Round-up of regional news

Free talk in Lanka
In 2002, a year of considerable importance in the recent history of Sri Lanka, the government in Colombo matched progress on the peace front by setting out to improve regulations governing the country's media. Along with other measures, this included efforts to professionalise the press corps, promote women's advancement into media management positions and reduce legal restrictions on journalists' work.

Politics being what it is, however, by year's end the government had partially slipped into the established habit of using state media as a megaphone for its own views. Some journalists who are considered supporters of the main opposition People's Alliance (PA) received 'punishment transfers'. But while government media leaned toward Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe's positions, private media proved to be lively and buoyantly contrarian. Numerous Sinhala tabloids – including Lakmina, Lanka, Lakjana, Dinakara and Nijabima – were founded to articulate the positions of the various Sinhala parties in opposition to Wickremesinghe's government.

Scheduled for public release on 3 May, Media Freedom in Sri Lanka: Some Critical Issues, a report by Sri Lanka's Free Media Movement and the human rights NGO INFORM, explores the condition of press freedom in the country today. The report provides an overview of the major issues of journalism in Sri Lanka since the signing of the government-Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) ceasefire agreement in February 2002.

One of the most important of these issues, and one that will have particular significance in a future dispensation of Colombo-LTTE partnership, is the circulation of news and views evenly among all citizens of the country. In September 2002, after a 15-year hiatus, the Sri Lankan government restarted a Tamil language television channel which can reach viewers in the north and east. Correspondingly, the LTTE has looked southward with a Sinhala language magazine, Dedunu (Rainbow), and opened up areas under its control to print media from the outside. Controversy, however, has not been totally avoided in media matters surrounding the ethnic conflict, as is demonstrated by the fallout from assistance provided to the LTTE in acquiring high-powered broadcasting and transmission equipment in December 2002.

Media Freedom notes that while there is currently no de jure censorship in Sri Lanka, many journalists practice self-censorship. "A political culture of violence and impunity has led to the creation of an environment in which expression of dissent in itself can constitute a life-threatening activity", the authors write. Further, a "repressive" Prevention of Terrorism Act is still in effect and continuing attacks on journalists have restricted the media's space. Also, in its own way, the media can contribute to ethnic-based hostilities by playing off suspicions of readers and distorting views expressed in other languages.

Events during the past 14 months have lent weight to concerns about the practice of free speech in Sri Lanka. Accusations have been made against the government, the opposition, the LTTE and allied groups of all three concerning the intimidation of journalists and acts of violence against media personnel. On 7 February 2003, for instance, police in Jaffna manhandled a group of Tamil journalists, injuring one. Political parties have also been troublesome at points; speaking at an opposition rally on 10 March, a Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) party secretary warned that "biased" media institutions would be surrounded by thousands of JVP activists, a statement interpreted by some as an incitement to violence. And in April, Sinhala opposition newspapers reported that President Chandrika Kumaratunga, leader of the PA, would wrest control of state media from Wickremesinghe's government to ensure more coverage of opposition activities, underscoring the politisation of the media. To receive a copy of Media Freedom, write to

Giggling over Ayodhya
A lawyer negotiates the many twists and turns in determining Ram's birthplace.

In a significant development, the Jhumri Talaiya Bench of the Ram Rajya High Court rejecting the preliminary objections as to jurisdiction, requisitioned the papers and took the Babri Masjid disputed land title suit on board.

The hon'ble court declared that everyone except pseudo-secularists knew that Ram rajya extended to the four corners of the round world and the great beyond. Therefore, the high court had not only the power and jurisdiction but a duty to deal with any squabbles, not only among mortals but even among gods, who have been known to have been arrayed against each other in the past. It observed that interstate disputes between prithvilok, patal-lok and yamlok could also be dealt with by the court.

Deepening and extending the scope of the Lucknow Bench order directing excavation of the disputed site and determination of the presence or absence of a temple, the court observed that Ram was very much in favour of modern technologies, as evidenced by his arrival in the vertical take-off pushpak viman at Ayodhya. Noting that since the matter before the court was not one of contempt, wherein truth was not a defence, no technology should be left unturned to aid and abet the court in its pursuit of truth in the pending case.

Praising Dr Abdul Kalam Azad for his role in the development of Pokhran II nuclear missiles, the court directed the Referral Institute of Nuclear Research and Warfare to make available the latest remote sensing ultrasonic devices attached to the nuclear warheads to ascertain whether indeed the echoes of the specific frequency waves characteristic of new-born babes could be detected at the site of the demolished Babri Masjid. It decided that while efforts were on to get to the root of the matter, one may as well dig in to the heart of the matter and see whether indeed a babe was born there in the epic age. Appreciating the step-by-step approach of the court, on behalf of the centre the attorney general submitted that the provisions of the Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (Regulation and Prevention of Misuse) Act, 1994, would come in the way of further progress of ascertaining the sex of the baby born at the disputed site.

