Editorial 1/New low
Editorial 2/Bushfighter
States of determination
Letters to the Editor

The disequilibrium in the foreign exchange market refuses to disappear. Very few seem to want the rupee as sustained demand for the dollar hammered down the rupee to a new low of Rs 45. 42 to the dollar on Friday. The slide in the value of the rupee has taken place despite covert resistance from the Reserve Bank of India, which mopped close to Rs 4800 crore through three-day and four-day repos at 11.5 per cent and 12 per cent. This action has squeezed out speculators and raised call money rates in the short term money market, but has not revived the fortunes of the rupee. This signals the fact that the sustained demand for the dollar comes essentially from genuine sources — what we are witnessing is not a speculative run against the rupee. This is also the view of none other than the RBI governor, Mr Bimal Jalan, who has stated that the recent increase in demand for dollars comes mainly from importers, hedging, forward cover and bunching of payments. In addition, the sharp fall in net inflows of foreign portfolio investment has caused a corresponding fall in the supply of dollars. Mr Jalan has also clarified that the RBI does not have any particular target in mind as far as the external value of the rupee is concerned — that is, the RBI will not step in with heavy artillery as soon as the rupee falls below a magic figure. This is sensible policy because there is every reason for the rupee to depreciate gradually. After all, despite the relatively stability of domestic prices, the rate of inflation in India is higher than the corresponding figure in the United States and other Western countries by roughly four per cent. So, an annual depreciation of four per cent in nominal terms will actually keep the real exchange rate unchanged.

Unfortunately, the recent actions of the RBI have not been completely consistent with the views expressed by Mr Jalan. Only a couple of weeks ago, the RBI intervened aggressively in the foreign exchange market by raising the bank rate and the cash reserve ratio of commercial banks. Many observers had felt at that time that this was essentially a kneejerk reaction on the part of the RBI, and was perhaps undertaken in order to prevent the rupee from crossing the “Rs 45 to the dollar” mark in a hurry. The contraction in money supply will result in other adverse consequences on the economy. In particular, the higher interest rate regime must curb investment plans of industry at a time when industrial expansion is crucial to accelerate the overall rate of growth of the economy.

Of course, the RBI has also failed to shore up the value of the rupee. But the more important question is whether it should even have attempted to do so. Although the rupee was sliding down, there was no sign of panic in the foreign exchange market two weeks ago since the fall was gradual. If the RBI has no particular target for the rupee in mind, then why did it feel the need to intervene even at the cost of impeding the rate of growth in the economy? Central banks cannot be too open about the way in which they are going to function, and so the public cannot expect the RBI to provide an answer to this question. But, the public will hope fervently that the RBI does have an answer.    

Mr George Bush Jr’s nomination as the Republican Party’s candidate for the coming United States presidential elections was a formality. Mr Bush used the party convention to showcase his “compassionate conservatism”. Though Mr Bush’s elaboration of this ideology is confused, it was symbolically proclaimed by his packing the podium with ethnic minority members as well as one homosexual. The convention was jokingly likened to a US basketball game: a lot of whites watching a few blacks. Compassionate conservatism is neither about compassion nor conservatism. It is about capturing the political middle. Mr Bush has won the Texas governorship thanks to his ability to capture large numbers of black and Hispanic voters for a Republican candidate. He is now implementing a similar strategy on a national scale. All opinion polls show him to be the centrist candidate. For example, most US women and Hispanic voters say they will plump for him. These are voters with whom a liberal Democrat like Mr Al Gore would normally have the edge.

Foreign policy has played a minimal role in the campaign. Mr Bush displayed considerable ignorance by initially being unable to name India’s prime minister and then praising the coup in Pakistan. He compounded it by confusing the taliban with a musical band. Despite this, Mr Bush is no advocate of fortress America. At the convention he said, “Let us reject the blinders of isolationism.” On balance, a Republican presidency would probably be better for Indo-US relations. The overall global visions of Mr Bush and Mr Gore are the same. Namely, liberal internationalism with much stress on multilateralism, promoting democracy and free trade. Republicans have a stronger geopolitical tinge. Many are wary of China and see India as a possible counterweight. They are less exercised over India’s nuclear capability. Mr Bush supports nuclear nonproliferation but publicly opposes the comprehensive test ban treaty. Mr Bush is also against linking labour and environmental standards with trade — a key area of difference between New Delhi and Washington. In short, the overall theme of US-India relations would be the same. But under a Bush administration, there are likely to be less of the minor irritants that so often hamper the smooth development of Indo-US relations.    

