India’s magnanimity behind visa liberalisation drive: View from across the LoC

Retired Lt. Colonel Abdul Rashid from Rawalpindi argues that given the international positions of India and Pakistan and the clouds of suspicion over both nations, the Pakistani state should be happy the process of rapprochement is continuing via the bilateral visa liberalization drive.

Indian Foreign Minister SM Krishna met his Pakistani counterpart Hina Rabbani Khar on the 9th of September to sign a new visa liberalization agreement

Liberalization of visa regime between India and Pakistan in spite of the atmosphere of secrecy which has drawn an iron curtain in the relations of two countries, is a revolutionary development.

We have been trying all kinds of belligerent means to solve our problems with India for decades. When, at the end of the day, the reality dawns that only peaceful exercise is likely to lend positive results, we started harping on the litany of solution of Kashmir and other major problems. By doing that we placed the cart before the horse, not realizing that the treatment of a chronic malaise lies in removing the root causes and not by starting from the top. By promoting mutual trade and people to people contacts, a realization is bound to dawn on the leaderships of both the countries that amicable resolution of all outstanding problems, through peaceful means, is in the larger interest of both the countries and the people.

What is Kashmir problem? The problem is division of families and populace at large. If the artificial barriers are removed and free interaction is allowed between the people living on both sides of the LOC, the problem would stand resolved to a great extent. Only the question of the style of governance is left which hopefully will be resolved by the people themselves.

While I was getting hyper in glee on the inking of visa regime by the foreign minister of India and the interior minister of Pakistan, I was shocked to note the media reaction in Pakistan which argued that the liberalisation move was delaying bigger issues for a future date. I don’t understand how we acquired the quick fix mentality while nothing so far has been fixed on long term basis?

We have to keep in view the relative positions of Pakistan viz a viz India in the international equation. In economic and diplomatic terms India is a regional power with a significant clout to influence global equilibrium. Pakistan, as opposed to that, is in the worst economic straits, political instability and, to top it all, is engaged in a life and death struggle fighting terrorism. In the backdrop of such conditions any concession accruing from India should be considered as a bonus.

The origin of all terrorist attacks taking place in India is traced back to Pakistan. Despite that the process of rapprochement is moving forward. We must give due credit to Indian leadership for their statesmanship. The kind of havoc we are perpetrating on our minorities is in full glare of the global media. With such a climate, the Indian government’s agreement to liberalize visas is just magnanimity on the part of the country’s leadership.

To get positive results on problems with India all our institutions will have to inculcate the habit of some plain speaking to build the required trust for such matters. Positive results never accrue in a trust deficit regime.

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Chinese dissidents “strolling” toward democracy, online and off

Ayushman Jamwal

ImageGandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. built movements strong enough to confront hostile, often violent governments. While the world reveres their contributions to peace and justice, those working for democracy and human rights in China are envious. Both leaders, compared to their counterparts in China today, had far more political space to gather, strategize, and communicate with the masses. But even under their own difficult circumstances, Chinese activists have devised novel civil-resistance campaigns, both in cyberspace and in the streets, fomenting what has come to be called the “Jasmine Revolution.”

One of the leading figures in this struggle is 28-year-old Gaius Gracchus (as he is known online). After being imprisoned in China for speaking out and seeking asylum in the United States, Gaius studied classics at Columbia University. He’s now president of the Chinese Youth Foundation (CYF), whose members are located both in China and internationally—in Paris, Seoul, Hong Kong, Australia, and the United States. I recently spoke to him about what he’s doing to stay one step ahead of a government determined to stop him.

“I want to promote social justice and community cohesion, and prepare the next generation of intellectuals who can champion human rights in China,” he explains.

ImageThe social conditions in China are rapidly deteriorating. “People in my generation cannot find jobs, mortgages, or housing,” says Gaius. “Inflation is very high. Prosecuted people appeal in vain. Very few have access to good quality education and healthcare, and the state security apparatus is violently repressive. A culture of ‘you get it if you can pay for it’ is dominant in China.” People across the country yearn for change and are constantly venting their anger. Gaius has learned that, in 2010 alone, there were over 320,000 incidents of civil unrest across the country. Security forces often subdue such unrest violently.

