German ministerial career as a trailblazer, but ended as an imploding star, plummeting to become one of the least popular ministers in Merkel’s cabinet. In 2013, Merkel appointed von der Leyen as the first woman defence minister. The defence ministry did not bury her career. But it buried her ambition to succeed Merkel.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>When neo-Nazi cells were discovered in the Bundeswehr (German military), she alienated generals and soldiers by accusing them of “weak leadership” and an “attitude problem”. Under her tenure, the German military continued to battle with unfit submarines, grounded jets and misfiring rifles. She was embroiled in scandals involving cost overruns and grant of lucrative contracts to external consultants like Accenture and McKinsey. The German parliament is investigating the allegations, and von der Leyen faces the ignominy of attending hearings in Berlin as EC president.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But, unlike her predecessors, von der Leyen survived the full six years as defence minister, and repeatedly exhibited the feistiness she showed from 2005 when she first became family and then labour minister. Unlike the consensus-seeking Merkel, von der Leyen is unafraid to push controversial policies. She fought internet porn and advocated minimum wages and boardroom quotas for women. To get women back into the workforce, she introduced crèche facilities and parental leave for fathers.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Von der Leyen balances her strong work ethic and equally strong family values. She flies away to spend weekends with her physician-husband and grown-up children in their genteel country estate near Hanover. Von der Leyen comes from an aristocratic, conservative Christian family and follows in the footsteps of both parents—her powerful politician father and devout mother—who too bore seven children. She was born in Brussels where her father was then posted as a European bureaucrat, and graduated from the prestigious Uccle school, two years senior to Boris Johnson. The posh and petite supermom studied economics, then medicine, had children and finally entered the world of dour, disapproving male politicians.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But even some women were irritated by her best-in-class persona, telegenic smile and picture-perfect coiffed hairstyle. She prefers to hold meetings standing. She loves horse riding, a symbol of her privileged, elitist upbringing. She had a flair for photo ops, posing dramatically against military equipment or wearing outsized red boxing gloves to showcase her battle against domestic violence. Says Goffart, if she has a flaw it is “excessive stage management”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Her new stage comes with all the traps and trappings of power. The last five years have been tumultuous for Europe, battered by terrorism, trade disputes, conflicts in the neighbourhood, Brexit, Greek debt and migrant inflows. Reconciling polar opposite views on these contentious issues will be tough.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Von der Leyen’s failure to become Merkel’s successor is attributed to her lack of power and leverage within the party. She will not succeed now unless she develops critical allies and power blocs within the EC structure. Externally, gloomy economic forecasts and sharp divisions among EU governments on different issues suggest that while von der Leyen’s ambitions are grand, her achievements could well be modest.</p> Fri Dec 06 12:17:29 IST 2019 band-of-brothers <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>AFTER THE EASTER</b> Sunday bomb blasts in April this year, THE WEEK met Gotabaya Rajapaksa at his residence outside Colombo. Rattled by the attacks which claimed 253 lives, he spoke extensively about the security situation in the island nation and of his plans to restore peace. Six months later, Gotabaya, who represents the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna, has got a chance to put his words into action.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Gota, as he is popularly known, was sworn in as the seventh president of Sri Lanka on November 18. He won the elections securing 52 per cent of the votes, while his main opponent, Sajith Premadasa of the United National Party, finished with 42 per cent.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Gotabaya, 70, has named his elder brother and former president Mahinda Rajapaksa as the new prime minister after Ranil Wickremesinghe announced his resignation. With Wickremesinghe stepping down, sources said the UNP might split or might have a new leader in Premadasa. There are also reports that former president Maithripala Sirisena was planning to return to the Rajapaksa camp.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Gotabaya, who was defence secretary under Mahinda, cruised to victory by focusing on two key issues—security and economy. His trump card was security as Sri Lankans continue to be haunted by the April attacks. Gotabaya ran an aggressive campaign reminding the people about the intelligence failure that led to the attacks. On the economy front, he promised to deliver on the reform agenda.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“It is very clear that Gotabaya has been voted to power only because of his promises,” said Charitha Herath, senior lecturer at the University of Peradeniya and former secretary of mass media and information. “As promised, his actions will be about ensuring the security of the nation and the region, the economic development of the country and a reforms agenda which includes policy regulations. For this, I believe he will engage with policy professionals in the country.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>While Mahinda was criticised for his brutal suppression of the Tamil civil war, the measure was hugely popular among the majority Sinhalas. Mahinda also brought in several infrastructure projects, most of them financed by China. But under Sirisena and Wickremesinghe, debt grew drastically and the economy nosedived. “Gotabaya will immediately ensure that the right people are at work to revive the economy. It may not be possible in a month. But the process will begin soon and we will invite foreign direct investment, encourage local investments, exports and bring clear proposals for improving agriculture,” said Palitha Kohona, Sri Lanka’s former permanent representative to the United Nations.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>While Gotabaya’s return has brought cheer to the Sinhala majority, the Tamils and Muslims are disappointed. In the north and the east, where the Tamils and the Muslims live, Gotabaya finished way behind Premadasa. “Authoritarian family rule is once again back in our country. Till 2015, one family was running the government. Mahinda was president, Gota was defence secretary, younger brother Basil was a minister and Chamal, the eldest in the family, was speaker,” said Jaffna-based political observer N. Nilanthan. “This time, Mahinda’s son Namal, too, will play a very important role.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>While the Rajapaksas claimed that they had brought in infrastructure development and rehabilitated the war-affected people in the Northern Province, the Tamils are still traumatised by the torture they endured, especially during the last stages of the civil war. Many people in the region think of Gotabaya as a war criminal, although the SLPP worked hard in the province for the Tamil votes. “We still have not got our land back. With Gota back in power, they will ensure that there will be Sinhala settlements here,” said Nilanthan.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Kohona, however, said it was wrong to assume that Gotabaya would be against the minorities. “In the north and the east, people did not vote for him,” he said. “But a majority of the Tamils live in Colombo. In the Western and Southern Provinces, he won handsomely. He will lead the country and be the president of the people of this country irrespective of who voted for him.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>India, meanwhile, is looking at the return of the Rajapaksas with some concern. Mahinda had blamed the Research and Analysis Wing for his loss in 2015. He also alleged that India brought Sirisena and Wickremesinghe together to keep him out of power.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Although India subsequently mended relations with the Rajapaksas, the clan’s close ties with China are still a matter of concern. When he was president, Mahinda had opened up Sri Lanka for the Chinese who invested heavily in the country, including in the Hambantota Port. Sri Lanka subsequently became an enthusiastic participant in the Belt and Road Initiative. Mahinda even allowed a Chinese submarine and a warship to dock at the Colombo port despite India’s objections. No wonder India moved quickly to congratulate Gotabaya upon his victory and establish a rapport with him. External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar met the new president in Colombo on November 19. During the meeting, Gotabaya said Sri Lanka considered India to be its “relative”, while China was its trade partner. Gotabaya accepted Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s invitation to visit India and is likely to arrive in New Delhi on November 29.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“India will be the cornerstone of our foreign policy,” said Kohona. “Highest priority will be given to our relations with India because of the historic, cultural and economic nature of the ties—not just between the two governments, but also between the two people.”</p> Fri Nov 22 12:52:31 IST 2019 cautious-optimism <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 16,</b> began on a high for people of north Jaffna. There were long queues at polling booths, as even the elderly braved the heavy afternoon showers to vote for the 7th executive president of Sri Lanka. Steven Leonard, a businessman, was sure, like many others in the north, that United National Party (UNP)’s Sajith Premadasa would become president. “It is a sure victory because we Tamils have fully put our strength behind Sajith,” said Leonard.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Early next morning, however, the tension in the air was palpable. The Thirunelveli vegetable market, about 5km from Jaffna town, had traders and customers glued to their pocket radios. By 9am, gloom had settled in and around Jaffna. “He is winning all the Sinhala districts,” wailed a mournful trader. It was clear that he was referring to Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the former defence secretary and one of the two top contenders—the other being Premadasa. He was fielded by the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), which is led by his brother, former president Mahinda Rajapaksa.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>By 10am, it was clear that Gotabaya Rajapaksa was going to be the new president. By afternoon, shocked northeastern citizens learnt that Premadasa had lost even Colombo and Kandy, two UNP strongholds. By evening, the roads of Jaffna were deserted as the north pondered over its future.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“In post-independent Sri Lanka, this is one of the elections in which the Tamil people were keenest to vote,” says Jaffna’s A.N. Rajendran, who was secretary of former Northern Chief Minister C.V. Vigneswaran. Rajendran has since joined a faction of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) that agreed to cooperate with the UNP for this election. Rajendran noted that both the main candidates failed the Tamil people, but feels that Tamils had no choice but to trust Premadasa.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“We are not asking for federalism,” said Rajendran. “We want an effective way of sharing power within a united country. But in Sri Lanka, establishing the rights of Tamils is a political issue.” Rajendran acknowledges that the ultra radical view held by some Tamil politicians prevented further discussions with the former Rajapaksa regime.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The northern Tamils voting en masse for Premadasa is significant because there were calls from diverse segments of the community to boycott the elections. Vigneswaran’s Tamil People’s Alliance (TPA), had, along with four other parties, teamed up with a section of Jaffna University students to put forward 13 demands before the two main presidential candidates as conditions for supporting them. The conditions included the release of LTTE prisoners held for terrorism. Neither of them responded to the demands. Soon after Rajapaksa’s victory, Vigneswaran reiterated the call for self determination of the Lankan Tamils, even as he issued a statement congratulating the winner. He noted that this election had divided the country into “water-tight communal compartments”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>One Tamil, who holds a dual citizenship and is based in Europe, had come to Jaffna to vote. Preferring to remain anonymous, he expressed disappointment that the diaspora’s call for Lankan Tamils to vote for Premadasa did not reap expected results. However, he too, like many Tamils and Muslims, expressed fresh hope that Rajapaksa would usher in equality for all Sri Lankans.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>By midweek, a distinct change had taken over and the fear to express opinion—a phenomenon that existed prior to January 2015—resurfaced. More than half of the Tamils in the north that THE WEEK contacted refused to speak even anonymously. A few took to Twitter, posting carefully worded messages about peaceful coexistence.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Although the main visible support by Tamils and Muslims was for Premadasa, there are few who spell out an alternative view. One such person is Sentitcumaran Ramalingam, a Tamil lawyer from Jaffna, now in Colombo. He feels that the fear of the new president is largely unfounded. “The context in which Rajapaksa operated as defence secretary and is accused of alleged crimes was a war situation where the LTTE had adopted ruthless methods,” said Ramalingam. He points out that 12,000 former LTTE cadres were rehabilitated under the Rajapaksa regime from 2010 to 2014.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In the east, which is inhabited by both Muslims and Tamils, the voting pattern favoured Premadasa, although, in the rest of the country, some sections of Muslims did vote for Rajapaksa. Ali Sabry, Rajapaksa’s attorney, was lobbying heavily to woo the Muslims back. The alienation of Muslims came after the anti-Muslim riots of 2014, and was furthered by the Easter Sunday attack, carried out by nine Muslims, that left nearly 300 dead.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“In this election, the whole idea of national security was predominant. The SLPP candidate contested entirely on a national security-based pledge. It also seems that the Sinhala people felt that they could depend on themselves to have a government totally elected by them,” said Muslim human rights activist Jezima Ismail. “We should give him (Rajapaksa) the chance to prove himself. The reconciliation process should continue so that we can... continue the energetic engagement of pluralism.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Muslims, like the Tamils, had the chance to vote for a Muslim candidate, but the votes polled were insignificant. Controversial former Eastern Province governor M.L.A.M. Hizbullah had contested but failed to get noticeable support from Muslims in the east.</p> Fri Nov 22 12:50:23 IST 2019 elizabet-warren-is-fighting-for-all-americans-says-her-son-in-law-from-uttar-pradesh-village <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Two of the Democratic contenders in the 2020 US presidential elections have strong ties with India: while Senator Kamala Harris from California had an Indian mother, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren’s daughter, Amelia, is married to Indian American entrepreneur Sushil Tyagi. Along with former vice president Joe Biden, Warren leads the list of Democratic hopefuls.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Tyagi was born in Khatauli* village that is on a rural path off the main road that goes between Deoband and Saharanpur. He never had a settled childhood as his father, who was a policeman, was transferred frequently. But Tyagi was a bright student and he went on to study civil engineering at IIT Delhi. He completed his studies at the University of California, Berkeley and the Wharton School in Philadelphia. He now serves as president of Berkeley Marine Robotics, an ocean exploration and conservation company. He has also dabbled in film production and was involved with movies such as Hari Om (2004) and Samsara (2011).</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In an exclusive interview with THE WEEK, Tyagi opens up for the first time about Warren, calling her a fighter who knows exactly what families go through every day in America. He hopes to assist his mother-in-law in overturning the Trumpian model of American political life. Indian Americans are getting involved in the Warren campaign through the recently-launched Warren India Network (WIN) whose lead supporter is California lawyer Navneet Chugh. Excerpts:</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ Can you tell us about your early life?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/ I am originally from a north UP village, which is so small and unknown that it still does not have a post office or a bus service. Like most children of smallholder farmers, I grew up taking the cattle to the ponds and sugarcane carts to the crushers. My mother never went to school and could not read or write.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Since there was very little farmland, my father joined the UP Police as a constable. He was initially posted in such remote places where there were no schools or where he could not afford to keep a family. So I was sent to our relatives’ villages to continue at local schools.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>As was the norm in the state police, my father was transferred every few months to various small towns. I lived most of my childhood near those police stations and constantly shifted to new schools. Sometimes, I was even left behind with a teacher’s family to finish a year’s class. It was after more than 12 different schools that I completed final grades and that just happened to be in Dehradun. A decade later, I helped my parents build a house there and adopted it as my hometown although, as you can see, I do not really have one.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ You studied at IIT Delhi. Why did you decide to move to the US?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/ As no one in my extended family had gone to college, and no one around me even knew of IIT back then, it was quite a lonely path for a Hindi medium kid to embark on JEE (Joint Entrance Examination) preparation, although it was under the relative luxury of a gas lantern.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Once selected for IIT, I was grateful for a UP Police scholarship that helped ease the cost burden for my parents. While at IIT, I was drawn to topics that were esoteric and remote, perhaps echoing my yearning and unlikely journey up to that point. I did my senior thesis on the designs of artificial islands, which, at the time, was quite an outlandish topic. Even though I had never seen an ocean in my real life, I was fascinated by its stochastic nature, and applied to the postgraduate programme in ocean engineering at the University of California, Berkeley. There I published research and developed software for simulation of large-scale floating offshore structures, which, back then, seemed like a futuristic concept.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ How important have science and technology been to you in your professional life?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/ After an MBA in finance from Wharton, much of my work as a management consultant has been in strategic planning and financial feasibility of new ventures. I still continue to examine scientific and technological advancements, but with a view to assessing their competitive and economic viability. When there is an opportunity to help shape a concept or technology into a new startup, it is really exciting for me as an entrepreneur to work hard at the ground level—to shape the business model and to find a feasible path to bring it to market.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ What about your experience with movies?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/ During my job as a management consultant in the media/entertainment strategy group of PricewaterhouseCoopers in Los Angeles, I had worked for top executives of Hollywood studios on their strategic plans and financial models. There I also learned to analyse the business and process of film finance and distribution. With that industry experience, I was fortunate to be able to help talented filmmakers produce some India-based films and documentaries that showcased uplifting positive images from the culture and history of India. These were fairly short projects and I soon returned to my main focus in management consulting.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ Tell us about your work in robotics.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/ My latest venture stems from my prior engineering work on marine structures at UC Berkeley. Our goal is to build robotic systems for ocean exploration and conservation. Traditional radio signals, such as GPS and Wi-Fi, do not travel in fluids, making it difficult to explore marine life or to inspect underwater equipment. Current options of piloted submarines or remote-operated vehicles are quite limited and expensive for wide-scale deployments. Therefore, we are developing innovative, low-cost autonomous swarm robotic solutions that will enable remote navigation and communication in deep waters for research and industry.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ How and where did you meet your wife, Amelia?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/ I met Amelia at Wharton, where we were both first-year MBA students. Soon, I got to know that her parents were teachers and that she also had to move with them to their various university appointments. Like me, she, too, had gone to nearly 10 schools before college. So we started off on the shared stories of being the new kid in town every year and then having to do well in each new school right away.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ Your thoughts on being part of the Warren family?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/ When I married the daughter of two college professors 20 years ago, we had an instant common bond in the value of education. Her parents grew up on the edges of middle class and had found higher education as their path forward in life. Even though I came from a totally different part of the world, I identified with their life story, and I think they identified with mine in some way.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>My family is multicultural just like many, many families across America. We celebrate Diwali lights as well as Christmas lights. We are an American family and as much as I like to teach my kids about Hindu epics, I, too, have much to learn from our local church’s hymn books.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ Do you think Warren will make the best president?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/ Elizabeth Warren stands to fight for all Americans. She grew up in the heartland of this country and knows exactly what families go through every day. All her brothers were in the military and she knows their concerns and their hopes. She has also studied family economics at the highest levels and has worked for decades to advocate for policies to help protect middle-class families. She has fought for years against predatory banks that also twist the political arms to their whims and thereby hurt all Americans, and in particular people of colour. She envisioned and built the consumer financial protection bureau against the onslaught of corporate lobbyists.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>She can fight, and frankly it looks to me that she is the one actually enjoying this fight. Being part of a multicultural family, she has respect for the global communities and the need for thoughtful moderation and respect in our dialogue with all nations.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ What would you and Amelia want to tell Indian-origin voters about Warren as president?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/ For the Indian/south Asian community in the US, it may be a delight to hear that Elizabeth Warren has a close family connection with India. She has been to India multiple times to participate in our family functions. All three of her grandchildren have this dual heritage. The key for the Indian American community is to not get taken in by the easy pandering or divisive rhetoric coming from partisan voices. The extreme wings in the US do not have best interests of this community at heart despite their opportunistic and selective sloganeering during elections.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ What would your daughters like to share about their grandmother?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/ First and foremost, Elizabeth Warren is an amazing grandmother, ‘Gammy’ to the kids. She is the only one who knows how to operate the little sewing machine and whenever she visits us, the kids put all their new clothes out that need to be hemmed or new buttons to be sewed. My daughters like to craft the emoji avatars for their Gammy’s Snapchat and giggle together. And then Gammy gets up and takes serious calls from the senators, teachers and her team. On any given day, she can move through many states in multiple town meetings and after a two-hour rally, she still has energy to stand for four more hours to meet thousands. She will then come over to hang with the grandkids and discuss their homework while heating up some leftover snacks for them.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ Your thoughts on the American dream and the future of the US?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/ The United States is a unique and great country, and it is made from multicultural families in each generation. Each new culture and new generation has had its challenges but eventually the country embraces them all. My daughters are growing up with a grandmother from a village in India, who cannot even read. Their other grandmother is a Harvard law professor and a US senator and a presidential contender. However, to my daughters, they are both similar in their hardscrabble upbringing, in their love for the grandchildren and in their focus on the family above all.</p> <p><b>*also referred to as Khatoli village,&nbsp;in Saharanpur district</b></p> <p><b>Lavina Melwani is a New York-based journalist who blogs at Lassi with Lavina.</b></p> <p><a href=""><u></u></a></p> Mon Dec 02 12:27:45 IST 2019 faith-amid-feud <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>IT IS SELFIE SEASON</b> in Kartarpur, Pakistan, and everyone is afflicted. At Gurdwara Darbar Sahib, it is impossible to walk on the day of the opening of the Kartarpur corridor—linking the gurdwara with the Dera Baba Nanak shrine in India’s Gurdaspur district—without bumping into someone smiling brightly for the camera. Each step of the colossal complex is being captured by a sea of phone cameras.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Stopping to pose in front of the gate with her husband, Paramjit Kaur beams at her phone. “This is my third visit,” she said. “I came a few years ago, but this is just beautiful. I am so grateful.’’ She is not alone. Ranjit Kaur, a first-timer, is teary-eyed as she bends down to touch the floor. “I am so happy,” she said. “My mother spent her life desperate to see this gurdwara and now I am here.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Saturday (November 9) sky is clear. There are fervent prayers on everyone’s lips, and more than 3,000 hearts filled with gratitude. And, at a time when relations between the two neighbours are less than warm, the opening of the corridor is essential.