Back Seat Driving for Manipur

There are things that the union government can do to stay relevant in Manipur post 2017 election, and make sure Manipur doesn’t fall off the map once again. 

The United Naga Council (UNC) led economic blockade in Manipur crossed 60 days on January 1st, 2017. The blockade was announced on November 1st, 2016.

What was initially a protest against the creation of Sadar & Jiribam revenue districts in the state has now become a full-fledged hijacking of the state. The Manipur government on December 8th defying the blockade created seven new districts including the long promised Sadar hills (Kangpokpi) and Jiribam revenue districts. Escalation of violence, and retaliation by Meitei groups, led to curfew and revoking of net access. The restrictions have since been lifted, and phone access restored. The blockade, however continues and is likely to interfere with assembly elections in the state.

The current Manipur assembly, under the aegis of congress chief minister Ibobi singh will complete its term in March. Assembly elections were to be scheduled this month. The UNC, which has long served as an apex body of the NSCN (IM), is now demanding president’s rule for the state. Post that, they want creation of the revenue districts to be withdrawn and an agreement that Naga territories within Manipur will remain whole.

The new districts have been a political trump card for the Congress. It has managed to retain the loyalty of the Meitei groups, while successfully appealing to the Kuki and minority Naga groups in the region. If and when the election goes forward, the congress is certain to come back to power, perhaps not as a majority, but in some combination.

The BJP has been making inroads in the state, but the lack of a coherent stance, vacillation in condemning the blockade and ties with the NPF in Nagaland makes its place in the state considerably weaker. It also has not earned any brownie points with the peace agreement with NSCN (IM).

Assuming congress comes back into power, and the blockade runs out of steam at some point, there are three things that the BJP and by extension the union government can move forward on, to ensure it remains relevant in Manipur, and to take a lead in ensuring Manipur remains strategically relevant in the region.

  1. AFSPA has to be brought back to the table, and gradual withdrawal of the notorious act has to be negotiated. This has to happen side-by-side with renewed talks with all major tribal parties in the state, and parties with interests in the state. Alternate COIN forces have to be readied and the state has to be pushed to invest more in local police forces. Violence in the state is partly a result of dissatisfied groups exploiting the many existing tensions, and partly a result of the public dissonance between the state and the union on issues of law and order. Better coördination and a firm policy on how to deal with repeated blockades will help a little.
  2. The BJP led framework accord of 2015 that was signed with a lot of pomp and circumstance with NSCN (IM) has to be made public. Only full knowledge of the accord can end speculation on stories that the government has conceded to let the creation of a Nagalim territory. NSCN (IM) has continued to recruit and train Nagas in camps across northern Manipur and on the border between Manipur and Nagaland. The union government should actively include Manipur in the conversation to solve the Naga issue.
  3. The union government should focus on the strategic importance of Manipur in its ‘Act East’ Policy and work towards creating the necessary infrastructure and institutions within the state.

The intersectionality of tribal nation, state and country has become a part of the growing narrative of Manipur. The issue however with the ongoing blockade and with the more than 80 bandhs, and dozen highway blockades that the state has witnessed since 2009, is a lack of meaningful imagination on what can benefit the state. Political parties in the state have had very little incentive to push for development in the state. 15 years of almost single party rule, 60 years of AFSPA, and an absolutely apathetic center has kept Manipur behind in all aspects of development. There are things that can be done for Manipur and the region in general without having to be in the driver’s seat.

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Drawing lines in Manipur. 

The Manipur government headed by Chief Minister O. Ibobi Singh created seven new districts last week in Manipur. The move claimed to have been done for administrative convenience, and efficiency in carrying out development work, was part of an election promise made 5 years ago.  The bifurcation has come at the end of a year-long struggle between the ethnic hill dwelling tribes and the valley based government over land, identity and political footprint within the state.

The Ibobi government which enjoys the support of the majority Meitei groups passed three bills last year. This included a Manipur people’s bill that wanted to define Manipuris as only those people who according to census resided in the state from 1951, and a land reform bill that was designed to give Meitei people permission to buy and sell land in the hill region. The former would have alienated most hill tribes without documentation, and given that Manipur was a union territory until 1972, what  documentation was available would have been sparse. The latter is prohibited per current tribal laws, and permission from the Hill Districts would have ordinarily been required for the bill to pass.

Protests against these bills have brought together the Kuki & Naga tribes, and has increased demand for a sixth schedule status for the state which would give greater autonomy for the tribal districts.

Against this backdrop, the Ibobi Singh governments decision to create these 7 new districts, including Jiribam and Kangpokpi (Sadar Hills) last week needs to seen from three angles.