Gaius has no confidence that scattered protests can deliver real change. “The random incidents exhibit no holistic strategies in tackling the Chinese government, only a concern for personal and communal welfare,” he believes. “It highlights the fragmented nature of Chinese society across cultural, regional, and class lines, which is a major challenge to any strategic disobedience initiative.”

ImageThe CYF aims to bridge these divides by branding such mass incidents with the symbolic identity of the Jasmine Revolution, using articles and imagery on a variety of websites. They’re deliberately borrowing the language of “Jasmine Revolution” from the successful uprising earlier last year in Tunisia. The effort has met with some success. A large scale strike by truck drivers in Shanghai last year was tagged online in this way by the CYF. The government gave into the demands of the drivers within three days, reducing working hours and increasing wages.

ImageOne novel tactic the CYF employs are weekly online “strolling” actions, announced on its blog at molihuaxingdong.blogspot.com. “The strolling announcements consist of a round-up and analysis of the latest protest incidents in the country, supplemented by pictures and videos, along with the designation of a ‘strolling’ site,” Gaius says. When a strolling announcement is branded as part of the Jasmine Revolution, the government sends police units to the designated location to suppress it. What they find is a crowd of people wandering around a marketplace or a square, minding their own business. Government resources are wasted through such deployments, Gaius believes, making the regime look foolish. Afterward, news of the incident circulates on the web and becomes part of daily conversation in China. According to Gaius, in addition to the unpopularity of the government, the tactic works to undermine the perception of authority of the regime.

ImageThe CYF also employs investigative journalism as one of its tactics. “My colleagues and I use our connections with local authorities, journalists, and activists to create reports on the practices of government officials and institutions for anonymous online publication,” Gaius explains. A report by his group exposed the involvement of authorities in the Sichuan province in an embezzlement scam, where money was being siphoned from a redevelopment fund established after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. (Ai Weiwei, the artist recently released from custody, also helped publicize these findings.) A few days after the release of the report, an investigation was initiated by the Chinese Central Committee on Discipline and Investigation that found three mayors in the province guilty of corruption.

ImageEven as the Great Firewall of China prevents most internet users inside the country from seeing anti-government websites, the bureaucracy behind it is unable to keep up with young tech-savvy activists like Gaius. Gaius and his colleagues use a Google application which constantly generates a unique code that allows them to securely access and manage their emails and websites. But the government is also constantly revising its countermeasures.

“After the Shanghai protest, truck drivers in the cities of Ningbo and Suzhou went on strike hoping for similar results,” he says, “Even after they were tagged online, the government accepted some demands but then dispatched the police to infiltrate the protest groups and arrest the organisers.” The regime also uses alienation tactics against individual protesters, denying them job opportunities and social services, even arresting them with accusations of being foreign agents. “The Chinese regime’s iron fist control of social and economic affairs is the biggest challenge to any widespread and multi-faceted campaign for democracy,” said Gaius.

The Chinese Youth Foundation’s campaign is balanced on a knife’s edge. While on the one hand its efforts have been unable to initiate a widespread and self-sustaining national movement, on the other, the Chinese government is stepping up its efforts to bridge the political and technical gap. Gaius believes that support from international governments and educational institutions will be vital to their success. “Proper training in protest strategies for core activists and encouragement from Western leaders,” he says, “can together help drive Chinese citizens to shed their fear and collectively become agents of change.”

Defending the Right to Offend

Ayushman Jamwal

We can be proud of many things about our country. As someone who relishes seeing the dynamics of democracy constantly unfold, I am proud that India pulls off a multi-party system given the size and diversity of our nation. More than that, I am proud that Indian citizens to a great extent can exercise their freedom of expression given the highly sentimental and aggressive nature of political and social life in the country. Yet, as I have written earlier, that freedom is elusive in our country primarily because political convenience tends to determine its scope. There are plenty of cases in India where this universal freedom ceases to exist as an apolitical right, being irresponsibly

Aseem Trivedi

slapped with serious charges like sedition or the incitement of hatred. Activists like Binayak Sen who demanded the state give tribals of the Red belt their Constitutional rights, and writers like Arundati Roy who regularly invoked the political narrative of a free Kashmir, have been branded traitors for their sentiments and views from time to time. The recent case of Aseem Trivedi, a cartoonist charged with sedition for ridiculing the national symbol of the 3 lions and then freed after nationwide outrage ensued, is another unfortunate indictment of the freedom we are supposedly guaranteed.

