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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 25, June 6, 2009

At Home and in the Neighbourhood


Saturday 6 June 2009, by SC

With Cyclone Aila having caused widespread devastation in south Bengal in particular, the Union Government deemed it necessary to assure the West Bengal Government that it would provide a Rs 1000-crore cyclone relief package directly to the State and not through the panchayats controlled by the Trinamul Congress in the region. This is being interpreted in CPM circles as a rebuff to the TMC chief and Railway Minister, Mamata Banerjee, who is justifiably irked by this development given the CPM-run State administration’s past record in as well as approach to the distribution of relief.

However, what cannot be denied, especially in the light of CM Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s incredible harassment, due to popular frenzy, twice in a span of 72 hours, is the fact that the credibility of the State administration has touched a new low on account of the government’s delay in mobilising the relief effort. That is precisely why public anger has reached hitherto unprecedented heights. This doubtless lowers the stature and authority of Buddhadeb and his team.

Meanwhile history has been made in Parliament with Meira Kumar’s unanimous election as the first woman Speaker of the Lok Sabha. What was equally significant was her thanksgiving speech, that is, maiden address as the Speaker, on June 3—therein she pointed out that for the vast majority of people (mostly Dalits and tribals) political freedom was meaningless unless their standard of living was raised and they enjoyed equal opportunities; at the same time she asserted that her elevation to the post of the Lok Sabha Speaker testified to India paying more than mere lip service to women’s empowerment while expressing the hope that this would pave the way for unanimity on all issues relating to women. The hint was unmistakable—passage of the Women’s Reservation Bill that has been hanging fire for an inordinately long time; the issue was aptly highlighted by several speakers felicitating her on her election to the office.

Lately the news from Pakistan has been disturbing, to say the least: Jamaat-ud-Dawa chief Hafiz Mohammad Saeed’s release after six months (he was put under house arrest invoking a law for preventive detention in December 2008) following an order of the Lahore High Court to that effect clearly brings out the Islamabad Government’s reluctance to seriously pursue the case against him despite there being irrevocable evidence of his role in planning and executing the 11/26 Mumbai terror attacks. The prosecution case was deliberately weak and the judiciary was left with no option but to release him even though the government’s own lawyers had claimed during the hearing that they possessed proof of his links with the Al-Qaeda and Taliban (which were inexplicably not furnished).

But what is more worrisome is that shortly after his release not only did Saeed pledge to continue the Kashmir jihad, no less a person than the Pakistan PM, Yusuf Raza Gilani, issued statements decrying the “occupying forces” in Kashmir and reiterating that the Kashmir issue held the key to durable peace in the region. Subsequently bowing to international pressure the Punjab province’s Law Minister, Rana Sanaullah, promised to move the court against the ruling to free Saeed but Islamabad’s reaffirmation of the Kashmir rhetoric gave sufficient indication of Pakistan’s intention to run with the hare and hunt with the hound.

In the meantime there are reports suggesting New Delhi changing its stance vis-à-vis Islamabad and “voluntarily” engaging with it. However, these reports also claim that India “will firm up its stand upon gauging the Obama Administration’s India policy” in South Asia during US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to this country next month. The legitimate question is: if it is “voluntary” engagement then why should it be linked to Hillary’s trip?

This is not to suggest that New Delhi should not resume talks with Islamabad. But Indo-Pak negotiations should not take place under pressure from or the directive of any foreign power, howsoever powerful. This directly impinges on our independent foreign policy course which has come under siege ever since the Manmohan Singh dispensation decided to conclude the Indo-US civilian nuclear deal.

June 4 S.C.

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