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“I couldn’t sleep at night. Had I sent them home to their deaths?” – An ex-asylum officer tells all

Asylum officerMihoko Takata

Some of the details described below may be upsetting.

I worked for the UK Border Agency (UKBA) for 10 years, three of which were spent reviewing asylum applications.

It was my job to review the cases of people coming to Britain in fear of their lives, and work out whether they were telling the truth or not.

There are plenty of reasons why people lie about seeking asylum. They might be trying to make a better living for themselves, or simply trying to join their family. They think they won’t get in on an immigration visa, or they can’t afford to pay for one – so they try to convince us that they need protection from persecution.

It was my job to differentiate between them, and those whose lives depended on me believing them.

Some of the stories I heard have been impossible to forget.

There was one lady who had been caught up in the Russian-Chechen war in the 2000s. She’d been taken prisoner and was raped repeatedly for 18 months. She told me she’d had several abortions, carried out by the other women in her cell.

When I questioned how an abortion could be performed in a cell, she told me, “You take one of the bedsprings from the mattress, and you use that.”

For so many of these cases, you sit someone down in a room and essentially say, “Tell me about the worst thing that ever happened to you, in detail, and I will try to prove that you are lying.”

This lady had to sit there in that room as two men, the interpreter and I, spent four hours asking her the most appalling, intimate questions, trying to disprove her story.

By the time we’d finished, I felt absolutely wretched.

However, there are some stories that stick in the mind for other reasons.

Under the European Convention of Human Rights, you cannot send anyone back to their own country if they might face the death penalty. So, when a known terrorist came to us from India, we didn’t grant him asylum, but we couldn’t send him back, either.

He’s now a taxi driver living somewhere in England.

For three years, I made judgements on cases like these, interviewing maybe five or six people per week. There are people who are living in the UK today because I spent a few hours in a room with them and supported their case.

Equally, I’m sure there are people who have been wrongly sent back because of me, and God alone knows what’s happened to them. The responsibility can feel truly overwhelming.

I always tried to keep in mind what it would take to uproot your whole life, leaving your home and your country, leaving everyone and everything you know, and travelling halfway across the globe to a strange place. What would really make you do that?

Some of my co-workers, however, seemed to think that their job was to refuse people wherever possible. I remember one caseworker complaining that her village was now, “full of Pakis”. When I asked her if she thought she was in the right job, she replied, “Yes, because I’ve got the chance to stop more coming in.” I found that incredibly disturbing.

In some cases, I was instructed to refuse a person because they didn’t meet the rules. I would go home and think, “Have I just started the process of sending someone home to die?”

There were nights where I couldn’t sleep.

Eventually, I moved off asylum interviews and started work on what we called the ‘backlog’: people who had applied for indefinite leave to remain(which would give them the right to stay in the UK without time restrictions), and whose cases had fallen through the cracks.

Some applicants had been waiting for a response for nine or 10 years. Many had already left the country, or died.

Consequently, we were under a lot of pressure to get these sorted as quickly as possible, and I felt like my ability to make sound judgements was compromised.

When you’ve not got the correct information to hand, you’re meant to write to the applicant and clarify it. But when an application is 10 years old, the chances of the person still living at the given address is slim. So we’d write to them, they wouldn’t respond, and because we couldn’t track down the necessary information, they’d be refused.

They’d still have the right to appeal that decision. But they’d often run out of time, and be forced to go home before they had a chance to do so.

I left UKBA in 2011, when the rate to apply for indefinite leave to remain in the UK was £950. Today, people pay up to £1875.

I recently spoke to someone who fled here from Zimbabwe, and is waiting for a response to his application for indefinite leave to remain. While it’s considered, he’s not permitted to work or to claim benefits. His passport is with the Government while they review his application, and will have been stamped with, “no access to public funds” – so he’s living on credit cards and handouts from friends.

His story isn’t unusual.

Because you’re without your passport while your application is considered, this often means you cannot travel. This is usually decided on a case-by-case basis. I met a woman whose mother was severely ill, but she couldn’t go home to visit her, due to her documents being with the Home Office.

I spent 10 years doing this job. The number of times I’d sat in a room and had someone tell me either the most horrendous thing imaginable, or blatantly lie though their teeth, is countless. You get to a point where you think, “actually, I can’t do this anymore”.

I now work for a charity, where I help people get themselves out of debt. I’ve never looked back.

– James, UKBA employee 2001 – 2011

A Home Office spokesperson said:

“The UK Border Agency was disbanded and restructured in 2013 to improve performance and we are now consistently meeting service standards. Our officers’ commitment to fairness when dealing with asylum claims has also been noted by the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration.”

As told to Catriona White

Illustrations by Mihoko Takata

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#SundayReading – How the Netherlands used Literature to defy the Nazis

Anne Frank house bookcase

A bookcase in the offices of Anne Frank’s father’s workplace concealed the family’s hiding place.

Seventy-two years after Anne Frank and her family were discovered and arrested in their Amsterdam hiding place, the plot of one of the Holocaust’s most tragic stories has thickened. Despite decades of suspicion that the family was betrayed, it turns out they may have instead have been found during an investigation for ration card fraud. The new theory sheds light not only on the fate of the Franks, but on the extent of Dutch resistance to the Nazis. Another way they resisted, writes Jeroen Dewulf, was through clandestine literature—a literature that, though little known today, illustrates just how Dutch people saw the German occupation.

