NATIONAL

Not shining but not in darkness either

There have been occasions in the past when the country has had to celebrate Independence Day in a sombre mood. In 1984, for instance, the Red Fort ceremony and related festivities were preceded by Operation Blue Star and followed by Indira Gandhi's assassination. Mercifully, there is nothing comparable this year around. India may not be shining but it is not enveloped in darkness either. However, complacency is out of place, and there is a lot to be deeply worried about.

After relative price stability over several years the sudden spurt in inflation — 7.61 per cent at the time of writing — has hit the people hard. Particularly painful is the plight of the elderly belonging to the lower middle class whose paltry incomes had already been eroded by declining interest rates. For the starving 300 million people living below the poverty line, of course, the weekly index of wholesale prices has no meaning.

Malignant malaise

Another depressing element in the situation is a renewed exposure of the great and apparently growing contempt for the rule of law that all political parties foster when in power and inveigh against when out of it. Partly by coincidence and partly by design this malignant malaise has again shifted close to centre-stage. After the dismal drama focussed on Shibu Soren, the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha leader and former Union Coal Minister, now in judicial custody, the Union Minister of State for Agriculture, Mohammed Taslimuddin, is caught in a similar bind. A non-bailable warrant against him, too, has been pending for four years.

Nobody explains why it was not enforced all this time but the matter has suddenly become the cause for yet another bout of partisan political warfare. The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance has served notice that if the "tainted" Minister does not quit immediately, Parliament should bid farewell to all hopes of any business being conducted in the two Houses when they reassemble on Monday.

Manipur issue

Nothing clouds the national horizon on the eve of Independence Day more ominously than the alarming and steadily worsening mess in the sensitive, north-eastern State of Manipur. To put what is going on in perspective let me mention an outstanding civil servant of yore, Vishnu Sahay, who had served as Cabinet Secretary for a record period of over seven years (1953-61). Thereafter, he did a five-year stint as Governor of Assam and all the other States that currently comprise the strategic North-East. As far back as in the early Eighties, he had told me that there would never be any danger of secession in Punjab (where an insurgency was then raging) or in Kashmir. "But," he had added, "such a disaster might take place some day in the North-East if the region's complex problems continue to be mishandled, or rather ignored, as at present." His words need to be heeded, if only because of the possible repercussions of the utterly shocking goings-on in Manipur, without anyone applying the corrective, for five weeks.

Sadly, this confirms Mr. Sahay's lament that to the policy-makers in New Delhi, the North-East is a "far-away area about which they know little and care even less." The present Cabinet Secretary, B.K. Chaturvedi's letter to all top officials — written at the Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh's behest — directing them to devote "greater attention" to the north-eastern region, ravaged by chronic insurgencies, has not come a day too soon. But there is no way one can congratulate the Manmohan Singh Government for its handling of the "Imphal inferno."

In the first place, the response to the highly emotive allegations of the rape and custodial killing of Thangjam Manorama has been neither prompt nor sensitive enough. Even after a dozen women came out in the street without any clothes and Imphal burned, no senior leader from Delhi considered it necessary to go to Manipur. A junior Minister who did go proved himself unequal to the task. Worse, according to published reports denied by no one, the Assam Rifles personnel summoned by the Inquiry Commission appointed by the State Government are refusing to appear before it.

Different voices

Secondly, on the issue of withdrawing the Assam Rifles the Union Ministers of Home and Defence publicly spoke in different voices. Later, its 17th battalion, the main target of the mass protests, was shifted from its citadel in Imphal to some place 17 km away.

Thirdly — and most importantly — the Centre has given itself a certificate of ineffectiveness by adopting a policy of "wait and watch" over the totally unacceptable action of the Congress Chief Minister of Manipur, Okram Ibobi Singh, in lifting the AFSPA from the Imphal municipal area "on a trial basis." If he has done so in defiance of New Delhi's public stand that the law would not be withdrawn, things are bad. If the Union Government has tacitly let him do it, then they are worse. The bad example set by the Punjab Chief Minister, Amarinder Singh, in unilaterally cancelling all water-sharing agreements is predictably proving to be contagious. If Mr. Ibobi Singh also gets away with his misdemeanour, then God alone knows how far other States, anxious to assert themselves, might go.

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