All posts by Rupam Sindhu Kalita

Rupam S Kalita is studying for an MA degree in English from St.Stephen's College, Delhi.

Repatriation of Bru Refugees: Displaced but not Disenfranchised

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Repatriation of Bru Refugees: Displaced but not Disenfranchised

The hill tracts of the Mizoram-Tripura border have always been the same as long as one could remember. Roads are hard to find even under the clear skies of late summer. Earlier this year, monsoon rains in July had flooded the forest paths and rendered the territory almost inaccessible. But Bru refugees from Mizoram have been streaming into refugee camps in North Tripura District since 1997, after a conflict with the majority Mizos over land possession.

Divided and dispersed

Over eleven thousand Bru refugees currently live in six refugee camps in North Tripura district. Scarce amenities mark their lives as they refuse government initiatives to be repatriated. They say the government has not fulfilled the promises of proper rehabilitation to the returned Brus. Committees representing the refugees have also been known to discourage and even obstruct the camp inmates to return to their homeland.

The immediate cause of this self-imposed exile was the killing of a Mizo Forest Officer by miscreants which provoked retaliation by the Mizos. The Brus also argue that the demand for an Autonomous District Council raised by their community was resisted by the majority Mizos. Long held grievances between the two communities sprang out into the open and the Brus started crossing over into neighboring Tripura to look for safer sanctuaries. There were more than 30,000 Bru refugees living in the camps located in Kanchanpur sub-division of North Tripura a decade ago.

The Bru, primarily an agrarian community is the second largest tribe in Tripura. They are spread across the states of Mizoram, Assam, Manipur and Bangladesh. They practice jhum cultivation, worship Vishnu and maintain little contact with the majority Bengali people in Tripura.

The Brus are an ethno-linguistic minority in their native Tripura and in their adopted homes in other parts of North East India. Their history is thus an account of dispersion and division. The dislocation suffered by the Brus has from time to time given rise to demands for self-determination. These demands have sometimes taken violent forms. The Bru National Liberation Front (BNLF) was formed in 1997 after the clashes with Mizos that sparked the mass displacement to Tripura. Bru militants are still active and a trader was abducted from the Assam-Mizoram border by the militants only last month.

On the other hand, fear of total marginalization led the Brus to raise the demand for an Autonomous District Council in Mizoram in 1997. But the resistance showed by the ethnic Mizos only added to the growing suspicion of the Brus. Then the long-winded exodus followed.

The flipside of the lived experience of the Brus is that they are insecure even in their native Tripura. They fled Mizoram to avoid suppression of their legitimate demands and camped in Tripura where they have no constitutional safeguards to guarantee their rights. Their sociological location in Tripura is not very different from that of Mizoram.

The ballot comes home

The coming Assembly elections in Mizoram have pushed the state administration once again to convince the Brus to return home.

A team comprising officials from the Election Commission and Mizoram poll administrators recently visited the refugee camps in Tripura after the displaced Brus were identified as eligible to vote in the Mizoram Assembly polls. Elections are supposed to be held at the site of the refugee camps according to government officials. The relocation of the ballot to the site of displacement camps is in sync with the displaced people’s marginal location. The ballot has come home for the refugees. They refuse to be repatriated but the government is equally headstrong to ensure the displaced people do not fall outside the electorate.

Skeptics can brush aside this initiative of the Mizoram government as political gimmickry to appease the Brus and other minority communities in Mizoram. But this step will prevent the displaced Brus from being further marginalized. Bringing the ballot home to the Brus will ensure that they would have a say in governance and preserve their right to choose their representatives even while living outside the politico-geographical boundaries of the state.

The interesting thing is that while the entire country goes for the more reliable Electronic Voting Machine (EVM) this time, the Brus will stick to the ballot paper while voting in their temporary home. Nearly 11,311 internally displaced Brus are preparing to cast their vote in the Mizoram Assembly polls.

Come December. How far will the Mizoram government succeed in preventing a displaced people from being disenfranchised?

General Singh’s War Cry Against the Government and Politicization of the Army

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General Singh’s War Cry Against the Government and Politicization of the Army

The turf war between the former Army Chief General V K Singh and the government has been dragged into the Supreme Court with the General earning the wrath of the apex court over a comment he made against Supreme Court’s judgment regarding his age. As people’s faith in state institutions crumble, the Army now finds itself staring at scepticism regarding its own integrity. This is the same force which had emerged as the ‘Most trustworthy’, ahead of media and Parliament in India Today Group-C Voter Youth poll which was conducted among first time voters in early September this year.

