Thursday, August 16, 2012

What Does Assam Unrest Mean for India?

The latest disturbances that shook entire North-East is a reminder to the power that be in the Centre and in the rest of the country. The conflict-torn Bodo territorial areas of Kokrajhar, Dhubri, Chirang etc. have sent a clear message that the hidden volcanoes in the North-East need to be defused with wisdom and courage by the Central leadership while taking the local leadership of the region in confidence. My suggestion to Dr. Manmohan Singh, the Prime Minister of India from Guwahati last week to hold an urgent meeting of the National Integration Council to review the present situation that has erupted in Kokrajhar and areas around in active cooperation of the local political outfits as well as the civil society is essential to work out lasting solution to the situation that has remained boiling for six decades.

Within a week nearly four lacs residents in Kokrajhar, Dhubri and Chirang turned homeless migrants. Half of them were aboriginal Bodos. 276 government schools, government buildings and public places were converted into so-called relief camps out of which half of the relief camps were filled with Bodo tribals. Each camper I visited with my team demanded security. The Bodos felt insecure in the presence of Muslim neighbourers. The same was the cry of the Muslim migrants in the Muslim relief camps. True four Bodos were brutally massacred in a village in Kokrajhar in the midnight of 19th July, 2012. Absence of the police and administration added to the insecurity and terror. The Bodo migrated asked for safety.

The rumours created panic among the Muslim inhabitants in their respective areas. The Muslims rushed for safety in Dhubri. It is important to note that neither the Bodo nor Muslim migrants carried any ill-will or hatred for other community. Each delegation we met complained that the administration did not care for their complaints and failed to provide reasonable security. No one in the camp favoured illegal migration from Bangladesh. The Bangladeshis` hard stricken with poverty and rags have been crossing over from Bangladesh via Dhubri District (Assam) in boats under the cover of dark skies of the Brahmaputra river. There could be no fencing nor a boundary wall could be erected as was assured in the Assam Accord, 1985 for the reason that Brahmaputra, perhaps, the only male river in the sub-continent, was too vast and fast for setting up any obstacle or wall to check illegal migration from Bangladesh. Kokrajhar has no land connection with Bangladesh. Migrants flood to this area from Dhubri. Kokrajhar is the only geographical surface connection of the North-East with the rest of the country.

The students of political science and the politicians, perhaps, have yet to understand that creation of Bangladesh had literally dissected entire North-East from the rest of the country. India as such has only a single surface connection with the North-East through Kokrajhar District in Assam via Cooch Bihar in West Bengal. Any mishap may damage the neck connection endanger the roads of National Integration with North-East having 4500 kms. long borders with foreign countries including Myanmar, Bhutan and Bangladesh. This region deserves an exclusive attention of the Central government to ensure that the sensitive borders along the North-Eastern States are kept cool and friction free. India has 4097 kms. long borders with Bangladesh only. On the other hand true there is literally no physical threat to the Indian side from Bangladesh but infiltration by the illegal poverty stricken migrants to India in lacs have created an alarming situation in the border districts. Infiltration had started before the creation of Bangladesh and remained unchecked even after the signing of 1985 Assam Accord by Prime Minister Shri Rajiv Gandhi with the leaders of Assam Movement. Since the division of Assam into seven sisters` states as described by a noted journalist Jyoti Prasad Sakiya, the predominant tribals in Nagaland, Mizoram, Tripura and Meghalaya have got a reasonable opportunity to share responsibility of administration in their respective states. The tribals in Assam have not been satisfied. Particularly the bigger tribes like Bodos have not got their due. Creation of Bodo Territorial Council in four districts of Assam has earned the displeasure of Muslim Minorities for several reasons. The Bodo Council has been established in the districts of Kokrajhar, Baska, Chirang and Vidulguri. This situation deserves a careful handling too.

To seek permanent resolution of the situation in Assam or for that matter in the North-East, we have to understand the genesis of the problem. The first blunder committed in dissecting entire North-East region, mostly Assam in 1947, by the acceptance of partition of Bengal. Already neglected people of the area started facing alienation rather entire population was segregated from the mainstream.  Secondly, the Central leadership failed to realize the effects of illegal migration from the areas, now designated as Bangladesh. The Central leadership, the Congress-run government in the Centre, gave laxity to the illegal migrants. The Congress leadership remained interested to raise their vote bank rather than caring for the national security. When Bangladesh attained her sovereign status in 1972, there were unaccounted number of illegal migrants who have already created space in different Districts of Assam. The Assam Accord signed on 15th August, 1985 in the presence of Shri Rajiv Gandhi, the Prime Minister of India, could not be implemented at all. The Central government established a Tribunal in Assam to detect the foreigners was quashed by the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court of India on 5th December, 2006 declared the so-called Illegal Migrants Detection Tribunal (IMDT) as violative of the Constitution of India. This IMDT provided protection to illegal migrants and was not in accordance with the spirit of the Assam Accord. The Supreme Court had directed the Govt. of India to constitute adequate tribunals to detect illegal migration in accordance with the Foreigners Act, 1946.

