Archive for June 2018

Bangladesh is on a roll; its progress looks unstoppable. Last month, it launched its first ever commercial satellite, Bangabandhu-1, from the Kennedy Space Centre in the United States of America. In March, it successfully met the criteria of the United Nations Committee for Development Policy to graduate from a ‘least developed country’ to a ‘developing country’. By 2041, it will become a ‘developed’ country, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed has promised.

Now, let us do a reality check. To be called ‘developing’, Bangladesh needs to keep this pace of development for the next six years. The UN will give this status finally in 2024, once satisfied. That is not all. Last year, in a report, the Food and Agricultural Organization, the World Food Programme and the World Health Organization revealed that the number of malnourished people in Bangladesh has increased by 7,00,000 over the last 10 years. The report also stated that, as of 2017, at least 2.5 crore people in Bangladesh are malnourished – among the highest in the world.

The strength of any country’s economy can be fathomed by the performance of its banking sector. Here, too, the picture is not promising enough. The amount of non-performing and default loans are on the rise and both State-owned and private banks in Bangladesh are facing a capital deficit. A section of private banks, which mostly got licences with the help of political lobbying, have been accused of money laundering.

These facts, of course, do not figure in Wajed’s speeches when she flaunts the development card at rallies, ahead of the parliamentary polls in December. She even attributes the development to the ‘people’ of Bangladesh, whom she calls her main ‘strength’. What she has failed to understand is that, besides development, the ‘people’ want democracy in the country. The bitter truth is democracy has been deeply compromised during her rule or, at least, the international markers indicate so. In the Transformation Index released in March, the Germany-based Bertelsmann Stiftung criticized Bangladesh for not meeting minimum standards of democracy.

Enforced disappearances, torture and forced detention of political opponents, former diplomats, rights activists and journalists are the new norm in Bangladesh. Last year, the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances called upon Bangladesh to act immediately to halt the increasing numbers of enforced disappearances in the country. Random arrests to maintain ‘law and order’ are common. Last month, at least 124 suspected drug peddlers were killed in reported gunfights with law enforcement agencies over a fortnight. The US ambassador to Bangladesh, Marcia Stephens Bloom Bernicat, called on the Awami League-led government to bring the kingpins behind drug peddling to justice without killing. She said that “in a democracy, everyone has the right to due process of law”.

Earlier this year, university students demanding quota reforms in government jobs also faced detention and arrest. In Parliament, the agriculture minister, Matia Chowdhury, even labelled the protesters as the children of war criminals. In February, the Asian Legal Resource Centre, a Hong Kong-based rights organization, noted that custodial “torture has been institutionalised in Bangladesh”.

Curiously, Wajed, who has been called ‘Mother of Humanity’ by the Western press for giving shelter to lakhs of persecuted Rohingya refugees from Myanmar, shies away from answering questions on human rights violations under her rule. A journalist was stopped from asking questions on these issues at a press meet during her visit to London in April. But she answered gladly questions on Bangladesh’s ‘progress and prospects’. The message was clear. Her priority is development, democracy can come later.

Like 2014, this time again, Wajed and her party, the Awami League, want to win unopposed. Such is the desperation to come back to power that the party general secretary, Obaidul Quader, recently went ahead to say, “Victory in the upcoming general elections for Awami League is merely a formality.”

Interestingly, foreign diplomats in Dhaka have taken note of the desperation; they have been repeatedly urging the Awami League government to conduct free and fair elections. They have also asked the election commission to take measures to avoid the boycotts and violence that marred the 2014 elections. Unfortunately, the independence of the commission has been questioned too, and there are reasons for it. During the presidential elections in February, the law minister, Anisul Huq, announced the poll date two days before the EC could formally do it. Soon after, the election commissioner, K.M. Nurul Huda, had to admit the commission is working to regain the trust of the people.

December shall clearly be a testing time for the election commission. But the people of Bangladesh are in a fix too. They do not know if their vote can restore democracy or if they shall have to make do with Wajed’s idea of development for the third time in a row.

 It appeared in The Telegraph, June 27, 2018

The growing India-Israel bonhomie is all too well known. A critical part of the ties is India shopping military muscle in Israel. But, as Sonia Sarkar finds out, all’s not well despite eagerness on both sides to do business

Sonia Sarkar Jun 24, 2018 00:00 IST

DEEP END: Modi with Netanyahu at the Olga Beach during his 2017 Israel visit

A hundred years have passed since Indian soldiers laid down their lives to liberate the Israeli city of Haifa from the Ottoman army. A century later, it is India that looks up to the military prowess of Israel. The Narendra Modi-led government wants more and more Israeli defence companies to open shop in India and the latter have embraced the opportunity with gusto.