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The transformation of Kartarpur has taken place in a record 11 months. Even Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan quipped: “I did not know my government was so efficient.” India, however, attributes the speed to the Army. The corridor project, as an official said, predated the civilian government. “He is just the face,’’ he said. In Pakistan, too, Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa’s interest is not a secret. The hug that sparked off the historic move was between Bajwa and Congress leader Navjot Singh Sidhu. He was also present at the foundation laying ceremony of the corridor in November 2018.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The tiny white gurdwara that once stood forlorn in the midst of fields has been converted into the biggest attraction in Pakistan. It is now the perfect model for the softer image Pakistan is trying to construct: a moderate country open to religious tourism. It is in line with Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s first speech to the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan—“... you are free to pray at your temples....”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“We have identified 400 temples,’’ said foreign minister S.M. Qureshi at the inauguration of the corridor. Punjab governor Chaudhry Mohammad Sarwar, too, said that they are going to promote Hindu tourism and focus on Buddhism. While it is a carefully crafted image, judging by the response Pakistan got, with ambassadors of various countries tweeting their selfies against the backdrop of the gurdwara, it seems that Khan has won the perception battle. For Pakistan, which is facing tough strictures from the Financial Action Task Force for terrorism, the Kartarpur gurdwara is essential to project a different image.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>However, Kartarpur and its possibility were overshadowed by Kashmir. Khan, in his speech, asked for “justice for the people of Kashmir’’, as did Qureshi. But Prime Minister Narendra Modi chose to be statesmanlike and thanked Pakistan and the people who worked on the project. (India cleverly chose a Jathedar from the Akal Takht to speak officially. Sidhu, who thanked Khan warmly, was there on Pakistan’s invitation.)</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Politics apart, Kartarpur corridor is an important “people-to-people’’ initiative between the two governments—one that goes beyond the territory of hope and sentimentality that they have chosen to undertake with “eyes wide open’’, as an Indian official put it. The reason? Sikh sentiment, in India and the diaspora.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The corridor agreement has been the only piece of business that the two nations have done despite the Pulwama attack and Pakistan’s cutting off ties and increased rhetoric on Kashmir post the removal of Article 370. The talks on the corridor, oddly, have been insulated in a protective bubble. Even the agreement on the modalities of the pilgrims—which was not easy to work out—was finally completed. “The Indian side has negotiated a good agreement,’’ said former high commissioner to Pakistan G. Parthasarathy.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Security concerns loom large, especially with the Khalistan referendum next year. “Over the past decades, several Pakistan governments, led by the army, have set themselves an objective of creating a Hindu and Sikh divide in India,’’ said Parthasarathy. “I have personally seen anti-Indian slogans in gurdwaras in Pakistan.’’</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But Khalistan and its idea may not take root in India; even suggesting the idea in Punjab is enough to get Sikhs enraged. “Does India actually believe that we are so weak that we will get indoctrinated in five hours,’’ asked Baljit Singh, who has travelled to Pakistan many times in jathas [group of pilgrims]. “Jathas travel to Pakistan four times a year for 15 days at a time, but no arms have come this way. Why do we have to prove our loyalty?’’ Just a day before the corridor was to open, there was an infiltration bid that was stopped. For devotees, however, the opening of the corridor is a prayer that has been answered. But they are practical. “Everyone thinks that we are safe till Gurpurab,” said Mejindarpal Kaur from Malaysia, who spent six hours to book her place online the day the website was up. “Everyone wants a date just after that for a week or so. They don’t think it will last.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But does the corridor offer hope? It certainly is testimony to the sheer power of people-to-people connect. But now, when talks are not on the agenda, the spirit of Kartarpur will need a miracle to become stronger.</p> Sat Nov 16 15:40:20 IST 2019 divided-kingdom <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Once upon a time, Great Britain ruled the seven seas. Now it is ruled by seven Cs: compromise, customs, consent, competition, cleverness, communications and commerce.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Prima facie, Prime Minister Boris Johnson grabbed a Brexit deal with the European Union from the jaws of defeat, in the nick of time. Fans hail his deal as “brilliant”; opponents say it is a devious compromise, rehashing an old rejected arrangement. His predecessor Theresa May had worked on this proposal, which was first offered by the EU in February 2018. Said political researcher Tom Kibasi, “Not for the first time, a man has taken credit for a woman’s work.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But May subsequently discarded this proposal because it undermined the UK’s unity and integrity: the UK exits the EU, but Northern Ireland remains within the EU’s customs union. One nation, two systems. May had said, “No UK prime minister can agree to this.” But Johnson did. Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party that props up Johnson’s minority government felt betrayed. Johnson was “too eager by far to get a deal at any cost”, accused DUP’s deputy leader Nigel Dodds.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Johnson has repeatedly avowed to take the UK out of the EU by October 31. While May looked increasingly isolated during her tenure, Johnson appears like Robin Hood with his merry band of Brexiteer faithfuls spinning a communications yarn about his “simply superb” deal. Last year, Tory Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg mockingly dismissed the “one nation, two system” proposal as “completely cretinous, impractical, bureaucratic and a betrayal of common sense”. Now Rees-Mogg says, “there’s a line from Churchill saying he’d often had to eat his own words and he found it a nourishing diet.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Johnson, too, has had his bellyful of “nourishing diet”. Despite his repeated refusal, he had to seek a Brexit delay as mandated by British law after the parliament outmanoeuvred him. But his childish trickery and nonsensical tactics provoked alarm in Westminster and European capitals. His official letter seeking Brexit extension was a photostat, short and unsigned. The accompanying letter was long and signed, outlining why an extension should be rejected. Anonymous leaks of false versions of a Johnson-Angela Merkel phone call, pursuing a perfidious blame game with the EU and pitting people against the parliament have led European leaders to believe that “10 Downing Street is out of control”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>While politicians eat their words, Britons have been feeding on a poisonous diet of polarisation, uncertainty and fatigue. Post-Brexit future looks frightening, motivating a million protestors to gather in London demanding a second referendum. But many people are so sick and tired, they support Johnson’s mantra: “Get Brexit Done”. British MPs battled historic choices: delay Brexit to scrutinise Johnson’s deal, hurriedly pass it to keep the October 31 deadline, lose Brexit altogether or crash out of the EU without a deal.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>On October 22, the British parliament approved Johnson’s Withdrawal Amendment Bill, but a few minutes later, it rejected another vote which set a rushed three-day timetable to clear the withdrawal bill within the October 31 deadline. As a result, the bill is now officially “in limbo”, according to Speaker John Bercow.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The stumbling block to a Brexit deal has always been the future status of Northern Ireland, the theatre of a 30-year savage war between the Catholic nationalists represented by the Sinn Fein aligned to the neighbouring Republic of Ireland and the protestants represented by the DUP, who wish to remain in union with Britain. The internationally brokered Good Friday Agreement that ended the war in 1998 guarantees an open border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. Johnson’s deal ensures this. Instead of customs controls between Ireland and Northern Ireland, the checks will be between Northern Ireland and the UK. “This is not crossing a red line, this is crossing a blood red line,” said DUP leader Arlene Foster.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The deal’s legalese is crafty more than statecraft. Northern Ireland is part of the EU’s customs union, but it remains in the UK’s customs territory—de jure with the UK, but de facto in the EU. Northern Ireland’s unionists fear the deal’s natural gravitational pull will drag their homeland away from Britain into Ireland, paving the way for the reunification of Ireland and Northern Ireland.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Northern Ireland’s people must agree to any deal. In Johnson’s original proposal, the DUP on its own could veto any agreement. But he gave in to the EU’s clever change, which stipulated that a simple majority in Northern Ireland’s legislature was needed for a veto. Such a veto is unlikely because nationalists have electoral and demographic majority, further isolating and weakening the unionists. To minimise, if not avoid smuggling and unfair competition, the deal includes a cumbersome system whereby foreign or British goods heading to the EU via Northern Ireland will be levied the EU’s value added tax. But it will be reimbursed if the goods remain in Northern Ireland. Nationalists and unionists describe this as “bureaucratic and clunky”, but officials insist that the checks will be more electronic than physical.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Britain’s Labour opposition has always detected a sinister hidden agenda in the Brexit project. Labour leaders allege that freemarketeers, disguised as Tory Brexiteers, want to break free from EU welfare policies to pursue unfettered American-style capitalist commerce. Said Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, “Their real motive is to deregulate our economy, sell our national assets to American companies, sell us chlorinated chicken and pollute our air. They want to lower wages, workers’ rights and environmental standards. It is a race to the bottom by realigning Britain from the EU to the US.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The EU is Britain’s biggest market and decoupling from the world’s biggest trading bloc will shave 5 to 7 per cent off the UK’s GDP. Brexiteers plan to compensate this by milking Britain’s “special relationship” with the US. Although former US president Barack Obama had warned that Britain would have to go to the back of the queue, anti-EU Donald Trump has promised Britain a “great deal”. Experts, however, say turning talk to trade is tricky.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Brexiteers also expect to sign separate, lucrative trade deals with China, Canada, India, Australia and Africa. But imperial Britain has receded into history and current realpolitik commands all countries to ruthlessly pursue their national interest when striking trade deals. Said Kibasi, “Johnson’s deal is predicated on the fiction that Britain has more to gain from new trade deals with faraway countries than from maintaining frictionless trade with our nearest neighbours, which already account for half our trade.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Commerce today is vastly different from 19th century trading under Pax Britannica. American political scientist Joseph Nye uses the term “complex interdependence” to describe the modern world—the deep and layered intertwining of nations due to the criss-crossing of goods, people, finance, services and supply chains. Following the Airbus-Boeing spat over subsidies, Trump imposed sanctions on the EU. Crippling 25 per cent tariffs now strangle cashmere and whisky makers in Scotland, but their competitors in Italy and Ireland are untouched. The reason: parts of Airbus jets are manufactured in the UK.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Adding insult to Scotland’s injury now is Johnson’s deal, which drags it out of the EU and forces it to remain within the UK, against its wishes. Said Scottish leader Ian Blackford, “Scotland has been shafted by the UK.” Ironically, the DUP resents being in the EU, while Scotland resents not being in the EU. The rekindling of festering feuds and the widening of ancient fault lines raise the spectre of the dissolution of the UK.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Once upon a time, Britain controlled a quarter of the world’s population and a fifth of its land mass. Now it risks losing what little it has left.</p> Mon Oct 28 16:06:58 IST 2019 bromance-on-the-beach <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>XI JINPING</b> shed his coat and tie. It was not just a concession to the Chennai warmth by the Chinese president, but also in keeping with the “informality’’ of the summit. Narendra Modi, on the other hand, was dressed in cool Tamil cottons, making a statement of India’s diversity, sartorial and otherwise.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>If the Wuhan Spirit was a salve for the fresh bruises of Doklam, its follow up a year-and-a half later, the “Chennai Connect” as Prime Minister Modi called it, held on October 11 and 12, was more about statements, subtle and bold. The venue was chosen to showcase India’s rich past that was linked with China’s. In fact, these were the shores from which Bodhidharma sailed to China, taking the message of Zen Buddhism with him. A subtle hint on Indian exports, even though the trade balance now favours China.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Weeks before the meeting, China took India’s abrogation of Article 370 to the United Nations Security Council, despite External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar’s outreach efforts. The Chinese ambassador to Pakistan said his country would support Islamabad in resolving the Kashmir dispute. Also, Xi wedged his Chennai tour neatly between receiving Prime Minister Imran Khan in Beijing and himself going to Kathmandu from Chennai. The messaging was clear. India is at best a regional power. China is already thick with one south Asian neighbour and is actively wooing another.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>India, for once, did not try placating China. It went ahead with elevating the Quad engagement in New York to ministerial level. It also continued its military exercise in the northeast. Contrast this with last year, when India asked its officials to keep away from the Dalai Lama’s birthday celebrations, in the run up to the Wuhan meet.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“China periodically behaves in puzzling ways. But India’s bold stance was a welcome change from the past, when it often bent over backwards to appease China,’’ said Rajesh Rajagopalan, professor of international studies at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University. “I think the two countries have come to accept that their differences are incompatible, and the idea that these differences will not overlap onto other areas is wishful thinking. For India, this is a new idea, because we had always thought the differences could some day get resolved.’’</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>At the same time, the fact that the meeting happened was recognition of the will on both sides to keep up with efforts to manage bilateral ties. As Xi reportedly said, “problems which cannot be resolved should be controlled and managed properly”. Xi and Modi were meeting for the sixth time since Wuhan, and are soon to shake hands again at the East Asia Summit in Thailand.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>After their touristy stroll and appreciation of Indian culture, when the two Asian heads met over dinner, the meeting stretched much beyond schedule, to 110 minutes. Then, there were formal talks the next day. Unlike Japan and Russia, with whom India has structured annual summits, this was not result-driven. Yet, an important outcome is that the finance ministers will meet to discuss trade, investment and services. The two also discussed the proposed regional trade bloc, Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, with India emphasising that it be balanced.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Xi spoke about mapping out a 100-year plan for the relationship, with a strong strategic perspective. He also advocated deeper engagement on security and defence, pointing out that the existing engagements were inadequate. India, too, flagged the need for a new set of confidence-building measures, as most of the existing ones are of the 1990s vintage.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Chinese felt that the two countries could step up engagements in the various multilateral forums they were members of, advocating a China-India Plus cooperation in south and southeast Asia and Africa. Foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale said the new finance minister-level talk mechanism would explore how private and public sector companies of both countries could cooperate in third countries. Past experience, however, shows that this has limited scope. Post Wuhan, India and China could find only one programme to work together on in Afghanistan—training its diplomats jointly.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>India and China do have similar views on a few issues, like climate change. But the difference in approach, as well as the sharply contrasting views on issues such as India’s membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group, provide very limited scope for any intensive engagement.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>At Chennai, there was one issue on which both sides were in complete agreement. The 70th anniversary of Sino-Indian diplomatic ties, in 2020, needs big time celebration. Modi and Xi agreed to have 70 events to mark the occasion—35 on each side.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Beneath all the rhetoric of being sensitive to each other’s concerns, there is recognition that the world around is changing rapidly, and India and China will have to face situations that are not of their own making, said M.V. Rappai, honorary fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies, New Delhi. The border issue will remain, but it is important to have stability in the neighbourhood. The ties are strained, but at least stable. “Our relationship is not satisfactory, but Chennai Connect was a step forward,” said Rappai. “Not a big step. Yet, forward and not stationary.’’</p> Mon Oct 28 16:06:52 IST 2019 the-invisible-people <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Australia is a sought-after destination for Indian students, travellers and skilled migrants from India, but it is a little-known fact that Indians also come here to seek asylum.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), population statistics based on data received from the Australian government, 51 asylum seekers from India in Australia were found to be refugees in 2018. Many of them are waiting to be resettled; others have been waiting for their asylum claims to be processed, some for six years or more, in Australia’s offshore immigration facilities in the Pacific island nations of Papua New Guinea (PNG) and Nauru.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Nisar Ahmad Haji, an Indian national from Kashmir who was processed as a refugee in October 2015, is still waiting to be resettled.&nbsp;A refugee is someone, who has been recognised under the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, to be a refugee.&nbsp;</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“I was 25 years old [in 2009] and was helping my father run our small general store in a village near Srinagar,” he told THE WEEK from Nibok Refugee Settlement in Nauru. “There was growing unrest in the valley. Someone told my father about jobs in Malaysia. He wanted to give me the best opportunity in life, so my parents sacrificed everything to buy a flight ticket to send me to Malaysia in December 2009.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Nisar worked in Malaysia for two years, when “some people” talked him into going to Australia. For a few thousand dollars, they put him on a boat to Indonesia, from there he endured three weeks on another boat to reach Christmas Island, an Australian territory in the Indian Ocean south of Java (Indonesia). Like hundreds of other asylum seekers, Nisar had to endure rough seas, squalor, disease and hunger on a rickety boat for weeks.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“Growing up in the Himalayas, I had never seen the sea,” said Nisar. “I was terrified and became very sick. After a few days on Christmas Island, the Australian government sent us to Nauru, where I have been for the past seven years. During this time, I lost both my parents and three uncles. They had hoped that if I had a good career, I would be able to help my younger sister and brother, who are still in Kashmir. I have not been able to talk to them since the lockdown following the abrogation of Article 370 [on August 5].”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>His family had been upset because they believed he had made it to Australia and he was living the good life, but not supporting them. A sentiment that resonates with many of the asylum seekers and refugees THE WEEK spoke to. They all concealed their real situation from their loved ones because they did not want to make their families anxious.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“We survive on the fortnightly allowance provided by the Australian government. We have no study or work rights. The people, culture and climate in Nauru are completely different from Kashmir. I long for noon chai, Kashmiri wazwan and the abundance of fresh fruits. Here, I can’t afford to buy even a slice of watermelon,” said Nisar, who has married a Nauruan nurse.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>He said his wife could not get a job because many Nauruans do not like refugees. “A few months ago, a local man punched me, breaking my arm and nose,” he said.&nbsp;Nisar is still waiting to receive proper medical treatment for his various ailments.&nbsp;He longs to be free to pursue higher education, get a good job and help people in need so they don’t have to leave their home and undergo the suffering and loss that he has.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>According to the Refugee Council of Australia, there were about a dozen men from India in Australia’s offshore immigration facilities in Papua New Guinea and Nauru as of September 2018. An asylum seeker is defined as someone who is seeking international protection, but whose claim for refugee status has not yet been determined.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Said Ram Singh (name changed), an asylum seeker from Punjab: “I was 24 years old and working on a farm in Punjab when an ‘agent’ promised me a better life. For about Rs10 lakh, the agent sent me by flight to Indonesia and then another agent put me on a boat to Australia.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Most asylum seekers try to reach Australia on boats from Indonesia. often paying large sums of money to people smugglers, who are individuals or groups that assist people to illegally enter a country by providing air or sea access.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“I was one of 150 people who, in July 2013, reached Christmas Island,” said Ram. “I was then transferred to an immigration detention centre on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea. I have spent over six years in detention, wasting the best years of my youth. I am willing to settle in any country that would accept me. I want freedom from this misery.”&nbsp;The anguish and despair palpable in his voice.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Asylum seekers like Ram say they do not want to be named or cite reasons for leaving India because their claims are under process. Another asylum seeker reportedly from rural Uttar Pradesh said, “I used to watch cricket and I had seen beautiful videos of Australia. I was 19 years old when I met someone on Facebook who said he could send me to Australia. My father raised funds to pay this ‘someone’, who arranged my flight to Indonesia and then put me on a tiny, overcrowded fishing boat. I was terrified as it frequently rained and there was little food or drinking water. We didn’t think we would make it to Christmas Island. It was December 2013. From [Christmas Island], we were sent to Manus Island. I had dreamt of having a bright future in Australia. Instead, I have spent the past six miserable years in detention.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Ian Rintoul, spokesperson for the Sydney-based Refugee Action Coalition, said most refugees from south Asia were seeking asylum on the grounds of political persecution. “For those from India, it can be personal conflicts with criminal gangs, which put their lives at risk, or religious or ethnic reasons,” he said.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>These men have spent the most productive years of their lives languishing in boredom and isolation, torn away from their families and familiar surroundings. After paying such a heavy price, they&nbsp;want freedom, but they do not want to return to India. In June this year, Ravinder Singh from Punjab, who had arrived by boat in 2013, set himself alight in his room at Hillside Compound, one of the three immigration facilities on Manus Island, now closed. Ravinder survived, but his face and hands were severely burnt.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Indefinite detention of asylum seekers has caused widespread psychological harm, argue refugee and human rights advocates. “We have had over 120 cases of self-harm and attempted suicide since May this year,” said Rintoul. “There was a desperate situation in these detention centres.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“Since mid-August, the refugees have been moved to several hotels in Port Moresby, which are strictly guarded with restrictions on visitors and strict limits on times allowed out of the hotel,” said Rintoul. “This is a hasty attempt by Australia and PNG immigration to be seen to close Manus detention centres, but the refugees are not free. Fifty-three men have been held incommunicado in the high-security detention centre annexed to Bomana prison in Port Moresby. There are no resettlement arrangements, and nothing in place to meet the needs of hundreds of people traumatised by years of brutality in detention.&nbsp;We still have 288 people on Nauru and 306 in PNG.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Gripped by anxiety and fear of an uncertain future, many asylum seekers rarely go out of their hotel rooms. Thrice a day, they queue up to get their fixed portion of food, which they take to their rooms and eat. Every room has a television set, but no reception. There is no access to books or entertainment. They venture outdoors only when absolutely necessary as Port Moresby has a high crime rate. Almost all of them have cellphones, and use WhatsApp to stay in touch with family and friends.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Australia, a nation of migrants, has one of the most stringent policies against illegal immigration in the world. Under Australia’s Operation Sovereign Borders, a military-led border security initiative started in 2013, anyone arriving on a boat without adequate documentation is put in indefinite detention in Nauru or Papua New Guinea.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“In August and September 2012, Australia had concluded agreements with PNG and Nauru establishing joint processing arrangements, whereby some asylum seekers arriving in Australia by boat were sent to those countries to be processed and wait for an indeterminate amount of time before being settled back in Australia or elsewhere,” said Madeline Gleeson, senior research associate at the University of New South Wales’ Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law. “In 2013, these arrangements were superseded with the signing of new agreements, according to which all asylum seekers arriving in Australia by boat without visas were to be sent offshore, and processed there under joint arrangements, but none would be permitted to settle back in Australia, even if found to be refugees.