This is unfortunate that Govt. of India failed to follow the direction of the Supreme Court. This was one of the principal reasons that the foreign agencies like ISI managed some frustrated, unemployed and educated groups of Assamese to float United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) with a manifesto to establish a sovereign state of Assam. Prominent functionaries of ULFA belong to the majority community, the Hindus. This is the outfit which have directly threatened sovereignty of India. ULFA has been financed, armed and provided all kinds of help and assistance by the ISI. The CIA has not admitted it openly sufficient but there is evidence that CIA have been providing all kinds of data to the ISI. The ULFA activists have become overactive with the ensuing unrest in Kokrajhar, Chirang and other sensitive bordering Districts of Assam. Had the governments at Centre and the State been sincere to implement the Assam Accord situation would have been different. This was the strong note which my team was served by the Bodoland Lok Sabha Member, Mr.  Sansuma Khunggur Bwiswmuthiary and the local MLA of Kokrajhar, Mrs. Pramila during my one hour discussion with them in Kokrajhar last week. The Bodoland Students Union as well as All Assam Students Union (AASU) which have strong mass appeal in the region shared this feeling. Naturally, blamed the Central government for its failure to give attention to the Assam Accord.

 Assam Accord has to be understood in substance for the removal of all doubts spread by the vested political interests about its bonafides.

i).      Clause 9 of the Agreement made bold and unambiguous assurances to stop infiltration from Bangladesh by erecting physical barriers like walls, wire-fencing and other obstacles.
ii).     It was also assured to construct a road along Bangladesh borders in Assam.
iii).    Encroachment of tribal line was strictly taken into consideration with assurance that the land of the tribal shall be protected.
iv).       It was also assured that detection of the foreigners, illegal migrants into Assam shall be done in accordance with the Foreigners Act, 1946.

Dr. Alka Sharma, a former MLA, AGP and widow of slain AGP Minister who had been actively involved in the activities of the civil society for the implementation of Assam Accord maintained that the national political parties have not been able to understand the genesis of the Assam problem. Naturally, they would not be in a position to appreciate the scientific solutions. The President of Assam High Court Bar Association, Mr. Ram Sakiya, doubted the sincerity of the Central leadership to implement Assam Accord. That was obvious from the fact, he observed, that the Central government has not constituted a necessary tribunal for the detection and expulsion of the illegal migrants as was the direction given by the Supreme Court of India while quashing the so-called Tribunal.

The Governor of Assam, a seasoned political figure in India, Mr. J.B. Patanaik, while appreciating the efforts of my team to visit Kokrajhar and other affected areas in Assam, admitted that the government has to restore confidence of the people and provide them reasonable security so that they may return to their homes without fear. He also agreed that the so-called relief camps were not adequate at all to provide shelter to nearly 400,000 migrants, both Bodos and the members of the Minorities. About half of them have returned back to their homes yet the government cannot be exempted from its responsibility to ensure urgent return and rehabilitation of the people in their homes. The Governor may himself lead peace march in the area to extend solidarity with the suffering people.

Situation in Assam is more threatening than in any other parts of the country. The people in the entire North-Eastern region deserve urgent attention of Central leadership. Urgent measures have to be taken to work viable solution with Bangladesh so that illegal migration from Bangladesh shall be checked at the source. The Assamese Districts bordering with Bangladesh have to be cordoned properly and effectively as was assured in the Assam Accord. The Central government should constitute Tribunal in Assam to detect and deport the illegal migrants as were to be determined in accordance with the Assam Accord and the Supreme Court`s direction. The separatist groups like ULFA have to be disciplined without any delay and with a clear message that Assam and the rest of the North-Eastern States are unshakable and integral part of the Union. An urgent attention of the Union must be drawn towards the Indo-Burmese border which may be opened for trade between Manipur and Myanmar, very soon. The problem of Chakmas in Tripura hills is also a matter of grave concern for the security of the country.

