“The need for change in my country is something that keeps me going”

fawzia koofi.png

Syed Zafar Mehdi

Fawzia Koofi, the Member of Parliament from Badakhshan province, is a prominent female politician in Afghanistan. In a freewheeling interview with Afghan Zariza, she talks about her early life, women’s rights, women’s education, elections, security transition and what keeps her going.

You faced lot of adversities early in life, but because of the resilience of your mother, you were the first girl child in your family to go to school. Today there are more than 3 million girls enrolled in primary and secondary schools across the country. When you look back at those days, what do you tell yourself?
A. I am glad to be part of the transformed Afghanistan. I have seen the country evolve and undergo transformation. Of course the country has gone through tremendous challenging periods, but it has also seen a lot of progress and development. If you compare my generation with the current generation, when I was a child, my struggle was to go to school. It was difficult to convince my family to send a girl child to school because of social traditions and also because of the orthodox mentality. In the patriarchal Afghan society, a lot of investment goes to education of boys.

In my case, it was because of my mother’s support that I managed to go to school. My struggle was to go to school. The struggle for my daughters is to go to the best school in Kabul. That is the generation change. It is not just about my daughters, it holds true for thousands of girls in Afghanistan today. In my time, even boys were denied the opportunity to go to school because they thought these boys would become the part of official census. Now, things have changed. Even in rural areas, parents now encourage their daughters to go to school. That shows the transformation of Afghanistan. I hope it will get only better from here, both in terms of quality education and easy access.

The Afghan Parliament today has higher percentage of female representatives than many democracies in the developed world. In a post-conflict country like Afghanistan, how important is it for women to empower themselves politically and influence the institutions and policies that affect their lives?
A. I am glad to say Afghanistan is ranked 22nd in the world in terms of female representation in the parliament. We have 69 women in the parliament, which makes it 27 percent. That is because of the quota, thanks to our Constitution. But the transformation of Afghanistan into a progressive country has also impacted the lives of women positively. It is true that there is quota for women in Parliament but it is also true that many people actually voted for women in general category. That shows the perspective and attitude towards women is changing. There is more willingness to support women, which is important because you cannot have gender-sensitive and women-friendly policies without empowering women. You cannot talk about women in education, women in health, women in social participation without having women in leadership positions.

The Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW) Law that was enacted by presidential decree in August 2009 is the most important legal step taken by the government to criminalize acts of violence against women and bring culprits to justice. How important is its implementation now?
A. EVAW Law is one of the major achievements of the current administration in terms of supporting women. The Law needed to be approved by the parliament in order to make it a national document. We presented the Law in the parliament last year but unfortunately it was not approved because of some conservative elements within the parliament. They blocked the Law because they felt some of the clauses in it were against Islam, which was their understanding of some of the Articles in it. I think none of the Articles of EVAW Law is against Islam, so it should be approved. In the meantime, we are pursuing the implementation, because that is equally important. So far it has been implemented in all the 34 provinces and cases are being decided in accordance to this Law. Of course it still requires a lot of time, awareness and investment to ensure that this Law is followed everywhere and all the cases of violence against women are taken up under it.

Has the Parliament done a good job, in terms of passing laws? There is a perception that Parliament spends more time in politics rather than passing important laws. How do you react to that?
A. There are always complaints about the work of Parliament and Parliamentarians across the world. Wherever you go, citizens seem to be objecting to the work of their representatives in Parliament. That is a part and parcel of democratic setup. We need to be reminded of our duties by the citizens, we need to be reminded and criticized for what we do. Having said that, it is a political institution and we need to do politics as well. I think we need to strengthen the oversight rule of parliament, which has not been very strong.

You were chosen as one of the 150 most fearless women in the world by The Daily Beast. You have faced many death threats and even survived an attack on your convoy. What keeps you going?
The need for change in my country is something that motivates me and keeps me going. There are days when I think why I should continue because of so many political and security challenges. But when I see the need of my people and their desire for change, that keeps me going.

Last year, there was a loud buzz in western media that you would be running for Presidency in 2014. Was it because of the age factor or there was a change of plan?
A. Yes I was planning to run but unfortunately the (Independent) Election Commission brought the date of registration for candidates too early. The election was held in April 2014 and the registration was done in October 2013, which was way too early. I could not fulfill the eligibility criteria for my age but this is one of my dreams and I will continue to struggle to be the first women President of Afghanistan.

So you will be running for Presidency next time?
A. Hopefully, yes.

