Bangladesh Goodbye Tata … for now Citing his “extreme” frustration and disappointment, Tata Sons executive director Alan Rosling announced on 10 July that his company is suspending its plans for a USD 3 billion investment in Bangladesh. The Indian conglomerate’s massive project – which included steel, coal, power and fertiliser plants – would have equalled the amount of foreign direct investment that Bangladesh has received in its 35-year history (see Himal Nov-Dec 2005). With July as the deadline for a final deal, the plan had faced increasingly stiff resistance from Bangladesh’s local steel industry, as well as the larger business community. Rather than tackle the contentious issue, the increasingly frazzled government of Begum Khaleda Zia decided to push off a decision until after the January 2007 general elections. That seemed to have been the final straw for Rosling, who accused Dhaka of being unable to “go beyond politics”. For now, the Dhaka Government would have everyone believe that the Tata deal is only sidelined, not abandoned. Finance Minister M Saifur Rahman, who has guided the negotiation with Tata Sons, said that the matter had merely been “postponed”. He added, rather lamely, “Tata said they would come when the government invites.” He may be right. A week after Rosling’s outburst, Tata’s resident director confirmed that his company would wait and see what took place in Bangladesh over “the next six to eight months”. Sri lanka Some-parties conference Everybody knows by now that devolution and power-sharing is ultimately the answer to Sri Lanka’s crisis, and yet it is so hard to ‘get’ to the position to talk about it. The latest attempt, in mid-July, was when President Mahinda Rajapakse formed a 13-member all-party committee, dubbed the Representative Committee on Constitutional Reforms, to explore options for constitutional changes. The move came after Indian Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran urged Colombo to devise a credible plan for an end to the suddenly escalated ethnic violence. But do you really have a committee when the key players of the political opposition are not there, and neither are the Tamil Tiger rebels? While the committee was originally to be made up of lawyers and intellectuals from all backgrounds, the first meeting went forward without those who may be said to be speaking for the rebels, nor the main opposition party, the United National Party, or even the main Tamil party, the Tamil National Alliance. And do you have an effective committee when, at the very inauguration, you note that the unity and sovereignty of the country are not open to bargain? That might very well be true, but does it need stating at a critical period, when President Rajapakse needs to begin some sort of engagement with the rebels? Under such an atmosphere, how can the committee come up with “creative options” to resolving the current conflict, as the president directed? Policy Planning Minister Keheliya Rambukwella said that the committee would be looking at the details of other countries’ constitutions, including that of India. Well, if the idea is to look at Indian federalism, have things not gone a bit too far for that? And, in any case, is federalism in India really that good to write home about? India / Pakistan More travel, more peace Around 170,000 people traveled both ways between India and Pakistan in the first five months of this year, according to statistics released last month – “a significant increase” from the previous year, said the Indian External Affairs Ministry spokesman. So what’s the breakdown? From January through May, nearly 84,000 people traveled between the two countries by air, 47,700 by train and 8000 by bus. In addition, nearly 28,500 people crossed the Wagah border by foot. Those who crossed the newly opened Line of Control by foot or by bus numbered around 800. The new Thar Express train, which began running in February between Khokrapar and Munabao, was by June carrying up to 800 people per week. At the end of June, Pakistani authorities announced new visa arrangements for Indian citizens. Indian businessmen will now be able to get six-month multiple-entry visas, while pilgrim and tourist visas for Indians have been extended to 15 and 30 days respectively. Pakistani media hailed the decision to facilitate “people-to-people” contact, and called on India to reciprocate the new measures – and to start giving tourist visas to Pakistani citizens, which are not currently offered.
