BBC News – Why do Indians vote for ‘criminal’ politicians?

Soutik Biswas – India correspondent

New Delhi – India, 16 January 2017. Why do India’s political parties field candidates with criminal charges? Why do the voters favour them despite their tainted past?

Political scientist Milan Vaishnav has been studying links between crime and democracy in India for many years now. His upcoming book When Crime Pays offers some intriguing insights into what is a disturbing feature of India’s electoral democracy.

The good news is that the general election is a thriving, gargantuan exercise: 554 million voters queued up at more than 900,000 stations to cast their ballots in the last edition in 2014. The fortunes of 8,250 candidates representing 464 political parties were at stake.

The bad news is that a third (34%) of 543 MPs who were elected faced criminal charges, up from 30% in 2009 and 24% in 2004.

Fiercely competitive

Some of the charges were of minor nature or politically motivated. But more than 20% of the new MPs faced serious charges such as attempted murder, assaulting public officials, and theft.

Now, India’s general elections are not exactly a cakewalk.

Over time, they have become fiercely competitive: 464 parties were in the fray in 2014, up from 55 in the first election in 1952.

The average margin of victory was 9.7% in 2009, the thinnest since the first election. At 15%, the average margin of victory was fatter in the landslide 2014 polls, but even this was vastly lower than, say, the average margin of victory in the 2012 US Congressional elections (32%) and the 2010 general election in Britain (18%).

Almost all parties in India, led by the ruling BJP and the main opposition Congress, field tainted candidates. Why do they do so? For one, says Dr Vaishnav, “a key factor motivating parties to select candidates with serious criminal records comes down to cold, hard cash”.

The rising cost of elections and a shadowy election financing system where parties and candidates under-report collections and expenses means that parties prefer “self-financing candidates who do not represent a drain on the finite party coffers but instead contribute ‘rents’ to the party”. Many of these candidates have criminal records.

There are three million political positions in India’s three-tier democracy; each election requires considerable resources.

Many parties are like personal fiefs run by dominant personalities and dynasts, and lacking inner-party democracy – conditions, which help “opportunistic candidates with deep pockets”.

Good proxy

“Wealthy, self financing candidates are not only attractive to parties but they are also likely to be more electorally competitive. Contesting elections is an expensive proposition in most parts of the world, a candidate’s wealth is a good proxy for his or her electoral vitality,” says Dr Vaishnav, who is senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Political parties also nominate candidates with criminal backgrounds to stand for election because, simply put, they win.

During his research, Dr Vaishnav studied all candidates who stood in the last three general elections. He separated them into candidates with clean records and candidates with criminal records, and found that the latter had an 18% chance of winning their next election whereas the “clean” candidates had only a 6% chance.

He did a similar calculation for candidates contesting state elections between 2003 and 2009, and found a “large winning advantage for candidates who have cases pending against them”.

Politics also offers a lucrative career, a 2013 study showed that the average wealth of sitting legislators increased 222% during just one term in office. The officially declared average wealth of re-contesting candidates, including losers and winners, was $264,000 (£216,110) in 2004 and $618,000 in 2013, an increase of 134%.

‘Biggest criminal

Now why do Indians vote for criminal candidates? Is it because many of the voters are illiterate, ignorant, or simply, ill-informed?

Dr Vaishnav doesn’t believe so.

Candidates with criminal records don’t mask their reputation. Earlier this month, a candidate belonging to the ruling party in northern Uttar Pradesh state reportedly boasted to a party worker that he was the “biggest criminal”. Increasing information through media and rising awareness hasn’t led to a shrinking of tainted candidates.

Dr Vaishnav believes reasonably well-informed voters support criminal candidates in constituencies where social divisions driven by caste and/or religion are sharp and the government is failing to carry out its functions, delivering services, dispensing justice, or providing security, in an impartial manner.

“There is space here for a criminal candidate to present himself as a Robin Hood-like figure,” says Dr Vaishnav.

Clearly, crime and politics will remain inextricably intertwined as long as India doesn’t make its election financing system transparent, parties become more democratic and the state begins to deliver ample services and justice.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has suggested state funding of polls to help clean up campaign financing. Earlier this month, he said people had the right to know where the BJP got its funds from. Some 14% of the candidates his BJP party fielded in the last elections had faced serious charges. (More than 10% of the candidates recruited by the Congress faced charges). But no party is walking the talk yet.

BBC News – Delhi election: Is the verdict a vote against Narendra Modi?

Soutik Biswas, India correspondent

New Delhi – India, 11 February 2020. Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has swept back to power for a third term in a row in India’s capital Delhi. But it would be misleading to read this verdict as a vote against Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Here’s why.

Rather than being seen as a vote against the BJP, Mr Kejriwal’s comfortable win owes more to the triumph of welfarism and effective governance, revamping state-run schools and health clinics, and providing cheap water and electricity.

