BBC News – Rohingya crisis: Bangladesh and Myanmar agree time-frame for repatriation

London-UK, 16 January 2018. Bangladesh says it has agreed a timeframe with Myanmar for repatriating hundreds of thousands of Rohingya who fled an army crackdown last year.

Myanmar has agreed to accept 1,500 Rohingya every week, Bangladesh says, adding that it aims to return all of them to Myanmar within two years.

Over 650,000 Rohingya have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh since violence erupted in Rakhine state in August.

Aid agencies have raised concerns about forcibly repatriating them.

A spokesperson from the UN High Commission for Refugees said Myanmar also needed to address the underlying causes of the crisis and that refugees should only return when they feel it is safe for them to back.

According to Reuters, the agreement did not specify when the process would begin but said Myanmar would provide temporary shelter to those returning and later build houses for them.

The two sides agreed on a repatriation deal last November and have now met in Myanmar’s capital Naypyidaw to finalise the details.

Bangladeshi foreign secretary Md Shahidul Haque told BBC Bangla that the government had wanted Myanmar to accept 15,000 Rohingya each week – however, they eventually settled on 300 a day – 1,500 per week.

Both sides would review the agreement in three months, he added.

Under the current agreement, about 156,000 Rohingya would be repatriated in two years, far short of the 650,000 who have taken recently taken refuge in Bangladesh.

‘Mistrust and fear’

Jonathan Head, BBC Southeast Asia correspondent

Both countries have agreed the repatriation will be voluntary. And most refugees say they will only return if their safety can be assured, their homes rebuilt, and if they are no longer subjected to official discrimination. None of these conditions is in place.

Myanmar has started rebuilding, but mostly for non-Muslims. It is preparing two transit camps, the first able to accommodate 30,000 people. Beyond that not much has changed.

More than 350 villages, nearly all of them Rohingya, have been burned down, some recently. The military, which is accused of terrible human rights abuses, still runs northern Rakhine State. It has denied the abuses, denied access to independent investigators, and strictly limits access for aid agencies.

There is talk of closing the camps in which 130,000 Rohingyas are still confined, but not yet of ending restrictions on Rohingya movements. And nothing is yet happening to reduce the mistrust and fear of Rohingyas felt by the non-Muslim population, some of whom have vowed to fight against any large-scale refugee return.

When the initial deal was signed, Amnesty International said it doubted there could be safe or dignified returns “while a system of apartheid remains” and added that it “hoped those who do not want to go home are not forced to do so”.

The Rohingya are a stateless minority in Myanmar, also known as Burma.

Huge numbers have fled to Bangladesh after deadly attacks by a Rohingya group on police posts prompted a military crackdown in Rakhine state in late August.

The crisis has been described as ethnic cleansing by the UN and the US.

Despite widespread accusations of human rights violations, Myanmar has consistently denied persecuting its Rohingya minority.


BBC News – Aadhaar: ‘Leak’ in world’s biggest database worries Indians

Indian officials in charge of a controversial biometric identity scheme have filed a police complaint after a report that citizens’ personal details were being sold for as little as 500 rupees ($7.8;£5.8) online.

New Delhi-India, 5 January 2018. The Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) wants a probe into “unauthorised access” to its database.

But it said biometric data was safe.

The Tribune newspaper claimed that it bought user details via an “agent” advertising his services on WhatsApp.

The report is the latest revelation against the UIDAI biometric system known as Aadhaar, which means foundation.

It said that once it paid the “agent”, its reporters were given a username and password that allowed them to enter any Aadhaar number into the UIDAI website and get access to user information including name, address, photo, phone number and email address.

The report added that payment of a further 300 rupees provided “software” that allowed them to print out any Aadhaar card for which they had the number.

The UIDAI says the breach seems to be a misuse of a grievance redressal scheme that allowed Aadhaar agents to rectify issues like a change in address and wrong spelling of a person’s name.

However, it added that the scheme did not grant access to people’s biometric details.

The revelations in the report made headlines in India, with many on social media expressing concern over the security of their personal data.

Aadhaar started out as a voluntary programme to help tackle benefit fraud, but recently it has been made mandatory for access to welfare schemes.

