Friday, September 24, 2010

Reporting from Ayodhya - Hindus and Muslims favour early judgement

The people in Ayodhya and adjoining Faizabad strongly favour an early end to the impasse and the surcharged atmosphere that has been offset ever since the possibility of a verdict on the dispute from the Lucknow bench of Allahabad High Court brightened. “Even after 1990s things were peaceful here. But tension has gripped this time. Not that something would happen here, but whatever happens even in Mumbai or Bhagalpur, it leaves an impact for the people here and more so for the Muslims,” says Haji Mohammad Asif Ansari, who has been a plaintiff to the decades old communally vulnerable legal case.

It is this realization about the “futility of confrontation” that has made Ansari, 90 and a former detenue under MISA during emergency, today swear by the compromise formula. “Agar masjid chhor dene se aman hoti hae …. Toh chhor do, humey nahi chahihye, (If my giving up the Masjid, there is harmony, let us give it up,” he retorted.
It is in this context, he says, “Khushi ho ya gam, Band kamre mein raho. Musalman sarko pe ani nahi chahihiye, (Whether it is victory or loss in the case, Muslims should confined within closed rooms and not take to the streets either to protest or rejoice)”.
He also announced that whatever the judgement, he would accept it. “The dispute should end for once and all. We want the Masjid but peace is also equally important,” he said on September 24 the day within hours the news spread like wildfire in this temple city that the delivery of the Allahabad High Court ruling had
been delayed.
He said he would also not favour moving the Supreme Court on behalf of the Sunni Waqf Board as the confrontation would serve no purpose.
“Yeh dalalo ko mauka dena hae (This will only give opportunities to middlemen to exploit the situation),” he said.
“The delay would not affect the strength of the case either way. Whatever evidence was to be submitted has been submitted and court has already applied its mind. This delay has been worked out by those political forces like Congress and Mulayam Singh and their ‘agents’,” he said.
His views are rather strongly shared by the local VHP unit president Brij Mohan Das, who says, “the priests and the general citizens here are suffering for days due to the tension. Pilgrims have stopped coming and further delay has only intensified things”.
He said the case is pending before the Allahabad High court for years and till now there has been no scope of mutual settlement. “I fail to understand what makes people at this juncture feel that out of court settlement was possible,” he said.
It is the economic factor that is driving even Muslim youths. Rais Ahmed, 25-year-old LIC agent, said “when pilgrims don’t come here it is not only Hindu priests and their families who suffer. Even Muslims suffer. My cousins run tempo (auto rickshaws) and poorer Muslim youths survive on catering to the tourists with their horse carts. Now for months, there is hardly anything called income for them”.
The story of Ayodhya and its citizenry in the circa 2010 – about 60 years since the dispute over a place of worship – truly illustrates the combination of triumph and tragedy.
There have been staggering achievement in ensuring harmony and peaceful co-existence; yet there is equally confounding shortcoming. Other than to merely depend on religious sanctity of the place, more as a birthplace of Lord Rama, no other economic exercise and job avenue has emerged here over the decades.
“There is no factory or industry here. The entire economy is based on pilgrims’ visit, their contribution and donations,” points out local VHP unit president Brij Mohan Das, also the head priest at the prestigious Dasarth Gaddi.

Delay could aggravate the situation:

Local VHP unit feels the delay could only aggravate the situation as the Hindus would only feel frustrated. “There is a strong chance to believe that the status quo suits Muslims and so called secular parties. We only feel bad about it. So if anything happens who is to blame,” says Mahant Brij Mohan Das.

VHP leaders and several Hindu priests here believe that the judgement would be in favour of the Hindus. “All crucial evidence pertaining to the Ram janmabhoomi since the emperor Vikramaditya has been submitted before the court. Things are convincing that there was a temple over which mosque was built. It’s a historical fact,” says the Mahant.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Withering Law: The Armed Forces Special Power Act

In a way I am jumping the gun here. We will talk about EVM misuse in another posting. Here I take the opportunity of sharing my views on the highly controversial Armed Forces Special Power Act (AFPSA), which is these days hitting headlines in the wake of a move by the Manmohan Singh government to withdraw it or to ‘weaken/moderate’ its influence to assuage the hurt sentiments of the people of trouble-torn Kashmir valley.

Before going into details on various facets of AFPSA and their use and abuse by the olive green forces, we need to examine certain things most vital in understanding the scenario either in Kashmir or in the northeast.

