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A profound failure of public compassion

Deportation of seven Rohingya men to Myanmar

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By Harsh Mander

On October 4, the Indian government deported seven Rohingya men to Myanmar. Hours before they crossed over, their return was validated by India’s Supreme Court. But this was less than a month after the United Nations Human Rights Council had unequivocally held that the Rohingya community in Myanmar was being subjected to the gravest crime against humanity, of genocide, a threshold that it applies in the rarest cases of mass targeted violence. By wilfully sending these men into conditions of genocidal violence and persecution, India has failed profoundly as a humane democracy. It has reneged on its constitutional guarantees and humanitarian obligations and in displaying elementary public compassion.

 

 

Even as the bus in which the men were being transported approached the international border with Myanmar in Moreh in Manipur, the Supreme Court heard an urgent plea to halt their deportation by advocates Prashant Bhushan and Cheryl Dsouza. They argued that the men had entered India to escape widespread bloodshed and discrimination in their homeland. To send them back into a situation that was credibly documented to be extremely dangerous and in which they could be tortured or killed violated their constitutional rights under Article 14 and Article 21 of the Constitution. These fundamental rights apply not only to all “citizens” but all “persons” who reside in India. India was also bound by its obligations under international treaties and covenants, because there was enough evidence, including reports of the United Nations, that the situation in Myanmar did not assure the men safe repatriation. Still, the Supreme Court bench, headed by Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi, was not convinced. The learned judges ruled that they found no reason to restrain the government from handing the men over to the Myanmar authorities.

Immediately after the Indian police handed them over to the Myanmar authorities, the seven men were taken into detention. The likely fate of these men, now in a detention centre somewhere in Myanmar, is grim. In August, Human Rights Watch reported the torture in Myanmar detention centres of Rohingya persons who returned to the country from Bangladesh, including of their being forced into stress positions, beaten with rods and sticks, and subjected to electric shocks. Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said in a statement:

 

“The torture of Rohingya returnees puts the lie to Myanmar government promises that refugees who return will be safe and protected. Despite Myanmar’s rhetoric guaranteeing a safe and dignified return, the reality is that Rohingya who go back still face the persecution and abuses they were forced to flee.”

 

The seven men were arrested for illegal entry in 2012 after they were caught by the police in the Shilchori-Nagatila region of Assam. They served a sentence of three months for the crime of entering India without valid documents. But after they completed this sentence, they were incarcerated for six years at the detention centre in Silchar Central Jail. It is from here that they were eventually deported to Myanmar.

The Bharatiya Janata Party-led government at the Centre has been raising a public alarm about the alleged security threat posed by the small numbers – around 40,000 – of extremely impoverished Rohingya people who live in India. I have visited their settlements in several cities: they survive in squalor, mostly by picking waste. Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh said in September that Rohingyas in India were “illegal immigrants” and not refugees. He added that “we have to think about the human rights of our own people before talking about the human rights of people from other countries”, and that the “issue of national security is involved with regard to illegal immigration, which our country cannot undermine”. Kiren Rijiju, the Union minister of state for home, declared in Parliament on August 9, 2017, “The government has issued detailed instructions for deportation of illegal foreign nationals including Rohingyas.”

The Union government also filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court on September 18, 2017, stating that it had “authentic material” that Rohingyas had links to the Islamic State and Pakistan-based terrorist organisations. It said it would submit evidence of this to the Supreme Court in a “sealed cover”, but it has not done so. It has also not followed up these general allegations with specific charges based on evidence.

The portrayal of hapless and mostly indigent women, men and children escaping genocidal violence in the country of their birth as “terrorists” and a grave national security risk by the BJP government is worrying, but not unexpected. The BJP’s leaders routinely describe undocumented immigrants of Muslim identity from both Bangladesh and Myanmar as “security threats” to the Indian people, with innuendos of terror links. The party’s national president, Amit Shah, has stoked communal fires in the run-up to the 2019 general elections by describing undocumented immigrants from Bangladesh and Myanmar as “infiltrators”, likening them to “termites” who must be eliminated. The BJP government has proposed a law that will treat immigrants of Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh and Christian faiths as refugees who would be eligible for Indian citizenship. There is no ambiguity in their hate iconography that only undocumented Muslim immigrants are the enemy and a threat to the nation. This leads to greater apprehension that as the general elections approach, this first deportation of Rohingyas to Myanmar may well be followed by many more.