Critics have repeatedly warned that the scheme puts personal information at risk” and have criticised government efforts to compulsorily link it to bank accounts and mobile phone numbers.

The government has always insisted that the biometric data is “safe and secure in encrypted form”, and anybody found guilty of leaking data can be jailed and fined.

A case challenging its mandatory linking to schemes and bank accounts is pending before the country’s Supreme Court.

BBC News – India’s animal rights activists forced to lie low

Chennai-Tamil Nadu-India, 2 January 2018. The failed campaign to ban bull taming in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu has dented support for the animal rights movement and forced local activists to lie low out of fear, as Swaminathan Natarajan reports from Madurai.

So-called Jallikattu contests have been popular in this region for centuries but were banned by the Supreme Court in 2014 after objections from animal rights groups.

Mass protests in support of the contests in January led to a new law overturning the ban.

In the year since then Jallikattu has restarted in many places in and around the temple town of Madurai, but the fall-out from the ban means that formerly welcoming villagers are now reluctant and sometimes even afraid to talk to strangers.

They say clandestine filming and selective editing by animal rights groups has given them a bad name.

People carrying cameras are stopped and asked the purpose of their visit.

“Our office is near one of the Jallikattu venues,” says an official working with an Indian animal rights group. “Some locals suspect us of providing evidence of torture to Peta [People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals]. We know there is a lot of hostility and mistrust.”

He refuses to talk in detail about the Jallikattu controversy and wants to remain anonymous. Such is the level of fear. Madurai has a population of more than 1.5 million people. As in so much of India, many stray animals crowd the streets.

Every evening it is common to see people offering temple elephants coins in return for blessings. Begging with elephants is illegal, but the practice continues. And much more serious mistreatment of animals goes on openly too.

Cows can be seen eating plastic waste; live birds are hung upside down and moved from one place to another by motorcycle; dogs and cats are pelted with stones by children; and bulls and donkeys are worked to exhaustion. But the city has no animal rescue centre.

“We rented a place to keep abandoned stray dogs but neighbours complained about the noise levels and we had to leave. We are still asking the government to allot land for an animal shelter,” says the same animal rights official.

Madurai does have a government-run veterinary hospital which provides free treatment, and a few private clinics which charge for their services.

“Just a few months ago Madurai got two ambulances for animals,” says another animal rights campaigner, who also requested anonymity out of fear of repercussions. “This helps to an extent to treat animals involved in traffic accidents,”

But supporters of bull taming say animal rights groups have no right to preach to others about animal welfare.

‘Animal rights groups talk nonsense’

A few kilometres away from Allanganallur, one of the main venues for Jallikattu, one can see a memorial to a bull that was buried in front of a temple. Locals say it’s a tribute to an animal never tamed and still close to the hearts of villagers.

Visitors now light lamps at the shrine to honour the animal’s memory. Many such memorials exist for bulls in Madurai.

“Those who haven’t even seen a bull in real life are preaching about animal welfare to people like us who have been living with cattle for generations. This is nonsense,” fumes farmer Muthu Raj.

But Peta, the animal rights group, wants the Jallikattu ban restored.

Nikunj Sharma, Peta India’s head of public policy, says: “Cruelty to animals and disregard for human life and safety is inherent in Jallikattu.”

As evidence, he points to video filmed earlier this year showing participants beating bulls and even allegedly biting their tails.

“Just as there can never be a middle ground that allows child abuse, there is no such thing as an acceptable level of causing unnecessary suffering to animals.”

Cattle trading rules are also a source of controversy.

“Well-connected mafia gangs are involved in this trade and no one is trying to stop it,” says S Nizamudeen, founder of the Coimbatore Cattle Care Welfare Trust.

One of the common complaints against activists is that they do not prevent the transportation of animals from Tamil Nadu to neighbouring Kerala.

Unlike most parts of India, slaughtering cattle for human consumption is allowed in Kerala. But many animals suffer or die avoidable deaths while being transported over long distances.

The rules say cattle should each be given at least two square metres of space – yet trucks are often crammed with several times the permissible limit.

“We often track down trucks loaded with 40 to 60 animals. But for the police and local administration this is not a priority. The courts let them go after charging them less than a $1 fine per animal,” says S Nizamudeen.