The BJP has been out of power in Delhi for more than two decades, and it was up against a party which had delivered on its promises. In the early days of the campaign, it tried to puncture Mr Kejriwal’s claims of good governance without success.

Mr Modi’s party then embarked on a coarse and polarising campaign around a controversial new citizenship law, the stripping of Kashmir’s autonomy and building a grand new Hindu temple.

Party leaders freely indulged in hate speech and were censured by poll authorities: a junior minister actually egged on a campaign meeting to shout slogans about “gunning down traitors”, a not-so veiled reference to political rivals.

Mr Modi’s party possibly felt this would work. At the very least, the take-no-prisoners campaign would prevent a debacle in Delhi, like in 2015, when the BJP won just three seats. After all, a similar hardline campaign had helped the BJP sweep all seven Delhi seats in last year’s general election, and pick up more than half of the popular vote.

But that didn’t work this time.

So, was the verdict a rejection of the BJP’s polarising politics? The answer is perhaps more nuanced. There’s ample evidence to show that fervent supporters of Mr Modi and his policies can vote for a different party in their state if they feel that party has improved their lives.

A pre-election survey by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), a respected Delhi-based think tank, also found that roughly 70% of the city respondents support Mr Modi’s controversial citizenship law and oppose the protests against the law.

One of the protests, by women in Shaheen Bagh, a Muslim-dominated neighbourhood in Delhi, was especially targeted by the BJP’s campaign, which sought to show the protesters as “traitors”.

Before the general elections in 2019, when the BJP trounced Mr Kejriwal’s party in Delhi, a large number of supporters who voted for Mr Modi said they preferred Mr Kejriwal as the chief minister and might vote for the AAP in the Delhi polls.

“In Delhi, people have approved of the work done by Mr Kejriwal’s government. It has nothing to do with the citizenship law or the countrywide protests against it or policies of the BJP,” political scientist Sanjay Kumar of the CSDS told me. “This is really not indicative of a national mood against Mr Modi and the BJP.”

Also, research by political scientists Rahul Verma and Pranav Gupta shows that when it comes to Delhi, the BJP has always gained impressively in general elections, 46% of the popular vote in 2014 and 56% of the vote in 2019.

But it then slid back to its “core base”, some 32% of the vote, in state elections. The fact that the once-dominant Congress party has been eclipsed might also have helped Mr Kejriwal’s party grow.

Put simply, what is happening in India today is that voters are making a distinction between state and federal elections. Barely six months after sweeping the general elections in the eastern state of Jharkhand last year, the BJP lost the state elections, with its vote share dropping by more than 17%.

The party faced a similar predicament in Haryana and Maharashtra states, where it failed to repeat its performance in the general election, cobbling together a government in Haryana, but failing to form one in Maharashtra.

Clearly, even discerning supporters of the BJP, according to political scientist Suhas Palshikar, are “willing to switch to state parties during state elections”.

Yogendra Yadav of Swaraj Abhiyan, calls it “ticket splitting”, a sign, he says, of “voters’ sophistication”. State battles, he adds, are “not [a] substitute for taking on the Modi regime at the level of national politics”.

It’s also becoming increasingly clear that Mr Modi’s BJP and its belligerent politics can be countered in India’s states. But in order to do so, popular local governments need a credible leader who seeks votes on governance, and not by countering BJP’s Hindu nationalist plank.

In other words, opposition parties have begun to fear, some of the fear is possibly imagined, that fighting the BJP on its pro-Hindu agenda could invite a backlash from the majority community.

In Delhi, Mr Kejriwal astutely stood his ground on his record in government and refused to engage with the BJP’s ideological campaign. He even refrained from attacking Mr Modi personally.

Will the Delhi election have a larger impact and hurt the BJP’s prospects?

There is no clear evidence yet. Many believe the BJP’s “single-track” muscular nationalist campaign is creating a climate of anxiety, insecurity and exhaustion at a time when India is actually a secure nation.

They say this brand of stridently nationalist politics draws attention away from the serious economic slowdown in the country. But what’s clear is that Mr Modi remains India’s most popular leader and his base is still largely intact.

What Mr Kejriwal’s victory does is offer a breather to a largely divided and demoralised opposition and it proves that good governance wins votes.

BBC News – Shaheen Bagh: Anurag Thakur, Parvesh Varma penalised for comments

Two MPs belonging to India’s ruling party have been removed from a list of “star campaigners” after comments they made against a group or protesters.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) penalised Anurag Thakur and Parvesh Varma after India’s Election Commission ordered their removal with “immediate effect”. The order came in the wake of controversial comments by the MPs against thousands of largely Muslim women who have been staging a demonstration in Shaheen Bagh, a Muslim-dominated neighbourhood in the capital, Delhi.

