Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Kerala police caught unawares by local links of Kashmir militants

When security forces in Kashmir claimed two young men from Kerala were among those killed in separate encounters in the remote Lolab Valley early in October, the state police did not give the information much credence.

According to the Kashmir police, the two were members of a group, which was trying to cross the line of control to train with a Pakistan-based militant organisation.

On the basis of voter identity cards found on the bodies, they identified one as a resident of Kovalam and the other as a resident of Malappuram.

Initially, the Kerala police assumed that if there was a Kerala link at all it must be with the small community of Kashmiri traders based at the tourist spot of Kovalam, not with the local people.

When preliminary investigations showed that the men whose names appeared on the cards were alive, they assumed they had no cause for worry.

They theorised that militant organisations operating in Kashmir had asked their cadres to carry forged voter's identity cards, purportedly issued by governments of southern states, to mislead the authorities and create the impression that they received support from all over the country.

Their theory collapsed last week when the Kashmir authorities placed before a visiting state police team the evidence in their possession.

Local investigations in the light of material received from Kashmir led them to acknowledge that the two men killed in Kashmir were indeed from Kerala.

Although contradictions abound in the information made available to the media by the authorities, it is now generally agreed that the two are Muhammad Fayaz of Kannur and Abdul Rahim of Parappanangadi in Malappuram district.

On Sunday, the police said they had identified two more persons killed in Kashmir recently as Keralites.

One of them was from Kannur and the other from Kochi Apparently, they were in Kashmir for their date with death even as half a million Muslims, gathered at a dozen congregations in Malappuram, took a pledge to work for peace and against terrorism on the 27th of Ramadan.

Ma'dinu Saquafathil Islamiyya, which runs a number of schools, colleges and orphanages in the State, has been organising such congregations regularly for the last 22 years.

According to the Kashmir police, they were part of a large group operating under the banner of Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT).

They believe it is possible that the group includes other Keralites as well.

LeT, formed in 1990 in Afghanistan, later moved its base to Lahore and was reported to be running terror training camps. Its presence in Kashmir was first noticed in 1993.

LeT is a banned organisation in both India and Pakistan. It also figures on the US government's "terrorist exclusion list."

According to Fayaz's mother, Safiya, he left home in early September with Faisal, also of Kannur, who had offered to find him a job in Bangalore. She did not hear from him subsequently.

When she checked with Faisal, she was told he was receiving religious instruction in Ahmedabad.

The police say Faisal, who is in custody, was looking for recruits for LeT. Under questioning, he reportedly admitted to sending some others, too, to join the militants' ranks.

They are trying to ascertain the whereabouts of several young men who are away from home.

They are specifically looking into the activities of some persons who were associated with the National Democratic Front and the banned Students Islamic Movement of India.

The NDF, formed in the wake of the demolition of Babri Masjid, has been the major constituent of the Confederation of Human Rights of Kerala.

On its initiative, two national organisations were set up recently: the Popular Front of India and the National Confederation of Human Rights Organisations.

While coming to terms with the tragic end of Fayaz and Rahim, their families have shown no interest in getting the bodies home.

They have informed the police that the bodies may be buried in Kashmir. Media reports quoted Fayaz's mother, Safiya, as saying, "If he worked against the country, he must pay for it. For me, the country is greater than son." State Muslim League President Syed Mohammed Shihab Thangal has said her words echo the sentiments of the Muslim community.

Hindu communal groups claim their warnings of the growing influence of extremist elements in Kerala have been proved right. The political parties are engaged in a blame game on the basis of electoral calculations. Sadly, there is no attempt to identify the factors that render young men prey to terrorist influence, let alone counter them. --Gulf Today, October 27, 2008.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Rival fronts launch agitations with an eye to elections

The season of pre-poll agitations has begun in Kerala, which arguably has the most polarised polity in the whole of India.

Even as the Left Democratic Front staged a sit-in in New Delhi against the Centre's alleged neglect of the state and the United Democratic Front staged demonstrations in the state capital against the LDF government.

The Congress-led UDF and the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led LDF, traditional rivals in state politics, have been alternating in power in the state for nearly three decades.

The Bharatiya Janata Party's emergence as a contender for power at the Centre, forced the Congress and the CPI-M to come close at the national level. While the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance wielded power in New Delhi, the Congress and the CPI-M were both in the opposition.

After the Lok Sabha elections of 2004, the CPI-M and other Left parties extended support to the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance from outside to prevent the BJP's return to power.

The Left parties ended the marriage of convenience when the UPA government went ahead with the Indo-US civilian nuclear agreement, ignoring their objections. They reckoned that anti-US rhetoric would pay electoral dividends. Apart from being popular with their traditional supporters, it could attract support from the state's large Muslim community, which is resentful of the anti-Islamic character of America's war on terror.

The CPI-M coined the slogan of "neglect by the Centre" in the 1960s. The party used it with a good deal of success in many campaigns. The charge of neglect carried conviction with the public since Central investment in the state under successive five-year plans was negligible.