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>According to Gleeson, the arrangements made provisions for the possible permanent settlement of refugees in the two island nations. “Since 2014, if any, new arrivals have been sent offshore under these arrangements,” she said. “Instead, for the past five years, asylum seeker boats have been intercepted and turned around at sea, under Operation Sovereign Borders.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Under Australian law, a person can be held indefinitely in immigration detention until they are granted a valid visa or they choose to leave the country or Australia finds another country to which they can go. Refugee and Human Rights activists have been relentlessly campaigning to put an end to this punitive policy of mandatory detention,&nbsp;which they say breaches Australia’s many international legal obligations―the 1951 UNHCR’s Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees.&nbsp;&nbsp;</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“The Australian government had been spending a billion dollars a year since 2013 in keeping hundreds of people unlawfully detained in these centres,” said Rintoul. “More than 90 per cent of these people have already been processed as refugees and should be immediately resettled.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Shamindan Kanapathi, who was 21 when he left Sri Lanka because of the persecution of Tamils, has been recognised as a refugee. “There is an all-pervading sense of desperation and hopelessness,” he told THE WEEK from PNG. “We had been living in indefinite detention since 2013 with no rights to study or work. We have now been moved to a hotel in Port Moresby, but my future still hangs in the balance. We are just seeking refuge in a safe country”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>According to Australian Border Force Immigration Detention and Community Statistics Summary (31 July 2019), there were 1,342 people held in immigration detention facilities in Australia; 58 of them were from India. According to the UNHCR Population Statistics based on data received from the Australian Government, at the start of 2018 there were approximately 2,342 pending protection visa and merits review applications made by Indian asylum seekers in Australia. Another 1,920 protection visa and merits review applications were lodged during 2018. However, the Indian High Commission and Consulates in Australia said they had not received any request from Australian authorities in the past years regarding asylum-seekers from India.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“Those who are found to be owed protection are not granted permanent protection and cannot rebuild their lives. They live with constant threat of detention, and having to renew temporary protection visas, which interfere with their ability to find secure work and study. The process forces people to depend on charity or exploitative work to survive. Entire families face extreme poverty and homelessness,” said a spokesperson for the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Habiburahman is a Rohingya who was forced to leave his home in Myanmar’s Rakhine State because of sectarian violence. He arrived in Australia by boat in 2009, and spent time at several immigration detention centres before his refugee status was cleared. The process took 32 months. He is now waiting for a permanent protection visa.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“All protection visa applications are assessed against the relevant framework in Australia’s migration legislation,” said a spokesperson for Australia’s department of home affairs. “Protection claims are assessed individually, by taking into consideration the particular circumstances of the applicant and information on conditions in the country from which the applicant seeks protection.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>People can claim asylum after they have come to Australia on a valid visa,&nbsp;for example, as a student or tourist. In 2017-2018, there were 27,931 people seeking asylum by plane, but only 1,425 grants. In the past five years, the main nationalities seeking asylum by plane include those from India and Pakistan.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Abdul Razzaq, who hails from Mansehra Abbotabad in Pakistan’s Hazara region, came to Australia as an international student in 2010, accompanied by his wife. “After my father passed away, my life was under threat if I returned home,” he said. “So we applied for a temporary protection visa in 2013.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Razzaq and his wife are currently on ‘bridging visa E’—or BVE, which enables them to remain lawfully in Australia while their immigration status is resolved. According to the Department of Home Affairs’ Illegal Maritime Arrivals (IMAs) on BVE June 2019 report, there were 56 Indian IMA BVE holders.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“The BVE doesn’t give us the right to work, study, travel overseas or access Medicare (the government-funded health care scheme). We suffered from depression and my wife has several chronic health problems. We live in constant fear, stress and anxiety. What if we are asked to return to Pakistan,”&nbsp;said Razzaq, who volunteers for high school sports through Cricket Australia’s <i>A Sport for All</i> community ambassadors programme.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>-------------------------</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>NO SAFE PASSAGE</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>On September 26, the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement released Ajay Kumar, a 33-year-old from Haryana, from a detention centre in El Paso, Texas. Four days later, they released Gurjant Singh, his friend and fellow Indian detainee.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The duo had been in detention for a year, even though they had not been charged with a crime. ICE officials said they had entered the country illegally, and that their asylum applications were rejected by a judge. Kumar and Singh had appealed the decision, and they wanted ICE to release them while their appeals were being heard.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Demanding freedom, they went on a 70-day hunger strike. ICE officials tried to force-feed them several times, but apparently failed. The officials finally agreed to release them on September 21.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>On September 30, Kumar and Singh stood outside the detention centre, their hands folded in greeting as journalists asked them about their ordeal. Both the men had lost nearly 20 kilos each, but had not lost hope that the US government would grant them asylum. “I have been waiting a long time for this—to be free,” said Kumar. “I would rather starve to death in custody than be deported back to India.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The duo says they faced death threats because of their affiliation to political parties that are in the opposition in India. Said Singh’s attorney Jessica Miles: “He came to the US seeking asylum and we have failed him every step of the way. He was denied a bond by an immigration judge known for bond denials. He was then denied asylum by the same judge. Now he seeks justice at the 10th circuit court of appeals, which I hope he will finally receive.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The US Border Patrol has apprehended more than eight lakh undocumented migrants this year. Nearly 9,000 Indians were reportedly apprehended while trying to cross the US’s southwest border in 2018—up from just 77 in 2008. The number of Indian asylum-seekers in North America has also gone up—nearly 34,000 Indians applied for asylum in the US and Canada last year.</p> Mon Oct 28 16:06:46 IST 2019 china-should-get-rid-of-the-political-disaster-called-carrie-lam <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>On October 1, as China celebrated its 70th national day, tens of thousands of people in Hong Kong were out on the streets, observing a ‘day of grief’. In his national day address, Chinese President Xi Jinping vowed to protect the stability of Hong Kong, which is a special administrative region under China. But the protesters were defiant as they shut down streets, shopping malls and metro stations. In the ensuing clash with the police, many of them were badly injured, including one who got shot in the chest.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Hong Kong has witnessed massive protest demonstrations since June after the local government led by the pro-Chinese Chief Executive Carrie Lam introduced a proposal to allow the extradition of criminal suspects to the mainland. Although Hong Kong is no stranger to anti-government protests, the ongoing crisis has been the most intense since Britain ceded the city state to China in 1997. Protestors have been dodging rubber bullets, tear gas shells and water cannons during months of demonstrations. The wave of protests has now turned into a pro-democracy movement.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Hong Kong, one of the major business hubs in the world, is facing huge financial losses because of the protests. The aviation industry alone has incurred losses worth $76 million (till August) from flight cancellations caused by protests at the busy Hong Kong airport. The retail industry saw sales plummeting by 11.4 per cent.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Protesters want Lam to go. “The government is very obedient to Beijing,” says Claudia Mo, Hong Kong legislator and pro-democracy leader. In an exclusive interview with THE WEEK, Mo says Lam got lots of money to pass the extradition bill and that she refuses to listen to the people.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Edited excerpts:</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>The police have been using force to disperse protesters.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Beijing initially thought of using its army in Hong Kong, but it cannot afford to use its military to crack down on severe social unrest. So it is using the Hong Kong Police as a prop for the Chinese army, which explains the rampant police brutality. We want a stop to that.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Hong Kong people want Lam to set up an independent probe into the police brutality and to restart the political reform process. We want true democracy—a one man, one vote system without Beijing screening our candidates. We wish for genuinely free elections to choose our chief executive and legislators.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>The protests have been going on for four months. What have you gained?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It has achieved a very strong sense of togetherness in Hong Kong. This is the very first time that our conservative, rational protestors are joining forces with our more radical youth. But, on the point of violence, I have to add that Hong Kong Police themselves have admitted sending undercover officers, disguised as protestors, to make arrests. So you will need to raise the question, who are the arsonists and the vandals?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pro-China citizens have come out waving flags, singing songs. Has this created a divide among citizens?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>That is natural. It is a conventional Chinese communist tactic to pit people against people. That is what happens in such revolutions. It is not surprising at all. If you think that it is such a huge divide in Hong Kong now, I would like to differ. Lam conducted a dialogue with the protestors on September 26. Citizens asked very sharp questions, which were embarrassing for the government. It is a clear reflection of what the people want and it says that Lam is a political disaster and has completely failed the people.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>What is the people’s impression of Lam as a leader?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>She is in a no-win situation. Most people here take her as some sort of a puppet of Beijing. She tries to look at herself as an iron butterfly. But that simply makes her look absurd. Because, it is forced. On the other hand, she refuses to act like a mother of two or that she actually cares for the young. She has pretty much abandoned a generation of people.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Hong Kong has been a special administrative region of China for 22 years. Do people think that their basic rights are in danger?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Absolutely. In 1997, Hong Kong was returned to China. The system here, however, has been gradually, but steadily eating away our freedom and taking Hong Kong directly under China. Forget about ‘one country, two systems’ or autonomy. If you visit Hong Kong, there is a very famous spot called the SAR ferry and at the underpass or the footbridge to the pier, there is a slogan—‘Welcome to Hong Kong!’ It is as if the police and the authorities are trying to say that you have finally arrived in Hong Kong. That sets the protestors’ thinking. Negative events have been taking place on the political front, like arresting young activists arbitrarily and sentencing them to six years for rioting. This is probably the last straw for many youngsters. And how the government makes changes within the system. For example, three years ago they managed to oust three democratic legislators by giving invalid reasons, by saying that they did not take the oath. The young will never forget or forgive that.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Is personal freedom being endangered?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Free press and free speech in Hong Kong are traumatised. Recently, after a youngster shouted at the police asking whether they have lost their conscience, he was beaten up and arrested. Also, one cannot talk against the government online. One is at the risk of losing one’s job. Such things have happened recently, where pilots and air hostesses of Cathay Pacific airlines were asked to leave. HSBC Bank, too, has sacked employees for speaking against the government.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>There is chaos at the airport, hurting Hong Kong’s image and scaring tourists away.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The airport protests were meant to help spread the word among the international community about the situation here. That is going to hurt the economy. The government used all possible means to stop this protest. The police would physically stop young people from getting anywhere near the airport. I personally do not agree with airport protests because flights are cancelled, preventing tourists from going back home.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The youth’s mentality is to get hurt. ‘If we burn, you burn with us’, seems to be their attitude. They want to see who suffers more, the elite stakeholders or powerless people like them.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>What do you think the legislature will do?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The legislature cannot do much at the moment. It is in recess and will be back in session by mid-October. We will see what happens. But the pro-democracy leaders are not in a majority, which explains why the young are persistent. They feel there is no true representation of the people’s voice.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>How do you think this will end? Will the PLA be brought in?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>That is difficult to say. Lam sent out a certain message by arresting many, thinking there will not be many left. She is wrong. Protestors are being met by violent incidents, but more are coming out and are not scared. They continue going to school or work. One day things may die down, but the scars will run deep.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>I expect Lam to resign. She has indicated that Beijing does not let her resign. But if you want to quit, many reasons, like bad health, can be given. Who can stop you? She should go and we should have a new face. We can start a dialogue between the government and the people and take it from there. Beijing should get rid of the political disaster called Lam.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>I don’t think the People’s Liberation Army will be deployed to crack down on social unrest. The stakes are too high. Beijing will receive a lot of flak from the international community.</p> Fri Oct 04 15:33:02 IST 2019 show-and-tell <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>THIS TIME, IT WENT</b> beyond the customary embraces. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Donald Trump actually walked hand-in-hand around the NRG stadium in Houston, as thousands of Indian Americans cheered. They even pumped up their clasped fists above their heads, just in case the cameras missed their show of camaraderie.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In the days that followed, Trump kept up the show by saying that his chemistry with Modi was as good as it could get and that he “really liked’’ Modi. He lavished compliments and epithets on the Indian prime minister and even called him “father of India”. Trump, who made the US walk away from the Paris climate change accord, actually attended Modi’s talk at the UN climate change meet.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>When Modi went to the US in 2014, he was a curiosity. A man who had been denied US visa in the past, but was now coming with the privileges of a head of government. He was a fresher to national politics, let alone international diplomacy. Modi 2.0, however, has chosen American soil and the United Nations stage to showcase not just his evolution as a global leader, but also to tell the world about India’s role in shaping the global agenda.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>He went with an impressive report card to present at several UN fora—on climate change and universal health access. With successes like the Ujjwala Yojana, Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, India’s commitments to renewables and the just-rolled out Ayushman Bharat to showcase, there was good reason for some 56-inch chest thumping. India walked the talk, actually donating a million dollars to the Gandhi solar park on the roof of the UN headquarters and inviting world leaders to join its new initiative, the Coalition for Disaster Relief Infrastructure. “Our messaging was clear,” said Vishnu Prakash, former Indian high commissioner to Canada. “While some of the worst polluters have washed their hands of cleaning up the planet, we will do what we can, but not at the cost of our development. We will do it our way, you cannot be prescriptive.’’</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Modi met almost every global leader of importance, from Trump to heads of Pacific Islands. The latter group is particularly vulnerable to rising sea levels, and important for India not just for its climate change mitigation outreach, but also for its location in the new region of Indian engagement, the Indo-Pacific.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>According to the ministry of external affairs, there were 20 bilaterals and 24 other plurilateral and multilateral meets at which Modi interacted with heads of delegations. In addition, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and Minister of State V. Muraleedharan had their separate meetings, interacting with as many as 75 leaders. This included the first ever meeting of foreign ministers of the Quad nations—India, Japan, Australia and the US. So far, the meetings have only been at the level of officials. In addition, there were several meetings with captains of industry, including the one in Houston.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>India also hosted a special event on the relevance of Mahatma Gandhi in the contemporary world, to commemorate the Mahatma’s 150th birth anniversary, which was attended by several world leaders. India first aced showcasing its cultural might with getting the International Day of Yoga to be celebrated on June 21, said Prakash. The celebrations of the Mahatma’s birth anniversary is a continuation of that effort.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The big announcement, however, did not happen. Despite Commerce Minister Piyush Goyal joining Modi’s delegation, no trade deal, not even a limited one, was announced. Foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale said talks were still on and the differences had been narrowed, but he could not give a time frame for the deal.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>India’s trade standoff with the US is a vexing issue. While this is on a much smaller scale compared with the US-China trade war (the US trade deficit with China is $419.2 billion, with India, it is only $21.3 billion), for Trump, the imbalance is still a big deal. For India, the surplus, howsoever modest, is important. Given its larger trade war with China, the US needs to carefully negotiate the Indian partnership. With India’s growing need for clean energy, it is clearly a market that the US would not want to lose.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“Yes, we were expecting a deal to be announced, with the hints that Trump was dropping about a big announcement. It might happen soon,’’ said Sanjay Pulipaka, senior fellow, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi. “Both sides have to be very careful in negotiations.’’ Modi hinted at that during the Howdy, Modi event, when he thanked Trump for calling him a tough negotiator, saying he was learning the art of the deal from Trump himself. There are too many contentious issues—retaliatory import tariffs, price capping on medical devices, revocation of Generalised System of Preferences for India and the restriction on visas for IT service providers.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But while a trade agreement would have been a big plus, everything that did not happen was not a loss. The absence of opposition on the Kashmir developments is a big achievement, said Dilip Sinha, India’s former permanent representative to the UN in Geneva. Gokhale had said that Modi would not talk about Article 370 as it was an internal matter. Though Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan raised the Kashmir issue repeatedly, Trump did not respond. Trump mentioned the developments in Hong Kong at his UNGA address, but not Kashmir. In fact, Trump actually noted a common concern of both nations on the need to secure their borders.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>On India’s efforts to raise the issue of Pakistan’s belligerent stance, Trump gave an appreciative hearing. But for him the definition of Islamic terror was very different from India’s understanding, as he emphasised the threat from Iran, not Pakistan.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Given the number of issues over which India and the US differ—Afghanistan, Iran, Russia, China and climate change, to name a few—the advances in India-US ties have been remarkable. “We still have not had sanctions slapped on us for the S-400 purchases from Russia. We have got away with a lot of things that we would not have earlier,’’ Sinha noted.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Prakash said Japan and the US were two countries with which India’s relations had seen a consistently upward trend. He recalled the time when Richard Nixon had sent the American Seventh Fleet to the Bay of Bengal in 1971, and the time when in 1998, Bill Clinton had gone to Beijing and spoken about the need for China to maintain peace and stability in South Asia (although India had explained its nuclear tests in the light of the Chinese threat). Today, India has 60 dialogue mechanisms, the leaders are meeting practically every month and engagements range from security partnerships to education and trade. So much so that the Asia-Pacific has been redesignated as Indo-Pacific and we actually have a civil nuclear deal with Nuclear Suppliers Group waivers.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The relationship is a work in progress, and Jaishankar and his support staff will stay back in Washington for a few more days to work out further nitty-gritties. Now, will they also be working towards that India visit which Trump had hinted at?</p> Thu Sep 26 19:16:46 IST 2019 houston-shows-trump-believes-in-india <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>TYPICALLY,</b> few Americans rank India at the top of our nation’s most important global relationships. So, it was unusual for an American president to go to another city and hold a joint rally with a foreign leader. As it happened ahead of the United Nations meetings, India got the “first mover” advantage and a healthy dose of US media coverage.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>To the average American, perceptions of India tend to be quite narrow. Americans know it is a big democracy, and that we have growing trade ties. And they have some nascent understanding of India’s longstanding border issues with Pakistan. But Americans are more interested in their next door neighbours, Mexico and Canada. They are interested in China with which we have huge volumes of trade and growing security concerns. And in Europe, with which we have long term security ties and close historical links. It will take some time before we know if this Houston rally helps build a more well-rounded image of India.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>American ideas about India have been evolving over time. A new idea of modernising India began to take shape about 20 years ago, with the emergence of the IT service market. A lot of US companies began testing these waters; it benefited many firms, but it also triggered a widespread fear about potential job losses due to outsourcing to India. A single sector shifted India from “developing country” to “technology giant” within a few years.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The relationship has recently hit some choppy waters. Trade ties have soured. India has taken steps to close its markets, and we have a president who feels that any country that closes the door must be taken on aggressively. Though we are regularly signing agreements to strengthen military cooperation, conducting joint military exercises and increasing defence sales, big moves require cabinet-level push on the US side. Now I am not sure who the senior-level “champion” is to pursue big ideas on security cooperation. There are potential sanctions against India on the horizon, too, regarding the purchase of the Russian S-400s. There is a narrow space within which a waiver can be given, but it requires a senior-level push.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In this backdrop, the Houston bonding is a statement that President Donald Trump still believes in the relationship. There are rumours that there may be a limited trade agreement soon, meant to roll back some of the damaging steps each side has taken to close its border to imports. Apart from trade restrictions, India would also like to see the US back away from potential actions limiting technology work visas.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>I know India is interested in comparisons with Pakistan, but from the US viewpoint, there is no comparison. It does feel like the hyphen is creeping back between India and Pakistan with issues like Kashmir’s constitutional change, or the spring air strikes. But the well-rounded relationship we have with India is leagues ahead of what we have with Pakistan.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>They may be making a lot in India about Prime Minister Modi’s comment on wishing Trump gets re-elected. But it has not blipped on the radar here, perhaps because it was in Hindi. However, even Democrats are not likely to hold the relationship with India hostage to the comment. It was an unusual comment, but was an important tool to strengthen US-India ties.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Modi has interacted with two American presidents. President Barack Obama took a special interest in the relationship, because he saw India as an important partner in combating climate change. I personally believe Modi’s most politically daring announcement was his commitment to 175 gigawatts of renewable power by 2022 to help climate change mitigation. For a country with a growing energy demand to commit itself to renewables is daring and Obama saw a complementarity.