More than the BJP government and party leaders, what is a source of greater disquiet is the role of the Supreme Court in this case. India’s highest court is often the last refuge for the defence of the human rights of the most vulnerable people when they confront a partisan and hostile state. But the Supreme Court summarily let the seven Rohingya men be sent back to Myanmar. It refused to stop their return because it accepted on face value the Union government’s claims that the men had consented to this, and that Myanmar had agreed to issue them documents as citizens or nationals. As Ishita Kumar and Nayantara Raja argue in a carefully reasoned critique of the court’s decision, “The key considerations based on which the Supreme Court refused intervention in the deportation of the Rohingya men were gravely misplaced.”

First is the question of consent of the men to be returned to Myanmar. I looked carefully at the Union government’s affidavit to the Supreme Court, in which they have actually made no such claim, let alone produced any document to prove the men had consented to their repatriation. But even if it turns out that the men did give their consent, what were the circumstances in which they made this choice? The men had already spent six years in a detention centre in an Assam prison. In June, I wrote of the hellish conditions in these detention centres that house those who have been deemed to be foreigners. In violation of international law, they are incarcerated indefinitely, with no recourse to secure their liberty. In these conditions, I speculate but have no way of being certain that maybe the seven men were told that their only chance of freedom was if they agreed to return to the country of their birth, and that despite all its perils, they accepted this as the lesser of two evils. I do not know if they actually made a choice, but if they did, was this a fair, humane and just choice to place before people who had committed no crime except to try to escape the violence and persecution of their homeland?

And as Kumar and Raja write, the second premise of the Supreme Court that Myanmar had agreed to accept the men as citizens was also deeply flawed. This is because “under the Burma Citizenship Law of 1982, the Rohingya ethnicity is not recognised as one of the ‘national races’ of Myanmar. While the law also stipulates that those who can definitively prove that their ancestors settled in the country before 1823 also qualify as citizens, and the Rohingya presence in the Arakan region can be traced back to 8th century, this ethnic group continues to be denied citizenship. Rohingyas have systematically been denied legal status in their country of origin and thus far there has been no law enacted or amended that proves that Rohingyas will be given Myanmarese citizenship”.

The Myanmar government did not give them any citizenship documents, only a Certificate of Identity, confirming that they were Myanmar nationals (not citizens). Human rights activist Tapan Bose points out that the Indian authorities have “accepted a separate nationality verification form issued by the Embassy of Myanmar and is coercing the Rohingya refugees to fill and sign this form… Rohingya refugees have said that the form given by the embassy is the same as National Verification Card [NVC] which falsely frames Rohingyas as ‘foreigners or foreign-born or those with foreign roots’”.

Bose observed, “It is appalling, that at a time, when the world community is moving towards prosecuting the Myanmar government for genocide, India, the world’s largest democracy has become the first country to deport members of the world’s most persecuted community back to Myanmar, where they have been systematically, torture[d], raped, butchered and forcibly evicted.”

It is sobering to recount the conditions in Myanmar – as reported by the United Nations Human Rights Council just weeks before – into which India has sent these seven men. The report concludes:

“The gross human rights violations and abuses committed in Kachin, Rakhine and Shan states are shocking for their horrifying nature and ubiquity. Many of these violations undoubtedly amount to the gravest crimes under international law. They are also shocking because they stem from deep fractures in society and structural problems that have been apparent and unaddressed for decades. They are shocking for the level of denial, normalcy and impunity that is attached to them…

“The United Nations and the international community must ensure that the repatriation of refugees and the return of internally displaced persons are allowed only when safe, voluntary and dignified, with explicit human rights protections in place, including citizenship. In the current circumstances, such returns are not possible…”

I have no idea what will be the eventual destinies of these seven men. I fervently hope that they are released soon from the detention centre in which they are currently housed, without having suffered torture or indignities, and are allowed to return with respect and security to their homes and families. I hope they are able to live with their families in peace, earning a living and raising their children with hope and in safety. But I know that the chances that this will be what life will give them are very slender. If instead they fall to the hate and bigotry of a fractured nation in tumult – one from which they had fled to India in search of a safe haven – I will carry on my conscience many burdens. Of their suffering. Of the precipitous collapse of public compassion of my country. And of the knowledge that my country – its elected government, its highest court and its people – so wantonly and pitilessly sent these innocent, unfortunate men into fear, hate and possible death.

