The Joys of Mitfahrgelegenheit

Backpackers and students traveling across Europe would no doubt be aware of Mitfahrgelegenheit. The German based car-pooling service is one of the cheapest ways to travel around in the Schengen zone, and also one of the most entertaining.

I used to ‘mitfahr’ pretty often a couple of years ago, but since then short trips to Germany have been few, and for longer distances airlines are anyway more convenient. However, this week finding myself low on cash and needing to go to Berlin, I decided to look up for a carpool on a convenient time. This is how I landed up with ‘Mario’, an Austrian-Berliner (what does this mean? I tried asking him, but he just repeated that he was an AUSTRIAN-Berliner), driving in a car that, according to him, was previously owned by the Chinese embassy in Brussels. Along the way we picked up an occupational therapist from Vienna, going to meet family in Berlin, and two Catholic priests from Bangladesh, traveling Europe on a holiday.

This promised to be an entertaining trip, however prospects of conversation were cut short by a nerve-wrecking traffic jam that had us stalled for two hours, barely outside Vienna. When we finally left Vienna for Berlin at 9pm, there was the wearisome prospect of driving for at least 8 hours, and the logistics of finding our friends/hotels in Berlin when we arrive in the dead of night.

I was nevertheless very interested in the Bangladeshi catholics. They photographed everything, empty fields of grass by the highway, or even the drab gas station near Brno where we stopped to re-tank on LPG (the car ran on LPG).  I asked them if these places were really that exciting and picture-worthy? They replied that although it was nothing spectacular, we were passing through the Czech republic and they would be able to show these pictures to their friends and claim that they had been there as well.

I also asked them if it was dangerous or difficult being Catholic priests in Bangladesh? I was a little surprised when they replied that being a Catholic in Bangladesh has a lot of advantages. They said that they were associated with the Notre Dame college in Dhaka, an elite educational institution established by the Catholic church, which produces a lot of the country’s higher ranked civil servants. The alumna network makes sure that wherever they go, the state, far from being discriminatory, takes good care of their well-being. Having attended a similar institution in Delhi myself, I could well imagine that this would indeed work, although for a privileged few.

Mario, in the meanwhile, was driving at 220 kph, eager to make it to Berlin, and I think all of us were happy in some way that there were god-men in the car. He was a member of the reputable ADAC, the German Automobile club, which he said got him more passengers as people felt safer that he was ‘recognized’. The occupational therapist, who was on passengers side, made sure that Mario stayed awake by finding peppy numbers on the radio, and urging him to sing along.

It was 4am when we reached Berlin Ost. My friend Manuela had stayed up waiting for me, and was so nice to come and get me all the way from Wedding. The Bangladeshi priests had alighted close to Berghain, a cathedral, in its own right, to techno music, leaving the rest in the car chuckling. On the train to Wedding, I came across a Ghanian electronics technician and we together helped a very badly drunk South Asian guy figure out the route to his hotel.

Although the trip hitherto had been fascinating, I decided that mitfahr-ing back the next day would not be something I could handle. So I chose the next cheapest option-taking a bus. After spending a day at the Globalistan Music Album release party with Johannes Heretsch, and the next bargain-hunting at the Mauermarkt, I boarded the bus just in time to catch Germany pummel Australia, over the radio.

It was here at a random (i had assumed non-existent) check that I realized how soon my visa was running out. This has been the cause of much stress, and also for the slow blogging, over the past week. Hopefully, things will return to normal very soon, and I would have more time to spend in Globalistan. Stay Tuned.

Democracy, Torture and Zhou Zuohai

On 31st May, the Chinese government released guidelines that banned the admissibility of evidence obtained under torture in criminal convictions. This came a few weeks after the revelation of the seemingly bizarre, yet not completely uncommon, case of Zhou Zuohai.  Zhuo was released after being imprisoned for 11 years in Shanqqi, on charges of murder, when his alleged victim was found alive in his village. He was imprisoned on the basis of his confession of the crime.  A couple of days after he was released the authorities admitted that the confession was obtained under torture. Zhuo described his beatings: the pouring of chilli water in his eyes, the bursting of firecrackers over his head, and how he thought he would not survive. When he said what he was expected to say, the torture stopped, and he was convicted.