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Also, during the Obama administration, we saw new momentum in our security relationship. In the Trump administration, there are great working-level supporters of the relationship. But, overall, there is more antagonism than cooperation, particularly after the departure of defence secretary James Mattis. Consequently, smaller issues like trade tariff disputes have become the dominant narrative.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Trump joked that he may head to India shortly to see the first India-hosted National Basketball Association games on October 4 and 5. But it is a big trip to happen on such short notice. With the presidential elections coming up next year, the chances of Trump visiting India this term are getting slim, unless it can get tied in to one of the leader summits in Asia. Or, if our two nations can get beyond our small grievances and look for big, new ideas to strengthen our economic and security relationship in the future.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><i><b>The author is an expert on India-US relations at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, DC.</b></i></p> Thu Sep 26 19:55:04 IST 2019 10-drowning-street <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>IN THE WOMB</b> of adversity lie the seeds of resurrection. This is the only hope for Boris Johnson after he suffered a string of defeats in the very first week he faced parliament as prime minister. “Take back control” is the rallying cry of Brexiteers who want Britain to leave the European Union. But Brexit champion Johnson lost control of parliament, the nation’s decision-making process and the Brexit agenda. “He has no authority, no majority, no morality,” said opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn of the Labour, who appears to have outwitted the prime minister for now.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Johnson underestimated the fierce resistance to his “do or die” war cry to take Britain out of the EU by October 31, “with or without a deal”. Many Britishers believe that a no-deal Brexit is “reckless, irresponsible and unconscionable” because of the predicted disruptions, chaos and food and medicine shortages. Said Stephen Phipson, CEO of manufacturers’ organisation Make UK, “Investment is grinding to a halt. We need an orderly Brexit. We need a deal with the EU.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>That sentiment sparked resignations and stunning defections in Johnson’s own Conservative Party, enabling parliament to outlaw no-deal Brexit. Sacrificing their long, distinguished careers, 21 Tory MPs defied Johnson, choosing “country over party”. The illustrious list includes Philip Hammond, who was finance minister till two months ago, Winston Churchill’s grandson Nicholas Soames and Kenneth Clarke, currently the “Father of the House” who entered parliament almost 50 years ago, when Johnson was just six.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The “Greek twist,” reminiscent of classical drama, was his younger brother Jo Johnson, minister and MP, resigning in protest against a no-deal Brexit saying he was “torn between family loyalty and national interest”. People wondered: “How can we support Boris when even his brother does not”. Lord Richard Newby, leader of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords, said, “Jo leaving is a grim and damaging blow. Boris has lost his majority in parliament. He has lost all six votes. He does not have majority even in his own family.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Though he himself had defied party whip on Brexit votes when Theresa May was prime minister, Johnson expelled the rebels, denying them a Tory ticket in future elections. Scottish Prime Minister Nicola Sturgeon called Johnson “a tin-pot dictator” for prematurely proroguing parliament, sacking dissenting officials and for punishing party leaders.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Expelled former minister Rory Stewart said Johnson was panicking. “Taking on parliament is not the way to deliver Brexit,” he said. Johnson also faces a welter of law suits, including the one filed against him by former Tory prime minister John Major.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Experts agree that Johnson and his backroom boys miscalculated, mainly because his team is full of hard-core Brexiteers and lobbyists lacking parliamentary experience. They did not expect the rebels to forfeit their parliamentary careers. In the crosshairs of condemnation is Johnson’s chief strategist, Dominic Cummings, seen as a shadowy, sinister Machiavelli, the “Rottweiler of 10 Downing street”. He was chief Brexit campaigner in 2016. But governing is not campaigning and parliament cannot be “managed” through social media and data analytics.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Johnson’s “messaging” failed to impress parliamentarians because they do not trust him. Detractors accuse Johnson of “lying” on important issues and using EU negotiations as a fig leaf to conceal his real intention of triggering a no-deal Brexit. EU negotiators said they were yet to see Johnson’s proposals and charged Britain with not acting in good faith. Corbyn said Johnson’s Brexit proposal was “cloaked in mystery like the emperor’s new clothes”. After parliament asked Johnson to delay Brexit till January 31 in the absence of a deal, the prime minister responded that he would “rather die in a ditch”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But he would rather live at the stumps. Though risky, a snap election that capitalises on Brexit fatigue is Johnson’s escape hatch. People are so sick of Brexit that they just want it out of the way and get on with their lives. But the Conservative Party is in a meltdown. Progressives are purged and tribes are warring. It is becoming a right-wing Brexit party, “shrunken to an English nationalist rump”, editorialised the Financial Times. Johnson’s attempts to force a snap election, however, have so far been rebuffed by parliament.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Brexit was always a “Middle England project,” championed by non-urban, insular, middle and lower class, conservative inhabitants in the British midlands and southern countryside who could not care less about Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. Their worldview is powered by colonial nostalgia, English pride and aversion to foreigners. “We paddled alone for 1,000 years. We can paddle along for another 1,000 years,” is their motto. Johnson is their hero.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But the swell of uniting adversaries who see Johnson as a villain aggravates his adversity. “Break Brexit Boris,” said Welsh parliamentarian Liz Saville-Roberts. “We have an opportunity to take down Boris and we should take that.” Leading the charge is the re-energised Corbyn. His Labour Party did well in the 2017 elections, drawing support from people crushed by austerity programmes imposed after the financial crisis.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But Corbyn is a polarising, controversial figure. He is vilified as a “Commie relic” for his radical economic policies that favour tenants over landlords, workers over owners, taxing the rich, nationalising public utilities and redistributing income, assets, ownership and power from the elite to the masses. Johnson has cleverly fuelled capitalist Britain’s allergy to socialists by demonising Corbyn. The Johnson-Corbyn battle is seen as the match between “Lefty crank and Righty clown”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Corbyn’s Achilles heel is his vague Brexit policy. His evasive answers have been more slippery than the Loch Ness monster, now presumed to be a giant eel. He is hamstrung because his party is split, mirroring the country. Recent opinion polls show that 44 per cent of voters oppose no-deal Brexit, while 38 per cent support it.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Labour’s confusion over Brexit has hugely benefitted the Liberal Democrats who emphatically want to remain in the EU. Said party supporter Alastair Campbell, “In the 1970s, Britain was the sick man of Europe with markets only in poor, far-flung colonies. Joining the EU was the best thing for our economy.” Also altering the political landscape is the rise of Nigel Farage’s new Brexit Party that won the highest number of votes in the European parliament elections held in May. One crucial question is whether Farage will collaborate with Johnson to prevent splitting their common vote bank.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Johnson has been “cash-bombing” districts to keep vote banks happy, promising giant infrastructure projects like high-speed rail, motorways and bridges to transform “Left Behind” England. He borrows a leaf from Augustus Caesar who supposedly said on his deathbed: “I found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble.” But Johnson’s building history so far is not exactly Augustan. As mayor of London, his expensive “vanity projects” included overheated, overpriced buses, seldom used cable cars and the “Boris Island” airport project that failed to take off. Just like his Brexit proposals.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Critics wonder whether Johnson really wants a deal or if he is fundamentally averse to the EU like US President Donald Trump. Johnson seems to be going by the Trump playbook: courting his base, treating policy like war, going at it with all guns blazing. But in Britain, neither this strategy nor the tactics appear to be working. Unlike Republicans in the US, senior Tories stood up to Johnson and unlike the US Congress, Westminster cornered him. British parliamentarians see Eton-educated Johnson’s self-inflicted drama as dormitory escapades and schoolboy theatre, with Clarke chiding him, “Stop treating Brexit as a game.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Trump’s controversial national security adviser John Bolton called on Johnson last month with a promise to start trade negotiations from November 1—literally the morning after the Brexit deadline. But Britain’s fate on that day is still uncertain. Parliament has banned no-deal Brexit. So will Johnson resign, break the law or break his promise? Will it be a new deal or another delay? Johnson is in office, but not in power. Governing without a majority presents an inevitable denouement—elections. Johnson could go down in history as the shortest serving prime minister. Brexit could topple Britain’s third leader in a row.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In the womb of adversity also lie the seeds of destruction. Rejuvenation or disintegration—these are the two sides of the Brexit coin. As it is for Britain, so it is for Johnson.</p> Sat Sep 14 18:40:35 IST 2019 isle-for-an-isle <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Following the Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka on April 21, which killed more than 250 people, some Buddhist monks have demanded that the country be made a theocracy.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>On July 7, the controversial Gnanasara Thero, secretary general of the nationalistic Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), told a massive Buddhist conference in Kandy that if 7,000 of 10,000 Buddhist temples on the island contested elections, the face of Sri Lankan politics could be changed. Gnanasara was till recently in jail in a contempt of court case; President Maithripala Sirisena cut short the six-year term, on May 23, through a special pardon.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Gnanasara said the Buddhist clergy was capable of mobilising the Sinhala population into a single vote bloc, to elect a party that would get a clear majority in parliament. The call was to shape a pristine Buddhist identity and vanquish Islamic terrorism.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Though the traditional Sufi Muslims of Sri Lanka have a history of living in peace, the growth of puritanical Wahhabism and Salafism has distanced Muslims as a whole from the rest of the populace.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Interestingly, the Easter bombings were aimed at the minority Christians and not the majority Sinhala Buddhist community. The Christians have largely been silent bystanders in the strife between Buddhists and Muslims. But a few weeks after the bombings, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, head of the Catholic church, declared that Sri Lanka was a Sinhala Buddhist country. For BBS and similar groups, this statement was a great morale booster.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The BBS hit the headlines after the anti-Muslim riots in Aluthgama in 2014, in which four people were killed. Riots rocked Ampara and Kandy last year and several areas around Negombo in May this year.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>At the conference in Kandy, Gnanasara lambasted democracy and pledged to build a ‘Sinhala parliament’. He declared a wish to mould Muslim culture as the Sinhala monks wished.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The BBS and similar groups have of late been making a distinction between the traditional Sufi Muslims and the Wahhabis. Gnanasara said he was advocating the cleansing of extremist ideologies that had tarnished the name of the Sufi Islam.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The BBS had five years ago warned about Islamic State-style attacks being planned in Sri Lanka. At the time, however, these seemed more of a ploy to instigate violence against Muslims.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Sufi Muslims, on their part, have started speaking out, emphasising that Wahhabism is not Islam. Several Sufi imams were killed in Kattankudy, the all-Muslim enclave in the Batticaloa district. Soon after the Easter bombings, Aboosali Uvais, a member of the Federation of Mosques in Kattankudy, gave a detailed account of National Thowheed Jama’ath leader Zahran Hashim to a parliamentary select committee. He said Zahran had set up mosques and openly preached that everyone except Muslims in Sri Lanka should be killed.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In March 2017, Zahran had held a meeting close to a Sufi place of worship, which ended up with the Sufis being attacked with knives and swords. He then went into hiding. The next time he appeared in public he blew himself up on Easter Sunday.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>M. Sahalan, a Kattankudy Sufi imam, broke down while giving evidence to the select committee. He recalled how the Wahhabi majority in his area had labelled him a “convert” from Islam “to another religion” and how Sufi families were continually harassed and shamed as “outcasts”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The committee was told that Muslim politicians had bowed to Zahran’s decrees and stopped using music in election campaigns and were following strict gender segregation in political rallies. As a result, the Sinhala-Buddhist agitators began seeing Muslim politicians as Wahhabist pawns spreading extremism.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Recently, Athuraliye Rathana Thero, a hardliner monk and MP, went on a fast demanding the sacking of three Muslim politicians—two provincial governors and one minister—who were allegedly linked to the suicide bombers. They did resign, but so did all eight other Muslim ministers, apparently in an act of solidarity.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Buddhist monks have called for the abolition of the All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama (ACJU), which is the top body for Sri Lankan Muslims. The BBS maintains that the ACJU is lobbying for Wahhabism. Gnanasara said the government was talking only to the ACJU and ignoring the traditional Sufi Muslims. “They need to stop doing this immediately and start talking with the Sufis,” he said in Kandy. “Let the Sufis be put in charge of Islamic affairs.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A leading Sufi scholar, Moulavee Alhaj Abdul Jawath Aalim Adbul Rauf, is the founder of the All Ceylon Sufi Jamiyyathul Ulema. “But the ACJU has described his speeches as ‘Hindu doctrine’ and issued a fatwa excommunicating him and about 10,000 Sufi followers,” said H.M. Ameer, a Sufi leader from Batticaloa. “They are still fighting this fatwa.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“We are taking every step as responsible traditional Sufi Muslims of Sri Lanka to fight Wahhabism,” Ameer said. “On Ramadan, 1,700 pages against Wahhabism, written by Moulavee Rauf, were published. We have also discussed with military heads to eradicate the remaining Wahhabi institutions that are functioning as charities under different names. The government has already banned three institutions blamed for the Easter attacks—the National Thowheed Jama’ath, Militia Abrahamia and Wilayat Seylan. But this is not enough because so many institutions are functioning island-wide. They get funding from different charities in the Gulf to promote Wahhabi extremist ideologies. That is why we have asked the Lankan military to look into these organisations carefully.”</p> Sat Aug 31 16:46:42 IST 2019 we-are-not-the-terrorists <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>It is a weekday afternoon at the Sadh Dharamhajika Viharaya in the Colombo suburb of Rajagiriya. Viharaya means monks’ living quarters, but these particular premises serve as offices of the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) and its secretary general, Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero. In the spacious garden, a group of youth are arranging chairs and tables, for a cooking demonstration by a young man who makes powders of grains and herbs. “These are rural Sinhalese youth who have no one to support them,” says Dr Dilanthe Withanage, CEO of the BBS, who is an IT lecturer. “We help them start their businesses and promote them the way we can.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>He says that he had initially got together with Gnanasara Thero to help Sinhala businesses. But gradually, the BBS took on a different shape to counter “many issues”, including the ‘halal controversy’, he says.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“Sinhalese businesspersons were complaining about how they had to pay the halal certification committee-appointed member in Sri Lanka to ensure that the food being produced was halal,” he says. “If they did not get the halal certificate, their products would be rejected from food markets. We checked with traditional Muslims of Sri Lanka and they informed us that all this was not needed because they knew how to differentiate between what was halal and what was not, and did not want unnecessary complications.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“Please understand,” he adds, “we did not start BBS to create any trouble. Only to strive for the rights of the Sinhalese, who are a global minority. We are currently fighting to quell Wahhabi extremism.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Excerpts from an exclusive interview with the controversial Gnanasara Thero:</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ What made you become a monk?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/ I was born in 1975 in a hamlet called Galagodaaththa in Galle and was educated at the local village school up to grade six. Then, somewhat against my parents’ wishes, I entered priesthood. After the main training as a young monk, in 1989, I joined the Wanawasa Sanga branch of our village temple and trained in the forest tradition for monks. I also studied Pali and Sanskrit.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In 1996, I came to Colombo to continue my education at the University of Kelaniya. Around 1999, I started teaching at an education centre for Buddhist monks. In 2001, I became the principal there, and at the end of 2003 I resigned fully from teaching.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ Why did you give up teaching?</b></p> <p>A/ I wanted to dedicate myself to my country. By this time I had become involved in the anti-terrorism movement (against the Tamil Tigers). This was the time president Chandrika Kumaratunga planned to bring a federal solution to the Tamil ethnic issue. She could not proceed with this because of opposition by Buddhist monks.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In 2000, the political movement Sihala Urumaya was launched. I became its clergy representative, from the Kotte area. Though it could win one parliamentary seat, it had internal issues. Some of the monks in it then organised the Jathika Sangha Sammelanaya (JSS), which became a strong national movement. I was its assistant secretary. We carried out protests against unethical conversions by Christian evangelists, which was a serious problem 15 years ago. We did not have any issues with the Catholics or Anglicans or other mainstream churches as they do not carry out unethical conversions.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In 2004, the main members of the JSS formed the political party Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU). Soon after, together with some monks and like-minded laity, I formed the BBS. Now the JSS is handled by the JHU monk Rathana Thero. I am not involved.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ Are there fundamental differences between the JHU and the BBS?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/ The JHU is now a political party. The BBS is not. It could be described as a national movement.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ Did you have any non-Buddhist friends as a child or any non-Buddhist teachers?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/ No. There was no opportunity for it as I grew up in a fully Buddhist village. There were no mosques or any Muslims around. There was a Catholic church, but I had no non-Buddhist friends as a child.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ Among the Buddha’s teachings, what is the most important to you?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/ The whole of the Buddha’s teachings is a living teaching. The Buddha said there is no sin more terrible than mythia drushtiya (mythical delusion). On April 21, in a place of worship one set of believers prayed to their God, another set killed them, again in the name of God, to please God. Nine suicide bombers carried out this barbaric act. All because they mythically believed this crime was what God wanted. Isn’t what the Buddha said correct?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In finding solutions to the religious terrorism of today, Buddhism is the only answer. We want solutions to problems through discussions, not terrorism. We are not the terrorists.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ You often have said that Buddhism is threatened in Sri Lanka by the proliferation of religions such as Islam. There is the counterview that Buddhism is threatened only when Buddhists do not practise Buddhism as preached by the Buddha, as a science of the mind, self-control and compassion.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/ Buddhist philosophy and Buddhist culture are two different things.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ Of these two, which is more important?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/ Both. Buddhist philosophy cannot be destroyed by anyone as it is a universal truth. However, Buddhist philosophy needs Buddhist culture to thrive. Forty generations or so ago, Buddhists lived in what are today Afghanistan and Pakistan. But in Afghanistan, the offspring of Buddhist ancestors who had become Muslim destroyed the Buddha’s statues their forefathers had sculpted. In those countries there were once Buddhist monks who stood for both Buddhist culture and Buddhist philosophy. But when Buddhist culture was vanquished with the invasion of Islam, Buddhist philosophy also died. Buddhist monks who were only focused on Buddhist philosophy died with their philosophy.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In India, the land of the Buddha, Buddhism has almost vanished. If Buddhism is to be protected, one has to protect its culture. Sri Lanka has through the ages protected Buddhism; both its philosophy and its culture. Therefore, as a Buddhist country we do many things such as sculpting Buddha statues, building temples, and organising Buddhist processions, in order to keep Buddhist culture alive.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ The Buddhism in Sri Lanka today is largely based on the Buddhist revival movement carried out by the Dutch colonisers who wanted to quell the rise of Catholicism propagated by the Portuguese colonisers. It was revived again, during British occupation, by foreign Buddhist enthusiasts such as Henry Olcott, an American military officer who was the first president of the Theosophical Society.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/ Yes, I agree. Our colonial history is a long and intriguing one where we were victims of divide and rule. In the Uva Wellassa area, there was a rebellion three years after we lost the country in 1815. We were crushed in the most brutal manner imaginable. Every tree, every herb, every fruit and every animal that served and protected us as a people was destroyed in an unprecedented human, cultural and environmental genocide. Following this, there were strong campaigns to portray Buddhism as a false philosophy and [to make] Buddhists believe in Christianity.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A Christian priest, D.J. Gogerly, carried out the Christianising of Lankan Buddhists through his writings. The Buddhist monk Migettuwatte Gunananda Thera then undertook a mission from 1848 to the 1870s to revive Buddhism. Under his leadership, a series of five debates was held all over Sri Lanka between Christians and Buddhists.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It is after the victory of the Buddhists in these debates that Henry Olcott and those such as Marie Musaeus Higgins came to Sri Lanka and embraced Buddhism and dedicated themselves to the Buddhist revival movement. Therefore, in the same way that we faced Christian indoctrination through debates, we must face the threat of Islamisation today in Sri Lanka.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ Is there actually such a threat? Some people accuse you of creating Islamophobia.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/ Please note that I am not talking about the traditional Muslims of Sri Lanka. They have lived peacefully ever since their arrival as traders. They married Sinhalese women, whom they converted to Islam. They have followed their religion while respecting Buddhist customs and traditions of the land, and without carrying out the vicious agendas of the Wahhabi, Salafi, Tabliq, Deobandi, Ikhwan and Thawheed groups. For the past 40 years these groups have been growing strong with funding from Saudi Arabia. These groups systematically changed the face of Islam in Sri Lanka and started killing off the Sufis and moderate Muslims. In Kattankudy, in the eastern Batticaloa district, Sufis are insulted and killed. Everyone knows it. Is talking about it Islamophobia? Is what happened on April 21 not a result of this warped ideology of the Wahhabi mentality manifesting in action?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ There are allegations that the April 21 bombings happened because the BBS antagonised the Muslims and drove them to join extreme elements such as Zahran Hashim, the ring leader of the Easter Sunday carnage. There are also assumptions that Zahran himself may have taken to terror because of incidents like the Aluthgama riots of 2014, for which you are largely blamed.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/ Is that what is now being said? So now we are the culprits of IS (Islamic State) terror? (Laughs.)</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ Looking back at your public speech prior to the riots in Aluthgama, do you have any regrets about the words you used?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/ I did not say go and create a riot. Stones were hurled at the monks and Buddhists by some Muslim youth in Aluthgama after we peacefully dispersed after my speech. It is actions like these that got the Sinhalese crowds angry.</p> <p>I made that speech after one of our monks in a vehicle was attacked in Aluthgama by a few Muslim men. I did nothing more than warn against such behaviour.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ There is the view among media analysts that because the BBS in 2014 portrayed this issue of Wahhabi/Salafi/Tabliq extremism as Muslim extremism, many writers and others who knew of the discovery of ammunition in some locations early this year were reluctant to write about it fearing that the BBS would create an anti-Muslim backlash.