J&K Elections: Voters’ Message Beyond The Ballot vs. Bullet Fight

December 31, 2008 by · Leave a Comment 

By Nilofar Suhrawardy, MMNS India Correspondent

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Omar Abdullah (L), president of the National Conference (NC) party, waves to supporters as Ali Mohammed Sagar (R), a senior NC leader, looks on during a rally in Srinagar December 31, 2008. Thousands of strife weary Kashmiris gave their new leader, Omar Abdullah, a rousing welcome when he arrived home on Wednesday after he was named to lead a new coalition government in the disputed Himalayan region. REUTERS/Fayaz Kabli

NEW DELHI: Despite the Jammu and Kashmir elections having thrown a hung assembly, ruling out prospects of single-party government in the India-occupied state, unlike the previous ones, these polls carry a different message. Though the elections were held with terrorism, as has been the routine in the past, bringing Indo-Pak diplomacy to the stage of tension, this time the issue of militancy in J&K was pushed to the backstage. It was overshadowed by excessive noise made in the subcontinent and elsewhere over terror-strikes in Mumbai, with India blaming Pakistan-based groups as responsible for these. The reported casualty in these elections was 12 civilian and five security personnel, compared to 220 civilian and 148 security personnel killed in the 2002 polls. This suggests a fall of 86 percent in militancy related incidents in 2008 polls against that in 2002.

Equally noteworthy is the large turnout of voters, 63.21 percent while that in 2002 was 44 percent. “In the last one year, there has been a reduction in militancy-related incidents and hence the fear factor was not there. The real success is wherever there was low percentage in the last elections, there was higher turnout this time and it showed that people wanted to participate in the democratic process in a big way,” according to Chief Election Commissioner N. Gopalaswami.

Notwithstanding the tensed Indo-Pak ties, marked by war-hysteria in certain political circles as well as media, amazingly these did not have any negative impact on the atmosphere in the J&K. Trade across the much-disputed Line-of-Control continued despite Indo-Pak animosity reaching a new height over Mumbai terror strikes. The cross-border trade, which began from October 21, continued amid the hype raised about India and Pakistan being near a war-like stage. For instance, earlier this month, as expressed by sources in Jammu: “A trader from Pakistan has sent a truckload of 150 boxes of oranges and 100 boxes of pomegranates besides 252 pairs of special Peshawari sandals to a business firm in Poonch.” The Indian firm had sent a consignment of 2,200 kg of tomatoes on December 23 as demanded by the Pakistan trader, they said.

Opening of LoC for trade between the two sides apparently has had a major influence on pulling Kashmiris towards the ballot box. This has assumed a yet greater importance in view of the weeks before the polls spelling tension within the state over Amarnath-issue. The three-month long tension, also marked by economic blockade of the Valley by extremist Hindu groups in Jammu, at one point even raised speculation whether the elections would be held in time. Amid this backdrop, the opening of the LoC for trade certainly carried a new meaning for Kashmiris (primarily Muslims) in the Valley. Even though trade across LoC has yet to reach substantial proportions, that it has begun, certainly signals a new importance being given to their economic concerns. The beginning of cross-border trade at LoC at least signals that Indo-Pak dispute over Kashmir has been – at least now – pushed to the background, with economic concerns of Kashmiris being given greater importance. This is indeed a major move for average Kashmiris, who till the last elections, only seemed to be caught needlessly between the bullet and the ballot, with neither spelling a solution to their socio-economic problems.

Despite the Amarnath-row signaling a clear split, marked by polarization of votes, between Jammu and Kashmir, it is not without reason that Kashmiri voters turned out in greater numbers than before to cast their vote. Thus even though the Congress party won fewer seats this time (17) than in 2002, when it won 20, the party leaders have welcomed the results. “The large turnout of voters is a vote for democracy. It is a vote for national integration. As far as who wins or who loses is a secondary issue,” Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said. Giving emphasis to electoral results carrying little importance than people’s participation, Congress President Sonia Gandhi said: “I have been saying from the very beginning that it dose not matter who wins, what matters is that the people of the Valley, the people of Jammu, the people of Jammu and Kashmir have placed their full faith in the democratic system which is a lesson to be learnt by our neighbors.” Highlighting the holding of state elections as scheduled, Gandhi said: “I have been saying from the very beginning that elections should be held in time and I am glad that they were held in time.

Compared to Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) having won only a single seat in 2002, this time it has managed to win 11. While some hold the Amarnath land-row as responsible for BJP’s gain, with there being split between Jammu and Kashmir on religious lines, others hold the poll outcome as reflection of voters “regional” divide.

In the 87-member assembly, the National Conference (NC) has emerged the party winning the maximum number of seats (28), followed by People’s Democratic Party (21), Congress (17), BJP (11), National Panthers Party (3), with one each gained by Communist Party of India-Marxist, Democratic Party Nationalist, People’s Democratic Front and four won by independents.