“In no other country under German occupation during World War II was clandestine…literature more published than in the Netherlands,” writes Dewulf. These books and poems were highly illegal, but they sprang from a rich history of free-thinking on the part of the Dutch.

This history of free thought and expression was seen as intrinsically Dutch when the Germans occupied the country in 1940—so intrinsic that it became a rallying cry for Dutch people who felt their love of expression differentiated them from their oppressors. As a result, plenty of Dutch people flouted German authority, writing and publishing material that ran afoul of German cultural laws to works that outwardly challenged the Nazis.

A new theory sheds light not only on the fate of the Franks, but on the extent of Dutch resistance to the Nazis.

The quality of these clandestine works was often poor, writes Dewulf. Conditions deteriorated throughout the war, and many of the Netherlands’ greatest minds were persecuted, imprisoned, or killed. But despite the instinct of many of the Netherlands’ librarians and publishers to censor themselves, some refused to stop publishing material critical of the Germans.

The occupation was accompanied by an aggressive Nazification campaign aimed at elevating Nazi ideals and rooting out cultural content that was deemed as subversive. Central to that campaign, writes Dewulf, was the so-called “Dutch Chamber of Culture,” an organization whose membership was compulsory for anyone who worked in the cultural sector. But many Dutch people refused to join or simply pretended they had stopped producing cultural works.

And yet underground publishing houses flourished. Some sold poems and books to raise money for Jewish children in hiding. Others used their proceeds to support Dutch artists who had to go underground because of their subversive opinions. Clandestine publishers circumvented rationing laws, producing miniature works so they would not run afoul of paper restrictions, and small print runs were common.

Overall, Dewulf estimates that there were over 1,000 clandestine items. “…one could say that clandestine literature represented the product that catered best to the main activity of the Dutch population: waiting,” writes Dewulf. He refers to Anne Frank’s documented excitement whenever a new piece of reading material entered her hiding place as an example of just how starved Dutch people were for entertainment and solace. But that solace came at a price for some. “At least 700 men and women of the underground press would lose their lives during the occupation,” writes Dewulf—an occupation that was both relieved and defied by the Netherlands’ brave underground artists.

How the Netherlands Used Literature to Defy the Nazis

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India – How political dissenters end up languishing in jails without bail

Deliberate delays and denial of bail has amounted to sentencing without trial.


Activists of the Kabir Kala Manch, perhaps one of the best known progressive cultural troupes of Maharashtra, heaved a sigh of relief on January 3 when three of their members finally walked out of jail after three-and-a-half years. A Supreme Court bench granted bail to Sagar Gorkhe, Ramesh Gaychor and Sachin Mali.

The apex court’s bail order pointed out that though the state had told the Supreme Court in July 2016 that the trial would be completed within six months, it had, till January 2017, only partially completed the examination (leave aside cross examination) of just one of the 147 witnesses it proposed to examine. Such a rate of progress in trial would have meant a lifetime of waiting for its completion. The bench ordered their release.

Method in the madness of trial delays

While it has become customary to blame the backlog of cases in courts for these seemingly crazy delays in trial, there is at the same time a method in the madness that is quite clearly at work, particularly when in comes to political dissenters.

The delays are often the fruit of a deliberate dalliance between police and prosecution to postpone service of summons, hold back witnesses, neglect bringing the muddemaal or physical evidence to court and other such means to ensure that the trial process is effectively paralysed.

This strategy is deployed because the prosecution is aware that most cases against political detainees are weak and often falsely fabricated by the investigating authority and likely to end in acquittal. These “political” cases are normally instituted under harsher laws like the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) and the Public Security Acts of various states. Such laws allow arrests on vaguely defined charges with insubstantial evidence. They also prescribe bail norms which render it difficult for courts to grant bail.

Inordinate delays then become the prosecution’s means for imposing a “sentence” of long years, which entails rotting in jail as an undertrial without bothering to go through the hassle of obtaining a conviction. Thus, though the accused are finally found to be innocent, the judgment offers small comfort for someone who has already spent almost the maximum possible sentence as undertrial.

Inordinate delays then become the prosecution’s means for imposing a ‘sentence’ of long years rotting in jail as an undertrial without bothering to go through the hassle of obtaining a conviction.

Protection for the perpetrators

Such tactics, while being criminal, neither hold consequences for the investigator or the prosecutor; nor are there any redressal for the victim. A classical case in this regard was related to the Akshardham Temple terror attack of 2002. Six accused in the matter remained in custody for 12 years before being finally acquitted in 2014 by the Supreme Court. The judgment, quoted then in DailyO, explained how the case had been fabricated and the accused framed through concocted statements.

The accused then filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court asking for redressal and compensation for the years lost. Despite the unequivocal observations of the 2014 SC judgment indicating that the accused had been falsely implicated, the same court refused to either punish the perpetrators or compensate the victims. If, in a case which the SC itself has held to be fabricated, there is not scope for recompense, there is obviously nothing much the judicial system can offer by way of righting such wrongs committed by the police-prosecutor combine.

Laxity of the courts

In fact it often seems that the bench too is, unwittingly or otherwise, part of a system that ensures that political dissenters are “punished” without trial. In the case of the KKM members too, though the SC granted bail, almost half of their period spent in custody was during the pendency of their application before the same court.