Dr. Manmohan Singh, the Prime Minister of India, shall be doing a great service to the national security vis-à-vis North-East by convening an urgent meeting of the National Integration Council as he has done in the past on the issues relating to J&K. It shall be exemplary message for the people of North-East if such a meeting of the NIC is held in Assam with special invitations to the representatives of all legitimate representatives of all the political parties of Assam and the North-East. The Prime Minister himself represents the people of Assam in the Parliament and the people have great expectation from Dr. Manmohan Singh that he shall show the light to the new generations in Assam and in the North-East to strengthen the bonds of National Integration from Imphal to Delhi.

Suu Kyi draws rare criticism

She is known as the voice of Myanmar’s downtrodden but there is one oppressed group that Aung San Suu Kyi does not want to discuss.

For weeks, Suu Kyi has dodged questions on the plight of a Muslim minority known as the Rohingya, prompting rare criticism of the woman whose struggle for democracy and human rights in Myanmar have earned her a Nobel Peace Prize, and adoration worldwide.

Human rights groups have expressed disappointment, noting that the United Nations has referred to the Rohingya — widely reviled by the Buddhist majority in Myanmar — as among the most persecuted people on Earth. They say Suu Kyi could play a crucial role in easing the hatred in Myanmar and in making the world pay more attention to the Rohingya.

As a new phase in her career: The former political prisoner is now a more calculating politician who is choosing her causes carefully.

“Politically, Aung San Suu Kyi has absolutely nothing to gain from opening her mouth on this,” said Maung Zarni, a Myanmar expert and visiting fellow at the London School of Economics. “She is no longer a political dissident trying to stick to her principles. She’s a politician and her eyes are fixed on the prize, which is the 2015 majority Buddhist vote.”

The Rohingya have been denied citizenship even though many of their families have lived in Myanmar for generations. The U.N. estimates that 800,000 Rohingya live in Myanmar where they face heavy-handed restrictions: They need permission to marry, have more than two children and travel outside of their villages.

Myanmar considers the Rohingya to be illegal migrants from Bangladesh but Bangladesh also rejects them, rendering them stateless.

Long-standing resentment between the Muslim Rohingya and Rakhine Buddhists erupted in bloody fury in western Rakhine state in June. They attacked each other with spears and machetes and went on rampages burning homes and razing entire villages. Human Rights Watch estimates that 100,000 people were displaced by the fighting and says the government’s tally of 78 dead is “undoubtedly conservative.”

Rights groups claim the government did little to stop the violence initially and then turned its security forces on the Rohingya with targeted killings, rapes, mass arrests and torture.

Most of the world’s outrage has come from the Muslim world. Saudi Arabia has accused Myanmar of launching an “ethnic cleansing campaign” and King Abdullah announced Saturday he would donate $50 million in aid to the Rohingya in Myanmar. Islamic hard-liners in Indonesia and Pakistan have threatened attacks against the Myanmar government.

The 57-nation Organization of Islamic Cooperation condemned the violence at a summit this week and said it will present its concerns to the upcoming U.N. General Assembly.

But the outrage stops at Myanmar’s borders. A tide of nationalist sentiment against the Rohingya has put Suu Kyi in a no-win situation.

Speaking up for the Rohingya would risk alienating Myanmar’s Buddhist majority and angering the government at a time when Suu Kyi and her opposition party are trying to consolidate political gains attained after they entered Parliament for the first time in April.

By not speaking up, she has offended some of her staunchest supporters in the international community — the very groups who lobbied tirelessly for her freedom during 15 years of house arrest. Though, many are cautious about directly criticizing Suu Kyi, who is hailed as a human rights superhero and often called the Gandhi of this generation.

Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch called it “unfortunate” that Suu Kyi did not confront the issue during her triumphant tour of Europe in June, shortly after the violence occurred.

At news conferences in Geneva, Dublin and Paris, Suu Kyi dodged journalists’ questions about the Rohingya by giving vague, scripted answers about a need for “rule of law” in Myanmar.

“The root of the problem is lack of rule of law,” Suu Kyi said in Dublin, seated beside the rock star Bono at a news conference.

Asked if the Rohingya should be granted Myanmar citizenship, the Oxford-educated Suu Kyi replied: “I don’t know.”

Canadian-based academic Abid Bahar, a Bangladesh-born expert on Myanmar’s ethnic groups, said he was “shocked” by Suu Kyi’s failure to take a more principled stand.

“As a Nobel Peace Prize winner she has a big role to play, to work as a conscience for humanity, which she has ignored,” Bahar said. “I thought she was the only person the Rohingya could depend on.”

President Thein Sein’s popularity at home has surged since the June crackdown, analysts say. Many in Myanmar rallied behind his proposal in July to send all of Myanmar’s Rohingya to any country “willing to take them,” a suggestion quickly shot down by the U.N. refugee agency.

