Round-up of regional news

Guns and roses

Peace seemed to be at hand at the open-air stadium in Kagrachchary district in early February when, in the morning sunshine, regulars from the Shanti Bahini laid down their arms (or rather, stood them on a rack that had been provided) and agreed to revert from guerrillas to peasants. Shontu Larma, the man who led the insurgents to peace handed over his gun, Prime Minister Hasina Wajed responded with flowers. Then both leaders released the doves of probable peace.

But the way ahead remains precarious, not the least because Begum Khaleda Zia´s Bangladesh Nationalist Party was shouting betrayal. Within the Chakmas themselves, fissures have appeared. Many members of the Hill Students and Hill Women´s Federation have split from Larma, although he still commands the majority. The dissidents feel that the war booty will be grabbed by close associates of Larma and that the young people who were not directly involved in the fighting or who crossed over to India will get a smaller share of the peace dividend. "We are left with no option but to say that the peace treaty will not benefit the majority of the hill people," said a leader of Hill Students Federation to Himal. But others insist that the dissidents are in a minority and there is no appetite left for more war in the hills.

For the moment, the general mood is for peace. The last group of refugees have returned and they are keen to settle down and begin a normal life.  However,  at  the treaty signing ceremony itself, protest banners were held up and shouts condemning the accord were heard.

And there are other forces in the area which can cause trouble. The Bengalee settlers of CHT, one of the poorest and least popular migrant populations in the world, is now becoming increasingly defiant, partly in desperation and partly because of the increasing support they are receiving on the way to becoming future political pawns. Mainstream opinion is not in favour of moving them elsewhere. Clashes have already occurred between the Bengalees and the Chakmas.

On the other hand, whereas there were only two belligerent forces before in the hills, there are now suddenly more. There have been reports that the counter-insurgents created by the Government at the height of the insurgency may now act on their own; they have the weaponry to create problems. Also, the arrest of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) General Secretary, Anup Chetia, by the Bangladesh police and the accompanying threats by ULFA to extract revenge will also mean spilling of insurgency from India´s Northeast into Bangladesh, a fate it has escaped till date.

It appears that the hills may bleed again despite treaties. As the doves took to the air in the stadium in Dhaka, one could only hope for peace in our times.

Signs of the Times

In early february, readers of the Times of India were suddenly taken aback, pleasantly so, by the newspaper´s sudden interest in human rights issues.

It started a "Human Rights Watch" section, and within a few days printed a prominent front-page announcement titled "Time to speak up". It asked, challengingly enough, "Can we allow the Enforcement Directorate to make a mockery of our fundamental rights as citizens and subvert our democratic principles?" The announcement stated that the Directorate, the federal agency which looks into fiscal misdemeanours, was given to acting with "arbitrary high-handedness" and asked readers to write in or call various TOI offices all over the country giving instances of how they were "humiliated, victimised, relentlessly persecuted" by the agency.

A worthy public cause taken up by a reputed national newspaper? It certainly looked like it. Except that investigations carried by the paper appeared only after a spate of reports detailing how the ED had been harassing "noted industrialist" Ashok Jain over alleged violation of FERA (Foreign Exchange Regulation Act). The Bombay-based Ashok Jain is none other than the chairman of Bennett, Coleman and Company, owners of Times group of publications, which includes TOI.

The campaign against ED began with a front-page report in which various Indian chambers of commerce and industry "deplored the grossly inhuman manner in which the Enforcement Directorate (ED) is ill-treating noted industrialist Ashok Jain." All the TOI reports used "noted industrialist" or "a senior business leader", never letting on that he was the boss, save for one mention buried in an inside page.

The paper printed reports of other denunciations too, one of which interestingly was by the powerful Jain community threatening a non-cooperation movement if the ED did not get off Ashok Jain´s back. Then came a series of articles of past excesses of the ED, along with comments from legal experts, all scathing in their attacks against the high-handedness of the agency. These included a report on how the All India Newspaper Owners´ Conference denounced the Directorate for harassing Jain.

In the Indian media, there were just a few to call the TOI bluff. One such was the Bombay Union of Journalists, which issued a statement stating that "not only is this sustained campaign to get the Enforcement Directorate off Mr Ashok Jain´s back a mockery of journalistic ethics, it also crudely exposes the real nature of ´freedom of the press´ in the country."

The Union further asked: "Can a newspaper be run to further the personal interest of a person charged under FERA? Can precious space be wasted to drum up support for an accused? Do journalists have no options but to silently participate in such cynical and contemptuous artifices? Does the Press Council of India not have a suo moto duty to call a halt to this daylight tomfoolery immediately?"

The Statesman of Calcutta was apparently the only newspaper to have the courage to react against the prejudiced coverage by a ´sister´ daily It wrote at length in an editorial:

FICCI alleges inhuman and high handed treatment. Mr Jain has received 22 different summons to appear and answer questions, he has ignored them all. It seems by now standard practice for him to check into hospital on receipt of summons; in one case he was fit enough to leave for London the next day, in another he attended long religious discourses in Delhi over 10 days.

Apparently, the media baron has had no problems getting the "sick" certificates since he is a trustee of a Bombay hospital (incidentally, named the Bombay Hospital).

The decline and commercialisation of the TOI over the last few years under the leadership of Sameer Jain (Ashok Jain´s son) has been a matter of grave concern for observers who follow the ups and downs of India´s national English media. It seems that the Ashok Jain episode has succeeded in exposing the TOI more than it has the ED.