In another similar case of a political prisoner from Maharashtra, Sudhir Dhawale, editor of the magazine Vidrohi, the Nagpur Bench of the Bombay High Court rejected bail, but ordered a timebound trial within a period of six months — only to extend this period three times over, while each time rejecting Sudhir’s bail. He was finally declared not guilty — but only after serving a “sentence” of 40 months as an undertrial.

Reluctance to grant bail

The irony is that, even where the duplicity of the investigating agency is prima facie quite apparent, the courts have been reluctant to exercise their power to grant bail. A recent case is that of the team of lawyers and human rights activists from Telengana who, in December 2016, were on a fact-finding mission to Chhattisgarh to probe accusations of police atrocities in Bastar. Though they were arrested in Telangana they were taken across the border to Chhattisgarh so that they could be charged under the severe Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act. The basis shown for arrest was the purported seizure of demonetised notes of one lakh, which they were allegedly taking to “help” naxalites in Bastar.

Despite the illogicality of the argument of lawyers carrying demonetised notes from Telangana to naxalites in Bastar, despite the notes being obviously planted and despite there being no law or rule in force prohibiting the possession of one lakh of demonetised notes, the bail applications of the team members were denied first by the magistrate’s court of Sukma and then by the sessions court of Dantewada. The Dantewada court felt that it was premature to grant bail.

The option of approaching the Chhattisgarh High Court in Bilaspur is not only cumbersome but also, considering the delaying tactics of the prosecution, likely to be long drawn out. The Telangana lawyers, research scholars and journalists who are part of this team will now have to prepare themselves to eke out a few months, if not more, in Bastar’s jails — a “sentence” being imposed without any realistic case at all.

Death sentence by encounter

But perhaps they should consider themselves lucky. In their very own state of Telangana, the police have taken the lead in taking this practice of delivering prison sentences to their logical conclusion. On April 7th 2015, five Muslim prisoners, who were on the verge of completion of their trial where they expected acquittal, were killed in cold blood while being taken to court. The Telangana police probably decided that they deserved not acquittal but the death sentence. They executed accordingly.

A similar dubious “encounter” killing of eight undertrial accused of the Students Islamic Movement of India whose trial was reportedly approaching acquittal was executed by the Bhopal police on October 31 2016.

Despite widespread protest by human rights organisations, the political establishment has indicated that those who have carried out these killings enjoy its support. Pehaps an indicator of the forms of justice delivery in the days to come.

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Authorities in Chhattisgarh must immediately release seven members of a civil society fact-finding team who were arrested while travelling from Telangana to investigate alleged extrajudicial executions, or fake encounters in Chhattisgarh, Amnesty International India said today.

Chhattisgarh police arrested seven members of a fact-finding team of the Telangana Democratic Front (TDF) on 25 December under the draconian Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act for allegedly possessing banned currency notes worth Rs. 100,000 and Maoist literature. Activists groups in Telangana have denied these allegations and accused the police of falsely accusing their colleagues.

The Chhattisgarh police claimed to have arrested the team in Chhattisgarh’s Sukma district. However, the activists and their colleagues in Hyderabad dispute this claim. Speaking to Amnesty International India, N Narayana Rao, General Secretary of Civil Liberties Committee said, “The team left Hyderabad on 24 December, but before they could enter Chhattisgarh, they were arrested by the Telangana police near the Chhattisgarh-Telangana state border and then handed over to the Chhattisgarh police on the same day. The Chhattisgarh police is not allowing civil society to report independently in the state. The group was on a fact-finding mission and they were not carrying the amount of money the police claimed to have found on them.” However, Telangana police officials denied any involvement in the arrest.

The Telangana Democratic Front consists of several Hyderabad based NGOs that work extensively on cases of extrajudicial executions. The team comprised of lawyers Balla Ravindranath, Chikkudu Prabhakar, D. Prabhakar, Durga Prasad, an independent journalist, and three research scholars from Osmania University — Nazeer, Rajendra Prasad and R. Lakshman. The team was travelling to Chhattisgarh to investigate reports of alleged extrajudicial executions by security forces in the state.

All seven were produced in front of a magistrate in Sukma district on 26 December, who denied them bail and sent them to judicial custody. If found guilty, they could face up to seven years in prison.

“Chhattisgarh authorities must immediately release all seven men and stop abusing harsh laws to harass and intimidate activists and journalists who are well within their rights to investigate human rights abuses and seek accountability,” said Abhirr VP, Campaigner at Amnesty International India. “Authorities should ensure that the seven arrested are not be tortured in custody and their right to fair trial must be respected.”

The Additional Superintendent of Police of Sukma district, Jitender Shukla, told Amnesty International India that the activists were arrested inside Chhattisgarh with old currency notes worth Rs. 100,000. He also claimed that the team comprised of Maoist sympathisers who were trying to help Maoists get rid of old currency notes.

“It is disconcerting how frequently draconian laws are being used to silence activists and journalists who work on issues linked to conflict between security forces and Maoist armed groups,” said Abhirr VP. “These attempts at intimidation cannot become order of the day.”


Despite allegations of several recent extrajudicial executions by security forces in Chhattisgarh, there has been no initiative by the state government to set up independent criminal investigations into these cases.

According to data shared by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), Chhattisgarh leads the list of extrajudicial encounters by state police, with 66 complaints registered with the Commission between October 2015 and September 2016.