Increasing incidents of vigilante groups attacking cattle traders and anyone suspected of consuming beef are overshadowing moral and ethical arguments in favour of animal welfare.

“People who are carrying out attacks in the name of protecting cows are harming the animal rights movement,” says Dr S Chinny Krishna, former vice chairman of the Animal Welfare Board of India.

Over the past two decades animal rights groups successfully ended the practice of culling stray dogs by local authorities and stopped animals like elephants, tigers and lions performing in circuses. In some places they have stopped traders offering camel and horse rides and banned sporting spectacles involving animals and birds.

But, now some of these hard-won gains are in danger. In Tamil Nadu, cock fighting has restarted. The neighbouring state of Karnataka has seen a revival of buffalo races known as “kambala”, and Maharashtra has lifted its ban on bullock cart races.

“The floodgates have been opened. We are planning a massive public education campaign to win back popular support,” says Dr Krishna.

But while that battle goes on, grassroots volunteers must carry on their work with very little public backing.

BBC News – Kabul blast: Suicide attack near Afghan intelligence HQ

Kabul-Afghanistan, 25 December 2017. Ten people have been killed in a suicide bomb attack near the compound of Afghanistan’s intelligence agency in Kabul, officials say.

Another five people were injured when the attacker, who was on foot, blew himself up as agency employees were on their way to work.

The victims included women whose car was going past the area at the time of the blast, reports said.

Sunni Muslim militant group Islamic State said it was behind the attack.

The director of hospitals in Kabul said the number of casualties could rise.

The number of such bombings in Afghanistan has grown in recent months:

In October, at least 39 people were killed in an attack on a mosque belonging to the Shia Muslim minority.

In May, a huge bomb in the diplomatic quarter or Green Zone killed more than 150 people – the deadliest suicide attack since the Taliban were driven from power by US-led forces in 2001.

Last week, Islamic State (IS) also targeted a training centre belonging to the intelligence agency. The jihadist group has been active in Afghanistan since January 2015.

BBC News – Could Aung San Suu Kyi face Rohingya genocide charges?

Justin Rowlatt, South Asia correspondent

Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, is determined that the perpetrators of the horrors committed against the Rohingya face justice.

He’s the head of the UN’s watchdog for human rights across the world, so his opinions carry weight.

It could go right to the top, he doesn’t rule out the possibility that civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the head of the armed forces General Aung Min Hlaing, could find themselves in the dock on genocide charges some time in the future.

Earlier this month, Mr Zeid told the UN Human Rights Council that the widespread and systematic nature of the persecution of the Rohingya in Myanmar (also called Burma) meant that genocide could not be ruled out.

“Given the scale of the military operation, clearly these would have to be decisions taken at a high level,” said the high commissioner, when we met at the UN headquarters in Geneva for BBC Panorama.

That said, genocide is one of those words that gets bandied about a lot. It sounds terrible, the so-called “crime of crimes”. Very few people have ever been convicted of it.

The crime was defined after the Holocaust. Member countries of the newly founded United Nations signed a convention, defining genocide as acts committed with intent to destroy a particular group.

It is not Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein’s job to prove acts of genocide have been committed, only a court can do that. But he has called for an international criminal investigation into the perpetrators of what he has called the “shockingly brutal attacks” against the Muslim ethnic group who are mainly from northern Rakhine in Myanmar.

But the high commissioner recognised it would be a tough case to make: “For obvious reasons, if you’re planning to commit genocide you don’t commit it to paper and you don’t provide instructions.”

“The thresholds for proof are high,” he said. “But it wouldn’t surprise me in the future if a court were to make such a finding on the basis of what we see.”

By the beginning of December, nearly 650,000 Rohingya, around two thirds of the entire population, had fled Myanmar after a wave of attacks led by the army that began in late August.

Hundreds of villages were burned and thousands are reported to have been killed.

There is evidence of terrible atrocities being committed: massacres, murders and mass rapes, as I heard myself when I was in the refugee camps as this crisis began.

