Will the Honourable Election Commissioner care to answer a few hard questions on his opinion of the Kokrajhar riots?

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“Don’t blame the immigrant” – The op-ed in The Indian Express, 3 August 2012 as a rebuttal ‘in print’ to the  Election Commissioner.

Opinions expressed by high constitutional functionaries shouldn’t be taken lightly, even if they are purported to be ‘personal’. And when such opinions are on an unfolding human tragedy and they tend to only bolster deep rooted prejudices, those can’t be left unquestioned.

Shri Harishankar Brahma, the Honourable Election Commissioner of India, expressed his opinion on what caused the Kokrajhar riots in The Indian Express, How to Share Assam, not only squarely blaming illegal Bangladeshi immigrants for the violence, but also hinting that the illegal immigrants being ‘Muslims’ perhaps raises the enormity of the threat manifold.

I have a few hard questions to ask.

The Honourable Election Commissioner of India writes,

The recent ethnic clashes between Hindu Bodos and Muslim immigrants, which occurred in the Bodoland Territorial Autonomous Districts of lower Assam (BTAD), were unfortunate. However, the clashes were not wholly unexpected. The question that is generally asked is: why did it take a few decades to occur in the first place? Assam has been virtually sitting on a huge tinderbox.

The stress on ‘Hindu’ Bodos and ‘Muslim’ immigrants would make one believe that this is a Hindu-Muslim communal clash, with the ‘Muslim’ immigrants being the usual suspects in fomenting tensions and resultant violence. If this is so, would the Honourable Election Commissioner care to explain why were there clashes between ‘Hindu’ Bodos and ‘not at all Muslim’ Adivasis in Kokrajhar since early 1990s which have left thousands of Adivasis still living in relief camps after one and a half decades, unable forever to return to their homes?

It would be pertinent to point out that these Adivasis, mostly Santhals and Oraons, aren’t descendents of those the British brought to Assam as tea-garden labourers. Many of the Adivasis of Kokrajhar are descendents of those who were exiled by the British from their homeland for rising up in rebellion in what is known in history as the Santhal Rebellion. The Adivasis weren’t illegal immigrants nor were their numbers multiplying alarmingly to pose a threat to the Bodos. Why were they massacred then in some of the bloodiest spates of ethnic violence of the 90s directed against non-Bodos?

Also, if illegal Bangladeshi ‘Muslim’ immigrants were the sole cause for turning Assam into a tinderbox, why have many ‘Hindu’ Bodos lost their lives in the hands of ‘Hindu’ Bodos (or were the Christians?) themselves in ugly fratricidal wars? (I was an official invitee to the first death anniversary of late Binneswar Brahma, President of Bodo Sahitya Sabha and one among the many stalwarts who died in this fratricidal war)

The Honourable Election Commissioner further writes,

Any knowledgeable person in Assam knows well enough that migration into the state started during the late 1960s and early 1970s.

That the migration of impoverished Bengali Muslim peasants from East Bengal into the British province of Assam began in the late 1800s and continued well into the present day is a well documented historic fact.   The Honourable Election Commissioner’s claims are as factually untenable as they are historically inaccurate. It is important to understand that the immigrants and natives have lived cheek-by-jowl for over a century and in spite of occasional frictions, hostility between the communities isn’t such that bloodshed is inevitable.

The Honourable Election Commissioner further writes,

It has been alleged by knowledgeable persons that out of the 27 districts in Assam, 11 of them are going to be Muslim majority districts once the 2011 census figures, religion-wise, are published by the census authorities.

I fail to understand why should 11 districts of Assam becoming “Muslim majority” be a cause for alarm. Is it because it is implicit that these districts are becoming “Muslim majority” by virtue of illegal immigration? Interestingly, the Election Commissioner himself admits that there are only about 1.5 lakhs D or doubtful voters in Assam, not really a significant total given the size of Assam’s electorate. Where is the proverbial vote bank of illegal ‘Muslim’ immigrants then?

But the very same census figures would show a declining decadal growth rate of population in Assam and the language report would show that those districts which would perhaps turn “Muslim majority” would also show an overwhelming “Assamese majority” as well. Has the Honourable Election Commissioner cared to dwell on this complexity?

Would it still be a problem if these districts turned “Muslim majority’ on the strength of Muslims who have legitimately settled in Assam and have slowly assimilated into the native culture and soil adopting Assamese as their language?

The Honourable Election Commissioner is firm in his belief that,

The present ethnic clashes between the two communities can be directly attributed to the aforementioned facts of illegal migration into Assam.”

“It is a fact that the population in all these areas has been going up by leaps and bounds. It is not surprising, therefore, that there is a clash of interest in the sharing of natural resources such as forests, grazing grounds or even lands.

If the Honourable Election Commissioner cared to check some figures, he may be surprised to learn that between 1991-2001 Kokrajhar, where the ethnic clashes have begun, decadal growth rate of population has been just 14.49%. The corresponding figures for Assam and India are 18.92% and 21.54%.

He may be even more surprised to learn that between 2001-2011, the decadal growth rate of population for Kokrajhar was just 5.19% whereas that for Assam and India have been 16.93% and 17.64% respectively.

Do these figures for Kokrajhar indicate population increase in ‘leaps and bounds’?

Also the population density of Kokrajhar district is one of the lowest, being 266 and 280 persons per square kilometre for 1991-2001 and 2001-2011 respectively. In the geographically contiguous district of Dhubri, population densities have been 941 and 1171 persons per square kilometre for 1991-2001 and 2001-2011 respectively.

Do these figures indicate immense pressure on land due to encroachment by illegal ‘Muslim’ immigrants to the extent that it would trigger bloody ethnic clashes?

I would fervently like to believe that the opinions or conduct of a high constitutional functionary would be free from the prejudices of ethnicity or faith. Reflecting on the opinions expressed by the Honourable Election Commissioner, I have been sadly left with the feeling that they have been coloured by the prejudices of both and these will be further incessantly cited by those who would want to perpetuate these prejudices to deepen the existent ethnic and communal fissures. It doesn’t give me any pleasure to say so, but the Honourable Election Commissioner appears to have undermined the impartiality expected of his constitutional position.

Cannot face his truth? Stoop to slander !! – The classic troll tactic !!!

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There is a price for speaking unpleasant truth. There is also always a price for standing up to prejudice and intolerance. Slander is one of those. If my truth and logic cannot be demolished, those have to be attempted to be discredited by insidious character assassination and slander. Such attempts shall not only be responded to with contempt, but every lie shall be categorically demolished. Like I shall do now with one such slanderous allegation right here.

For some time, a ‘Letter to the Editor’ to one of Assam’s premier English dailies, ‘The Sentinel’ bringing some patently false and outrageous allegations against me has become the cause célèbre for a certain kind of twitterati – they are almost always anonymous (using assumed handles which are not real identities); they prostrate before a certain ‘God’ who hopes to be PM; they consistently bait Muslims; and among their other more laudable traits are threat of ‘rape’ to young Muslim women who would disagree or disregard their rants (Yes, screenshots and urls of those tweets have been meticulously kept ready).

So what is it they are so ecstatic about tweeting to the world against me? Let me quote the entire letter below, word-for-word.

The Sentinel, 3rd August, 2010, Tuesday – Letters to the Editor

About ‘Commendable Initiative’

We offer our sincere thanks to Aiyushman Dutta for his write-up ‘‘Commendable Initiative’’ (The Sentinel, July 24, 2010). Mr Dutta has done a great service for the trust in publicly establishing the existence of ‘‘every single original print of Dr Birendra Kumar Bhattacharyya’s short stories published since 1937’’ at one place.

Mr Dutta has not asked as to how the same were collected by Nilim Dutta of the so-called Strategic Research and Analysis Organization in his “Commendable Initiative”.

It should now be known to one and all that the said collection was an act of fraud by Nilim Dutta, who had approached Srimati Binita Bhattacharyya, wife of Late Dr Birendra Kumar Bhattacharyya, with a written request for permission to publish a collection of short stories. He visited her house with a laptop and a scanner on several occasions. He listed the said short stories and lifted them all to be taken home for digitalization. These were never returned. His collections included said photographs, letters et al, including many important documents which probably we do not know. Then he came up with an agreement and offered a sum of Rs 20,000 as advance payment.

Smti Bhattacharyya in all good faith wanted to accept his proposal. The cheque bounced with the bank’s comment — “funds insufficient”. These were before the Dr Birendra Kumar Bhattacharyya Memorial Trust came into being.

Smti Bhattacharyya intimated her decision to cancel the agreement by a registered post communication of January 20, 2008 and asked him to contact the Trust only, if so desired, for the intended publication. The letter came back with the postal remark — ‘‘not known’’. Nilim Dutta never showed his face to Smti Bhattacharyya thereafter, and now as Aiyushman Dutta has revealed, gloats over his ‘‘commendable initiative’’.