 

 


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Theology of Presence

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Amir Suhail Wani

“O you who believe! Remember Allah With much remembrance”: Al Quran

To believe is to be in a state of presence. Presence, though not the climax, but is, one of the most cherished states and authentic manifestations of belief. To let God stay far away in the realm of abstraction and beyond-ness not only dilutes the spirit of worship, but it brings under scrutiny the very notion of belief. Religion, in its finest form, aims at invoking in man the spirit of presence, so that the believer may feel and experience the himself in presence of divine and may thus be able to envision a living and existential relationship with his creator and his object of devotion. Religion, even in its basic etymological connotation invokes the sense of “connectedness and attachment” with the object of devotion. It is in the very essence of man that he wants to be greater than what he is and when submitting before the divine, the individual, finite and subjective ego undergoes an existential, psychological and spiritual transformation of unique nature which expands its contours beyond those of physical perimeters. In any act of worship, the subject envisages the object of devotion as infinite and it not only pays homage to that infinite by bowing to it, but it very much desires to expand its own finitude under the radiance of that eternal infinite. This is what is meant by the philosophical benediction that “make me Thou, not an it”.

 

This human urge of finding means of self expansion by submitting before the divine is the greatest expression of human will and self sacrifice. But this spirit is rendered meaningless and antithetical when religion, in its state of decline, reduces to mere theology. In this reductionism, God remains no longer a living reality in the life of believer. He is rather replaced by a set of axioms and statements which fail to stimulate and satisfy the deepest spiritual yearnings of man and this deepest spiritual yearning is nothing but an aspiration to come in living contact with the divine and transcendental. Islam and for that matter most of the religions strongly condemn the deistic notions about God for it leaves absolutely no scope for religious indoctrination and creates an unimaginable void in the realm of Transcendence. It is in response to nuances like these that the notion of presence assumes multifold importance. It is not only prayer but our entire life that demands, by virtue of its spiritual dimension, that we live perpetually under the spell of divine. Thus religions teach us not merely to pray and thus make prayer a part of our life, but they come to turn our entire life into a sort of prayer. This transformation of life itself into prayer is what has best been embodied by Islamic teachings which reiterate time and again that all acts shall be done according to the law/s prescribed by God and at the beginning and end of each of our activity, the name of God shall be invoked. Not only this, the orations we recite at various instances from entering a washroom to starting our prayer are nothing but a beautiful way of making God a perpetual and living presence in our lives. None of our activities shall be divorced from Transcendent and while we are bodily constantly engaged in acts of world and matter, our heads, hearts and souls shall be perpetually turned to the divine. This act of remembering God in world of forgetting paves the way for “discovering God through material representations”. The highest form of this discovery is prayer and within prayer itself it is dua that marks the height of living relationship between God and believer. The purpose of prayer, as has been narrowly appropriated lately is not merely to make God change his mind and to bring our naive desires to fruition. Prayer is in fact the testimony of our living and real time relationship of servitude and dependency on God. Thus when God asserts “If My servants ask you regarding Me, I am indeed Near. I answer the call of those who call upon Me when they call. So let them answer My call and let them believe in believe in Me–in order that they be truly guided.”, he makes us understand in most emphatic and explicit way that he is very much existentially related to us and responds to our prayers. This response to prayer shall not be seen as the fulfilment of our prayers in material realm (which is true on its own), but it shall invoke in us the existential quest and inspire us to awaken our slumbering spiritual sensibility so that we may truly feel that God is indeed responding to us as our creator and as an object truly worthy of our devotion and worship.

This notion of presence has been subjected to double irony. The religious centric people lost sight of this appeal and dedicated their energies in confining and codifying God in their formulae of logical atomism. They rigidly tried to fix God in their self made definitions made out of untenable language as if trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. While as the role of this intellectual cum theological process can’t be belittled, but their overemphasis on making God comply to their abstractions and creating an unsurpassable chasm between the creator and creation surely set them on too rigid a path. The aftermath of this theorization of God not only created uncompromising hostility among different religions, but within the same religion it gave birth to unending clashes, unforseen intolerance and created such shameful examples that served the purpose of latter day anti religious forces. The second threat, and that is more dangerous, to this “theology of presence” has come from movements like new age spirituality, occult practices and pseudo spiritual shopping malls. Whereas traditional religion and traditional metaphysics taught us to see this world as a reflection and reverberation of transcendental realm, the new age spirituality has tragically represented the divine realm as an “extended expression” of human realm and this immanent universe. This has been sort of shifting the frame of reference and with this shifting of frames, the meaning of spirituality and metaphysics is inverted on its head. This misplaced mysticism and consumerist spirituality is far dangerous than no spirituality at all. In absence of spirituality, one may set out to discover the genuine and true spiritual traditions, but the presence of fake and pseudo spirituality creates a halo effect around man and his genuine thirst and quest is buried under the garb of this “materialistic spirituality”.