Elections will be held there on 8 February.

The polls pit the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which runs India’s government, against the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) which governs Delhi. The AAP, headed by charismatic chief minister Arvind Kejriwal, is hoping to return to power, pointing to its record on affordable healthcare, education, electricity and water.

The BJP has accused the protesters of being “traitors” to India.

What did the BJP say?

The charge levelled at the women protesting against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) has been led by the home minister, BJP president Amit Shah. He told supporters to press the button for the BJP with “so much anger that protesters in Shaheen Bagh feel the current”.

Other party leaders have followed suit.

Anurag Thakur, the junior finance minister, was censured by the election commission after he incited the crowd at an election rally to shout “shoot the traitors” while railing against those at Shaheen Bagh. He defended his comments by saying he was merely reflecting the “mood of Delhi”.

Yogi Adityanath, the chief minister of neighbouring Uttar Pradesh, said the men of Shaheen Bagh were sending their women out to protest while they stayed home and slept, because they were too afraid to come out themselves.

Yet another minister, Parvesh Varma, swore the protesters would be “sent packing” within hours of a BJP victory, adding that if left unchecked, they would “rape and kill”.

Other party members have called the election a battle between “India and Pakistan”, which critics have denounced as a clear attempt to stigmatise Muslims.

So, what is happening in Shaheen Bagh?

Residents, mostly Muslim women, have been staging a continuous sit-in on a public road for more than a month.

Videos from Shaheen Bagh show women singing songs, clapping and passing tea and food to one another.

It has been a rare moment, one of the few times anyone can remember India’s Muslim women coming out in such large numbers and leading a movement of this nature, although many others from different religions have sat alongside them in solidarity. They have read each other the preamble of India’s constitution, made speeches reaffirming their citizenship and sung patriotic songs.

Shaheen Bagh has captured the imagination of many Indians.

The peaceful nature of the demonstrations have been in stark contrast to other protests against the citizenship law in which more than 30 people have been killed, most of them in Uttar Pradesh state, and the police accused of brutality.

The BJP for its part has painted the Shaheen Bagh protesters as extremists, who are seeking to break the country apart with the support of the AAP and its leader, Arvind Kejriwal.

What is the CAA?

The act offers amnesty to non-Muslim illegal immigrants from three neighbouring Muslim-majority countries. It amends India’s 64-year-old citizenship law, which currently prohibits illegal migrants from becoming Indian citizens.

It also expedites the path to Indian citizenship for members of six religious communities: Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi and Christian, if they can prove they are from Pakistan, Afghanistan or Bangladesh. They will now only have to live or work in India for six years, instead of 11 years, before becoming eligible to apply for citizenship.

Under the CAA people holding Overseas Citizen of India (OCI) cards could lose their right to live and work in India indefinitely if they break local laws, no matter how minor the offence.

Several petitions argue that the law is illegal, claiming that it grants citizenship on the basis of religion, which goes against the country’s secular values enshrined in its constitution. Those challenging it include political parties, civil society and Muslim groups.

Adding to the fears is a government pledge to carry out a widespread exercise to weed out “infiltrators” from neighbouring countries. Many Muslim citizens fear they could be made stateless, given that the exercise relies on extensive documentation to prove their ancestors lived in India.

The government has defended the law, saying it will give sanctuary to people fleeing religious persecution and Mr Shah has vowed that it will not be rolled back.

Why is Shaheen Bagh being targeted?

“What the BJP is trying to do is very clear. Polarisation is a tried and tested method that has won them elections in the past. But the million dollar question is, will it also work in Delhi?” political commentator Neerja Chowdhury told the BBC.

Many critics have said the protesters are an easy target for the Hindu nationalist BJP, as they are largely Muslim, and have said they demonstrate precisely why Muslims are afraid of the CAA.

The BJP comments have also caused a stir on social media. Although there are some who agree with the criticisms against the protesters, many say it is a clear indication the BJP has been rattled by Shaheen Bagh.

AAP supporters say the BJP’s tactics show how desperate the party is to avoid defeat.

The hashtag #KejriwalAgainstEntireBJP was the top India trend on Tuesday afternoon.

Ms Chowdhury said that although it was expected the BJP would come out strongly as the election drew nearer, she was still surprised by the tone of the campaign.

“We have had many lows in Indian politics and electioneering. But I don’t ever remember a legislator telling people that they would be raped and killed,” she said.

Was this a spontaneous demo against the blocking of a road or was it more political and supported by BJP/RSS ?
Man in Blue

BBC News – George Soros takes aim at ‘authoritarian’ Presidents Xi and Trump

Daniel Thomas, Business reporter

Davos – Switzerland, 24 January 2020. Billionaire philanthropist George Soros has launched a stinging attack on the “authoritarian rulers” of both the US and China.