We thank Aiyushman Dutta for giving the trust a handle to make a move either with police help or through the appropriate legal authority. We possess the initial letters and copies of the said agreement along with the bounced cheque, if Aiyushman Dutta would like to go through them and see how the “commendable initiative” he has highlighted is fraught with blatant fraud.

Dr Dipankar Bhattacharyya,

Secretary,

Dr Birendra Kumar Bhattacharyya Memorial Trust, Guwahati.

Click this here to go to The Sentinel webpage.  

So, what is the truth behind these allegations?

Before I demolish them as entirely fabricated and malicious lies, let me give a small background which would add more perspective.

Dr. Birendra Kumar Bhattacharyya was one of the most eminent Indian authors who have left Assamese literature immeasurably enriched. Most know him for his novels ‘Yaruingam’ (for which he was awarded the Sahitya Akademi Award for 1961) and ‘Mrityunjay’ (for which he was awarded the Janapith Award in 1979). But his literary and intellectual legacy is vast, in fiction, non-fiction and verses and must be discussed some other time. He was also a prolific writer of Assamese short stories. Even though he had passed away in 1997, even now, fifteen years later, a single anthology which included the entire body of short stories he had written had been published.

It was, however, in 2006 that I received a proposal, through intermediaries, to consider publishing such an anthology. After initial discussions, I sent late Dr. Bhattacharyya’s wife, Smti. Binita Bhattacharyya a draft proposal which she approved. Accordingly, a copyright license agreement was signed with her 27th July, 2007. Problem however arose immediately as there was not even a complete list of short stories, let alone the content of all of them. More over, questions of whether she actually owns copyrights of those arose immediately as most of the stories which we were given were actually published in a pathbreaking magazine (Ramdhenu) in which Dr. Bhattacharyya was employed as an Editor, hence copyright for his stories belonging to the publisher/owner of the magazine. To cut a long story short, the agreement never came into force. Instead, we had to begin searching for the stories. As we searched, we realized that late Dr. Bhattacharyya’s family possessed only a fraction of what he had written during his lifetime. Even valuable documents, like citations, were decomposing. Partially out of concern for the preservation of this rich literary heritage, and partially out of respect for Smti. Binita Bhattacharyya’s insistence, we indexed and digitized some of the valuable documents, original prints etc in her possession in-situ completely at our own expense. Only a few large ones which couldn’t be digitized there were taken away from her, with due receipts, and again returned. Naturally, as per procedure, we obtained signed receipts from her when such material was safely returned to her.

On the 14th of October, 2007, on late Dr. Bhattacharyya’s 83rd birth anniversary, Strategic Research & Analysis Organisation made a public announcement of it’s efforts at preserving his literary legacy. The function was attended by many literary stalwarts of the state and we were greatly applauded for the initiative. Significantly, the function was presided over by late Dr. Bhattacharyya’s elder brother, Shri Nalinidhar Bhattacharyya, another eminent poet as well as by eminent author Shri Atulananda Goswami and Journalists Radhikamohan Bhagawati. I mention their names because they are trustees of Dr Birendra Kumar Bhattacharyya Memorial Trust. Also present were all family members of late Dr. Bhattacharyya. Surprisingly, none had any complaints about what we were doing. Instead, we were appreciated for the effort.

There was one person who was too busy to attend this function. That person was Dr. Dipankar Bhattacharyya. He is late Dr. Bhattacharyya’s eldest son.

The anthology never materialized because of copyright entanglements.

Let me now come to Dipankar Bhattacharyya’s allegations.

Dipankar Bhattacharyya’s allegation:

Then he came up with an agreement and offered a sum of Rs 20,000 as advance payment.

Smti Bhattacharyya in all good faith wanted to accept his proposal. The cheque bounced with the bank’s comment — “funds insufficient”. These were before the Dr Birendra Kumar Bhattacharyya Memorial Trust came into being.

My rebuttal:

The agreement, as explained above, never became operational because Smti. Bhattacharyya couldn’t provide the full list of stories, nor could she prove ownership of copyright of all the stroies. It was indeed incumbent upon Smti. Bhattacharyya, to return the cheque. Could Dipankar Bhattacharyya explain why were they trying to fraudulently sell copyright of matter they didn’t own? And when the agreement fell through, why wasn’t the cheque returned? (There is a lot more dirty linen that I could wash in public but desist from doing so out of regard for late Dr. Bhattacharyya and Smti. Binita Bhattacharyya)

Dipankar Bhattacharyaa’s allegation:

Smti Bhattacharyya intimated her decision to cancel the agreement by a registered post communication of January 20, 2008 and asked him to contact the Trust only, if so desired, for the intended publication. The letter came back with the postal remark — ‘‘not known’’.

 My rebuttal:

I produce below the copy of the very letter Dipankar Bhattacharyya claims was never delivered to me (inference being, I provided false address) and returned with post mark ‘not known’ received by me on 19th march 2008.

Could Dipankar Bhattacharyya please explain which genie delivered that letter to me?

He of course conveniently fails to mention that he even knew my residence.

Also, to be noted there is no mention of ‘bounced’ cheques in the letter below.

Dipankar Bhattacharyaa’s allegation:

He listed the said short stories and lifted them all to be taken home for digitalization. These were never returned. His collections included said photographs, letters et al, including many important documents which probably we do not know.

Nilim Dutta never showed his face to Smti Bhattacharyya thereafter.

My rebuttal:

On the evening of 23rd March 2008, I paid a visit to Smti. Binita Bhattacharyya once again, accompanied by my mother and sister, when I returned her a few newspaper broadsheets containing articles written by Dr. Bhattacharyya which I had taken away from her as they couldn’t be scanned ‘on-site’. Since all objects and articles that were ever given by Smti. Bhattacharyya to us had thus been returned, I obtained the mandatory receipt of the same wherein she stated –

“I do hereby acknowledge that all articles, including books, documents, photographs etc belonging to late Birendra Kumar Bhattacharyya that I had lent to Shri Nilim Dutta of the Strategic Research & Analysis Organisation from my own personal collection have been duly returned to me.”

As usual, we chatted over tea and Smti. Bhattacharyya apologized for her inability to return me the cheque because “Dipankar had retained it with him” but promised to have it sent to me later. We are still waiting.

Copy of the signed receipt is provided below.

All of the above rebuttals along with the supporting documents were emailed to the editor of The Sentinel from my official email on 7th August 2010 at 10:22 hours. Strangely, the rebuttal is nowhere to be found on the website now (Is there more to it than meets the eye?).

Dipankar Bhattacharyya acted intemperately. Made patently false allegations to slander. Naturally, whatever the consequences, he shall face those.

At the end, I have only this much to say:

Truth always has the strength to stand on its own.

Lies, however, still remain lies, even if tweeted 24×7 by cowards who don’t even have the courage to tweet using their own names.

Brutal Souls of Our Protectors !!

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There are many things about our men in uniform, be it in the ‘armed forces’, paramilitary forces or the police, we could actually be proud of. These shouldn’t, however, be cited to hide, or worse, justify, many other things which are appalling and deeply offensive.

I have observed India’s Border Security Force (henceforth BSF) in ‘border protection’ (particularly in Assam-Meghalaya Frontier HQ stretch of the Indo-Bangladesh border) as well as ‘counter-insurgency’ deployment since 1996. This is long enough to have an admiration for the conduct of its officers and men in discharging the duties the nation has entrusted to them, honourably, even under difficult situations.

It was for this admiration I have that I chose to share some insights on their life in the Indo-Bangladesh border through my photo essay on 10 September, 2011 A Glimpse of the Indo-Bangladesh Border and the Sentinels.

This admiration, however, doesn’t make me blind to the disturbing allegations and dark rumours that I have inevitably come to learn about, not infrequently, in course of such a long association.

For instance, it is a fact that there is a huge cross-border illicit trade in cattle and commodities, where these are smuggled out of India into Bangladesh, whether it is over land or riverine borders. The allegations are not just about the BSF being slack and unable to prevent such illicit trade but actually profiting from it. Then of course are rumours of brutality. It is indeed a fact that casualties due to BSF firing on the Bangladeshi side (either of smuggler or infiltrators, as always claimed by the BSF) has been an issue serious enough to be not only discussed in flag meetings but to be addressed by even Ministerial representatives of both countries.

How true could such rumours of brutalities be? The video embedded below categorically substantiates the kind of violations that are perhaps not infrequent. Whereas the entire approximately 12 minute long video is deeply disturbing, the part between 7-12 minutes would make many squeamish at the realization of what kind of torture could be committed on a prisoner in hands of our soldiers. That the Inspector General of BSF, South Bengal Frontier HQ in whose jurisdiction Murshidabad lies (where the incident had reportedly occurred), has accepted responsibility and suspended eight of the soldiers found involved, pending inquiry, leaves no ground for even suggesting that the video is not authentic.

Now that you have watched this deeply offensive act of the BSF soldiers, let me put in perspective what should be so deeply worrisome.