One, With state elections to be held in 2017, the congress government is clearly pandering to disgruntled Kuki’s and other tribal groups, in a move that they hope would get them reelected to a state they have dominated for the last 15 years. The Naga groups living primarily in the north of Manipur, under the aegis of the United Naga Council, launched an economic blockade on November 2nd of this year, severely disrupting normal life. The blockade was against the creation of Jiribam and Sadar hills (Kangpokpi) district; two districts that the Nagas believed would cut through their territory. Bifurcation of these districts has now the potential to increase tensions, but the story on the ground is that ethnic groups including Kuki’s welcome the decision.

Two, The BJP is hoping to open its account in Manipur, post victories in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. The biggest roadblock to its campaign has been the 2015 framework agreement the union government signed with the NSCN (IM), and the secrecy surrounding the details of the agreement. The worry that the agreement could lead to shuffling of state boundaries between Nagaland and Manipur is high. The congress government has campaigned on the idea that the party has ties with the Naga groups and victory would disrupt the state. The congress government with its division of districts that favor Kuki’s and other tribal groups has essentially decided to be politically savvy about how it uses its power.

Three, The current blockade, if it continues, will force the central government to take a stance against the UNC, and the Naga groups backing the blockade. The ambush and killing of military personnel by suspected Naga tribes, will also increase pressure on the union government to push for a resolution of conflict. More importantly it might have to make its stance clear on the issue of creation of separate Naga administered districts. Extended conflict situation also can impact cross border trade with South East Asia. Extended theaters of conflict is bound to raise questions about the framework agreement & its validity. None of this will help the BJP to decisively win in the state

The congress government is not entirely out of the woods yet. Its purpose for the creation of these districts, at this late a stage in its five-year term has come into question. The new districts might help in streamlining development and distribution of economic benefits. However, after 15 years, the entrenchment, corruption, and lack of economic or infrastructural development, the congress is running out of political mileage in the state. The arrival of smaller, more dynamic parties like Irom Sharmila’s PRJA will likely lead to an interesting result.

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My grandmother’s Jayalalithaa

My view of Jayalalithaa has always been colored by how my grandmother (87 years) and her generation viewed her. They were strong women, dominant, no-nonsense and efficient. And in Jayalalithaa, they found a kinship, a public face for their kind of ‘feminism’. A feminism without the language of the modern version or the weight of glass ceilings; a feminism that worked around the idea of having a voice in public, and being recognized as individuals who could think, act and command.

This was around the 70’s and 80’s. Tamil cinema, was skirting around ideas of women power under the expert guidance of K. Balachander. Movies with strong, independent, often single women with loud laughs and devil-may-care attitudes were being released. They were still, however, considered by many to be “too arty, and unrealistic”. It didn’t help that most of these movies ended ambiguously with the main actor sacrificing her ambitions, or her personal life for familial peace. For women, like my grandmother, it felt like a cop-out. They didn’t appreciate the idea, that ambition and/or happiness should take second place. They wanted to see women who defied these social mores, and stepped out, and took control. Women like themselves, no-nonsense, practical, and not afraid to speak their mind in a room full of men.

Enter Jayalalithaa. She stood out, in a sea of men. She was no one’s wife, no one’s daughter, no one’s mother. They didn’t care she was a “heroine”, or care for the gossip around her relationships. They saw a woman politician. She stood out, as a protegé, and possible successor to the legacy that was built by very powerful men.

My first introduction to Jayalalithaa was through my grandmother’s anger. It was 1989, and Jayalalithaa had just walked out of the assembly, hair & clothes disheveled, emotional but standing and vowing to fight the system that wouldn’t guarantee the safety of a woman in an assembly hall. My grandmother was livid. She would, in later years point out that incident again and again when she wanted to talk to us about being modern women. She believed that women needed to be educated, argumentative, strong, and in control of their own lives and destiny. Jayalalithaa’s speeches and interviews were standard, learning material. Arguments against her at home were often dismissed, as misogynistic. I’ve during my years of growing up with my grandmother, had the privilege of learning and expanding my vocabulary of curse words, a lot of them directed at men who referred to Jayalaithaa as domineering, or opportunistic, or a woman who didn’t understand boundaries.

Jayalalithaa’s Hard Talk interview with Karan Thapar was shown as examples of what a woman who knows herself and knows her subject can do. Every assembly victory of hers was followed by phone calls of what women power was capable of, and the infamous 1999 toppling of the central government was cheered, because she showed the union government, how powerful a state can be, and that too, one run by a woman. She showed herself to have the audacity, intelligence, and political chutzpah, a first for a woman from Tamil Nadu.

Jayalalithaa was in many ways my grandmother’s lodestone. She was an example of a woman, who moved beyond her regional, caste identities and carved an identity, that was hers alone. Through her years of being a politician, she retained that mantle of feminism. It wasn’t talked about in those terms, but it was understood. Her death, for people like my grandmother is about the demise of a woman who defied men, developed a state & its identity & above all defined feminism for an entire generation.




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This Now, That Then

Trying to mandate patriotic behavior is not new. It happened a few days after independence, at the constitution hall, during the framing of the Republic. How it was handled makes all the difference. 