The party has revived the charge, hoping to rekindle old political animosities. Ironically, the new campaign comes at a time when the Centre has sanctioned a number of major projects in the state such as the container terminal near Kochi, the Naval Academy at Ezhimala and the Indian Space Research Institute near Thiruvananthapuram.

A feature of the new anti-Centre campaign is that it is not limited to the party level, as in the past, but has been extended to the governmental level. Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan personally led the protest march and sit-in in New Delhi. His cabinet colleagues followed him, holding aloft placards.

As soon as the LDF announced plans for the New Delhi protest, the UDF said it would stage demonstrations in the state capital and various other centres on the same day to expose the failures of the state government. Leader of the opposition Oommen Chandy led the UDF sit-in outside the state secretariat.

The CPI-M did not leave the State arena entirely to the UDF. As the UDF leaders staged the sit-in outside the Secretariat, state party secretary Pinarayi Vijayan addressed a mass rally outside the Governor's residence.

The state government paid for the ministers' travel to New Delhi. A few of them also had official engagements there, which may justify the government bearing the expenses of their travel. The others did not even bother to provide such justification.

Oommen Chandy asked whether it was proper for the chief minister to go to New Delhi at the state government's expense to protest against the Central government, Achuthanandan countered with another question: who pays the bill when Oommen Chandy travels on political business? Oommen Chandy responded by saying his travel expenses were being met the same way as those of Achuthanandan were met when he was the leader of the opposition.

Like the members of the council of ministers, the leader of the opposition draws pay and allowances from the state government.

Political parties and political activities are a necessary part of democracy. The basic issue arising from the demonstration staged by the chief minister and his colleagues in New Delhi is one of constitutional propriety, not political or financial propriety.

All constitutional functionaries must act according to the provisions of the constitution. That, in fact, is what members of the council of ministers at the Centre and in the state promise to do when they enter upon their duties.

The CPI-M, as a political party, has every right to agitate against the Central government. But the government of Kerala, as a constitutional entity, has no right to agitate against the government of India. In deputing the chief minister and his colleagues to stage the sit-in, the CPI-M has set a bad precedent. --Gulf Today, October 20, 2008.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Denial of democratic rights in the name of fight against terrorism

The Naxal era is taking rebirth in Malayalam cinema. As the the thunder of spring echoes belatedly in Jairaj's Gul Mohar and Madhupal's Thalappaav, some questions arise naturally. Also a reminder that the problems the Naxalite movement highlighted are remaining unsolved.

Is the Naxal era taking rebirth in the Kerala police too? What prompts this question is the arrest of M.N.Ravunni and the case the police has registered against him. When we remember the experience of P. Govindan Kutty, Editor of People's March, who was arrested some months ago, this cannot be seen as an isolated incident.

Police arrested Ravunni when he went to the office of the Deputy Superintendent of Police, Agali,on September 29 in response to a summons to record his statement in connection with a complaint lodged with the State Human Rights Commission. Sunil Babu and Vinod, activists of Porattam, had been taken into custody by the Agali police on August 31. In the complaint to the Human Rights Commission, Ravunni, who is General Convener of Porattam, had stated that their arrest was illegal and that they were subjected to torture.

There is an investigative wing under the Human Rights Commission. Its members are on deputation from the State police. An investigation wing has been set up under the Commission to facilitate independent and impartial inquiry under its direct control in matters that come up before it. The Commission's action in asking the impugned Agali police to investigate the complaint instead of entrusting the responsibility to its own investigative wing can only be described as strange. The Agali police made the complaint the accused. It made Ravunni also an accused in the case registered against the Porattam activists.

The main charge against Ravunni and his colleagues is sedition. Sunil Babu and Vinod were arrested for being in possession of videos of arms training by Maoists in Nepal. Videos of this kind are widely seen on television in the 21st century. To put it mildly, it is infantile to charge one with sedition for seeing or possessing them invoking a provision written into the law by the colonial rulers in the 19th century. In the feudal era, those who challenged the rulers were charged with treason. The Indian police has a tradition that goes back one and a half centuries. In this period, it has prosecuted people for waging war against the King of England leading to their imprisonment or transportation. With the king, treason disappeared, but sedition remained. Although police has charged many people with sedition after Independence, it is doubtful if any of them has been punished. Let us be grateful to the judges who liberated themselves from the colonial traditions.

A fact-finding team with PUCL State Secretary Adv. P. A. Pauran, National Confederation of Human Rights Organizations State Secretary Dr. Abdul Salam and Janakeeya Manushyavakasa Prasthanam Convener Adv. Thushar Nirmal Sarathy as members, which conducted an open investigation, concluded that the arrest of the Porattam workers was illegal and the case against them was false. The observations made while granting bail to Ravunni indicate that the court too is not impressed with the police story.

It was a similar case that the police had registered against Govindan Kutty, who was arrested in December 2007. He was arrested after a police team from Andhra Pradesh apprehended a top Naxalite of the State from his hideout in Kerala. His publication used to carry reports on the activities of Naxalite groups active in different parts of the country. The state has the power to cancel the licence of the publication and take action against the editor if it did anything unlawful. Instead of taking this course, the police arrested the editor, seized his professional equipment including the computerand threatened the owner of the press. This was done on the strength of the old traditions.