First, the victim of such brutal torture was perhaps a Bangladeshi cattle smuggler who appears to have been tortured not for smuggling but for refusing or failing to pay the requisite ‘bribe’ for safe passage. Can one imagine what may happen to someone picked up as a suspected militant?

Second, these were just eight men out of approximately quarter of a million serving in the BSF. Isn’t it entirely likely that there would be many more if one manages to learn of all the violations that have occurred? This wasn’t an isolated incident. BSF deployments in counter insurgency operations in Jammu & Kashmir and the North East is testimony to that.

Third, Murshidabad is in Poschim Banga (West Bengal) which is neither a ‘disturbed area’ nor under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). BSF soldiers don’t enjoy any special protection for torture or rights violations against civilians there. Yet such violations can still occur. We are assuming the victim to be Bangladeshi, but it can happen to an Indian villager as well. Not such brutal torture, but assault or manhandling of villagers, who have to go across the border fence to cultivate, over petty disputes or altercations is rampant. Can one imagine torture, custodial killings, fake encounters or even rapes being impossible in hands of at least some such brutal men in uniform, particularly when AFSPA accords them immunity in places like Jammu & Kashmir or the North East?

Fourth, ‘suspension’ is not punishment and in all likelihood, if the torture hadn’t been been captured in video and posted on YouTube provoking a furore, even this wouldn’t have been done. Whether those involved are actually prosecuted and punished remains to be seen.

Fifth, mere dismissal and imprisonment of sundry ‘jawans’ for crimes such as torture or custodial killings won’t amount to an effective deterrence. The forces are aware of the ‘code of conduct’ towards civilians and any violation to that is a failure of command. Unless ways and means for holding ‘commanders’ accountable for any erosion or violation in the code of conduct and penalizing them through effective instruments is not institutionalized, the brutal ‘inclinations’ of India’s security forces are unlikely to change. I say so from numerous occasions I had observed the same men behave in distinctly different ways under the command of different officers.

A nation needs to believe its soldiers to be heroic souls who are gallant and willing to lay down their lives in supreme sacrifices. Soldiers, who torture, kill or maim even innocent civilians, or rape women at gunpoint, denigrate the honour of our martyrs and many who serve the nation in uniform with honour and pride. For those who tarnish that honour and pride, there must not be anything but our collective wrath.

Bare Statistics of Crimes Against Women in Andhra Pradesh and Delhi : A few questions to the Police Chiefs

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Andhra Pradesh and Delhi have a special place in annals of crimes against women in India in recent times. If we are to take a look at the statistics provided by the National Crime Records Bureau, Andhra Pradesh has figured consistently in 2008, 2009 and 2010 as the state with highest incidences of crime against women; and Delhi, similarly has figured as the city with highest incidences of crime against women in the years 2008, 2009 and 2010.

Let me restate the figures and illustrate just a few preliminary findings.

Andhra Pradesh: Collated statistics for 2008-2010

A total of 76, 924 incidents of crime against women have been recorded from 2008-2010. This is the highest in India for a state and Andhra Pradesh topped this dubious list each consecutive year for three years till 2010. 2011 statistics are awaited.

As per categories of crime, crime against women constitutes the second or third largest category in crimes in Andhra Pradesh.

A total of 3,807 cases of rape have been recorded for the same period, which constitutes 4.94% of total incidence of crime against women.

A total of 14,511 cases of molestation have been recorded for the same period, which constitutes 18.86% of total incidence of crime against women.

A total of 11,633 cases of sexual harassment (eve-teasing) have been recorded for the same period, which constitutes 15.12% of total incidence of crime against women.

Rapes, molestations and sexual harassment (eve-teasing) constituted 38.93% of crimes against women in Andhra Pradesh in 2008-2010.

Women in the age group of 18-30 years were most vulnerable to rape, followed by the women in age group of 14-18 years.

In all the 3,807 rape cases that had been recorded in Andhra Pradesh between 2008-2010, the offenders were known to the victims.

On an average, at least 3 incidences of rape had occurred daily in Andhra Pradesh in the period between 2008-2010 and 100% of the rapes were committed by men who were known to the victims.

Delhi: Collated statistics for 2008-2010

A total of 11, 102 incidents of crime against women have been recorded from 2008-2010. This is the highest in India for a city and Delhi topped this dubious list each consecutive year for three years till 2010. 2011 statistics are awaited.

 A total of 1,214 cases of rape have been recorded for the same period, which constitutes 10.93% of total incidence of crime against women.

A total of 1,574 cases of molestation have been recorded for the same period, which constitutes 14.17% of total incidence of crime against women.

A total of 309 cases of sexual harassment (eve-teasing) have been recorded for the same period, which constitutes 2.7% of total incidence of crime against women.

Rapes, molestations and sexual harassment (eve-teasing) constituted 27.89% of crimes against women in Delhi in 2008-2010.

Women in the age group of 14-18 years were most vulnerable to rape, followed by the women in age group of 18-30 years.

In the 1,214 rape cases that had been recorded in Delhi between 2008-2010, 97.44% of the offenders were known to the victims.

On an average, at least 1 incident of rape had occurred daily in Delhi in the period between 2008-2010 and 97.44% of the rapes were committed by men who were known to the victims.

My questions to the Police Chiefs of Andhra Pradesh and Delhi :

Does the Delhi Police Commissioner know what factors made the women victims of rape, molestation or sexual harassment most vulnerable? What were the circumstances in which most of these crimes had occurred? Which police station areas have the highest incidences of these crimes?

Has he taken a look at each investigation report of rape, molestation and sexual harassment and enlightened himself as to what time of day or night each incident had occurred? How relevant was his assumption that women were vulnerable late at night and outside homes or offices?

Can the Andhra Pradesh Director General of Police answer the same questions I have asked above in context of Andhra Pradesh?

Has he taken a look at each investigation report of rape, molestation and sexual harassment and enlightened himself as to what each victim was wearing when the crime had been committed to claim provocative ‘dresses’ worn by women were the cause of rapes?

The Indian Police Service is supposed to be constituted by the crème of India’s educated and intelligent elite. I would, therefore, like to believe that there are still men and women in that Khaki uniform whose gray matter have not atrophied and have the intelligence, inclination, ability, will and the resources to find some answers and apply their mind to find more effective measures within the purview of law enforcement to bring down rates of crime against women substantially.

As to Police Chiefs whose gray matter seem to have atrophied and the dignity of the office seem to be lost on them, the best way to sensitize would be summary removal from the post of Police Chief and immediate supersession.

A Glimpse of the Indo-Bangladesh Border and the Sentinels

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Who says you can’t rest your feet on a long foot patrol? A Border Security Force soldier atop the Border Pillar no 1063 somewhere in the Indo-Bangladesh border in Meghalaya

India shares its longest border with Bangladesh. This 4351 Kms long border stretches along 5 Indian states, namely West Bengal (2217 Kms), Assam (262 Kms), Meghalaya (443 Kms), Tripura (856 Kms) and Mizoram (318 Kms). 781 Kms of this border is riverine.

This long Indo-Bangladesh border is guarded by the Border Security Force (BSF), an Indian central paramilitary force under the Ministry of Home Affairs. The BSF has about 46 battalions deployed along this border divided into formations controlled by 5 Frontier Head Quarters: South Bengal Frontier HQ, North Bengal Frontier HQ, Assam-Meghalaya Frontier HQ, Mizoram-Cachar Frontier HQ and Tripura Frontier HQ, each headed by an Inspector General. Under each Frontier HQs are Sector HQs each headed by a Deputy Inspector General.

The Assam-Meghalaya Frontier HQ shall soon be bifurcated into the Assam Frontier HQ and Meghalaya Frontier HQ and new sectors curved out and new battalions raised to enhance force structure and improve border management.

The border is guarded on the side of Bangladesh by its paramilitary force the Border Guards Bangladesh (BGB).  BGB is the erstwhile Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) which has been re-raised in this new form after the infamous 2009 mutiny by the BDR. Its battalions are deployed along the border across 12 sectors.

A large stretch of the Indo-Bangladesh border has already been fenced off by India, primarily to prevent illegal immigration from Bangladesh as well as infiltration of non-state elements inimical to India which had earlier found sanctuary in Bangladesh, including several insurgent groups of India’s North East. The border fence, due to treaty obligations, has not been constructed on the ‘O’ line, where the actual border lies, but 150 yards or more inside Indian territory, as necessitated by terrain and other deciding factors. The several areas of the border, which had been in dispute, has now been surveyed and demarcated for settlement by the recently concluded treaty between the two countries.

The Indo-Bangladesh border fence under construction at a sector.

A BSF watch tower.

A glimpse of the border with verdant green paddy fields on both sides. Bangladesh starts just on the far side of the fence.

Another view of the border.

It is not only humans who infiltrate and exit through the border, but also wildlife. The border fence has obstructed traditional migration routes of wild elephant herds too.

Tell-tale signs of an elephant herd passing through the border fence under construction.

Life in a Border Observation Post (BOP) can be austere and tedious.

After raising the tricolour at a BOP.