The latest reported case of an extra judicial execution was from Bijapur district on 16 December. A 13-year-old boy was killed by security forces in an alleged encounter. The Chhattisgarh state police said a joint team of the district force had killed an “unidentified and armed Maoist in uniform” in a “successful operation”. His family members disputed the police’s version and have approached the Chhattisgarh High Court. The High Court ordered a re-postmortem and said further action will be ordered, based on the post-mortem findings.

The Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act was enacted in 2005 to combat violence by Maoist armed groups. Several parts of the Act violate India’s obligations under international human rights law. The Act contains broad and vaguely worded definitions of ‘unlawful activity’. The definition includes, for instance, an act which ‘tends to interfere with maintenance of public order’ or ‘which is designed to overawe…any public servant’, or acts ‘encouraging or preaching disobedience to established law and its institutions’. The UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of Human Rights Defenders has called for the repeal of this law.

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Activists who visited Maoist-hit Chhattisgarh arrested under security act #WTFnews

Highlight Story

According to the Sukma superintendent of police, the accused were found with old currency notes and some important Naxal related documents. (HT file)

The Bastar police on Monday arrested seven people from Andhra Pradesh inside the Chhattisgarh border in Sukma district and claimed that they belonged to intellectual wings of Maoists outfits.

Police said they seized four motorcycles they were riding, demonetized currency with face value of Rs 1 lakh, mobile phones and Maoist literature from their possession.

All the arrested people were presented before a court after registering an FIR at Konta police station of Sukma district. The court sent them to judicial custody.

“The accused were found with old currency notes and some important Naxal-related documents. They were arrested and booked and were produced in court,” said Indira Kalyan Elesela, SP of Sukma said.


Elsela said those arrested included social activist Durga Prasad (36) of Hydrabad, R. Laxmaiyya (45), secretary of Adiwasi Tudem Dubba, Khammam, journalists B. Prabhakar Rao (52) and Rajendra Prasad (28) from Hyderabad, high court advocates Ch Prabhakar Rao (48) and B. Ravindra Nath (42) Hyderabad and Mohammad Nazim (27), research scholar Osmania University.

One of the arrested people – Ch. Prabhakar said the police action was unwarranted because they were only civilians.

Police claimed that the both the journalists used to instigate the people while the advocates had enlarged support to the Maoists in encounters and the research scholar was propagating Maoist line of thinking.

The seven men were booked under the Chhattisgarh Public Security Act (CSPA).


The accused claimed they were rights activists on a fact-finding mission related to encounters and atrocities in Maoist-affected areas of Telangana and Chhattisgarh.

Civil rights activists have slammed the police for the arrest.

“They left Hyderabad on December 24 and were detained on December 25 in Telangana. Later, Telangana police handed over the team members to Chhattisgarh police. They were human right activists and the citizen of India and the charges framed against them are unconstitutional,” said N Narayandeo, general secretary of Civil Liberties Committee, Telangana.

What is CSPSA ?

Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act, 2005 (CSPSA) was passed by the Chhattisgarh assembly in December 2005.

Activists allege that the act authorises police to detain a person for committing acts, which among other things, show a “tendency to pose an obstacle to the administration of law”. The act says that any person whose actions “encourage(s) the disobedience of the established law” will be considered “unlawful”.

Touchy cops

The Chhattisgarh Police has been extremely touchy about the foray of civil rights activists in the Maoist hit regions where allegations of rights abuse have been rife.

Journalists have been at the receiving end in Bastar for what activists say are persistent attempts by the local police to intimidate the media. Four local journalists have been arrested since last year while a visiting BBC newsman was forced to leave the district. Another was forced to flee the region after being accused of having Maoist links.

Early last month, the Chhattisgarh Police registered a murder case against Nandini Sundar, a Delhi University professor and others in Sukma on the complaint of the wife of a tribal who was killed on 4 November in Chhattisgarh.

Sundar rubbished the allegations of the police, while a number of civil rights bodies called the charges a tactic of “revenge and harassment”. The DU professor said it was a clear case of being “framed” and that police have been forcing some people in Bastar to name her and others in some way.

On November 12, the Chhattisgarh government assured the Supreme Court that it would not arrest Sundar and others after the apex court said it was inclined to stay the FIR registered against them in the case. Sundar has been working extensively in Maoist-hit regions like Bastar. On her petition, the Supreme Court had banned the state-backed anti-Maoist force Salwa Judum, calling it unconstitutional. She has also been highlighting situation of ordinary villagers in Bastar and other areas.

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India – #Demonetisation One Step Forward, Two Steps Back


Kobad Ghandy

The stated reasons for the 8 November announcement to demonetise ₹500 and ₹1,000 notes such as eradication of black money, counterfeit currency, and paving the way for a cashless society are examined. These issues are not addressed by demonetisation and do not justify the suffering this move has unleashed on the poor and the middle classes.

Is India a weak state which punishes only the small and weak? The rich and well-connected wrongdoer is virtually going scot-free … No one wants to go after the rich and well-connected wrongdoer, which means they get away with even more. If we are to have strong sustainable growth, this culture of impunity should stop. (Indian Express 2016)

What Raghuram Rajan, the ex-governor of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), said in January 2016 is strikingly relevant to what we see now with the demonetisation exercise.