Sentiments, ideology, belief, symbols all are human constructions as fragile and imperfect as their creators. In my opinion, similar to people, they cannot be exempt from questioning, criticism, even ridicule. There is a very clear difference between criticism and hate speech. It is the foolishness and irresponsibility of the critic to ever espouse hate and defend it as criticism. Any belief or ideology that counter the universal human values of freedom and equality need to be subject to question. Similarly, I believe belief comes with responsibility as well. Global faiths, and the constitutions of secular nations are morally potent doctrines, and those who espouse hate, crackdown on freedom and commit violence in their name are pseudo- believers, believers plagued by an insecurity of identity, even an insidious nature. To them, the violent defence of a

Thou shalt chill!

belief outweighs the need for self reflection within a doctrine of faith causing a constant confusion of criticism with hate. In my opinion, if one’s identity is associated with an ideology, that conviction should exist beyond the spatial temporal boundaries of the world for the individual to be truly called a proponent of that belief. In that case, the criticism of a name or a symbol can never shake the conviction of identity. I was discussing the case of the Danish cartoons with my friend from Pakistan one day. He criticized the action, saying the freedom of another individual ends when his begins. All I asked him was, in what way did the negative expressions of the cartoons shake his faith in Islam? Similarly, how does a youtube video threaten the faith of half the Muslim world who have been up in arms over the last few days?

I believe India is a great country, and a cartoon ridiculing a national symbol can never shake my faith. Its ridicule is nothing compared to traitorous political corruption, where the cartoon serves as nothing more than a potent medium to express that sentiment. Those guilty of political corruption should in fact be charged with sedition for betraying the state, not a cartoonist using shock rhetoric to highlight a crucial issue, like all artists have done through the ages. The charge of sedition against Aseem Trivedi is disgraceful and a betrayal of our libertarian heritage.

The health of a democracy is derived from how diverse and competitive its idea economy is. All narratives, the liberal, the moral, the realist and the insidious must clash with each other without the fear of being gagged by authorities. Our national doctrine can only be strengthened if the responsible narrative emerges victorious from that clash. Political figures and thought leaders must battle for the victory of those narratives in the public sphere and not concede defeat by suppressing expression. The constantly recycled argument that people get negatively influenced is not valid as it assumes the citizenry is stupid, and cannot perceive the truth behind rhetoric or expression. The argument sets a poor precedent, making something as serious as sedition an easy weapon against the public sphere.

I commend the Indian news media and my fellow citizens for expressing outrage at Aseem Trivedi’s sedition charge and creating the pressure which led to his release. It is evident we truly cherish the freedom of expression. Our democracy is strengthened by our actions. While we can’t perfectly mitigate a politics of convenience; we can speak up against it so that such actions do not occur in our name. In the words of Dwight Eisenhower, “Politics ought to be the part-time profession of every citizen who would protect the rights and privileges of free people and who would preserve what is good and fruitful in our national heritage”. We must continuously exercise liberties and our right to vote to hold the government accountable for ever flirting with any tenet of autocracy.

Latest in the American elections on US Watch 2012

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Stay tuned to the latest in the American elections on US Watch 2012,

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An Honest Soliloquy

Ayushman Jamwal

They say I am powerful,
They say I am eloquent,
They say I am wealthy,

Yet I am feeble,
I do not believe,
I am surrounded by the mute, the inanimate,
For I am made of baser things.

They chant my name in houses of power,
They tell this nation I can save them,
But I cannot stand tall on their abject principles,
I am a bitter paymaster,
For I am made of baser things.

I have poached on apathy,
Nourished myself with contempt and despair,
As I peer into the twilight of my years,
I am unworthy the benevolence of redemption,
For I am made of baser things.

I cannot stand tall with the selfless,
I cannot share their company,
I cannot be an architect of dreams,
I will only be a fleeting memory,
For I am made of baser things.

In this palace I sit alone,                                                                                                                         
I fade as my stained glory enjoys its immortality,
A constant reminder of a sordid legacy,
For I am made of baser things.

Could conviction have saved me from bitterness?
Could a coat of dreams have given me life?
Towards the edge I have inherited only doubt,
For I am made of baser things.