INSAS Rifles and 51 mm Mortars being left stacked before a live fire exercise at a firing range.

A 7.62 mm Medium Machine Gun on a tripod at the firing range.

A live fire exercise in progress.

An officer in civies firing a 51 mm Mortar.

Often deployed for counter-insurgency operations, BSF officers and men are trained in handling explosives and defusing IEDs. Here is how an IED of blocks of plastic explosives/TNT with detonators inserted into the blocks, attached to a railway track.

Border Security Force soldiers during an exercise in a neighbouring country.

Striking another pose.

DIG of Tura Sector, G.S. Choudhary at a public function to normalise community relations after a flare up between Garos and Rabhas in Assam Meghalaya border earlier this year.

A prize and a warm handshake for a tiny participant.

Addressing the public. Sadbhawana is taken seriously.

Mutual visits by Border Security Force and Bangladesh Border Guards to their counterpart’s Sector HQ are common. Here is a BSF Guard-of-Honour awaiting arrival of a high official of the Bangladesh Border Guards. It must be noted that the Bangladesh Rifles, after its infamous mutiny, was re-raised as the Bangladesh Border Guards.

Sector Commanders of each force in conversation.

A visit to a counterpart’s Sector HQ is also an exercise in protocols and customs.

The sentinels of our borders, resplendent in their ceremonial regalia.

An officer and a gentleman, and an avid photographer too. Posing here for the camera. All the photographs featured here have been taken by him.

Demystifying the Claims and Counter-Claims of the Indo-Bangladesh Border Settlement in Assam

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A stretch of the Indo-Bangladesh border fence.

The most notable concrete accomplishment of the recent visit by India’s Prime Minister to Dhaka has been the signing of the historic pact to exchange the disputed adversely held ‘enclaves’ and ‘territories’ in each other’s possession as well as to demarcated the portions of the border which had earlier been left undemarcated.

An ‘adversely’ held ‘enclave’ or ‘territory’, to give the most simple definition, is one which ‘cartographically’ belonged to one neighbour (including perhaps title of the land as settled by colonial cadastral survey) while by some quirky fate of geopolitics, such as the hastily executed Partition of India, was left in the actual possession of the other.

According the treaty, which has to be now ratified by the Parliament of both India and Bangladesh, 111 such enclaves belonging to India, but in possession of Bangladesh were to be ceded to them. Conversely, 51 similar enclaves belonging to Bangladesh but in possession of India were to be ceded to it. The total area to be ceded by India to Bangladesh in these 111 enclaves has been reported as about 17160 acres, while the 51 Bangladeshi enclaves to be ceded to India constituted an area of about 7110 acres. Apart from these enclaves, there were territories in ‘adverse’ possession and disputed areas where the border was not demarcated earlier. These enclaves and areas in ‘adverse possession’  to be ceded to Bangladesh are strewn across the Indian states of West Bengal, Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Tripura.

It is in the state of Assam, which has a strident and vocal anti-Bangladeshi constituency where the deal has generated the most vociferous opposition. This constituency, of which the AASU, AGP, BJP etc  are the prominent components, have accused the present Congress government in Assam, led by Tarun Gogoi, of entirely selling out Assam’s interest and ceding to Bangladesh 357.5 acres of land that belonged to Assam.

Strongly refuting the allegations, the Chief Minister yesterday stated in a press conference that these allegations were not true and that while Bangladesh indeed gained 357.5 acres, Assam has gained 1240 acres of land.

The question that naturally arises is who is speaking the truth here? The answer may be quite similar to the way the same incident was narrated by four different narrators, who had been involved in it, in four mutually irreconcilable versions, in Akira Kurosowa’s 1950 classic Roshomon.

To those who are stridently opposed to the deal, the point of reference is that the entire disputed land belonged to Assam cartographically, hence there is no question of it being in dispute. Therefore, ceding 357.5 acres of it to Bangladesh is absolutely unacceptable. The hyperbole has reached such proportions that a few of the AGP and BJP worthies have even termed it as the “Second Partition of India”. They however fail to admit, that in reality the ceded 357.5 acre land was in possession of Bangladesh already and the handing over to Bangladesh is merely a procedural formal acceptance of a de facto reality on the ground. If this isn’t acceptable, they haven’t yet articulated how they plan to regain possession of the land without a major border conflict with Bangladesh and what strategic national interest or even that of Assam would be gained by that.

The government’s position, as articulated by the Chief Minister, on the other hand, appears to be meticulously juridical. It has treated the entire approximately 1597.5 acres to which Bangladesh has laid claim to as ‘disputed’ and not indisputably belonging to Assam merely because it happened to be shown as that by cartography or colonial land records. Meticulous joint surveys must have established that of this claim, 357.5 acres were de facto in possession of Bangladesh, which includes 193 acres in Boraibari, Dhubri, 74.5 acres in Palakhal Tea Estate and 90 acres in Lathitila-Dumabari, both in Karimganj. The 1240 acres that the Chief Minister had claimed that Assam has gained is actually the portion of disputed land retained by Assam as it was not ceded to Bangladesh and to which the later has agreed.

So how much of land has actually been ceded to Bangladesh? If one converts 357.5 acres to Square Kilometers, it works out to approximately 1.45 Sq. Km. To draw up some comparison, that is less than 0.5 % of Guwahati’s metropolitan area.

As the cacophony of opposition to the border settlement grows to a crescendo, the question we need to ask ourselves is, aren’t we again being led down the garden path, instigated by our ever latent anti-Bangladeshi sentiments?

Assam has far more serious border disputes with Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya and Nagaland, which have the potential for renewed ethnic conflict and consequent blood bath if not settled judiciously. I just hope, those in throes of a belligerent patriotic upsurge to  save 357.5 acres from Bangladesh have thought of sensible ways to resolve these disputes as well. Before it is too late.

(It must be noted that some of the figures cited have been arrived at by interpolation and consultation with officials. Authenticated official records and figures have already been sought and are being awaited.)

An Indian Defends Salmaan Taseer

Salmaan Taseer, the assassinated former Governor of the Punjab in Pakistan

Aatish Taseer, the estranged half-Indian son of assassinated Governor of Punjab Salmaan Taseer, wrote a column for The Wall Street Journal on July 16, titled, ‘Why My Father Hated India’.

It is a well written piece that argues rather well the roots of Pakistan’s obsession and enmity with India. The only problematic part is that Aatish Taseer offers rather tenuous evidence of his father’s ‘hatred’ towardsIndia. It is also problematic because, by that very act, Aatish Taseer leaves in suspicion the attitude and intent of the Pakistani liberal towards India that Salmaan Taseer had come to represent.

The reactions to the piece had been heated. And the tortuous debate seems to have been reduced to just two mutually hostile narratives, brazenly dismissive of the complexities, as well as of each other. Those in Pakistan who have jumped to Salmaan Taseer’s defence see nothing but malice in Aatish Taseer’s assertions, going so far as to even defend Pakistan’s military and stooping to undignified name calling. It has somehow been lost on them that at least Aatish, even in his harshest criticism of his father, was never disrespectful or that Salmaan Taseer had fallen victim to the very seeds of intolerance that the Pakistani military had sown and nurtured. On the other hand, those in India have found in Aatish’s assertions what they had always suspected, that even the ‘liberal’ in Pakistan is rabidly hostile to India and that there probably is not a single soul in Pakistan who was not an existential threat to the idea of India as a tolerant, liberal, pluralistic nation. This by itself should not be surprising. But when many seemingly reasonable and ‘liberal’ voices on both sides align themselves to either of these two narratives, a reality check is urgently required.

Let me then begin by what Aatish Taseer had himself written earlier. Horrified by the adulation Salmaan Taseer’s assassin received, Aatish wrote a movingly nuanced piece, ‘The killer of my father, Salmaan Taseer, was showered with rose petals by fanatics. How could they do this?’ (January 8, 2011, The Telegraph), which perhaps depicts Salmaan Taseer far more accurately. This is what he wrote:

“And yet I do mourn him, for whatever the trouble between us, there were things I never doubted about him: his courage, which, truly, was like an incapacity for fear, and his love ofPakistan. I said earlier thatPakistanwas part of his faith, but that he himself was not a man of faith. His Islam, though it could inform his political ideas, now giving him a special feeling for the cause of the Palestinians and the Kashmiris, now a pride in the history of Muslims from Andalusia to Mughal India, was not total; it was not a complete vision of a society founded in faith…He was a man in whom various and competing ideas of sanctity could function. His wish for his country was not that of the totality of Islam, but of a society built on the achievements of men, on science, on rationality, on modernity.”