Recent developments in both Kashmir and Sri Lanka have thrown up once again the confusions, uncertainties and hypocrisies that inevitably surround the issue of self-determination. Among Sri Lankan Tamils and Kashmiris strong sentiments favouring complete independence can be found. But otherwise the limits of “respectable” and “legitimate” debate are supposed to be set by the inviolable character of the existing territorial boundaries of both Sri Lanka and India. In short, secession of either Jaffna from Sri Lanka or of Kashmir (in part or whole) from the Indian Union is axiomatically deemed out of the question.

What is extraordinary, however, is that the exclusion of a secessionist option is invariably justified in the name of respecting the sovereignty of the country in question. For India, the rejection of Tamil eelam is often justified in the name of “national interest”. This usually suffices to silence potential critics, but it is not as effective as the claim that Sri Lankan sovereignty must be respected. After all, there can be those irritating voices in India who will say that the interests, aspirations and wishes of Sri Lankan Tamils cannot be held hostage to Indian “national interests” as defined by its dominant elite.

For all those who are seriously concerned about the pursuit of justice in politics (and not just national aggrandizement and self-importance), the issue of self-determination, upto and including independence, must be treated with the respect that it deserves. It does not follow that one should advocate independence for either Jaffna or Kashmir. Self-determination is an appropriately general term which can mean a state of affairs short of full independence, provided this is acceptable to the people concerned, namely the principal victims of discrimination or repression, whose justified sense of grievance has helped create the resistance movement in the first place. But it does mean that the option of full independence cannot be ruled out by arbitrary fiat. If such independence is opposed it must be done so through arguments based on principles of political justice.

Cynics will no doubt say that it is the relationship of forces on the ground, not principles of justice, that finally determines outcomes. This common perception fails to understand that popular grievances (deriving from a sense of injustice) fuel resistance struggles and therefore help shape provisional and ultimate outcomes. Moreover, the desire to establish the most just solution should be the normative ideal that helps guide our political endeavours even if in practice we fall short of achieving that ideal. Keeping this in mind, the first thing we must recognise is that “sovereignty” does not reside in a territory or in a government but in people. Notions like maintaining the “unity and integrity” of a country at all costs is simply absurd. Sovereignty is not something fixed but something that has to be earned from the people who are governed. Precisely because sovereignty is revocable and changeable, it has to be constantly earned if the boundaries within which political rule is exercised are to remain unchanged.

The point is simple. The guiding principle in assessing the legitimacy of a demand for independence, provided it is voiced by a large section of people in a given area, is whether or not it advances the cause of democracy. The legitimacy of the demand is not to be determined or defined by any other condition, such as whether it is compatible with the preservation of existing territorial unity or whether it is in the “national interest” of that state (or neighbouring states) or whether it “weakens” the country in question. This does not reduce the complexity of the issue or explain how to arrive at the best (because most just) solution or ideal. But it does mean that the terrain of serious debate is wider than what is generally “allowed” in the name of a false sense of patriotism.

In India, this means not only that this government has no business ruling out even the discussion of Kashmiri autonomy, but also that there is no sacrosanct principle (no matter what the left or other parties think) that rules out discussion of pre-1953 autonomy status or even independence. To respect Kashmiri sensitivities today is to rule out nothing from discussion nor to take umbrage at a regional force taking an extreme position as its initial negotiating stance. One must make out a reasoned case why independence or too “lose” a union would be antithetical to the interests of democracy. Such stands cannot simply be declared unacceptable and irresponsible but must be shown to be undesirable and unnecessary. The same applies to the issue of Tamil Eelam.

Here, the argument must balance between a number of conflicting but democratic claims. Self-determination is a democratic right of the people concerned and therefore the voices of people must be heard even if not necessarily assented to. But who are the people in question and what is the collective unit to which the right of self-determination is to be ascribed? Is it the whole of Jammu and Kashmir, the valley only, or also Pakistan occupied Kashmir along with the valley? One thing though is certain — it is not just the voices of the Indian and Pakistani governments and their supporters that must be heard. It follows that we do need to set up structures and forums of discussion to include more than the representatives of New Delhi and Islamabad, unpalatable as this may be to the arch-patriots of both countries.