Notwithstanding the fact that a hung assembly carries apprehension of political instability in the state, by turning out in large numbers the voters have send a strong message. They have defied the separatists’ call for boycott of polls. This may not have been possible if security measures had not been enhanced and had the trade across the LoC not been opened. Though the turnout was still less than in 1987, which was more than 70 percent, it carries a great significance. The Kashmiris have taken a major step forward to display their preference for peace in the region. For the Kashmiris and the government, the significance of 2008 elections should not be confined to their having cast their votes in large numbers. Now, it is for the center to ensure that Kashmiris’ hopes expressed through the ballot boxes are not defeated by bullets!

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Mumbai-Terror Strikes Dominate India’s Diplomatic Parleys

December 24, 2008 by · Leave a Comment 

By Nilofar Suhrawardy, MMNS India Correspondent

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NEW DELHI: Diplomatic impact of Mumbai terror strikes has not been confined to the West, particularly the United States. The last week was marked by the issue being discussed between India and visiting dignitaries from countries closer, geographically than the US. The Mumbai-issue dominated the press conference addressed by Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Mohammad Mehdi Akhoundzadeh before concluding his India visit (December 19). During his visit, Akhoundzadeh held discussions with Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee and Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon. India and Iran discussed tragic Mumbai incident, deteriorating situation in Afghanistan and Iraq,” Akhoundzadeh said at the press conference.

The two sides also discussed Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) gas pipeline project as Mumbai-attacks have raised India’s concern about its security.  “We have expressed readiness on part of our country to take forward the project, the sooner the better,” Akhoundzadeh said. “We are expecting a response from India and Pakistan,” he added. On whether Mumbai-case has had any negative impact on it, Akhoundzadeh said: “This century is a century of Asia, with Asian capacities flourishing. The growing need for Asia is to meet increasing demand for gas.” “We feel that there are attempts from foreign powers, who do not welcome this project, to torpedo it. We feel leadership in Asia should be vigilant to look into their future demands,” he said. Referring to Mumbai case, he said that terrorism “should not deter the will and determination” of Asian countries to move ahead with project.

On Iran’s stand regarding Pakistan-based terrorists being responsible for Mumbai-case, Akhoundzadeh said: “It does not matter from which place they are. They should be dealt with iron hand.” “Terrorists have no religion, no patriotic value. India and Pakistan have proved in past few years that they have maturity to deal with terrorist cases. We should be coolheaded.  Whoever is behind it (Mumbai-case), the leadership of both countries should not fall victims to designs of terrorists,” Akhoundzadeh said. He pointed to leaders in both countries having fallen victims to terrorists, including Mahatma Gandhi, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and Benazir Bhutto.

“No genuine Islamic individual would dare to endorse terrorism,” Akhoundzadeh said when asked on Islamic States’ stand on terrorism.

To a question on whether Indo-Pak dispute on Kashmir was root cause of terrorism in the region, Akhoundzadeh said that “growing sense of insecurity” in Afghanistan could be linked with it. With those (United States) who had “promised stability and development” to Afghanistan having failed, the State “could be the breeding ground for more terrorism,” he said.

The brief visit of Oman’s Foreign Minister Yusuf Bin Alawai Bin Abdullah was the first from a Gulf country since the Mumbai attack. During his meeting with Mukherjee, Abdullah “expressed deep condolences at the loss of life in the Mumbai terror attacks and solidarity with the people of India” (December 16). Abdullah noted: “There can be no excuse for not dismantling the infrastructure of terrorism across the Indian border.” Abdullah’s visit followed the landmark visit of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Oman last month. Mukherjee expressed appreciation on the telephonic call made by Abdullah soon after the Mumbai attack. He also apprised Abdullah of the results of ongoing investigations, which clearly point to “complicity of elements in Pakistan.”

During the two-day meeting of India-Russia Joint Working Group on Combating International terrorism, the Russian side “strongly condemned” the terrorist attacks in Mumbai and “reiterated their solidarity to the government and people of India.” “Both sides underlined their shared concerns on the growing threat of cross-border terrorism and reaffirmed their commitment for strengthening bilateral cooperation against terrorism,” according to a joint statement released on the two-day meeting (December 17).

Vivek Katju, Special Secretary in External Affairs Ministry led the Indian side, while the Russian delegation was led by Anatoly Safonov, Special Representative of the President of the Russian Federation for International Cooperation in the Fight against Terrorism and Transnational Crime.

During the talks held in “an atmosphere of mutual understanding and trust,” India and Russia described their “cooperation in combating terrorism” as an important part of their “strategic partnership.” Giving stress to importance of “international efforts to prevent and fight terrorism” including the United Nations’ Global Counter Terrorism Strategy and relevant UN Security Council Resolutions, they “underlined the need for expeditious conclusion of negotiations leading to finalization of India sponsored Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism (CCIT) at the UN General Assembly.”

India and Russia pointed out to “curbing financing of terrorism” as a “key component of counter terrorism strategy.” They also expressed concern at spread of narcotics in the region, which “directly threatens the security of both countries.” “They agreed on the need to further consolidate bilateral efforts for sharing information and expanding cooperation against drug-trafficking.” They noted the “growing threat of use of cyber-space by terrorists in their activities and the need to cooperate in this field,” according to the joint statement. They also agreed to “expand the exchange of information, experience and cooperation in the means of countering terrorism.”