Like Salmaan Taseer the man, the relationship between the father and the son was a complex one. Aatish Taseer may have given in to emotion and overstated his case to claim that his father hated India. This inaccuracy however does not negate the larger reality he quite persuasively puts forth, of Pakistan’s hostility to India; of the suicidal policies that has radicalised its society and polity to a perilous level; or that “the primary agent of this decline has been the Pakistani army”. Those in Pakistan who had stepped forth to defend Salmaan Taseer and the Pakistani army in the same breath would do well to coherently explain the irony of why did Salmaan Taseer have to stand up opposing an idea so primitive as the blasphemy law or had to give his life defending a Christian woman condemned to die as per such a law? They would also do well to realise that just because an Indian happens to be the critic of the fatal flaws that Pakistanseems to be in the grip of, criticism is by no means untrue, inaccurate or exaggerated.

Those who in India find Aatish Taseer’s claim that his father hated India as further proof of “every Pakistani is an enemy” would do well to remember that while Salmaan Taseer may have been derisive of India, that does not necessarily make him any less a ‘liberal’. They would do well to remember that at least he could find the courage to defiantly stand against the intolerance that claimed his life when many others chose the safety of silence, or even worse, the opportunism of acquiescence. May I remind that what Salmaan Taseer finally chose to stand against and die for is the very intolerance that thrives as an existential threat to India too? So what that he did that not for the love of India?

Those who would now accuse me of ‘equalising Pakistan’s morality to India’ or even worse, a ‘traitor’, would do well to remember that we in India have fared much better than Pakistan not because we are by nature better, more liberal or have no intolerance. We have fared better because we have been much more sensible in drawing the right lessons from the acts of intolerance that have scarred our past. It may be easier for me to say so because I do not cloak in the garb of nationalism our own sins while we accuse those who we stand in opposition to.

I do not believe that Salmaan Taseer hated India. That does not mean that he loved it either. When he lived, I found Salmaan Taseer’s tweets derisive of India in bad taste, not what is expected of a statesman. But in his courageous defiance of intolerance, and in laying down his life for what he believed in, he earned my respect. He did not necessarily have to love my country to earn that. And as long as there are more such ‘liberals’ in Pakistan, I shall not lose hope. I can live with the fact that they may not love us. I can live with their derisive tweets too.

That is how I find myself here, defending in his death, a man whose tweets I often found infuriating while he lived. It is because, like him, I too believe in liberalism and abhor intolerance; so what that his worldview would have been vastly different from mine or that we were born on opposing sides of a difficult divide?

Was Akhil Gogoi really responsible for the violence and mayhem in Guwahati on June 22 ?

The once verdant hills of Guwahati are now concrete eyesores and perhaps earthquake hazards too.

On the afternoon of June 22, 2011 a ‘peaceful’ protest by nearly 12,000 people protesting against arbitrary and patently ‘inhuman’ eviction from alleged encroachments on forests and wetlands in Guwahati in the middle of monsoon metamorphosed into an orgy of violence. In the mayhem that followed, three persons, including a nine year old child died in police firing. Scores of protesters, police officers and men and innocent passers by were injured as police and protesters fought a pitched battle for nearly 3 hours on a 3-4 Km stretch of the Guwahati-Shillong Road near the Assam State Assembly and Secretariat at Dispur, Guwahati. Many private and government vehicles were damaged by protesters, and some set on fire allegedly by hired goons of the Congress.

The protest was called by the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS – loosely translated as Committee for Struggle for Peasants Rights), led by Akhil Gogoi, a youth leader with substantial grassroots support who has emerged as one of the most vocal and trenchant critics of the present Congress government, and Brihattar Guwahati Bhumi Pattan Dabi Samiti (loosely translated as Committee for Demand for Settlement of Land Titles in Greater Guwahati) against forcible eviction of alleged ‘encroachers’ from forest and government land around Guwahati, particularly in the surrounding hills and the numerous wetlands in the city.

Yesterday, the police arrested Akhil Gogoi along with his compatriot from the KMSS leading to a call for a statewide bandh today and outpouring of anger amongst a large section of the state’s population.

In the public debate that has ensued, mindless accusations and counter-accusations of the uninformed and the motivated appears to have claimed greater space, thus obscuring the real issues that need to be debated, pondered and acted upon.

I shall try to answer few of the moot questions and bring about some clarity.

What is the crux of the conflict?

In a span of just 90 years, Guwahati had grown from a marshy enclave of barely 16,000 people to a bustling metropolis of more than 1.2 million. Much of this growth began with the Partition of India, when the curving out of East Pakistan severed many traditional routes to India’s North East, turning the township into the only entrepôt to the region. Between 1951 and 1961, Guwahati witnessed a decadal population growth rate of 130.90 percent and crossed the 100,000 mark.

With the only Rail cum Road bridge over the Brahmaputra connecting both banks at Guwahati thrown open in 1962, further improving its connectivity by road and railways, and establishment of the Guwahati refinery the same year, accelerated the growth of the town. Its transformation into a city continued with the shifting of Assam’s capital from Shillong to its then suburb at Dispur in 1972. The Guwahati Municipality Corporation was formed in 1974 with 34 wards and as the city continued to grow, has expanded to now consist 60 wards with a population of more than 1.2 million.

As had been evident with urbanization across the developing world, the city attracted (and continues to attract) all classes of migrants who became its residents. On one end of that migration were the elite who arrived and rapaciously cornered the best residential and commercial spaces with scant regard to civic or environmental concerns, and even breaking or bending laws at will; and on the other end the impoverished whom the city enabled to eke out a living who had to find spaces to take shelter wherever they could, even encroaching on forest land.

This inevitable hunger for space has seen a transformation characterized by soaring real-estate prices which have perhaps increased by as much as 60,000 percent in a span of 40 yrs fuelling an unimaginable land grab both motivated by greed and compulsion.

Today, there are two distinct classes of ‘residents’ in Guwahati which have encroached on government land and public spaces, one compelled by need and the other compelled by greed. The former usually doesn’t have a ‘legitimate’ plot of land anywhere nearby to build a house, the later probably owns several homes and establishments in Guwahati, not to speak of other places in and outside the state.

In a city of more than 1.2 million residents, more than 200,000 would be those compelled by circumstances to encroach on the hills, forests and wetlands. And it is these people who were outraged by the demolition and eviction sought to be carried out by the state without a warning at the height of summer and monsoons. These were also the people who had gathered to protest at Dispur on June 22, 2011. They weren’t Bengali Muslims from char areas who could be conveniently dismissed as Bangladeshis but whose ancestry as indigenes of Assam could never be questioned. They were not likely to be hesitant of their claim to a piece of earth they could call their own to stand on.

The crux of the conflict lies in the fact that successive governments have ignored the need to find a just and rational means of ‘resettling’ or ‘rehabilitating’ this population and sought to render them homeless through ‘eviction’ even as it continued to patronize similar encroachments or illicit acquisition of land by the rich and the powerful.

It must be put on record that throughout the state, thousands of hectares of forest and government land remain illegally occupied by neighbouring states, illegal immigrant settlers and tea gardens owned by many transnational tea companies. There has been no effort by governments to repossess these lands.

What exactly happened on June 22?  

The protest on June 22 was triggered by a sudden eviction drive unleashed by the Forest Department on the encroachments on Guwahati’s hills earlier this month. Following such a drive in an area called “Garchuk” in Guwahati on June 10, clash erupted between the Forest Department personal who went there on the demolition drive and the residents. Not only was the ‘demolition team’ accompanied by two elephants driven away, for hours the protesters blocked NH 37 running through Guwahati. Only after senior administrative and police officials gave ‘written’ assurances that all such arbitrary demolition drives shall be suspended till the government held talks with various organisations and individuals representing the affected, the protesters withdrew. Akhil Gogoi had rushed to the blockade and expressed solidarity with the protesters and announced the June 22 protest in Dispur to prod the government to adopt some sensible measures to resolve the crisis.

Even though the senior district officials had given reassurances that eviction drives would remain suspended and a negotiated settlement would be arrived at, such drives continued in several areas in the city.

It must be noted that the eviction drives violated the Government of Assam’s own Land Policy 1989 which laid down that any family of indigene in occupation of government land for more than 15 years shall be eligible for freehold title of the land. The evictions were also in violation of The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act 2006.

These were the issues that were discussed over phone by Akhil Gogoi with the Principal Secretaries of the relevant departments as well as Chief Secretary, Government of Assam on June 20 and 21 on the eve of the protest on June 22. All that the protestors wanted was a complete halt to the demolition and eviction, a thorough survey of the encroached land and identification of those eligible to be settled, and then completion of the process in a definite time frame. All that the government needed to do was to send a senior official of the government as representatives to accept the memorandum of the protesters and perhaps set a date for negotiations to begin.

But in spite of knowing this, no senior official representing the government felt it was honour bound to go and accept the memorandum of the protesters till late afternoon. Repeated requests to the Deputy Commissioner, Kamrup Metro fell on deaf ears. A restive and growing crowd of protestors then got on its feet to leave the protest ground and lay siege to the state secretariat just down the road. That is when the police, in a bid to stop them, fired tear gas shells and unleashed a baton charge. The sheer number of protesters present and their determined charge overwhelmed the police. Some among them enraged by the police assault retaliated with whatever they could lay their hands on. Unfortunately, in an indiscriminate manner, some of them even assaulted innocent by standers who were caught in the melee as traffic on the road came to a standstill.