Again, the leading forces demanding secession in Kashmir and in Jaffna are such that by their very nature they make it difficult to justify independence in the name of democracy. This is because the Islamic fundamentalist groups which dominate the resistance movement in Kashmir and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in Jaffna are themselves strongly militarist, exclusivist and authoritarian forces and therefore the new states formed would themselves be deeply undemocratic. Had there been genuinely secular and democratic parties leading the resistance movements, their demands for azadi and eelam would have been more powerful and convincing.

As things stand, therefore, the search for some form of institutionalized autonomous status for Jaffna and Kashmir, acceptable to both the peoples in question and to the two governments respectively, would clearly appear to be the most democratic framework in which to strive for some kind of political resolution. But it should be noted that the justification given here for limiting the search for solutions to some form of autonomy rather than advocating independence is authorized by considerations of democracy and not by considerations of unity, national interest or even of fear of the supposedly knock-on effects of secession.

In any case, the domino theory of nationalism — that secession in one part of the country promotes secession elsewhere (in the same country or in other countries) — represents a bad conceptual understanding of the nature of nationalism, a poor grasp of history (which provides no succour to such a domino theory) and leads to a political posture that would deny respect for the right of full self-determination of an oppressed group of people when this principle always deserves respect, even if not always an automatic or uncritical or unqualified endorsement.

It also means that freedom of debate is total. People should not be pilloried for discussing or advocating independence or strong autonomy. Here, the global lesson of the last 50 years is that political-territorial union is strongest when it is voluntary. This is especially so for large multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-lingual countries like India. Genuine federalism and decentralization of power is increasingly recognized as providing the most democratic and therefore the most stable foundation for preserving that voluntary unity.

But given the different histories of different regions and the different ways (and even times) in which regions have come together to form a single union, the principle of asymmetric federalism (devolution of unequal powers to provincial administrative units) has come to play an increasingly important role for countries from Spain to Canada to the United Kingdom. Both common sense and democratic instincts suggest that this is the way forward for India and Sri Lanka.

The author has recently co-authored the book, South Asia on a Short Fuse: Politics and the Future of Global Disarmament    


Of human bondage

Sir — The prime minister of a 53 year old republic places an unenviable choice before the nation, insaaniyat or the Constitution (“Atal chooses insaaniyat over Constitution”, Aug 5). In saying “talks” — on Kashmir — are possible beyond the constitutional framework, Atal Behari Vajpayee suggests non-constitutional and even unconstitutional dealings are permissible. True, as Vajpayee indicated, these could be justified in the name of insaaniyat. But one should beware that notions of humanism, justice and fairplay are subjective, especially when it comes to the whims of the rulers. Public memory should be long enough to remember the “humanism” of the Emergency, when individual rights were sacrificed for national good — men and women herded into sterilization camps to live up to the national dreams of a prime minister’s son. That was Sanjay Gandhi’s insaaniyat. Going by the sangh parivar’s track record, one wouldn’t hazard guessing what its definition of insaaniyat would be.

Yours faithfully,
S. Chandra, Calcutta

Towards the final solution

Sir — The barbaric killing of Hindus in Anantnag, Banihal, Doda, Kupwara and Pahalgam, the attack on the Amarnath yatris by Muslim terrorists and the failure of the state and Central governments to take precautionary and retaliatory action are disgusting. The fight in Kashmir is no longer a freedom struggle but a communal one. Ever since Farooq Abdullah assumed power in 1997, hundreds of innocent Hindus have been slaughtered. He has no moral right to continue with his administration and should step down at the earliest.

Peace talks are welcome, but not at the expense of Hindu blood. The prime minister should stop behaving like a good boy to the United States and, like Israel, consider serious attacks on terrorist bases in Pakistan.