The recent month has seen millions of poor and middle-class people, with no cash to buy food and medicines, standing in long queues to access their own money from the ATMs and banks, while the bigwigs of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) were celebrating a five-day wedding ceremony of an ex-BJP minister (also famous as the Bellary mining mafia chief) Janardhana Reddy’s daughter. Neither the Reddys nor his guests had any worry about converting their notes, though this function began barely four days after the demonetisation announcement.

In a country like India, where corruption seeps virtually into every crevice of society, fighting black money and its continuous generation should be a major task for any government. The stench of corruption not only harasses the common man at every step, it also prevents fruitful development, as even the smallest of projects get derailed with sometimes as much as 50% or more of the allocations swallowed by politicians, bureaucrats, middlemen and contractors. Social and welfare projects get subverted; one estimate states that barely 10 paise in every rupee reaches the affected people.

Without doubt, if India is to come out of its backwardness and excruciating levels of impoverishment, fighting black money and corruption is essential. But can demonetisation achieve this? Ferreting out the existing stock of black money cannot be a one-time act. An equally important task is the prevention of its regeneration in the future. Demonetisation does not even touch upon the
second. On the contrary, printing higher denomination notes of ₹2,000 only facilitates further transactions in the black economy.

Cash Stock: Tip of the Iceberg

According to a report of the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy (NIPFP) submitted to the finance minister in December 2013, black economy could constitute 75% of India’s gross domestic product (GDP) (Mehra 2014). This report was ignored by the then Finance Minister P Chidambaram, as also by the present government. The media has also blacked it out, choosing to quote the World Bank’s estimates of black economy at a mere 20%–30% of GDP. If we are unwilling to understand the scale of the problem, how are we to seriously tackle it? Those serious about fighting the black money should first make this report public. At 75% of GDP, ₹120 lakh crore of black income is being generated every year.

Compare this with the figure of ₹14.6 lakh crore existing in ₹500/₹1,000 notes, the main component of the black money stock. Even if we assume 50% of these notes comprise black money, that would mean a mere `7–`8 lakh crore, that is, just 7% of the total black income being generated. In fact, according to the economist, Swaminathan S Anklesaria Aiyar (2016),

As a stock, probably not even 2% of historical black hoards are held in cash—almost all have been converted into gold, real estate, financial investments, some at home and much abroad… The overwhelming stock of black money has been laundered into white ages ago.

In fact, according to the Global Financial Integrity, between 2004 and 2013, ₹3.3 lakh crore left the country each year. That would mean a gigantic stock of ₹40 lakh crore was siphoned abroad over these 12 years. Unofficial estimates put the total stock of illegal money abroad at ₹75 lakh crore. And not a paisa of this has been tapped by the BJP government that promised to bring this huge amount back home.

Not a single person named in the Panama Papers was taken to task. On the contrary, many were to flee the country with their ill-gotten wealth. These include the defaulter Vijay Mallya and lately, the meat exporter Moin Qureshi, Lalit Modi, and the two notorious arms dealers Sudhir Choudhrie and Vipin Khanna. Such defaulters with hoards of wealth siphoned off from our country are living palatial lives in the United Kingdom. Yet, when the British Prime Minister recently visited India, no serious attempt was made to get all these elements extradited to India, and their wealth abroad recovered in the interests of our country.

Even within India all the scams—2G, Coal, Commonwealth and numerous others—have met a quiet death, and honest officers heading departments have been shunted out. The present government went so far as to suppress documents recovered during the income tax raids on Sahara and the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) raids on the Birla group which provided evidence of massive bribery by business groups to top politicians and bureaucrats.

Top bureaucrats have de facto supported corruption. The coal secretary, Anil Swarup, has gone on record saying that not politicians but the “5Cs”, that is, the Central Vigilance Commission, Central Information Commission, CBI, Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) and the courts, are inhibiting quick and effective decision-making and impeding the country’s development (Deshpande et al 2016). Another secretary in the economic ministry agreed: “there is this issue with the Prevention of Corruption Act. Basically, any decision you take benefits someone and may impact someone and just because that is the case you can be hounded” (Deshpande et al 2016).

Counterfeit Currency

As for fake notes, the amount of counterfeit currency seized between 2012 and 2015 was a measly ₹147 crore, that is,₹37 crore per year. A 2015 study by the Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata on behalf of the National Investigation Agency estimated the fake currency in circulation to be just ₹400 crore, that is, a mere 0.022% of the total notes in circulation. The minister of state for home affairs reiterated this figure in a statement on 18 November 2016 and added that a mere ₹28 crore of fake notes were confiscated in 2016, and just ₹70 crore of fake currency notes were pumped into the economy every year. Even if the government claims that this figure is a hundred times larger (there are no accurate estimates), that would still not come to 1% of the total money demonetised.

This is hardly significant to cause damage to the small and medium industries, to the economy of retailers and wholesalers, to agriculture (inability to sell, produce and purchase seeds and fertilisers) and the millions of small vendors, traders, truckers, etc. This has already caused havoc for all, except the big business. Over and above, a huge amount has been expended by the government for printing and distributing the news notes—anything from ₹15,000 crore to ₹20,000 crore. Besides, if the accusations for the fake currencies are directed towards a government (Pakistan), it is naïve to think that they would not be able to duplicate the new notes.

