Thursday, February 20, 2014

India's top court puts on hold release of former PM's killers

File photo of India's Supreme Court (Pic: Supreme Court website)
In a setback for Tamil Nadu (TN) state government, India’s Supreme Court refused the release of the assassins of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi on Thursday by submitting a review petition by the federal government challenging the state government’s decision.
The top court asked the TN state government to maintain the sentence of the three convicts, after the Supreme Court changed it into life imprisonment on Tuesday citing an inordinate delay of 11-years as the reason.
The apex court issued a notice to the TN government on the federal government’s petition that the state government is not allowed to remit the sentences of the former prime minister’s killers.
The Supreme Court also said that there is an elaborate procedure for remission of such life sentences, which the TN government appears not to have followed.
“The remission of a life sentence which is awarded on commuting death penalty is not automatic,” the Supreme Court said.
On Wednesday, Tamil Nadu state government decided to release seven convicts of Rajiv Gandhi assassination case after due consultation with the federal government.
Tamil Nadu's Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa, told the state assembly: "If we don’t get their [federal government's] response in three days, we will release all convicts in accordance with the rights granted under Indian Constitution."
Earlier on Thursday, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said that Tamil Nadu government’s decision to release the killers of Gandhi is 'not legally tenable and should not be proceeded with.'
"The assassination of Shri Rajiv Gandhi was an attack on the soul of India. The release of the killers of a former prime minister of India and our great leader, as well as several other innocent Indians, would be contrary to all principles of justice," Singh said in a statement.
"No government or party should be soft in our fight against terrorism," he said.
Gandhi was assassinated in May 1991, during an election campaign, by members of Sri Lankan rebel group Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE).

An anti-terror court sentenced the killers to death penalty in January 1998 and India’s top court upheld the sentence in May 1999.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

India set to release former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi's killers

Four convicts of Rajiv Gandhi assassination case (Pic: NDTV)
NEW DELHI (AA) – A day after India’s Supreme Court commuted the death penalty of three men convicted of the assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, the Tamil Nadu state government Wednesday decided to release them and four other convicts, pending consultation with the federal government.
Tamil Nadu's Chief Minister, J Jayalalithaa, told the state assembly: “If we don’t get their [federal government's] response in three days, we will release all convicts in accordance with the rights granted under Indian Constitution.”
Jayalalithaa's politicially controversial decision is likely to be well-recieved in the southern state, which has a largely pro-Sri Lankan Tamil sentiment.
According to the Indian Constitution, a state government has the right to release convicts after considering their “good behavior” on the completion of 14 years in jail.  
The release of the convicted men has been supported by all parties including members of the Congress party Gandhi belonged to. 
Senior Congress leader and federal Finance Minister P Chidambaram, who is from Tamil Nadu, told a private news channel on Wednesday morning that he is “not unhappy” about the state government’s decision.
“Our grief at Rajiv Gandhi's loss is irreparable but the court made it possible. I do not see this as cynical politics,” Chidambaram said.
India's Supreme Court commuted the sentence of the four convicted killers of Gandhi, ruling that the 11-year delay in their mercy pleas was "unreasonable".
Gandhi was assassinated in May 1991, during an election campaign, by members of Sri Lankan rebel group Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE).

An anti-terror court sentenced the killers to death penalty in January 1998 and India’s top court upheld the sentence in May 1999.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

India’s top court commutes death penalty of former PM’s killers

File photo of former PM Rajiv Gandhi
NEW DELHI (AA) - India’s Supreme Court (SC) Tuesday commuted the death penalty of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s killers to life imprisonment, citing an 11-year delay in deciding their mercy pleas.
A SC-bench headed by India's Chief Justice P Sathasivam rejected the federal government’s argument against the three convicts – Santhan, Murugan and Perarivalan – that there was no “unreasonable delay” in deciding their mercy pleas.
The top court also dismissed the government’s submission that the three convicts were "enjoying life" in prison, as opposed to their lawyer's claim that they were experiencing "torture and mental anguish."
The court bench decided that there has been an inordinate delay by the government and President of India to decide the convict’s mercy pleas.
“We implore government to render advice in reasonable time to the President for taking a decision on mercy pleas,” the top court remarked.
The bench also observed that government should consider the new criteria of inordinate delay in commuting death penalty to life term.
“We are confident that mercy plea can be decided at much faster speed than what is being done now,” the court said.
Rajiv Gandhi, the former prime minister of India, was assassinated in May 1991 during an election campaign by Sri Lankan rebel group Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE).
An anti-terror court sentenced the killers to death penalty in January 1998 and India’s top court upheld the sentence in May 1999.
The convicts appealed to the President of India in the form of a mercy plea - which was rejected by the President 11 years later. In 2011, Madras High Court stayed the hanging.