The ruling class has turned terms like Naxalite and terrorist into code words that can be used to keep the administration at the feudal-colonial stage overriding the concepts of democracy, secularism and socialism enshrined in the Constitution. This has been made possible as terrorist activity has spread and the commonsense logic that counter-terrorism is needed to deal with terrorism has gained currency. The mainstream political parties, both Right and Left, subscribe to the belief that if elections are held once in five years there is democracy; if a non-Hindu is installed as President in alternate elections, there is secularism; and if concessions are offered in the name of those below the poverty line there is socialism.

The media reported in 2004 that Naxalite violence and the insurrection in the Northeast have replaced terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir as the main challenge to internal security. Based on statements of Security Adviser M. K. Narayanan, they said Naxalites were active in 125 districts of 12 States. According to data furnished by Narayanan last year, Naxalites were active in 186 districts of 16 States. The spread of Naxalite activity to more areas shows that the government measures are not succeeding.

Narayanan is of the view that our security agencies do not violate human rights. In support of this claim, he points out that they do not use helicopters to fire at Naxalites hiding in the jungles. The government can also take pride in the fact that it has not used tanks as the Communists did in Hungary and China. But the claim that there are no human rights violations is not in accordance with facts. There are human rights violations, and human rights organizations have been raising their voice against them. Narayanan's own words show that though their voice is feeble, the government finds it disturbing. In an interview given to the Strait Times of Singapore recently, he accused the 'intellectual elite and civil liberties groups' of helping Left extremists in the area of agitprop and other activities. He added it would not be easy to defeat the Maoists without divorcing them the intellectuals.

Viewed in the light of these observations, the sedition charge flung at a number of persons from Dr. Binayak Sen, who was arrested in Chhattisgarh last year, to Ravunni has to be seen as part of a conscious attempt to brand human rights defenders as troublesome elements and get them out of the way. All terrorism have definite political character. The police can only tackle the law and order problems that they create. The political issues that they raise have to be handled by the political leadership. It must be able to understand that democracy cannot be saved by denying civil rights. Tanks and helicopter guns may be able to exterminate rebels. They cannot sustain an establishment that has lost its credibility.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Chengara's Dalit-Adivasis call to restore their fundamental rights

by Vidya Bhushan Rawat

17 October, 2008

Bharathi Sreedharan could not resist taking risk on her life through dense forest as her children suffered in hunger and starvation in the Chengara village which has been unconstitutionally and unethically blocked by the trade union gangs of all the political parties including the ruling CPI(M) in Kerala. Her agonizing face reflected the happenings inside the village as for more than two months; it is completely cut off from rest of the country. No outsider is allowed to venture into the village and no villager is allowed to come out of it. CPM's goons attack people from the buses once they recognize that they have sympathies with Chengara people. Many families are on the verge of hunger death if in the next few days no arrangement of food supply is done. 'They want us to get out of the place but we are determined, says Bharathi, we won't allow them to take over the place. We are ready to face any eventuality'. We are ready to die for the cause of our children'.

Bharathi came hiding to get some ration from her brother. When the road is blocked from all the way, it is possible only through walking around 10 kilometers in the forest to come and reach the office and wait for him to be there at Laha Gopalan's office who is the leader of ' Sadhu Jan Vimochana Samyukta Vedi', the organization fighting for the land and livelihood rights of the Dalits and Adivasis in Chengara. It is remarkable that people have united in this struggle and are determined to sacrifice their lives for the land. Interestingly, it is for the first time, that Kerala is witnessing an assertive emerging Dalit Adivasi struggle independent of the influence of dominating communities irrespective of religion.

Gopalan hails from a trade union back ground as he worked in Electricity department and now swears by the legacy of both Baba Saheb Ambedkar and Ayyankali, another Dalit revolutionary from Kerala. The semi constructed office in Pattthanamthittha is a place where all the Dalit-Advasis in the Chengara struggle come and stay. According to Laha Gopalan, they ventured into the area some fourteen months back, as it was legally a government land which should have gone to the landless Dalit-Adivasis of Kerala. The government of Kerala was never interested in the land reform and whatever happened in the name of land reform was eyewash. The tragedy is that there are villages where the Dalits do not have land for even cremating their people. The issue of Dalits and tribal has been neglected by the national and state level parties and hence we decided to make our own destiny.

About 10 kilometer away towards Tiruwala lives the big family of Sabu who are five brothers. Each brother has a big family of his own to support. They have no land. Sabu and his wife have small tea shop. The number of children in the family and the small kitchen that they have for their survival tell the story as how the successive Kerala governments failed to give land to the Dalits. ' Sabu was happy that Chengara's vast track could have provided him a source of independent living and some land for agriculture work. He went there with other families. The real assault came from the trade unions this year when people refused to leave their land. ' The union felt that they can coerce us to accept their issues but at the moment people are ready to die. They will commit mass suicide if police and other forces are sending to evict them. We are not ready to accept anything less than a decent land package for our children', say Sabu. He adds that situation is worsening as there is no food, no water and no sanitation in the entire area. Particularly, it is becoming difficult for children and elderly people to stay. Because of the blockade, we can not provide emergency treatment to any of the villagers as vehicles are not allowed and there is every chance of a bloody fight if we come in touch with the trade union people. Children are facing the malnutrition as there is nothing to eat and drink. We can not go to market to buy milk and rice. Moreover, because of no work in the past two months, there is no money to buy anything'.