The Supreme Court ruling from the bench of Justice Dipak Misra and Justice Amitava Roy have made it mandatory for cinema halls in the country to play the national anthem before a movie begins during which the national flag is to be shown on the screen. They also ruled that everyone present in the cinema hall should rise up and pay respect to the anthem when it is played.

This is not the first time that a group of singularly sensitive scandalmongers have brought to the attention of the public and the court, the many ways in which unpatriotic citizens of the country insult the flag or the anthem. The court, and the justices have also, given petitions like these time, money and attention that are sorely needed elsewhere. Enabling court ordered patriotism has become a national vocation in this country.

The justices in addition to the many rules and regulations, seemingly criticized “the ideas of individual liberty“. By doing so, they have not only revealed the casualness with which they regard the constitution and its contents, but also a worrying ignorance of the central tenets around which this republic was built.

Trying to mandate patriotic behavior is not new though. This petitioner can be forgiven, for even in the hallowed halls of the constituent assembly, even as the republic was being shaped, a member made the following complaint.

On 26th August, 1947 just as the assembly was getting ready for the the day’s agenda, H. V Kamath from C & P Berar had the following to say

“Mr. H. V. Kamath (C. P. & Berar: General) : Mr. President Permit me, Sir,  to invite your attention to an incident which took place on the historic midsummer night of August 14-15. I must apologise to you, Sir, and to the House for harking back on old times, but in view of the intrinsic importance of the matter, I will request you to condone the delay in bringing it to your notice. You will be pleased to recollect, Sir, that on the night of the Assumption of Power Ceremony, the first item of the agenda was the singing of the Vande Mataram. Some of us in this House noticed that a number of our Honourable friends entered the Assembly Chamber-I would almost say trooped into this Hall-after the song had been sung. I would request you, Sir, to look into this matter, because there are certain considerations which arise from this action of theirs. They entered the Hall simultaneously, so simultaneously that it gave the appearance of the act having been performed not so much by accident as by design. You will be pleased to remember that the Assembly had resolved to leave this matter of programme entirely in your hands and they were in duty bound as members of this House to participate in the programme. My friends all very well know that this song, though it has not been adopted by this House as our National Anthem, yet it is a song, Sir, which has been hallowed, which has been consecrated, sanctified by the suffering and sacrifice, blood and tears, and the martyrdom of thousands of our countrymen and women. I shall be happy to hear from those members who came after the National Song had been sung that they did so not by design, but only by accident. Thank you.” (Emphasis added)

Dr. Rajendra Prasad, the president of the assembly in all his wisdom, post a few members who rose to make additional points, asked them to respectfully drop the subject and moved on.


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The One With the Pivot

The prospect of a Donald Trump presidency has predictably enough, created a climate of uncertainty in the Asia Pacific region. Pranay Kotasthane in his post on Asian realignment sketches an idea of how countries in East Asia might recalibrate in the coming years. Already, countries like Australia, Philippines and Japan have started realigning themselves post US election, and reassessing their position in the face of US indifference and overweighted Chinese influence in Asia. Trump’s rallying cry for an America first policy, alongside what Robert Kagan calls a US withdrawal from the ‘reassurance business” will pose a bigger dilemma for smaller, emerging democracies like Myanmar.

The initial years of the Obama administration, with Clinton as secretary of state focussed on pivoting US towards Asia, and in creating stronger relationships with smaller nations in an effort to counter balance China’s influence in the region. The US had just prior to the election lifted a 20 year old sanction on Myanmar. There had been hints of more support to bolster state institutions in Myanmar, and help with trade and development in the country. There have also been rumours that the Asia pivot had come at a time when Myanmar was looking at North Korea as an ally for modernizing its military and as a supplier of nuclear technology.

The NLD’s rise to power at this juncture, was with full fledged support from the US government, both for the party and for the democratic movement in Myanmar. Clinton and Obama’s visit to Myanmar, and with Suu Kyi were seen favorably & greatly improved Myanmar’s image in the west. The 2015 election was predicated on the belief that Suu Kyi’s vision for a democratic Myanmar and her ability to engage with the world at large would bring economic development and better relations with countries other than China. Suu Kyi since her elevation to state councillor position post elections, has been meeting with world leaders trying to encourage investment in the country. Her meetings have resulted in multiple treaties, and promises of investments in various sectors, and in critical infrastructure in Myanmar.

A Clinton presidency might have extended this relationship.

President elect Trump’s Asia policy, on the other hand has focussed almost exclusively on the nature of trade relations with China, and stepping away from Japan, South Korea militarily. He has also more importantly sparked worries that he might disengage to a greater degree from Asia.

While a limited US role in the region doesn’t necessarily translate into disaster for Myanmar, it does limit the options that the country has in its grand scheme to pivot west.

