March 7, 2011


[Manmohan Singh's statement to lawmakers marked another setback for the 78-year-old leader, whose Congress-led government is reeling over a series of graft scandals, including a multi-billion-dollar telecoms licensing scam.]


NEW DELHI: India's Prime Minister on Monday accepted responsibility after the Supreme Court struck down his choice of a tainted civil servant to serve as the country's chief anti-corruption officer.

Manmohan Singh's statement to lawmakers marked another setback for the 78-year-old leader, whose Congress-led government is reeling over a series of graft scandals, including a multi-billion-dollar telecoms licensing scam.

Addressing the lower house of parliament, Singh admitted his "error of judgment" and said he respected the Supreme Court's decision to cancel the appointment of Central Vigilance Commissioner P.J. Thomas.

Singh appointed Thomas in September, although the official had been charged in 2000 over his role in allegedly fraudulent imports of palm oil from Malaysia while he worked as a civil servant in the Kerala state government in the 1990s.

The 60-year-old civil servant has never been prosecuted in the palm oil case and has always maintained his innocence, blaming the accusations on political rivalry in Kerala.

But with lawmakers clamouring for an explanation, Singh said: "Obviously there has been an error of judgement and I accept full responsibility."

The Central Vigilance Commission is India's leading anti-corruption watchdog.

The latest development comes as the government has been battling corruption scandals for the past six months that have caused concern among voters and troubled foreign investors.

The Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, India's main opposition group, has called the Supreme Court ruling "the biggest blow to Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi", who is president of the ruling Congress party.

Media and opposition criticism of Singh, once seen as the "Mr Clean" of India's notoriously dirty politics, has been so intense that he was forced to deny rumours that he might resign last month.

ASSOCIATED PRESS/The Himalayan Times

BEIJING: Tibet will likely experience small shock waves when the Dalai Lama dies, but a Chinese official said Monday that the government would not now allow any serious instability to rock the region.

Although the Tibetan region is quiet now, it was roiled by violent anti-government riots three years ago that killed at least 22 people and set off a wave of protests across Tibetan areas of western China. Beijing blamed the unrest on followers of the Dalai Lama, who it says are seeking to separate Tibet from China. The Tibetan spiritual leader has denied that, saying he is working only for a high degree of autonomy under Chinese rule.

In the wake of the riots, China closed off the remote Himilayan region, barring international tourists for about a year. On Monday, Chinese travel agents said they had been ordered not to allow foreign visitors into the region around the upcoming third anniversary of the riots. Foreigners heading to Tibet have always needed special permits in addition to their Chinese visas and must travel with tour groups.

As part of its efforts to maintain control over Tibet, China regularly maligns the Dalai Lama, who is the head of Tibet's government-in-exile, and tries to play down his importance to the people in the region. Tibet's former Beijing-appointed governor, Qiangba Puncog, said Monday that the exiled spiritual leader still has religious clout but no political influence in China.

"Of course there will be some small shock waves due to religious factors, but we will take that into consideration and will surely guarantee long-term political stability in Tibet," Puncog, who now heads the regional legislature, told reporters in Beijing.

The Dalai Lama, who fled Tibet amid an abortive uprising against Chinese rule in 1958, remains deeply revered among many Tibetans despite Beijing's decades-long campaign to vilify him and undermine his influence. The 76-year-old, who is 14th in the line of reincarnations, has at times insisted his successor would be born in exile but has also said the tradition could end with his death. He has talked about dividing his power, with his reincarnation carrying on spiritual duties while someone else — perhaps someone he appoints — takes up the leadership of the exile movement.

China says that the reincarnation tradition cannot be abandoned and that the next Dalai Lama must be born in a Tibetan area under Chinese control. After the death of the last Panchen Lama, Tibetan Buddhism's second-highest spiritual leader, Beijing refused to accept the Dalai Lama's choice and appointed another boy instead.

Evidence of the control China exerts on the region was evident in the order reported by travel agents Monday. Beijing Youth Travel Service saleswoman Li Jianyue said the order was conveyed verbally, as is often the case with official directives that the government does not wish to defend or explain.

"A few days ago, they told us not to organize the foreign groups this month," Li said. The unrest broke out March 14, 2008.

The top Chinese government official for Tibet, Zhang Qingli, confirmed there were restrictions but said they were being enforced for safety reasons, citing possible overcrowding and the bitterly cold winter weather.

Tourists from outside the country were banned entirely for more than a year following the 2008 riots in Lhasa. China responded with a massive military crackdown in which Tibetan rights groups say nearly 140 Tibetans were killed.


[Each member in the queue raised their fist to whisper "lal salaam" - "red salute". Mostly aged between 15 and 30 years old, the men and women in the camp wore rubber sandals, olive green battle fatigues and carried guns of various makes.]