What clearly rankles the UN human rights chief is that he had urged Ms Suu Kyi, the de facto leader of Myanmar, to take action to protect the Rohingya six months before the explosion of violence in August.

He said he spoke to her on the telephone when his office published a report in February documenting appalling atrocities committed during an episode of violence that began in October 2016.

“I appealed to her to bring these military operations to an end,” he told me. “I appealed to her emotional standing… to do whatever she could to bring this to a close, and to my great regret it did not seem to happen.”

Ms Suu Kyi’s power over the army is limited, but Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein believes she should have done more to try and stop the military campaign.

He criticised her for failing to use the term “Rohingya”. “To strip their name from them is dehumanising to the point where you begin to believe that anything is possible,” he said, powerful language for a top UN official.

He thought Myanmar’s military was emboldened when the international community took no action against them after the violence in 2016. “I suppose that they then drew a conclusion that they could continue without fear,” he said.

“What we began to sense was that this was really well thought out and planned,” he told me.

The Myanmar government has said the military action was a response to terrorist attacks in August which killed 12 members of the security forces.

But BBC Panorama has gathered evidence that shows that preparations for the continued assault on the Rohingya began well before that.

We show that Myanmar had been training and arming local Buddhists. Within weeks of last year’s violence the government made an offer: “Every Rakhine national wishing to protect their state will have the chance to become part of the local armed police.”

“This was a decision made to effectively perpetrate atrocity crimes against the civilian population,” said Matthew Smith, chief executive of the human rights organisation Fortify Rights which has been investigating the build-up to this year’s violence.

That view is borne out by refugees in the vast camps in Myanmar who saw these volunteers in action, attacking their Rohingya neighbours and burning down their homes.

“They were just like the army, they had the same kind of weapons”, said Mohammed Rafique, who ran a successful business in Myanmar. “They were local boys, we knew them. When the army was burning our houses, torturing us, they were there.”

Meanwhile the Rohingya were getting more vulnerable in other ways.

By the summer food shortages were widespread in north Rakhine, and the government tightened the screws. The programme has learnt that from mid-August the authorities had cut off virtually all food and other aid to north Rakhine.

And the army brought in reinforcements. On 10 August, two weeks before the militant attacks, it was reported that a battalion had been flown in.

The UN human rights representative for Myanmar was so concerned she issued a public warning, urging restraint from the Myanmar authorities.

But when Rohingya militants launched attacks on 30 police posts and an army base, the military response was huge, systematic and devastating.

The BBC asked Aung San Suu Kyi and the head of the Myanmar armed forces for a response. But neither of them has replied.

Almost four months on from those attacks and Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein is concerned the repercussions of the violence are not yet over. He fears this “could just be the opening phases of something much worse”.

He worries jihadi groups could form in the huge refugee camps in Bangladesh and launch attacks in Myanmar, perhaps even targeting Buddhist temples. The result could be what he called a “confessional confrontation”, between Buddhists and Muslims.

It is a frightening thought, as the high commissioner acknowledged, but one he believes Myanmar isn’t taking seriously enough.

“I mean the stakes are so enormous,” he said. “This sort of flippant manner by which they respond to the serious concerns of the international community is really alarming.”

BBC News – Quetta’s Hazara: The community caged in its own city

Close to 1,000 victims of militant attacks are said to be buried in the cemetery of the Mari Abad district of Quetta. Some of the graves are clustered together, where family members have been buried side by side.

Secunder Kermani

Quetta-Balochistan-Pakistan, 12 December 2017. The district in south-west Pakistan is almost entirely populated by the minority Hazara community, which belongs to the Shia sect of Islam.

For decades they have been targeted by sectarian extremists using suicide bombings and targeted shootings.

Daoud Agha, president of the Balochistan Shia Conference, is defiant: “Children have been orphaned, wives have been widowed, but we will never abandon our faith”.

This year more than a dozen Hazaras have been killed in and around Quetta, but in the past the annual death toll was far higher. In 2013 more than 200 were killed.

But for the Hazara community the reduction of violence has come at a cost, its members are now effectively living in ghettos that many describe as a prison.

The response from the Pakistani authorities to the wave of violence against the Hazara has been to build walls blocking streets leading to their districts from elsewhere in the city, or place military checkpoints along them.