Lawyers, police, and governments in most countries, including China, understand that torture is counterproductive in extracting evidence. Indeed, China has issued several directives earlier to say that evidence under torture is unacceptable. As in the case of Zuohai, most confessions of this sort are false or misleading, and are given only to make the immediate suffering stop. Why then do police forces continue to use torture or the threat of it as a means to extract evidence?

Torture is a largely a systemic problem that has much to do with the nature of policing, and governance. In China, for example, the police operates heavily under the control of the government, and in a culture of impunity. This means that police are almost always more focused on satisfying the demands of politicians and party leaders, rather than serving the society. The attitude of the government that police are a means to control society leads to a derogation of individual and human rights of citizens in the eyes of the police officers, who are then wont to torture and degrade them, with impunity.

Further, the conditions under which police operates heavily influences their effectiveness and commitment. Underpaid and overworked police officers, as is common in China, are more willing to employ torture and ill-treatment to clear their workloads. Pressure to show results often leads to police resorting torture to extract confessions, rather than using forensic and detective skills to resolve a case. Indeed, a majority of convictions in China are on the basis of confessions, a lot of which could be presumed to have been extracted under torture or threat of the same.

India has also recently passed legislation to combat torture. In April, the cabinet approved of a bill that would enforce a ban on torture, and in the process ratify the United Nations Convention Against Torture.  While this is a welcome move which would send a clear message from the government to law-enforcement personnel, the legislation itself reflects little progress in the mindset of the authorities.

Shortly before the bill was approved by the Lok Sabha, the Asian Council on Human Rights (ACHR), a human-rights NGO, released a report on torture in India. The group said that the Indian government had proposed a similar bill in 2008 which was highly unpopular with civil rights groups. According to the ACHR, no consultation with civil society or public debate went into the drafting of the present bill. Even after being approved by the cabinet in April, the Bill was not released for public scrutiny until much later, by which time it was already an Act.

The bill was released to public after it was passed by the Lok Sabha as the Prevention of Torture Act 2010, and is now pending in the Rajya Sabha. The Act defines torture as ‘grevious hurt’ or ‘danger to life limb or health (mental or physical)’, specifically bars the admissibility of evidence under torture, and prescribes a punishment of 10 years for offenders. However, it goes onto establish that any prosecution under this Act would require previous sanction of the government, entrenching the impunity provided by Section 197 of the Code of Criminal Procedure. It also raises the possibility that any action under this bill would target the lowest levels of law enforcement, whereas the superior officers who authorized such practices remain immune due to some contacts within the government.

Further, it offers no redressal mechanisms, investigation or monitoring bodies, or complaints procedures. Neither does it address the AFSPA areas, where torture is most widespread and systematic.

The current Act seems to be only lip service to international conventions, continuing to propagate impunity for torture.

Many of the factors that I mentioned with respect to China earlier, would also apply to India. Indian police has a reputation of being the handmaiden of politicians and bureaucrats. Officers are overworked, one police to every 1037 residents, according to a Human Rights Watch report, as opposed to one to every 333 residents, which is the global norm. Salaries remain static as workload rises, leading to demands for bribes and non-registration of FIRs. Occasionally, officers take the law into their own hands meting out beatings and abuse as immediate punishment for a crime.

Established by Indian Police Act of 1862, shortly after the 1857 uprising, Indian police were instruments with which the British controlled their subjects. The ethos of controlling the populace instead of serving them seems to have been retained, along with other aspects of organization. It is this ethos which serves as the biggest challenge in the fight against torture in India.

To successfully address systematic torture, India needs an overhaul of its police system. The judiciary and the central government have been attempting to implement such reforms for a number of years.  In 2006, the Supreme Court has issued several directives to state governments to set up independent oversight and complaints mechanisms. A committee had also been set up under Soli Sorabjee to investigate a new Model Police Act. However, with a few exceptions, these measures met from strong resistance from the State Governments, where politicians were unwilling to cede control of the police.