Cashless Economy

Less than 50% of our households have access to a bank, over 60% of our economy is in the informal sector all of which is dependent on cash transactions. In a large country like India, barely 3 million people file income tax returns and two million pay tax. India has one of the highest cash to GDP ratios in the world, 12% compared to a world average of 4%. An estimated 78% of transactions in India are in cash compared with 20%–25% in industrialised countries.

As for the other reason cited, the move towards a cashless economy, calling on people to switch to internet banking only indicates how far our decision-makers are from the lives of the people. This Tughlaqian suggestion is like that of Marie Antoinette—when the queen was told that the people have no bread to eat she replied, “well give them cake.”

Untold Suffering and Chaos

What was even more criminal was that the government itself was not prepared to tackle the disruption caused in peoples’ lives by the overnight destruction of 86% of the total currency by value in circulation. Either they did not foresee the problems it would create or they could not care about the lives of the poor and middle classes.

The new ₹500 notes were not ready until five days after the demonetisation. With just the ₹2,000 notes being disbursed, and the lack of smaller notes in the market, people were unable to buy their daily needs of food and medicines. This decision stripped a person overnight of all their hard-earned money, of their purchasing power, without providing an alternative. The government had gone so far as to state that it will take 50 days to bring normalcy in peoples’ lives. Recently the finance minister has stated that it might take one or two quarters to bring back normalcy! Every second day, the government is changing the policies on how to exchange the notes depending on peoples’ reactions.

The extent of the callousness is unbelievable. Steps could have been taken to ease the pain. Well before the announcement, the RBI could have ensured that a large number of ₹100 notes were available and disbursed instead of the ₹2,000 notes, worthless for daily needs. The new notes could have been made in the same size and weight as the old notes (while changing their structure and colour) so that they could fit into the existing ATMs. The recalibration of ATMs, started only a week after the announcement, could take months. Simple steps before the announcement could have paved the way for a relatively smooth transfer. Yet, the decision to demonetise was taken with no proper preparation. It is estimated to take six months to replace all the notes.

This has, first, resulted in extensive damage to peoples’ lives, and second, a total disruption in the economy of the informal sector.

The queues at the banks and the ATMS are long and people have to stand for hours; very often the notes are over before their turn. The stress and tension for not having any cash for daily transactions have affected the sick and the elderly adversely and reports of deaths of people while standing in queues have come in from various regions. The bank employees are harassed, working long hours to meet the demand for disbursing new notes. Daily wage labourers could not find work as employers had no cash to pay them.

The supply chain of goods and services is disrupted, impacting production. Traders and retailers have been deprived overnight of funds to carry on their businesses, and the former can neither source goods after using up their existing stocks, nor can they pay for the transport of the goods to the market. Retailers cannot sell the goods since customers do not have money to buy them, and they can provide goods on credit to customers only up to a point since they need to pay their suppliers and cannot obtain enough new notes to do so. Normal banking activity is likely to be disrupted for months with banks being fully occupied in exchange transactions.

The kharif harvest is not yet fully marketed in many regions, and producers are unable to sell their crops owing to the shortage of the new money. Many are being offered drastically lower prices for their produce which runs the risk of damage in the coming days. Farmers cannot buy seeds and fertilisers for sowing rabi crops since there is no lower denomination or substitute money available in their nearest banks. Delayed sowing is bound to affect future output. Rural labourers and artisans are entirely dependent on purchase from the market and face great distress.

The worsening situation in urban areas has been extensively reported in the media—not only the wage-earning poor but the middle class too are adversely affected by the overnight artificial and extreme loss of purchasing power. Millions of working hours are being wasted by people standing in long queues at banks, and many are turned away eventually with the new cash running out. The country is being driven into an artificially created recession and the level of economic activity is declining. Ambit Capital estimates that India’s growth could slip to as low as 3.5% as a result of demonetisation compared to earlier projections of 6.8% (Hindu 2016).


Aiyar, Swaminathan S A (2016): “Less Black in Cash Means More in Gold,” Times of India, 13 November.

Deshpande, R and Sidhartha (2016): “ ‘5C’s’ also Hinder Decision-making: Coal Secy,” Times of India, 6 April.

Hindu (2016): “Demonetisation Could Halve GDP Growth to 3.5% in Current Fiscal,”Hindu, 19 November.

Indian Express (2016): “Raghuram Rajan: No One Wants To Go After Rich and Well-connected Wrongdoer,” Indian Express, 18 January.

Mehra, Puja (2014): “Black Economy Now Amounts To 75% of GDP,” Hindu, 4 August.

Kobad Ghandy is a political prisoner in Cherlapally Central Jail, Rangareddy District, Telangana.

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No fear, no shame, no hate: Irom Sharmila prepares for life in politics

Determined, yet strangely vulnerable, Irom Sharmila says ending her 16-year fast and entering politics has empowered her.

There is an unmistakable otherworldliness in Irom Chanu Sharmila’s dark and deep eyes. She is shy and aloof, that is, until she is confronted with an issue she holds dear. And when she is thus provoked, she fires up. She engages, drops her guard and permits us a glimpse into her world. Sharmila may be a very private person, but she is far from secretive.

Sharmila, now 44, has weathered 16 years of unimaginable privation as a hunger striker. Like a lonely long-distance runner, she never wavered in conviction and remained indomitable regardless of who was following.