There are many, many fingers crossed on the two sides of the border that the Bombay serial blasts will not reverse this trend of heartening, increased India-Pakistan travel. Kashmir Poonch to Rawalkot In mid-June, Sonia Gandhi and Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee flagged off a long-awaited bus service between Poonch and Rawalkot, 55 km apart. This is the second cross-frontier bus link in Kashmir, after Srinagar and Muzaffarabad were connected last April. That first service, Gandhi noted, “helped us break the first wall between India and Pakistan. Poonch-Rawalakot helped break the second one.” How many walls are there between these neighbours, anyway? The Karvaan-e-Aman bus will ply this traditional route just once every two weeks. India / Nepal India Aha, open border! Good or bad, developments on one side of the open border between India and Nepal are quick to affect those on the other side. An eye hospital in the Nepal tarai is flooded with patients from Bihar, and there is always massive shopping in Bihar when the price of any commodity shoots up in Nepal. The border town of Birgunj, south of Kathmandu, has seen it all. And now that the Patna government of Nitish Kumar has managed to visibly improve the law-and-order situation in Bihar, Birgunj residents are seeing the rampant criminality migrate northwards. Criminal gangs feeling the heat in districts like East Champaran are now causing havoc in the neighbouring Nepali townships of Gaur, Malangwa and Rajbiraj, besides Birgunj. Already suffering from the ‘donations’ demanded by the Maobaadi rebels, the Nepali businessmen say they are extremely distressed, and well they might be. Chhote Lal Sahni, described as the ‘kidnapping godfather’ of East Champaran, was just one of quite a few busy weaving extortion rackets across the Nepal tarai. There have been four kidnapping cases in Birgunj alone in recent months, with two of the victims released after paying a ransom of INR 10 million each. Two industrialists were seriously injured in a bomb blast engineered by Sahni’s gang. Such was his daring, the godfather even used Nepal’s radio network to his advantage, making calls to the local FM station to own up after each kidnapping case. As a last straw, the Nepali industrialists placed their grievance with the Indian ambassador to Nepal, Shiv Shanker Mukherjee. Soon after, Sahni was nabbed – south of the border by the Bihar police.
The lesson from the episode: in the case of an open border, in the absence of equivalent levels of law and order, criminals will flow to the side that has poorer governance. It used to be Bihar. For now, it is Nepal. India / Pakistan Pakistan studies, India studies “There should be no visa and passport restrictions” between India and Pakistan, renowned social worker Abdus Sattar Edhi thundered in Karachi in mid-June, addressing a newly established Bombay-Karachi education forum. The programme, to be headed by professor Tauseef Ahmed Khan, will facilitate crossborder exchanges of students, teachers and faculty between educational and research institutes in India and Pakistan. When the talk turned to ‘Indian Studies departments’, it became apparent that there were none in the many universities of Pakistan. The Pakistani participants agreed to work towards the establishment of some. Meanwhile, the Indian side patted themselves on the back for already having five departments of Pakistani Studies – evidently feeling that five was enough.
The new education forum was part of an ongoing exchange programme between the two financial capitals organised by the South Asia Free Media Association (SAFMA), an organisation that confounds sceptics by relentlessly using media as a wedge to introduce all manner of issues between India and Pakistan. Other initiatives on the anvil are said to include the swapping of technology, medical students, media-related information and expertise on issues of urbanisation and commerce. That Bombay and Karachi are talking rather than New Delhi and Islamabad gives rise to some hope that something lasting might actually come of this exchange promoted by SAFMA. India / Tibet Tibet secret After months of rumour, it finally surfaced in the reinstated Nepali Parliament – a secretive plan to transfer to the United States thousands of “vulnerable” Tibetan refugees currently living in Nepal. The cat emerged from the bag when, during a meeting of the Foreign Affairs and Human Rights Committee, an MP asked whether rumours were true that the government was preparing documents “to send 5000 refugees to the US”. Foreign Minister K P Oli responded that Nepal has recently restarted issuing travel documents to Bhutani refugees, and “they are also being given to Tibetan refugees on humanitarian grounds and in special cases.” He hastened to note that, “It is not that we are granting travel documents to illegal Tibetan migrants.” The cautious qualifications were required because of Beijing’s sensitivities towards the Tibetan refugee issue, which the earlier Gyanendra regime had sought to pander to by, among other things, closing down the Kathmandu office of the Dalai Lama, set up to look after refugee affairs. Despite Oli’s guarded comments, the matter has enraged Chinese officials, who will not object to Tibetan refugees in India but who take particular pleasure in rubbing Kathmandu’s nose in the mud on the self-same matter. China has consistently maintained that there are no Tibetan refugees in Nepal, only illegal migrants. As Himal went to press, Beijing was said to be despatching Vice-Foreign Minister Wu Dawei to Kathmandu to indicate its displeasure. Kathmandu is supposed to tremble at the thought. Meanwhile, little is known of the issue that touched off the controversy. The Tibetan government-in-exile in Dharamsala confirms that a plan to evacuate the refugees to the US exists, but they will not say more. Refugee representatives in Kathmandu claim to know even less. The US embassy is keeping mum. The Tibetans wait. Burma Changing of the guard? Reports out of Burma point to a resolute move on the part of the ruling junta to reinvigorate the country’s flagging power structure and economy. Eight deputy ministers and a Supreme Court judge have been relieved of their positions, and observers have noted that additional cabinet changes appear to be in the works – including the possible resignation of