The Indian Army finds itself fighting two parallel battles. A protracted gunfight engages the Army with infiltrators at the Line of Control in the thickly forested Karen heights of Kashmir and the other embedded battle is the fight for its own integrity. Amidst this double assault comes the former Army Chief’s remark that the Technical Support Division (TSD) could have prevented the skirmishes near the Line of Control by infiltrators backed by elements in Pakistan.

The TSD is a brainchild of the former chief formed in May 2010 which was used to siphon off secret funds to destabilize the government in Jammu and Kashmir, according to a leaked internal army document. This secret army unit was disbanded immediately after General Singh stepped down as the Army Chief. But the former chief never went ahead to say how the TSD could have thwarted the frontier attacks. An exposition on the nuances could endanger security and the requisite secrecy but it could also shed light on how the TSD operated. This would have laid bare the abuse of his position as Army Chief by revealing the clandestine operations he conducted through the TSD, which according to the leaked army document reported directly to the chief bypassing standard procedures of reporting to the Director General of Military Intelligence (DGMI).

General V K Singh will perhaps be remembered in Army annals as the chief who took the government he served to court, lost and then incurred the wrath of the apex court and the judiciary.

This succession of events took place at the cost of the General’s reputation, honour and integrity-self-professed virtues that he sought to defend when he decided to take the government to court. But why was the General silent at the time when he became the Army Chief based on the same date of birth that he later sought to disown?
There are many more stories up the General’s sleeve. Allegations are rife that General V K Singh in his position as the army chief siphoned off funds meant for secret intelligence to fund politicians and interest groups in Kashmir, one of them being an NGO which was encouraged to file a Public Interest Litigation against the incumbent Army Chief General Bikram Singh,then a brigadier in Kashmir.

General V K Singh’s alleged attempts to scuttle the line of succession in the Army were prompted by his squabble with General Bikram Singh. But the former was just a player in the game of intrigue and vendetta welling up inside the Army. The Army top brass had been divided regarding the successor of General V K Singh. The pro-V K Singh camp responded with the General taking the government to court over his date of birth and hence his retirement age.

General Bikram Singh reacted by forming a Board of Inquiry (BoI) headed by the Director General of Military Operations (DGMO) which let out a can of worms that scoured the professional integrity of General V K Singh.
Now the former Army Chief’s war on the government seems to have been triggered by the schism within the Army. An internal conflict in the Army has spilled over into other realms of public life as the government and the judiciary are now locked in verbal combat with the former chief. It is like a festering sore that slowly infects the entire body-politic. The coherence in the Army, one of the few institutions in the country which still commands respect from citizens, is a thing of the past. General V K Singh’s gestures of defiance have only served to steel the government’s resolve to put the General to the sword. For the former Army Chief has only succeeded in politicizing himself while flouting the government. A common ground between the two sides seems far away but it will be in the best interests of everyone to arrive at a consensus and stop the regressive tactic of mud-slinging. Both sides have clung to their own politicized version of the story. This saga needs to be put to rest.

Chinese dragons in the sea: China’s marine encirclement of India

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Even though China has consistently denied the possibility of using these Indian Ocean ports as naval facilities, there seems to be a motive in this apparent development of ports at strategic locations and commercial choke points.

Does Confucianism hold as much sway in China today as it did during the rule of the Ming Dynasty?

A massive Chinese armada commandeered by the navigator Zheng Le embarked on a seven-voyage maritime adventure from 1405-1433. His inimitable feat took him as far as the Persian Gulf and the East coast of Africa with the purpose of collecting tributes from the ‘barbaric’ countries across the seas.

This was half a century before the Portuguese and the Dutch ‘discovered’ the Indian Ocean.

But by the time the indefatigable Zheng Le returned after his last voyage with a wealth of cargo, the ruling Ming Emperor had changed his mind. He ruled that the act of voyaging to foreign, ‘barbaric’ countries was against the spirit of Confucius’ teaching.

Historians have ever since marveled on the turn world history would have taken had the Chinese continued their nautical exploits.

Hard power in the seas

Of late, China’s aggressive strategy of securing the sea lanes of communication from the South China Sea through the Malacca Strait to the Persian Gulf has left many jittery. Many believe that the Hambantota port in Southern Sri Lanka is the latest addition to China’s policy of securing maritime sea routes by developing ports in strategic areas (commonly known as the String of Pearls strategy). In August this year, Sri Lanka started operating a $500 million container terminal in the Colombo port with the aid of the Chinese government. This chain of ports begin from the Hainan Island in South China Sea and encompass Hambantota in Sri Lanka, the port of Sittwe in Myanmar, Chittagong in Bangladesh, Marao in Maldives, the port of Gwadar in Baluchistan, Pakistan and the port of Sudan.