“This is an unexpected difficulty that we have faced in our march to democracy,” Thein Sein said in an interview with Voice of America broadcast this week. He denied accusations of genocide from Muslim countries, saying that images posted online showing piles of bodies were “fabrications” and from “incidents that happened in other countries, not here.”

Thein Sein has won widespread praise for introducing a wave of reforms since taking office last year, following decades of repressive rule. But the United Nations and others say the violence in Rakhine state shows Myanmar still has a long way to go, and needs to place human rights at the top of its reforms.

“The situation in (Rakhine) state is giving the so-called new Burma a black eye — in the eyes of the international community,” said Robertson of Human Rights Watch.

“As a political leader with moral authority, Suu Kyi should take this on,” he said. “No one is saying she can dictate policy to the government, but if she speaks out everyone will pay attention.”


Dhaka Forecloses the Grameen Brand

Bangladesh's government is taking over the pioneering microfinance bank, just as its founder feared.

For the past 18 months in Bangladesh, the specter of a government takeover has haunted Grameen Bank and its founder, Nobel Prize winner Muhammed Yunus. Many thought Mr. Yunus was imagining the threat, but this month the Awami League government of Sheikh Hasina finally showed its hand. Her cabinet decided to push the microfinance lender's elected board of trustees aside and give power to the government-appointed chairman to name a selection committee that will soon find a new managing director.

The decision marks a new turn in a campaign to vilify Mr. Yunus, which began last year when the government removed him from his long-time role as managing director. Then it ginned up a controversy that micro lenders were "loan sharks," when the opposite is true: These banks give poor borrowers an alternative to usurious moneylenders.

This time, the cabinet impugned Mr. Yunus's honesty by asking questions about whether he followed bank rules on tapping the bank's credit facilities when he was managing director. It also alleges that he wrongly received tax exemptions on his foreign earnings. Last week, it opened a tax investigation.

Grameen Bank is important because it established the microfinance model--banks that provide unsecured loans for poor women for investing in income earning projects. It has been copied throughout the world and inspired the phenomenal growth of micro finance. In 2006, both the Bank and Yunus were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for, as the Nobel committee put it, "their efforts to create economic and social development from below." By giving the poor the ability to help themselves, it undermines the culture of dependency on the government that ties the poor to Bangladesh's political parties.

In May 2011, I visited Dhaka and talked at length with Mr. Yunus, whom I have known since the early 1990s. He had been under attack by the Awami League government for some time. Even after he was removed from his position, he sought to ensure that the bank board could still elect his successor without political interference. It now seems all but certain that the bank he led to international renown will come under new management.

Many Bangladeshis I respect told me then, and still think today, that the Awami League is out to get Mr. Yunus by any means possible. The politicians believe, wrongly, that he is a long-term threat to their interests.

Many suspect that the root of the problem is that, when Bangladesh was under a military caretaker government in 2007, Mr. Yunus's name was briefly put forward in 2007 as a possible leader of a "third force" to replace the two dysfunctional major political parties led by Ms. Hasina and Khaleda Zia. Their personal animosity has made progress impossible. He never volunteered this idea, but he didn't reject it at first either. Nevertheless, this third party never took off.

In addition, most Bangladeshis say that Grameen Bank now provides low-hanging fruit for what is perceived as a corrupt government. Officials can loot the bank's substantial assets at will now. They can also tap its customer base of women borrowers and turn them into a serious vote bank by promises of loan reductions or write-offs.

World leaders need to take note of these perverse motivations in Dhaka and condemn them, but they aren't doing so. I came back to Washington after my 2011 visit feeling great foreboding about Grameen's future. The South and Central Asian Bureau of the U.S. State Department, however, did not share my concerns when I met with its officials. Their reaction was tepid then. Now, more than a year later with news of the cabinet's decision, I am told they are "working on it."

For all the laurels Mr. Yunus has received from the West, his strategy to protect the bank he founded didn't work, partly because Western governments failed him. In the 15 months since the attack on Grameen began, the U.S. and others have let themselves be distracted by other business and lulled into complacency by Ms. Hasina's waiting game.

Now it may be too late to save the bank. The U.S. is playing catch-up on an issue on which it had an early warning. By this time, Prime Minister Hasina is not inclined to listen to other governments and back off her determined course. I am sure it will take more than words to deflect it. The U.S. and European governments will have to threaten to cut off bilateral assistance programs and other aid through multilateral institutions like the World Bank.

Getting donors on the same page at such a late date will be a real uphill battle, and given all the other pressing issues in South Asia is a long shot. It is thus with a heavy heart that we must prepare for the disappearance of the pioneer of microfinance and the marginalization of its visionary founder.