It must be reported in all fairness, however, that whatever might be its genesis, the "Human Rights Watch" has gone on to provide space for some real issues, as seen from these sample headlines in TOI: "NHRC [National Human Rights Commission] for CBI probe into custodial deaths"; "SC guidelines on arrest, detention reiterated"; and "US state department indicts India on human rights violations".

Code of Ethics

A paragraph from the TOI Code of Ethics, as announced by the paper in its 16 October 1996 issue.

"Every journalist should ensure that professional objectivity is not influenced by personal likes, dislikes, friendship and ideologies. Journalists should refrain from being members of political organisations. Involvement in political activities, community affairs, demonstrations and social causes that could cause a conflict of interest with the discharge of professional duties should be avoided. Any situation of a potential conflict of interest (such as covering the activities of a club-organisation of which one is a member) should be brought to the attention of the Editor by the journalist concerned."

Peace manoeuvres

In the race to set up international centres on this subject or that, successful host cities are those that take the initiative. And so Dhaka became the proposed venue for a South Asian training centre for international peace-keeping when it lavished its atention on a four-day conference on "South Asian Peacekeeping Experience" in early February.

On the whole, participants at the meeting pooh-poohed the idea of a standing United Nations army as impracticable, but supported the concept of a United Nations standby force, which could be quickly deployed when the need arose. Such a  stand-by army would have to be region-based, and ergo, there was the need for regional peacekeeping training centres. Asia would need one too.

Within South Asia, it was Nepal and Bangladesh whose geopolitical standing is still ´correct´ enough to be able to be home to such a centre. Whether it was tardiness in Kathmandu or a show of camaraderie is not clear, but Kathmandu did not stake a claim.

Hosting the United Nations meet, where, incongruously enough, the United States Army´s Asia-Pacific Command was deployed in force, Bangla Foreign Minister Abdus Samad Azad said that Dhaka was a suitable location for the centre both regionally and in pan-Asia.

The Bangladesh Chief of the Army Staff, Lt Gen Muhammad Mustafizur Rahman Bir Bikram referred to the recent accord with the Chakma rebels and said that by signing a peace accord with a section of its population that had taken up arms, Bangladesh had translated into practice the principles of lasting peace. "Bangladesh´s decade-long experience in international peacekeeping qualifies Bangladesh to host the proposed peacekeeping academy," he reminded the gathering.

There was no point of order raised by the other South Asians present.

South Asia vs the Maghreb

Episode: New Delhi journalist (Sagarika Ghosh, d/o former Secretary of Information Bhaskar Ghosh) meets Laila Abdel Hamid, wife of an Algerian diplomat. What follows is the chronology of events as we have understood it through reported corroborated testimony.

16 February: In the upscale Khan market locality where diplomats and well-heeled Delhiwallahs shop for books and shampoo, journalist Ghosh parks her Maruti in front of housewife Hamid's Contessa. Latter asks former to move. Former apparently says, "Don't be silly, there is enough space for you." Not clear who, but one expresses rude sentiments. Matters complicated by English-French cross-lingual interface. The initial word is that Ghosh was dragged out of the car and thrashed on the ground, but later she responds to a question and states that she emerged on her own locomotion. (The Algerian ambassador subsequently maintains that Ghosh opened the door violently, which is what led to the fracas.) Several people, including a super-nationalist panwallah plying his trade within coughing distance, intervene and the two separate and get back into their cars. The mediawoman concedes to having uttered the expletive "bitch" at that point, whereupon diplomat's wife once again emerged and proceeded to thrash the Bharatiya nari. One bystander is quoted by a paper as saying, "She called us bloody Indians. How can we take that, especially when elections are going on today."

Fallout: The editor of Outlook magazine, for whom Ghosh works, writes a protest note to the Prime Minister Inder Kumar Gujral and Foreign Secretary K. Raghunath. The foreign office decides to upgrade a parking lot spat into a diplomatic incident and summons the Algerian ambassador, Abdelhamid Bereksi, over to express official "displeasure".

Comment: Editors need not write letters to prime ministers on matters such as this, nor should foreign ministries get involved. Lack of perspective on the part of both. The Non-Aligned Movement gravely affected by this incident between two fraternal members.

Internet gossip (from the chat site of the New York-based South Asian Journalists Association):

  • It's obvious that people's first instinct is to empathise with the poor pummelled journalist and berate the arrogant diplomat's wife. That's precisely why we need to look at this incident with a little scepticism…
  • The question was why was the crowd incensed? Me thinks the crowd was outraged at seeing two women having the temerity to fight like men.
  • As a rising star of the Indian media scene, Ghosh's plight got greater coverage than it would have had she been the daughter of a silver trader from Old Delhi.
  • I want to hear Mrs Algerian Diplomat's point of view, if only to learn more about the secret of her awesome strength.
  • The Ministry of External Affairs should reserve gestures of official displeasure for differences on policy, not brawls over parking space.
  • Just look at the elements: young mother, crying baby, arrogant diplomat, apathetic cops and enraged patriotic citizenry. Everything fits in a little too neatly.

War movies

Even while peaceniks try to mend the Indo-Pak fence, warmongers continue with their nationalistic atavistic baying. How to, otherwise, explain plans for a 13-episode docudrama entitled Battle of Honours of the Indian Army, scheduled to begin telecast on Doordarshan at the end of May?

The film is being made by Sinia jain of Delhi, and as one news report had it, the story is about how "Indian regiments fought against overwhelming odds to win the battle and the war". Apparently in the story line, the options are limited for our brave Indian jawans: "To take flight and give the Pakistanis a clear run all the way to Delhi or to stay and fight. It's no choice at all!"

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