These nodes of influence could be upgraded as air bases and naval stations, apart from securing China’s oil supply routes from the Persian Gulf.

A common denominator unifies most of these possible Chinese military bases: insurgencies and conflict mar these port cities. The Baloch insurgents have threatened to disrupt China-backed construction projects in Gwadar and Sittwe stands at the centre of a protracted conflict between the Kachin rebels and the Myanmar government. Protests in Bangladesh’s Shahbagh have spilled over to Chittagong state while Sudan faces sanctions from the international community for its abysmal human rights record in Darfur.

Does conflict leverage the role that China plays in these countries?

China has been trying to intermediate talks between the Pakistan government and the Baloch insurgents. In February this year, China hosted peace talks between the Myanmar government and the Kachin rebels. It has systematically defied a US-led call to isolate Sudan from oil trade.

Even though China has consistently denied the possibility of using these Indian Ocean ports as naval facilities, there seems to be a motive in this apparent development of ports at strategic locations and commercial choke points. Kanwar Sibal, member of India’s National Security Advisory has succinctly affirmed a “method in the madness” vis-à-vis the location of the ports that China has decided to help build, upgrade and run.

Ghosts of 1962

The events of 1962 might have taught the Indian government to be fixated on all things terrestrial in terms of its relation with China. Chinese troops had already entered India through Arunachal when Nehru realized the gravity of the situation. The invasion took days after Nehru had asked the nation to be rest assured about India’s enduring friendship with China.

India deliberately did not use Air Force for fear of spreading the site of conflict to other regions. Ironically the brutal crackdown on generations-old Chinese pockets in India’s North east by the Indian state touches many a sensitive nerve even today.

The 1962 conflict taught India to be suspicious of the Chinese dragon, and also for some reason or lack of reason taught India to concentrate its security policies on land- Arunachal Pradesh, Aksai Chin, Tibet and Kashmir. The waters of the Indian Ocean never occurred as a potential threat.

What could Zheng Le teach the Indian strategic and defence think tanks?

That five centuries ago the Chinese had awed the world by making a series of expeditions to as far as the Persian Gulf. That the Chinese are better equipped today to repeat an unrivaled chapter in their history.

The new Chinese President Xi Jinping might have promised to crack down on increasing corruption within the Communist Party of China and address growing economic inequalities.

But who knows how inspired he is with the analects of Confucius?

Intricacies of PRISM – Why the American NSA Surveillance Regime is a Threat to the World?

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The PRISM program is legitimized by the Protect America Act of 2007. This Act sanctions the NSA to require companies like Facebook and Google to send user data to the government once the classified plan is approved by the FISA court.

“No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honor and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.” – states Article 12, Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In early June this year, a young security contractor formerly employed by the NSA, CIA and Booz Allen Hamilton revealed highly classified US government information on a surveillance program in the form of presentation slides. He however fled the country before the files were released to avoid being captured.

This daring act of revelation, as expected, set off a cycle of denials, half-baked explanations and attempted justification on the part of the governments of the US and UK. The latest to be sopped up is the Brazilian journalist David Miranda, friend of the Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald who has been releasing the classified cables. Miranda was detained at London’s Heathrow Airport and subjected to nine hours of interrogation.

The massive surveillance apparatus, codenamed PRISM, is part of a worldwide surveillance industry whose annual worth is five billion dollars. PRISM is a highly secretive program that allows the NSA to access user data from web-service providers like Microsoft, Google, Yahoo, Face book, AOL, Skype, You tube and Apple. The NSA-backed surveillance program collects metadata on geolocation that tap the time and duration of phone calls and the content of electronic communication like emails, video chats and texts. This assortment of clandestine spying programs operates under code-names like Stellarwind, ShellTrumpet and EvilOlive.

There was widespread public outrage after leaked PRISM slides revealed that the highly synchronized surveillance programs could intercept under-sea optic fibre cables to monitor the communication lines of an entire population. The PRISM program is legitimized by the Protect America Act of 2007. This Act sanctions the NSA to require companies like Facebook and Google to send user data to the government once the classified plan is approved by the FISA court.