The Mumbai-case was also raised during talks between Albania’s Foreign Minister Lulzim Basha and his Indian counterpart Mukherjee (December 19). Basha was the first foreign minister from Albania to visit India (December 17-20). Albania, Basha conveyed, fully shared India’s sense of outrage at the Mumbai attacks and considered terrorism as a common challenge for the international community.

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BJP Leader Battles for Life

April 27, 2006 by · Leave a Comment 

BJP Leader Battles For Life
By Nilofar Suhrawardy,
Muslim Media News Service (MMNS)
MUMBAI—Sadly, though at the face of it, Bharatiya Janata Party leader Pramod Mahajan (57) being shot at by his own younger brother Pravin Mahajan (45) requires almost no investigation, the incident demands deliberation on quite a few issues. This Saturday April 22nd, Pravin shot point blank at Pramod’s residence and later surrendered himself and the weapon to the police. Though repentant of his action, Pravin told the police that he had been angry at Pramod as he was “ill treating” and “ignoring” him. “I have been seeking appointment of Pramod for the last 15 days but in vain—I therefore, decided to visit him early in the morning to accost him for his behavior,” Pravin said in a statement recorded by Worli Police Station, where he surrendered.
“I shot at my brother intentionally. Yes, I wanted to kill him, because he was of no use to me… I went to my brother’s place early in the morning. I wanted him to support me in getting some contracts. He is politically well connected, but he did not help me. I had lost a few big contracts due to Pramod’s non-cooperation,” Pravin stated. During interrogation, Pravin revealed that he had decided to kill Pramod three weeks ago, senior police officials said. Pravin had been tracking Pramod’s whereabouts for fifteen days.
The two brothers were apparently alone in a room for a while when the shots were fired. Before Pramod’s wife could react, Pravin walked down the stairs from the 15th floor flat and drove to the police station.
Seriously injured, Pramod was rushed to Hinduja hospital by his brother-in-law and BJP Legislative Party leader Gopinath Munde, who is also his neighbor. With the bullets having perforated Pramod’s liver, pancreas and intestines, having caused a lot of blood loss, he was admitted into an intensive care unit in critical condition. Pramod’s case was viewed as complicated on account of his being diabetic. Leaving nothing to chance, while liver and pancreas expert Dr Mohammed Rela was invited from London, ortho trauma specialist Dr Steven Dean was rushed from Australia. Besides, among others, the hospital authorities consulted army doctors also. By Monday evening, Mahajan had undergone two surgeries as his vital parameters had become unstable. Due to poor functioning of his kidneys, Pramod was put on dialysis.
As the media kept the nation abreast about Pramod’s condition, the hospital was thronged by celebrities pouring in to display their wishes and sympathy for him and his family members. While at one level this was reflective of the Indian tendency, cutting across political, social and religious barriers to display their support for Pramod and his family members, on another, critics viewed it as a strain on the hospital staff and on Pramod’s security officers. Pramod’s family members include his wife Rekha and children, Poonam and Rahul.
Among the dignitaries who visited the hospital were former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, Vice President Bhairon Singh Shekhawat and BJP leaders- including L.K. Advani, Rajnath Singh, Jaswant Singh and Arun Jaitley. Bollywood personalities Javed Akhtar, Shabana Azmi, Amitabh Bachchan, Jaya Bachchan, Dharmendra and Poonam Dhillon were also there.
Expressing anguish and shock at the incident, President A.P.J Abdul Kalam and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh wished Pramod a quick recovery and offered moral support to his family members. Congress President Sonia Gandhi wished the same in a letter addressed to Pramod’s wife Rekha Mahajan.
Meanwhile, in an attempt to apparently save Pravin, his lawyer and his wife Sarangi said that of late he had seemed to be mentally “disturbed.” According to his lawyer, Nandkumar Rajukar, Pravin had been suffering from “some mental disorder” in recent months. However, as per the medical report of J.J. Hospital, Pravin is mentally stable.
Whatever reasons may have provoked Pravin to shoot at his own brother, several factors cannot be ignored. Whether a person is mentally sound or not, greater attention needs to be paid at his possession of a weapon. Sibling rivalry is not uncommon but perhaps if Pravin did not possess the gun, he might not have even planned the incident. After securing the gun license in 1996, Pravin apparently bought the Belgian-made .32-bore Browning pistol at a throwaway price through family contacts. Pravin was able to get the gun license also with the help of his brother-in-law Munde, who was Maharashtra Home Minister in 1996.
Speculations are also being raised at the apparently weak security infrastructure maintained at Pramod’s Worli residence, Poornima Apartments. While it is understood, that Pravin being a brother would not have been refused entry, it is astonishing that he reached Pramod’s flat without passing through any security check. That armed men can easily enter even posh residential areas does ring an alarm bell. The only saving grace is that rather than splitting the nation along religious, regional or political lines, the incident has prompted one and all to hope and pray for Pramod’s recovery. This Monday evening, thanking the doctors for doing an “excellent” job, his son Rahul told reporters: “At this testing time, only prayers come to one’s help.”

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