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/ The media was preoccupied with chasing us and labelling us as extremists. We raised our voice in 2014 because we knew what was happening. Our monks faced aggression from Muslim extremists. In 2014, there was information that some local extremist Muslims had joined IS fighters in Syria. This was ignored. Now everything we have said has [happened]. Hundreds had been killed and still we are being blamed and called racists.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>We have information on some Muslim activists in this country and have pictures of them with questionable global Muslim extremists. We had information of how false passports were used by Lankan Muslim youth to enter foreign countries and return to Sri Lanka with Christian names and from Sri Lanka to go to Saudi Arabia under Muslim names. I have with me a note that I prepared around 2014 for a press conference on the extremism of the National Thowheed Jama’ath and in particular about Zahran, who was the mastermind of the blasts. I then asked why this extremist was not arrested—he was openly propagating Wahhabism and IS ideology, destroying the cemeteries of Sufi saints and asking Muslims to be armed and kill non-Muslims.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ Did you inform the authorities?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/ We had by 2014 informed the highest-level personnel in governance.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ You have come out strongly against the All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama (ACJU), which is the top Islamic body of Sri Lankan Muslims. You have accused them of being carriers of the Wahhabi ideology.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/ Over 90 per cent of the members of the ACJU hold the Wahhabi ideology. This is proven by the fact that they do not issue any message for the commemoration of the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday. The Wahhabis/Salafis and others who practise an extreme form of Islam do not commemorate the Prophet’s birthday. The traditional Muslims of Sri Lanka do. I have cited only one small example. There are hundreds of other examples. For instance, their fatwas against the Sufi Muslims of Sri Lanka.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ In the Buddhist convention held in Kandy on July 7, you said your aim was a ‘Sinhala parliament’. Do you think this is practical and that Sri Lankans will support this?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/ I did not say [we should not] have non-Sinhalese in the political structure. What I said was that there must be a parliament that does not undermine in various guises the country and the rights of the Sinhala majority.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>We are lobbying for the local education system to be developed in a manner that does not propagate racism. We today have schools based on communal distinctions. This is the beginning of the problem.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ It is said that you have got foreign funding.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/ (Laughs) The only foreign funding we have comes from Sri Lankans living overseas. We do not touch one cent of money from any foreign entity.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ After the blasts, there seems to be animosity towards all Muslims. The boycott on Muslim businesses is affecting them seriously.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/ This is the sad result of Wahhabi terrorism. Ordinary people now suspect all Muslims.</p> Fri Aug 30 12:38:24 IST 2019 terms-of-engagement <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>IT IS THE</b> new bromance. And, it has already made headlines. The first meeting between US President Donald Trump and Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan was a success. Imran was forced to take the airport bus on arrival and had his army chief General Qamar Bajwa for a chaperon, but he managed to hit an unexpected six. With Trump offering to mediate on Kashmir, suggesting that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had asked him to, Imran “took advantage of Trump’s bottomless vanity”, and dragged the US president further into the mess, proving that he is as wily a leader as he was a cricketer.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>India has categorically refuted Trump’s statement, with External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar issuing a statement in Parliament. The unequivocal rebuttal came after the foreign ministry went through records of the conversations Modi had with the Americans, making it clear that it was a classic Trump remark—high on emotion, but not really based on facts. The US administration, meanwhile, went on a damage-control exercise by endorsing the Indian line on Kashmir. “While Kashmir is a bilateral issue for both parties to discuss, the Trump administration welcomes Pakistan and India sitting down and the US stands ready to assist,’’ read a tweet signed by Alice Wells, the acting assistant secretary of state for south and central Asian affairs. Also, Kashmir was not mentioned in the White House readout on the Trump-Imran meeting.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Kashmir, however, is likely to loom large when Modi meets Trump in September. For now, India has chosen to handle the situation quietly, choosing diplomacy over hype. And, it seems to be working. Eliot Engel, chairman of the US House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, told Indian Ambassador Harsh Vardhan Shringla that he supported dialogue between India and Pakistan. “Pakistan must first take concrete and irreversible steps to dismantle the terrorist infrastructure on Pakistan’s soil,’’ said a statement put out by his office.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Harsh Pant, who heads the strategic studies programme at the Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation, said Trump’s comments on Kashmir would not cause any lasting damage. “Every American president has felt inspired to do something for Kashmir. Obama’s first term was riddled with it. If India could hold out when it was not as powerful, it will not matter now,’’ said Pant.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Yet, it is important for India to take note of the changing realities in south Asia. For Trump, who is keen to get out of Afghanistan before the election season, Pakistani help is critical. Trump might have called Modi “beautiful man”, but while dealing with Afghanistan, Imran is his best bet. “Pakistan is going to help us extricate ourselves [from Afghanistan],’’ said Trump. Following Imran’s visit to the White House, Pakistan seems to be back in favour, leaving India out in the cold. The talks with the Taliban seem to be working and the Americans hope that by September, they will have a plan to leave.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Ahead of Imran’s visit to the US, the state department designated the Balochistan Liberation Army as a global terrorist group, signalling that Pakistan was finally out of the doghouse. Pakistan, too, took steps aimed at improving its image, like arresting Lashkar-e-Taiba chief Hafiz Saeed and opening up its airspace for flights from India. While he was in the US, Imran spoke about the possible release of Shakil Afridi, the doctor who is in jail for allegedly helping the CIA to establish Osama bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad. Imran said Afridi could be swapped for Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani neurosurgeon who is in a US prison.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“India will have to live with this pressure on the relationship in the future,’’ said Rana Banerji, former special secretary in the cabinet secretariat. “We can deal with it in two ways. One, by reaching out politically to Kashmir in a better way. We should also think of engaging Pakistan.” This will be the biggest challenge for India.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The biggest casualty of the Trump remark on Kashmir could be the India-Pakistan relationship, which has been limping back to a semblance of normalcy, with plenty of external help. The US itself has been having conversations with both sides, and there was a hint that the pressure was working. For instance, the Indian Davis Cup team is expected to play in Pakistan after a gap of nearly 55 years.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Negotiations on the Kartarpur corridor have been productive. From just a symbolic commitment, both countries have been looking at tangible deliverables in the second round. The Indian demand for allowing 5,000 pilgrims without visas has been accepted along with the demand for permitting non-Sikh pilgrims as well. India submitted details of flood patterns in the area, urging Pakistan to build a bridge instead of an embankment, which again, was agreed upon. “The Kartarpur corridor will bring prosperity,’’ said Ramesh Arora, a Sikh Pakistani politician with the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz). He said the work on the corridor had continued even when the two countries were on the brink of war. “If we have any imagination, religious tourism should be encouraged,’’ said G. Parthasarathy, former Indian high commissioner to Islamabad. “It should not be one-way. We should also open up sufi shrines and encourage group tourism. Why not group tourism for the Taj Mahal?’’ The progress on Kartarpur, the verdict of the International Court of Justice in the Kulbhushan Jadhav case and the opening up of the airspace were incremental steps towards normalising ties between the two countries.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But, with Trump’s inopportune remarks, India-Pakistan relations could hit yet another rough patch. In an attempt to keep up pressure on Kashmir, Pakistan on July 24 summoned India’s deputy high commissioner, Gaurav Ahluwalia, to condemn “the unprovoked ceasefire violations’’ on the Line of Control on July 22 and 23, which, it said, resulted in two civilian deaths.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>No amount of pressure, however, is going to force India to change its traditional position on Kashmir. Speaking in Parliament on July 23, Jaishankar stressed upon the bilateral nature of the conflict. “It has been India’s consistent position that all outstanding issues with Pakistan are discussed only bilaterally,” he said. “I would further underline that any engagement with Pakistan would require an end to cross-border terrorism.”</p> Sat Jul 27 12:15:11 IST 2019 can-boris-johnson-lead-britain-the-conservatives-out-of-brexit-mess <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>“<b>I WOULD NOT</b> take Boris’s word about whether it is Monday or Tuesday.... He is not a man to believe in, to trust or respect.... He is bereft of judgment, loyalty and discretion.” Certainly not a ringing endorsement for Boris Johnson, the odds-on favourite to become the next British prime minister. There is no reason to disbelieve Max Hastings, who saved Johnson’s career by hiring him for The Daily Telegraph after he was sacked by The Times for manufacturing a quote.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Johnson, who is locked in a two-way race with Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt for the leadership of the Conservative Party, has had a checkered career in journalism and politics, marred by constant ideological as well as personal flip-flops. Johnson and Hunt were selected by Conservative MPs as candidates and the final selection will be made by around 1,60,000 party members, 97 per cent of whom are white and 71 per cent male. The results will be out on July 23.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>This is the second time Johnson has come close to claiming the top post. His first chance came two years ago during the Brexit referendum when he ditched prime minister David Cameron, his junior at Eton and Oxford, who was leading the campaign to keep Britain within the European Union. Johnson’s about-turn, however, was not entirely unexpected. At Oxford, he had aligned himself with the leftist Social Democratic Party to win the presidency of the students’ union, although he was a Conservative and a member of the Bullingdon Club, the two-century-old, male-only preserve of young patricians.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>While leading the leave campaign, which he took to the English countryside aboard a red bus, Johnson made several specious claims. He said Britain was paying the EU £350 million every week and suggested that the money could be used to support the National Health Service. He also endorsed the rumour that Turkey was about to join the EU, and that its citizens—most of them Muslims—would swarm Britain. Johnson’s use of the Turkish bogey was ironic as his great-grandfather Ali Kemal was, in fact, from Turkey. Kemal was a journalist and briefly interior minister of the Ottoman empire. Kemal loved his vacations in Europe. During a trip to Switzerland, he met and fell in love with Winifred Johnson, a British national. He married her and had a son and a daughter with her. Winifred died young and the children were raised by her mother. Ali’s son Osman adopted his maternal surname and made his middle name Wilfred his first name. A successful businessman and an aviator, he flew for the Royal Air Force during World War II. Wilfred’s son Stanley was among the first batch of British bureaucrats sent to the European Commission headquarters in Brussels, after Britain joined it in 1973. Johnson was born to Stanley and his wife, Charlotte, in New York in 1964.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The editor Hastings sent Johnson to Brussels in 1989 to cover the EU, perhaps because he had grown up in the Belgian capital. But Johnson always had bitter memories of the city. His mother had slipped into extreme depression while in Brussels and had to be shifted to the Maudsley psychiatric facility in London. And Stanley, who, in Charlotte’s words, “exuded an Elvis-like charisma”, had several affairs. The marriage did not survive Brussels. It hurt Johnson no end.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It was therefore not surprising that Johnson chucked the reverential tone of the traditional EU coverage and would file outrageous, yet interesting stories. He wrote about the EU trying to regulate everything from the size of condoms to the smell of manure. Pascal Lamy, who was the head of the World Trade Organisation, was then chief adviser to European Commission president Jacques Delors. He recently told the Financial Times that Johnson “did what people 30 years later would call fake news.... He was a precursor.” But the stories brought him recognition, especially from the right wing of the Conservative Party, and helped him launch his political career. Critics call him a shoddy journalist, but even they credit him for his incredible writing skills and oratorical gift. No wonder, the Telegraph pays him £2,75,000 a year for his weekly column. He earned another £4,00,000 last year on speaking assignments.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In 2001, Johnson got elected to the House of Commons from Henley, a safe Conservative seat. Seven years later, he once again displayed enough ideological flexibility to become the mayor of London, a Labour stronghold. The Labour nominee was the sitting mayor, Ken Livingstone. Johnson served two moderately successful four-year terms at the City Hall.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>After losing his Brexit campaign, Cameron quit as prime minister, making Johnson the most obvious successor. But he suddenly looked unprepared and indecisive. A day after the Brexit verdict, according to an article which appeared in The New Yorker, Johnson went to the countryside to play cricket with the ninth Earl of Spencer. Soon, justice secretary Michael Gove, who was chairing Johnson’s leadership campaign, quit, and entered the race himself. In the ensuing confusion, Conservatives chose Theresa May as the new leader. After a disastrous campaign to implement Brexit, May was forced to quit last month, leaving Johnson with his best chance to head the government.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Johnson’s second shot at premiership has so far been methodical. He has stayed on message and has avoided major gaffes. Timothy Heppell, who teaches British politics at the University of Leeds, told THE WEEK that Johnson could cause offence with his off-the-cuff comments. “Political opponents will try to make mileage out of this and may accuse him of racism and sexism. This explains why his advisers have limited his public appearances during the leadership campaign,” said Heppell.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Johnson once said that Hillary Clinton looked like a “sadistic nurse in a mental hospital”. While he was Britain’s chief diplomat, he called burqa-clad women “letter boxes”. He called Africans “piccaninnies’ and the French “turds”. When Barack Obama criticised Brexit, he said the former US president hated Britain because it once ruled Kenya, in a clear reference to the Obama senior’s nationality. Three years ago, he wrote a limerick about Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan having sex with a goat.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Johnson’s acerbic wit can hurt Britain’s foreign relations. Anu Sharma, associate fellow at the Delhi-based Centre for Air Power Studies, said, it could be a double-edged sword for even friendly countries like India, although Johnson recently wrote to Prime Minister Modi that he wanted closer ties.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Johnson’s private life, too, has been receiving increasing scrutiny. He seems to have survived the latest fiasco involving a late night domestic row with his girlfriend, Carrie Symonds. Johnson has had a tumultuous love life, with several affairs and two marriages. Johnson and his second wife, Marina Wheeler, daughter of a British father and an Indian-origin Sikh mother, are in the process of getting a divorce. Johnson has half a dozen children, including one from an extramarital affair.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Despite Johnson’s overwhelming lead, the leadership contest is not a done deal yet. Hunt has not given up. Barring a last-minute implosion, however, Johnson is likely to move into 10 Downing Street by the end of the month, when his real challenge will begin.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Brexit, which killed the careers of May and Cameron, could take Johnson down as well. The new deadline for Britain to exit the EU is October 31, 2019. “Johnson has not explained how he can secure amendments to the deal, given the unwillingness of the EU to contemplate this and the lack of time to achieve that between now and October,” said Heppell. While Johnson has made it clear that he will go ahead with a no-deal Brexit if needed, the parliament has vetoed leaving without a deal.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Moreover, the Conservative Party is facing an existential crisis. In the European parliamentary elections held in May, the Tories finished an embarrassing fifth, while far right leader Nigel Farage’s newly-formed Brexit Party came first. Recent opinion polls have shown that a significant number of Conservative voters prefer Farage to take up leadership of their party. It is now up to Johnson to find a way out of the mess.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>And, he could just be the man to do it. In August 2012, Johnson, as mayor, was participating in a promotional event for the London Olympics. He rode a zip-wire, wearing a helmet and carrying two small British flags. While coming down, he got stuck for about five minutes, even as spectators filmed him hanging midair comically. “If any other politician anywhere in the world was stuck on a zip-wire, it would be a disaster,” said Cameron, who was then prime minister. “For Boris, it was an absolute triumph.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Johnson and his supporters hope the luck holds this time, too.</p> Sat Jul 06 12:05:46 IST 2019 jaishankar-pompeo-want-to-give-diplomacy-a-chance <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>IN DIPLOMACY,</b> it is the little things that matter. The signal was in the flowers. When US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo arrived in India on June 25, he was received with a big bunch of white lilies by the joint secretary handling Americas in the ministry of external affairs. The message was clear: trade might be a big hurdle, but it was time to give diplomacy a chance.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“Both countries have their interests. And, it is natural to have some conflicts because of that. We will find a common ground using diplomacy,’’ said Minister of External Affairs S. Jaishankar. Pompeo understood the message. The secretary of state, who had publicly endorsed Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ability to do anything, at the Ideas Summit organised by the US-India Business Council, seems to be on board with the truce, at least for now. “I have never found a partner, no matter how close, where we didn’t have places where we have to work through things,’’ said Pompeo, on the differences with India.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>This is the first high level diplomatic exchange between the two countries after the Lok Sabha elections in May. Pompeo’s visit, immediately after the new government assumed office, is a significant American nod, making it clear that India does matter. India and America may have their differences, but they also have areas of convergence, away from the tariff war.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Pompeo’s visit was aimed at focusing on possibilities, rather than problems. “It is a welcome, timely and politically useful high level engagement, which will set the stage for the meeting between President Trump and Prime Minister Modi,’’ said Navtej Sarna, who was ambassador to the US. “It will also bring the focus back on to the real meat of the matter, which is strategy, security and counterterrorism. It will create a level of engagement, in which the trade differences can be boxed in.’’</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The two leaders discussed prickly issues, but it was done in a “spirit of friendship’’, as Pompeo put it. “We pushed for a constructive and pragmatic view on issues related to trade,’’ said Jaishankar. On India’s plan to buy the S-400 defence systems from Russia, Jaishankar said a decision would be made keeping in mind India’s national interest. Pompeo, however, wanted India to buy more defence products from the US. On terrorism, Jaishankar thanked America for its “strong support’’, while Pompeo named Iran as “world’s largest state sponsor of terror’’ and linked India, being a victim of terrorism. Jaishankar said they held “common ground’’ on energy issues.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The real test for the relationship lies, however, in finding common ground on contentious issues. Jaishankar said the two countries agreed to filter out the noise and work on their solid relationship. But it may not be easy, especially with Trump moving into election mode. “Trade has always been a problem,’’ said strategic affairs expert Harsh Pant. “If you look at it in its totality, India has done a lot of give and take. But the framing is in such a way that trade becomes the centre. But then America has a problem on trade even with its closest allies.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>So, it all depends on whether the big picture focus will stay when Trump meets “beautiful’’ man Modi during the G20 summit in Japan. Over the years, Jaishankar has been able to work through the American system, using diplomacy to find solutions to very difficult problems. As India and the US try to take their partnership to the next level, his famed skills will face sterner tests.</p> Sat Jun 29 14:37:39 IST 2019 trump-has-put-a-premium-on-strategic-ties-with-india <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Nisha Biswal is a firm believer in the&nbsp;<a href=""><u>power of the Indo-US partnership</u></a>. She is the president of the US-India Business Council, having served in the key position of assistant secretary of state for south and central Asia in the Obama administration. An old India hand, Biswal believes that the India-US partnership has a great future. Trade problems may be at the heart of some issues, but they are resolvable. Secretary Pompeo was part of the USIB India Ideas Summit, where he laid out the contours of the relationship that India and America share. It was here that Pompeo endorsed the faith he had in the Modi government by saying&nbsp;<i>Modi hai to mumkin hai</i>. She spoke to THE WEEK at length, suggesting that it was important to look at the positives of the relationship. Edited excerpts:</p> <p><b>How would you view Pompeo's visit to India, especially in the light of the escalating trade tensions?</b></p> <p>I think it is a very positive sign that two weeks after the new government is sworn in,&nbsp;<a href=""><u>secretary Pompeo is meeting with his counterpart Jaishankar</u></a>&nbsp;and the prime minister. I fully expect the leaders of the two countries to get an opportunity to meet and interact.</p> <p>I think these are extremely positive signals and point to the fact that the US-India relationship is a priority for secretary Pompeo. He clearly has a lot of his plate now. The fact that he travelled to India prior to the G20 testifies that this is an important relationship and one the administration is invested in.</p> <p><b>How do you see the tariff issue play out?</b></p> <p>The overall goals and objectives of the prior administration and the current one are largely consistent. We have seen the US-India relationship continue to go down this trajectory—a deeper, closer, more convergent partnership in successive administrations. You are right to say that different administrations have different tactics and different approaches. President Trump tends to be much more focussed on some specific issues on the trade side, which he would like to see resolved. President Obama had other issues, including working with the prime minister on climate change and the&nbsp;<a href=""><u>Paris Climate talks</u></a>. You will see these kinds of shifts and nuances in the relationship. I think this administration has also put great premium on the strategic relationship. We have seen advances in both directions. From the Indian side, you see the foundational agreements starting to come into play. From the US, you see high technologies being granted for fast-tracking technology access to India.</p> <p><b>The US has been clear on the issue of India's S-400 deal with Russia. Do you see that as a point of tension?</b></p> <p>When you start talking about very advanced technology—next generation technology platforms—from two countries that are adversial on their strategic interests, it then creates some incongruity that have to be worked through. By and large, the US-India diplomacy is convergent in the strategic and security area. But it does create challenges when you have an&nbsp;<a href=""><u>S-400 system, which is a very advanced Russian system</u></a>. Can these two systems co-exist? We know that the US systems are not inter-operable with Russian systems. Can you protect the integrity of US technology when it is proximate to Russian technology? How do you manage that? Those are important questions that have to be worked through. I don't necessarily think that sanctions are the answer. On the other hand, as we look at much more advanced US technology going to India, we are going to have some clarity on how you reconcile these issues and still preserve the integrity of US systems.</p> <p><b>President Trump has made trade a centre point of his relationship with the world, especially China. Could trade differences become an insurmountable factor?</b></p> <p>No, I don't think they are insurmountable. I think the Indo-US ties have grown deeper and stronger including over the last three years. US-India trade has grown to $142 billion in two-way trade investment. This was significantly higher compared to five years ago when I was in government. We were talking about $100 billion. You see the US invest more in India and India invest more in the US. The more we do together, the more we are going to be able to identify areas of inefficiencies that are going to have to get worked out. Tariffs are an inefficiency in the global trade system in both directions.