And this spirit defines her even today as she and her motley team of a dozen volunteers prepare to jump into politics and face the giants in the game in the state Assembly elections barely four months away. She may be inexperienced in this arena, but she remains fearless. She and her party are likely to be drubbed, but that does not worry her. “We will prepare for the next election if this one does not yield results,” is her nonchalant answer.

Sharmila says she would have been quite happy to live an anonymous and very private life as she had been doing as a social activist before November 2000 transformed her. But looking back, she has no regrets: no regrets that her quiet life had been disrupted 16 years ago, and no regrets about her decision to end her hunger strike four months ago. It is only the uncertain road ahead that concerns her.

“I am here by choice. I feel I was always ordained for whatever I have done,” she says. “My mission has always been to end the misery and oppression of my people. As a hunger striker, this was my driving force and now, as a politician this goal has not changed,” she says looking me straight in the eye and leaning forward a little.

“I have zero knowledge of politics. However as a child, I do remember my father was a vocal and committed supporter of the Manipur People’s Party (MPP), and I remember how his political leanings influenced us.”

The MPP is a political party that grew out of a public agitation to grant full statehood for the then Union Territory of Manipur in the 1960s and 1970s. It was seen as a grassroots Manipur nationalist party and a somewhat anti-establishment one, providing a foil to the formidable Congress.

“It is possible that my father’s leaning towards grassroots politics and his need to resist injustice unconsciously entered, and now, lives in me.”

But this spirit remained dormant until the November 1, 2000 massacre of 10 innocent bystanders at a bus stop at Malom village by troops of the Assam Rifles, following a failed militant attack on one of their convoys. In protest, Sharmila decided to go on an indefinite hunger strike. For the next 16 years, she fought for the repeal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) in the process winning several awards — national and international — some of them with a handsome monetary component, but she cared little for them. The money she won was managed by a trust in her name, which has, since the end of her hunger strike, been dissolved.

Sharmila is candid. She admits her limitations, including her education, which did not go beyond Class XII. Her father was a Grade-4 employee in the state veterinary department and her mother sold vegetables. They were nine siblings in all. To supplement their income the parents also ran a small general provision store.

Sharmila, in the room in the Jawaharlal Nehru Institute of Medical Sciences in Imphal, where she spent 16 years on hunger strike. Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar  | Photo Credit: Ritu Raj Konwar

When she decided to undertake her epic hunger strike, she had a difficult time letting her mother know. “When I finally did, she initially did not approve, but when I insisted, with a hint of tears in her eyes, she blessed me to follow my heart,” says Sharmila.If her instinct guided her decision to plunge into a hunger strike, it also helped her make her mind up to end her fast. “I am pained by the divide between communities, in particular between the hills and the valley. My goal now is to bridge these divides, besides of course, fighting the AFSPA” she says.

Neither Sharmila, nor her colleagues in the People’s Resurgence and Justice Alliance (PRJA) are under any delusion that their party will sweep the forthcoming Manipur Legislative Assembly elections.

“Contrary to what people think, Sharmila has already brought about considerable change,” says Bowang Kho, who is sitting beside Sharmila. He is a member of the PRJA team and a Poumai Naga from the Senapati district. “The open-armed reception she has been receiving, especially in the hills, is heart-warming. In Ukhrul, it was overwhelming. These are very positive political messages for an ethnically fractured state like Manipur,” he adds.

“There is no such thing as a defeat in politics, we will fight on regardless of the outcome in the coming election,” says another PRJA leader, Najima Bibi Phundreimayum, a tireless social worker from Santhem Mamang Leikai, echoing the party’s sentiment.

“We have still not drafted the PRJA manifesto, but it will focus primarily on bridging the gap between people and government, streamlining policy implementation, and looking to economic sovereignty, besides the usual responsibilities of governance such as building roads and other infrastructure, generating employment and so on,” says the Harvard-educated Erendro Leichombam, part of the core leadership team of the party. “Of course, iche(elder sister) Sharmila’s battle for the repeal of the AFSPA will remain our party’s non-negotiable commitment.”

Sharmila listens to her colleagues with quiet approval. “After 16 years, my hunger strike was reaching a dead-end. It was not making the difference I had believed it would, and there was no sign it would. Changing our strategy appeared to be the most logical step forward. Ending my fast and entering politics has empowered me. It will also empower the people,” she says in the tone of a solemn political pledge.

She understands why her sudden decision to change course shocked and upset many of her former supporters, even her family. But all that is in the past and now everyone is reconciled to the new reality. With her family, the differences arose out of miscommunication. With her supporters, it was shock and surprise.

The most hurtful incident on the afternoon of her ending her fast on August 9 was when a band of her former women supporters, protested and prevented her from dismounting a police van in which she had arrived at the residence of a man who had offered her refuge in Keishamthong.

“I felt no fear, no shame, no hurt, no hate,” Sharmila says. “For some reason I was reminded of the suffering of Jesus Christ at the hands of his own people. Suffering that made him love his people even more, willing even to make the ultimate sacrifice for them. I have no doubt that my sacrifices will also ultimately redeem my people,” she says in a soft yet serious tone. Reconciliation came a fortnight later when a community feast was organised for the purpose. Sharmila and her former supporters agreed to disagree on how to take their struggle against the AFSPA forward. Though she is not living with her family now, she has met and patched up differences with them, especially with her elder brother, Singhajit who too had joined her campaign during her hunger strike.