We just saw a monumental landslide tragedy in Badakhshan, the province you represent. After the tragic incident, Parliament summoned National Disaster Management Authority and blamed it for lack of preparedness. Do you think, given the lack of preparedness, it was a disaster waiting to happen?
A. Afghanistan is one of the countries that are always at risk, when it comes to natural disasters. My province Badakhshan is the most affected province in Afghanistan, be it landslides, avalanches or floods. Every year, we have such natural disasters. I think the National Disaster Management Authority should plan things in advance so that the damage is minimized. We cannot stop the natural disasters but we can at least minimize the damage and prevent the loss of lives. They have not been doing that.

How are the relief operations going? Have all the survivors been rehabilitated?
A. Not yet. They have been provided with the assistance and we have developed a plan for it in coordination with concerned ministries. I hope the plan will be implemented soon.

This year we will see important political and security transition. Do you the military exit has been timed well by the international community, considering the security situation is still not good. Or do you think the Afghan forces are fully ready to take on the bigger responsibilities?
A. We need to differentiate between two things. One is the ability and motivation of Afghan forces and other is the need for international community’s presence. When we ask for international community’s presence, it does not mean we do not believe in the ability of security forces. They have the capability and morale to defend their country. But the withdrawal of international forces is likely to be exploited by terrorist groups and countries who would like to have negative influence in Afghanistan and that is worrisome. The message would be that Afghanistan will once again be abandoned by international community and the consequences of that will be greater politically. I hope the international community will revise the plan. I hope the BSA will open an opportunity for both governments to work closely in terms of the need for foreign troops to be in Afghanistan.

We saw unprecedented voter turnout in Presidential elections which was a clear verdict for democracy, even though there were reports of fraud. Now since the elections are going to second round, how can the cases of fraud be minimized?
A. I am glad that people of Afghanistan witnessed this experience of democracy in a very good way. There are certain things the candidates do and there are certain things the election bodies do to prevent the cases of fraud. For the candidates, they need to make sure they have the agents to monitor the votes in every polling station and motivate the voters to vote. For the election monitoring bodies, they need to keep neutrality and make sure the rules are transparent enough and in the public domain.

Despite the stringent security measures, the terrorists still manage to strike at will, especially in provinces. Do you think inviting them for peace negotiations is a wise idea?
A. Our government has been pursuing the so-called peace process for 5-6 years but the response is always negative. The peace overtures are reciprocated with more suicide attacks, more killings. It is the time for new government to revise the strategy when it comes to the peace process.

Your memoir Letters to my Daughters in a way is addressed to not only your daughters but to every daughter in Afghanistan. What advice would you give young girls in this Afghanistan?
A. This is something I keep telling my daughters that they have a huge potential. They can at least change their surroundings and they should not play the second fiddle role to their male counterparts. They should continue their education and take the necessary risks to bring the change.

(First published in Afghan Zariza)


2015 World Cup: 8 players who can set the stage ablaze

AB De Villiers (South Africa)

South African skipper and the swashbuckling middle-order batsman is unarguably the world’s best all-format batsman. His blistering 31-ball ton against West Indies, just ahead of the World Cup, has sent shockwaves across the world cricket. The elegant right-handeris known for his aggressive brand of cricket and a wide repertoire of strokes.

De Villiers, 30, who made his ODI debut against England in February 2005, has accumulated 7440 runs in 178 matches at a staggering average of 52.39. Under his captaincy, South Africa will be looking to shed the “chokers” tag and win their first World Cup.

A lot will depend on De Villiers and how he marshals his troops at the World Cup, starting February 14. A supremely-talented all-round cricketer, He has the ability to single-handedly win matches for his side.  He is the one player to watch out for.

Steve Smith (Australia)

The graceful right hander and the future captain of Australia is in prime form. With 8 tons in just 26 matches, his test record is phenomenal. This year, his ODI statistics have also been getting better. He will be the surprise package at the World Cup.

In a team that includes the likes of Aaron Finch, Glenn Maxwell, Shaun Marsh and David Warner, Smith has cemented his place in the middle order. He has got the leadership potential as well, which was evident against India in Border-Gavaskar Trophy.

Smith, 25, who made his debut against West Indies at Melbourne in February 2010, has amassed 1007 runs in 47 matches at a modest average of 32.44. His ODI numbers may not inspire awe, but his current form will certainly give nightmare to opponents. If Australia has to win this World Cup, Smith must fire.