In May 2012, SC took up the case of death penalty.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

India’s federal cabinet decides to delay elections in Delhi

File photo of Arvind Kejriwal, AAP chief and former CM of Delhi (Pic: PTI)
NEW DELHI (AA) - India's federal cabinet decided that the Delhi Assembly should be brought under the President's rule instead of being dissolved, after its Chief Minister resigned on Friday. 
If ratified by parliament, the decision recommended byDelhi's Lieutenant Governor Najeeb Jung will delay the possibility of fresh elections in the Delhi Assembly.
Jung's report to the government claimed that no political party is in a strong enough position to form an alternative government in the Delhi Assembly. 
Former Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, who resigned in protest against the stalling of his Aam Aadmi Party's (AAP) anti-graft bill in parliament, had asked Jung to dissolve the assembly. 
“AAP also wants this [dissolution of the assembly] and even the BJP has favoured re-election today. I don’t know on what basis Najeeb Jung has taken this decision,” Kejriwal told news channels.
Kejriwal accused the AAP's coalition partner Congress and opposition party Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of blocking his party's bill after he made a police complaint against India's richest businessman about gas prices. 
AAP made a spectacular debut in recent Delhielections by winning 28 of 70 seats in December 2013 and forming a coalition government with the support of eight Congress lawmakers.

AAP emerged from a country-wide campaign for strong anti-corruption legislation against elected representatives and public officials.
Anadolu Agency, February 16, 2014

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Pepper spray causes chaos in Indian Parliament in row over formation of new state

File photo of Indian Parliament (Pic: IANS)
NEW DELHI (AA) – Indian Parliament erupted in chaos Thursday morning as Lagadapati Rajagopal, a Congress politician, fired pepper spray during a protest against a new bill for the formation of Telangana state, to be carved out of southern Indian state Andhra Pradesh.
Panic broke out in Lok Sabha, the lower house of the parliament, on live television as lawmakers were seen coughing, sneezing and holding scarves to their faces while the protesting politicians broke glass, damaged a computer and snatched Speaker’s microphone.
Modugula Venugopala Reddy, who represents the Andhra Pradesh-based Telugu Desam Party opposed to the division of the state, allegedly hurled a knife which resulted in a glass table smashing, though he said he used a microphone, not a knife. 
At least three ministers were rushed to hospital after they complained that their eyes were burning; a fourth was admitted to hospital for severe chest pain, Indian media reported.
Lok Sabha speaker Meira Kumar consulted different political parties as to what action should be taken against the offending ministers.
V. Narayansamy, a minister of state in the prime minister’s office told reporters that 17 ministers have been suspended for disrupting the house for five consecutive sittings or until February 21, when the last session of parliament ends before India goes to national election in May 2014.  
Kamal Nath, Parliamentary Affairs Minister, said: “The incident is a blot on Indian democracy”.
Outside the parliament, unruly pro and anti-Telangana protesters clashed as police officers tried to control the crowd.
Gas masks were brought to the lower house of the parliament when it was reconvened after the violence. After listing the offending ministers, Kumar adjourned the house.

Telengana became one of three regions within Andhra Pradesh when it merged from Hyderabad state in 1969 but residents have long demanded for it to become its own state.
Anadolu Agency, February 13, 2014