Though Microsoft, Google, Apple and other major companies had initially denied knowledge and participation in the surveillance programs, on Wednesday AFP reported Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer as saying that since data requests from the US government were classified information, she could not talk about it due to fears of incarceration for ‘treason.’


Privacy Laws-the local and the global

As Americans marched on July 4th organizing huge ‘Restore the Fourth’ rallies, what seemed to be appalling was that the NSA surveillance seemed to have been sanctioned by a court of law, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court.

Given the global nature of all web-services, what is disconcerting is the lack of consistency in the applicability and content among laws governing privacy policies. Web companies find themselves in a fix between these very different legal regimes and companies with a presence in more than one country often face different set of rules. The lack of a clear global internet privacy regime has jettisoned customers’ privacy and compounded companies’ difficulty. A web-service provider in the US might have annexes and affiliates in many different countries with different privacy laws. Complaints regarding violation of a customer’s privacy is privy to the jurisdiction, of which, country remains a problem, as there are different approaches to privacy jurisdiction.

In 1995, Ministers of the Asia-Pacific countries met under the banner of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) to frame legislation governing internet privacy laws. Paragraph 12, Part II states “In view of the differences in social, cultural, economic and legal backgrounds of each member economy, there should be flexibility in implementing these Principles.” The stress placed on the plurality of the world has again underlined the problems inherent in drafting a unified legislation to protect internet privacy.

 

In 1981, member countries of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) framed a set of guidelines on the Protection of Privacy and Transborder Flows of Personal Data to address the conflict between protection and free transborder flow of personal data. More than a third of the then 24 OECD member countries had adopted national legislation by 1980. What assumes importance is that the OECD dossier to mark three decades of the OECD Privacy Guidelines singles out the US government’s Committee on Automated Personal Data Systems’ 1973 report, Records, Computers and the Rights of Citizens as the first explicit reference to “fair information practices.” In its recommendation concerning the guidelines on the Protection of Privacy and Transborder Flows of Personal Data, the OECD cites the following among others: “that member countries take into account in their domestic legislation the principles concerning the protection of privacy and individual liberties set forth in the Guidelines…”

Thus the OECD which is a grouping of developed nations, including the US, UK and Germany has similar concerns as the APEC when it comes to the conflict between the international and domestic laws regarding the protection of privacy on the web. So even if a US state department dossier is the vanguard to “fair information practices,” the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and in turn the FISA court nullifies the global legal apparatus agreed upon by governments. When the NSA was caught snooping and spying, what truly shocked Americans and foreign governments was that the surveillance operations were legitimized by the FISA court.

Barrack Obama’s bulwark against the barrage of criticism has been that the NSA-sponsored surveillance programmes are aimed to secure the lives of Americans. For him, as for many others in the Congress, you cannot have hundred percent safety and zero percent inconvenience at the same time. The Purpose Specification Principle in Part Two of the OECD Privacy Guidelines to which the US is a signatory states: “The purposes for which personal data are collected should be specified not later than at the time of data collection and the subsequent use limited to the fulfillment of those purposes or such others as are not incompatible with those purposes and as are specified on each occasion of change of purpose.”

But the NSA thought it wiser to tweak this clause in the interest of national security.

American double games

Reports of the NSA targeting the Chinese, Russian, Brazilian and Mexican governments perhaps fall in line with the US policy of tracking countries that have a history of dissidence vis-à-vis American foreign policy. But what caused anger and disbelief was the revelation that the NSA had bugged the lines of communication of the Americans’ allies in their War on Terror and economic expansion. America’s trans-Atlantic partners like France and Germany had backed the US aggression in the east but Snowden’s leaks have set the former allies on a course of collision.

European leaders have expressed shock over reports that the US has been bugging their diplomatic missions, including the European Union and the United Nations General Assembly headquarters. A rift between the allies already shows with the French Presidency reacting firmly by threatening to suspend negotiations for a Trans-Atlantic Free Trade agreement.

US authorities have termed the spying on the German and French Foreign Ministries “a success story,” according to Der Spiegel reports.

Leaked classified information also reveals that Spain and Italy too have not been spared from NSA surveillance.

European resentment against the Americans’ spying activities might crystallize into a split between the Trans-Atlantic allies in their fight against terror. The usually hawk-eyed French have already registered their protest against US unilateralism by resisting strikes against the Syrian regime after reports of chemical weapon usage against the rebels. The lid seems to have been blown off from the double games and dirty wars that the US government has wheedled out of the false consciousness of national security. As Snowden put it, “I don’t want to live in a society that does these sort of things.”