Akhil Gogoi has in his statement to the media published by Asomiya Pratidin on June 24 have clearly stated that it was the Deputy Superintendent of Police, Dispur Division who had opened fire from his service pistol killing the nine year child instantly. Two more persons fell victim to the indiscriminate firing by this trigger happy officer. Outrageously, there is not even a statement from the government regarding this let alone his suspension pending enquiry. Did the firing provoke the violence to intensify? There are also enough reasons to believe that at least some of the arson where several public transport vehicles were set on fire were done by hired goons to enable framing of Akhil Gogoi in false charges.

The other very important aspect to what happened even amidst the violence was that while most senior police officials either failed to arrive at the scene or deserted it injured, neither Akhil Gogoi nor many of the protestors who tried to prevent the violence run away. All sat down on the road and continued their protest. Neither bullets nor pouring monsoon rain could drive them away. Towards 6:00 pm senior police officials and the Deputy Commissioner, Kamrup (Metro) and Commissioner, Lower Assam Division finally persuaded the protesters to end the siege on the promise that no indiscriminate eviction would be carried out and a high powered committee would be constituted expeditiously to facilitate formulation of due policy to ensure titles to the land under occupation.

As expected, Akhil Gogoi was arrested under various non-bailable charges yesterday and predictably the state has once again plunged into a needless political confrontation largely provoked by the government itself. Before blaming Akhil Gogoi and KMSS solely for the violence or insinuating that it was their premeditated act, one must remember that there had been several massive rallies by KMSS in Guwahati, all led by Akhil Gogoi, and not a single unpleasant incident had taken place ever.

How had the government failed, leading to June22?

Since 1972, when the capital of Assam was shifted from Shillong to Guwahati, Congress governments had been in power at Dispur for 23 of those 40 years. The Congress Government led by Tarun Gogoi had ruled for 10 of those 23 years.

Why wasn’t a clear policy of Land Resettlement for Guwahati evolved in all these years?

Wasn’t such a policy and its proper implementation essential and integral to a Master Plan for Guwahati Metropolitan Area 2025, where there are even provisions for golf courses but no mention of resettlement of more than 200,000 residents who find themselves in possession of land which remain classified as belonging to the government when all other government agencies provided them holding numbers, collected property taxes, provided them electricity connections and roads?

Following the mayhem of June 22 and the public outcry, the government scurried to form a committee headed by the former Revenue Minister and composed of three other cabinet ministers, two MLAs and three eminent citizens to look into the matter of land resettlement of Guwahati and issuing titles to the deserving. Will the government care to clarify why it took 10 years and a violent agitation to compel it do so?

The fact that Guwhati grew from a population of merely 123, 783 in 1971 to more than 1.2 million by 2011 was reason enough to initiate a thorough cadastral survey, reclassification of land and re-settlement as per clear defined policy that would be sensitive to the landless and poor. Why weren’t these ever initiated?

The government failed because rather than concentrating on what it failed to do all these years following a massive mandate it received in the recent elections, it sought to fritter away the goodwill and mandate in needless confrontations and ‘fixing’ one of its most vocal and trenchant critics.

The government failed because it sought to pass off harebrained measures for policy and following the backlash, sheer political vendetta as governance.

How had the civil administration failed on June 22?

The clash on June 10 and siege of the NH 37 by protesters were warnings enough that forcible and patently illegal evictions would trigger off massive unrest. Why did the civil administration fail to heed the warnings?

The civil administration gave permission for the protest and knew that it had to depute a senior official as representative to accept the memorandum sought to be submitted by the protesters. Why then not a single senior official, even after being repeatedly requested to come and meet the protesters, did not do so provoking the confrontation?

How could the same officials then go and plead with the protesters when all else failed end the road blockade and violence had already wrecked havoc?

Isn’t the civil administration culpable too for what had happened?

How had the police failed on June 22?

Two earlier incidents of complete failure of police left a blot on Guwahati’s image in recent years. Its inability to curb violence or control the protesters on June 22 was the third spectacular failure of the police in Guwahati.

On November 24, 2007 a clash between Adivasi protesters at Beltola and local lumpen elements led to the shameful spectacle of a young Adivasi girl being stripped completely naked and chased through the streets of Guwahati with the police standing mute witness. Only the fact that many others in Guwahati did not lose their sense of honour or humanity to intervene and stop the madness made it possible to salvage a shred of our collective dignity.

On October 30, 2008, three simultaneous bomb blasts ripped through Guwahati in perhaps the bloodiest terrorist carnage the city had ever suffered. The riot that followed the worst of the three blasts, near the same Dispur area, is still fresh in my mind as I remained caught in the mayhem for hours after narrowly escaping getting killed in the blast. The belated and feeble effort of the police to exercise its authority and decisively respond to the crisis was shocking. The visit of the site by several senior officials, including the DGP, in civvies and wearing a forlorn look hours after the incident would perhaps be one of the most demoralizing image of the city’s law enforcement establishment I shall carry in my mind.

And even after that we have a repetition on June 22 of the same shocking failures?

Furthermore, why was the firing ordered?  By whom?

Since when has firing live ammunition at a nine year old child become part of crowd control measures?

Wasn’t this a gross and criminal abuse of authority?

Apart from all of the above, a serious look into why many competent officers have failed in Guwahati on these occasions is an imperative.

Isn’t it high time police reforms was taken up as one of the most important of agendas and the decks cleared for a Police Commissionerate in Guwahati?

In conclusion  

Going by the statewide reaction to Akhil Gogoi’s arrest, it should be apparent that the government’s rash acts have precipitated a needless political confrontation which is likely to deteriorate further, if serious introspection and course-correction is not resorted to expeditiously.

Among the measures the government needs to ensure are fixing responsibility for the deaths in police firing and initiating prosecution of the guilty, finding the actual culprits of the violence and arson and setting an example by prosecuting and punishing them that mob violence doesn’t go unpunished.

The government also must ensure that sufficient relief is provided to the families of those who had lost their lives and assistance in treatment to all those who were injured seriously enough to have been hospitalsed. It would be heartening if these are actually done and not remain as empty promises made to appease a hostile public.

Unfortunately, the government appears to be more intent in silencing dissent and cunningly finding ways and means to deny anyone opportunities for even peaceful demonstrations in Guwahati on the ‘pretext’ of first verifying the ‘track record’ of organisations that seeks permission for holding protest rallies. Whiffs of undemocratic and authoritarian tendencies which always lead to unconstitutional excesses are unmistakable in the government’s tenor and stance.

Therefore, there are just two more points I would like to make in conclusion.

First, even though the civil administration and the police are subservient to the elected political leadership, their oath of allegiance is ultimately only to the Constitution of India. It is time the bureaucracy grew a spine and refused to be part of political vendetta. Because whenever it had failed to stand up to such machinations, or even worse willfully colluded, such shameful chapters such as Delhi 1984 or Gujarat 2002 had been added to our nation’s history.

Second, the massive mandate the people of Assam gave the Gogoi government to return to power the third successive term wasn’t given to be frittered away in ‘fixing’ political opponents. There are of course many before this government who too had started believing their own hubris that a landslide election victory had given them the legitimacy to ride roughshod over those very people who voted them to power. All had bitten the dust at one time or the other. If Tarun Gogoi continues in this vein, even his hubris will come to naught. He would neither be the first, nor the last, such Chief Minister to bite the dust.

Arunachal : Lessons from the tragic death of a Chief Minister

A Map of Arunachal Pradesh showing its districts and district headquarters. Source: Government of Arunachal Pradesh

Almost fifty years ago, when the Chinese Peoples Liberation Army breached the McMahon line near Namka Chu on the morning of October 20, 1960 and poured into Arunachal Pradesh in a lightning artillery and infantry assault, they had done so breaking out from a  massive buildup  just 3 hours away on a 7-ton roadhead within their territory in Tibet.

In contrast, the Indian garrison defending Namka Chu, tip of a feeble military buildup, was 21 days away from a similar 7-ton roadhead at Misamari in the plains of Assam. Even the 1-ton roadhead at Tawang was 6 days away.

The predicament of the ill fated Indian Army Brigade entrusted to defend ‘every inch’ of Indian territory is best summed up by what the Commander Brig. John Dalvi wrote in his scathing memoir of the 62 debacle,

“Even these roads were useless for the carry forward from Towang due to lack of porters, pack transport, tracks and bridges. We relied on air-transport, but the scattered drops were of no use to the forward garrisons, apart from the dropping zones being 1 to 3 days carry from the frontline troops.”

India’s military buildup in Arunachal Pradesh now is impressive and the strategic stand-off capabilities have hugely transformed the very nature of defense, but certain things about Arunachal Pradesh should still worry us.

For instance, the Shannan Prefecture of Tibet Autonomous Region adjoining Tawang, with an area less than half of Arunachal Pradesh, has about 3,700 Kms of excellent roads connecting all vital locations.

