21 February 2011
Lanka can’t get away with it
KILLINGS, assaults, abductions and arrests. Such has been the high-handed and hardly civilised manner in which the Sri Lankan authorities, its Navy in particular, have been dealing with long-standing disputes over fishing rights that Tamil Nadu is approaching foment and even the insular Bharatiya Janata Party has spoken in condemnatory tones. Yet New Delhi appears unable to come up with a more credible response than statements and telephonic talks at the ministerial level ~ after a “failed” visit of the Foreign Secretary to Colombo ought to have indicated that words would not suffice to remedy the situation. The release of the 136 fishermen from Tamil Nadu who had been arrested and taken to Jaffna ~ many said to have been surrounded by their Sri Lanka counterparts and transferred to their Navy that was conveniently standing-by ~ does not close the chapter. The situation is much too serious for UPA-II to ignore: even if circumstances have forced it into fire-fighting on several fronts. Whether increased diplomatic pressure or threats of economic-related measures is the best route forward is for the government to decide. But act it must if the spilling of blood in the Palk Straits is to be averted ~ what is to prevent Tamil Nadu fishermen from sailing in strength to assert what they believe are their traditional rights?
Though Indian defence personnel generally steer clear of politically roiling waters, resentment is building up: did they train Sri Lankan naval personnel so that they used their muscle on Indian fishermen? There is a genuine threat to peace in the Straits, definitive action is needed. It is the absence of such action that has caused a sore to fester. Action was required on two fronts: determination, if not some sort of demarcation, of the “dividing line”; measures to avert Indian fishermen from straying across, perhaps fitting a few boats from each harbour with GPS devices or other hi-tech systems. But since the somewhat trigger-happy Sri Lankan navy has been active in those waters, there ought to be a strong Indian naval/coastguard presence too, if only to get a message across. That is an immediate requirement. In the longer term a joint Centre-State fisheries protection force could be raised. India must deem itself duty-bound to prevent its fishing communities from being bullied. Sri Lanka cannot be allowed to get away with such belligerence. This is no David-Goliath situation: just exploiting India’s diffidence in dealing with a smaller neighbour that is asking to be put in its place.
KING IN THE PARLOUR
And Bahrain’s political-religious discord
THE cry for democracy is doubtless the common strand in the Arab world, but at week’s end Bahrain appears to be a rather different kettle of fish. However brittle the stability of the monarchy, it has over time served the West’s interests. Historically, the country has been a close ally of Britain and is today the base of the US Fifth Fleet. To that can be added its strategic importance of holding three-fifths of the world’s oil reserves. Ironically enough, the raging movement for democracy has been a mite unnerving for the democratic West. Over time, monarchist Bahrain has been an ally of the West in the manner of dictatorial Libya. The chorus of democracy has now rocked the boat of what Britain and the USA have deemed as agreeable stability. The attack on sleeping demonstrators was an expression of royalty’s severity. In a word, the West faces a dilemma. Considerably profound is the religious facet to the present movement, one that has a direct bearing on the democratic chant. At the core is the disconnect; the majority Shia population is under the rule of a Sunni minority, reminiscent of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. It isn’t only the whiff of jasmine from Tunisia that has sparked the uprising in Bahrain. This week also marks the tenth anniversary of the Shia movement for democracy; the pitch has become still more resonant in the aftermath of the developments in Egypt. The National Reform Council, set up in 2001, has a largely notional existence. A parliament does exist, but is so irrelevant as to be a shambolic facade for democracy. It is the king who is the monarch of all he surveys. With the Shias in the vanguard of the struggle for democracy, the religious divisions can only widen as the movement gains momentum each day. The demand for a properly elected parliament and the release of political prisoners are central to a genuine democracy.
Last Thursday’s mobilisation of tanks in Manama’s Pearl Square is standard tactic of any king-cum-dictator to hold on to his rusted throne. The crackdown ~ after a temporary lull ~ shan’t be able to stifle the voice of sweeping changes in the smallest Arab nation, at another remove from Egypt, the largest. Hence the caution sounded by the UN Secretary-General, Ban ki-Moon, not to use force against the protestors... ranged as much against the dominant Sunnis as the monarchy. The demand for political reform and the religious discord have rendered Pearl Square no less explosive than Tahrir Square.
Particularly when it is selfless
HEROIC tales often remain untold. For while the list of winners of gallantry awards are duly published, the action for which they were “won” seldom get publicised. Though 16 years have elapsed, they have taken none of the glitter off the little-known story of a young army officer, Capt. (now Lt Col) DPK Pillay. It still reads like a tale in which courage and tenderness rose to chivalrous heights. Insurgency was rife then, and there was an encounter near a village in Manipur. Pillay was injured, but since the spot was miles away from a road a helicopter was called in to evacuate him ~ he insisted that a young girl and her brother who had been injured in the crossfire be flown to hospital first, the chopper could make a second trip for him. A year later, a sensitive commanding officer initiated the process by which he was awarded a Shaurya Chakra. Last year Pillay returned to the village which had since come “overground”, met the girl whose life he helped save, and “understanding” the conditions which caused frustrated youth to take to gun he committed himself to working for its welfare. It was in pursuit of that goal that he recently accompanied the village leader to a meeting with the home secretary to seek construction of a small road to link the village to the network ~ a helicopter lifeline is not always available. The officer’s story thus emerged only as a “sidebar” he sought no personal kudos, development of the village was all that mattered.
The significance of that saga lies not in its having remained unsung for those long years but in its serving as a reminder of what true courage is all about. In the heat of battle many a brave act is performed, but the one under focus is gilded with a sense of honour that once marked the Indian army distinct. At a point in time when the image of the army is being battered by self-inflicted injuries, the unearthing of such “nuggets” reassures the people, serves as a “target” for young soldiers to attain. It is a tragic truth that only lip service is paid to military icons. Only a couple of days ago life ebbed away from the 95-year- old Col Man Bahadur Rai, till then the oldest surviving winner of the Ashoka Chakra who had won pre-Independence decorations too. There are no reports of anyone in South Block issuing even a condolence message.