Thousands of people have been killed in the bloody Maoist insurgency across swathes of central and eastern India. The BBC's Suvojit Bagchi, who was granted unprecedented access to a Maoist camp in the depths of the Chhattisgarh jungle, describes the rebels' precarious life.

After eight hours of walking in dense forest, in the early evening we entered a narrow, barren stretch of land hemmed in by hillocks.

At the far end stood a few blue and yellow tents.

Somji, one of the men who collected me between a small town in south Chhattisgarh and the thick central Indian forest, picked up speed as we approached.

A tall man standing guard with a rifle flung over his shoulder whistled and people started rushing towards us.

In under a minute, the camp members stood in formation and began singing a welcome song.

Each member in the queue raised their fist to whisper "lal salaam" - "red salute". Mostly aged between 15 and 30 years old, the men and women in the camp wore rubber sandals, olive green battle fatigues and carried guns of various makes.

India's Maoist rebels say they are fighting for the rights of indigenous tribespeople and the rural poor. But the battle has been brutal: they frequently launch deadly attacks on India's security forces and those thought to support them.

In April 2010 Chhattisgarh was the site of the bloodiest Maoist attack yet on the security forces - 75 troops were killed. Paramilitary forces also launched attacks on tribal communities to restrict Maoist activities.

Camp security

Maoist platoons normally set up their camps in a semi-circle with one tent in the centre - the "headquarter".

Every time a camp is set up, the commander conducts a roll-call and updates camp members about their responsibilities if they come under attack.

Akash, 18, was in charge of my security at the first camp. He also gave me a few lessons in self defence.

He slept for about four hours each night: two hours were spent guarding the camp from under a mohua tree in drenching rain.

Nonetheless, he never failed to wake me up early for my walks through several kilometres of rain-sodden forest.

Though the purpose of these walks was to take me to villages and camps in the Maoist-controlled Dandakaranya forest, I learned the rebels walked long distances every few days for their own safety.

"If we stay in a place for long, chances are that information of our stay will get out and we will get encircled."

The constant movement, he told me, also helps them gather information about the whereabouts of security forces from villagers.

The relationship with villagers in areas they control is generally positive, but not always. Maoist will kill suspected informers and that has the potential to create a climate of fear. But they are also aware that harming ordinary villagers will simply erode their support base.

But this is a highly polarised area. In areas controlled by the paramilitary units there is little support for the Maoists - and villagers who display such sympathies have uncertain fates.

Camp routine

On days when we were not moving camp, I would rest on my makeshift bed of a plastic sheet, and watch the "comrade-soldiers" swinging their guns to instructions being shouted out by a platoon commander.

Ganita, 18 and a deft hand with a rifle, also gave me a detailed account of their daily chores.

Maoists participate in "community service", she said, such as helping elderly farmers, digging village wells and providing basic health care to locals.

This week Ganita was assigned to kitchen work.

Her kitchen was spread under one tent. Breakfast was limited to rice cooked with turmeric and ground nuts, while both lunch and dinner were just lentil soup and rice.

However, during my stay, frog, wild boar and monitor lizard meat were served a few times.

Evenings were dedicated to the study of party literature.
Published by the publicity wing of the Communist Party of India (Maoist), the writings highlighted party strategy and criticised the Indian state. They have about 12 magazines and the main one is published in the local tribal language, Gondi.

Each camp had one or two solar-powered car batteries that were used to power LED lamps that lit tents at night.

A couple of times each week, everybody assembled for a singing session in one of the plastic tents.

Local Gondi tunes were fused with revolutionary lyrics and hymns were sung to the memory of martyrs. The singing session would end with the BBC's Hindi news bulletin on the radio - soon to disappear as part of spending cuts.

"This is our only source of objective information," Maoist spokesperson in south Chhattisgarh, Gudsa Usendi, told me.


When there were no sing-songs, films would be played on a laptop late into the night.

One film that was repeatedly screened was Do Bigha Zameen or Two Acres of Land, made in 1953 about the plight of a small farmer in Nehru's India.

Another popular film was The Axis of War which includes a depiction of Mao's long march.

Interestingly, Bruce Lee's Enter the Dragon is a roaring hit among the young cadres.

The guerrillas often invited locals to join their late-night soirees when they stayed near villages.

Most villagers had never seen a film before the Maoists showed them one.

"Families finish dinner early and come here to watch the late-night show whenever there is one," said one villager.

At the end of the day, I would lie down with up to a dozen guerrillas in one of the cramped tents.

As I drifted off to sleep, I couldn't help thinking how the peace of the night - despite the snoring of sleeping rebels and the buzzing of countless mosquitoes - belied the dangers that surrounded us.

BBC New South Asia