Sri Lanka/The Maldives
One island to another
President Mohamed Nasheed recently paid a visit to his country’s closest island neighbour, Sri Lanka. In President Mahinda Rajapaske’s official residence in Colombo, the two discussed deepening ties in trade and investment. President Nasheed also congratulated President Rajapakse on his government’s defeat of the LTTE. Indeed, Maldivian support of Colombo’s war effort has been unequivocal throughout the ethnic conflict.
But this support is not merely brotherly. Ever since the September 2007 bomb blast in a Male tourist park, which injured 12 people, violence perpetrated by extremists (religious rather than ethnic in this instance) has been gaining ground in the Maldives. Historically speaking, militancy in the atolls has also had a Sri Lankan connection. In 1988, political opponents of then-President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom hired Sri Lankan Tamils, members of the People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE), in their attempted coup. At that time, India jumped in to foil the putsch. Today Colombo, with its immense experience in countering militant tactics, could well prove invaluable should the situation worsen. (The perpetrators of the 2007 blasts, meanwhile, are believed to be taking refuge in Pakistan.)
This mutual interest is further bolstered by economic co-dependency, more important in these days of global meltdown. Sri Lanka’s finances are, of course, doing poorly after decades of conflict, but the lamentable state of the Maldivian economy is not something President Nasheed shies away from admitting. Aware that the atolls cannot ride out the downturn alone, he is busy creating incentives for foreign investors. To this end, President Rajapakse has promised to install a framework to make Sri Lankan rupees readily available to the Maldivian market. Already, Sri Lankan companies hold substantial investments there.
Sri Lanka and the Maldives, it seems, have no choice but to remain friends to solve their Indian Ocean problems – extremism, global warming and the economic downturn, to name just a few.
Pakistan’s uninterrupted nurturing of close relationships with Colombo is again visible, this time not in military hardware but civilian transport. In early July, Pakistan Railways signed a USD 2 million deal with Colombo, pledging to rehabilitate 250 km of rail track across the island. This post-conflict infrastructure upgrade would be very welcome.
Founded in 1858 by the British, Sri Lankan (then Ceylon) Railways was originally intended for the transportation of coffee and tea from the countryside to Colombo. The network was steadily expanded, and the tracks finally reached over 1100 km, with more than 330 trains operating daily. The network runs along the west coast, eventually branching out from Colombo to the eastern and northern coast. As such, most Sri Lankans who use the trains today do so to commute to and from the capital.
Despite the popularity of the railway, the tracks are weak and decaying, the result of government neglect and damage suffered due to LTTE attacks. Though plans for rehabilitation were already underway, Pakistan’s help could provide a much-needed boost. In addition to the track, the trains themselves will also be looked at, with plans to convert 500 four-wheel freight wagons into eight-wheelers, and to modernise 60 others. Islamabad will also be helping to tackle poor worker productivity by providing training and affordable housing flats for railway employees.
Unsurprisingly, the stretch most in need of rehabilitation is the northern track, which has long stopped functioning altogether as a consequence of the war. For almost two decades, trains have not been able to reach Kankesanthurai, at the northernmost tip of the island, or Mannar in the northeast. In early July, Colombo said that the Yal Devi line to Kankesanthurai was an important component for building religious, cultural and social ties among Tamils and Sinhalese, and presented a plan for restoration. President Mahinda Rajapakse even donated his salary for a month to get the project going.
Sikh of this
Open a Nepali newspaper on any given day and the first report is most likely that another bandh is, somewhere, in action. Few areas have been untouched, with the Tarai plains being home to the worst disruptions. The budding republic is slowly grinding to a halt, strike by strike – so much so that some are choosing to pack up and leave.
That large numbers of the Nepali Sikh community are leaving for India is both a dire testament of the state of Nepal, and an omen of troubles to come. Gurudwara Guru Nanak Satsang, a religious organisation based in Birgunj, recently reported that over 90 percent of its associated Sikh families in the town have now left for India. The chief of Satsang, Nanak Singh, put the shift in grim perspective: “There were 452 Sikh families in Birgunj until six years back. Now, only 29 families remain.” And Birgunj is only a bit player in an exodus that is taking place throughout Nepal, with Sikhs everywhere fleeing due to a worsening law-and-order situation as well as a dramatic downturn in business – particularly transportation.