There are no palatable solutions to this malice that has invaded our religious obligation of perpetual presence and taught us to be satisfied with rituals without knowing their meaning. What one can do is to read, if one can, the religious scriptures and try to get to the roots of these scriptures. Look out for commonalities among scriptures and try to make a sense out of these commonalities. Another suggestion is to read the authors like Rene Guneon, Frithjof Schoun, Martin Lings, William Chittick and others of their class. What is special about these authors is that they speak about traditional metaphysics in contemporary idiom with an insight that is both inspiring as well as awakening. Finally we must note and note it seriously that life is not a profane activity sprinkled with events of sacred prayers, rather life is sacred as a whole and the existential realisation of this axiom is fundamental postulate on which all religions stand.

(The author is a freelance columnist with bachelors in Electrical Engineering and a student of comparative studies with special interests in Iqbaliyat & mystic thought. He contributes a weekly column for this newspaper that appears every Monday. He can be reached at: amirkas2016@gmail.com)

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Kathua verdict: fact, fable and fiction

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Shabbir Aariz                                   

Finally some relief has been accorded to the family of the victim, Asifa by the trial judge Mr Tejwinder Singh by convicting and punishing the guilty. But it is too little if not too late. The investigating agency has undoubtedly done a commendable job in piecing together the evidence against the odds and succeeded in obtaining conviction for criminal conspiracy, gang rape, poisoning and murder of 8year old Asifa on 17th of January 2018 in Rasana village near Kathua in Jammu. Rape is the fourth most common crime against women in India. The National Crime Records Bureau of India suggests a reported rape rate of 2 per 100,000 people, much lower than reported rape incidence rate in the local Indian media. However, Times of India reported the data by National Crime Records Bureau unveiling that 93 women are being raped in India every day. Every year 7,200 minors are raped as the statistics suggest without unreported ones. Rape is, surprisingly a weapon of punishment in India. In 2014, in Jharkhand village elders ordered the rape of a 14year old. The husband of the woman who was assaulted sexually was told to carry out the rape. As the woman’s husband dragged the girl to a nearby forest, villagers only looked on. Earlier West Bengal village reportedly ordered the gang rape of a 20 year old woman for falling in love with a man from another community. Even in case of Kathua, two BJP ministers stood in favor of the accused. Sexual crimes being committed with impunity not even sparing foreign tourists led to issuance of rape advisories like women travelling should exercise caution when travelling in India even if they are travelling in a group, avoid hailing taxis from streets or using public transport at night. India feels like it is going through an upsurge of sexual violence against children and after several incidents including Asifa’s, received widespread media attention and triggered public protest. The Prime Minister condemned it and UN Secretary General, Antonio Guiterres said “guilty must be held responsible” describing the incident “horrific”. This led the Government of India to reform its penal code for crimes of rape and sexual assault. As such India’s cabinet approved the introduction of death penalty for those who rape children. The executive order was cleared at a special cabinet meeting chaired by Prime Minister Modi. It allowed capital punishment for anyone convicted of raping children under the age of 12. India’s poor record of dealing with sexual violence came to fore after 2012 gang rape and murder of a student on a Delhi bus. The four men involved were sentenced to death. The Supreme Court maintained the death sentence of the convicts; Akshay Thakur, Vinay Sharma, Pawan Gupta and Mukesh. Rejecting their appeal Justice R Banumathi said the men committed “a barbaric crime” that had “shaken society’s conscience”. It is worthwhile to mention that the death penalty to the said persons was given in the year 2013 while as the executive ordinance came in April 2018 after Asifa’s incident and of a 16year old girl in northern Uttar Pradesh by a member of BJP, Kuldeep Sengar (ironically, victim’s father was arrested and thereafter killed by the Kuldeep’s supporters.) Prior to 2012, there was no single law specifically dealing with children as victims of sexual offences. Then came Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act in 2012, India’s first comprehensive law to deal specifically with child sex abuse and surprisingly the number of reported cases of child abuse rose by nearly 45% the next year.