The natives, either in Kashmir or the northeastern states believe that Indian army is only “an instrument of expansionist designs”. This perception has only increased over the years due to plethora of factors. One of them being sustained campaign by the insurgent groups/militants with tacit and often open support by locals and human rights’ bodies. Then media plays its part by often blowing things out of proportion making a classic case of a mountain being made out of molehill. Thus, knowingly or unknowingly, the country’s biggest asset ‘ethnic pluralism’ turns out to be a great liability practically in all states.
Therefore, in Manipur the controversy over demand for scraping of the Armed Forces Special Power Act (AFPSA) had local people’s sanction. After all, the army or para military forces like Assam Rifles are identified with the “outsiders”.
Similar is the case in Jammu and Kashmir. Now, the so called high-handedness of the forces has now made even children and women in Kashmir taking to the streets.

Now, what is the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act/

This piece of legislation was passed in 1958 and has been always bogged down in controversies with human right activists in the northeast already called it a ‘draconian’ law.
Under this Act, all security forces operating in trouble-torn areas are given unbridled power to carry out their operations in designated areas declared disturbed. In fact, sometime in the northeast, even the entire state, like Nagaland under Congress chief minister S C Jamir government in 1995 was declared ‘disturbed’ by enforcing the provisions of the Disturbed Area Act.
In fact, the saying goes well that AFPSA is meaningless in ‘peaceful situation’ and in effect it goes hand-in-hand with the Disturbed Area Act.

Under this law, even a non-commissioned officer (rank of havildars) is granted the right to shoot to kill based on mere suspicion in order to "maintain the public order".

No wonder, in the troubled region of Nagaland and Manipur often ministers are held up and ‘insulted’ for their alleged nexus with the militants. These charges are sometime true and sometime not.

Regarding “indiscriminate use of black laws”, the Assam-based potent militant organization ULFA charges the Indian state machinery with “continuously violating basic fundamental human rights of the people of seven sister region although India is a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations”. The laws like the Armed Forces Special Power Act of 1958 and the Disturbed Areas Act “continue with the concurrence of Indian judiciary and are means of crushing dissent and struggles,” a popular ULFA leader had said once.

It is of much relevance here to take note of another test case in Manipur.
There is in fact a cycle affect involving governance, deployment of armed forces and opportunistic stand taken by politicians and so-called civil liberty activists.
We must examine how successive governments in New Delhi, in Jammu and Kashmir and in the north eastern states have relied heavily on the presence of the military to perform the basic functions of governance.
Former Army chief Gen (Retd) V P Malik also wrote in a piece to ‘The Indian Express’ (September 1, 2004), “The administration assisted by the Central government ought to create conditions so that armed forces do not have to be deployed for long durations”. In fact, Gen (Retd) Malik cited an illustration where in one Manipur Chief Minister while favoured revoking Armed Forces Special Power Act declined permission to withdraw armed forces from 60 odd posts in Manipur saying, “you cannot do that! What will happen to the law and order situation?”
This is the paradox.

(to be continued)

Saturday, September 11, 2010

EVM misuse – Who will Bell the Cat?

It's not without good reason that the politicians are called strange bed fellows. They are expert in their own way not only in sleeping with the enemies but also change their stand on any issue under the sky, given the context what's their immediate benefits are. A few years ago, the then Punjab chief minister and dynamic Congress leader in the northern region, Capt. Amarinder Singh, had staged a demonstration in the office of a reputed editor of a Chandigarh daily trying to argue that the Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) could be misused.
Not long ago, EVMs were billed as an instrument of panacea in organizing elections and which could deal with mal practices of Indian electoral system. However, the table has seemingly taken a gory turn since 2004.
At the national level Congress has bounced back to power and five years since then with a renewed and resurgent mandate in May 2009.
So the general refrain of the political class being, how can Congress now complain of the EVMs.
Worse, the BJP leader Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi has virtually sanctified the theory by suggesting that EVMs are now the “Elections Voting Machines” (sic) for the Congress.
Now, when was the last time, we heard that misuse of EVMs is only a rhetoric of losers.
The Election Commission has quickly denied rather authoritatively that EVMs in India (ECI-EVMs) are stand alone objects and cannot be misused.
This is too simplistic part of the story.
But there are evidences in several parts of the world where experts claim the electronic voting machines were subject to gross abuse resulting in questioning the very credibility of the democratic process.
Theoretically, these arguments have basically raised questions on the credibility of Indian election system, something which had gained much respect globally especially the post T N Seshan era.
So an argument has been placed forward that instead of questioning the intention of those raising the bogey of misuse of EVM machines, the authorities, the UPA government, the Congress party and importantly the Election Commission would do well to appreciate the sincerity of purpose. And in the ultimate, help arrive some conclusive and much importantly a credible conclusion that the EVMs in use in India are above board.
This is what is being suggested by a former IAS officer and ex-chief secretary Delhi government, Omesh Saigal. “It is an important issue as the fate of this country’s democratic set-up hinges on the fairness of the elections. There shouldn’t be an iota of doubt about the same,” he says.
Saigal also cited a study conducted by the Johns Hopkins University and Rice University, which established that if one gets to know the “source code” of an EVM, it is possible for a single person to cast unlimited ballots without detection.
“To see if a similar fraud could be done in India, on my request a young programmer wrote a very simple programme which could skew the result if a pre-programmed code number was keyed in. A mock poll showed that every 5th vote after the first 10 would go in favour of a particular candidate. This poll was conducted in the presence of some eminent people, whose names were sent to the chief election commissioner, Naveen Chawla,” Saigal had said.
However, Saigal later, according to Election Commission officials, refused to stage a demonstration with EC-given EVMs at the Commission office in August 2009.