Combating systematic torture requires states to stand by values that reaffirm human rights and democratic principles, and reject a culture of impunity and non-accountability.  Theoretically, being a democracy, such measures ought to come easier to India than China, which has a history of brutal repression of human rights and civil society activists. However, as evidenced by the veil of secrecy and lack of public debate around the Prevention of Torture Bill, promoting accountability and transparency are still rather large challenges in India.

“It is more horrible to wait for your killers than to be killed”

Aslan and friends refused to be on camera, requesting to be photographer with their back towards it
Aslan and friends refused to be on camera, requesting to be photographed with their back towards it

(An edited version of this article appeared in Caravan India today)

When I met Aslan Daudov, a 30-year-old Chechen asylum seeker whose name has been changed here on his request, he was afraid that he would be deported within a couple of hours to Poland. He was not as concerned about Poland’s negligible acceptance rate of Chechen asylum seekers; but was terrified of a much worse fate: that he might be kidnapped by agents of the Chechen government, tortured and killed.

We met in a crowded café in Vienna’s Westbahnhof train station. Midway through our conversation Aslan indicated that we should leave. A couple of policemen had occupied a nearby table, and an ID check would have shortened the time that Aslan had left in Vienna. We regrouped outside the station, where Aslan laughed off our protests about him paying for our coffee.

For a man whose life could be in jeopardy in the coming days, Aslan seemed remarkably upbeat. When I asked how he managed to stay that way in face of such imminent threat, he replied that he was just trying to hide his fear. “Each time I see a policeman I lose one kilo of weight” he added, expressing the sort of gallows humour common amongst asylum seekers.

Aslan had arrived in Vienna in 2006 and has been living here ever since. He fled his village in Achkhoi-Martan district in Chechnya, where he had assisted rebels during the Second Chechen War.

Ever since the downfall of the Soviet Union, Chechnya has seen seemingly unending conflict. A tiny republic in Southern Russia, Chechnya declared independence in 1991 which led to an invasion by Russian troops in 1994 to end the insurgency. The invasion proved abortive in the face of stubborn resistance from guerrilla fighters and the troops withdrew in 1996. The Second Chechen War started when Russian troops renewed their campaign in Chechnya, following a series of bombings in Moscow in 1999. Russia claimed victory in 2000 and established Akhmad Kadyrov, a pro-Moscow cleric, as president. Akhmad was assasinated in 2004, shortly after which his son, Ramazan Kadyrov, became the de-facto ruler and, seeking to avenge his fathers death, launched a campaign a brutal campaign of repression. Since then the insurgency has waned, but allegations of kidnappings, assassination and brutality by Kadyrovs militia have increased.

Aslan was evasive about his exact role in the war, claiming that he only provided the rebels with clothing and ammunition from time to time. He also mentioned an uncle who was part of the rebel forces who was killed during the Russian invasion. He said that he and his family were under constant threats from the military ever since. When his younger brother disappeared without a trace, Aslan decided to leave Chechnya.

He crossed the border from the Russia into Belarus and from there into Poland, where he was arrested and put in a camp with other Chechen refugees. He says that he never felt secure there. “There were people asking about me”, he says, “I knew that there were some people involved in crimes in Chechnya there, and when I heard of some people that I knew disappearing, I decided to leave myself”. He went south, through Slovakia and entered Austria, where he was arrested again and asked to report to Traiskirchen refugee camp, a few miles south of Vienna.

On arrival in Austria, the first question he was asked was how he got here. When he indicated in his reply that he had crossed two member states of the European Union before arriving in Austria, Aslan was immediately marked as a ‘Dublin hit.’ His claim of asylum in Austria was rejected, and he was meant to be sent back to Poland. Aslan fled Traiskirchen, ‘worse than a prison’ according to him, and appealed his case in the courts several times. He got the last decision a few days before I met him in which the court indicated that it could not establish any reason for Aslan to be afraid of going to Poland, and that he ought to be sent back according to the Dublin procedure (contd).