In 2017, Israel signed a $2 billion deal with India to supply advanced missile defence systems – the biggest such deal in the history of Israel’s defence industries.

Israeli defence companies such as Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) Limited, Elbit Systems, Aeronautics Limited and Rafael Advanced Defense Systems Limited – that specialise in manufacturing UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles), radars, avionics and other defence equipment – have entered into joint ventures with private companies in India.

According to Thailand-based Asia-Pacific defence expert Jon Grevatt, it is a great fit. Israel is good at producing and developing missile, navigation and combat systems, unmanned surveillance and radar systems, all of which cater to India’s military needs. He adds, “Israeli military technologies match well with India’s strategic needs.”

Potential adversaries, Grevatt points out, surround both countries, a reason why they see themselves as military and strategic partners.

Modi and his Israeli counterpart, Benjamin Netanyahu, have urged their respective defence ministries to involve public and private sectors to create the basis for viable, sustainable and long-term co-operation in defence. Last year, the I4F – India Israel Industrial R&D and Technological Innovation Fund – was launched.

Under the joint venture agreement, Israeli and Indian companies have been setting up manufacturing plants, working on the transfer of military technologies and developing strategic applications ( see box).

And while the ink is yet to dry on many of these, what is definitely not new is the exchange – Israel has been supplying complete systems such as radar, air defence, drones and air-to-surface missiles to India for two decades now.

According to Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Sipri) estimates, India accounted for 49 per cent of Israel’s arms exports between 2013 and 2017. Sipri is an independent global security institute. IAI, Elbit and Rafael have increasingly gotten involved in supplying components for weapon systems developed in India – radar for the HAL manufactured light combat aircraft, Tejas, battlefield management system for the Arjun tank.

Pieter Wezeman, senior researcher, Arms and Military Expenditure Programme at Sipri, feels the next step is co-operative development between the two nations but there are hiccups galore. “Considering India’s own unimpressive record in developing advanced arms, it is not in a position to be an equal partner in technological terms with Israel. The relationship will remain one in which the Israeli arms industry will supply technology and India, money. A recent example of such a project is the ongoing development of the medium-range surface-to-air-missile air defence system, based on the Israeli IAI and Rafael Barak-8 system.”

Politically, for years, India has been a critic of Israel and supported the Palestinian cause, while maintaining good terms with the Arab world. It was only after the Cold War ended that India established full-fledged diplomatic relations with Israel.

During the 1999 Kargil war, Israel provided India with mortar ammunition and surveillance drones along with intelligence inputs. A 2013 book titled 1971 by Srinath Raghavan, however, reveals that India also received arms from Tel Aviv when it was preparing to go to war with Pakistan in 1971.

Arms supply to India picked up after 2000, when Israel, pressured by the US, stopped exporting to China.

In 2003, Ariel Sharon became the first Israeli prime minister to visit India and the Delhi Statement on Friendship and Cooperation was signed. During the same visit, the deputy prime minister of Israel, Yosef Lapid, observed that India and Israel had the “closest ties in defence” and Israel was the “second largest supplier of weapons to India”. Russia was the largest supplier then.

The current BJP government has taken business relations between the two nations to a new level. In a deviation from the past, India abstained from voting against Israel at the UN Human Rights Council in 2015, when a resolution was passed against it for “alleged war crimes” in Gaza. In 2017, Narendra Modi was the first Indian prime minister to visit Israel but he didn’t visit Ramallah, the seat of Palestinian authority. (He went later, on a separate visit.) Once again, last year India maintained a stoic silence for over a month before voting in favour of a UN General Assembly resolution that rejected US recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. The Indian PM has also urged Israeli defence firms to take advantage of the “liberalised” foreign direct investment (FDI) regime.

But Israeli companies, it seems, want more. Amit Cowshish, an Indian defence expert, puts things in context. “The Israeli companies have not invested much in India because of the virtual cap of 49 per cent on FDI that denies a decisive say to the investor in the management of the investee company. The total foreign direct investment in defence since 2014 has been just about Rs 1 crore,” he says.

Bureaucratic issues, apparently, remain a deterrent for investing companies. “The fact that the ministry of defence has been slow in awarding big time contracts to the private sector may also be a discouraging factor, because it indicates that the business potential is not really getting converted into actual business for the industry,” says Cowshish, who used to be financial adviser (acquisition) at the ministry of defence.

