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India holds its breath for divisive Ayodhya ruling

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LUCKNOW, India – India has ramped up security ahead of a high court ruling Friday on a bitter religious dispute responsible for some of the bloodiest sectarian violence since independence.

Indian Border Security Force (BSF) soldiers stand alert in New Delhi

The decision on the future of the Ayodhya mosque site — and even more so the reaction to it — poses a crucial test for India and its image as an emerging global player and a beacon of stability in a volatile region.

India’s home minister P. Chidambaram appealed for calm Wednesday ahead of the politically charged judgement.

“It is the government’s earnest hope that all sections of society will maintain peace, order, harmony and tranquillity,” he said in New Delhi.

“It would be inappropriate to reach any conclusion that one side has won or the other side has lost” following the ruling that will be extremely complex and is bound to be appealed to the Supreme Court, he added.

In 1992 the demolition of the 16th-century Babri Mosque in Ayodhya by Hindu activists sparked riots that killed more than 2,000 people, mostly Muslims, and propelled India’s Hindu nationalists into the political mainstream.

Hindus say the mosque had been built by the Moghul emperor Babur on the site of a temple marking the birthplace of the Hindu warrior god Ram in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh.

Ever since the destruction of the mosque 18 years ago the 47-acre (19-hectare) site has been cordoned off with barbed wire and steel fencing and guarded by troops.

Now a three-judge bench in the state capital Lucknow will rule on ownership of the site between Hindu and Muslim groups.

A senior Uttar Pradesh home department official told AFP in Lucknow more than 200,000 police, paramilitary and other security personnel had been deployed across the state ahead of the ruling.

“Processions of all kind have been prohibited not only in Ayodhya but also in 44 sensitive districts,” added Brij Lal, additional director-general of police.

Muslims called for calm.

“We now wait for Friday’s verdict but no one should celebrate victory or raise protests against the ruling,” said Zafaryab Jilani, lawyer for the Babri Masjid Action Committee, which wants the site handed to Muslims, India’s largest religious minority.

The government and numerous religious leaders have urged both Hindus and Muslims to accept the court ruling, no matter which way it goes.

“The way the country handles this — the aftermath — will have a profound impact on the evolution of our country,” Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said earlier in the month.

The radical Vishwa Hindu Parishad or VHP insisted that the government would have to give the site to the Hindus.

“The Indian government must hand over the (Ayodhya) site to Hindus through an act of parliament because it is linked to faith or else this dispute will never end,” the VHP’s national spokesman Prakash Sharma told AFP.

The drive to build a Ram temple on the ruins of the razed mosque remains a key political aim of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is the main opposition party in parliament.

India’s chief Muslim cleric, Syed Ahmed Bukhari, echoed the calls for calm, but also criticised hardline Hindu groups for shunning efforts to find an out-of-court settlement.

“One can only strike a compromise with those who want to resolve the dispute through sincere talks,” Bukhari told AFP.

Mahant Gyan Das, a senior member of the Hindu trust seeking to build a Ram temple on the site, insisted that any violence resulting from the ruling would not come from the people of Ayodhya.

The government has taken out newspaper ads warning against any knee-jerk reactions that might inflame communal tensions.

“There should be no attempt whatsoever made by any section of the people to provoke any other section,” the published appeal said.

India has avoided any major outbreak of Hindu-Muslim violence since riots in Gujarat in 2002.

The government is especially keen to keep a lid on any unrest ahead of the Commonwealth Games in Delhi, which begin on October 3, and the visit of US President Barack Obama in November.

The Mystery Behind the Rockets from Sinai

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First, it was resolute denial. The Egyptian government declared that the two rockets that hit the Jordanian coastal city of Aqaba earlier this week, killing a Jordanian taxi driver and injuring four others – as well as the rocket that hit near the Israeli port of Eilat – could not have come from Egypt’s Sinai peninsula. Never mind that the rockets were of the regionally popular Grad variety, known to have a flight range of just 25 miles (40 km); that would take the volatile Gaza Strip – 190 miles (300 km) away – off the hook as the source. Egypt also said that its long expanse of desert in Sinai was not relevant to any investigation of where the rockets came from. Never mind that it is inhabited by an often rebellious Bedouin population implicated in previous terrorist attacks. Cairo said Egypt was too well monitored and too secure to be the launchpad for the rockets.