International Experience:

Electronic voting systems for electorates have been in use since the 1960s. So the hype that the technology is something latest and a 21st century phenomenon is itself a misnomer.
To put record straight, electronic voting system, albeit with differences in specifications, have been used in several countries including Venezuela, Brazil, Netherlands, Estonia, Canada and of course Uncle Sam, the US.
But the developments in certain countries could not be over sighted. After all, as says former Delhi chief secretary, Saigal, election in a democracy like justice should not be simply be fair but also seen as fair and above board.
In Netherlands, the electronic voting machines have been decommissioned after public protests.
There have been contentions, especially in the United States, that electronic voting, specifically DRE voting, could facilitate electoral fraud.
Meanwhile, computer scientists in the US have demonstrated how electronic voting machines (EVM) can be hacked and votes ‘stolen’ using a malicious programming approach that had not been invented when the voting machine was designed. The team of scientists from the Universites of California, San Diego, Michigan and Princeton employed "return-oriented programming" to force an electronic voting machine to turn against itself. Hovav Shacham, a professor of computer science at UC San Diego's (UC-SD) Jacobs School of Engineering and a study co-author, demonstrated that return-oriented programming can be used to execute vote-stealing computations by taking control of an EVM designed to prevent the code injection.

However, the school of thought, which believes firmly that EVMs can be misused and were misused in India, has sounded skeptical about Election Commission’s modus operandi in inviting people to demonstrate about the possibility of ‘tamperibility’.
A sustained campaign is still on in the internet and blogs and not surprisingly many of the participants are technocrats and a sizeable of them from abroad.
One argument from this school of thought has gone like this. “It was a trick played by concerned people, probably with the blessing and active participation of Congress party. To demonstrate the possibility of abuse of EVMs, one has to know the inner details of the programming configuration,” they say. So the refrain being if a section of people, including in political parties know about it, they could misuse it very well.
Another argument has been the Indian EVM is not a computer it is like a calculator. So to decode a calculator is much more difficult, they say but not impossible if there are players “within inner circles” to help you.
Possibilities of Fraud:
One cannot make a value judgement simply based on these theories. However, certain pertinent questions remain to be answered effectively.
Are EVMs vulnerable to hacking/misuse? Could the software of EVM be programmed to alter the outcome? From the global experience, are EVMs more susceptible to fraud than other types of voting machines?
Now take a closer look at these possibilities, as suggested by software professionals.
Someone doing fraudulent and moving 2-5% of the votes from one major party's candidate to the other would be very unlikely to be detected.

On these if precautions are taken like never reduce a candidate’s total votes to a questionable minimum can always ensure that there’s no suspicion raised.
For instance, it could be ensured that winnability of some candidates is not put to question. Vijay Malhotra as BJP leader or Trinamul chief Mamata Banerjee need not be defeated.

Next, it is “possible” for a malevolent software developer to successfully insert suspect code.
There’s another aspect to it. Unlike the situation when poll rigging meant violence and involving larger number of people, when computers/EVMs are involved, a small number of individuals could be easily ‘managed’.