The story of Sikh migration into Nepal was always one of healthy pluck and enterprise. It began tentatively a little over 40 years ago, with a few families settling in border towns such as Birgunj and setting up businesses, most notably trucking to feed the Kathmandu Valley through the newly built Tribhuvan Rajpath. Success stories crept back to India, circulating in particular amongst Sikhs in Jammu & Kashmir. Thereafter, the flow increased, and Sikhs fanned out across Nepal, initiating or entering myriad transportation companies. But now, with road movement brought to a halt with each new strike, Nepal has become a losing game.
For now, it is the Sikh economy in Nepal that seems to have been wiped out due to the impact of bandhs, in this instance on transportation and trucking. Which community is up next?
Though India has used the death penalty quite sparingly – only once in the past decade – debate still rages in the country about the need for capital punishment at all, as well as the most humane (read: least painful) method by which to implement it. Recently, activists petitioned the Indian Supreme Court to make execution by lethal injection the standard method; this would replace hanging, the current norm. Citing a lack of evidence to support the claim that lethal injection is more humane, however, their lordships rejected the petition.
Of course, this discussion has been taking place across the globe for decades. Yet there currently exists very little scientific evidence available on the subject. Some researchers have found that all modes of execution, including hanging, are likely to be painful. In recent years, lethal injection has also received heavy criticism. The method commonly used (devised in 1977) involves three injections: the first makes the convict unconscious, while the second and third do the actual killing. Yet in 2005, an article appeared in a British medical journal suggesting that, based on post-mortem analysis, 43 out of 49 executed prisoners studied may not have received enough of the first injection to ensure unconsciousness. In such a case, death may be highly uncomfortable, even though the body is unable to express any feeling of discomfort.
Following a 1983 Supreme Court ruling stating that the death penalty should only be given in “the rarest of rare cases”, in India only one execution has been sanctioned in recent years. In 2004 Dhananjoy Chatterjee, convicted of raping and murdering a schoolgirl, was hanged. In the past, the assassins of M K Gandhi and Indira Gandhi were also hanged.
In the rest of Southasia, meanwhile, Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan are all adherents of capital punishment, only Nepal and Bhutan have banned it. Yet in Nepal, amidst a spate of kidnappings and murders, there has been a sudden clamour for reintroducing the death penalty, which the 1990 Constitution banished. Hopefully, as the public outrage bridles, the same will happen to this atavistic demand for reinstatement.
Nonsensical as this may sound, about 70 million Indians, once considered healthy, were recently declared ‘overweight’ or ‘obese’ – overnight. These numbers were added after India lowered the threshold in the controversial Body Mass Index (BMI) formula – from 25 to 23 for those overweight and 30 to 25 for those obese. The BMI is supposed to measure healthy weight ranges, based on a ratio of height to weight. Health professionals had been calling for such a move, arguing, based on numbers found among British citizens of Southasian descent, that those from the Subcontinent are more prone to heart disease and diabetes.
The Indian government clearly paid attention and is now suggesting that other Southasian countries do the same. Regardless of what threshold is used, in Southasia itself obesity rates have indeed risen sharply over the last few years, in tandem with rapid modernisation. In 2006, the UK-based International Obesity Task Force reported that Southasian countries were seeing rises in childhood obesity congruent with that of Western countries. As a consequence, diabetes is rocketing, the majority of sufferers contracting Type 2, commonly associated with being overweight.
In the UK, the new thresholds mean that doctors are now obliged to intervene earlier, with drugs or surgery if necessary. But British opinion is divided over the Indian system, with some doctors arguing that more research is needed before surgery and drugs are provided to Southasians based on the new numbers. Yet the Royal College of General Practitioners in Britain is already backing a new system – eloquently named Qrisk2 – to identify the patients in greatest need of help: a computer-based risk-assessment machine, collating such information as BMI and ethnic background.
All of this sounds a great deal like racial profiling. Then again, that is perhaps just what the doctor orders when dealing with core genetic differences.
Southasians have probably already noticed, and research has now confirmed: the mobile phone is conquering the region. It is also overshadowing other communication devices. Recently, LIRNEasia, a Sri Lanka-based group focused on information-and-communication technology, found that telephones today outnumber radios across most of the Subcontinent. The only device that is more widespread, still ranking first in every country, is the television. While the urban market is already close to saturated, the growth in mobile-phone usage is today mainly taking place in rural areas.
The economic benefits of mobile connectivity in rural areas can be immense, allowing farmers to find information on market prices, as well as to expand their trading networks. One example is the Village Phone Initiative, started a decade back by Grameen Telecom (part of the Grameen Bank) in Bangladesh. Under this programme, poor women in rural areas are provided with a mobile phone, which they can operate as a business, allowing other villagers phone access for a small fee. In this way, 220,000 micro-entrepreneurs are said to connect as many villages to the phone network.