</p> <p>India can do more to open its economy and make it more efficient for US investment to make its way to India. Meanwhile, we have cautioned the Trump administration against an over-reliance on tariffs as a tool to address trade barriers and trade issues. I think secretary Pompeo addressed&nbsp;<a href=""><u>optimistically at the India Ideas Summit</u></a>&nbsp;that these issues can be resolved. My understanding is that there were conversations between India and US trade officials in recent days.</p> <p><b>Do you think that Iran could be another source of tension?</b></p> <p>The US had a very strong direction vis-a-vis Iran on nuclear and terrorism financing concerns. I think different administrations had different tactics on how to negotiate with Iran. I think the situation is fluid and dynamic. I think both the Trump administration and the Obama administration understood that India is navigating its own issues with Iran. We have had an open dialogue. I think that open dialogue has continued with the current administration and they are understanding and accommodating where necessary.</p> <p><b>How do you see the upcoming meeting at G20?</b></p> <p>I think that it is a very positive signal. I think the&nbsp;<a href=""><u>president's phone call with Prime Minister Modi</u></a>&nbsp;was very positive. I think the two leaders would have much to discuss both in the strategic partnership, and the direction in which that is headed. Also, to create harmony on the trade issues so that we can unleash a much deeper trade partnership in the Indo-Pacific. There is so much that the US and India should be talking about, not just in bilateral terms, but in regional and global terms. So, it is better we can get some of these issues resolved so that we can move on to the agenda that benefits our two countries.</p> Mon Jul 01 12:52:51 IST 2019 what-after-may <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>The old order in Europe is shaken, but not broken. Mainstream centrist parties have lost vote share to surging far-right, populist and green parties in the European Parliament elections, the second largest democratic exercise in the world after the Indian general elections. A triumphant winner, the head of far right Lega party and Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini tweeted that the success of nationalist parties in “Italy, France, Hungary, Poland and Great Britain are signs that Europe is changing. People are tired of the powers of the elites, finance, the multinationals. From tomorrow we must redouble our efforts.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The efforts of the newcomers will impact Europe’s stance on issues such as immigration, business and climate change, because this parliament approves or rejects legislation. The results will also shape national politics within the 28-member bloc, triggering consolidation or collapse of ruling coalitions, fresh elections and governance changes.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The ongoing leadership race in Brexit-burdened Britain will also be affected. The runaway success of the six-week-old populist Brexit Party headed by the redoubtable Nigel Farage and the shameful defeat of the Conservative Party in the European elections will encourage Tories to select a diehard Brexiter to replace Prime Minister Theresa May after she steps down on June 7. History will judge May harshly, said Kevin Maguire, Daily Mirror editor. “She was dealt a difficult hand and she played badly. She tried her best. It was not good enough,” said Maguire.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>May’s resignation has ignited a ferocious leadership scrum in the Conservative Party that will culminate with the new prime minister taking office by July end. Said Tory MP Andrew Bridgen, “There are no more vicious attacks than during a Conservative Party leadership race. It’s a circle of firing squad.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Under party rules, the 313 Tory MPs will shortlist two candidates and the winner will be chosen by 1.2 lakh party members—mostly white, middle-aged men. Conservative MP Mark Francois predicted, “When Tories are desperate, they go for a wild card. Farage is causing the desperation.” Analysts agree that the only Tory Brexiter who can “out-Farage Farage” and win back voters is frontrunner Boris Johnson, former London mayor and foreign minister.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Born in New York to English parents with Turkish ancestry, the “blond bombshell” or “Bojo” is known for his untidy hair, sloppy suits and quirky remarks. Johnson described actor Arnold Schwarzenegger as the “monosyllabic Austrian cyborg”, Tony Blair a “greased piglet”, Farage an “engaging geezer”, George Bush a “cross-eyed Texan warmonger” and veiled Muslim women as “bank robbers”. Johnson is popular but polarising. Supporters say he is clever, down-to-earth and funny. Critics say he is opportunistic, unreliable and outrageous. Johnson is being sued for “irresponsibility” and “criminal misconduct” for lying during his Brexit referendum campaign that UK gives £350 million a week to the EU.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Though Johnson, 54, is the bookie’s favourite, he is in a crowded leadership race. Prominent rivals are all Brexiters, though no one is as radical as him. Like Johnson, most of them have burnished their Brexit credentials by resigning from May’s cabinet in protest against her “bad Brexit deal”. A close second is Dominic Raab, 45, who resigned as Brexit secretary and is the youthful face of the party. Michael Gove, 51, environment minister in May’s cabinet, is a leading Bexiter who famously said, “Britons have had enough of experts”. He lost to May in the 2016 leadership race and then went on to knife his ally Johnson. The wide-eyed bespectacled politician said, “Whatever charisma is; I don’t have it.” No one disputes that.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Jeremy Hunt, 52, replaced Johnson as foreign minister. Like St. Paul, Hunt appears to have had his “Road to Damascus” moment, converting from wanting to remain in the EU to leaving. Now he said the EU’s negotiating tactics are “arrogant” and “disappointing.” Last year, in a speech to the Conservative Party conference, he drew severe criticism when he compared the EU to the Soviet Union.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Son of a Pakistani bus driver, Home Minister Sajid Javid, 49, is the slick poster boy for the successful integration of immigrants. The banker-turned-politician is also in the fray. As May’s de facto deputy, David Lidington is a natural successor. But proximity appears to have killed desire. Asked if he would succeed May, Lidington said a few months ago, “One thing that working closely with the prime minister does is cure you completely of any lingering shred of ambition to want to do that task.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The 185-year-old Conservative Party prides itself as the oldest democratic party in the world. This year, it suffered its worst parliamentary defeat in British history when May’s Brexit deal was put to vote. And, it suffered its worst electoral debacle ever in the European polls. In addition to a fractious, haemorrhaging party, May’s successor will inherit all the unresolved Brexit problems.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But ambition trumps the intractability of problems. Leadership contestant Esther McVey vowed to “rebuild a UK that works for everyone”. That is exactly what May said. Johnson promises “resolute” leadership. May tried that to the point of stubbornness. His solution for breaking the Brexit deadlock is “a tougher negotiating stance with Brussels”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The ace up the sleeve of some of the leadership contenders is their proclaimed willingness to go for a no-deal Brexit—leave the EU without a deal. Johnson insists he will lead Britain out of the EU by the October 31 deadline, “deal or no deal”. He dismisses the disastrous consequences of no deal saying, “Whatever the doomsayers may say… there will be no shortage of Mars bars. We will still have potable drinking water in Britain. The planes will fly.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Johnson uses the no-deal threat as a negotiating ploy, asserting “the way to get a good deal is to prepare for a no deal”. But the EU will not renegotiate a good, better or another deal. Experts say crashing out of the EU without a deal will be chaotic until new trade agreements are negotiated under the World Trade Organization. That will take years.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The next prime minister has just three months to deliver Brexit—including August, when Europeans go on summer vacation. Sounding depressingly like a stuck record, all options still remain on the table—deal, no deal, another extension and general elections. What lies ahead—Brexit bedlam or breakthrough? As Johnson famously wrote in 2004, “There are no disasters, only opportunities. And, indeed, opportunities for fresh disasters.”</p> Fri May 31 14:31:59 IST 2019 religious-terrorists-and-drug-cartels-are-targeting-us <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>More than two weeks have passed since Sri Lanka suffered one of the worst terrorist attacks in its history. The suicide blasts on Easter Sunday, which targeted churches and prominent hotels, were said to be executed by local terrorists with possible links to Islamic State. The Sri Lankan government, led by President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, are focused on restructuring the security and intelligence apparatus of the island nation to foreclose the chances of further attacks. In separate interviews with THE WEEK, Sirisena and Wickremesinghe listed the measures taken by their government to tackle the terrorist menace.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Excerpts:</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>What now after the attacks? Has the country been secured now?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It has now been more than 10 days after the attacks. We have been successful in thwarting more attacks. The security forces are carrying out investigations, raids and necessary missions all over the island and the country is now returning to normal.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Are there many more suspects linked to Islamic State in Sri Lanka?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The nature of terrorism is such that we cannot say who will get attacked where. I can’t say whether Islamic State supporters are here or not. I don't think even the US or Russian president will be able to say such a thing under such circumstances. As you know, Europe, Indonesia, Canada, Australia and many other powerful countries have been victims of terrorism. Therefore, I must say that this is not Sri Lanka's problem alone. This is a problem, in fact, to the entire world. Even India, a country that is highly advanced in terms of military might and is highly secured, has been subjected to attacks.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>What do you have to say about Islamic State? Your message to your people and the international community?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Islamic State terrorism peaked during 2015-17. However, with the attacks launched by the powerful nations of the world, this organisation became weak. It seems now they are targeting smaller nations like ours. And I believe that all the nations of the world should be prepared to face this challenge. I believe that Islamic State needs to be destroyed. It needs to be eliminated. Me and my country's security forces are committed to achieving this end. I am confident that we will be able to do so. We must understand that terrorism has not won anywhere in the world. Terrorist organisations like al Qaeda have been destroyed.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Was there intelligence failure leading to the attacks? And why were you kept out of the loop?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The defence secretary and the inspector general of police were informed and letters were exchanged, although I was not apprised of the situation at that time. They did not fulfil their responsibilities properly. I have taken action to remove them and appoint new people in their positions. However, I don’t think it was done deliberately. It was due to lack of understanding, negligence and lack of commitment to their duties.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Are there suspects linked to Islamic State still at large in Sri Lanka?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The nature of terrorism is such that we cannot say who will get attacked where. I can’t say whether Islamic State supporters are here or not. I don't think even the presidents of the US or Russia will be able to clearly say such a thing under such circumstances. Europe, Indonesia, Canada, Australia and many other powerful countries have been victims of terrorism. Therefore, I must say that this is not a problem for Sri Lanka alone. This is a problem for the entire world.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Were the attacks a political conspiracy to tarnish your reputation?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Over the course of my term in the last four years, peace has prevailed in Sri Lanka. I have launched a battle against the drug menace, which is a major problem. As far as I know, other than the leader of Philippines, I am the only head of state who has taken a firm stand against the drug menace. I have launched a comprehensive programme to fight illegal narcotics. There is a close connection between drugs and international terrorism. On the other hand, religious extremist terrorism and international underworld and drugs are interconnected. We can consider the possibility that there may have been a hidden force which expedited this attack, in view of these realities in Sri Lanka. However, we need to look at all aspects connected to these attacks. Why was Sri Lanka targeted? Why did they choose the Christian community? And why did they attack hotels and have a forceful impact on our economy and tourism industry?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>India shared intelligence with you. Is it true that the intelligence was shared several times, even just hours before the attack?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>India had provided certain information to the Sri Lankan Intelligence forces. And this information was passed on to the higher officials, namely the defence secretary and the inspector general of police. However, they did not inform other relevant parties or take necessary action. They have been removed from office and I will be taking necessary action with regard to their conduct.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>The entire security apparatus has been reshuffled now. Do you think it will improve investigation?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>I believe it has already. A new defence secretary has been appointed. He is a former army commander and also a director of intelligence services in the past. The new inspector general of police will also be appointed and I have already taken certain measures to reorganise the security forces and intelligence services, for the safety and security of the public. Our army was able to win a war that went on for 30 years. So, I always tell my security forces to ensure people trust them. My security forces and I will take all necessary actions to wipe terrorism off the face of my country.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>A three-member committee has been appointed to probe into the intelligence failure. What is the progress?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The blasts occurred on April 21, and the very next day, I appointed the special committee headed by a justice of the Supreme Court. They have been empowered through a gazette notification which was published. Their mandate is to look into this matter and report to me within two weeks. An interim report has already been submitted, which was forwarded to the advocate general for future action. Of the two weeks given to this committee, only five days remain. Once the committee submits its final report, necessary action will be taken as per the recommendations made in it.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Your critics raise questions about your inefficiency.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>On September 11, 2001, a brutal terror attack took place in the US in which over 2,700 people died. But no one asked president George W. Bush to resign. Instead, Bush gathered his forces to face the threat of terrorism. Similarly, leaders of many other countries faced the challenge and overcame terrorism on their soil after facing terror attacks. I don’t care about fingers pointed at me because I do not have a political agenda. I am fully committed to fulfilling my duty and responsibility towards my country.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>The Rajapaksas say that if they were in power, this would not have happened.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>They represent the opposition. It is very easy for them to say whatever they feel like saying. There have been five presidents before me, and during their terms, too, bombs had gone off. We are a nation which suffered from war for 30 years and we have so many experiences with bombs. So pointing fingers is very easy. But, right now, what is important is that we face the challenges before us.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Islamic fundamentalism is a major issue in Sri Lanka. Hasn’t radicalisation been happening over the years?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>At this point, it is very important that we take proper care of the Muslim community in the country. When the LTTE terrorist attacks began in the early 1980s, a lot of Sinhalese wondered whether the Tamils were supporters of the LTTE. However, it changed later. Similarly, we have to understand that only a very small number of people are involved in these extremist activities. We must not push the regular Muslim community into difficulty. We must be able to create an environment where all ethnic groups are able to live in harmony. We must be able to take necessary measures to remove suspicion, fear and mistrust among different groups.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Did NTJ actually have connections with the Islamic State?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>According to intelligence reports, there is a connection between this local organisation and the Islamic State. Over the past few years, some of the members of this organisation from Sri Lanka have travelled abroad to receive training. Also, on two occasions, the Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the attacks in Sri Lanka.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>But there has been communal strife in Sri Lanka, which has led to radicalisation.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Today there is extremism all over the world, be it in Europe, the western hemisphere or in Asia. I think the destruction of the global balance of power has contributed to this. For instance, there was balance of power between the Soviet Union and the United States back in the day. But with Gorbachev, this was destroyed. Therefore, in a way, world leaders are responsible for the disruption in the balance in power, and it has fuelled extremist ideology. On the other hand, terrorists do not produce their own weapons. Weapons are manufactured in some of the most powerful nations in the world. If we can stop manufacturing powerful weapons, there could be some contribution towards ending terrorism.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>You are connecting global balance of power to the communal strife in your country. But doesn’t this show the inefficiency of your government?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It is not right to say that the government is incompetent. Those who occupy the responsible positions should be able to execute their duties. Two people have clearly been negligent in executing their duties and today the nation is struck with an incomprehensible tragedy. It is easy to point fingers and say such things. However, the ground situation is different. The security chiefs should have taken action to inform me and the prime minister. That was not been done. Even my private security officers were not been apprised of the situation.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>People in the Rajapaksa camp say there was a military intelligence unit to monitor Muslims and you dismantled it after coming to power.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>During the Rajapaksa period from 2013 to 2015, many organisations and institutions with which they were associated were in question. Those organisations were given legal recognition through private members' motions passed in the parliament. There have been lapses during their regime as well. It was because of certain shortcomings that the people decided in 2015 that they wanted a change in government.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>What kind of working relationship do you have with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>We have a regular relationship that any president and prime minister would have. We meet at the cabinet. And I go to the parliament whenever it is required under the provisions of the constitution. In fact, even yesterday I went to the prime minister's office to meet him. Similarly, he comes to my office to meet me. At the national security council meetings, we sit together and discuss matters pertaining to the country’s security.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>There have been calls for your resignation. Will you step down taking responsibility for the attacks?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>(Laughs) No head of state has ever stepped down in the manner that you describe. What any head of state in my position has ever done is to step up to the challenge and fight terrorism. That is what I intend to do. Also, I have no confidence, that in the event of my resignation, a suitable successor can be appointed.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Will you again run for president?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The nominations have not been called yet. So it is difficult to say right now. I can say whether I will contest only after the nominations are called.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>What is your personal opinion about Mahinda Rajapaksa? You wanted him to become the prime minister then.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>He is the former president and I defeated him in the last presidential election.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Gotabaya Rajapaksa says he will run for the president.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The presidential election is to be held at the end of this year and right now there are almost 100 candidates. But we do not know how many of them will give nominations. It will all depend on the vote of the people.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>How's your relationship with India?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>India and Sri Lanka are close friends. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a good friend of mine. In fact, after Modi became prime minister, he has visited Sri Lanka four times. Similarly, I have visited India on five occasions. I believe that this relationship has been strengthened further recently. India has offered us their support and cooperation in terms of economic development and also national and regional security. In international fora, India has always been our friend.</p> Fri May 10 12:35:28 IST 2019 i-dont-agree-with-the-president-on-certain-issues <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Sri Lanka Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is determined that the perpetrators of the deadly Easter day blasts are punished and Sri Lanka comes back to normalcy. In a candid interview with THE WEEK, Wickremesinghe lists his priorities after the blasts, his relationship with President Maithiripala Sirisena and the communal strife in Sri Lanka.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Excerpts:</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>You said you did not get intelligence inputs about the attacks. Why?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>I do not know why the information did not reach me. But that is not the issue. The issue is the information which was available and not acted upon. If the information was acted upon, the attacks could have been prevented. Whether I knew it or not would have been just news for the Sunday papers. But it has become a national tragedy. So that is the question. But yes, as prime minister, I should have been informed. So, a commission has been appointed to look into it.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>You said you were not invited to the national security council meetings since October.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>I was not called. But not many meetings of the council had taken place.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Doesn’t law and order come under your purview?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It comes under the cabinet. Not under me. We are collectively responsible.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>What was the reason for the intelligence breakdown?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It went down. They did not act on it.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Are you probing it now?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Yes. We have appointed a commission.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>When is it likely to submit its report?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>I do not know. I am rather concerned about the future, not the past. I am concerned about how do you apprehend the perpetrators, get information and see whether there are other groups. Ensuring the security of the country is my primary concern.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Do you think the home-grown terrorist cell had links with Islamic State?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>They had some contact. We do not know the extent of it, but that is being investigated.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Does it have links with groups in India?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>We are working with our counterparts to see if they had any such connection.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Are you getting intelligence support from India?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>We are getting information from India and also from other countries. And our own system is working. Our people got moving in two-three hours, and within 12 hours, they got vital information about some of the key suspects.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>What kind of support are you getting from India?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>All the information that we want and any other support they wish to give us, like many other countries.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Are you directly in touch with the Indian ministry of foreign affairs?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>I cannot be specific on it.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>What are the consequences of the attack?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It has taken a toll in the short term. We are looking at the long-term impact. Tourism has been affected. But May and June are lean months. We want to revive it by September, for the next season.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>How is the trade and economy affected?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Businesses have been hurt. There is disruption in exports. Ports and airports are not functioning. Some feel they can get it back once normalcy returns. Much foreign capital has left the country. How much will return, we will have to wait and see.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>The security apparatus has been restructured. Will it help?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The full restructuring has not yet happened. It has to be a gradual process. You cannot go and disturb something which is bringing results.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Law and order and defence portfolios are with the president. Don't you think he has to give it away?