For starters, Myanmar will continue to look towards India, Japan, and Singapore to ensure a balance in investments within the country. Japan and India have been looking at making joint investments in Myanmar which could significantly boost their impact in the region. India has also  tried to push forward with its act east policy, independently, and via groups like BIMSTEC. Myanmar has in the past year has also stepped up to engage more with regional actors and groups. Closer relations with more smaller countries means better connectivity in the region and perhaps strategic alliances that could help.

Secondly, Myanmar has to because of its position in the region look to China to assist in keeping peace on its borders. The increasing civil war along Myanmar’s borders means ethnic tensions spilling across the border to China, and also more refugees flooding into China. China will have a bigger stake in trying to keep peace in the region. It will also want to safe guard its interests in the region, and as the biggest investor in the country, it will ensure that internal conflicts don’t continue to impact its regional growth and connectivity.

The US through soft, and hard power projections ensured some semblance of security and balance for countries in the SE Asian region. A strong, developing relationship with the US could have perhaps given greater legitimacy and support to the NLD in trying to solve ethnic conflicts and chart peace agreements. However, the possibility of a policy shift makes it far more difficult for countries like Myanmar to depend on the US as a reliable ally, even as they make their transition from a dictatorship to a democratic country in a strategic region.

This uncertainty in the region is bound to last for some time. As critical as it is to see how larger countries realign themselves, it will now be equally important to keep an eye on how smaller countries pivot in the coming months.

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Peace, Rebel, Repeat

The reshaping of Myanmar’s landscape requires more than the image of Suu Kyi as a peace icon or her grand speeches. It needs real policies and politicking.

Aung San Suu Kyi remarks on the January 12th, 2016, the opening day of the 5 day Union Peace Conference in Naypyitaw (Myanmar’s capital) were both a critique of the current peace framework & an indication of how she sees her party steering the peace process within the country. The conference was an extension of the peace deal between the current USDP party and 8 ethnic nations in Myanmar. As surprising as her presence was given her negative remarks on the peace deal, her appearance was less of a nod to the current peace process, and more of a declaration of how she look to reshape Myanmar. She has made it clear, during the conference and in speeches preceding the event that Myanmar needs to craft a deal that will bring all ethnic nations on board. She has made all the right sounds in her approach to the peace deal. The problem however is that everything that has been said so far, has been sorely lacking in real policies. The reshaping of Myanmar’s landscape consists of several hurdles, and none of it can be surmounted through the sheer power of her image or the weight of her legacy as Aung San’s daughter.

First, the constitution does not give her (or the presidency) much room to maneuver a peace deal singlehandedly. The military as per the country’s constitution controls the national security and defense department. They also hold control of internal security and border control. Any deal reached must be approved by them. The military also as per the current constitution has the power to legally stage a coup if there are indications of unrest or even loss of confidence with the coming NLD government. Whatever policy that she crafts needs to ensure that the military does not feel marginalized or minimized.

Two, the military and a large section of the armed rebels have a direct interest in keeping the rebellion going. It gives them easy access to arms and money from foreign interests, by way of underground industries like drug smuggling, resource smuggling and human trafficking. Any peace process would require bringing these groups into the political and economic structure. Peace will be entirely dependent on how efficiently these structures can be dismantled. A policy that places greater emphasis on strengthening local governance and building institutions has been pegged as the best to succeed.

Three, One of the cornerstones of the problem between the ethnic nations and the centre has been the ‘Burmanization’ of education, culture and society in the country. It effectively meant imposing, often through force Burmese language, buddhism and buddhist culture on ethnic groups. It meant for the groups loss of language, culture and alienation from their way of life and religion. The rise of the Ma Ba Tha movement and other similar buddhist religious movements have succeeded creating a tyranny of majority that threatens the ethnic nations. Suu Kyi has so far remained silent on this issue. She will be forced to take a stance if she is looking to steer a peace process

Suu Kyi is in many ways still straddling the world of peace idol and pragmatic politician. She needs to pick a side soon.

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Building a New Myanmar

The biggest challenge in Myanmar for Daw Suu Kyi will be in handling the long drawn peace process between the various ethnic nations and the union government. Political and cultural rights need to be restored to overcome the deep seated antagonism between the union government and the ethnic nations.

Myanmar voters have given Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy party an overwhelming victory in the first multi-party elections the country has had in 25 years. The mandate gives Suu Kyi 390 seats in the 664-member legislature in a near-final tally. The remaining seats are distributed between the military which is constitutionally authorized to hold 25% of the seats, the USDP (current ruling party), and other ethnic parties. The vote for president will take place in March of 2016 and the new government will start its term on April 1st, provided all goes well in the handover process. Suu Kyi has emphasized that regardless of who is voted in as the president, she will remain the power behind the seat. If she does so, she will have to contend, negotiate and come to terms with ruling the country alongside the military industrial complex. It also means helming a complicated peace process between the union government and the ethnic groups in the country.