Virat Kohli (India)

The prolific run-scorer, he has been touted as the bulwark of Indian batting line-up, who has effortlessly filled the void left by his idolSachin Tendulkar. Kohli, who has been appointed the captain of test side, is a formidable middle-order batsman with impressive record in all formats of the game.

Kohli, 26, has played 148 ODI matches and accumulated 6221 runs at a phenomenal average of 51.84. He is a classic example of modern-day batsman who plays aggressively and leads from the front. His transformation as a player has won him many admirers across the world.

Kohli made his ODI debut against Sri Lanka at Dambulla in August 2008 and was an integral part of India’s World Cup-winning team in 2001. This will be his second World Cup and in the absence of 2011 World Cup stars like Yuvraj Singh, Sachin Tendulkar and VirenderSehwag, India will heavily bank on his talent and experience.

Chris Gayle (West Indies)

The destructive frontline batsman is a nemesis for any bowling attack. His astonishing ability to clear the fence, with little footwork or technique, makes him unpredictable and devastating. He has single-handedly won matches for his side over the years and is expected to set the stage ablaze in this World Cup as well.

The flamboyant left hander from Jamaica has played 261 ODI matches and scored 8871 runs at the healthy average of 37.11. What makes him dangerous is the threatening strike rate and voracious appetite for runs. He has 21 hundreds to his name with the best of unbeaten 153.

Gayle, 35, who made his ODI debut against India at Toronto in September 1999, has been a permanent member of West Indies side over the years.  In all likelihood, this will be his last World Cup and he would like to end his illustrious career on a high note.

David Warner (Australia)

The aggressive opening batsman has been in destructive form lately. His consistency and ability to score quick runs makes him dangerousat the top. Warner has filled the vacuum left by Adam Gilchrist, the exciting former Aussie wicketkeeper-batsman, who was famous for his explosive batting and big hits.

Warner, 28, made his ODI debut against South Africa at Hobart in January 2009 and soon earned the reputation as an attacking batsman. His explosive knock of 89 from 43 balls in his Twenty20 debut against South Africa at Melbourne is unarguably one of the all-time best Twenty20 innings.

His performance against India in Border-Gavaskar Trophy was remarkable. He will be raring to go and play his aggressive game at the upcoming World Cup.

Kane Williamson (New Zealand)

The young Kiwi middle-order batsman is an exciting all-round cricketer and the only New Zealand batsman in ICC’s top 10 list. His solid technique is complemented by his aggressive stroke play and he has been rightly touted as one of the best young batsmen in world cricket today.

Williamson, 24, made his debut against India at Dambulla in August 2010. He has played 62 ODI matches and amassed 2189 runs at the impressive average of 43.78. His test record, especially in the past one year, has been incredible. In his last ten test matches, he has scored 1240 runs at the staggering average of 77.50.

As co-hosts, Kiwis have the home advantage but history is not on their side. New Zealand has never won a World Cup, and they would be expecting something special from Williamson to break the jinx.

Ahmad Shehzad (Pakistan)

The elegant right-handopening batsman has impressed all and sundry with his performance both in Tests and ODIs. His astonishing talent and wide range of strokes makes him a dangerous top-order batsman, however he needs to work on his consistency.

Shehzad, 23, made his ODI debut against Australia at Dubai in April 2009. He has not been a regular member of the team, because of form and injuries. In 56 ODI matches, he has accumulated 1915 runs at the decent average of 34.81. Age, however, is on his side.

Over the past one year, Shehzad has improved his game drastically, scoring runs consistently. Pakistan, which continues to be an unpredictable side, needs Shehzad to unleash himself at the upcoming World Cup.

Najibullah Zadran (Afghanistan)

He will be the dark-horse at the upcoming World Cup. The batting lynchpin of Afghanistan cricket team, Zadran is an aggressive middle-order batsman. His performance against the ICC Associate teams has been remarkable. His explosive brand of cricket and solid technique makes him dangerous.

This will be Afghanistan’s first World Cup appearance, and it is a perfect opportunity for Zadran to show his talent and class. Having already established his reputation as a match-winner, he is one of the players to watch out for at the World Cup.

(First published in Afghan Zariza)

Young Afghans: “I want to spread the message of hope and peace through art”

Syed Zafar Mehdi

Zakia Khojazada is a young artist from northern Mazar e Sharif province 

As a small girl, becoming an artist and painter was not a part of Zakia Khojazada’s career goals. She found the abstract lines drawn on a life-size canvas too mind-boggling to comprehend.

As GermanartistAnselm Kiefer once famously said, art is not entertainment, it is difficult. Zakia, by her own admission, was befuddled by the nitty-gritty of this art business.