There are no longer attacks inside Hazara areas, but elsewhere in the city they have continued to be targeted.

As a result the Hazara community has been confined to two parts of the city; anyone who wants to enter them is questioned by soldiers. The checkpoints may be for the safety of the residents, but they aren’t popular.

‘Living in a cage’

Not far from the cemetery, on the Alamdar Road, once the site of many of the attacks, one resident, Haji Mohammed Musa, railed against the measures.

“Yes, violence here has come down, but we can’t go anywhere else in the city. We can’t do business any more. We’re living in a cage,” he says.

The community once dominated the main bazaar in the city, now nearly all those with shops there have relocated into one of the two Hazara districts.

Mr Musa, like many others, believes more should be done to target the militants responsible for the violence: “If a government can’t deal with a handful of terrorists, how can they call themselves a government?”

Leaving Mari Abad can prove deadly. Hazaras are said to be the descendants of Mongols, and are identifiable from their distinct facial features.

Who are the Hazara?

– Of Mongolian and Central Asian descent
– Legend has it they are descendants of Genghis Khan and his soldiers, who invaded Afghanistan in the 13th Century
– Mainly practise Shia Islam, in predominantly Sunni Afghanistan and Pakistan
– At least 600,000 live in Quetta, mostly migrants from Afghanistan
– Quetta is also on a key Shia pilgrimage route to Iran

In October, vegetable seller Abdul Ghafoor set off in a pick-up truck with five others to visit a wholesale market in the centre of the city.

He says he knew it could be dangerous but went because vegetables in Mari Abad are much more expensive than those elsewhere in Quetta.

He was the only one who returned home.

“Suddenly the car stopped and gunshots rang out. I tried to get up to see what was happening. That’s when I was hit. I fell unconscious.”

Abdul Ghafoor was shot five times but survived. Now, though, he says he will never leave Mari Abad again, nor will he allow his family to do so.

His two young sons have dropped out of school to work on his stall while he recovers.

They’re part of a generation of Hazaras that community leaders fear will grow up never mixing with other ethnic groups living in the same city. The number of Hazara students in Quetta’s universities, located outside Mari Abad, is said to have fallen dramatically.

Escape in parkour

One outlet for the frustration felt by many young Hazaras is sport.

Parkour, a form of urban gymnastics, is growing increasingly popular.

Ali Reza, 16, says it gives him a feeling of freedom.

“Parents are afraid of losing their children, they won’t permit us to go anywhere. We are trapped in a prison. [Parkour] makes me forget all my worries, I feel like I have wings,” he says.

Ali Reza lives in Quetta’s only other Hazara district, Hazara Town. The community is split between these two enclaves, and many fear they will be targeted if they try to travel from one to the other.

Ali Reza and his friends do visit Mari Abad – they like taking photos of each other with the mountains surrounding the district in the background, but they don’t tell their families.

Another of his friends, whose father was murdered in a targeted shooting, says wistfully: “If security was better we could invite guys from other communities to join us and learn parkour too. But at the moment it’s not safe enough to even meet them.”

BBC News – Sikh activist Jagtar Singh Johal filmed in police custody

The brother of Scottish Sikh activist Jagtar Singh Johal has condemned a video filmed in police custody

Mr Johal, from Dumbarton, has been held in Punjab since 4 November, accused of conspiracy to murder prominent right-wing Hindu leaders.

The 30-year-old has also been accused of involvement in the murder of a Christian priest.

Mr Johal’s lawyer has previously accused the police of torturing his client, who denies all the allegations.

In the latest development, a video of Mr Johal in custody has been screened on Indian TV.

Gurpreet Singh Johal said he was “shocked” when he saw the footage and claimed it jeopardises his brother’s right to a fair trial.

He told BBC Scotland: “The only thing I can see from the video is that it seems like a hostile situation.

“Allegedly there is a confession but I don’t see a confession there.

“There is nothing there.

“He is just saying that he has translated some articles for a website.”

He also questioned how anyone managed to film his brother while he is in custody and fears he has been “found guilty without a trial”.

He also urged the UK government to do more to help Mr Johal.