Suu Kyi in interviews, post victory has mentioned negotiating peace agreements with the many ethnic nations spread across the borders of Myanmar as her highest priority. She has called for ceasefire agreements and an effort for a stronger federal system of governance. As important as ceasefire agreements are for the ethnic nations, it would have a lot more impact if peace also came in the form of restoring equal rights, freedom to practice their religion, and use their language. The current peace process has not offered much in this regard and Suu Kyi’s insistence on charting her own peace process might signify a far more comprehensive agreement.

The current USDP government has signed a national ceasefire agreement with 8 ethnic groups in October of 2015. According to the terms of the agreement, a framework for peace would be put in place by December 14th and formal dialogue will begin before January 14th. Suu Kyi and the NLD party have so far not taken part in any of the negotiations. Suu Kyi has in fact criticized the deal for not covering enough ground and has encouraged ethnic parties to not sign the deal.

Even while the national ceasefire agreement was being put into place, the military had started offensives in Shan, and Kachin states in the east and north east of the country. The intensifying of armed conflict was seen by many as a measure to push rebellious states that had refused the deals of the agreement to concede and fall in line. The offensive only served to magnify the reasons why many of the ethnic nations on Myanmar’s borders continue to remain on the periphery of the union.

The political, economic and cultural exclusion of the tribes from the union and from the midlands forms the backbone of the many ills that plague the country. The war between Yangon (Rangoon) and the ethnic nations predates independence from Britain, and has the dubious distinction of serving as the backdrop for two of the longest running insurgencies in the world. Myanmar’s self exclusion and continued alienation has only served to aggravate issues.

The political alienation resulted from overthrowing the Panglong agreement that was part of the original 1948 constitution. The agreement was signed between general Aung San and the Kachin, Shan and Chin people. It promised full autonomy in internal administration, envisioned the creation of Kachin state and promised to look at secession for Shan state in ten years. More importantly it accorded all of the ethnic nations all the fundamental rights and privileges enjoyed by people of democratic countries. The agreement was historical for it signified the coming together of men who had often fought on opposing sides of the battlefield, often with each other during WWII. The Kachin, Karen tribes had sided with the British, and Aung San’s Burmese Army backed the Japanese just before it invaded Burma in 1942.

Deep seated suspicion over the loyalties of tribes like Kachin, & Karen boiled into full fledged animosity on both sides. Failed promises from the time of Independence to persistent insurgent movements escalated to a brutal crackdown in the region during the coup. The military’s objective was to regain control of the country from the various interlopers of varied ethnicities who strayed in during the British era, and restoring the control of the country to the Bamar people, the largest ethnic group in the country.

The military viewed the Bamar people as the original inhabitants of the country. They therefore represented true ‘Burman nationalism’. ‘Burman nationalism’ meant establishing Burmese language, Buddhism and Buddhist culture over all others. It also meant sidelining minorities of other religions, and ethnicities, denying equal opportunity, rights or citizenship for them. The antagonism between the ethnic nations and the Bamar majority, union government has been exacerbated by the intolerance and coercive majoritarianism exhibited by the center through various means. Cultural exclusion included pushing Burmese language, culture, religion on them in schools and colleges. The result has been a a group of people marooned from their own culture, and left raft less by a system that demands homogeneity without reason.

For Suu Kyi to effectively govern the country, it will be critical to strike a balance between the military industrial complex that controls vital departments including security, and the ethnic nations. There has been enough antagonism from both sides and the almost 6 decades of conflict has taken its toll. The country struggles with an extremely large number of internally displaced people, and a porous border that has resulted in a major drug and human smuggling networks. Military commanders also moonlight as businessmen dealing in farming everything from poultry to poppy, mining and selling everything from rubies to rare jade. There has been very little indication that they are willing to give away their riches and their position just because a non military backed, democratic government has come into power.

Suu Kyi will have to navigate deftly and diplomatically between the military and the people who voted for her. Part of her diplomatic heft has to also be wielded with Myanmar’s neighbors, specifically India and China, to ensure their support for stability at the borders and non interference for her policies inside the country. Suu Kyi’s victory at the elections came without the voters asking much of her in terms of policies, alliances or detailed mandates on how she would govern. There have been fewer questions raised about the shades of authoritarianism involved in her emphatic assurance of being higher than the president. She has been handed the pulpit on a platter. How she uses her position will determine the future of her country.

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Reflections on the 69th Year of Independence

We need a Lutheran approach to understanding our democracy and our republic. We need to get back to the basics, learn and understand for ourselves what our freedoms are, and demand that state see us as individuals capable of deciding our own lives

On the 28th of April 1947, just before the start of the third session of the constituent assembly of India, the president of the assembly, Dr. Rajendra Prasad, brought to the attention of its members that Burma had elected its own constituent assembly, quite similar to India’s with the objective of a free, independent Burmese Republic. General Aung San would be the prime mover behind Burma’s transition to Independence. Two months later on the 21st of July 1947, the Indian constituent assembly began its session with condolences on the assassination of General Aung San and his colleagues.

