Saturday, 7 May 2016

Opinion: London's new "Muslim" mayor is actually a great news!

The election of London’s new mayor, Sadiq Khan, is a cheerful news even for those who are not really affected or concerned about the city’s affairs. It’s inspiring when one of the greatest and a vibrantly multicultural cities of the world elects a mayor purely on merit, one based on positive campaign and not identity.

Clearly, the media is awash with headlines of London’s first “Muslim” and a “son of a bus driver” mayor – a narrative that strongly constructs the elected mayor’s identity. Such profiling with emphasis on religion is needless and using words like “Londonistan” is at best shallow. It often reinforces the issues that voters have chose to ignore at the first place.

In his victory speech, Mr. Khan has said that the campaign was not without controversy; he thanked voters for choosing “hope over fear” and “unity over division”.

Mr Khan’s mayoral victory also is the triumphant moment for the city of London and also Britain at large that has provided opportunities, created enabling environment for growth and prosperity for millions like his family that choose to settle in the city and had humble beginnings.

The victory symbolically is significant in the backdrop of the EU migrant crisis, and the Paris attacks earlier this year that fuelled fears that the foundations of multiculturalism in modern Europe is about to crumble.  The election reaffirms the finer values of equality, diversity and democracy. Londoners have strongly uphold these universal values, and provided a model worthy of emulation in other places around the world. It is a great news for anyone that believes in these values.

Thursday, 18 February 2016

Common Man and the JNU row

Since last week, Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi has been on a boil after its students’ union president Kanhaiya Kumar has been arrested on sedition charges for allegedly organising an event to mark the anniversary of the execution of Afzal Guru – convicted for attacking the Indian Parliament in 2001 by the Supreme Court of India.

This has now becoming a highly contentious issue notching up decibel debates in the public sphere and media. It has generated impassioned reaction about safeguarding ‘freedom of speech’, and the ‘right to dissent’, resisting the ‘forces of intolerance’ and upholding the ethos and sanctity of campus politics. The controversy reached new heights when political stalwarts like Rahul Gandhi joined the students to protest against the police action, alleging that there is a conspiracy to swamp campuses with right wing forces, that, they say, want to silent the critics of the government with coercion and intimidation. In the heart of all this, is the emotive and sparky issue of being ‘anti-national’ vs ‘state overreach’.

This week, there has been ugly scenes of furious lawyers assaulting journalists and roughing up students’ groups perceived by them as anti-nationals outside the court premises where Mr. Kumar, the arrested student leader, was to be produced. Meanwhile, in Kolkata the students of Jadavpur University atrociously chanted slogans eulogising Afzal Guru.

The highly disconcerting and appallingly thuggish behaviour of the lawyers in addition to the chain of events over issues, which by no means, warrant a crisis of this magnitude is highly condemnable, baffling and extremely sad for general public who are more concerned about proper functioning of the government, development and the economy. It was with this great hope that the majority of the people of India voted for a change and given a mandate to break the politics of coalition, and ushered in a stable government.

There are many narratives to the ongoing tensions, but let’s deal with a few factors just as a common observer.

Afzal Guru

We know he is a terrorist, who plotted the audacious attack on the Indian parliament. He was convicted by the highest court of the land, and had a fair trial. One fails to understand how can he be a celebrated at all.But then, Indian constitution guarantees Freedom of Speech, and by that virtue, it is accepted that a statement or a speech however distasteful it might be must be tolerated. And it is in line with this principle, this nation even tolerates people who idolise Mahatma Gandhi’s assassinator or even talk about building his statue. This is the greatness of India’s democracy. Try saying Hitler is great in Europe.  

Anti –India sentiment

There are big reasons to be worried about it. Any sane government will be concerned and take palliative action to stop any activity which is deemed anti-national or is seen as a potential threat to peace and stability of the country. It is more imperative in a country like India which has been one of the worst victims of unimaginable terror.

In the UK, for example,  government does appeal to the universities to keep eye of a number of students’ societies of universities suspected of indulging in activities that might be dangerous to public safety which includes potential act of terror. Same goes for JNU. If the government had credible information of ongoing anti- India activity in the campus and acted accordingly, that’s absolutely fine.