Book withdrawal in India criticised for limiting freedom of expression

Cover of the book withdrawn by Penguin India
NEW DELHI (AA) – Publishing house Penguin India's decision to withdraw a book considered offensive to some Hindus was criticised by Indian campaigners on Thusday.
University of Chicago Professor Wendy Doniger's book, The Hindus: An Alternative History, was withdrawn as part of a court-backed legal settlement between Penguin India and right-wing Hindu group Shiksha Bachao Andolan (Save Education Organization). 
Ram Puniyani, from the All India Secular Forum, an NGO which promotes inter-communal harmony, criticized the decision for impacting freedoms in India. 
 “The pulping of the book Hinduism by Doniger as a part of the out-of-court settlement once again shows the shrinking liberal space in the face of rising communal politics,” Puniyani told AA.
The book, published in 2009, prompted legal action from the right-wing group in 2010. They claimed the book “insulted” the Hindu religion and “promoted enmity” between groups.
Puniyani said that the right-wing organization led by Dinanath Batra supports Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), who gave birth to India’s main ppposition party Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
“Their objection to the book shows that their claim that Hinduism is most tolerant is for saying’s sake. The RSS vision of Hinduism is very narrow and Brahmanical,” Puniyani said. “Doniger’s work is a well-researched scholarly work.” 
Puniyani said this was not the first example of communal forces succeeding in getting books banned. “This episode also reminds us of book bans of Taslima Nasreen, Salman Rushdie and hounding of M.F. Hussain,” he said.
“If the publishers of the stature of Penguin can be made to buckle to ferocity of this politics with religious identity, one should know that matters can go to any extent to wipe out our plural and diverse heritage,” he said.
Arundhati Roy, a Booker-prize winner writer whose books are published by Penguin, wrote an open letter to the publishing house on Thursday, demanding to know why Penguin withdrew the book.
“Tell us, please, what is it that scared you so? Have you forgotten who you are?” Roy wrote.
“You have published some of the greatest writers in history. You have stood by them as publishers should, you have fought for free speech against the most violent and terrifying odds. And now, even though there was no fatwa, no ban, not even a court order, you have not only caved in, you have humiliated yourself abjectly before a fly-by-night outfit by signing settlement,” Roy wrote.
A collection of 27 writers and academic signed a press statement also describing the move as “pulping intellectual freedom”. 
Rakesh Sharma, an independent documentary film-maker told AA that the “settlement” could set a precedent for the future.

“In Mumbai, a play was withdrawn last week upon Hindutva brigade objections. Today, the target is a book. Our films, especially political documentaries, have always been on the radar. ‘Objectionable’ paintings, exhibitions and installations have been routinely vandalized in the last decade,” said Sharma.
Anadolu Agency, February 13, 2014

U.S. ends boycott of leader of right-wing Indian party

Modi greets American Ambassador Nancy Powell (Pic: PTI)
NEW DELHI (AA) - The nine-year boycott of right-wing Indian politician Narenda Modi by the U.S. ended on Thursday, when the U.S. Ambassador to India met him at his home in Gujarat. 
Ambassador Nancy Powell's meeting with Modi was the first since the U.S. refused him a visa in 2005, under a law which denies any foreign government official who was responsible for or “directly carried out, at any time, particularly severe violations of religious freedom”.
Powell shook hands with the Chief Minister of Gujarat, who has been accused of complicity in massacres that killed up to 2,000 people, most of them Muslims, in Gujarat in 2002. 
The US Consulate in Mumbai released a press statement immediately after the meeting which said the meeting was part of the US mission’s “outreach to senior leaders of India’s major political parties in advance of the upcoming national elections.”
India goes to national elections in May 2014 where the Modi-led BJP is likely to emerge the single largest party, according to opinion polls.
The statement also said that the United States “looks forward to working closely with the government that the Indian people choose in the upcoming elections.”
“Ambassador Powell will meet with representatives from non-governmental organizations and U.S. and Indian businesses. Her discussions focus on the importance of the U.S.-India relationship, regional security issues, human rights, and American trade and investment in India,” the statement said.
Mustafa Khan, a retired professor and political analyst who has written extensively on Modi, told Anadolu Agency that the meeting marked a change in the Modi's relationship with the U.S.
“The meeting is a kind of thaw in the US -Modi relationship but we should not read it as an end to the resolution of all the crimesModi has allegedly committed,” Khan told AA. “There is no signal to Modi to come ashore.”
“The meeting was a move to know the national mood of the nation before a general election,” he said.
Khan alleged that Modi is tainted by the violence that occured only a year after he started governing Gujarat and said the US State Department is aware of the serious charges against his administration in other serious offences like fake encounters.
“Modi’s popularity is not equal to a resolution of the crimes against humanity,” Khan said.
Film-maker Rakesh Sharma, whose documentary ‘Final Solution’ on Gujarat 2002 riots won international awards said: “I don’t think we should read too much into the meeting as it is very much part of the diplomatic charter to reach and interact with political leaders across the spectrum.”
Sharma pointed out that US State Department was quick to clarify on Modi’s visa issue.
“There has been no change in our long-standing visa policy,” Jen Psaki, State Department said at a news briefing in Washington this week. “When individuals apply for a visa, their applications are reviewed in accordance with US law and policy. This is not a reflection of any change.”
Last month, a minor court cleared Modi of responsibility for the 2002 riots. Maya Kodnani, one of his close aides and a former state minister, was found guilty of murder for her role in the communal riot.
“I don’t think the matter of Modi’s innocence is far from resolved as it will be challenged in high court and Supreme Court,” said Sharma. 
Zafar Sareshwala, a close aide to Modi, told Anadolu Agency that Modi met the US Ambassador on his own terms.