Once, after much cajoling, Zakia’s friends took her to an art exhibition in Mazar e Sharif, her native place. A local artist was displaying his work at the exhibition. After carefully observing the beautiful paintings hanging on the hall, Zakia got her inspiration.

“Those paintings left an indelible impression on my mind and a voice inside told me I can also do it,” says Zakia, 24. “I felt an instant connection with those art works on display.”

From that day, Zakia started drawing paintings. “Initially, I used to draw quite erratically and randomly, and the paintings mostly ended up in a trash bin,” says Zakia. “I knew I could do better so I strived hard. I refused to give up.”

The support of family was a big source of encouragement for her. “My mother has always been a pillar of support and strength, she supported me and asked me to continue,” says Zakia. Her mother, although not a trained artist, knows quite a lot about the world of art. “Her inputs were crucial and helped me grow and evolve into a fine artist.”

Since 2010, Zakia has been studying fine arts and has made paintings on various themes. “The past four years have been the most fulfilling period of my life, now I feel like a professional artist,” she says.

Zakia Khojazada heads an association of young artists in northern Balkh province and guides other young artists, especially women

Today, she heads an association of young artists in northern Balkh province and guides other young artists, especially women. “I work with 40 other young women artists in my home province and it is amazing to see the interest they are showing towards art,” says Zakia.

She has held 10 exhibitions of her art works and plans to hold more exhibitions in future. “It is just the beginning, there is much more to be done,” says the young artist, oozing confidence. She is inspired by legendary artists like Ghulam Mohammad Maimangi, Ali Kohzad and others.

“Now we have huge number of young male and female artists in Afghanistan who are doing really well for themselves,” says Zakia. “It gives me tremendous hope about the future of art in Afghanistan.”

However, the lack of resources and facilities for young Afghan artists, she says, is a matter of concern. “If we get adequate resources and platform to showcase our talent, the whole world will sit up and take notice,” says the confident young lady.

“I want to use artto spread the message of hope, love and peace, especially in these times of war and despair,” says Zakia, referring to war and violence in Afghanistan.

Zakia wants to continue her work and open an art gallery for young women artists in her native province. “It is one of my deeply-cherished goals and I am fully committed to it,” she says.


The high costs of Afghanistan’s burgeoning opium economy

Syed Zafar Mehdi

With the security situation deteriorating and the international community getting ready to bid adieu after years, will the opium economy scale new heights or die a silent death?

Notwithstanding the strenuous efforts by government and the international community to dissuade farmers in Afghanistan from opium plantation, the year 2013 again proved to be a damp squib, as the fields growing poppies in the country alarmingly increased to 209,000 hectares, according to UN’s Afghanistan Opium Survey for 2013, conducted in collaboration with Ministry of Counter Narcotics, Afghan government. Afghanistan continues to be the world’s top opium producer, and interestingly the area covered by the opium in Afghanistan equals to the total area of Mauritius.

“This is the third consecutive year of increase in poppy cultivation,” says Jean-Luc Lemahieu, Afghanistan Director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. According to UN officials, the poppy farming is unlikely to drop before the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan, and it might only get worse after that.

The question hovering on everyone’s mind, however, is: Who benefits most from this opium cultivation and why the government efforts to curb it have proved a disaster? How will this burgeoning poppy economy play out after the withdrawal of foreign troops by the end of this year?

With the security situation rapidly deteriorating and the international forces getting ready to bid adieu to the beleaguered country, the opium producers and their backers are making merry

With the security situation rapidly deteriorating and the international forces getting ready to bid adieu to the beleaguered country, the opium producers and their backers are making merry. Opium fields in Afghanistan are the main sources of revenue to power lords and source of sustenance to poor farmers. According to UNODC-Ministry of Counter Narcotics 2013 survey, there was 36 percent increase in the area under opium cultivation in 2013. The opium production went up to 5,500 tonnes, registering 49 percent jump from 2012. Faryab and Balkh, the two provinces that had been declared poppy-free went back to square one.

“The prime factors responsible for this jump in opium cultivation are insecurity and poverty,” says Abdul Qayoom Samer, Spokesman for Ministry of Counter Narcotics. He says there is a strong network of insurgents and International drug mafia in Afghanistan. “The increase in opium cultivation is basically in the five southern provinces of country including Helmand and Kandahar, which are infested with these elements.”