The court observed that laws are made by parliament for the people, and in appropriate cases, it is the duty of the judiciary to see wherein national interest lies. Exercising the wide powers inhered by the constitution, the court deemed the legislation inapplicable to the present proceedings. Allaying fears of tampering by the executive and vested interests, the court directed the formation of an independent three-member panel of doctors from three premier institutions to conduct the sex-determination test and directed that the results thereof, with particular regard to details of the sex of the child, be put in a sealed cover and submitted to the custody of the court.

The senior counsel for the Vishwa Hindu Parishad pleaded that as per the latest amendments in the 'evidence act', electronic recordings and images could be used as evidence and the DNA of Ram from the serial Ramayana could be used to establish the identity of the baby. The counsel prayed for directions to Doordarshan to produce the original tapes duly attested to by Mr Ramanand Sagar.

Brushing aside doubts that a stalemate may be reached about the identity of the baby, the court observed that nothing is ever destroyed or created in the cosmos. Adjourning the matter for three weeks, the court held that at the appropriate stage, if necessary, the help of NASA, for whom Kalpana Chawla, a brave daughter of the nation laid down her life, could be requisitioned to take the matter further after the preliminary determination of the age and sex of the baby allegedly born at the disputed site.

The counsel for the Communist Party of India, Mr Tippal Kambal, submitted that akin to the use of natural science, Marxism as a social science should also be used to assist the court in arriving at the truth. Handing across the bar the ultra-topography maps made by the Leningrad-based Cuban company Castro Inc, Mr Kambal pointed out the fact that the disputed area fell squarely within the red highlighted working class area. The counsel argued that Mr Ram s/o Dashrath, non-resident of Ayodhya for 14 years, came from the monarchical class and even if a purported baby was found to be born at the disputed working class site, the said baby could not be him as there was an inherent contradiction between the proletariat and the monarchy, as irrefutably established by the events of the neighbouring Himalayan Hindu kingdom.                   

-Rakesh Shukla, Delhi

Jharkhand, the resource-rich eastern Indian state that came into being in 2001, is home to some of India's largest industrial sites, though its people are among the poorest in the country. In addition to boasting of several major Tata plants, Jharkhand has large deposits of bauxite, coal, copper, iron, manganese and mica, as well as India's three productive uranium sites, all near the city of Jadugoda. Uranium in its natural form is a mixture of elemental Uranium 235 and 238, the first of which is used in nuclear weapons. Uranium 238, which is leftover, or 'depleted', in 235-extraction processes, is used in anti-tank munitions of US and UK armed forces, and, while not particularly radioactive, is still very toxic.

The opening of the US-led war against Iraq on 20 March provided activists in Jharkhand with a unique opportunity to tie their under-publicised concerns about uranium mining in their state, which began in 1967, to the headline-making hostilities in West Asia. With the partnership of a Japanese anti-nuclear group based in Hiroshima, a local NGO named Kritika organised public meetings in Tata Nagar, Jadugoda, Turamdigh and Ranchi during the opening week of the war to discuss uranium mining and the use of uranium products in war. Kritika's intention was to drawn attention to the humanitarian and ecological effects of uranium mining in Jharkhand, which is overseen by the Uranium Corporation of India, Ltd (UCIL), and also to highlight the effects of residual depleted uranium (DU) on Iraqis since the end of the first Gulf war in 1991.

During the 1991 Gulf war, US air force A-10 "tank-buster" planes unleashed 940,000 DU shells on Iraqi targets, leaving 270 tonnes of DU in Iraq and Kuwait at the war's end. Eight years later, during the Kosovo campaign, US airplanes dropped 31,000 DU munitions. A 2001 United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) study said that residual DU in the former Yugoslavia was an "insignificant" environmental risk, though the UNEP report was quiet about the health consequences of long-term DU exposure. In 1998, the government of Iraq demanded that the UK compensate it for costs associated with health damages suffered by Iraqi civilians as a result of DU contamination, which it said included foetal and bone deformities. Nevertheless, US and UK forces used DU shells in the recently-concluded war in Iraq, though some older DU munitions lines have been discontinued by private manufacturers amid concerns of litigation by US and UK servicemen citing DU exposure as a cause of illness.

In 1999, before the creation of Jharkhand, a report by Bihar's legislative council said that people living within 15 kilometres of Jadugoda were disproportionately stricken by cancer, leukaemia in particular, as well as by deformities and impotency. It also cited the deaths of more than 100 mine workers from cancer during the previous decade, and the afflicting of 90 percent of mine camp residents with arthritis, as evidence of toxic exposure. Another group, the Jharkhand Organisation Against Radiation (JOAR), says that 47 percent of adult women living near the uranium mines have suffered disruptions of their menstrual cycles, and that 18 percent have either had miscarriages or given birth to stillborn babies. One ominous indication of the effects of uranium on humans comes from the fact that many kendu fruits grown in the vicinity of the mines no longer contain seeds. Defenders of UCIL say that most health problems arising in mine camps are related to alcoholism.