“There have been attempts in the recent past to meet Modi in New Delhi by the US officials. Modi refused saying that they have to come to Gujarat to meet him,” Sareshwala told AA. “It is slap on the Congress party and a bunch of NRI [Non-resident Indian] armchair activists who always employ the visa-denial episode to further their interest.”

Monday, February 10, 2014

India: 24 dead in boating accident

Picture for representation purpose only (Pic: AA)
NEW DELHI (AA) - At least 24 people have died after a boat carrying 114 people capsized on Sunday due to overcrowding in the Hirakud Dam Reservoir in India (HDR).
Thirteen more bodies were recovered on Monday from the Sambalpur district in the Southern Indian state of Odisha, Indian media reported.
The boat was carrying passengers back from a day trip at the Hirakud Reservoir when it started to flood.
Local authorities rescued at least 80 people on Sunday evening. However, the death toll is likely to keep rising as authorities have reported seven passengers still missing.
According to P K Mohapatra, a Special Relief Commissioner, 13 bodies were found on Monday morning as scuba divers continue to carry out full searches in the region.
“The number of missing people might vary with additional information being received from local people,” Mohapatra told Press Trust of India.
Odisha state government has said it will provide $2,500 in compensation for the victim’s family members.

This is the second time this has occurred in India in the last two weeks. On January 26, an overcrowded boat capsized in India’s Andaman Island in Bay of Bengal killing 21 people.

Friday, February 07, 2014

Former Indian state Intelligence Bureau chief charged with murder

File photo of Ishrat Jahan 
NEW DELHI (AA) - India’s premier investigating agency, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), Thursday charged former Gujarat Intelligence Bureau (IB) chief Rajinder Kumar with the murder of a 19-year old student. 
Ishrat Jahan, who worked as a salesgirl in Mumbai, and three men were killed on the outskirts of Ahmedabad city in June 2004 by Gujarat police officers. 
The police officers claimed they were told by the IB that the four were planning to assassinate Narendra Modi, Gujarat chief minister, and now the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) prime ministerial candidate for the May 2014 general election. 
The IB says that though its officers had alerted the Gujarat police that Jahan and three others could be affiliated to Pakistan-based terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba, its officers did not authorize or participate in the killing.
The CBI charged Kumar with murder and three serving officers - P Mittal, MK Sinha and Rajiv Wankhede - with conspiracy and illegal confinement.
Amit Shah, the top aide to controversial prime ministerial candidate Modi, was interrogated by the CBI in the case's early stages but has not been named in the 200-page chargesheet.
The high-profile case has damaged the relationship between the prosecution agency CBI and IB, India’s internal security agency.
Last year, IB hotly contested CBI’s questioning of Kumar, arguing that it would set a dangerous precedent and affect the morale of IB officials - who often work undercover.
India’s federal home ministry has supported IB’s version and the law ministry refused to give permission to prosecute the IB officials.
Despite the denial to prosecute, CBI has charged IB officials for murder and conspiracy.
CBI has also charged Kumar under the Arms Act, alleging that he provided the weapons used by Gujarat police to kill Jahan and the three men and an AK-56 rifle that was planted at the scene of the shooting to frame the victims as terrorists.

A judicial inquiry commission has labelled the alleged encounter “fake”.

