Shooting the messenger

First published in The Hindu

Though there is a law in place to “protect” people coming forward to expose corruption, the safety of whistle-blowers cannot be guaranteed in India


“In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”

– George Orwell

The Supreme Court’s insistence that the identity of the secret informer — who gave the copy of the entry registers of the official residence of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) Director, exposing his meetings with 2G spectrum scam accused — be revealed, has the potential to seriously deter anonymous whistle-blowing in India. The lawyer, Prashant Bhushan, who submitted the document against the CBI chief in the form of an affidavit in the on-going investigations into the 2G scam, will now have to satisfy the court regarding the veracity of the evidence. The court, for its part, has taken recourse to the justification that court rules obligate every person filing an affidavit to disclose the source of his/her information. It has sought the information in a sealed cover.

Though there is a law in place with the apparent intention to “protect” people coming forward to expose corruption, the safety of whistle-blowers cannot be guaranteed in India. In an affidavit filed by the Centre for Public Interest Litigation (CPIL) on September 18, the appellants have noted that “revealing the identity of informants in the corruption case would not only be a breach of trust on the part of the organisation, but would also tantamount to putting them under serious risk of bodily harm, harassment or victimisation.” It has further argued that revealing the identity of the whistle-blower is not pertinent, as in most cases involving public interest, the court “has taken cognisance of information placed before it without asking the source of the information from the petitioners.” It cites the example of a bench headed by Justice J.S. Verma who never asked for the source of the ‘Jain diary’ in the Hawala case and yet ordered a court-monitored investigation into the Vineet Narain case (1998) 1 SCC 226.

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A Valentine’s Day Punishment

(Originally published in the Special LGBTI issue of Pambazuka News)

Uganda President Yoweri Museveni has justified the anti-gay bill as necessary in order to defend society from disorientation.


It was on the day meant to celebrate romantic love worldwide that Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni announced to members of his party that he would sign the controversial Anti-Homosexuality Bill into law. The Valentine’s Day announcement by the President might have increased his popularity at home but the law itself is patently unconstitutional. The law is in clear violation of Section 29 of Uganda’s Constitution protecting freedom of expression, conscience, and belief. It states that only marriages between a man and a woman would be recognised and homosexual behaviour and related practices would be prohibited and penalised. The law also prohibits ratification of any international treaties, conventions, protocols, agreements, and declarations which are contrary or inconsistent with the provisions of the Act and prohibits the licensing of organisations that ‘promote’ homosexuality.

Only last month, in Nigeria President Goodluck Jonathan approved the Same Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Bill 2013, effectively banning gay marriage, same-sex partnerships, and participation in gay rights groups. In Nigeria, same-sex sexual acts, including touching in public, merit a life sentence in prison under the new law. The same is the case with not reporting homosexual people to the authorities. United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, condemned the Nigerian law saying, “Rarely have I seen a piece of legislation that in so few paragraphs directly violates so many basic, universal human rights.”

Of the 19 African countries that are part of the Commonwealth, 17 have laws which criminalise homosexuality

What we are witnessing now is a wave of new legislation reinforcing prejudices imbibed from colonial-era laws that criminalise same-sex sexual relations. Uganda and Nigeria already had laws that criminalised homosexuality; these new laws go a step further by enhancing existing penalties. In fact, of the 19 African countries that are part of the Commonwealth, 17 have laws which criminalise homosexuality. Rwanda and South Africa are the only two African Commonwealth countries which do not have such legislation. This is not surprising given that 80 percent of Commonwealth member states have laws criminalising private consensual same-sex sexual relations.

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Commonwealth must honour its own commitments

[First published in Groundviews]

The choice of Sri Lanka as a venue for CHOGM 2013 has always remained controversial. 

Mahinda Rajapaksa speaking at CHOGM 2013

Two weeks from now, the Heads of Government of 53 Commonwealth countries will congregate in Colombo’s Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall to discuss, among other things, the Commonwealth’s commitment towards the promotion of human rights, democracy and the rule of law in keeping with the Harare Declaration. Sri Lanka has consistently breached all three values. Two years have passed since the decision to allow Sri Lanka to host CHOGM was taken in Perth but little progress has been made by the island nation with regards to initiating accountability measures for credible allegations of war crimes.