How come he is here in the village. ' Sir, the union people allowed us 5 days leaves during the Onam festivities. We were allowed to move in and out and hence I came here. I have overstayed here and hence it is difficult to go there because of blockade'. I can not speak to my relatives and friends there, I am really worried as if food is not provided to people soon, they will start dying soon. I am concerned about children and elderly people. They are completely cut off from the rest of the world. It is shameful.'

The seize of Chengara went off well until one day the government which was keen to revive its lease to Harrison Plantation decided that the Dalit and Adivasis could only be evicted if they push it through other routs which is 'right to live' issue of the 70 odd plantation workers who were working there. The issue is the Chengara's tea plantation was already defunct years ago and hence to blame the current situation for the crisis is absolutely wrong. Harrison Plantation cannot use these 70 workers as a shield to deny land rights of the people. The tactics they adopted are fascistic in nature as from the August this year, the situation worsened after the plantation trade union and CPM in particular started blockade. Now the parties have not only used the local tea plantation trade unions but people have been invited from other parts of the state also against the landless people. All the ways going to Chengara were blocked by the party men and no material including medical aid was allowed to go into the village. Only allowance given to people was during ONAM festivities when the blockade was lifted for 5 days to let the people celebrate the festival. But after that the blockade has become functional and harsher and it might turn into a bloody war. Now the situation has gone out of hand. People inside the Chengara area have no source of livelihood; there is no supply of food and water. Some Muslim youth organizations of the area wanted to send rice for the families but but never allowed to do so. It is violation of their rights to food and free from hunger. The state government has shamelessly allowed the situation to go out of hand which has given strength to the trade unions.

It is unfortunate that in this war against their Dalits and tribal the organized gang of the trade union is taking action irrespective of ideology. It is a rare combination of how the upper caste communists and the Hindutva people can come together to wipe out the legitimate demands of the Dalits and tribals. The duplicity of the CPM's idea comes that the same party launch movement for restoration of land in Andhra Pradesh but want to say that all the Dalits and tribals who have now settled in Chengara are encroachers. Perhaps they have forgotten their own slogan of ' Jo jameen sarkari hai, woh jameen hamari hai ( the government land is our land. Land struggles historically invoked this slogan. Harrison Plantation Company did not have legal rights to the acquired land. The lease expired long back. The dalits and tribal who did not get benefited under any programme of the government rightfully acquired the land and asked the government to redistribute it to them. How come the communist government of Kerala kept quiet and turned hostile to Dalits who have just extended the slogan what the communist parties have been raising every where else except in the states they have been ruling. Is it because this land struggle is first of its kind being led by the Dalits and have organized both the Dalits and tribal together in the state.

Dalits have been asking the government to allot them land. In 2006 in the Patthanamthitta district after five days struggle in the government land of rubber plantation area, the land was given to the Dalits on the papers only. Many people are still trying to find where there land is which was given to them on papers by the state government. Says, Raghu, one of the members of the Solidarity Committee, 'we do not want papers, we want land'.

Patthanamthitta is a district about 60 kilometers from Kottayam, the heart of the Syrian Christian, the original brahmanical convert to Christianity. About 40 kilometer from the town is the heart of Ayappa, the Hindu God. The land relations here are different as the dominant community here is the upper caste Christians. What their role is in the entire struggle of the Dalits, I ask Raghu. ' Oh, like any other feudal, the Syrian Christians also are not interested in the battle of Dalits. Dalits here have separate churches for them.' The Solidarity Committee members like Simon John, who is also Chairman of Backward People Development Corporation, Kerala concede that the original Brahmin converts to Christianity have not left their old prejudices in the Church and therefore are not very keen in supporting the movement of the Dalits and tribal in Chengara. Like the CPM cadre, many of them too feel that the Dalits and tribal have 'encroached' the government land, though it is another matter that they all forgot that Harrison Plantation has been the biggest encroacher and was overstaying at the place. It is also shocking that Kerala did not have substantial land reform and all talks of a Kerala module in the developmental text books are big farce if one visit the rural areas of Kerala and speak to Dalits and tribals. A lot is written about Kerala model as a state. Recently a friend wrote to me from London about casteless, dowerless society in Kerala. Yes, I said, Kerala's caste prejudices are hidden underneath like West Bengal since the first thing the communist regime does is to stop the export of information to outside world. More importantly since a large number of writers and authors actually have been sympathetic to the CPM's policies with upper caste mindset, they do not really expose the Kerala myth. It was not just Bengal, Tatas have huge track of land in Kerala in the name of tea gardens and plantation. One should not forget that great Dalit revolutionary Ayyankali emerged in Kerala to fight for the rights of Dalits. It is not for nothing that both Patthanmthitta and Trivendram represent two different kind of dominations that Kerala has : the Christian domination and the Hindu domination. Both these upper elites interest are against the rights of the Dalits and other marginalized communities. They remain caged to their old prejudiced worldview.