The Scottish government has previously said it is “deeply concerned” about Mr Johal’s detention.

Punjab Police have denied the torture allegations.

BBC News – How the Babri mosque destruction shaped India

On this day, 25 years ago, right-wing Hindu mobs razed to the ground the 16th Century Babri mosque, claiming that it was built on the site of a temple destroyed by Muslim rulers. The BBC’s former India correspondent, Mark Tully, traces the rise of the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party since that event.

On 6 December 1992, in the northern Indian town of Ayodhya, I saw a historic mosque, standing on ground believed to be the birthplace of the god Rama, demolished by riotous Hindu nationalists.

It was the culmination of a six-year campaign spearheaded by the Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, to destroy the mosque and replace it with a temple.

A crowd of some 15,000 that had assembled there suddenly surged forward, broke through the police cordons defending the mosque, swarmed over the building and started tearing it down.

As I watched the last cordon collapse and the police walk away with their wicker shields held above their heads for protection from the stones raining down on them, with an officer pushing his men aside to get out first, I realised I was witnessing a historic event – the most significant triumph for Hindu nationalism since independence and the gravest setback to secularism.

Political scientist Zoya Hasan has called the demolition of the mosque “the most blatant act of defiance of law in modern India”.

She sees it as “a watershed for Indian nationhood”.

But on the evening of the destruction, Ram Dutt Tripathi, the BBC’s correspondent in Uttar Pradesh, the state in which Ayodhya is situated, was sanguine.

He said the Hindu nationalists had “killed the hen which laid the golden egg” by demolishing the mosque, arguing that for them the presence of the mosque on what they believed was Rama’s birthplace was the emotive issue, not the desire to build a temple there.

He maintained that the fervour of the Ram Temple movement would decline now that the mosque was no longer there.

At first it seemed that Ram Dutt had got it wrong. Blood was shed in Hindu-Muslim riots in different parts of India. The worst riots were in Mumbai, where an estimated 900 people were killed and the police were accused of siding with Hindus.

But the riots subsided and the campaign to build a temple on the site of the mosque in Ayodhya lost momentum.

The BJP had hoped the demolition of the mosque would consolidate Hindu votes in its favour but the party did not succeed in forming governments in three states where assembly elections were held in 1993. One of the states was Uttar Pradesh.

In the three general elections held in the second half of the nineties, the BJP did gain steadily and, in 1999, it was able to form a stable coalition government.

But the BJP’s rise to power in the centre for the first time owed a great deal to the turmoil in its main opposition, the Congress party.

The former Congress PM, Rajiv Gandhi, was assassinated in 1991, leaving the party without a leader from the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, which had held it together since independence.

The only possible candidate, Rajiv’s apolitical, Italian-born widow, Sonia, refused to become involved in politics.

The elderly, long-serving minister in the central government, P V Narasimha Rao, was chosen to head a minority government in 1991.

His failure to protect the mosque was used by his rivals to undermine him by alleging that he was a Hindu nationalist rather than a secular Congress man, and the party was divided and in disarray when the time came to fight the 1996 election.

But in 1999, when the BJP did form a stable coalition, neither Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee nor his powerful number two, Lal Krishna Advani, believed Ayodhya had created such a large Hindu vote that they could set about implementing their party’s Hindu nationalist, or Hindutva, agenda, and reviving the Ayodhya temple issue.

They believed the BJP still needed to be centrist, rather than a right-wing nationalist party, if their coalition was to hold together and get enough support from diverse sections of the population to win the next election.

Mr Advani once said to me: “Hinduism is so varied you can’t actually appeal to Hindus in the name of religion.”

Many in the BJP believe the party would not have lost the 1994 election if they had consolidated Hindu votes under the Hindu nationalism banner.

But that defeat was mainly due to the BJP’s faulty choice of allies and Sonia Gandhi managing to weld the Congress party together again and breathe new life into it when she agreed to take over the leadership. Under her, Congress governed for 10 years.

Perhaps the Ayodhya incident, significant though it was, didn’t create a Hindu vote that changed the political landscape of India.

Maybe that watershed has now been reached with the victory of the BJP in the 2014 election, it gave the party its first absolute majority in parliament and a prime minister (Narendra Modi) who hasn’t hesitated to actively promote Hindu nationalism and has started to implement his party’s Hindutva agenda.