The constituent assembly would go on to meet for another 2 years, its numbers fluctuating with partition, deaths, and elections. In August 1947, it would meet to debate its own status as a constituent assembly and a legislative body. It would meet in November 1948, to offer silent tributes for Gandhi, 10 months after his assassination, and a silent tribute to Jinnah 20 days after his death. The assembly would meet through the most tumultuous times in the Indian subcontinent, fully aware that the institutions that were being created, the republic that was being constructed by the 299 representatives, will have to weather the saints and the scalawags of an Independent India.

68 years after Independence, the union still stands; free, democratic, secular and a republic. It stands in the midst of a subcontinent beset by wars, dictators, military rules, constitutional crises and unstable governments. The neighbourhood is evidence enough to realize the enormity of sustaining an independent republic, and the extraordinary nature of our political system that has shown to be capable of navigating the excesses of meaningless diatribes, alongside the dearth of consequential deliberations. The cracks are however starting to show.

The combined power of an passionless populace, petty politicians, and pestilential politicking have considerable weakened the republic. Murmurs of authoritarianism being preferred over democracy or an oligarchy being favored over popular politics have begun. What drives these movements forward, more than the dream of an utopian state, is an ignorance fed by decades of closing education inside ‘narrow domestic walls’ and ‘dreary desert sand of dead habit’.

Part of the reason for our indifference lies in the way we are taught about our history and in the failure to encourage critical reasoning, rational thinking and learning through questioning. Our education like Gradgrinds school in Dickens’ Hard Times teaches us about facts and nothing but cold hard facts. We do not learn completely about the many ideas that shaped our Independence and our republic. We do not learn about why the men and women who travelled the world to muster support for an Independent India settled on this idea for our country. The insufficiency in our education also means we dampen creativity, ignore argumentative analysis , and refuse to engage in exercises that would help us gain a better understanding of our history and our republic.

Every democracy goes through periods of introspection and fine tuning. It requires the citizenry to look at what has gone right and what can be set right. To lazily entrust the responsibility completely to one individual and willingly forego freedoms in exchange for imagined security & prosperity is not the answer. What we need instead is a Lutheran approach to understanding our democracy and our republic. We need to get back to the basics, learn and understand for ourselves what our freedoms are, and demand that state see us as individuals capable of deciding our own lives. We need to introspect, understand and argue for better rights. We need to teach the next generation to seek refuge in reason and not drown in dogma. We need to overhaul our systems and our institutions, part by part, and push them to create a new generation of citizenry, who can judge for themselves and raise questions that can take them to places where the ‘mind is without fear’

For 2014, I elaborated on Ambedkar’s idea that Social Conscience is the only safeguard for all rights, fundamental and non-fundamental

For 2013 I wrote how Independant thinking, Informed criticism and introspective analysis should be the way forward

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When Look West meets Look East: India-Myanmar Relationship

A primer on the several hurdles that plague the balance and counterbalance walk between India and Myanmar. 

On November 8th, Myanmar will hold its first open, multi-party elections since 1990. The election comes on the heels of a protracted reform movement that was put into place by the military backed USDP party that has been running the country since 2010. Western governments who have encouraged Myanmar’s reforms and praised the paltry civil liberties that have been granted, see this election as a crucial step in Myanmar’s sluggish path to democracy. The November election will also be the first general election for Suu Kyi’s NLD party in 25 years. Their last victory in 1990 ended with her house arrest, crackdown on student protests, a ruthless military dictatorship headed by the SLORC and the introduction of a contentious constitution. There is a small hope, that this election will push the country forward, on a path to a sustainable democratic union. 

The five years since the Thein Sein government came into power, has seen a dramatic shift in the world’s perception of Myanmar. The US and the UK have been trying to balance critical engagement and investment in the country with rightful indignation about its abysmal human rights record. Investments in Myanmar from countries including Thailand, Hong Kong have increased manifold. China and India, meanwhile have pushed ahead fully realizing the strategic importance of a country that sits at the crossroads. Myanmar’s reaction to this increased attention has been one of quite deliberation, and astute pragmatism.

The new crop of Burmese leaders realize that while China has the economic clout to enable it realize its streams of development, overly depending on China would at some point in time create a situation where Myanmar would be subsumed by China. The increased border tensions between the two countries and signs of Chinese interference in funding and training ethnic rebels has been a serious point of contention. The suspension, by  Myanmar of various Chinese projects, including the gas line, the copper mine project and Myistone Dam project were meant to send a strong signal to China. China, meanwhile is going all out in an effort to increase its presence in the region. It has in the last few years invited various ethnic Burmese parties for talks. It also invited Aung San Suu Kyi, a political activist whose arrest and silencing it fully supported till a few years back. Aung San Suu Kyi’s visit to China in early June this year is a sign of the triumph of realism on both sides, and an indication of how the election can potentially change Myanmar’s relationship with its neighbors.