Laha Gopalan is a determined man. He has seen the traumas of the Dalit communities in the villages where they do not even have land for funeral leave alone for education and houses. ' The political parties, both at the national and state level have betrayed the cause of the Dalits and tribal,' he says. ' We started our struggle when people failed to get land by any request. We found that there is no land to them and the government wanted to further the lease at the area which was being used by the Dalits and tribal. Our historic struggle started last year as 7000 people captured the area and started living there. One should have expected that the communist parties which have raised the slogans of ' jo jameen sarkari hai, wo jameen hamari hai, ( Government land is our land) today are strangely at the other end. There is no hope in the sight as the trade unions are determined to take law in their own hand and kill people with chief minister virtually becoming a 'Dhritrastra'.

Says Laha Gopalan, ' when we started our first struggle the government termed that they were genuine demands. In June 2006 about 5000 families were living in another plantation area when the revenue minister interfered and promised them land. Chief Minister Achutanandan promised about 1 acre land to each family of the landless but nothing happened. Since August 4, 2007, there are over 7000 families and the government has so far neglected their demand. The unions have surrounded the area and are beating people who are showing solidarity. The lives of the solidarity committee members are in deep threat in the area. They are being identified in the buses, taxis and even in the press conferences and targeted.'

' Even in the war zones people allow doctors and medical teams to visit the victims but here the goons of CPM and other trade unions have denied that too to the people,' says Simon John. They are not allowing the food supply in the village. There is a hunger and starvation situation prevailing in the 'samarbhoomi' and one person is already dead due to hunger. It is violation of people's right to life', add John. ' We are deeply disturbed at the turn of events as government and political parties led by the upper castes are not at all bothered about the growing marginalization of the communities says another activist in Patthanamthittha.

Is it not strange and ironical that CPM and other communist parties who have been in the forefront of agitation against any kind of exploitation in the organized sector do not find that the landless people in Chengara are struggling for a genuine cause? The party leaders termed the entire struggle as unwanted and felt that the local goons and land mafias have taken over the Chengara land struggle. Ofcourse, Party's anti Dalit stand is visible anywhere. One does not blame the top leadership of the party for being anti Dalit as it would be too much to blame but definitely party's local leaders are not really that radical Dalit supporters as they should have been. CPM for that matter is like any other political party ( we wanted it remained a different political party) whose cadres hail from dominant communities and serve their local interest as we have seen in West Bengal and how the party remained mute to the displacement of about 700 Valmiki families in Belilius Park in Howarah several years back. Today, party's proud MPs have made use of the entire space for private properties and shops. Ofcourse, the poor Balmikis never got support from any other Bhadralok parties in Bengal and living in Bengal in highly uncivilized and unacceptable conditions near the waste-mountains, on sewerage lines and on the railway tracks. Similar thing happen in Kerala where the Dalits and Adivasis of Chengara have not got support from any other political outfits. That gives strength to fascistic tendencies of the ruling party and their leaders. But the fact is this nationalism of the communist parties is more dangerous. Our problems with the Hindutva fascist is that we know that they are against the people but when the so called leaders of the proliterariat start behaving neo Hindutvavadis then situation need special remedial measures otherwise people's frustration would explode soon.

Chengara's land struggle is historical. It shows that people can not really depend on government dole out for land. Political parties in connivance with the defunct industrial houses are keeping people landless. New landlessness is on the rise. Courts are being used as an excuse to evict people. The marginalized have understood this and are ready to fight till end. If the government of Kerala think it is wrong, let it come out in open and say that they oppose people's movement for land right. The government cannot use trade unions and other goons to threaten people and evict them. Life in Chengara has become miserable and any further delay will turn Chengara into another Nandigram. The situation in Chengara would become more dangerous and bloody if the government does not behave responsibly. All national and international rights bodies should take care of this note that denying people free movement is denying them right to choice and livelihood. Kerala government has failed to protect Chengara's Dalits and Adivasis right to move free from one place and other. The inhuman blockade has created unprecedented situation where children and elderly people in Chengara are suffering. Any further delay would escalate the crisis and only government of Kerala would be held responsible for this. The government must act fast and negotiate with the struggling masses of Chengara. The trade union blockade is unconstitutional and illegal and must be removed immediately as it violate the fundamental rights of the people living there who are victim of the criminal silence of the government and civil society.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Storm gathering over Kerala's dream port project

EVEN as the government of Kerala is going ahead with the ambitious Vizhinjam port project, there are signs of trouble ahead. Fishermen using the existing harbour in the area and villagers whose lands have been notified for acquisition have raised banners of protest.