He said President Donald Trump was a “conman and the ultimate narcissist” who had breached the limits of the US constitution.

And he said China’s President Xi Jinping was using technology to exert total control over Chinese life.

“The world would be a better place if they weren’t in power,” Mr Soros said.

Using his annual speech at the World Economic Forum, in Davos, the financier warned of a growing threat from populism and climate change, while pledging $1bn towards a new global university network to tackle intolerance.

But the businessman – who is a major donor to the US Democratic party – said Beijing and Washington posed the biggest threat to “open societies”.

“Both [leaders] try to extend the powers of their office to its limit and beyond.

“Trump is willing to sacrifice the national interests for his personal interests and he will do practically anything to win re-election.

“By contrast, Xi Jinping is eager to exploit Trump’s weaknesses and use artificial intelligence to achieve total control over his people.”

The White House was approached for comment.

Mr Soros also targeted Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, saying the Indian state was “imposing punitive measures on Kashmir, a semi-autonomous Muslim region, and threatening to deprive millions of Muslims of their citizenship”.

He was referring to two controversial decisions made by Mr Modi’s Hindu nationalist government.

The first was to strip the disputed Kashmir region of its semi-autonomous status and place it under virtual lockdown.

The second is the introduction and passage of a controversial citizenship law that critics say is discriminatory towards Muslims.

It seeks to fast-track Indian citizenship to non-Muslim minorities from three nearby Muslim-majority countries.

The US and China recently struck a deal to de-escalate a major trade war which has seen both sides impose tariffs on billions of dollars worth of exports.

But Mr Soros said President Xi’s had stifled China’s economy, while Mr Trump had “overheated” his.

“US stock markets are high but can’t be kept at boiling point for too long.”

Mr Soros, a Jew who survived Nazi occupation by forging identity documents, became infamous for his involvement in the devaluation of the British pound, known as Black Wednesday.

But it is his philanthropic and political activities that have made him a divisive figure in the US, Europe and beyond.

He has spent billions of his own money funding human rights projects and liberal democratic ventures around the world, and has become a frequent target for criticism by right-wing groups due to his support for liberal causes.

Much of the criticism aimed at him has been criticised as having anti-Semitic undertones.

The financier, who is a regular at the elite World Economic Forum, said his new university network would help promote “critical thinking” in an age of intolerance.

The move will be seen as a riposte to Hungarian President Victor Orban, who has repeatedly tried to shut down the Central European University, a private institution set up by Mr Soros in the country in 1971.

Mr Orban’s populist nationalist government claims Mr Soros has a secret plot to flood Hungary with migrants and destroy the nation, an accusation Mr Soros denies.

Mr Soros said the network would be “the most important and enduring project of my life and I should like to see it implemented while I am still around”.

BBC News – Why protesting Indians are chanting the Constitution

Soutik Biswas, India correspondent

India, 14 January 2020. For more than a month now, men and women, young and old, have gathered in large numbers on streets and university campuses across India to protest against a new citizenship law which they believe is discriminatory.

There, they have been invoking the Constitution and chanting its solemn preamble, which promises justice, equality and fraternity and embodies the basic features of the nation’s founding document.

The mass readings have revealed a deeper public engagement with the Constitution than commonly thought. So far most believed the Constitution hadn’t travelled much in the public imagination beyond dreary classroom lessons.

India’s Constitution, which took four years to write, is the world’s longest founding document. The text governs more than a billion people who practise almost every mainstream religion.

The voluminous document contains more than 450 Articles and 12 Schedules and is painstakingly detailed. It is also, according to legal scholar Upendra Baxi, an “unparalleled exercise in verbosity”, with the text scaling some “extraordinarily ludic heights”.

Article 367, for example, makes it clear that a foreign state “means a State other than India”. The text has been amended more than 100 times since 1950.

Born in the aftermath of a bloody partition and independence, and written amid differences over the “religious and national vision” of what India should be, the Constitution is a remarkable document.

In trying to forge a national identity, the draft was debated fiercely and the document wrestled with questions relating to moulding a national identity in one of the world’s most ethnically diverse countries. Critics say the Constitution was largely based on western ideas and written by western-educated elites.

The preamble itself, according to scholars, was a compromise between a range of groups and interests and borrowed from colonial laws.

Seventy years later, the Constitution appears to be igniting the minds of ordinary Indians in a way not seen and heard of in the recent past.

But many scholars believe the document has always had a deep engagement with Indians. As Rohit De, an assistant professor of history at Yale University, explains in his extraordinary book, A People’s Constitution, the document mattered to its citizens, and “constitutional engagement included large number of ordinary Indians, often from minorities or disprivileged groups”.