Yours faithfully,
Rajesh Sengupta, via email

Sir — The editorial, “Ceasefire in blood” (Aug 3), rightly holds that the bloodbath that has claimed more than hundred lives in Kashmir in the recent days is neither mindless nor purposeless. Hardline militants want to turn the public mood in the valley which is presently inclined towards finding a political solution with New Delhi. Fearful of a possible peace, the militants have chosen their soft targets in the pilgrims to Amarnath and the Bihari workers in Kashmir.

The attack does not come as a surprise. Soon after the Hizbul Mujahedin had offered ceasefire and the government decided to talk to them and to members of the Hurriyat conference, it was obvious that foreign mercenaries would try to disrupt the peace initiative. What is surprising is the government did not take adequate steps to forestall such a situation.

Despite advance warning that the terrorists would target pilgrims, they were guarded by the ineffective central reserve police force and the Jammu and Kashmir police, who, when the first flurry of bullets started, even ran away. It is unfortunate that most of the pilgrims were hurt in the crossfire between government forces and the militants.

This is also not the first time labourers have been targeted. In August 1998, 35 labourers were gunned down by Kashmiri militants in Himachal Pradesh. In June 1990, 15 labourers were killed in Anantnag. Yet, no security was arranged for them. It needs more concerted action to prevent the escalation of violence in the valley. Fortunately, the militants’ objective of foiling the peace process has not succeeded.

Yours faithfully,
B.C. Dutta, Calcutta

Sir — “Stab at womb of Kashmir” (Aug 3) with the picture of a four year old wailing child truly reflected the dilemma of a nation that has long been sleeping on the Kashmir issue and allowing militants to run free. If soldiers who lay down their lives for the nation are heroes, the innocents who die are are the martyrs. Those killed in cold blood should be honoured and their families rehabilitated. The butchering of innocents shows a desperation on the part of the militants to derail the peace process.

Yours faithfully,
Sush Kocher, Calcutta

Sir — The call for a temporary truce in Jammu and Kashmir by the Hizbul Mujahedin is borne out of a sequence of events. The chief among them is India’s refusal to resume dialogue with Pakistan unless the latter responds with a positive body language as the one prevailing during the Lahore declaration. Pakistan shied away all these months, and has now found a way out, courtesy the Hizbul.

Stiffening of the security angle by India, both within and under Israeli cover, dismissing Pakistan as a nonentity in the dialogue attempts with militant outfits of the All Party Hurriyat Conference have also made a difference in the the attitude of the various militant outfits operating across the border.

The move to implement ceasefire, though welcome, smacks of a mere attempt to sample all the “glitter” is in store. The Indian government has benefitted from the debacle of Lahore, being cautious and less euphemistic. Intelligent negotiation should herald peace in the region.

Yours faithfully,
Samir Banerjee, New Delhi

Menace in the woods

Sir — After countless killings and abductions, the notorious sandalwood smuggler from Tamil Nadu, Veerappan, has now kidnapped the matinee idol of Kannada film industry, Raj Kumar (“South star snatch by forest fiend”, August 1). That this was a well-planned operation is evident from the way Veerappan freed Raj Kumar’s wife and handed over a video cassette to be given to the Karnataka chief minister, S.M. Krishna.

The kidnapping has unleashed furious agitation by fans of Raj Kumar all over Karnataka. They ignored repeated requests by the star’s family members to maintain peace in the state. The agitations have now taken an ethnic turn since Veerappan claimed to have abducted Raj Kumar to protest against the ill-treatment of the Tamils in Karnataka.

The biggest question on everyone’s mind at this moment is: why have the governments of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka not been able to book this dreaded criminal? Is he so powerful that the state machinery is unable to track him down? Or are there deeper truths behind the sordid tale? In the face of its dismal failure, the governments concerned should resign and hand over the operation to the army personnel.

Yours faithfully,
J.N. Singhi, Calcutta

Sir — How is it that Veerappan manages to fool the police every time, while a journalist can track him down with no difficulty at all? It is difficult to digest that the entire police force of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka does not have the expertise or manpower that R.R. Gopal, editor-publisher of Nakheeran, has. All this makes the ground stronger for believing that the administration has more information up its sleeve than it chooses to disclose. But this time it may prove difficult, since it will have the substantial group of Raj Kumar’s fans to contend with. And if they can put enough pressure on the administration, the menace of Veerappan may be over for good.

Yours faithfully,
Shyamal Jain, Bhopal

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