As a citizen of India, I would strongly criticise Umar Khalid’s action -   the man who conceived the idea of a cultural evening to mark the hanging of Parliament attack convict Afzal Guru, and as per the the media reports had planned similar events across the country.  To me his action is highly reprehensible, but as a lay man we have to tolerate him and let the government judge through its intelligence if actions amount to anti-national activity. The polity of India is highly susceptible to anti- India elements may be insurgent separatists’ groups in the north east or the militancy in Kashmir. And government cannot go soft on it.

The police

Again, based on media reports, and eye witness accounts circulating in the social media, it seems the police has picked up the wrong person.  It is said that the student leader had gone to mediate between the organisers of the event and ABVP, the students body of the BJP, who opposed the event.

That was purely campus politics in action. Ideally, ABVP, could have done a counter rally. If the government and police had credible intelligence that event was anti-national, they should have been there before hand and arrested the organisers. But that is not how Indian system work. The police went in and made a mess of the situation leading to an explosion of the issue.

This is followed by irresponsible tweets by the Delhi police and the Home Ministry claiming that the event had was backed by Pakistani terror groups etc. Can there be any higher degree of immaturity as shown by the authorities? Where is the evidence?

The lawyers

They have shamed the nation, the judiciary and the legal fraternity. The anarchic situation that unfolded outside the court yesterday is shocking and despicable. If they don’t get the harshest of punishment, ordinary people have a lot of be concerned about


In this case, they themselves have been attacked hence it is in their interest to blow the issue up. Unfortunately, if there is one thing that needs reform in this country, it is the media itself.  Raging fire on the screen with the anchor and the handful of same faces across all channels and on all topics howling on the screen- this is what India media is. This privately owned, politically influenced, highly low paid industry thrives on a few faces and embody a character that undermines the cultural ethos of the country.


Without getting in much details, it must be noted from a common man’s perspective that this government was voted to power with a lot of hope.  But ever since it has been in power, there has been recurring incidents that threaten individual freedom and freedom of expression. Clearly, and very unfortunately everything India in has political angle and a motive and this incident is no different. The BJP government needs to rein in on unsavoury, radical leaders who make inflammatory remarks that potentially, could pose as a threat to the  harmony and peace in the country. Is that then not an anti-national activity? 

India will prosper as long it remains a liberal democracy. Coming back to politics, we hope that this issue will not stall the up coming session in the parliament and will see the passage of big ticket reforms including GST. The country cannot be held hostage by left leaning intellectuals and political groups or campus politics, just the way the right wing groups have no business in creating mayhem in the country.

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Myanmar: first impressions

AS Myanmar emerges from decades of international isolation, there is a new found optimism and hope amongst the citizens of Yangon for a better future.

Yangon city centre
Moe Kyaw, 37, reflects this optimism.  Having lived in Singapore for almost 17 years, he returned to his country in 2012 shortly after Myanmar began the process of political reforms. He saved enough money to buy a tiny apartment in one of the decrepit residential buildings in a Yangon street and a car. He now works as a taxi driver earning $200 a month and attends a vocational school where he learns computer programming.

Kyaw is well informed about international affairs and politics, and his aspirations are strongly tied with the country’s future. He says, “it is beginning of a new era", he is hopeful that Myanmar will come into terms with its past and will move on the path of prosperity.

“Our country has been plundered and destroyed for six decades by the military, but now there is a lot of hope. It is full of opportunities and natural resources. We need to rebuild our country. We have full faith in our lady (Aung Sun Suu Kyi),” says Kyaw.

Though Myanmar began the political reforms in 2010, many are waiting to see how will the process eventually shape up. On 1st February, the new parliament convened for its opening session. Aung Sun Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) got a thumping majority in the elections held in November last year. The election process was seen as credible by international observers. Despite this, the country’s constitution debars Aung San Suu Kyi from becoming president as her late husband and two sons have British passports. The military still retains 25% of the parliamentary seats and appoints the powerful home, defence and border- affairs ministers. The military also passed a bill which grants blanket immunity to ex- presidents from prosecution.  

However, following the political reforms foreign investments have been soaring. In 2014, it touched a $8 billion, one of the highest in the ASEAN region. Japan particularly has been one of the biggest donor and also an investor in a range of sectors like manufacturing, insurance and infrastructure. According to Devex, a private group tracking development aid, Japan accounted for 35% of global Official Development Assistance (ODA) loans to Myanmar in 2013. In 2015, a major Japanese backed investment zone Thilawa special economic zone started its operation just outside Yangon.