The recent termination of the $500 million deal for “Spike” anti-tank missiles and missile-launchers from Rafael is not good news either, nor so the series of flip-flops that punctuated the negotiations. For example, a few days before Netanyahu’s January visit to India, it was reported that the deal had fallen through.

But when the Israeli PM was in Delhi, he announced that the deal had been revived. A recent report, however, confirms that the defence ministry decided to retract the request as Rafael refused to a complete transfer of technology as per the provisions of the Make in India initiative.

“Arms procurement in India appears to be prone to delays in final decisions, confusing decisions, confusing government statements, delays in contract and deliveries, even cancellations and restarts of cancelled plans,” says Wezeman of Sipri. He continues, “Such flip-flops erode India’s credibility both as a responsible buyer and as a promising destination for investment.”

However, it is not as if Israel is the lone option for India. Wezeman talks about how Israel encounters heavy competition from other arms industries. “India started to look at the US as an arms supplier about a decade ago. Plus, India is the most important export market for the Russian arms industry since the 1960s,” he says.

But Israeli military equipment is highly competitive in the world market and stands out, argues defence expert Grevatt. “Israel doesn’t make fighter aircraft or submarines or surface combatants as does Russia. Israel makes the systems – their products are quite niche and the world’s best. Israeli systems can be integrated in Russian or US platforms. Israel is an experienced defence exporter and exports products all over the world,” he adds.

International defence experts draw attention to yet another angle to India’s military bonhomie with Israel. They say it is not all for the sake of strengthening the country’s defence sector but also to serve the Modi regime’s own interest. Maren Mantovani, member of the International Secretariat of the BDS National Committee (it leads the BDS movement for Palestinian human rights), says, “India’s Right-wing government uses the weapons imported from Israel as an instrument of repression and surveillance on its own people. The imports have heavily increased under the Modi regime and are hugely shifting towards small arms, drones, surveillance balloons and weaponry that is mainly deployed in internal conflicts.”

Newly-elected Kairana MP Tabassum Hasan tells Sonia Sarkar why she thinks it is possible to defeat the BJP in 2019.

The apartment in Delhi’s Jamia Nagar belongs to Tabassum Hasan’s younger brother. It is 11am but I am told Hasan fell asleep after sehri – the pre-dawn meal of fasting Muslims during the month of Ramzan – and she is still sleeping. These days, only the mornings are somewhat easy for her. In the evenings, she is busy attending iftar parties organised by various political parties. She is the toast of iftars, everyone wants to invite her after she dealt a stunning defeat to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the recent Kairana Lok Sabha bypolls.

It is not long before Hasan enters the drawing room dressed in a white and pink cotton salwar-kameez. She says, “Everyone is congratulating me as if all of them were desperately waiting to see me win.”

The 47-year-old is now the only Muslim MP from Uttar Pradesh – a state with 19.26 per cent Muslim population. Hasan, who will begin her stint in this monsoon session, says, “Being the single Muslim MP from UP, everyone will keep an eye on me. I feel I have a huge responsibility now as a politician.”

The Kairana seat fell vacant after the sitting BJP member, Hukum Singh, passed away this year. Hasan, who belongs to the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD), was backed by the Congress, Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and Samajwadi Party (SP).

Many regard the Kairana defeat of the BJP as the preview to a BJP-mukt UP in the 2019 parliamentary polls. In the 2014 polls, the BJP had secured 71 out of 80 seats in the state. But this March, the party lost two bypolls, one in Gorakhpur and the other in Phulpur. Kairana fell in May – it was the third big loss in a row.

But this is not the first time that Hasan has won this parliamentary seat. She won it in 2009 too. “But this win gives out the message that when the Opposition is united, the BJP and its communal agenda can be defeated.”

Hasan is wary of the BJP’s “communal agenda”. She has witnessed it in her own constituency. In 2013, a year before the BJP came to power at the Centre, 62 people died in communal violence in Shamli, the area under her jurisdiction, and neighbouring Muzaffarnagar. BJP leaders, including the late Hukum Singh, Sanjeev Balyan, Sangeet Som and Suresh Rana, were booked for instigating violence. After the riots, came the issue of mass Hindu exodus from Kairana. Singh blamed the Muslims for it, though much later, questions were raised about the authenticity of such claims.

In these bypolls, the BJP played the Jat vs Muslim card. But Hasan claims she got over 80 per cent of the Jat votes. “These Jats are Hindus. Why do you think they supported me? Ram, Krishna, Allah, all were with me,” says Hasan, who won by 50,000 votes.