Among other benefits, being connected allows migrant workers to stay in touch with family, and local workers to stay up-to-date on market developments. Recently, another initiative has been developed in Bangladesh, which could help people in a different way: hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshis will now automatically receive a text message to warn them about impending natural disaster.
Research shows that Southasia-wide phone usage is still mainly to connect with friends and family members, rather than business, emergency or other needs. However, work-related phone usage is highest in Bangladesh, where Grameen Bank runs its village phone project, and lowest in Sri Lanka. In India, where the mobile has experienced the most explosive growth in the past years, it is also appreciated for giving a sense of personal space and voice, especially among the youth. For one reason or another, however, this applies more to males than females. Indeed, significant gender differences in phone usage are evident across Southasia, most notably in Pakistan. It seems the region still has much to learn from Southeast Asia, where women lead the way in staying connected through the phone.
Ghosts of Tigers past
Leaders of the recently outlawed Communist Party of India (Maoist) have been doing a little homework in their downtime. Subject matter: the LTTE. Question: How was the most successful, and sustained, guerrilla movement in history finally defeated? This case study was incorporated into a 16-page document now doing the rounds in the politburo.
According to the CPI (Maoist), the Tigers defeat was due to a weakness of basic military strategy. Namely, it was a failure to closely track changes in enemy tactics, an underestimation of the enemy and, worst of all, an overestimation of its own forces and capabilities. This is not to forget, of course, the generous help that “imperialist powers” provided to the enemy.
The CPI (Maoist) should perhaps look into its own war strategy, now that the Indian government gives every indication of ‘getting serious’ about militarily crushing the Naxalites. Party leaders predict that the “state-sponsored terror” they claim is being utilised by Sonia Gandhi, Manmohan Singh and P Chidambaram will grow increasingly brutal and effective in the years to come. And given the severity of the recent crackdown on Naxalite control in Lalgarh, West Bengal, this could be no idle prediction.
Meanwhile, the demise of LTTE chief Velupillai Prabhakaran had an unexpected outcome in Kathmandu recently, with Community Party of Nepal (Maoist) chief Pushpa Kamal Dahal (‘Prachanda’) suggesting more than once that dark forces arrayed against his party were bent on “making a Prabhakaran” out of him. But that seemed a rhetorical flourish, as he has since stopped making the comparison.
Who’s the baba?
Southasia clings to its father figures – Gandhi in India, Jinnah in Pakistan. But since the birth of Bangladesh in 1971, naming its father has remained a bone of contention. Split between two babas, the argument is highly politicised. On 21 June, however, the matter was finally ‘settled’ by the Bangladeshi High Court, which ruled that Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the country’s first president, who first proclaimed independence from West Pakistan in 1971, was the real father. In keeping with the tradition of dynastic politics that appears to be a staple in Southasia, Sheikh Mujib was the father of Hasina Wajed, the current prime minister.
Meanwhile, the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), coveting this quasi-divine sanction, has long advocated its own candidate for Father of the Nation: Ziaur Rahman, who the BNP faithful claim was the first to call for independence. Rahman, of course, is the late husband of the party’s current leader and former prime minister, Khaleda Zia. As yet, there has been no recorded reaction from the BNP to the court ruling, but you can bet your last taka that this ‘settlement’ will prove to be anything but.
The HC decision was a clear attempt to shut down the debate. All claims against Mujib were condemned as lies, and the court ordered the attorney-general’s office to send a copy of the judgment to the Education Ministry, to ensure that textbooks take note of this ‘fact’. Also demanded was the cancellation of the second edition of the third instalment of a 15-volume set of war documents, which portrays Rahman as the announcer of independence.
Ever since birth, and especially after the Rahman’s assassination in 1981, Bangladesh has been bitterly divided between the two political clans. Both propagate their own, self-legitimising history of the nation, in which their respective ‘fathers’ play a starring role. The version that dominates public life at any one time depends on who happens to be in office; school history books, dutifully, are re-written with each shift in power.
It is, of course, no coincidence that this High Court ruling has happened under an Awami League premiership, just six months after a sweeping election victory. Even less surprising is that the cancelled war documents were published, in June 2004, under an alliance led partially by the BNP. Should the BNP assume power in the near future, the High Court ruling might well be annulled – and ‘lies’ will undergo yet another re-definition. History is always written by the victors, of course, but in a multiparty democracy in permanent flux you can only cancel so many history books.