The staggering value of opium makes it alluring to farmers who have to support their large families. According to experts, the increase in value of opium in 2012 was one of the prime factors behind the boost in opium cultivation in 2013, mostly in southern and western parts of Afghanistan. “The farmers were definitely encouraged by the jump in opium prices in 2012, which resulted in the increace of 36 percent in opium cultivation in 2013,” says Mohammad Hashim, social activist. The grinding web of poverty in these provinces is also a big factor for them to cultivate poppy, says Mr. Samer.

According to information from Ministry of Anti Narcotics, an astounding 89 percent of total opium production in 2013 was reported from nine provinces in southern and western Afghanistan. Helmand province continued to be the major poppy-cultivating province with 34 percent cultivation, followed by Kandahar with 16 percent. In the eastern part of country, which accounts for mere 9 percent of total opium cultivation, Nangarhar recorded fivefold increase and Laghman saw increase by 41 percent. In the northeast region, Badakhshan witnessed an increase in poppy cultivation by 23 percent.

Evolution of anti-narcotics policy

At a time when opium economy is on rise, the counternarcotics policies of Afghan government and international community have assumed critical importance, not only for curbing the cultivation of opium but also for security and rule of law in the country. Much to the chagrin of those leading the anti narcotics movement, the counternarcotics policies have failed to bring down the illicit economy of opium in the country.

“When the international forces intervened in Afghanistan in 2001, their single point agenda was to oust Taliban and facilitate transition from anarchy to democracy,” says Nawaz Noorani, a political analyst. “Counternarcotics did not figure prominently on their agenda.” In 2002, UK’s assistance mission in Afghanistan was entrusted with a task of eradicating narcotics. They started warily, with ‘compensated eradication’ program, under which the farmers who voluntarily eradicated the poppies got compensation. But, it was hindered by corruption and abandoned midway. The ‘eradication’ program was followed by ‘interdiction’ program in 2004, and it was targeted largely against small dealers while the big fishes sitting atop the illicit trade were left untouched.

“There was a calculated shift in the counternarcotics policies adopted by U.S. in 2009, when Obama administration made a big gamble, which has only proved a disaster,” says Mr. Noorani. The shift was from the 30-year old policy of eradication or annihilation to interdiction or prohibition. Eradication policy of counternarcotics, which was applied for 30 years, was based on force, where officials used to forcibly eradicate the illicit crops. On the other hand, interdiction policy, adopted in 2009, exhorted opium producers and traffickers to shun the practice.

There was a calculated shift in the counternarcotics policies adopted by U.S. in 2009, when Obama administration made a big gamble, which has only proved a disaster

“The policy of eradication only helps drug producers and traffickers as they benefit from huge stockpiles of poppy that they sell at a staggering price because of increased demand,” says Lisa Curtis, Senior Research Fellow at The Heritage Foundation. The two main elements of interdiction policy in Afghanistan has been interdiction of drug traffickers and rural development. The idea is to deprive armed insurgents weapons, money and drugs and force them to retreat. Thousands of interdiction raids have been carried out and tons of opium has been seized, yet the cultivation and trafficking has not stopped. A report by Center for International Cooperation (CIC) challenged this assumption. “Current counternarcotics policy in Afghanistan is financially benefiting – rather than hurting – insurgents,” it says. The policy should be refocused to discriminate against illegal armed groups and corrupt officials in enforcement, it suggests.

The U.S. policy encompasses the counternarcotics ‘alternative livelihood’ program. In 2009, the then Helmand Governor Mohammad Gulab Mangal distributed free wheat seeds to discourage farmers from cultivating poppy. The program clicked and was extended to other provinces as well. “Alternative livelihood programs are an essential component of the overall counternarcotics strategy in Afghanistan,” read the 2010 report by the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control.

Scenario post 2014

At a panel discussion held by International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs and U.S. Institute of Peace on U.S. counternarcotics policies in July last year, the former Minister of Counter Narcotics Zarar Ahmad Muqbel emphasized on having a ‘long-term, balanced and comprehensive approach’ to the challenge of combating drugs in Afghanistan and draw direct link between narcotics and insurgency. “The narcotics of all forms are a serious threat to the peace and security of Afghanistan,” he noted.

With historic Presidential elections approaching, followed by the withdrawal of international forces, the concerns over the effectiveness of current counternarcotics policy have gained ground. The latest reports about cultivation of opium touching a new high in 2013 are signs of what lies ahead. Experts fear the lack of security might make ground fertile for the return of large-scale opium trade. However, it will depend on the effectiveness of Afghan security forces.