Indian magazine stands by explosive interview

Cover of the Caravan magazine
NEW DELHI (AA) - An Indian narrative journalism magazine, Caravan, witnessed protests Friday outside its office and received threatening calls after it ran an explosive interview of incarcerated right-wing Hindu terror-accused Swami Aseemanand. He claimed that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a prominent Hindu nationalist organisation which gave birth to BJP, knew about his terror plans to bomb civilian targets. 
“There were calls made to our offices, asking us to be prepared and face consequences," Vinod K Jose, executive editor of Caravan magazine told a national daily Friday. "We are coming," the caller said according to Jose.
Jose added that the first call was made around 10am in Mumbai.
Over 100 protestors carrying placards gathered outside the magazine’s office and burned copies of the magazine.
The interview by Caravan magazine has created a political storm ahead of May 2014 national elections with right-wing BJP terming it as the handiwork of Congress’s “dirty tricks department.”
In the interview, Aseemanand said his terrorist acts were sanctioned by the highest levels of the RSS including Mohan Bhagwat, the RSS chief.
According to Aseemanand, Bhagwat said, “It is very important that it (terrorist attacks) be done.  But you should not link it to the Sangh.”
Aseemanand is in jail accused of abetting five terrorist attacks between 2006 and 2008 which collectively killed 119 people.
In a hand-written letter, Aseemanand Friday termed the interview  as “fabricated” and threatened legal action. Earlier Aseemanand’s lawyer denied the interview.
The magazine Friday said that it would release audio-tapes of the interview and that It stood by the story.
The explosive interview has drawn mixed reactions in India.
Writer-activist Subhas Gatade, who is considered an authority on RSS and right-wing terror, told Anadolu Agency (AA) that he was “not at all surprised” by Aseemanand’s revelations.
“This is not for the first time that the leading lights of the RSS and other Hindutva organisations have come under the scanner for their alleged role in fomenting major terror,” Gatade told AA.
Gatade said that ‘sectarian’ organizations like RSS are cadre-based where power is rather “concentrated” in the hands of the uppermost circle.
“Without their consent, without their green signal nothing can move,” Gatade alleged.
Rakesh Sharma, internationally-acclaimed documentary filmmaker whose next film documents the rise of right-wing terror, told AA that right-wing groups cannot afford to let the interview go unchallenged saying that Aseemanad had denied making a judicial confession earlier. 
“Earlier his lawyers also denied the confessions he made - and these were not custodial confessions, but independent statements recorded with two separate judicial magistrates in two different cities,” Sharma told AA.
“The Sangh Parivar cannot afford to have these confessions or the interview stand unchallenged as they blow the lid off a sinister conspiracy to unleash terror attacks in Muslim-dominated towns across India,” Sharma said.
Ram Madhav, RSS spokesperson has expressed apprehension and questioned the timing of the interview.
“The National Investigation Agency has no shred of evidence, even against those in jail. It’s just allegations galore. There is something fishy about this whole thing... we’re studying the whole thing, we will collect more information about what happened,” Madhav told a private news channel Thursday.
Sharma debunked the issue of ‘timing’ terming the interview is a “thorough” piece of journalism.
“I don’t think either the magazine or the reporter should be put to the sword about the timing merely because 2014 is an election year. The Aseemanand interviews have been done over months; it is a painstaking and thorough piece of journalism,” he said.
Gatade shared the same sentiment.

“The easiest way to dilute exposure of a crime is calling it ‘politically motivated’”, he said.

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

10 die in bus crash in India

The accident spot (Pic: Mid-Day)
MUMBAI, India (AA) - 10 passengers were killed and 35 others injured when a private luxury bus fell into a deep trench along the Pune-Satara Highway late Monday night, in the western state of Maharashtra, media reports said.
The accident took place at around 10 pm on Monday, when the driver of the bus lost control of the vehicle while navigating a sharp turn in treacherous Khambatki Ghat area of the highway.
“The driver apparently lost control on the ‘S turn’ and the bus went off the road into a ditch (which was) at least 20 feet deep. Six passengers died instantly, while the rest died on the way to hospital,” Highway police official D. Bhelare told the Indo-Asian News Service.
Following the bus crash, three private vehicles that had stopped to help the victims of the accident were hit by a large speeding commercial vehicle.
Bhelare said that the four people in the three private cars were injured as the commercial vehicle rammed into them from behind.
The condition of  the 11 injured passengers is said to be serious.
This is the second road accident in a month in Maharashtra state.

On January 2, at least 30 people were killed when a public passenger bus fell into 120-meter gorge near tourist spot Malshej Ghat in Thane district, 160 kilometers northeast of India’s financial capital Mumbai.
Anadolu Agency, February 4, 2014

Saturday, February 01, 2014

India gets first monorail

India's first Monorail (Pic: Imtiyaz Shaikh, Anadolu Agency)
MUMBAI, India (AA) - After a two-year delay, Mumbai's much-awaited monorail was inaugurated Saturday - the first such monorail in India.
The first phase - which will be opened to the public Sunday - will ply between the suburbs of Wadala and Chembur in India's financial capital and reduce the commute-time from 40 to 21 minutes.

The second phase will be operational by mid-2015 and extend to South Mumbai.