Dharamsala tea party
At a time when China is looking extremely suspiciously at any ‘pro-Tibet’ activities in Nepal, six Nepali members of the Constituent Assembly (which doubles as the Parliament) made an unofficial trip to Dharamsala, where they were received by the Dalai Lama. In retrospect, it appears that the group may not have known what a geopolitical hornet’s nest they would be disturbing. The group’s leader, Siddharth Gautam (who is also the president of the Lumbini Foundation, a Buddhist charity, and himself carrying the name of the Prince of Peace), said that the reason behind the visit was to reinforce the historical good relations between Nepal and Tibet.
Perhaps inevitably, the cordial Dharamsala tea party swiftly became a diplomatic incident. The Kathmandu government was notably swift in expressing its disapproval – indeed, as voiced by Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal himself, who apparently had a terse conversation with two of the offending MPs. Inevitably, the Chinese embassy in Kathmandu loudly joined the criticism, and both MPs have since refused to meet with the Chinese ambassador. In a dispute that has grown increasingly personal, the delegation members have threatened to publicise the full – and, allegedly, damning – details of their conversation with Prime Minister Nepal.
What was interesting about the delegation was that it was all made up of lawmakers form the Tarai region, whereas the practitioners of Mahayana Buddhism in Nepal came from the northern rimland rather than the southern strip. Perhaps the explanation for the meeting lies in the fact that Lumbini lies smack in the middle of the Tarai, and the government-in-exile may have wanted to reach out to the non-Buddhist citizens of the region.
Meanwhile, the Kathmandu government took even more-drastic action. Reportedly on Beijing’s request, Nepal for the first time announced that it would be deploying a permanent security presence at five points along the Nepal-Tibet border, to prevent the movement of Tibetan asylum seekers and ‘illegal activities’.
India has long prided itself on both its food and its military. But only now has the country thought to combine the two. Indian defence scientists are now planning to add one of the world’s hottest chilli powders as an additive into new hand grenades. The chilli – the Bhut Jolokia, found in Nagaland, Assam and Manipur – is something of a firearm itself: allegedly 1000 times hotter than your average kitchen chilli. It might not dismember you, but you can expect the mother of all rashes.
Laudably, the idea is to immobilise, rather than kill – something of a long-distance pepper-spray bomb. The intended victims are largely rioters, but also insurgents and others whom state authorities do not necessarily wish to eliminate. In part, this could be a response to accusations of heavy-handedness in counter-insurgency operations, particularly against Naxalites in West Bengal and central India, which have tended to gauge success by how many ‘state enemies’ have been massacred. The chilli bomb (for want of a better name) suggests that state authorities are rethinking their gung-ho, shoot-to-kill strategy, to one where mass arrests – rather than bloodbaths – are the desirable outcome. So, after centuries of bad press, the chilli pepper is now undergoing what could be called a humanitarian makeover.
But the pepper does not stop there. Scientists at India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation have announced that the uber-chilli will also be sprinkled into the food of troops operating in cold conditions – the Siachen Glacier in Kashmir being a particularly chilly example. It will also be smeared on the fences around army barracks, on the logic that the smell will deter animals. It seems things are beginning to hot up in India’s battle against her enemies, both at home and abroad.
Struggling with power shortages, as do most of its Southasian neighbours, Bangladesh has recently re-adopted an old way of saving energy. It was first conceived at the end of the 19th century in New Zealand, and does not require any high-tech measure or large investment: Daylight Saving Time. The trick is to set the clocks forward one hour at the beginning of summer, and then revert back in the autumn. In this way, Bangladeshis today have one extra hour of daylight at the end of the day – thus saving on electric lighting. Similarly, going to bed an hour earlier saves on light use.
The only Southasian country to precede Bangladesh in introducing Daylight Saving Time (DST) was Pakistan, which implemented it in June 2008 for similar reasons. Islamabad clearly considered its experiment a success, as it stuck to DST two months longer than originally intended. It went still further this year, starting DST earlier (on 15 April) and extending it still longer (until 1 November).
In Bangladesh, hopes are that the new clock-fiddling will save 200-300 MW of power per day (the average daily shortfall in electricity is estimated to be more than 1000 MW). Unfortunately no significant drop in power use was detected during the first days of DST implementation in Bangladesh, though this could be due to the populace needing time to adapt to the unfamiliar measures. After all, even in countries that have used DST for years, people tend to miss appointments or come in late to work or school on the first days of the semi-annual transition.