Mr. Samer, however, sees no direct connection between counter-insurgency and opium cultivation. “I do not think the withdrawal of foreign forces will affect the opium business,” he says. “But, there is a possibility of security situation deteriorating after 2014, and insecurity is linked to opium, so there is an indirect link.”

(First published in Afghan Zariza)

Curious case of minorities in India


Syed Zafar Mehdi

“You can hold yourself back from the sufferings of the world, but this holding-back is the only suffering you could be able to avoid,” said Frank Kafka.

“Minority” is such a vague term. The Permanent Court of International Justice (PCIJ) in a 1930 judgement said, “ a minority is a group of persons living in a given country or locality, having a race, religion, language, and tradition of their own and united by this tradition of race, religion, language, and sentiments of solidarity, with a view to preserving their traditions, maintaining their forms of worship, ensuring the instructions and upbringing their children in accordance with the spirit and traditions of their race and rendering mutual assistance to each other”. This judgment of PCIJ became a starting point for the definition of a minority put forward by Professor Capotori in his report on the protection of minorities in 1977.

On the paper, Article 25 of the Constitution of India provides for freedom of conscience and free practice and propagation of religion, “subject to public order, morality, and decency and other provisions”. It has guaranteed right to religious and cultural freedom to all persons and groups as “sections of citizen” having a distinct language, script or culture of its own and minorities based on “religion and culture”.

The right to cultural freedom again constitutes one of the cornerstones of minority rights under Article 27 of International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), under which India is accountable to UN Human Rights Committee, to which it is required to submit periodic reports on its implementation.

The 1992 UN Declaration on Minority Rights goes beyond minority rights to preserve their culture, language and script and puts the positive obligation on the State to not only protect the national, ethnic, cultural, religious and linguistic identity of minorities, but also create favorable conditions to enable minorities to express their characteristics and to develop their culture, language, tradition and customs”.

In India, the word “minority” is mostly used in the context of religious communities – Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Parsis, Jews, Jains etc. India has world’s second largest Muslim population, next only to Indonesia. Though Indian constitution offers equal opportunities of education, employment, political representation to minorities, yet most of them are at loggerheads with the majority community and with the State. Punjab situation in early 90s, Babri Masjid-Ram Janambhoomi dispute, Gujarat riots, attacks on Christian missionaries and desecration of churches are some of the unfortunate events of our times.

These minorities’ related issues are not so uncommon in South Asia. Bangladesh with Chakamas of Buddhist origin, Pakistan with Shias and Ahmedis, Sri Lanka with Tamil minorities and Bhutan with Nepalese. However, as the self-proclaimed largest democracy in the world, India’s case is peculiar in more ways than one.

In their book ‘Human Rights, Gender and Environment’, authors Shashi Motilal and Bijayalaxmi Nanda put the facts responsible for the denial of minority rights into four categories. The ideological foundations of the States that promote and maintain ethnic, linguistic or religious superiority of the majority groups; the communalisation of politics and politicisation of religion; lack of awareness among the minorities about human rights and democracy and the ideology at political and social level.

Exploitation of the rights of minorities in India goes on several fronts. The rights of religious minorities, ethnic minorities, dalits, tribals, women, children, poor and disadvantaged are frequently violated with sheer contempt. Despite run-of-the-mill commissions and committees to look after these specific groups and umpteen numbers of laws to safeguard their rights, crimes against them continue at an alarming rate.

The Human Rights Committee of ICCPR while commenting on the report that India submitted before it in 1997 had noted with concern the continued severe social and political discrimination against national minorities, STs, SCs, and OBCs. It regretted the de-facto perpetuation of the caste-system entrenching the social differences. Discussing the status of women, the committee noted that under-representation of women in public life, religion based personal laws violate the right to equality of women. The injustices perpetuated against lower caste people (Dalits) are not merely social but also economical. They have been victims of discrimination in the sphere of education and employment for centuries. Prime factors responsible for it are – socio-economic structure, various legal measures and to top it all, the lack of political will. The caste system is the biggest anomaly. NHRC aptly termed it as “historic wrong”.

The blatant violation of the rights of indigenous people has also emerged as an area of concern. Indigenous people are also called as tribals, aboriginals, autochthons etc. They number around 300 million in over 70 countries on five planets. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW) report, dalits and indigenous people in India (STs or Adivasis) continue to face discrimination and exclusion. It says laws and policies adopted by Indian government provide a strong basis for protection, but are not being faithfully implemented by local authorities. Amnesty International in its report says it is the responsibility of government to fully enact and apply its legal provisions against discrimination on the basis of caste and creed.