Myanmar’s look west policy, on the other hand gives it an opportunity in investing in a good relationship with India which also has a meeting point in its look east policy. There are, however, several hurdles in this balance and counterbalance tightrope walk.

The first and primary issue is the inability of the Indian government to project a coherent, and sustainable policy towards Myanmar. The relationship goes in short bursts of optimism followed by benign neglect of interest. Every opportunity to increase India’s investment in building a long term relationship with Myanmar has been hampered by bureaucratic incompetence, inefficiency and more importantly an inability to voice a proper policy with regard to its engagement. While there is something to be said about quiet strategic engagements without bringing too much attention to a well defined policy, India’s engagement often looks like something it stumbled into, without clarity or deliberations.

The second factor affecting India-Myanmar relationship is the hangover from the past, when Indians dominated the Burmese landscape. It carries with it a history of exploitation of the Burmese people by Indian employers under the active encouragement and prodding of the British overlords. Burmese nationalism is a direct result of that, and incorporates a kind of xenophobia against every ethnic group that came in settled in Myanmar and exploited the resources and people of Myanmar over the last 300 years.  Our inability to understand that and work around that issue has resulted in some very awkward, and inelegant handling of the relationship. Myanmar’s assertion of its strong position in the Indian Ocean region and its awareness of what it can bring to a relationship should be seen as a sign of the country coming into its own. India needs to work out what it can do in terms of investing in that relationship.

There are various ways in which this relationship can move ahead. Critical of this would be to extend invitations to not just the assumed opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, but also to various ethnic parties which will have a stake in the future of the Burmese Union. The Thein Sein government has been under negotiations with various ethnic parties over a ceasefire agreement which is likely to have long term impact not just within Myanmar, but also along the border with Nagaland, and Manipur. It would be in India’s interest to indicate a willingness to work with recognized ethnic parties to settle border disputes. India also needs to formulate a strategic policy of including Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia to create a maritime and land route on the lines that China is proposing of the belt highway. India also needs to seriously plug the gaps in the many proposed and incomplete projects that it has with Myanmar. Cross-border trade, energy investments, river-networks, infrastructure developments have all been left unfinished and neglected by various governments. The projects needs to be completed and the last mile problems solved.

The NDA’s focus on diaspora engagement and using Indians settled abroad to build relationships should extend eastward too. Myanmar has a large group of politically neglected Indians who have struggled to establish themselves in the country and are at the receiving end of various policies that have enfeebled them. India needs to work on a policy that will ensure that these Indians settled in Myanmar can lead a life without their rights being violated in any form or measure.

The Thein Sein government has been astute in managing the transition from a military backed government to one that proclaims to be democratic. The opening up of the country to visiting journalists and diplomats, granting small slivers of civil liberties, allowing protests and opposition have been chalked up as achievements. On the other hand, there have also been commentators who have expressed doubts about the pace and nature of reforms taking place in the country. Suu Kyi herself, has encouraged US, UK and the rest to have a healthy skepticism about the transition.

Burmese news agencies have reported that a total of 83 parties have signed up to compete in the elections. These include ethnic parties like the Shan Nationalities Democratic Party, the Arakan National Party, the Mon democracy party and smaller ethnic coalition parties. The lack of a ceasefire deal means ethnic parties will be able to build on it to secure votes in return for greater control in deciding their fates. The waning popularity of Aung San Suu Kyi also means that the NLD cannot rest assured of a majority in the houses. The military remains an overarching figure, controlling veto power, and the ability to legally stage an overthrow of a government in case of instability. The voting system also ensures that even non elected members, including military personnel can be voted by a council of ministers to the presidency. Barring Aung San Suu Kyi who cannot become president under the current constitution, the three most likely candidates all come from military backgrounds. Both Thein Sein and Shwe Mann, who is the current speaker of the house have shown themselves to be open to a regimented democracy and have exhibited a degree of flexibility to accommodate reform movements. The current commander-in-chief of the armed forces Min Aung Hlaing will be retiring soon and is widely expected to be the third candidate.

India has a real opportunity here to invest in a stronger, more strategically informed relationship with a neighbor with whom we share more than just a border. Any relationship requires adaptability, trust and an appreciation of what the other side requires from the relationship. How we use this moment to our advantage needs to be seen.


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The UNHRC – A Satirical Play

The irony of countries that systematically violate human rights laws, forwarding a resolution at the UNHRC condemning human rights violations in Burma, is the reason why the UN and its rights bodies need urgent overhauling

In a move completely devoid of irony, but fully befitting the ineffective stage on which it was passed, Pakistan on behalf of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) proposed a resolution condemning the systemic mass atrocities on Rohingya muslims in Burma. The draft resolution titled “Situation of human rights of Rohingya Muslims and other minorities in Myanmar” was adopted without a vote on July 3rd, 2015.