Another indication of the potency of exposure to DU comes from the substance's unique military-use properties. At 2.5 times the density of steel, and more than 1.5 times the density of lead, a five-kilogram shell tipped with DU is dense enough to penetrate heavy armour tanks. Once inside, the uranium disintegrates, and, because of the heat generated in the explosion, its particles start to burn. The effect of this on people inside a tank is "devastating" according to The Guardian. "Aside from the shards of metal flying around, there is a danger of being burned or suffocating as the oxygen inside the vehicle is used up".

Some of the Japanese participants at the Jharkhand meetings who travelled to Iraq before the war saw firsthand the effects of DU exposure. According to one delegate, Haruko Moritaki, Geiger counter readings along the border with Kuwait are 300-700 times above normal levels, underscoring the large presence of spent DU cartridges, which individually are not considered to be highly radioactive. The Japanese delegation's trip, which included visits to children's hospitals, found confirmation of the grave humanitarian situation in Iraq which has been well documented by many international agencies. The testimony of the Japanese delegates, in particular those from Hiroshima, added weight to Kritika's efforts to mobilise public awareness and resistance in Jharkhand against uranium mining and weapons production. Kritika, which does not accept large-money foreign donations, is now organising villagers in Andhra Pradesh and Orissa against proposed mine sites in their states.

Harsola's evicted 
Haryana, in India, has been the site of some of the worst social atrocities in the recent and not so recent past. The persistence of highly oppressive patriarchal institutions, reflected in the shameful sex ratio of 861 women to 1000 men, is well documented. What is less well known is the firm hold of upper caste interests on institutions, and the violent subjugation of dalits, who comprise almost a fifth of the state's 22 million-strong population.

What further casts a shadow on the way democracy has evolved in Haryana is that dalits, though numerically significant, are neither politically assertive nor socially visible. So much so that according to the 2001 report of the National Commission of Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST) (yet to be officially tabled in parliament), no special courts have been established to deal with cases of dalit atrocities, as is mandatory for every state by the SCST act. The extent of the state's neglect may be gauged by the fact that only INR 14,500 was spent on government legal aid work in 2001 on cases such as dalit oppression.

While particularly horrific events like the gruesome killings of dalits at Dulina, Jhajjar, in October 2002, help draw the attention of the outside world to the situation, there seems to be no consistent effort to monitor and check the growing violation of dalit human rights in the state. The recent killing of a dalit boy who had dared to marry a jat girl or the forced eviction of dalits (belonging to the chamar – leatherworker – caste) from their ancestral village Harsola in Kaithal district, for example, went largely ignored by the national media.

In March, more than 200 dalit families in Harsola, a small village in Kaithal district, were forced to leave their homes. Their problems began on 6 February. During the preparations for Ravidas Jayanti, a festival that honours the 15th century saint, Guru Ravidas, who was born into a family of cobblers, a minor scuffle broke out between dalit and inebriated jat youths. Insulted that dalits had dared to fight back, the jats, the main landowning group in the village, beat up a dalit boy the next day.

To forestall further confrontation, dalit elders contacted the village panchayat to defuse the situation but were met with refusal. Instead, the police intervened and called a meeting of both parties. At the meeting, as reported by regional newspapers (Dainik Bhaskar, Amar Ujala, 12 February), a planned attack was launched on the dalits in the presence of the police, in which scores of dalits were injured. Subsequently, all the dalits left their village and marched to the Divisional Commissioner's office in Kaithal to agitate for the restoration of their human rights. The action committee formed to spearhead the agitation made clear that they would remain in front of the office until the more than 80 people involved in the attack were arrested.

The administration ultimately intervened, a few arrests were made and the dalits returned to the village when the local legislator promised to guarantee their safety from a jat backlash. In keeping with the promise, a temporary police post was set up in the village. The administration also promised the dalits that after a proper survey, they would be compensated for their injuries.

On 20 March, however, the uneasy calm in Harsola broke down when the accused, belonging to the upper caste jat community, were released on bail. That night the dalits came under attack once again. This time, fearing for their lives and realising that the police must be complicit in the attack, the dalits left the village without even contacting the police post.

Today, the 800-year-old dalit basti in Harsola looks like a haunted place. Empty houses and lanes tell of the sufferings of dalits, who are now scattered in different parts of Kaithal district. Having learned the extent of administrative and police callousness, they have decided never to return. Meanwhile, the charges against the guilty framed under the SCST act have been skilfully withdrawn and instead, a fictitious case under the same act has been lodged against a local journalist who reported on the injustice.

A team of activists from Dalit Mukti Sangathan, Karnal, which met victims and visited the empty lanes of the dalit basti, expressed surprise that despite repeated reminders to the national SCST commission and the state level commission, and a memorandum to the chief minister, no action has been taken. Whether Chief Minister Chautala, a jat, will do anything about this latest atrocity remains to be seen. For now, as far as the administration is concerned, the matter seems closed.

A telling element of this episode is that whereas the killings in Jhajjar caught the attention of the national media and polity, the forced 'expulsion' of more than 1500 dalits from their ancestral homes has till date remained confined to local editions of newspapers. Dalits are news in death, but while alive, they may only exist.

-Subhash Gatade, Delhi

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