For instance, there is his government’s ban on buying cows for slaughter in animal markets, there is the promotion of Hindi, and there are the appointments of Hindutva sympathisers to top posts in educational and cultural organisations.

Although Mr Modi constantly proclaims his aim is to develop India for all Indians, Muslims are barely represented in BJP governments in the centre and in the states.

The chief minister Mr Modi has selected to govern India’s most populous and politically important state, Uttar Pradesh, is renowned for his hostility to Muslims.

But Mr Modi was not elected primarily on a Hindu vote.

The main plank of his election campaign was the promise to develop and change India.

The success of that campaign owes a lot to the fact that the Congress was back in disarray. There are already signs that he will moderate his ban on cow slaughter because of the effect it is having on the farmers’ vote.

Hinduism remains a very varied religion and India is a very diverse country with an ancient, pluralist tradition.

So it’s still not clear in my mind that Mr Modi will reach or even intends to reach the watershed, which would mark the end of secular India and the creation of a Hindu nation.

BBC News – Padmavati: India’s Supreme Court rejects bid to block Bollywood epic

New Delhi, 28 November 2017. India’s top court has rejected an appeal by a lawyer to block the global release of Bollywood film Padmavati.

The film, which tells the story of a 14th Century Hindu queen and a Muslim ruler, has sparked nationwide protests by Hindu and caste groups.

The lawyer who brought the petition had previously failed in an attempt to prevent the film’s release in India.

The film cannot be released in India until censors have cleared it. No date for release anywhere has yet been set.

Padmavati tells the story of a 14th Century Hindu queen belonging to the high Rajput caste and the Muslim ruler Alauddin Khilji. Bollywood stars Deepika Padukone and Ranveer Singh play the lead roles.

Hindu groups and a Rajput caste organisation allege that the movie, directed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali, depicts an intimate romantic scene between the two characters, although the producers of the film deny this.

The Supreme Court on Tuesday dismissed a petition by the lawyer, M L Sharma, to delay its release abroad. It said such a move would amount to a pre-judgement of the Indian film censor.

The judges said those in public office should not criticise the film, as this too would erode the job of the censor board.

Rumours of a scene in the film of the Muslim king dreaming of a romantic tryst with the Hindu queen have enraged many, including the Rajput Karnik Sena, a fringe caste group that has called for the film to be banned.

The group had disrupted shooting and one member had slapped Bhansali on the set earlier this year. Others vandalised cinemas and threatened to chop off Padukone’s nose, referring to an incident in another epic, Ramayana, where a character has her nose cut off as punishment.

The group also held protests against the film in several states, including Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana, which are ruled by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.

Rajput community members have burned effigies of Bhansali.

Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje has said the film should not be released until “necessary changes are made so that sentiments of any community are not hurt”.

A regional leader of the BJP also announced a reward of nearly $1.5m (£1.3m) for anyone beheading Bhansali and Padukone.

BBC News – The crisis facing India’s Supreme Court

Soutik Biswas, India correspondent

New Delhi, 17 November 2017. India’s Supreme Court has been witness recently to some extraordinary developments over the handling of alleged corruption by a retired high court judge.

There have been open differences between its most senior judges over petitions seeking an independent investigation into corruption charges involving a blacklisted medical college.

Federal investigators had accused retired judge Ishrat Masroor Quddusi, who was arrested last September and is now on bail, of trying to secure court orders to reopen the college.

Last week, the top court saw stormy exchanges between one petitioner, Prashant Bhushan, himself a prominent lawyer, and Chief Justice Dipak Misra, after the former openly charged the senior judge with conflict of interest.

It all brought into sharp relief judicial indiscipline and growing mistrust among India’s top judges.

This is not good news for one of the world’s most powerful courts. In an unprecedented chorus of criticism, commentators said last week’s events revealed “deep distrust at the top” of the court, raised “very serious questions about its future” and underlined the collective failure of judges and lawyers to “treat the faith of the people in the institution with the respect it deserves”.