General Than Shwe, the junta head. Programmes of economic liberalisation appear to be in the pipeline, coming in the wake of a crackdown on corruption in Rangoon. A new Constitution is also said to be in the works. The changes and rumours of change are thought to be an attempt simultaneously to strengthen and soften the Rangoon regime ahead of some constitutional adjustments. Even if this does not really mean a loosening up of the regime, the military leaders do appear ready to hand over power to a younger generation. Such a move, however, would seem merely to have the function of extending the military’s hold on Burmese society and its prospects. Aung Sang Suu Kyi, in the meantime, spent her 61st birthday under house arrest in mid-June. Pakistan / Afghanistan Refugee, Taliban and Pakistani Islamabad has appealed for international funding to allow the remaining 2.6 million Afghan refugees currently in Pakistan to return home. It will not be cheap, with the cost of the exercise hovering at about USD 5 billion. Adding a twist to sweeten the pill for the Western donors, Foreign Minister Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri added that, together with the departure of the refugees, an important staging ground for Taliban militants would be eliminated. According to the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, 100,000 Afghans have voluntarily left Pakistan thus far this year. Although these numbers are down from previous years, those going back are being described as more highly skilled than previous returnees. Which is why it is a shame that the rate of return has suddenly dipped as the Taliban has stepped up its violent activities inside Afghanistan. Relations between Kabul and Islamabad have become frayed as a result, with the latter surely wanting the refugees to be repatriated. Since UNHCR began its repatriation operation (its largest ever) after the fall of the Taliban, more than 2.8 million Afghan refugees have returned home. It is said that those most desperate to return have already done so, leaving behind a group that will cost more to repatriate and reintegrate into Afghani society. Which explains the high price tag. Bhutan / India Bhutan: frontier matters The demarcation of Bhutan’s border with India is said to be nearly complete. Although the borders were originally defined back in 1963 and ratified in 1971, several boundary pillars were found missing in 2001 and the process was restarted. By last December, only eight strips of territory remained pending, on the Arunachal Pradesh and Assam borders. King Jigme Singye Wangchuck has announced that these remaining segments would be finalised by the end of 2006. In the meantime, looking to the north, Thimphu’s National Assembly legislators have been airing worries about the Tibetan borderlands. In recent years, the Chinese have constructed a number of roads up to the Bhutani frontier, and some are thought to actually traverse the defined border. “For a small country, losing even a small piece of land would be a big loss,” said one official. All border matters are supposed to be cleared up in advance of the unveiling of Druk Yul’s new Constitution in 2008. While Thimphu does not have diplomatic relations with China – out of deference, it is said, for India – the Bhutanis are on tenterhooks about the goings-on across over the Himalayan rampart. The 2003 announcement by Delhi to open up the Nathula border point (see related story later in this issue) for India-China commerce saw fruition on 6 July, and Thimphu is extremely alert to the potential impact on its own economy and prized sense of security. The Chumbi Valley, through which the route between Siliguri, Gangtok and Lhasa passes, lies across Bhutan’s western border. Thimphu believes that Nathula’s opening will greatly increase pressure within Bhutan to reopen the traditional trade routes with Tibet. Bhutan would want to have more to do and say with China, and before long India may have to accede to this Druk desire. Pakistan Waziristan ceasefire Unbeknownst to much of the rest of Southasia, fierce clashes have continued for several months in both North and South Waziristan. However, even as anti-Taliban fighting continued to escalate across the border in Afghanistan, with 80,000 Pakistani troops stationed along the frontier, a one-month truce was called by militants in North Waziristan in late June. This was meant to allow tribal elders to negotiate a settlement with the Islamabad government. The fighting was scaled down abruptly with the mid-June announcement of a tribal jirga called by the government. The jirga, which is made up of 47 members, demanded that the government dismantle new military checkposts, reinstate fired local officials, pay out withheld salaries, release innocent persons suspected of militant ties, and order soldiers back to their bases to make way for tribal security personnel. Days later, the government released 50 tribal men from detention.