The new amendments enable a court to hand out a death penalty to someone convicted of raping a child under 12, even if it does not result in death. In countries like China, Egypt, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Afghanistan, rape is punishable with nothing short of death by hanging, beheading or firing squad. Despite the changes to the law and arming Indian courts, there is reluctance to carry out the death penalty. Is there anything wrong with the collective Indian psyche that deters even courts from putting curbs on sexual crimes against even minors? One feels disgusted for the punishment not being exemplary in Asifa’s case when on trial crimes like gang rape and murder were proved. The court was saddled with the law and verdicts of Supreme Court where death penalty awarded was not interfered with and also its observations emphasizing the gravity of such crime with its impact on the society. Do the laws also have a fiction value? When do we really implement them? Is something more needed to shake society’s conscience? It is more likely that the convicts in this case will go in appeal to the higher court against the judgement. The verdict of the lower court also calls for a counter appeal by the prosecution seeking enhancement of punishment to death of the convicts.

 

(A leading lawyer and eminent poet, author contributes a weekly column. He can be reached at:  vaklishabir@gmail.com)     

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Let’s Become Environmental Protectionists!

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Dr. Shahid Amin Trali

It’s very alarming to find the unending disturbances to our environment. Man’s foul play with the nature is not going well with the present as well as our future. The environmental problems are mounting towards a bigger trouble in future but we are yet to recover from deep hibernation/sleep mode. This menace of pollution has existed for centuries but increased at an alarming rate after industrial revolution in the 19th century. Pollution is one of the biggest global killers, affecting over 100 million people. The world’s population is ever increasing and the treasures of the resources are getting overexploited.

 

There is greater need that we must promote better and efficient use of resources. Mass production of plastics, which began just six decades ago, has accelerated very rapidly—most of it in disposable products that end up as trash. If business goes on as usual, plastic pollution will double over the next thirty years. That would mean there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish. Plastics have several health hazards, both for humans and animals. Not just that, it is detrimental for the environment too. We must encourage the reduction, recycling and re-use of wastes as raw material for new products. Our younger generation is highly creative and all they must be given is ample support and opportunities. We must promote ‘Jugaad’ creation, the idea of using the waste to make something novel and save resources. We need to set examples from our home places and re-use what we would easily throw away and conserve for a future.  What we cannot recycle let us try not use them. Let’s promote paper products as they break down better in the environment and don’t affect our nature as much.

Learning to be more environmentally friendly is not that difficult task than we think. We must start by living with a greater awareness of the resources that we use in our daily life.  For example we must turn off the lights as soon as we leave a room in our homes and offices or even schools and colleges.  We must be environmental friendly when it comes to building our homes and buildings. Trees are necessary for us to survive. We must plant small trees around our home, don’t cut them unless it’s necessary, work with local environmental groups to plant more trees and educate others about the beauty and benefits of trees.

Water needs to be conserved. Few ways to conserve water are – take short showers, keep the running tap close while we brush our teeth, recycle water in our home, use water saving appliances etc. More good ways to contribute will be consume less energy, buy recycled products, and create less waste and many more. We must refrain from open burning as backyard trash and leaf burning releases high levels of toxic compounds. We must use public transit as much as possible. Let us walk more and drive less to conserve fuel and prevent auto-emission. Let’s use bicycles and scooters for shorter distances to save resources.

Cleanliness leads to cleanliness. We can easily find that a dirty place adds to its dirtiness. When we come across a fresh place, we think twice before turning it bad and dirty. It is sad when we think for our clean homes and hardly care for the roads, hospitals, educational institutions, offices, markets etc. Our mindset has to undergo a big overhaul that our public property is our own property.

India is one of the three worst offending countries when it comes to environmental performance. Corporate leaders have started joining the race to save the planet. Being environment-friendly, eco-friendly, going green are huge claims referring to goods and services, laws, guidelines and policies that inflict reduced, minimal, or no harm at all, upon ecosystems or the environment. But the attempts need to be strong and concrete. Small and medium sized companies in particular generate a lot of pollution and need awareness and support policies to safeguard the environment.

Individuals, organizations and governments need to join hands to protect our environment.  Let’s educate others about the significance of living an environmentally friendly life. The more we will share an awareness of the richness of the environment, the more we can do together to protect it. Environmental love and care must receive an all time attention and priority. Let’s go beyond the model building exercises for safer environment and turn them into reality. Organizations must appreciate and reward the employees for their environmental care.

The Philippines recently has taken a unique and wonderful initiative. The island country passed a law under which every student there has to mandatorily plant ten trees in order to get their graduation degree. The law if it is implemented properly will ensure that over 175 million trees will be planted every year. The law will be applicable for college, elementary, and high school students as well. Our education system must owe greater responsibility towards environment and find some unique strategies to safeguard it. Let’s go green and pledge to protect our environment. (The author is Assistant Professor, ITM University Gwalior, Youth Ambassador, International Youth Society. He can be mailed on: dr.shahidamin15@gmail.com)

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