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The defence portfolio is with the president, till this tenure is over. It will be separated after his term as per the constitution. After that, it has to be given to a minister. The next president cannot hold any portfolio.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Has the president failed?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The president says his people were not informed either.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>But he is also the defence minister.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The structure did not work, he has appointed a commission.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>The Rajapaksas claim that this would not have happened if they had been in power.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>As far as this information is concerned, it may have happened or it may not have. The fact is that we are staunchly involved in counter-terrorism. On the Islamic State front who are their friends and enemies, I leave it at that.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Is the radicalisation of the Muslim community a recent phenomenon?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It has been happening for the past eight or nine years. We could see it everywhere, including in India. It is one face of Islam.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Is it because of any external influence?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>We are looking into it.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Is there communal strife in Sri Lanka?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Reconciliation is taking root. Otherwise, there would have been riots by now.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Religious preaching has been banned. And so is burqa.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>We have not banned any religious preaching. The Muslims, as a security measure, did not have their Friday prayers, and the Christians did not have the mass. The All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama said burqa was not compulsory. We have asked the minister of justice to talk with them and prepare the necessary legislation.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>How is your relationship with President Sirisena now?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It is like it was earlier. It is not different. We meet. There are certain issues on which we agree. And there are issues on which we do not. We meet at cabinet meetings and other meetings.</p> Fri May 10 12:30:33 IST 2019 terror-attacks-in-sri-lanka-the-week-reports-how-fear-has-gripped-the-nation <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Two days after the Easter-day blasts, the streets of Colombo are eerily silent. As night falls, policemen walk the streets looking for suspicious strangers. Curfew and fear have gripped the city.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>At Colombo 13, the road to St Antony’s Shrine is deserted, though a few shops are open. The Catholic shrine was one of the three churches attacked by suicide bombers on the morning of April 21. A clock on a wall near the shrine reads 8:45am. “It shows the time we heard the explosion,” says Yogaraja, a 42-year-old who lives nearby. “All of us here are like one community—be it Muslims, Hindus, Christians or Buddhists. St Antony is our saviour in this part of Colombo. He will not spare the wrongdoers.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Around 40 kilometres north of Colombo, the seaside city of Negombo is still grappling with shock and grief. Scores of believers were killed by the blast in St Sebastian’s Church; its floor covered by flesh, blood and fragments of stained glass.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A giant canopy has been erected near the damaged church. Under it, mourners sit on chairs placed on the sandy ground. After the prayers, pallbearers make their way through the crowd. Loud cries fill the air as the mass burials are held.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The blasts targeted three churches and four hotels in Colombo, Negombo and Batticaloa, a city in Sri Lanka’s Eastern Province. More than 350 died and around 500 were injured. A national emergency has been declared, and life has come to a standstill. “We never expected that we would become the target of such deadly attacks,” says Fr Lour Fernando of St Sebastian’s Church. “People are afraid. But we will have to remain strong and keep praying.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The blasts have pushed Sri Lanka back to its history of conflict and polarisation. Security personnel can now detain suspects without a court order, a special power that was last exercised in the civil war that ended in 2009. With tensions simmering between communities, a decade of peace seems to have come to an end.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Sri Lanka’s Christians, who make up 7 per cent of its 22 million people, had largely been spared the ravages of war. They were also thought to be insulated from the recent tensions between Muslims and right-wing Buddhists.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said the attacks were the result of an intelligence failure. “India had shared information on a possible attack, but there were lapses on the part of authorities here,” he said.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>President Maithripala Sirisena has called for a united effort to fight terror. “Action will be taken against the officers who failed to act. Changes will be made in the top rungs of the security forces,” he said.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The “burning question”, according to Sirisena, is why the police failed to act. “I want to state here that I wasn’t informed either. Had I been informed, I would have acted immediately,” he said.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The parliament’s first meeting after the attack, on April 23, saw the ruling party and the opposition trading charges. Opposition leader Mahinda Rajapaksa said such attacks would never have happened if he were in power. “We had strengthened the intelligence services so that there would be absolutely no threat to national security,” he said. “Whenever we got wind of a threat to national security, we acted on it.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Apparently, there were several tip-offs. “Intelligence agencies abroad had warned the government on April 4 about the possibility of attacks,” said Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Hours after the blasts, a note apparently sent by a top police officer, dated April 11, began circulating on social media. Addressed to the security divisions of various ministries, the diplomatic community, judges and former presidents, the note warned of impending suicide attacks on churches and the Indian High Commission. According to it, the plot was masterminded by “Mohammed Zaharan, leader of National Thowheed Jamaath”, a radical Islamist group that was earlier accused of vandalising Buddhist statues.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The authorities apparently dismissed the note as a “fake document”. After Senaratne named National Thowheed Jamaath (NTJ) as the group behind the blasts, it became a talking point.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The motive for the attacks remains unclear. According to the government, the blasts were in retaliation for the Christchurch shootings in New Zealand in March. The police have arrested around 50 suspects from across the country. “There were nine suicide cadres—all Sri Lankan nationals—involved in the attack,” police spokesperson Ruwan Gunasekara told THE WEEK. “The criminal investigation department has identified eight of them. Persons arrested are all Sri Lankan citizens. Of the suspects, 32 are in custody and are being interrogated.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The investigators tracked the attackers to Dematagoda, near Colombo. Apparently, all were educated and belonged to well-off families. “One went to the UK to study. One suicide bomber was a woman,” said Gunasekara.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Defence Minister Ruwan Wijewardane said all attackers had been to Syria. But it is not clear whether they were trained there. Investigators say the attackers had links with NTJ and another little-known group called the Jammiyathul Millathu Ibrahim. “We are investigating the involvement of JMI and NTJ,” Gunasekara told THE WEEK.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The authorities are yet to establish NTJ’s links to Islamic State, which has claimed responsibility for the attacks. IS has released photos and videos of what it claims are jihadists who were trained to carry out the blasts. If the claim is true, IS has carried out its deadliest attack outside Iraq and Syria.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The police are investigating whether IS cells are active in Kattankudy, a Muslim-dominated town in eastern Sri Lanka. Muslims, mainly Sunnis, have significant presence in eastern Sri Lanka. After the spate of attacks against them in March last year, international security agencies had warned the Sri Lankan government of the threat of radicalisation of Muslim youth.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In January, security agencies had detained four people after unearthing a huge cache of explosives from an 80-acre coconut farm in Puttalam district in northwestern Sri Lanka. All four, including the owner of the farm, were released later. The police are now investigating whether the case is connected to the blasts.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“Intelligence agencies believe that the attacks are the handiwork of an international jihadist organisation,” said an officer. “The reason is the sheer sophistication of the attacks—six sites in three cities hit by nine suicide bombers. Nearly all of the explosives went off with deadly effect.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Investigators say it points to the involvement of an expert bomb-maker. Also, the plot itself could have taken more than a month to hatch. “A plot of this magnitude means that it was no small cell,” said the officer. “Imagine the backup you need. Who drove the attackers to the sites? What safe houses did they use?”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The questions are burning, and so is the situation in the country. “The army has taken over,” Wijewardene told THE WEEK. “The situation is under control now. Interpol and intelligence agencies from India, the UK, Australia and the UAE have offered help.”</p> Sat Apr 27 17:06:43 IST 2019 the-suicide-bombers-were-all-well-educated <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>Was there a tip-off from the Indian intelligence agencies about the attack?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>We are getting intelligence information from India, Australia, the UK, the UAE and the Interpol. India has been helping the criminal investigation department carry out the investigation.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Given the scale of the attack, are you worried about the Islamic State demonstrating its capabilities in the region?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Absolutely. I am worried. We had not received information that IS was involved. We need to know if they [attackers] were trained by IS. We will find that out with the help of foreign intelligence [agencies].</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Christians were primarily the victims of the attack.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Easter Sunday is a holy day for a Catholic, and something violent of this scale happening on a holy day is heartbreaking. The Cardinal [Malcolm Ranjith] had said that if the information was shared [well in advance], we could have minimised the casualties.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>But, you had the information.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>I was not aware of the information.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Do you suspect the suicide bombers were trained abroad?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>We are investigating that. We have information that they were educated abroad.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Which means that they were not from poor families.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>They were well-educated and were from economically-sound background.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>What was their age group? Did they have families, children?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Between 20 and 30. I cannot say if they had families.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Do they belong to any particular community, any puritan sect or any mujahideen?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>I cannot divulge that information at the moment.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>You said the bombings were in retaliation for the attack against Muslims in Christchurch, New Zealand.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>There is no direct link, but our intelligence services say that it could be the motivation.</p> Fri Apr 26 12:26:52 IST 2019 terror-attacks-in-sri-lanka-diplomatic-and-security-nightmare-for-india <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>BANGLADESH PRIME MINISTER</b> Sheikh Hasina was in Brunei when she was told about the death of her cousin’s grandson in the Sri Lankan terror attacks on April 21. Eight-year-old Zayan Choudhury was at breakfast with his father in one of the hotels targeted by terrorists. Zayan was among the 38 foreign nationals killed in the attacks.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>For Hasina, the Sri Lankan bombings went way beyond personal loss. It was eerily similar to the 2016 terrorist attacks that devastated Bangladesh. The perpetrators in both cases were well educated and came from financially sound upper middle-class families. Looking at the alarming similarities, analysts in India feel that New Delhi, too, should be on guard. “There is a lot of affinity between Sri Lanka and southern states like Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu,” said Arun Choudhary, former special director in the Intelligence Bureau. “The fact that Islamic State has displayed that it is not [geographically limited] and [that it] resonates with local outfits is a matter of worry.’’</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>While the Sri Lankan government has blamed a small fundamentalist group called the National Thowheed Jamaath for the attacks, Islamic State claimed responsibility three days later. An Indian counterterrorism official said Islamic State was building its violent brand in the region, challenging the well-established Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS). Retired diplomat G. Parthasarathy said the attack was retribution for the New Zealand mosque shootings. “That was the first time that Muslims had been killed collectively at a place of worship. It had to hit back,” he said.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Indian agencies had alerted Sri Lankan intelligence officials on April 4 about possible attacks on churches and the Indian high commission in Colombo, after an Islamic State radical disclosed during interrogation that he was associated with Zahran Hashim, a Sri Lankan cleric who was identified as one of the key attackers. The plot came to light after the National Investigation Agency busted the Coimbatore module of Islamic State six months ago and found incriminating material about Hashim, including videos that pointed at impending attacks in Sri Lanka.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>On April 23, Islamic State released a video claiming responsibility for the Easter attacks. It showed Hashim with a rifle, leading seven purported attackers, pledging allegiance to Islamic State. “It is a strategy among terror groups to take credit for an attack that has not been claimed by any organisation. Thowheed is a lesser known group, but linking up with Islamic State makes for a potent combination,’’ said Choudhary. Ashok Behuria, who heads the South Asia Centre at the Delhi-based Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, said Islamic State was using fringe outfits to carry out spectacular strikes like the one in Sri Lanka.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>For India, the Sri Lankan crisis also poses a diplomatic challenge, especially because the rift between Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and President Maithripala Sirisena is widening. Harsh Pant, who heads the strategic studies programme at the Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation, said the president and the prime minister were not coordinating their responses. “Intelligence was passed, but no action was taken. There is something amiss in the way the institutional infrastructure is being managed,’’ said Pant.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>India needs to be careful as its ties with Sri Lanka have been somewhat stormy. Last November, Sirisena had alleged that India’s Research and Analysis Wing was plotting his assassination. Although he quickly denied the reports, the allegation came on the eve of Wickremesinghe’s visit to India.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>There has been a perception that India is closer to Wickremesinghe, who had promised to revisit the island nation’s burgeoning economic ties with China. The Wickremesinghe government had cancelled several contracts to Chinese companies, while India was offered more projects. This has been one of the reasons behind the rift between Wickremesinghe and Sirisena. The president even replaced Wickremesinghe with former president Mahinda Rajapaksa. While the move failed, there is a strong possibility of someone from the Rajapaksa clan winning the presidential elections scheduled for later this year. Rajapaksa’s party had swept local body polls held in 2018. The national security crisis will further bolster its chances.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>This is a scenario that New Delhi will be watching carefully. In 2015, Rajapaksa had accused R&amp;AW of conspiring to defeat him in the presidential elections. In an interview with THE WEEK in January, he said, “In 2014, certain misunderstandings emerged between the newly elected governments [in both countries]. That is something that should not have happened.’’ The prevailing sense of mistrust could be one of the reasons why Indian inputs on the terror attacks were not taken seriously.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>India has been working on improving ties with Rajapaksa. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had met him during an official visit to Sri Lanka in 2017. Last September, Rajapaksa, along with his son and heir apparent Namal, had met Modi during a visit to India. But irritants continue to mar ties between the two countries. For the moment, however, there is little India can do, but remain supportive. “We have to be a good neighbour,’’ said Parthasarathy. “We need to respond positively when we are asked for help.”</p> Sat Apr 27 17:11:55 IST 2019 how-pakistan-new-foreign-secretary-sohail-mahmood-wants-better-ties-with-india <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>IT WAS ON</b> a cricket ground that the legendary coach Gurcharan Singh first met Sohail Mahmood, Pakistan’s new foreign secretary. A match was in progress at the British High Commission in Delhi, and Singh was bowling. “A diplomat doesn’t have time to practise each day,” Singh said. “But Mahmood managed to connect with the ball each time. He is a good batsman.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Singh, 84, made one request to Mahmood. He had left his village across the border when he was 12, and he wanted to go back home.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The visa came with astonishing speed—in a day. “I visited the Gaddafi Stadium (in Lahore), where Mahmood had arranged a special visit with Pakistan administrators. I cannot explain what it means to me to have seen my house after 72 years. I met people who knew my parents.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Mahmood may not have the ability to influence foreign policy or change the narrative. Foreign secretaries rarely do, especially in Pakistan. But his appointment after his India stint indicates which way the wind is blowing in Pakistan.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In his 19 months as Pakistan high commissioner, Mahmood underwent baptism by fire. He had been to South Block many times, but few of those meetings were friendly. An undeclared war, punctuated with ceasefire violations, became the new norm. A range of issues—Kulbhushan Jadhav’s imprisonment, terror attack at Pulwama and India’s Balakot strike—worsened relations between the two countries.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“There was a high degree of oscillation in India and Pakistan relations,” said Mahendra Lama, who teaches at the School of International Studies at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi. “But Mahmood brought it back to normal. It is a credit to both him and our high commissioner. High commissioners play a critical role. It is important for institutions to play a role rather than individuals. It is the best kind of diplomacy.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>During his stint in India, he overcame the diplomatic deep freeze by finding new ways—like initiating a massive reach out. As many as 33,635 visit visas were issued to Indians last year by the Pakistan High Commission, which translates to around 111 a day. The high commission had issued 52,183 visas in 2017.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The high numbers reflected Mahmood’s commitment to keeping communication channels open. The hope could be that people-to-people connections, which go beyond government ties, will be a game-changer. The opening of the Kartarpur corridor and other shrines to Indians are steps in this direction. It also fits into the narrative of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s ‘Naya Pakistan’—a nation that roots for peace and extends an olive branch.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Sikh festival of Baisakhi fell on April 14 this year, and on that day the Pakistan High Commission set a record by issuing 2,200 visas. Coupled with Naya Pakistan’s soft power mission, Mahmood’s initiatives have been able to counter the overwhelming narrative of Pakistan being India’s enemy. Sources say he keeps his doors open for anyone who has a different approach to maintaining India-Pakistan ties.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Those who know Mahmood describe him as a hardworking, serious-minded and seasoned diplomat. Before he came to India, he was posted in Ankara, where he proved his mettle by bringing Turkey and Pakistan closer. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s offer to mediate in Kashmir—which figured prominently in his meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in India in 2017—was the result of Mahmood building a case for Kashmir.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The links that he made in his previous postings will matter more. Mahmood served in Washington, DC, and acted as political coordinator in Pakistan’s delegation to the UN Security Council.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Like India, the US will loom large in the Pakistani foreign policy horizon. America holds many cards, the most powerful being the proposed International Monetary Fund bailout. Post Balakot, the pressure on Pakistan to crack down on terror will increase—or so India hopes. In the United Nations Security Council, China has been stonewalling attempts to designate Jaish-e-Mohammed founder Masood Azhar a global terrorist. But, with 14 of 15 member states of the UNSC backing the efforts, it is only a matter of time before China caves in.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Peace and better ties with India will go a long way in making things easier for Pakistan. Imran Khan seems to understands this; even the Pakistani army is said to be on the same page. He recently told foreign journalists that there was a better chance of peace talks if the BJP returns to power.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>With the impending US pullout from Afghanistan, Pakistan continues to bank on its influence on the Taliban. The peace talks between the Taliban and the US, which were to have representation from the Afghan government for the first time in 17 years, was again called off recently. So, it is advantage Pakistan.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Mahmood has been courting the peace constituency without diluting his government’s line. He had continued links with the Hurriyat Conference in Kashmir, despite India’s objections. Yet, to his credit, it did not turn into another diplomat spat.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>His balancing skills, sharpened by his India stint, will serve him well in his new role. Especially, when a new government takes charge in New Delhi, and the demand for peace talks surfaces again.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Mahmood has demonstrated his commitment to engage with India. The question is, would that be enough?</p> Sat Apr 27 17:17:20 IST 2019 china-eyes-a-divided-european-union <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>The European Union seems to be toughening its stance against China, after cuddling the ‘Giant Panda’ for decades. In a strategic shift, an “assertive” EU has alleged that China disregards international rules, discriminates against foreign firms and dodges a level-playing field. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the most urgent problem for the EU with China was to ensure reciprocity regarding market access. Jean-Claude Juncker, the outspoken president of the European Commission, said, “Limits are set for us when we set no limits for Chinese investors. This can’t be.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In a strategy paper published ahead of its summit with China on April 9, the EU called China a “competitor” and a “systemic rival”, which practised “alternative models of governance” in politics and in business. Said French President Emmanuel Macron, “Power cannot be without rivalry. We are not naïve.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The EU has started to act tough, weaponising policy instruments to restrict Chinese acquisition of strategic assets, thwart forcible technology transfers and control cheap Chinese imports. The unusually strong stand by the EU forced China to agree not to make companies share intellectual property at the April summit. China also agreed to work towards opening up its economy for foreign investors. Jo Leinen, president of the European Parliament’s China delegation, said the EU was forced to wake up and protect itself because, in a few years, China had changed from a friendly partner into an unfriendly rival.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But to the EU’s dismay, a dozen European countries have rolled out the red carpet to the Chinese caravan of projects, money and deals comprising its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a 21st century Silk Road aiming to fulfil President Xi Jinping’s “China Dream” of restoring lost glory. China intends to emerge as the centre of the universe, not by firing intercontinental missiles, but by assembling an intercontinental economic programme through a web of roadways, railroads, pipelines and shipping routes crisscrossing three continents. As the Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu wrote 2,500 years ago in his treatise The Art of War, “The greatest victory is that which requires no battle.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Forget battle, Italy, a key member of the EU, embraced BRI and welcomed Xi with imperial pageantry. There were grenadiers in tall bearskin hats and horsemen in shining armour and plumed helmets to receive Xi, the grandeur of the moment reminiscent of an era when all roads led to Rome. “Made in Italy” is now a jewel in the “Made in China” BRI crown. Bagging a G7 country and the tenth largest economy of the world is a coup, even though Italy is in recession, with high debt and crumbling infrastructure. The $2.8 billion deals are not dramatic, but their potential is. Bruno Maçães, Portuguese political scientist and author of Belt and Road: A Chinese World Order, said the economic map of Europe was ripe for a revolution.