Vizhinjam, south of Thiruvananthapuram, has long been talked of as an ideal location for a deep-water port for two reasons. One, it is located close to the international shipping route and there is easy access to the national road and rail network. Two, large container ships can berth there since the sea is 23 to 27 meters deep.

At present, large vessels unload India-bound containers at Colombo, Dubai and Singapore, and from there they are transhipped to Indian ports in small vessels. Even after the Vallarpadam container terminal, being built near Kochi, is commissioned, this situation will remain unchanged.

As the Central government was not ready to commit funds for the Vizhinjam project, the state government decided to take it up on its own with private sector help. A Mumbai firm offered to form a consortium to execute the project. The Centre denied clearance for the project apparently because the consortium included two Chinese firms.

Subsequently the state government incorporated a company, Vizhinjam International Sea Port Limited, to provide external support and infrastructure. It also picked a consortium led by a Hyderabad firm through global bidding for execution of the project on Build-Operate-Transfer (BOT) basis. This consortium includes a Malaysian company.

Last month the Centre cleared the project. Ports Minister M. Vijayakumar said later the state government and the consortium would form a special purpose vehicle (SPV) for executing the project, which was estimated to cost Rs53.48 billion.

The state government would hold 24% shares in the SPV and the consortium the rest, he added. The consortium would operate the port for 30 years. Thereafter it would be turned over to the state.

Last week, striking a different note, the minister said an international port lobby and some vested interest groups were trying to scuttle the project. The port lobby, which had interests in the Colombo, Dubai and Singapore ports and were worried that they would lose a big chunk of their business to Vizhinjam, had got hold of some sections of the people, like real estate agents and resort owners in and around Vizhinjam, and from neighbouring Tamil Nadu and were pumping in money to spread the canard that thousands of families would be evicted, he alleged.

The minister's allegations came in the wake of growing unrest in Vizhinjam and neighbouring panchayats following a state government notification for acquisition of land in the name of the project.

When the project was announced, government spokesmen had said there would be no evictions as the entire land needed would be found by reclaiming 200 hectares from the sea. Later the minister said 86 families would have to be relocated. Still later the number of families to be displaced rose first to 174 and then to 227.

On Sept. 3, the government issued a notification calling upon people in possession of 1,088 hectares in Vizhinjam and five other panchayats to be ready to surrender their land for the port project and related activities. As many as 10,382 families live in the notified areas.

A people's resistance committee, styled as Vizhinjam Janakeeya Prathirodha Samithi, has launched a campaign against the notification, raising the slogan, "Allow us to live in the land of our birth."

The Kerala Swathanthra Matsya Thozhilali Federation, which represents the fishermen living in the coastal areas, has asked the government to publish immediately the survey numbers of the land to be acquired so as to dispel fears of eviction. It has also demanded proper rehabilitation of those who are to be evicted.

Janapaksham, a non-official organisation which was in the forefront of the campaign for implementation of the Vizhinjam project, has suggested that a satellite survey be undertaken to identify areas with low population density.

By and large, the protests are muted at present because there is wide popular support for the project, which is expected to benefit the state in general and Vizhinjam and nearby areas in particular. However, if the government pushes ahead with the scheme without addressing the concerns of the local people, the gathering storm may grow in intensity and create serious problems since the project area is heavily populated. –Gulf Today, October 13, 2008.

Monday, October 6, 2008

University appointments scandal exposes a malaise

The public has long suspected that political corruption and nepotism are widespread in Kerala. However, in the absence of hard evidence, the extent of the malaise has been a matter of conjecture. Last week, the Lokayukta handed down a decision which reveals the extent to which appointments made by the University of Kerala are vitiated by this malaise.

Nearly 40,000 candidates had taken the examination conducted by the university in July 2005 to select candidates for appointment as Grade II Assistants. Those who qualified in the written test were interviewed between November 2007 and February this year.

In April, the university published a rank list of 1,401 successful candidates. Nearly 200 appointments are believed to have been made from this list so far.

The Upa-Lokayukta, Mr. Justice N. Krishnan Nair, who heard a complaint about gross irregularities in the examinations and interviews, concluded that there had been political interference in the selection process in favour of candidates in whom the political establishment was interested.

He recommended to the government to scrap the rank list, rescind the appointments already made and order fresh examinations. Holding that M.K. Ramachandran Nair, who was the Vice-Chancellor until recently, V. Jayaprakash, the Pro-Vice-Chancellor, and four members of the University Syndicate, were responsible for the irregularities, he asked that criminal proceedings be instituted against them.

The Lokayukta Act vests in the government the power to punish those found guilty of irregularities. The Lokayukta and Upa-Lokayuktas can only make suitable recommendations in this regard.

The University of Kerala established in 1937 as the University of Travancore, is the State’s oldest institution of higher learning. The appointments scandal is the worst of its kind in the history of not only the university but any major institution in the State.

Politically, the Lokayukta’s decision is a stinging indictment of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which heads the ruling Left Democratic Front. The party controls the Syndicate, and the alleged irregularities were committed to favour relatives of its leaders or members of its students’ organization.