Sharmila gets a little defensive and almost retreats into herself when I ask if her relationship with Desmond Coutinho influenced her decisions. Coutinho, a British citizen of Indian origin, is one of the reasons for her drifting away from many of her former supporters. They suspect him to be a saboteur of the struggle, and of having a hand in Sharmila’s change of stance.

Sharmila leans back a little and coldly says, “He will remain in my life.”

When I assure her that I do not mean to pry but only want to know what the relationship may mean to her new mission, she opens up: “He had a heart attack recently, and now lives in Ireland in a seaside cottage, with few possessions, besides a motorboat that he loves. His spiritual presence has given me strength and stability. As with everybody else who has known love, Desmond brought colour to my life, giving it the texture and hue that makes it worthwhile,” she says with a tinge of nostalgia.

Does that mean she would leave Manipur to settle with him in Ireland? “No, that can never be. I cannot leave my people.” Then would Desmond move to Manipur? “I would very much like this to be the case.”

What if this too cannot happen? “Then I will take it that loneliness is my destiny and be content with his presence with me in spirit as it always has been.”

Pradip Phanjoubam is Editor, Imphal Free Press, and author of The Northeast Question: Conflicts and Frontiers.

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Indian couple seeks son’s release from Pakistan jail

Highlight Story

He has been in Pakistan jail for last four years, after entering the country on a tourist visa. (Representative Photo AFP)

An elderly couple, whose son is lodged in a Pakistani prison despite completing his jail term, is seeking “justice” from Pakistan’s visiting foreign policy adviser to get him released.

The Mumbai-based couple are camping in Amritsar, bordering Pakistan, with a hope and an appeal.

Pakistan Prime Minister’s Adviser on Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz is visiting Amritsar to participate in the ministerial deliberations of Heart of Asia-Istanbul Process on Sunday.


Eight foreign ministers and dignitaries of 14 participating countries are attending the summit that would also see the attendance of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani.

“We are here just to get justice for our son who has been languishing in the central jail in Peshawar,” Fauzia Ansari, mother of a 32-year-old Indian national Hamid Ansari, told IANS.

She said Ansari was sentenced to three years in prison that he completed one year ago.

Carrying placards pleading for mercy for her younger son, she said she would display the placards on Aziz’s arrival at the Heart of Asia conference, along with her husband Nehal Ansari.

An emotional Fauzia said she had sent a number of petitions to Aziz, seeking an appointment to get her son released early but failed to get any reply.

Her son, an engineer and business professional, had gone to Kabul in Afghanistan on November 4, 2012 on a tourist visa for a job in aviation. He entered Pakistan on November 12.

From his e-mail accounts, it was revealed that he was in touch with a Pakistani girl on Facebook and had gone to Pakistan, where he was arrested and sentenced to three years in jail.

The couple reached Amritsar on Friday.

“I would again appeal to Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Sartaj Aziz to release our son on compassionate grounds as he has suffered a lot,” Nehal said.

He said lawyer Qazi Muhammad Anwar of Pakistan was contesting his son’s case without charging any fees.

A habeas corpus was moved in a court in Peshawar. On January 13, the court declared the deputy attorney general of Pakistan had submitted a report saying Hamid was in custody of the army, tried by court and awarded a three-year jail sentence.

Nehal said his son was neither given consular access nor allowed to talk to his family in Mumbai.

“Even we have not been given a visa to visit Pakistan to meet him and extend legal help to him,” an emotional Nehal said with wet eyes.

“From the day of his arrest till date, he has completed four years in jail. He was assaulted several times,” the victim’s mother added.

For the elderly couple, Aziz is the only hope for a reprieve for their son.

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India: Dangerous order by DM Indore banning any criticism on social media of #demonetisation

Free Software Movement of India (


The District Magistrate of Indore has issued an order –
Order/2956/RADM/2016, Indore/Date 14/11/2016 under Section 144 –
banning any criticism on social media such as Twitter, Facebook,
WhatsApp, etc., on exchange of old currency that is “objectionable” or
can “cause incitement”. The order is attached here. This, in effect,
is a blanket ban on any criticism of the Government on its failure to
provide sufficient new notes for the old Rs. 500 and Rs. 1,000 notes
that it has demonetised. Clearly, having failed to remonetise the
economy and putting the common man to immense hardship, the government
now wants to clamp down on all criticism on its failures.

The use of Section 144 for censorship of social media also goes far
beyond what the Supreme Court has held in its various judgements. The
Supreme Court, in Madhu Limaye and Anr v. Ved Murti and Ors. ((1970) 3
SCC 746), held that the use of Section 144 is justified only for
prevention of public disturbance or violence, and urgency as the only
ground for using this section. The state and central governments have
been using Section 144 arbitrarily in shutting down the internet and
going far beyond what its powers are under Section 144. It has now
extended such powers, earlier used only for banning public assembly,
to now attacking peoples rights of Freedom of Speech, guaranteed under
the Section 19. It shows the desperation of the Central and the Madhya
Pradesh governments that having failed in the elementary task of
providing money to the people for conducting their day to day lives,
they are resorting to such draconian measures to stifle all legitimate

The Free Software Movement of India demands that this Order of the
District Magistrate be immediately withdrawn and the Madhya Pradesh
government issue an apology to the people for this action.
Read the order

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