A damaged car sits at the site of a rocket attack in front of the Intercontinental Hotel in the Red Sea port of Aqaba, Jordan, on Monday, Aug. 2, 2010

Then, two days after its denials, after discovering evidence of a misfired rocket in the Sinai desert, Egypt admitted, grudgingly, that the rockets came from Egyptian territory. But it said Hamas, which rules Gaza, is to blame.

Israel and some Jordanian officials have also pointed the finger at Hamas, the Islamist group that seized control of the Strip in 2007 after routing forces loyal to its rival, Western-backed Fatah faction, which continues to govern the West Bank. It’s an easy accusation to make. Hamas has often been accused by Israel, Fatah and neighboring Arab states of instigating violence to derail peace negotiations.

But with no real evidence beyond the suggested motives, the rocketing of Aqaba and Eilat remains a whodunit. Hamas, ever wary of Israeli retaliation, has vehemently denied responsibility for the attacks. Fringe Islamist groups within Gaza have defied Hamas’ official rocket ban in the past, and it’s likely that Palestinian or Islamist extremists were behind the attack. Some observers have suggested that Bedouin smugglers in Sinai – under pressure from a shrinking Gaza smuggling industry after Israel loosened its blockade – had hoped to reignite tensions in order to buttress their role as intermediaries in the Palestinian enclave’s economy.

In any event, leaders of Sinai’s Bedouin communities say they are on edge, tensely expecting that Bedouin could take some of the blame, as they have for previous terrorist attacks in Egypt. And in Taba, the Sinai border resort town directly adjacent to Eilat and Aqaba, the unease is palpable. “The tourist industry is sleeping right now,” says Mahmoud, a Bedouin taxi driver who declined to give his last name. “There’s a war,” he adds, driving down an empty road past the Taba Hilton, where a 2004 bombing killed more than 30 people. “Everyone says the rockets came from Sinai, but we don’t know who launched them.”

“If it is true [that the attacks originated in Sinai], it will affect the Bedouin of Sinai,” says Abu Mohammed, a sheik from the Sawarka tribe of northern Sinai, near the Gazan border. “The government could arrest 200 to 300 people all because of one person. It could be a big problem.”

Egyptian media and wire reports, quoting unnamed security sources, said Egyptian security forces were combing the mountainous desert around Taba and had enlisted the help of 100 Bedouin to conduct the search. It’s not the first time Bedouin cooperation has been utilized for such a mission; following a series of terrorist bombings of Sinai resort areas from 2004 to 2006, the government says, Bedouin tribesmen helped track down dozens of locals it believed to be implicated in the attacks. But thousands of Bedouin were arrested in the process. And despite several highly publicized goodwill gestures by the Cairo regime in the past few months – including the release of hundreds of jailed Bedouin and the announcement of new job initiatives in the area – the police brutality and discrimination of recent years continue to dominate the consciousness of many in Egypt’s desert border zone. Says Abu Mohammed: “Until today, the government has released 180 people who were imprisoned. But there are still 200 to 300 who are in jail.”

But Beshir Abdel Fattah, a security analyst and Sinai expert at the Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, believes that the Egyptian government knows better than to repress the Sinai Bedouin. “There is a new era in the relationship between the police and the Bedouin,” he says. “[State authorities] know that not all Bedouin are responsible for this.”

Nevertheless, there is still nervousness. To the southwest of Abu Mohammed’s village, a road connects northern Sinai to the south at the sleepy town of Nakhl, continuing from there through rocky desert and rose-hued craggy mountains to Taba. It’s a few hours’ drive along a route that is mostly empty – and often breathtaking. But it’s a road that for years, and despite the recent talk, no foreigner has been allowed to follow. It’s too dangerous, explain some of the drivers who ply Sinai’s desert roads. They cite Bedouin-government tensions for their reluctance. To get to the area where Egypt meets Gaza, the drivers insist on a circuitous alternative: a seven-hour route that takes you out of Sinai and bypasses the center of the peninsula before heading back in to reach the troublesome border with the Hamas-ruled strip.