In contrast, even nearly fifty years after the debacle in 62, only a meager 392 Kms out of a total of 65,569 Kms of National Highways in India, lies within Arunachal Pradesh. There aren’t even a network of state highways which connects all its 16 districts or the district headquarters to the state capital at Itanagar internally.

When Chief Minister of Arunachal Pradesh Dorjee Khandu had to return to his state capital at Itanagar from his home in Tawang on the morning of April 30, he had little option than to take a helicopter ride to reach his destination. The alternative would have been a near 20-22 hrs road journey over bad roads via Assam. The helicopter could get him to Itanagar in a short flight of less than 2 hours. Unfortunately, it was to be his last.

Shortly after the Chief Minister took off from Tawang with 4 others in his entourage, his helicopter lost contact with the ATC. Even though a massive search & rescue was launched almost immediately after the helicopter went missing, badly hampered by inclement weather and terrain, it took five days to locate the crash site and retrieve the bodies.

There are lessons from the tragedy, old ones, which we need to be reminded of because we tend to forget so easily till the next disaster strikes.

Arunachal Pradesh needs an extensive network of new roads besides improving and upgrading existing ones. URGENTLY !!

The network of roads being built and maintained by the Border Roads Organisation through the projects Vartak and Udayak in the forward areas notwithstanding, the road density in Arunachal Pradesh is still worrisome.

The inexplicable neglect of decades seems to have been sought to be rectified as Government of India issued a Gazette Notification on May 16, 2008 for 3 National Highways to be constructed in Arunachal Pradesh by upgrading stretches of existing roads to 2 lane National Highway specifications and adding entirely new lengths to these in many places. This is what has come to be referred to as the Trans-Arunachal Highway, which, when completed, would be a 1811 Kms network of 2 lane National Highway standard trunk route connecting 11 of the 16 district headquarters and with extensions to the remaining ones. It is to be completed within the 12 Plan Period, in other words, by 2017. While the upgradation work on the existing roads have commenced, survey, land acquisition, environmental clearances etc for many of the new stretches to be constructed are yet to be completed.

What one must take note of however is that, while any loopholes in air-safety can be investigated and fixed with relative ease, one cannot create an extensive road network in a span of even months even if there was a dire need. Each day’s delay in building such infrastructure may cost the country dearly one day, in a much grievous manner than the loss of a Chief Minister in an air crash or the seemingly inordinate delay in locating and retrieving his body because the area where the helicopter was lost remains with few roads to facilitate faster over-ground searches.

In the foreseeable future however, Arunachal Pradesh has little option but to remain critically dependent on air-operations, as it has been for decades.

The crash must be meticulously investigated, loopholes in air-safety, if any, must be uncovered and fixed.

The air space over the Eastern Himalayas in Arunachal Pradesh and the terrain underneath poses a challenging ‘operating environment’ for both fixed wing aircrafts and helicopters. While high operating altitudes, fast changing weather patterns and treacherous air turbulence make flying very challenging, the rugged mountainous and wooded terrain below offers little opportunity for an aircraft to attempt an emergency landing even if such a necessity arose. In short, margin for error is virtually non-existent and even a small slip could prove to be fatal.

As the crashed helicopter was on charter/lease from Pawan Hans Helicopter Limited, the public sector air-charter company, its entire fleet of 7 remaining helicopters in the North East was immediately grounded, pending inspection by the DGCA, with accusations against the company flying thick and fast that it had been operating helicopters which were shoddily maintained and thus not ‘airworthy’, and that it had seriously flouted air-safety norms by continuing to fly them. These are serious allegations and must be thoroughly investigated. The fact that barely days ago, on April 19, a Mi 172 belonging to Pawan Hans crashed minutes before landing in Tawang killing at least 17 certainly added to this impression.

A preliminary look at available information reveals that in the past decade, 4 helicopters belonging to Pawan Hans helicopters had crashed in the North East, killing 38 people. In another incident involving a Mi 172 in August last year, the door of the chopper flung open in midair plunging a crew member to death. 3 of the 4 helicopter crashes and even the incident of the crew member plunging to death from the Mi 172 had occurred in Arunachal Pradesh.

But information also reveal that Pawan Hans had been a valued operator of Eurocopter helicopters, particularly the Dauphins, of which it  presently operate 29 and its Dauphin fleet has over the years logged more than 375,000 flight hours, with an availability rate of over 80 percent. Even though the helicopter which crashed with the Arunachal CM on board was a different model, AS 350 B3, it was a new one inducted only last August and the probability of its airworthiness being compromised is rather low.

An Eurocopter AS 350 B3 similar to the one which crashed on April 30, 2011, killing the Arunachal Pradesh Chief Minister and his entourage.

There are however two very crucial questions which need to be asked.

First, wasn’t the Chief Minister putting himself in considerable peril by choosing to fly regularly in a single engine helicopter? Eurocopter AS 350 B3 is a single engine helicopter and in a hazardous operating environment as Arunachal, wouldn’t a twin engine helicopter considerably improve chances of survivability in case of a snag like engine failure? This is something the Arunachal Pradesh Government seriously needs to reflect on because they have no option but to continue using helicopters for routine VVIP movement within the state for years to come.

Second, the investigation must ascertain whether any safety norms were flouted knowingly by ignoring meteorological forecast of bad weather in flight-path or risking takeoff in bad weather, particularly when the helicopter was to fly at altitudes close to its maximum service ceiling of 4600 meters.

Arunachal Pradesh (in fact all states) also needs a ‘ready’ crisis management structure.

While there is no reason to believe that any sluggishness was shown in informing the highest echelons of the country’s government about the Chief Minister’s helicopter losing contact and becoming untraceable or in mounting a search and rescue of adequate scale in response, it is evident that there was no ‘ready’ crisis management structure with clearly defined responsibilities and authority to immediately take control.

No wonder that this resulted in the painful gaffe of the state’s Governor announcing to the electronic media, without first crosschecking the authenticity of the information, that the Chief Minister had made contact over satellite phone that they had made an emergency landing in ‘Daporiju’ in neighbouring Bhutan due to bad weather, but were otherwise safe. It is more atrocious coming from the constitutional head of the state because Daporiju was definitely not in Bhutan but hundreds of Kilometers off from the flight path of the missing helicopter in exactly the opposite direction of Bhutan.

The senior officials were mindful of this gaffe and corrected him subsequently that the Governor perhaps meant ‘Tashigang’ in Bhutan. Even though all of whom I talked to were cautious and said repeatedly that the information is being verified, clearly they were put in a difficult situation by the highest Constitutional authority of the state whom they couldn’t contradict immediately even if they were skeptical. Fortunately, by evening of the first day of crisis, the civil administration of the state had formed into such a committee and handled the situation, including media management, in an orderly way.

As the search stretched on over days, aerial search being frequently interrupted by heavy rains and low visibility, and satellite imagery too being adversely affected by thick cloud cover, a public opinion was shaping up that either the Indian Air Force and the Army which were spearheading the search & rescue were completely incompetent or not enough was being done, as the Chief Minister was from a North Eastern state.

Both these opinions are as atrocious as they are uninformed.

First, for more than 6 decades now, the air operations of the Indian Air Force had been critical in not only maintaining the military buildup in Arunachal Pradesh, but also in keeping civilian populations in remote areas supplied with such bare necessities as essential commodities for food. Considering the sheer number of sorties that were flown almost daily in such an operating environment, IAF’s loss of aircrafts and personnel in accidents and crashes had been remarkably low. IAF (and the Army and other forces on the ground) certainly know what their job was and I am quite sure that they did it to the best of their abilities with the resources available.

The sheer vastness of the search area, its remoteness and difficult terrain, inclement weather sure made it a time consuming ordeal. In the limited window of opportunity the break in the weather provided, search helicopters and even Su 30 MKIs were pressed into service, as were ISRO satellites. That the wreckage couldn’t be found in the area where they searched was simply because it wasn’t there in the first place. Once all the grids would have been meticulously searched and confirmed to have contained no wreckage, the search area was certain to have been widened to other areas in Tawang and West Kameng. It would have taken time because the inclement weather provided very little flying hours. The information of the wreckage was however, brought in by locals who noticed it in Luguthang even before such an eventuality arose.

Map of Tawang district showing the approximate location of crash site.

Another point must be underscored here. Whether it was safe to fly the search & rescue missions in inclement weather was a call entirely to be left to the Indian Air Force. Misinformed public opinion cannot be the basis to overrule professional assessment, even less a reason to put at peril lives of more men in futile gestures.

Second, close to 3000 personnel were on the ground treading over treacherous terrain, even in darkness and incessant rain, their concern being the whereabouts and well being of a Chief Minister and his entourage who went missing as well as ensuring the safety of their own search teams. Many of the personnel would have been from outside North East, presently deployed in Arunachal Pradesh while some would have been of course local. Not even for a moment, I am sure, would the ethnicity of the persons who they were searching for, nor would their own for that matter, be any of their concern. Those who think otherwise and make such accusations suffers from an affliction of mind where such vile and complicated considerations take precedence over human, ethical and professional ones. I would like to believe, from long experience, that most of those who were looking for Dorjee Khandu and his unfortunate companions were free of such vile afflictions.