Shortly before the bypolls last month, the BJP and Bajrang Dal also raked up the issue of “reverse” love jihad. Earlier, they had alleged that Hindu girls were being lured away by Muslim men and dubbed the phenomenon “love jihad”. This time round, they alleged that Hindu men were being made to join Islam with the promise of a job and marriage with a Muslim girl.

Hasan laughs at this. “The biggest love jihads have happened in the homes of BJP leaders. The party’s national spokesperson Shahnawaz Hussain’s wife, Renu, and minority affairs minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi’s wife, Seema, are both Hindus. Who will talk about them?” she asks, and then adds indignantly, “Is this even an issue?”

The BJP never talks about issues that matter, she lashes out. She points out how around the time of the Kairana bypolls, the party created much hullabaloo over a portrait of Muhammad Ali Jinnah that has been in Aligarh Muslim University for decades. Opposing the BJP’s attempt to divert from real issues, RLD leader Jayant Chaudhary coined the slogan, “Jinnah nahin, ganna chalega… Not Jinnah, sugarcane is the real issue here”. It was a nod to the statewide problem of non-payment of dues to sugarcane farmers by sugar mills.

Currently, the unpaid dues stand at Rs 1,000 crore. Hasan says, “Plus, the price of compost has gone up, the power tariff for tube wells has increased and soaring diesel prices are also taking a toll on farmers. Why doesn’t the BJP talk about all this?”

She seems to believe that no attempt by the Hindutva brigade to resurrect the Hindu versus Muslim debate can help the BJP anymore. “The fact that I am sitting in front of you as an elected MP is the biggest proof of that. Our strategy is to keep a direct connect with the people, raise real issues in Parliament, solve people’s problems. That’s the only way to defeat the BJP in 2019,” she says, as she pulls her white embroidered dupatta to cover her head. “Dhul chatayenge in sabko… We will make them bite the dust.”

In this hour-long meeting, for the first time, Hasan speaks with so much aggression. She is otherwise not much of a talker; one has to prod her for detailed answers. And she is very soft-spoken, too. I cannot help but ask how she hopes to survive in the male-dominated Parliament. “Don’t go by this side of mine,” she says. “I can be tough if need be.”

In a resolute voice she tells me she doesn’t really want anyone to project her success as a triumph of woman power. In fact, she clearly says, she doesn’t want to play the woman card for her political gains. “I won not because I am a woman. My opponent, Mriganka Singh, daughter of Hukum Singh, is also a woman. The fight was equal.”

Hasan grew up in a family of wealthy farmers at Saharanpur in west UP. She and her two sisters enjoyed absolute freedom at home. Her younger brother, Mansoor, tells me, “All important decisions were and are still taken by our sisters. Our parents never listened to the sons much.”

Her maternal grandfather, Shafquat Jung, was a Congress MP from Kairana between 1971 and 1977. Her father, Akhtar Hasan, was the pradhan, or chief, of the Sarsawa block in Saharanpur. Hasan tells me she had watched both of them at work closely and understood the tricks of the trade well before she took the plunge. She was also aware of the risks one takes in elections. She learnt how to garner the support of grassroots workers, too. “A lot of women don’t understand politics even if they join it. They cannot even decide whom to vote for; they do as the men in their family want them to do. That never happened in my case.”

The political training continued even after marriage. Her father-in-law, also Akhtar Hasan, was a Congress MP from Kairana between 1984 and 1989. “He was an astute politician,” says Hasan. She adds that while the older generations in both families were Congress loyalists, she and her husband, Munawwar Hasan, were closer to the SP.

Munawwar was elected to the Lok Sabha from Kairana in 1996 and Muzaffarnagar in 2004 on an SP ticket. Later, he joined the BSP. All through his political career, Tabassum sat through political meetings, played an active role in a lot of inner party decision-making and co-ordinated with party workers at the ground level. When Munawwar died in an accident, she assumed charge and fought the 2009 elections on a BSP ticket. “I had to take his legacy forward,” says Munawwar’s widow, who has since joined the RLD.

I tell her she has the reputation of being quite the party-hopper, to which she replies, “I always changed parties for the welfare of the people.”

Since her victory, Hasan has been targeted by various pro-BJP sites on social media. In those posts, certain controversial statements have been falsely attributed to her. A Facebook page titled “Yogi Adityanath-True Indian” quoted her as having said, “This is the victory of Allah and the defeat of Ram.” This post was shared over 3,700 times. Hasan finally lodged a police complaint and an investigation is currently underway.

She says, “I would like to ask the BJP, if you are fighting so much for Muslim women and their issues of triple talaq and talking about “sabka saath, sabka vikas”, then why are you so worried about a Muslim woman going to Parliament.”