Notwithstanding Article 19 (5) of Indian Constitution giving them right to move about freely, settle in and acquire property, they are still a deprived lot. The forest dwelling tribal population has not only lost their land, but also their livelihood. It’s an irony that the rich natural resources and mineral wealth of tribal areas is a prime cause of land alienation among tribal people. Government on the pretext of development and modernization has been displacing them from their lands, resulting in their starvation.

In Dec 1993, the United Nations Convention on Elimination of Discrimination against Women was adopted. It strictly prohibits violence against women, and calls for universal application of the rights and principles with regard to equality, security, liberty, integrity and dignity of all human beings. But despite that, women have been facing worst forms of harassment and violence in many states across India. They have been killed, tortured, raped, and harassed, all under the nose of police and other law enforcement agencies. The recent case of a young physiotherapist Nirbhaya who died after being brutally gang-gaped in Delhi was splashed in all major newspapers across the world. But, there are many Nirbhayas across India whose plight remains untold and unheard.

Children are also the victims of rights violations. Child labour continues to be a menacing problem in this country. The minimum age for child labour in Indian Child Labour Act is 14 years, slightly lower than ILO’s 15-year bar. But still innumerable children below that age keep toiling hard and are forced to do demanding and backbreaking labour. The glass factory in Firozabad, fireworks industry in Sivakasi, gem polishing in Surat and lock industry in Aligarh are some sectors where the incidence of child labour is high. It is caused by an inequitable economic system. As Justice P.N Bhagwati once said, it is not the result of widespread poverty, but one of the factors which perpetuate poverty. Even Human Rights Watch world report 2007 criticizes India saying, “The leading human rights concerns in India include the failure to implement policies that protect the rights of children”.

When the topic veers towards religious minorities, human rights discourse turns on its head. By the definition given by UN Convention on Prevention and Punishment for the Crimes of Genocide, India is the only democracy in the world that has treated its minorities to not one but four genocide killings in the span of 18 years. Delhi (1984), Bhagalpur (1987), Bombay (1992), Gujarat (2002). Sikhs were the targets in first, and Muslims were the targets in rest. Christians have also been at the receiving end of saffron terror in Orissa, Karnataka, Kerala and Madhya Pradesh.

In 1984, anti-Sikh riots were allegedly staged and sponsored by secular-centrist Congress Party of India, post Operation Bluestar and assassination of former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, by her Sikh bodyguard. In the 4-day period of riots, some estimates say around 2000 were killed. The most affected regions were neighborhoods in Delhi. There are serious allegations that it was organised by State and it later destroyed evidence and shielded the guilty, most of them the prominent Congress leaders and workers. The Asian Age newspaper carried a front-page story calling government action “Mother of all Cover-ups” (The Asian Age, 03 May 96). Ten commissions and committees have so far inquired into the riots and many of the accused were acquitted or never charge-sheeted. Nanavati Commission submitted its report in February 2004. It claimed evidence against Congressmen Jagdish Tytler, Sajjan Kumar, H.K.L Bhagat for instigating the mobs to violence, and held the then police commissioner S.C Tandon directly responsible for the riots. It was a gruesome carnage engineered against Sikhs. Even noted author Khushwent Singh, a close confidante of Mrs Gandhi, says he felt “like a refugee in my own country, in fact like a Jew in Nazi Germany”.

It was followed by anti-Muslim riots in Bhagalpur (87) and Mumbai (91-92). The latter took place after the demolition of Babri Masjid and subsequent serial blasts. About 1000 people were killed during the course of riots, mostly Muslims. As a result, large number of Muslims was forced to migrate from Hindu-majority areas to Muslim-majority areas, drastically changing the demographics of city on religious lines. Many others migrated to relatively safer states like UP.

Majority of victims fell prey to utterly atrocious acts like stabbing, mob brutality, physical assaults, loot, arson, and shootouts. Property worth crores was razed to ground. “Not the cold, impersonal genocide of terrorism, but vindictive, visceral violence of loathing that turns neighbors into butchers and friends into murderers” (Indian Express 31 Aug 07).

Maharashtra police was literally given the free run, as government and law-enforcement agencies stood in paralysed state. Politicians like Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray, the then CM Manohar Joshi, BJP leader Gopinath Munde fully backed the rioters, as Sri Krishna Commission report revealed later. The report implicated Shiv Sena and its leadership for the riots. It said, “Thackeray like a veteran general commanded his loyal Shiv Sainiks to retaliate by organising attacks against Muslims”. Pertinently, he was given a state funeral after his death recently.