Three weeks after it was announced, despite two instances of militant violence, the new governor of the Northwest Frontier Provinces called the ceasefire the first major step towards restoration of peace in Waziristan. Despite the seeming success, however, the ceasefire period had yet to be extended. The Maldives Over to the people Could control just possibly be slipping away from Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, president for nearly 28 years? It may well be, if recent actions of the Maldives’ Special Majlis (Constitutional Assembly) are any indication. Amidst discussion of constitutional reforms, during a mid-June debate on the country’s future ruling structure, an impasse in the Special Majlis on the choice between a presidential or parliamentary system led to the body voting to go in for a referendum. The people of the Maldives are now set for the first such exercise in nearly four decades. The vote was carried by an overwhelming majority opting in favour of the referendum – including half of the ruling Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP) members in the assembly. The opposition favours a parliamentary system with a ceremonial head of state, while DRP members had reportedly been instructed by President Gayoom to block any such possibility. In preparation for the referendum, three weeks later the DRP again broke with the president, releasing a leaflet urging voters to support a “full” presidential system. This is in direct opposition to the ‘hybrid’ system that Gayoom has proposed, which would include an elected president as well as a prime minister appointed by the president. The opposition says that whatever the referendum’s result, it will be a setback for the longtime president-autocrat. Although an exact date has not been set, opposition leaders suggest a vote could take place as early as the end of the summer. Tibet
Yet another Tibetan frontier There was still a week to go before the spanking new Qinghai-Lhasa railway was set to open, and Beijing was already announcing three extensions to take the railway in the high plateau to the next frontier. The new projects, which will cost several billion dollars and take close to a decade to complete, will connect Lhasa to three other Tibetan cities – Yadong in the south, Nyingchi in the east and Shigatse in the southwest. What this indicates is that Beijing is going full steam ahead with its plans to convert Tibet into a new frontier of economic and natural resource exploitation. Tibetan political activists have feared that the Golmud-Lhasa line would permit the Han infiltration of the Tibetan towns to extend to the countryside. On another plane, the building up of a railway network in Tibet would seem to enhance possibilities of commerce between it and South and Central Asia. Those in the know say that this has indeed been Beijing’s plan since 2001.
Romila Thapar addresses invitees at the
Southasian relaunch of Himal Southasian,
IIC, New Delhi, January 2013.
Flickr / girl.from.melbourne
An early monsoon
On June 16 2013, the India Meteorological Department confirmed the early arrival of monsoon rains across the whole of India. Full coverage was not expected until the middle of July, making farmers hopeful for a bumper crop.
From our archive:
C K Lal discusses the fixation of Southasia's political leaders with 'monumental waterworks.' (September 2007)
Somnath Mukherji explores the sights, sounds, smells and feelings that monsoon evokes. (June 2007)
Venu Madhav Govindu notes the 'fundamental importance' of a good monsoon for both city and rural dwellers. (August 2003)