The credit for bringing the scandal to light belongs to Sujith, of Venjarammood, who was a student representative in the University Senate when the written examination for recruitment of Assistants was held.

As word spread in the university corridors that the examination records had been tampered with, Sujith sought access to the answer books under the Right to Information Act. His application was turned down. He then persuaded a candidate who had taken the examination to make a similar request.

The university informed the candidate that the relevant papers were with an institution outside the State, which had processed the matter, and the papers would be made available when they were received. However, the Syndicate decided not to give anyone access to the answer books.

Sujith then investigated the background of the successful candidates. He found that many of them were connected with the CPI (M) or the Students Federation of India.

Despite repeated directives from the Upa-Lokayukta, the university authorities did not produce records relating to the written examination. The Hyderabad firm, which was engaged to evaluate them, said it had returned all the papers with the results sheet. However, the Vice-Chancellor and the Pro-Vice-Chancellor insisted they had not received them.

The Upa-Lokayukta observed that the disappearance of the answer books indicated there had been irregularities. The interview process was used to help political favourites.

The former VC said the Upa-Lokayukta took a decision without considering all relevant material. The PVC said that he had only a small role in the recruitment process.

The University Syndicate resolved to approach the High Court with a plea to quash the Upa-Lokayukta’s decision.

When the issue came up in the State Assembly some time ago, the Education Minister had said the government would act when the Lokayukta’s report was received. However, in view of the university’s decision to move the High Court, it is expected to await the legal verdict.

According to the Syndicate members whom the Upa-Lokayukta has indicted, they cannot be blamed for the irregularities since they took office only in August 2006. The written examination was conducted and the answer books were evaluated during the tenure of the previous Syndicate, which was constituted by the last United Democratic Front government.

This argument may not save them in court since the interviews, which were apparently used to manipulate the rank list, took place after the present Syndicate came into being and its members were directly involved in the process. --Gulf Today, Sharjah, October 6, 2008.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Arrest of M.N.Ravunni: attempt to silence human rights activist

The case of M. N. Ravunni, General Convenor of Porattam, a mass organisation, who was arrested by the police on September 29, is similar to that of Dr. Binayak Sen, who has been in jail in Chhattisgarh for more than a year now. Both have invited the ire of the police by taking up human rights causes.

Adv. Thushar Nirmal Sarathy, Convenor, Janakeeya Manushyavakasa Prasthanam, has provided the following account about Ravunni’s arrest:

On 31/8/2008 Agaly police arrested two Porattam activists, Sunil Babu and Vinod, from Goolikadavu following a quarrel with some local people. The police kept them under illegal detention for two days and subjected them to custodial torture. They were produced before the Judicial First Class Magistrate, Mannarkkad on 2/9/2008 in crime no.183/2008 on the charges of sedition and conspiracy to wage war against state.

On 1/9/2008 M.N.Ravunni, addressing a press conference at the Palakkad Press Club, accused police officers of violation of human rights. On 2/9/2008 he filed a complaint before the State Human Rights Commission praying for the intervention in this matter.

Two days earlier. The Deputy Superintendent of Police, Agaly, had contacted Ravunni and asked him to be present at Palakkad SP office for recording his statement as instructed by the State Human Rights Commission. Accordingly, he went to the SP office on 29/09/2008 and the police took him into custody. He is now under the custody of Agaly Dy SP and the police arrayed him as an accomplice in crime no.183/2008 under the charge of sedition and conspiracy to wage war against state. The arrest is a counterblast to the complaint raised by him before the Human Rights Commission.

Two weeks ago a Human Right Activists’ Fact Finding Team including Adv. P.A. Pouran, State Secretary, PUCL, Dr. Abdul Salam, State Secretary, NCHRO, and Adv Thushar Nirmal Sarathy, Convenor Janakeeya Manushyavakasa Prasthanam visited Goolikadavu and nearby places and collected facts relating to the arrest of Sunil Babu and Vinod. The team concluded unanimously that the arrest of Sunil and Vinod was illegal and demanded immediate withdrawal of the false case registered against them. The Hon’ble High Court of Kerala later granted bail to Sunil and Vinod.

Ravunni’s arrest is clearly an act of retaliation, particularly for the role played by him in exposing the human rights violations of Agaly police and also with a larger intention to keep him silent behind bars as he is an ardent critic of the state.

Janakeeya Manushyavakasa Prasthanam strongly condemns the arrest of M. N. Ravunni and appeals to all the democratic forces all over the country to join hands against State terror.

UPDATE: A magistrate court granted Ravunni bail on October 6.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Why this Delhi business when there is plenty to do here?

VS Achuthanandan is a leader who earned goodwill by travelling to the remotest corners to take up issues of concern to the people. Departing from the practice of raising issues inside and outside the legislature and pressing the government to find solutions, he visited trouble spots and conveyed to the suffering people the message that he was with them. It was the popularity that he earned in the process that compelled the party leadership, which had tactfully kept him out of the Assembly elections, to first him the party ticket and then make him the Chief Minister. Even he may not have the feeling that he is able to discharge properly the Chief Minister’s responsibility to provide overall leadership to the administration. Not only impartial observers but the party itself has concluded that the government has not been able to rise up to the expectations of the people. At this stage, when the midpoint in the government’s five-year tenure has been reached, the Chief Minister, the party and the ruling front must be thinking about satisfying the people, who had reposed faith in them, in the remaining period.