Another vital aspect that could not be neglected or overruled; it is not technology that is in question; it is the trust of the official machinery and officials. If a guard protecting the EVMs could be bribed so that a bribed engineer can load a suitable programme to the EVMs, which technology could save one.
There are also technical possibilities on how EVMs can be tampered, essentially through insertion of virus Trojan. To outward appearances and ordinary testing, the programme would appear normal. However, when it is fed a sequence of keystrokes by the agent of the party committing the fraud, the Trojan Horse wakes up, and then, regardless of what buttons the voter actually presses, it can assign a certain (non-suspicious-looking) percentage say 55-60 to the preferred party.
Experts also suggest, a chip’s internal circuitry cannot be verified after it is manufactured. There can be hardly a guarantee that all the chips manufactured were as per original design.
The size, appearance, and even the Unique ID of the Chip would be emulated as it is, and thus it is extremely difficult to verify, if the current Chip components used is indeed the original one.
In Tamil Nadu, in fact, during the parliamentary elections there were allegations by AIADMK supporters, voters and party workers that the LIGHT lit to the wrong party inspite them pressing the button of AIADMK candidates.
Apparently, Jaya TV showed a protest by about 200 voters and group clashes with the workers from the ruling party.
The refrain from this campaign basically is, the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence of any fraud.
However, in the ultimate, the responsibility and the authority to take the final call on this vital aspect of Indian democracy are with the Election Commission.
The Commission’s official response is: it is “amply satisfied about the non-tamperability and the fool-proof working of the EVMs.” The Commission’s confidence in the efficacy of the EVMs has been fortified by the judgments of various courts and the views of technical experts. The Karnataka High Court has once hailed the EVM as ‘a national pride’ (judgment dated 5.2.2004 in Michael B. Fernandes Vs C.K.Jaffer Sharief and others in E.P No 29 of 1999), they say. Similarly, the Madras High Court, after elaborate consideration of the issue in a batch of petitions in 2001, rejected allegations that the EVMs could be tampered.

To be continued…../..

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Misuse of Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) - a hot potato in India

The debate on misuse of Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) has sought to come back yet again into public domain with the stage set for the crucial
Bihar elections. It is truly like a hot potato.
Every one wants to talk about it, but some are cautious not to display their inclination on the issue, others have made up their minds already.
It's not without good reason that the politicians are called strange bed fellows. They are expert in their own way not only in sleeping with the enemies but also change their stand on any issue under the sky, given the context what's their immediate benefits are. A few years ago, the then Punjab chief minister and dynamic Congress leader in the northern region, Capt. Amarinder Singh, had staged a demonstration in the office of a reputed editor of a Chandigarh daily trying to argue that the Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) could be misused.
Not long ago, EVMs were billed as an instrument of panacea in organizing elections and which could deal with mal practices of Indian electoral system. However, the table has seemingly taken a gory turn since 2004.
At the national level Congress has bounced back to power and five years since then with a renewed and resurgent mandate in May 2009.
So the general refrain of the political class being, how can Congress now complain of the EVMs.
Worse, the BJP leader Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi has virtually sanctified the theory by suggesting that EVMs are now the “Elections Voting Machines” (sic) for the Congress.
Now, when was the last time, we heard that misuse of EVMs is only a rhetoric of losers.
After all, post-May 2009 parliamentary elections, BJP, L K Advani, Ram Vilas Paswan -- et all come in that club.
In recent times many leaders have spoken about EVM misuse.
BJP’s arch rivals CPI (M), LJP and RJD have supported the contention.
Even a lady at the winning side, Mamata Banerjee has said, “I have been saying that EVMs are being manipulated for years. Now (CPM) are saying the same thing. I have said that EVMs should be replaced with ballot paper. However, we will accept what the Election Commission directs”.

Even during the just concluded monsoon session of parliament, the RJD leader Mr Lalu Prasad, who is leading an aggressive electoral campaign for poll-bound Bihar, and his friend Mulayam Singh Yadav made a strong demand
for abolition of electronic voting machine (EVMs) in the country saying
the earlier manual system was "more genuine".
"The use of EVM has raised many questions about misuse of technology
to infuence the poll results," Mr Prasad said in Lok Sabha on August 31 while speaking during a debate on a new legislation to allow participaton of overseas Indians into the voting system.
"On this even BJP is with us. We all had submitted representation on
this to the election commission," said the former Bihar chief minister,
whose party had suffered a stunning defeat during the 2009 Lok Sabha polls. "The unlettered voters often are vulnerable to be misguided on EVM. Many atimes it seems people vote for my party but the tally is shown for cycle (Mulayam Singh's SP symbol)," he said throwing the house into peals of laughter.
Besides Mulayam Singh Yadav even BSP members like Gorakh Nath Pandey also supported.
However, replying to the members, the Law Minister Mr M Veerappa Moily
said the Indian EVMs are foolproof. "It has been testified by a group
of experts headed by a former IIT director'.
The minister spoke on the expected line and said the issue of abuse of EVMs and irregularities with them has been raised a number of times in the Parliament but so far "no one has able to to prove the EVM wrong convincingly".
In the past also, the Election Commission had denied rather uthoritatively that EVMs in India (ECI-EVMs) are stand alone objects and cannot be misused.
But this is too simplistic part of the story.
We need to take a closer view on the vital question; is it right to presume that not having any proof for a crime implies that the crime was never committed.
The new Chief Election Commission S Y Quraishi has to ensure that the polls are not merely conducted fairly but like the judiciary they ought to be seen being conducted above board.

To be continued .....