Dr De writes about how thousands of ordinary Indians from all walks of life have invoked the Constitution in the courts ever since Mohammed Yasin, a young Muslim vegetable seller in north India, petitioned the Supreme Court in 1950, saying his rights to trade and an occupation, guaranteed by the document, had been violated by the authorities who had granted a single merchant a monopoly over the local vegetable trade.

But the ongoing engagement is much wider.

“There are two aspects that make the current engagement remarkable: first, its widespread extent, cutting across a range of demographics. In the 50s, particular groups argued that the Constitution protects them, but today diverse demographics make the case for the Constitution protecting everyone. The second, of course, is the profound focus on the preamble as opposed to specific rights,” Dr De told me.

The unprecedented reading of the preamble, he says, evokes the pro-Independence civil disobedience protests, when Indians marched, sang songs and recited a pledge of independence challenging British rule. “The protestors argued that power need not be given, but was taken by the people themselves,” he says.

Many believe that citizens have taken to the Constitution partly because the Narendra Modi-led ruling Hindu nationalist BJP government has painted almost all opposition to its policies as “anti-national”.

“By using the constitution, the protestors can continue to assert their patriotism, use national symbols and songs and challenge the discourse of ‘anti-nationalism’ with constitutional patriotism,” Dr De says.

Also, many believe, people are invoking the Constitution to express their displeasure with the “failure of the courts” – especially the Supreme Court – in not being transparent and its “weakening record” on civil liberties.

They say the top court, which has built a reputation for itself as a defender of constitutionalism against the executive, seems to have become muted when facing a government with a huge parliamentary majority like the BJP.

“It is this absence of the court as the defender for civil liberty and constitutional processes, that is forcing ordinary citizens to step in and champion the Constitution.” says Dr De.

Last month, 40 lawyers gathered in the lawns of the Supreme Court in Delhi and read out the preamble. And the Communist government in the southern state of Kerala announced that it would make the reading of the preamble compulsory during the morning assembly in schools.

“All this is very important and powerful. It aims to engage and articulate what India as a nation means,” says Madhav Khosla, legal scholar and author of India’s Founding Moment: The Constitution of a Most Surprising Democracy. “I don’t think there is any precedence.”

BBC News – Does JNU campus attack mean India is failing its young?

Soutik Biswas, India correspondent

New Delhi – India, 06 January 2020. Its list of alumni includes a Nobel-Prize winning economist, former prime ministers of Libya and Nepal, and many leading politicians, diplomats, artists and academics. It is also an internationally renowned centre for teaching and research, and is among one of India’s top ranked universities.

Yet the storied reputation of Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) didn’t deter a mob of masked men armed with sticks, stones and iron rods running berserk on its sprawling campus on Sunday evening.

They attacked students and teachers and destroyed property even as the police refused to intervene for more than an hour. Outside the campus gates, another mob shouted nationalist slogans and targeted journalists and ambulances. Nearly 40 people were hurt in the violence.

Left and right-wing students groups have blamed each other for the violence. Most eyewitnesses told reporters that the mob was mainly made up of men belonging to the ABVP, the right-wing students group linked to India’s governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and a clutch of outsiders.

Ostensibly, Sunday’s violence appears to have been stoked by a dispute over a hostel fee hike, which has roiled the campus for the last few months.

University authorities have blamed the attack on a “group of students” who were opposing an ongoing admission process to register new students, it is widely believed that the statement referred to leftist students who have been protesting against the fee hike.

But there are deepening fears that the BJP wants to muzzle dissent on the campus, which has traditionally been a hotbed of left-wing politics. Ever since Mr Modi’s party stormed to power riding a crest of Hindu nationalism, JNU has been a constant target.

Students have been charged with sedition for making speeches, and the university has been vilified by the party and partisan news networks as “anti-national”. Its students have been called “urban” Maoists.

Sunday’s campus attack tells you a few things about India.

For one, it points to a breakdown of law and order in the capital, the responsibility of which lies with India’s powerful interior minister Amit Shah. If mobs can enter one of India’s best universities and the police fails to protect students and teachers, then who exactly is safe, many are asking.

Also, critics say BJP’s brand of politics is leading to expected, and disturbing, consequences.

Since they have been in office, Mr Modi and Mr Shah have relentlessly belittled and demonised political opponents and critics, calling them anti-national and and urban Maoists.

“By calling all protests as anti-national, an atmosphere of legtimisation of lawless violence has been developed,” says political scientist Suhas Palshikar. There’s been, he adds, a “systematic manufacturing of atmosphere of suspicion and hatred”.

The result is that there is dwindling tolerance for dissenting views. The incident, according to Roshan Kishore, a senior journalist and JNU alumnus himself, proves that “we are living in an age where ideological differences in places of learning will be crushed by brute force, and the state at best will remain a bystander”.