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>With Chinese investment, Italy’s Trieste port can out-compete the north European trading ports of Rotterdam, Antwerp and Hamburg, the engines of Europe’s industrial progress since the 17th century. Trieste is closer to Munich, Europe’s industrial heartland. Michele Geraci, undersecretary of state at the Italian ministry of economic development, said, “Trieste can become China’s gateway to Europe.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Together with Trieste, the ports of Piraeus in Greece, Sines in Portugal and Valencia in Spain can transform into pearls on China’s industrial chain, transporting goods between Shanghai and Europe in 33 days, 10 days faster than by the northern route. “It’s a win-win situation,” said Italian Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Not everyone agrees. His rival and coalition partner, Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, abstained from the ceremonies. Branding foreign businesses as “colonisers”, he warned, “Before allowing someone to invest in the ports of Trieste or Genoa, I would think about it not once, but a hundred times”. Italian newspaper La Repubblica described Xi as the “Godfather of Rome”. From across the Atlantic, the US National Security Council spokesman Garrett Marquis tweeted, “Italy did not need to lend legitimacy to China’s vanity infrastructure project and its predatory approach to investment that will bring no benefits to the Italian people.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“All warfare is based on deception,” wrote Sun Tzu. Western powers see China as a “stealth superpower”, deploying its gigantic geopolitical project as a Trojan Horse to encroach, extend and deepen its strategic influence in Europe, Asia and Africa. The BRI straddles the earth from Mongolia to Montenegro, encompassing 4.5 billion people representing one-third of the world’s wealth. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg declared, “China is not a military threat, but it has come nearer to us.” NATO is currently assessing the security implications of Chinese investments on Europe’s digital and physical infrastructure.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The furore over Huawei as a global Chinese spy tool rages, which Xi tried to play down. “We cannot let mutual suspicion get the better of us,” he said. But the EU is not about to let its guard down. And what China does openly is bad enough. The EU strategy paper acknowledged the BRI’s commercial potential, but also red-flagged the perils that needed tackling: plunging participating countries into debt, using unfair trade practices, providing state subsidy and cheap credit to Chinese companies, especially hi-tech firms, employing espionage, corrupting procurement practices, manipulating media, flouting environment and labour standards, legitimising opaque procedures and taking “decisions not based on science”. The EU counters with an alternate “sustainable” Europe-Asia connectivity programme. “For the first time, there is a common strategy,” said Macron.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>China’s response has been glacial. Zhang Ming, China’s ambassador to the EU, said the concerns would be “gradually addressed” as China opened up its economy at a “reasonable pace”. The EU is also appalled by the “China-effect” on European values. “One (European) country is unable to condemn China’s human rights policy because Chinese investors are travelling in its port,” said Juncker. “Another country cannot support a decision of the Human Rights Commission because Chinese investors are travelling in its territory. It can’t work like this.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It, however, works because of divisions within the EU. China and the EU are each other’s second largest trading partners, transacting goods worth €1 billion every day. But competing interests corrode unity. France and Germany see China as a growing economic and strategic threat. Sweden is ambivalent. Greece, Croatia, Romania, Poland and Hungary are all enthusiastic about cooperation. Europe’s pro-China lobby is significant. The southern, central and eastern countries in the EU and several west Balkan nations queuing up to join the EU are hungry for funds to improve their infrastructure. They are frustrated by the EU’s bureaucracy and irritated by German and French domination. Cuddling China and accessing quick, no-lectures and no-strings-attached money is tempting. Asked Peter Frankopan, Oxford University professor and author of The Silk Roads, “If investment does not come from China to build ports, refineries and railway lines, then where will it come from?” These European countries have formed the 16+1 bloc with China. Macron warned Xi, “Respect the unity of the European Union.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But divide and rule is not a British patent. Warriors look for cracks in the enemy flank. Fortress Europe would be impossible for Xi to penetrate, but a divided, disgruntled and financially famished continent is a dream come true for China. If EU unity weakens, China can build strong bilateral economic relations with its members, gain access to markets, assets, resources and technology and steer an era where all roads lead to Beijing. Said German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, “China is a challenge on almost every topic.”&nbsp;</p> Sat Apr 13 21:36:46 IST 2019 alpine-avalanche <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>ACROSS THE ALPS,</b> France and Italy are jostling and jousting to crown their idea of Europe, while destroying the other’s. Italy’s ruling coalition wants its populist, nationalist, anti-establishment, anti-immigration, Eurosceptic vision to proliferate across the continent. French President Emmanuel Macron aims to eradicate populism, which he said was like “leprosy spreading across Europe”. He wants the progressive, liberal avatar of Europe to triumph.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Which of the two visions will conquer Europe’s soul? The answer will be revealed in the May elections to the European parliament. This is ground zero for the fight between Europe’s populists and progressives, between the Europhobes and the Europhiles. Until then, the volume and venom of the verbal attacks will escalate. Said Marc Lazar, professor at the Paris Institute of Political Studies, “This is a collision of two very different concepts of Europe.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The collision has consequences. France recalled its ambassador from Rome, an adversarial tactic common enough between India and Pakistan, or Russia and the United States. But it is extraordinary between France and Italy, the European Union’s founding members.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The recall was French retribution for Italy’s “repeated, baseless attacks… without precedent since World War II”, said French official Benjamin Griveaux. Nathalie Tocci, director of the Italian Institute of International Affairs, said such a thing had not happened since 1940 when Italy declared war on France.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The immediate provocation for the recall was Italian Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio’s rendezvous in a Paris suburb with anti-Macron protesters of the yellow vest movement. Said Dominique Moisi of the Paris-based Institut Montaigne, “This is a sad first in the history of the EU. No country has intervened so openly in the domestic affairs of another…and broken all diplomatic conventions of EU solidarity.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The 32-year-old Di Maio, who belongs to Italy’s anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S), was expressing solidarity with Macron’s opponents. Di Maio told the activists that he was “ready to give the support” they needed to contest the European elections. He blogged and tweeted and also posted photographs with them, announcing that they would meet again in Rome. “A new Europe is being born of the Yellow Vests. Winds of change have crossed the Alps,” said Di Maio. In 1940, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini invaded France in what is called the “Battle of the Alps”. By recalling his envoy, Macron was punishing populism more than rebuking Italy. Many believe that he is the best bulwark against the populist tide sweeping Europe. After all, he was elected as a shield to stop far right leader Marine Le Pen from becoming president.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In Italy, populism flared after the 2008 financial crisis that spawned bankruptcies and unemployment. And then the migrant crisis exploded. History will judge German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s 2015 decision to open Europe’s doors to a million refugees as transformative, altering the continent’s social, cultural and political landscape. The migrant influx inflamed economically-distressed communities. Across Europe, anti-immigration populists surged.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Feeling betrayed by mainstream parties and the corrupt elite, Italian voters turned to their anti-immigration populists, either the far right Northern League or the leftist M5S. The rivals formed an uneasy coalition government after last year’s elections. Italy’s two deputy prime ministers are Di Maio and Matteo Salvini, the fiery head of the League. “These populists are dangerous to Europe’s stability and unity,” said former Italian prime minister Enrico Letta.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Polarisation is their preferred ploy. Populists feast on ‘enemies’ to swell in size and importance. In power, the Italian populists realised that demonising the EU is counterproductive. Faced with recession and insolvent banks, attacking the EU alienates bureaucrats, spooks investors and rattles the fragile economy. On the other hand, Macron is a picture-perfect enemy. The elitist French president personifies the pro-EU establishment they seek to wreck. Their refrain: “The real leprosy at the heart of Europe is the double standards of the French president.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Rhetoric, personalities and ideologies aside, France and Italy have strong cultural, geographic and economic ties—both are the other’ second largest trading partner. They are Europe’s superpowers of culture. Their distinct creativity and innovation make them compete in everything from art, cars and wine to fashion, food and football.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The rivalry extends to stereotyping and lampooning each other. The Italians are unruly, say the French. The French are disdainful, retort the Italians. “The French are smug even when they are weak,” sneered the right-wing Italian daily Libero.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Now sparring turns to sabotage and old conflicts trigger new battles. Air France reportedly withdrew from a bailout plan to rescue the bankrupt Italian airline, Alitalia. France and Italy wrangle over corporate takeovers (France “conquers”, Italy resents), high-speed rail between Lyon and Turin (France persists, Italy blocks), border checks (France insists, Italy objects). “The result of all these tensions is an explosive environment between France and Italy,” said Jean Pierre Darnis of the Italian Institute of International Affairs.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>One third of the Italians feel that France is hostile to them. Immigration is the divisive, emotional issue. Due to its Mediterranean coastline, Italy bears the brunt of refugee arrivals. Migrants try to move further, but neighbouring France pushes them back into Italy, the country of their entry. When Macron criticised Italy for preventing a migrant rescue boat from docking in Sicily, Di Maio reacted angrily, saying Italy would not “accept hypocritical lessons” from the French.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>When historical rivalries fester, maggots crawl out. Accusing France of “stealing” Africa’s wealth, Salvini said, “African migrants are flooding Europe because of France’s policy of impoverishment and exploitation of its former colonies.” Said Di Maio, “France has never stopped colonising. I am tired of speaking of the consequences of immigration. I want to start discussing the causes.” French officials replied that many migrants came from the former brutalised Italian colonies, Eritrea and Somalia. Italy blames the 2011 French-led invasion for the disintegration of its former colony Libya into a den of warlords and criminals who now smuggle African migrants into Europe.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Even art is dragged into the fight. The world’s most seen artwork, Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, hangs in the Louvre Museum in Paris, observed by 20,000 visitors a day. The Louvre plans a spectacular retrospective to mark Da Vinci’s 500th death anniversary this October. The Italian government had agreed to lend several masterpieces, including the rarely exhibited Vitruvian Man.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But then the populists came to power and now it’s not certain. Lucia Borgonzoni, Italy’s deputy culture minister, said, “Leonardo is Italian, he just died in France.” She accused France of disrespecting Italy and treating it like “a cultural supermarket by sending a shopping list of works it wants to borrow—basically everything. No other country would dare to behave as France had.” The French ambassador is back in his Rome embassy, but the spat is not over yet.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>After a spectacular start, Macron is now under siege on all fronts. The Yellow Vest protesters have blunted his image, popularity and reforms. From opposing his fuel tax, the movement has broadened to demand the ouster of their “pro-rich investment banker-president”. His budget deficit is growing and the economy is slowing. While Macron’s ratings are sinking, populists, nationalists, leftists, grassroots activists and street protesters are ganging up against him.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Populists threaten to storm not the Bastille, but the European parliament. With the populists of Poland, Hungary, Italy, Britain, Austria and others waiting to welcome more of their kind, the continent could soon be saddled ironically with the most anti-EU European parliament. Should that happen, more national sovereignty, tougher immigration controls, higher taxes for the rich, wage hikes, better welfare policies, bigger deficits and slower growth are likely. Said Letta, “If the populists win over 25 per cent of the votes in May, it will be the start of a very negative trend that can potentially devastate Europe’s growth.”</p> Sat Mar 02 16:57:59 IST 2019 halfway-to-freedom <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>For 30-year-old Ibtehal Al Shareef, mobility equals freedom. The schoolteacher-turned-photographer from Jeddah remembers the time when she had to depend on cabs or on her father or brother to ferry her to the workplace and back. She had got her driver’s licence while the family lived in Dubai, but could not get behind the wheel in her home country because of a ban on women driving.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>And, then came the moment of liberation. “I felt unshackled, liberated,” said Al Shareef, recalling the time when she steered the family car out of the garage and onto the wide roads of Jeddah. “There were so many other women drivers on the roads. It was freedom at midnight.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It was at the stroke of midnight on June 24, 2018, that the ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia came to an end. There was celebration and jubilation as scores of women burned rubber across major cities. The occasion even saw Princess Hayfa bint Abdullah Al Saud, daughter of the late king Abdullah, appear on the cover of Vogue magazine, in the driver’s seat of a red convertible, glamourously attired in a fashionable abaya, complete with black leather gloves and high heels.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The driving ban was repealed through a royal decree in September 2017, and the first driver’s licences were issued to women in the first week of June 2018, most of them in exchange for driving permits procured in other countries. The lifting of the driving ban is perhaps the biggest sign of the dramatic change that is currently under way in the kingdom in terms of empowerment of women. “It will bring more women into the work force. It will contribute to their feeling of independence and empower them,” said Al Shareef.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It is almost like women were waiting for an opportunity to go out there and be free. For example, the existing driving schools are unable to cope with the demand from women who want to learn to drive. As per an estimate made by PricewaterhouseCoopers, by 2020, 30 lakh Saudi women would have got driver’s licences. Recent years have seen changes, with an increasing number of women going for higher studies and taking up jobs. Women were allowed to contest and vote in municipal elections in 2015. In 2016, the powers of the religious police to stop, question or arrest people were taken away.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“All of my friends and my cousins are working or want to work. This is a big change from my mother’s generation,” said Haya Aldamigh, a resident of Riyadh, who works as a specialist in the ministry of media. Women can now watch sporting events at stadiums. In the past, they could get arrested for entering a stadium.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The first Saudi woman to get a pilot’s licence, the first woman TV presenter, the first women appointees to sports federations, the first women’s sports teams, the first woman to sing in a music festival and the first ever marathon race for women are some of the many firsts that have made headlines in the past one-and-a-half years. Government departments opened up senior-level positions for women for the first time.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The change in the Saudi society is most evident in men and women mingling in public spaces, with gender segregation not being enforced. This has made it possible for more women to join the work force. “A few years back, it would not have been possible for women to work in a newspaper. And this was primarily because of gender segregation,” said Khalid A. Tashkandi, assistant editor-in-chief of the Saudi Gazette. He said 20 per cent of the editorial staff at the newspaper now comprised women.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Many restaurants, however, continue to have separate sections for women and families. And, this is primarily because of reasons of practicality. Hijab-wearing women need privacy, as they remove it while eating. There is also a women-driven demand for separate public services, such as banks or smoking rooms in airports.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>At the societal level, women are now deciding what they want to study, where they want to work, who they want to marry and when they want to get married. “I am 28. And, of course, my parents want me to get married now, but the decision will be mine,” said Alaa M. Al Ghamdi, who works as a public relations officer at the Organisation for Press and Publication in Jeddah.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Women now have better rights than before in the personal sphere. Divorced women are now entitled to financial aid from the government, and they will get custody of their children till their divorce cases are decided. This will mean that women will not have to endure abuse at the hands of their husbands in silence because they are financially dependent on them.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It is no longer mandatory for women to wear an abaya—a loose-fitting outerwear, normally black in colour—or a headscarf in public. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said in an interview in March 2018 that it should be left to the women to decide their clothing. “The laws are very clear and stipulated in the laws of sharia, that women wear decent, respectful clothing, like men. This, however, does not particularly specify a black abaya or a black head cover,” he said.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It is, however, still rare to see a woman without the abaya in public places, although many women do not wear the hijab even while wearing the loose-fitting robe. “I do not like to wear the abaya. But without it, I would be the odd one out,” said Nouf Hassan, a 22-year-old trainee in hotel management. “It is still not seen as normal for a woman to go out without the abaya. But I think this will change in a few years.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>An increasing number of women, especially college-going youngsters, are finding new, more fashionable ways of wearing the abaya, some not buttoning the front all the way down so that their stylish jeans and shoes are visible, or wearing it more like a cape or a long shrug.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Women are opting for designer abayas, which come in different colour combinations and are embellished with sequins and crystals. Keeping with the decision to allow women into stadia, fashion designer Eman Joharjy launched the sports abaya. Saudi Arabia had its first fashion week in April 2018, although drones and not models showcased the clothes on the ramp.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“Who wears these clothes? We wear them!” said Nouf. She showed a picture of herself on her phone, in which she was dressed in a trendy short dress and was unidentifiable, as against her traditional abaya-clad office look. “I do not wear the abaya when I am travelling out of Saudi Arabia. And, young women like me wear western wear when we are amongst family and friends,” she said.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The young generation has a lot of international exposure, with many of them going abroad for higher studies. The explosive growth of social media and the revolution in the entertainment scene because of online media has made the youth aspire for similar circumstances back home. “We cannot impose the old rules on the new generation. The internet has changed their outlook. They have exposure to the whole world,” said Tashkandi.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The fast-paced changes are being credited to the reformist agenda of MbS, who became crown prince in March 2016. He is said to have heeded the aspirations of the youth in drafting his Vision 2030, which aims at turning Saudi Arabia into a multi-faceted economy, which is not dependent solely on the oil sector. The government hopes to increase the participation of women workers from the current 22 per cent to 30 per cent by 2030. Refurbishing the country’s image by ridding it of hardline Islamic practices is also an important aspect of Vision 2030.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Nawal Baksh, who is the country’s first woman TV presenter, credited the changes to the policies of MbS. “The revolution that we are witnessing is because of Vision 2030, which is all about meeting the aspirations of the youth. Seventy per cent of the population is young. Our youth go all over the world to study, and when they come back, they should have jobs and a social milieu that they aspire for,” said Baksh, director of family and society programmes for Riyadh Radio.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>However, while Saudi Arabian women may now be enjoying new rights and freedoms, speaking out against injustices or being critical of the establishment is still not acceptable. This was evident as several women’s rights activists, who had campaigned for the Saudi woman’s right to drive, were arrested around the same time as women in the country were allowed to drive.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Manal Al Sharif, who was put behind bars in 2011 for defying the driving ban, and who is now living in Australia, said she wanted to visit Saudi Arabia but feared that she would be arrested. Al Sharif, 39, is the first Saudi woman cyber security expert and was one of the main campaigners for the Saudi woman’s right to drive. She was forced to exit Twitter recently in the wake of a flurry of hate messages.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Also, the recent incident of Saudi teenager Rahaf Al Qanun getting asylum in Canada as she feared that her family might kill her or that she can be arrested puts the focus on the much criticised male guardianship law in the country. Under the law, women are required to seek consent from their male guardians, who can either be their father, uncle, husband, brother or even son for small and big decisions in their lives, including work, marriage, travel and even medical treatment. A woman can be arrested for parental disobedience. Exceptions can be made in this law by a royal decree. One such exception is the driver’s licence, which no longer requires a guardian’s permission.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Saudi society, while displaying a readiness for change, also has to deal with conservative elements, who are not yet ready to accept the new developments. There have been several instances of cars belonging to women getting torched. A young man posted a video of himself issuing the threat of burning cars down. He was later arrested. Songs such as ‘You will not drive’ and ‘No woman, no drive’ came up on social media.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The conservative viewpoint has also been raised in the Shura Council, the consultative assembly of Saudi Arabia, which advises the government on law and policy. Last September, the council refused to approve a proposal to stop accusing women of parental disobedience.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It is, however, felt that the western media has projected a biased picture of Saudi Arabia, not appreciating the strides the Saudi society has made over the years. Emon Al Nouri, a 21-year-old economics graduate, said the achievements of Saudi women should be seen in the milieu of the country, as they did not want to blindly ape the west. “We want to follow Muslim culture and tradition, and yet be independent and successful,” she said. “What was not possible in my grandmother’s generation or my mother’s generation is now possible. This is a natural evolution of the society.”</p> Sat Feb 09 12:11:50 IST 2019 the-price-of-freedom <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>IN HER BOOK</b> <i>Daring to Drive</i>, Manal Al Sharif wrote that a short drive across the Saudi Arabian city of Al Khobar changed her life forever. In 2011, Al Sharif, a divorced mother, who was tired of depending on drivers and cabs, took her brother’s car out for a spin. She was accompanied by her brother, sister-in-law and five-year-old son.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The sister-in-law shot a video of the adventure, which Al Sharif was hoping to use to promote her ‘Women2Drive’ campaign. She was, however, intercepted and detained by the police during her drive, after which her sister-in-law posted the video online. It brought the attention of people across the world to Al Sharif’s act of rebellion.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The 39-year-old Al Sharif, who is her country’s first woman cyber security expert, now lives in self-imposed exile in Sydney, Australia. “I hope no woman will ever again be jailed for the simple act of driving a car. Driving is only the start to end other unjust laws, which treat Saudi women as minors, not trusted to direct their own destiny,” wrote Al Sharif in her book, which came out in June 2017.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In 1990, as many as 47 women had been arrested for defying the driving ban. Many of them lost their jobs, and their families were harassed. Then, in 2011, Al Sharif began the ‘Women2Drive’ movement, which reignited the campaign. There were more campaigns, including the one started by blogger Eman Al Nafjan.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In 2014, activist Loujain Al Hathloul tried to drive into Saudi Arabia from the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi journalist Maysaa Al Amoudi came to the border to express solidarity with her. Both were put in jail for 72 days. Al Hathloul, 28, contested the municipal elections in 2015, but was again arrested before the June 23 event of Saudi women driving for the first time. Al Amoudi is now working in the US.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Repealing the driving ban coincided with the arrest of women’s rights activists. The revolutionary move has, therefore, been a bittersweet experience for the Saudi women, especially those who fought for it.</p> Fri Feb 08 12:15:29 IST 2019