My enemy sleeps peacefully  in the cold outside,
Blanketed by the warmth of his belief,
His life is sustained by a million payers,
His dreams painted by their hopes.
What is he made of, I do not know,
For I am made of baser things.

I shall perish in this ivory shell,                                                                                
As they curse my name outside,
Its too late to calculate another fate,
For I am made of baser things.

Let them sing the songs of change,                                                                           
Let them persevere for something special,
I am not meant to live in their world,
For I am made of baser things.

There will be no gazes at my tomb,
No honest, even a fleeting remembrance,
I will crumble in the shadow of history.
For I am made of baser things.

The deadliest expression of hate

Ayushman Jamwal

In the 21st century, cultural cohesion is an inevitable effect of the world becoming more inter-connected. Particularly in Western cities, all national, racial, religious elements of the world have found their place, mixed in and grown, becoming part of the social and political fabrics of society. However, like any society, with cultural cohesion comes cultural friction. Poverty, ignorance, marginalization, all play a role in creating such friction, marking eclectic societies with communal neighbourhoods, and both subtle and vocal elements of identity politics. We can see examples around the world, like American White Supremist groups, the English Defence League of Britain, the National Front of France and the Dutch Party for Freedom amongst others. These groups have had scuffles with immigrants, chant hate speech, hold rallies, and contest elections on right wing mandates. On the other hand, in the United States, such sentiments regularly result in fatal incidents. Four days after the 9/11 attacks, Balbir Singh Sodhi, a 49 year old Sikh, is shot and killed outside the gas station he owned in Mesa, Arizona. On the 20th of May 2003, Avtar Singh, a 52 year old Sikh truck driver was shot in his 18 wheeler in Phoenix while he was waiting for his son. The deadly shootings at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin this month by Wade Michael Page, a former US soldier and a self proclaimed Neo Nazi, which killed six people, is a shocking display of the severity of such crimes. But if there is a common social evil permeating all such multi-communal societies, why are cases in the US so severe?

The cases in the United State are not distinct because of hate. There is a bigger problem, something hate crimes marginalise, but yet it remains the most dangerous means of expressing it – guns. In the past month, the United States has been rocked by three deadly shooting incidents including the one in Wisconsin. Just three weeks earlier, James Holmes  killed fourteen people at a screening of the Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colorado and recently, a shooting at a Texas University killed three people including a police officer. On Friday, another deadly incident took place in Wisconsin. Dalbir Singh, an elderly Sikh store owner in Milwaukee was shot dead as he tried to stop a robbery in his store. In my opinion, above all, these incidents are a shocking indictment of the lax gun control laws in the United States.

For decades American gun lobbyists and manufacturers have taken shelter under the Second Amendment of the Bill of Rights which guarantees citizens “the right to bear arms”. Under that banner they have successfully launched PR campaigns and lobbied politicians to promote and sustain lax gun regulation. Recent statistics from The American Department of Health and Human Services reported in the Economic Times show that Americans own over 300 million guns while over a 11,000 firearm related homicides take place every year. The United States used to have a federal ban on assault weapons in place which expired in 2004. The ban has not been renewed by Congress till date because the definition of ‘assault weapons’ is still up for debate. In the state of Colorado, where James Holmes went on a rampage last month, there is no limit on the purchase of military grade assault weapons and high capacity magazines. As the Colorado incident unfolded, it was discovered that Holmes was able to easily purchase 6,000 rounds of ammunition online and carried out the crime armed with two .40-caliber Glock handguns, a Remington 12-gauge shotgun and a Smith & Wesson AR-15 assault-style rifle. NBC news later reported that the weapons were legally bought from the local stores of two national chains – Gander Mountain Guns and Bass Pro Shop in May.

Gun sales require necessary background checks; however the American system and its parameters are far from adequate and never up for reform. The current National Instant Criminal Background Check System primarily detects criminal records, missing important red flags like mental health. For those warnings, American states are responsible for updating data, which many fail to do. A recent study at George Mason University showed the system can only identify one seventh of the nearly 3 million people who have been involuntarily committed to mental health institutions. It cited that Seung-Hui Cho, the shooter in the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting incident suffered from mental illness and was red flagged on the state’s list but was not on the national list because the authorities failed to update the national database. According to the research, James Holmes would not even be on the list despite reportedly having a mental illness as he was never institutionalized or clinically diagnosed.