The draft resolution points out that states have primary responsibility for promotion and protection of human rights, condemns violation of human rights and among other things, acknowledges the denial of citizenship status and other related rights to Rohingya Muslims as a concern. It then proceeds to call the government of Myanmar to protect the rights and freedom of the minorities, ensure accountability, to protect places of worship and to end the violence, exploitation and discrimination of minorities, specifically Rohingya Muslims.

The resolutions, by themselves are completely legitimate and within the powers of the countries advancing it. The OIC as an organization has kept itself busy in trying to establish itself as a mediator between acceptable true muslims and the rest of the world. The resolution was a part of their mission to ensure Muslim rights remain unviolated. The absurdity of the exercise, however is in the way the UNHRC meekly adopted the resolution without a single country calling out the OIC or Pakistan for their own human rights violations. 

The OIC is a 57 state organization established in the 1960’s. Members of the organization include almost every muslim majority country in the Middle East, Northern Africa, Pakistan, and South East Asia. The organization’s website calls itself “the second largest inter-governmental organization after the United Nations”, and “the collective voice of the Muslim world, ensuring to safeguard and protect the interests of the Muslim world” With permanent delegations to both the United Nations and the European Union, the organization has managed to push its agenda on various issues that remain vital to the greater Islamic Ummah. These have included condemnation of Israel, highlighting discrimination of muslim minorities in non-Islamic countries and more importantly pushed for an annual resolution condemning religious defamation. The push for what essentially would be an international blasphemy law was one of the landmark resolutions proposed by Pakistan to the UNHRC in 2006.  It ensured that censuring freedom of expression in countries with blasphemy laws would not be seen as a crime. Instead, condemning a religion, would be considered a violation of human rights. The resolution was passed multiple times, before being reworded in 2011.

The OIC as an organization has the strength and the clout on the international stage to redefine various freedoms, rights and human life in an extremely narrow ways. Barring one or two countries, the entire OIC is made of countries that have very little respect for internationally defined human right laws, are belligerent towards suggestions of violations of these laws in their countries and have some of the worst oppressive, regimented rulers in the world. And they sit and push the United Nations to pass resolutions on a state’s responsibility to protect human rights.

The biggest perpetrator of crimes against humanity here is Pakistan. Marginalization of minorities through laws such as ordinance XX which defines who is a muslim and effectively sidelining Ahmadi’s, Christians and Hindus is norm. Pakistan has mastered the art of using blasphemy laws to imprison and push the death penalty on minorities repeatedly. The use of Sharia laws and adoption of Sunni Islam directives to conduct affairs of the state has also sidelined other Islamic sects and have made them foreigners in their own lands. The state is also a full participant in the perpetuation of a genocide against Shia muslims. As Christine Fair points out

 “In 2013 nearly 700 Shia were killed and more than 1,000 were injured in more than 200 sectarian terrorist attacks. Over 90 percent of those attacks occurred in Quetta, Karachi, Kangu, Parachinar, Islamabad and Rawalpindi. Since the beginning of 2000, nearly 4,000 persons have been killed and 6,800 injured”

Various human rights violations including abductions, kill and dump policies and extreme torture have been recorded against Balochs in the country. With more than 20,000 missing and or found dead and mass graves discovered, Balochistan continues to be severely oppressed by the Military Jihadi complex that runs the country and by state sponsored terrorist outfits.

There is however nothing that the United Nations’ human rights body or the OIC or the western powers can or will do to bring Pakistan to task.

The issue of gross human rights violations against the Rohingyas needs to be addressed and steps have to be taken to stop the mass detention and issue of statelessness for these people. Resolutions from international organizations however, have little impact at the ground level. The issue can only be dealt with effectively by Burma itself, in conjunction with the states bordering it, including Thailand and Malaysia. These are the countries directly affected by Burma’s inhumane treatment of the Rohingya Muslims and their migration. The UNHRC has been useful in ensuring that the Rohingya muslim migrants procure safe passage to other countries and in ensuring they have some level of basic necessities to sustain themselves. It has however failed spectacularly in enforcing countries to adopt international human rights standards. To quietly pass resolutions on human rights violations, proposed by a country and an organization where none of the proposals hold any value, is not just a mockery of the institution but also the values that the UN purports to uphold.

The UNHRC has long ceased to be useful in enforcing universal human right norms. Individual countries who hold veto powers have taken it upon themselves to redefine human rights to suit their purpose, and the smaller countries who have traditionally looked to the UNHRC for various protections are learning to align with the powers that would benefit them the most. The role of human rights organization then needs to be redefined. An organization that has dropped so low in relevance needs to realign itself or risk obliteration.

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