In the past 50 years, as a player of power politics, the Communist approach has undergone a big change. While repeatedly declaring that they did not believe in bourgeois democracy, EMS Namboodiripad and his colleagues by and large respected its ways while working within its framework. They performed their functions honouring the democratic tradition of the party laying down policies and the ministers taking administrative decisions in accordance with them. Although there were complains of interference by lower level party units in the administration, the leadership checked it. But later the Communist Party of India (Marxist) departed from that tradition and enforced strict control over the functioning of the government. By deploying faithful cadres on the personal staff, the party leadership acquired the ability to keep a watch on the activities of even ministers belonging to other constituents of the ruling front and to intervene.

Today not only policy matters but even administrative matters are decided at the party level. The party decides which officer should be posted where. It even decides who should be made accused in criminal cases and who should be kept out. The Chief Minister and other ministers have become rubber stamps to be put on decisions taken in the party office. It is an irony of fate that Achuthanandan, who contributed to the development of this system during EK Nayanar’s chief ministership, is at the receiving end now.
The main reason why this government has not been able to rise up to expectations is that it is not able to work with one mind. From the beginning, the CPI (M) and the CPI, the two main constituents of the front, were at loggerheads on many issues. While disputes arose and were settled, some schemes have disappeared. The food security scheme, about which there was a furore, is an example. The official version is that it is being implemented in some form or the other. However, it is already clear that it is not going the way it was expected to go and that it may not achieve the goals.
Even greater than the fight between the CPI (M) and the CPI is the fight within the CPI (M). What reflects in the line-up in which the Chief Minister is on one side and the Party Secretary’s loyal followers on the other is the sectarianism in the party. Clearly the claim that sectarianism ended with the Kottayam conference is not true.
The present government took office creating the impression that it is a continuation of the first EMS government. The biggest achievement of that government was land reform. Today we are conscious of the weaknesses of the decisions taken then. Those who were denied benefits at that time are clamouring for justice. When the Chief Minister took a personal interest in the attempt to reclaim the lands encroached upon by various groups, including political parties, the people viewed it as an attempt to rectify past mistakes and go forward. The court, recognizing the sincerity of purpose and will of the government, placed no obstacles in its way. But the political parties intervened and defeated it. Now the Chief Minister is engaged in a bid to revive and carry forward the aborted Munnar operation. For this effort to succeed, the party leadership must give up its enthusiasm to protect vested interests. There is nothing to indicate that it is ready to do so.

One after another, decisions are emerging from AKG Bhavan for rate revision. The ruling front meets and endorses them formally. After that, the rubber stamp in the Secretariat is put on them. In two and a half years, this government has increased electricity charges, water tax, milk prices and bus fares, some of them twice or thrice. When production costs go up, the consumer will have to pay more. But all the rate revisions of the recent past cannot be justified on this basis. Rate revision has become imperative because of mismanagement by the politicians and bureaucrats who are in charge of institutions. In the last budget, the Finance Minister provided Rs. 7 billion to rescue the State Road Transport Corporation. But no steps were taken to improve its working. The same thing is happening in the case of institutions like the Electricity Board and the Water Authority. The assistance the Cooperation Minister extended to debt-ridden cooperative institutions provided only temporary relief. It has worsened the financial position of some other cooperative institutions. All this has created a big pile of failures. While that remains, the government’s image will remain poor. The effect of the good work it has done will be lost.

These are matters which deserve the urgent attention of the Chief Minister and other ministers. Their decision to go to New Delhi for a Parliament March to protest against Central neglect, when there is enough work of this kind to be done here, is irresponsible. It is also an affront to the people who entrusted them with the responsibility for governance. Central neglect is a rotten old slogan which emits a bad odour. It was possible for the Left to find justification for such a slogan when one party monopolized power at the Centre and in most States. The Left leadership is actually proclaiming its intellectual and political bankruptcy when it levels this allegation against a government which it backed for two years.
As a political party which is now fully in opposition, the CPI (M) certainly has the right to agitate against the Central government and the parties that wield power at the Centre. It is the party which must lead that agitation, not the Cabinet. The Party Secretary had led a march from Kasergode to Thiruvananthapuram before the Assembly elections. Isn’t it appropriate for him to lead the Delhi programme, which is being staged with an eye to the Lok Sabha elections? If the party wants to raise the agitation to a higher level, let General Secretary Prakash Karat lead it.

Just as the State has complaints against the Centre, the panchayats may have complaints against the State. What the CPI (M) plans to do in New Delhi is no different from a demonstration which the opposition front may organize by bringing presidents and members of panchayats under their control to Thiruvananthapuram.
Based on article written for ‘Nerkkazhcha’ column of Kerala Kaumudi edition dated October 2, 2008