The university has an amazing diversity of students, cutting across class, caste, gender and religion. The campus is a “revolution of sorts” where the rich and poor, the influential and the obscure, the city-bred and students from villages meet, study and live, says Rakesh Batabyal, author of JNU: The Making Of A University.

“What happened on Sunday night is something the campus has never seen,” adds Atul Sood, a faculty member.

However, JNU is no stranger to violent conflict. In the 1980s teachers and students clashed over plans to change the admission policy. Newspaper headlines spoke about the “anarchy” on the campus. Students attacked homes of teachers. Police, according to many accounts, thrashed students.

A number of students were arrested and nearly 40 of them expelled from the campus. Force, writes Mr Batabyal, became a “new signifier for politics in the campus”.

Things are different this time. The government’s response to the violence has been frosty: it has refused to engage with protesting students. The JNU incident is the third time since December that protesting students have been targeted in campuses, students of two leading universities in Delhi and the northern city of Aligarh have recently borne the brunt of police brutality.

“The constant demonisation of students by the government continues to increase their vulnerability to such attacks and awards impunity to the attackers. It is imperative that the government listens to its citizens,” says Avinash Kumar of Amnesty International India.

What is more worrying, is that India’s opposition has failed to pick up the cudgels on behalf of the students. “A society which condones violence against its universities is only condoning the destruction of its future,” says Mr Kishore. India is clearly failing its young.

BBC News – Samoa lifts state of emergency over measles epidemic

Samoa has lifted a six-week state of emergency, which was put in place amid a measles epidemic that killed 81 people and infected more than 5,600. Just 200,000 people live on the South Pacific island nation, and vaccination rates are far lower than in neighbouring countries.

Most of those killed in the outbreak were babies and young children. Infection rates slowed earlier this month after a vaccination drive pushed immunisation rates towards 95%. According to aid agencies, this is the level required in order to have “herd immunity” against the disease.

Under the emergency orders put in place last month, schools were closed, travel and public gatherings were restricted, and red flags were placed outside the homes of people who hadn’t been vaccinated.

How did the disease spread?

Globally, measles cases are on the rise, including in the US and Germany, as parents forego life-saving vaccines because of false, repeatedly debunked theories linking childhood immunisation with autism.

Earlier this year a measles outbreak hit Auckland in New Zealand, a hub for people travelling to and from many small Pacific islands.

In Samoa, low vaccination rates are in part due to the deaths of two children in 2018.

The deaths were wrongly attributed to the vaccination against measles, mumps and rubella (MMR), but were actually caused by nurses mixing the vaccine with a muscle relaxant instead of water.

But this raised local fears around vaccines, and were exploited by anti-vaccination campaigners, also known as “anti-vaxxers”.

Prominent anti-vaxxer Edwin Tamasese was arrested in Samoa earlier this month and charged with incitement against a government order.

Mr Tamamese had posted false theories about measles on Facebook, and instead promoted the use of ineffective remedies to treat the deadly illness, such as using papaya leaf extract and vitamin C.

He also called the government’s vaccination programme “the greatest crime against our people”.

BBC News – Citizenship Act protests: Chandrasekhar Azad escapes police detention

Thousands of people, protesting against a controversial citizenship law, have gathered outside one of India’s oldest mosques in Delhi.

New Delhi – India, 20 December 2019. Police briefly detained Chandrashekhar Azad, a Dalit (formerly untouchables) leader who defied orders to halt a march from Jama Masjid in old Delhi.

But Mr Azad managed to escape, says BBC Hindi’s Dilnawaz Pasha.

Indian officials also shut down mobile internet services in several cities in anticipation of more protests.

Mr Azad is currently untraceable, our correspondent says. He had managed to escape during a scuffle between his supporters and the police, as they tried to detain him.

Police in Delhi shut the route to Jama Masjid, and closed down metro stations in the vicinity. They were on the look out for Mr Azad, but he evaded them and appeared outside the 16th Century mosque after Friday prayers, holding up a copy of India’s constitution.

The protest is continuing as the crowd outside the mosque swells.

A rally by Opposition MP Asaddudin Owaisi is underway in Hyderabad city; and more protests are expected in Bangalore city, where thousands of people took to the streets on Thursday.

Three people died and thousands were detained during Thursday’s protests, which turned violent in some parts of the country.

Mobile data services have been shut in Lucknow and Mangalore cities and some parts of West Bengal state. Several areas in Uttar Pradesh state are also affected.

Meanwhile, following a high court order, data services in the north-eastern state of Assam, which were switched off for almost two weeks, have been restored.

The new law – known as the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) – offers citizenship to non-Muslim illegal immigrants from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan.

Critics fear that it undermines India’s secular constitution, and say faith should not be the basis of citizenship.

But Prime Minister Narendra Modi has dismissed their concerns, and blamed the opposition for “spreading lies”.