American citizens have the right to drive a car, and it can be used as a weapon. Besides being less deadly than a handgun, to acquire a car there are strict rules for testing, insurance and maneuvering. It is completely absurd that acquiring a gun is much less difficult. The above cases highlight the necessity of not only an efficient system but stricter rules controlling the volume of sales and assessing the ability and state of customers. One can see the dismal nature of American gun laws when compared to the laws of other Western Nations, where the strict controls mitigate such tragedies from occurring and expedite effective policing by law enforcement officials.

In Great Britain, when a citizen applies for a gun license, police officers check the Police National Computer for a criminal record and speak to the applicant’s General Practitioner for evidence of alcoholism, drug abuse or signs of personality disorder. Police chiefs can revoke certificates if they think the holder can no longer be trusted. In the period of 2008-09, almost 1,300 certificates were revoked by police authorities. Moreover, The Violent Crime Reduction Act of 2006 declared the sale and transfer of air weapons by mail order an offence, as well as the sale of primers, and realistic imitation firearms. In Canada, the Canadian Firearms Registry contains information on all registered firearms and on firearms license holders. The registry is currently accessed more than 14,000 times a day by police authorities. Similar to getting a driver’s license, to be eligible to apply a gun license in Canada, applicants must pass the Canadian Firearms Safety Course consisting of written and practical assessments.

Even with three successive tragic incidents of gun violence, it is ironic that both Republicans and Democrats seem uninterested in addressing lax gun regulation especially in an election year.

Barack Obama

Mitt Romney

After the Colorado shootings President Obama sidelined the problem, giving an eloquent yet patronising address about the value of life. He said, “If there’s anything to take away from this tragedy it’s the reminder that life is very fragile. And what matters at the end of the day is how we choose to treat one another and how we love one another.” Beyond the proverbial sound bite, Obama has left it to Congress to decide on reforming existing gun regulation. On the other hand, the Republican party seems the most estranged from the main problem. After a shooting near the Texas A&M University this week which left three people dead, Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney while campaigning in Miami said, “This is not a matter of the weapon that’s used…It’s the matter of individuals and the choices they make. … I don’t think gun laws are the answer.”

Carolyn McCarthy

What are the political constraints preventing stronger gun regulation? Why can’t the country’s political class responsibly achieve the level of regulation in other Western nations let alone is neighbour Canada? According to the American gun reform camp, the challenge is the nature of politics itself. Carolyn McCarthy, a member of Congress from Long Island New York is a champion of gun control legislation. Her husband was one of the victims of the 1993 Long Island Rail Road massacre when a shooter opened fire on people at the Merlin Avenue station. McCarthy was a nurse back then, but when her Congress representative voted against an assault-weapons ban, she ran against him. She won and has been in Congress ever since. Last year she introduced HR 308, the Large Capacity Ammunition Feeding Device Act, a bill aimed at banning the sale or transfer of large-capacity clips. The Bill is still being deliberated in Congress, yet the support for it is still very slim. McCarthy told the Guardian newspaper recently, “The problem is, politicians, legislators across this country are intimidated by the NRA and the gun manufacturers who put so much money out there to say that ‘we will take you down in an election if you go against us.’ Common sense will say we can take prudent gun-safety legislation and try to save people’s lives. That is the bottom line.”

There is no deadlier expression of hate, evil or madness than through the barrel of a gun. In my opinion, it is foolish to draft and reform hate crimes while weak regulations flood a nation with guns propagating violence and fear. American politicians and their families enjoy the best security in the world, yet their constituents face the deadly consequences of their neglect. With three successive tragedies in three separate parts of the country, I am sure American citizens worry about their safety. Obama and Romney would do well to show the people whose trust they seek in November, the common sense to state that the pursuit to amend gun laws will come straight from the President’s office. Like most Republicans, while Romney has blindly sought the support of the NRA, Obama has the opportunity to do the right thing and even win hearts by championing stronger gun reform, launching a fresh salvo against Romney over the issue. It is a pertinent issue requiring the strength and integrity to tackle. Obama did it before when he broke away from the past to become the first President to support gay marriage; he can do it again by simply prioritising the right of all Americans to be safe.