In Yangon, the locals welcome the Japanese investment but remain wary of investments by Myanmar’s long term ally and influential neighbour China. There is general feeling that the China is draining the country’s natural resources. The popular public opposition has lead to suspension and cancellation of key projects notably the Chinese-backed Myitsone Dam in 2011 and Kyaukpyu-Yunnan railway project.

San Tung Khint, a director of a Yangon based company says, “the foreign investments are vital to our country’s growth. We need training on capacity building, our bureaucracy needs to be reformed and we need technology to leap frog in every sphere of development.”

He adds, “we need to carefully manage our resources and not get exploited over dependent on a country. We sit between two economic power houses India and China, and we need investment from both and others without compromising our national interest.”

Hindu deities at the Shwedagon Pagoda
The Burmese workforce is young and cheap and poised to be one of the hub for the garment manufacturing in years to come. However, despite the potential there is surprisingly low investment from the country’s eastern neighbour India.

India enjoys a strong historical, cultural and spiritual people – to - people ties with Myanmar. A guide at the famous Shwedagon Pagoda Temple in central Yangon shows the influence of Buddhism and also Hinduism in Myanmar’s cultural and religious life. The temple celebrates Buddha in all its formations and glory. There are deities of Hindu gods and goddesses and pictorial depiction of Asoka, a powerful emperor of ancient India.

Mr Win, the guide says, “almost 60 % of our cultural and religious life bear similarity with India, 30 % from Mongolia and 10 % from Tibet.” Most people that this writer met in the Pagoda talked about their desire to visit Bodh Gaya, the birth place of Buddha once in their lifetime.

There are historical reasons for the gap: in Myanmar, until 1947, the Indians especially Bengalis, Parsis and Tamils formed a sizeable community contributing to its economy and administration under the British Raj. A large scale migration began after the Japanese invasion during the World War II.  In 1960s, when the military government pursued the policy of nationalization, a lot of Indian businesses were forced to leave.

In a recent interview to mizzima, a Myanmar online news portal, the Indian ambassador to Myanmar, Gautam Mukhopadhaya said that lack of Indian investment is primarily due to three major factors: first there is a lack of information on both sides about each other’s economy and opportunities; second, there are no proper banking channels to facilitate trade and investment; third is poor air connectivity (there is no direct flight between New Delhi and Yangon).  The ambassador points out that India has been slightly disengaged with Myanmar compared to its other neighbours but there will be steady rise of Indian investment in the next decade.
the colonial Yangon railway station

The ambassador underlines that Myanmar being an immediate and a big neighbour is strategically placed in the intersection of India’s two top foreign policy priorities: one is the neighbourhood first policy, which calls for a wider engagement between India and its neighbour. Second, for India’s Act East policy: Myanmar due to its strategic geographical location serves as a natural transit point to the rest of greater Mekong region.

Back in Yangon, it is quite evident that the process of rebuilding the country is going to a big challenge in a number of fronts. The key priorities are to end long – standing conflicts with ethnic armed insurgency groups, diversifying the economy, strengthening democratic institutions and capacity building.
 Young people say the country’s higher education system is in a dismal state. Marisa Charles a social worker says, “Until very recently there were no private schools in the country and the quality of education wasn’t up to the mark. In the university some courses are in English because the books are in English but they are taught in Burmese. So students tend to memorise their lessons.”

In the rural areas Burmese language is not spoken by the ethnic minorities so they don’t understand what’s being taught. There is now a big push to teach the basic subjects the ethnic minority languages.

Post reforms a lot of INGOS and development agencies have started working in the country. UN agencies are putting a lot of resources in fighting human trafficking, addressing gaps in gender equality, improving reproductive health services responding to and preventing gender based violence and integrating gender equality and human right’s perspectives into national polices, development frameworks and laws. India is particular is helping in capacity building and political reforms.

In many ways, ordinary people in Myanmar are very positive about the wind of change that is sweeping through the country. In Yangon, one can notice the country's potential. They have got the basic civic sense right: traffic snarls are serpentine, yet no one honks, no lane jumping and it's largely clean. If they get the policies right and investment is properly directed, it's surely poised to be the next big thing in Asia.