There have been days of protests against the law, with the biggest outpouring to date on Thursday.

What happened on Thursday?

Tens of thousands of people took to the streets in cities across the country, despite a police order based on a severely restrictive law which prohibits more than four people from gathering in a place.

Two people died in the southern city of Mangalore after officers opened fire on demonstrators allegedly trying to set fire to a police station.

Another man also died in the city of Lucknow, where violent clashes between demonstrators and police earlier in the day saw vehicles set alight. More than a dozen officers were injured and 112 people were reportedly detained.

Among those who were briefly detained were Ramachandra Guha, a prominent historian and outspoken critic of the government, in the southern city of Bangalore; and political activist Yogendra Yadav in Delhi.

Speaking to the BBC’s Newshour programme, Mr Guha said he had been arrested with hundreds of others from various different backgrounds, “which clearly shows that a large section of Indians are actually opposed to this discriminatory legislation”.

Thousands also gathered to demonstrate in Mumbai including some Bollywood actors and filmmakers.

What is the law about?

The law – known as the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) – offers amnesty to non-Muslim illegal immigrants from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan.

The federal government says this is to protect religious minorities fleeing persecution in the three Muslim-majority countries.

But what has made the law especially controversial is that it comes in the wake of the government’s plan to publish a nationwide register of citizens that it says will identify illegal immigrants, namely, anyone who doesn’t have the documents to prove that their ancestors lived in India.

A National Register of Citizens (NRC) – published in the north-eastern state of Assam – saw 1.9 million people effectively made stateless.

The NRC and the Citizenship Amendment Act are closely linked as the latter will protect non-Muslims who are excluded from the register and face the threat of deportation or internment.

Why are people protesting against it?

Many Muslim citizens fear that they could be made stateless if they don’t have the necessary documents; and critics also say the law is exclusionary and violates the secular principles enshrined in India’s constitution.

But Prime Minister Narendra Modi said the law would have “no effect on citizens of India, including Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Jains, Christians and Buddhists”.

BBC News – Indian woman set on fire on her way to rape case hearing

Unnao – Uttar Pradesh – India, 05 December 2019. A 23-year-old alleged rape victim is fighting for her life after she was set on fire while going to court in northern India. The woman was on her way to a hearing in the case she filed against two men in March, in Uttar Pradesh state.

She is in critical condition in hospital, where she is being treated for severe burns. Five men including two of her alleged rapists have been arrested on suspicion of setting her on fire, police say.

The woman was on her way to a train station when a group of men assaulted her and dragged her to a nearby field, where they set her on fire, according to reports in local media.

Doctors treating her in the hospital in Lucknow city said she had received 90% burn injuries and that she would soon be flown in an air ambulance to the capital, Delhi, for better medical care.

The incident occurred in Unnao district, which was recently in the news over another rape case. Police opened a murder investigation against a ruling party lawmaker in July after a woman who accused him of rape was seriously injured in a car crash.

Two of her aunts were killed and her lawyer was injured.

This latest incident has sparked widespread outrage in India, which is still reeling from a shocking murder and rape case that grabbed headlines just under a week ago.

A 27-year-old vet in the southern city of Hyderabad was raped and set on fire on 27 November. Protests were held across the country after the victim’s charred remains were found following her disappearance last week.

Huge stigma

Rajini Vaidyanthan, BBC South Asia correspondent

Nearly a hundred rapes are reported in India every single day according to the last recorded crime statistics. Across towns, cities and villages, women, children and sometimes men are subjected to brutal attacks. Many don’t get reported, let alone make the headlines.

In recent days there’s been growing outrage in the wake of the recent gang rape and murder of a vet in Hyderabad. This latest case in Unnao has deepened that anger.

In a country where there’s huge stigma around coming forward and reporting cases of sexual violence, are there enough safeguards for those who do? Are authorities doing enough to punish the perpetrators?

In December 2012 I covered the gang rape and murder of a young woman on a bus in Delhi, which opened up a conversation around sexual violence in India. But little seems to have changed.

In recent days some officials have called on women to come home earlier at night or avoid using transport at certain times. Activists I talked to say the emphasis continues to be on how women can change, rather than looking at how Indian society as a whole needs to do better.

According to the latest government crime figures, police registered 33,658 cases of rape in India in 2017 – that’s an average of 92 rapes every day.

BBC News – Kashmir conflict: Pro-India politicians feel ‘betrayed’ by Modi

Srinagar – Jammu & Kashmir – India, 04 December 2019. Dozens of mainstream political leaders and workers have been under detention in Indian-administered Kashmir since August, when India stripped the region of its semi-autonomous status. Sameer Yasir reports on why political workers in the valley feel betrayed.