Why I think Pakistan was completely in the dark about the impending assault on Osama Bin Laden!!

A Sikorsky UH-60 Blackhawk of the US Army

Were the Pakistani Army and Civilian Government completely in the dark about the impending assault on Osama Bin Laden or did they collaborate to bring about this closure?

The answer to this may have considerable impact on how things unfold in the days to come in the US-Pak relations.

Even though the White House Press Statement has been categorical that this was solely an US operation and no information was shared at all with Pakistan about it, many argue that this couldn’t have been carried out deep inside Pakistan without the knowledge and approval of the top echelons of Pakistani military and civilian government.

I would, however, beg to differ with the above opinion. Here is how I believe the top-secret operation unfolded.

Let us begin with the believable and apparently incontrovertible first.

Osama Bin Laden is finally dead, killed in an operation carried out by the US Special Forces deep inside Pakistani territory in his hideout.

The hideout was a fortified compound in the garrison town of Abbottabad, barely a kilometer from the Pakistan Military Academy and where at least a brigade of the Pakistan Army is based. Abbottabad is about 150 Km from Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.

The news first came from an address by the President of the United States, Barack Obama from White House late in the night of May 1, categorically stating that Osama Bin Laden had been killed by an operation mounted by US Special Forces in Abbottabad in his hide out ‘deep inside of Pakistan’. The President stated: (click to see full text/video of the address)

“And so shortly after taking office, I directed Leon Panetta, the director of the CIA, to make the killing or capture of bin Laden the top priority of our war against al Qaeda, even as we continued our broader efforts to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat his network.

Then, last August, after years of painstaking work by our intelligence community, I was briefed on a possible lead to bin Laden.  It was far from certain, and it took many months to run this thread to ground.  I met repeatedly with my national security team as we developed more information about the possibility that we had located bin Laden hiding within a compound deep inside of Pakistan.  And finally, last week, I determined that we had enough intelligence to take action, and authorized an operation to get Osama bin Laden and bring him to justice.

Today, at my direction, the United States launched a targeted operation against that compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.  A small team of Americans carried out the operation with extraordinary courage and capability.  No Americans were harmed.  They took care to avoid civilian casualties.  After a firefight, they killed Osama bin Laden and took custody of his body.”

Later, at a White House Press Briefing by a Senior Administration Official, it was categorically stated: (click to see full text)

We shared our intelligence on this bin Laden compound with no other country, including Pakistan.  That was for one reason and one reason alone:  We believed it was essential to the security of the operation and our personnel.  In fact, only a very small group of people inside our own government knew of this operation in advance.

Shortly after the raid, U.S. officials contacted senior Pakistani leaders to brief them on the intent and the results of the raid.  We have also contacted a number of our close allies and partners throughout the world.

It is of course inconceivable that the Pakistani intelligence agency the ISI, and hence the top echelons of the Pakistani Army did not know about Osama Bin Laden’s presence ‘deep inside Pakistan’, ensconced in a fortified hideout barely a kilometer away from its elite military academy in a garrison town teeming with its personnel. In all likelihood, Pakistani intelligence ensured his survival and protection for close to a decade after 9/11.

In view of the above, there is a strong line of argument that Osama’s whereabouts had been finally given to the US Forces by Pakistani intelligence and the claim that this was solely an US operation was in fact a clever denial to ensure Pakistan does not suffer a backlash from Osama’s comrades or other jihadi elements.

I have reasons to disagree with the above line of argument because there doesn’t seem to be any credible explanations to questions raised against it.

What had suddenly changed that the establishment that had gone to such extraordinary lengths to protect Osama and deny knowledge of his existence on Pakistani soil for so long consistently would give him up to the US now?

Nothing that comes to my notice. Regardless of whether Osama was now still and asset or had become a liability, there doesn’t seem to be any extraordinary pressure on the Pakistani military from US to suddenly decide to give him up.

Moreover, why would they need to do it in a way that would raise serious questions about their complicity in protecting him for years by giving away his hideout in the heart of Pakistan where he could have hardly holed up without their knowledge? After all, all that would have been needed to spook Osama out of Abbottabad to a more convenient and remote location, where he could have been ambushed would have been to simply leak the message to him that his hideout had been compromised.

Also, if indeed the information of his hideout had been leaked to the US by Pakistani intelligence, why would the President of United States categorically make a statement embarrassing Pakistan?

On the other hand, regardless of the exact details as to how the intelligence on tracing Osama to the Abbottabad hideout was developed, there are ample reasons to believe that this was indeed not shared with Pakistan and the assault on the fortified compound was carried out by US Special Forces in utmost secrecy. There are however, two difficulties that has to be first convincingly explained away.

First, how did three choppers (some reports say four) carrying the assault team of the US Special Forces evade detection to reach Abbottabad which must have had air defense and then egress unharmed completing its mission successfully?

Second, how did a ’40 minute’ operation go undetected or unchallenged by local Pakistani forces if it was carried out without ‘authorisation’ deep in the heart of Pakistan?

Both these difficulties can be very credibly explained away.

First, there would be very little risk of detection of the choppers if it didn’t have to fly in far over Pakistani territory for the actual mission. This essentially means that the operation was mounted from within Pakistan. As fragments of news reached that the choppers had flown out of Ghazi Air Base in Pakistan, a little research and verifications with sources revealed that Ghazi Air base is near Tarbela in Haripur district, adjacent to and west of Abbottabad, both districts being part of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province of Pakistan. The flying time for the choppers from Ghazi Air Base to Osama’s compound in Abbottabad would be under 30 mins.

For a mission to be mounted from a Pakistani Air Base, it will have to have sufficient traffic of US personnel and aircrafts and choppers for a small team to go undetected at least for some time. Ghazi Air Base has that. If my sources are correct the 16th Combat Aviation Brigade of US Army, which flies Sikorsky UH 60 Blackhawks functioned out of the base and it is used by US Forces as a supply base. I have no access to know the quantum of traffic but I would hazard a guess that arrival and departure of 2-3 C130 Hercules and several Sikorsky MH 60 Blackhawks of 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment wouldn’t raise an eyebrow there. (please note that external appearance of a UH 60 Blackhawk and MH 60 Blackhawk aren’t significantly different, but they are very differently capable machines, the later completely kitted out to “Direct Action Penetration” or in plain language, insertion into enemy territory carrying Special Ops troops and acting as a helicopter gun ship as well, capable of flying in pitch darkness with sophisticated navigational aides such as FLIR)

I therefore have strong reason to believe that the operation was indeed mounted from Ghazi Air Base using Navy Seals, the assault team being flown in using Sikorsky MH 60 Blackhawks flown by the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment of the US Army. There were reports also of choppers with troops ‘hanging out’. If it is true, then my guess is that Boeing MH 6J Little Birds too were used (in fact I tweeted this much earlier in the day). It must be noted that a C 130 Hercules can carry up to 3 Boeing MH 6J Little Birds with rotors folded in its cargo hold with rapid upload/offload for fast deployment. All the personnel and hardware could have conveniently arrived in Gazi Air Base from Afghanistan, conducted the raid, and before Pakistani Forces were aware of what was happening, could have been back in Afghanistan from there.

Second difficulty was of course how could the assault team rely that no local Pakistani Forces would engage?

If indeed the operation had been mounted from Gazi Air Base and the assault team reached the Abbottabad compound of Osama undetected with relative ease at the dead of night, there would be complete surprise at the assault, as indeed it seems to have happened. Even if the flying in of choppers and the sound of firefight certainly must have roused the local authorities and commanders, the element of surprise must have ensured that considerable time was lost in ascertaining what was unfolding and then getting directions from higher echelons. The planners of the operations must have had some idea what would the probable reaction be and how much time they would have to egress.

The most likely reaction from a local commander had perhaps been “would a full fledged assault by US Forces happen without sanction from Rawalpindi? If I hadn’t been instructed, that means I have no business to know!!” Before anyone got wiser to check back through hierarchies, the mission would have been accomplished as it indeed seems to have.

The helicopter that was reported to have crashed could have actually been hit by a RPG as I find it inconceivable that Osama’s security wouldn’t have some man-portable weapon against such probable assaults.

The fact that the Pakistan’s Civilian Government took an awkwardly long time to issue a statement and that GHQ had almost been silent, all points to the deep embarrassment, not that Osama had been hiding deep in the heart of Pakistan, but because the US could successfully mount an operation and kill him right under their noses keeping them in the dark.

It now remains to be seen how the aftermath of this plays out in the relationship between the US and Pakistan Army.

Further reading:

The New York Times story “Clues Gradually Led to the Location of Qaeda Chief” reaffirms that Pakistan was in the dark. It however claims that the operation was mounted from Jalalabad.