Gujarat was the next stop. Following the Godhra train fire that claimed 57 lives of Hindu pilgrims, over a thousand Muslims were mowed down in cold blood by angry mob (Human Rights Watch, 2006). “In its aftermath, more than 2000 people, many of them women and children were massacred and thousands rendered homeless in one of the Independent India’s worst communal pogroms” (Tehelka 11 Oct 08). Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi brazenly justified the bloodbath as a ‘natural’ reaction to the events at Godhra, thus confirming official sanction to the carnage. It was by all accounts and evidences a state-managed pogrom led by VHP, RSS, Bajrang Dal, with full patronage of Modi. Ironically, he is being touted as the future Prime Minister of India.

Tehelka investigation blew the lid off the whole conspiracy. Its tapes raised serious questions over the impartiality of the Nanavati-Shah Commission that investigated the pogrom. Amusingly enough, while making the report, the two-member commission neither summoned nor examined the Tehelka tapes and even failed to initiate inquiry into the revelations of the tapes. In Sept 2004, Railway Ministry instituted a second Commission of Inquiry under Justcie U C Banerjee, which stated that the fire in coach 6 was “accidental”. As noted human rights activist and Journalist Teesta Setalvad said, “It becomes a sordid justification for unleashing the post-Godhra carnage across Gujarat” (Tehelka 11 Oct 08).

Muslims in India have been stereotyped as anti-nationals and renegades by the media. An activist with Muslims for Secular Democracy, Javed Anand, makes a valid point. “When our investigation agencies say Pakistan’s ISI or LeT, Bangladesh’s Jihad-e-Islami, SIMI, or Indian Mujahideen is suspected of being responsible for blasts in one city or other, its considered (rightly so) and is displayed prominently on front pages. But when anti-terrorist squad of Maharashtra Police, not merely suspects but after investigation files charge sheet in court accusing Bajrang Dal activists of engaging in ‘terrorist acts’ with covert logistical support from other wings of Sangh Parivar, that is not news”.

We have seen journalists, academics, students and even common man being abused, vilified, and targeted by state and its agencies. The controversial arrest of New Delhi-based journalist Mohammad Ahmad Kazmi by Delhi Police’s notorious Special Cell last year in connection with the attack on Israeli diplomat’s car in New Delhi was a reminder of the mindless witch-hunts and persecutions of innocent Muslims. The case against him had been manufactured on bundle of lies, dubious charges and unsubstantiated evidence, simply because he was a staunch critic of Israel and US. Delhi University Professor SAR Geelani was framed in the 2001 Parliament attack case, just because he had a beard, was a Muslim, a Kashmiri and taught Arabic.

The ghosts of Batla House fake encounter that took place on September 19 2008 in South Delhi still haunt the Muslims here. Two students Atif Amin and Mohammad Sajid were gunned down and two others were arrested. Recently, there have been more custodial killings, like that of Khalid Mujahid, an undertrial arrested in 2007 in connection with bomb blasts in UP who died on 19 May, 2013 when he was being escorted by a team of the Uttar Pradesh state police from a court in Faizabad to Lucknow jail. His death is still shrouded in mystery.

Ishrat Jahan, a 19 year old college girl, was mowed down in cold blood in 2004 by Gujarat Police Crime Branch and dubbed as the Lashkar Toiba operative. The case took a turn recently when India’s Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) charged eight Gujarat policemen, including senior officers DG Vanzara and PP Pandey, with premeditated murder of Ishrat. According to CBI, IB (another investigation agency) Special Director Rajinder Kumar was the ‘kingpin’ of operation, who conspired with Vanzara and Pandey to eliminate Ishrat. Noted commentator Praful Bidwai makes a valid point. “The IB, like the external spy agency RAW (Research and Analysis Wing of the Cabinet Secretariat), has always stood to the right of elected governments. These agencies follow the paranoid dictum, ‘it’s better to be safe than sorry’, and exaggerate threats to ‘national security’, of which they are the self-appointed guardians.” (The News, July 13, 2013)

The impact on minorities due to rapid communalisation of politics is far glaring and perilous. As Martha Nussbaum writes, “In the case of India, the threat to democracy comes not from any clash between European and Non-European civilizations but from something much more sadly familiar: a romantic European conception of nationalism, based on ideas of blood, soil, purity and the Volksgeist”. (The Clash Within, 2007).

(First published in Press TV Iran)