Saleem Mir stood pensively by the window of his room overlooking the Jhelum river, which cuts through the heart of Srinagar and flows into Pakistan. Mr Mir, who toiled for years to get people to vote for Kashmir’s oldest political party, the pro-India National Conference, now feels like a total outcast in his own homeland.

Kashmiris like Mr Mir are used to being branded as “traitors” by their own people for siding with India during the 30-year armed revolt against Delhi’s rule in the Muslim-majority region. Many have relatives or friends who have been killed by militants for siding with India.

“Now we are also enemies in the eyes of India,” said Mr Mir, who belongs to Kulgam district, a region that has witnessed a spiral of deadly violence in recent years.

Enemies of India

In August, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) oversaw a crackdown that they argued was necessary to prevent disorder in the disputed region.

It was stripped of its autonomy, split it into two federally-run territories, put under a lockdown, and most of the state’s political leaders and workers, including those who have been loyal to India, were incarcerated.

“Our intention is that politicians do not engage in any activities that could serve as a magnet for violence, as it has been the case in the past. A related issue is that social media and the internet have been used to radicalise. We want to prevent the loss of life,” India’s Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar said.

Mr Mir was among more than 5,000 people, including businessmen, civil society members, lawyers and activists, who were detained. Those still under detention include former chief ministers Omar Abdullah, Farooq Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti, the first woman to be hold the position, as well as several former lawmakers.

Former chief minister Mr Abdullah, still a member of parliament, has been detained under the controversial Public Safety Act (PSA), which allows detention without formal charge for two years, among other things.

Mr Abdullah, whose family had been instrumental in tying Kashmir’s future to Delhi, appeared on television before his detention and appealed to the people of India, saying he had stood with them and it was their time to reciprocate.

Mir Mohammad Fayaz, an MP belonging to the PDP, has written to the federal Home Minister Amit Shah, demanding the release of all political leaders. He said that the leaders had been recently shifted to a new jail in “a very humiliating and downgrading manner”.

Wiping out the middle ground

Kashmir’s political parties have always operated in a middle-ground, between integrating completely with India and seeking outright independence.

By the very act of participating in India’s democratic processes and fighting elections, they acknowledged Delhi’s right to have a say in the affairs of the region. But in order to win votes, they have had to speak the language of popular sentiment.

Therefore, its two main parties, the National Conference (NC) and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) officially stand for Kashmir’s right to autonomy and self-rule within the federal structure of India.

And for more than a decade, after the insurgency ebbed, the status-quo in Kashmir largely worked in India’s favour. People voted in elections and India said it proved that democracy was thriving in the region. With the detention of the leaders, things have changed.

The latest move by Delhi has “wiped out the middle-ground held by Kashmiri politicians” and this void could be very well “filled by militants”, said Siddiq Wahid, a historian.

Mr Wahid added people would now confront these political parties by saying: “We knew it, we told you so all along.”

No trust

“The idea of mainstream politics is dead in Kashmir now,” says Kapil Kak, a retired air vice-marshal.

Mr Kak, a native of Kashmir who has been part of many initiatives aimed at resolving the dispute, said India has lost 70 years of its hard work in Indian-administered Kashmir: “Who will vouch for it now?”

Political workers, who have backed India despite facing threats, attacks and public humiliation, feel completely let down and fear for their safety now.

“We should have never trusted India,” Mr Mir, now a free man, said.

Rehman Sheikh, whose cousin, a founding member of PDP, was killed and his house set on fire in Shopian district, said Mr Modi’s government had simply “belittled my brother’s sacrifice”.

“The India for which we bled so badly has rendered us worthless by forcibly taking away our basic political rights,” Mr Sheikh said.

“Party workers come to us and ask ‘what is our future?’,” said Tanveer Alam, whose cousin, a former lawmaker, is also being detained. “I have no answers. I keep silent.”

We are finished

Mumtaz Peer, who saw his father killed by militants, said if “gunmen arrive at my door, no one will now come to save me”. “We are finished,” Mr Peer, who worked for a former state lawmaker, said. “We are just waiting for this time to pass.”

Mr Peer said that had the valley’s mainstream political class invested time and effort to lobby for Kashmir’s independence instead of trying to strengthen India’s hold on the region, people “would have achieved the goal of independence”.

“Our only problem is we are Kashmiris and Muslim. We fought for India in Kashmir and this is what we got in return,” Mr Peer said.

Ghulam Hassan Rahi, a politician who fought many elections in northern Kashmir during the heyday of insurgency, and continued his activism despite threats from militants, said now when he meets his political workers, he keeps his head down.

One worker, Mr Rahi said, recently confronted him, telling him that it doesn’t matter “how much bidding Kashmiri Muslims will do for India, Delhi will never trust them because they are Muslims”.

“I kept my head down and walked away,” Mr Rahi said.