On October 31, I had attended a meeting organised by the Human Rights Watch in New Delhi in which torture victims from Sri Lanka who have been brutally beaten, raped and abused by either the police or military personnel in 2012 gave testimonies over Skype from their hospital bed. These were a handful of people who have been fortunate enough to escape from the island nation and find refuge in a foreign land. Charu Lata Hogg, a London-based human rights researcher said that between 2006 and 2012, 75 cases of sexual violence against men and women from the Tamil minority community have been found and several of these victims hail from the camps for internally displaced persons. According to the Sri Lankan military’s own admission there have been 11 cases of sexual abuse against Tamils by military personnel in 2012, but this is a highly underestimated number, according to Ms. Hogg.

It is worth recalling the very serious violations of Commonwealth values committed by Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka has not implemented the recommendations of its own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission. Add to this the consolidation of powers in the hands of the President and his family; the impeachment of the Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake in January which the Sri Lankan Supreme Court held unconstitutional; the killing and abduction of journalists resulting in suppression of free speech; excessive militarisation in Tamil-dominated regions which proved to be a “significant obstacle to a credible electoral process” according to Commonwealth monitors who oversaw the recent elections in the northern provincial council.

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In deep water

(This piece was written in 2006 for a narrative writing class at the Asian College of Journalism.)

Located about four km from Pondicherry town, Thengaithittu could well be Keats’ unravished bride of quietness. Even the sea here, for all its proverbial chaos, is a prophet in meditation. The tall coconut trees lining the coast, their heads nodding gently in the wind, embodied the very meaning of the name of the island – ‘island of coconuts’. Looking at the bright green vegetable farms, thick mangrove swamps edging the estuary and the villagers who welcomed me with happy smiles it was difficult to believe that this island could soon be lost to the hungry tide…

When I left for Pondicherry, I felt that it was too touristy for the adventure story assigned by Robin Reisig, my narrative journalism tutor. Its rocky beaches, French cuisine and the Aurobindo Ashram are popular already. The plan, therefore, was to visit Arikkamedu near Pondicherry, where the relics of the Roman sea trade were excavated in the 1940’s. Much had been written about this place as well. But thankfully like Columbus, who was determined to explore one place, I too ended up elsewhere. Upon reaching Pondicherry, my friend Probir Banerjee, an environmental activist with PondyCAN! (Pondy Citizens’ Action Network), informed me about a recent government proposal to expand the existing port in Pondicherry. Thengaithittu, the island abutting the port, would be worst-hit if this were to happen as it would become more vulnerable to strong tidal action, he said. Led by curiosity and quest I visited the endangered island.

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India’s Development Paradox Explained

First published in Biblio: A Review of Books, Vol. XVII Nos. 9&10 Sep-Oct, 2012. (Accessed online at

Why is the India story a paradox of high growth rates on the one hand and abysmal human development indicators on the other? The Indian welfare state, with its innumerable development programs, is supposed to have wiped poverty out, but somehow for the 65 years since its independence, chronic poverty has continued to mar its progress report. Anthropologist Akhil Gupta sets out to solve this puzzle in this academic tome which is the product of years of fieldwork conducted in the lower level bureaucracies of the state of Uttar Pradesh. Drawing upon Michel Foucault’s idea of biopolitics and Agamben’s work on the state of exception, Akhil Gupta theorises the inability of the bureaucratic apparatus to successfully realise the goals of ambitious development programs as a form of structural violence that allows the poor to die through indifference. This embedded violence results in the procedures of bureaucracy subverting its own best intentions, he says. The central argument of the thesis is that bureaucratic action repeatedly and systematically produces arbitrary outcomes in its provision of care. He develops his theoretical position by drawing upon insights from fieldwork experiences. For example, the author uses a rather typical case study of the manner in which bureaucrats use guesswork to determine the age of eligible beneficiaries to allocate pension for elderly people in a camp, which results in not all eligible poor persons receiving the benefits of the programme. Gupta points to the sheer contingency underlying the workings of a supposedly highly rationalised, bureaucratic state as Max Weber had originally theorised it to be.

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