Pratap Bhanu Mehta, a leading academic and columnist, believes the top court is “facing its worst crisis of credibility since the Emergency”, the darkest hour in independent India’s history when civil liberties were suspended and the court buckled under pressure from then prime minister Indira Gandhi’s government.

He could be right.

“During the Emergency the judges were browbeaten and weakened by the government. What we are seeing now is an internal crisis,” Alok Prasanna Kumar, a fellow of Vidhi Legal Policy, a Bangalore-based independent legal policy advisory group, told me.

“Judges, who are supposed to be protecting the institution, don’t seem to trust each other. This is the hollowing out of a great institution.”

India’s Supreme Court is the final court of appeal, has constitutional powers and is a significant public institution. It is also one of the busiest: in 2015, it disposed off more than 47,000 cases, but still had a backlog of nearly 60,000 cases until February last year.

Fierce scrutiny

Many say the crisis in the top court mirrors the declining faith of the people in the justice system. Many Indians don’t see judges as neutral and honest any more. Hearings can go on for years or even decades, there are some 30 million cases pending in district courts alone.

The number of civil cases filed in all courts has steadily declined over the last decade even as India’s population and economy have grown. More people appear to be settling their disputes through their elected lawmakers or local police.

Over the last decade, say experts, even the higher courts have begun to look flawed.

“Lower courts were compromised, but the high courts and Supreme Court were seen to be above suspicion. No longer. That’s the scary part,” says Shylashri Shankar, a fellow with the Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research and author of a book on the Supreme Court.

As the top court has come under fierce scrutiny by the media and independent legal reforms groups, the public backlash against some of its judgements has been rising. In the past year alone, the court has been in the news for all the wrong reasons.

Among the controversies:

– In January, the federal government bypassed a 2014 judgement banning a bullfighting sport under an Indian law aimed at preventing cruelty to animals, and allowed the events to resume after public protest against the ban.

– In June, the court stripped a senior sitting high court judge of his judicial powers and sent him to prison after he was convicted of contempt after sending a letter to the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, in which he urged action against the judges.

– In December, following protests by hotels and restaurants, the court was forced to ease an earlier order banning all liquor shops to shut down along state and national highways. And in November, much to the chagrin of many moviegoers, the court ordered all cinemas to play the national anthem before a film is screened.

Then there’s mounting criticism about the way the court has stonewalled attempts to bring it under the right to information law.

Critics are also are discomfited by the absolute powers the court enjoys in appointing and transferring judges through a largely opaque collegium system, comprising five of the most senior judges including the chief justice, which appoints judges to the supreme court and two dozen high courts.

Political pressures

There’s also much chatter about “unwritten” regional and gender quotas in appointment of top judges, and an alleged “cosy relationship” between the judges and the lawyers of the court.

Judges, say many, are also vulnerable to political pressures because many take up prestigious government jobs after retirement. One reason could be their relatively modest pay: salaries of judges have been hiked only four times in the past 67 years, and even then at a lower rate than the salaries of lawmakers.

At the same time, there is little doubt that India’s top judges are overworked.

When Dr Shankar was researching her book on the Supreme Court, she found a single high court judge was hearing some 100 cases, including adjournments, every day.

A serving high court judge told a colleague recently that he had heard 300 cases in a single day. A Supreme Court judge, during his tenure over four to six years, was hearing some 6,000 cases alone.

Many feel that the relatively short tenures of the judges, less than four years on an average for a top court judge and about two years for the chief justice, means that they don’t serve long enough or gain a “sense of ownership” of the court and provide robust leadership and continuity.

“It is not possible,” says Alok Prasanna Kumar, “to take charge of an institution so quickly and easily.”

Divided court

The court’s judgments have been a mix of the liberal and the conservative. It controversially outlawed gay sex, but also recognised transgender people as a third gender. It whimsically ruled that national anthem should be played in cinema theatres, but, in a landmark judgement, also ruled that citizens have a fundamental right to privacy.

In the end, many say, the recent developments point to a divided court and tension about the judiciary’s role in a democracy where other institutions have become corroded.

The challenge is to ensure that the judiciary remains accountable to the principles of democracy, Dr Shankar says.

“Judiciary,” she says, “cannot be above democracy.”