Why the Auto-Rickshaws of Delhi Should Stay

(Guest post by Simon Harding)

As every Delhite knows, taking an auto journey in the capital is not a pleasant experience. Drivers speed off at the very mention of your home or office, leaving you stranded on the roadside. When an auto-wallah finally agrees to go where you want, he steadfastly refuses to run by the meter and instigates a minute or so of stressful haggling. You arrive at your destination frazzled, irritated and over-charged. This situation has not gone unnoticed. Chief Minister, Sheila Dixshit recently announced plans to phase out the auto-rickshaw after five decades of service. Auto-rickshaws are “not a good option”, she complained, auto-wallahs “harass” passengers and up to half are plying the streets “illegally”. With the Commonwealth Games fast approaching, the eyes of the world will soon turn to Delhi. Auto-rickshaws do not fit with the CM’s desire to see visitors return home “with the impression that they have been to a truly civilised city”. She promised futuristic battery powered taxis, which thrilled middle class Delhi.

But before the auto-rickshaw and the much-maligned auto-wallah can be condemned, we must look at how the auto-rickshaw sector in Delhi operates: at the rules, regulations and policies, which govern the livelihoods of the city’s 80000 or so auto-drivers. Some questions need to be answered: why are Delhi’s auto-wallahs so greedy and grumpy? Why won’t they switch on the meter? Why do so many ply “illegally”?

There are two types of auto-driver: Renter-drivers rent their vehicles from contractors (who own multiple autos). They pay Rs.250-300 for 10-12 hours and expect to take home the same amount in profit: half their passenger fares go on rent and CNG. Today around 80% of auto-wallahs rent their rides. Owner-drivers own their autos, although ‘owner’ is somewhat of a misnomer as most are repaying huge loans to auto-financiers from whom they purchased both the auto-rickshaw and the all-important auto-permit, without which the auto cannot legally ply the streets. Owner-drivers pay what they can upfront and then take a loan for the outstanding amount from the auto-financier. Once the loan is repaid, the auto-financier transfers the auto-permit into the new owner’s name. Monthly loan repayments are typically Rs.9000-15000.

In 1997 the Supreme Court froze the number of autos in a bid to cut emissions from vehicles. No new auto-permits would be issued. No auto-permits could be sold either. The supply of auto-rickshaws was capped whilst the demand for public transport surged as Delhi’s population grew. Consequently, the price of an auto-permit rocketed and a burgeoning black market for permits emerged. Auto-financiers found themselves in a lucrative position as their existing stock of auto-permits suddenly became a very precious commodity indeed. In the late 90s, a new auto-rickshaw with permit cost Rs.1-1.5 lakhs from an auto-financier. Today, after a decade of inflation on the black market, the auto and permit package costs Rs.4-4.5 lakhs: Rs.1.45 lakhs for the new auto, Rs.3 lakh for the permit.

The cap was also good news for contractors. No new auto-rickshaws coming onto the streets, but the number of willing drivers was increasing as migrants continued to arrive from Bihar and UP in search of employment. Demand for rented autos rose but supply froze, allowing contractors to hike rents.

A second policy shifted the balance of power in favour of financiers once again. In 1998 the Supreme Court ordered that all public transport vehicles should convert to CNG. Owner-drivers were faced with a Rs.25-30000 bill for a CNG conversion kit and the threat of having their precious permits canceled if they did not comply. In 2000, just before the switch, there were 83000 auto-rickshaws on the roads, but just eighteen months later there were 55000. Where did these autos go?

Hard Power/Soft Power

The Economist’s EU-Affairs columnist Charlemagne has a post up about the future of Europe in world affairs, which I would like to suggest to you. Charlemagne notes the concern of Brussels policy-makers over European states still not being able to ‘speak in one voice’, but wonders if such unity would be enough to make Europe relevant in a fundamentally altered international landscape. Referring to recent ‘snubs’ to US Diplomacy by China, Iran and Israel, Charlemagne writes :

But here is the question that I am starting to turn over in my mind. If our big bet in Europe is that speaking with one voice will make our norms-based, soft power approach work, what lessons should we draw when Mr Obama’s outstretched hand of friendship is smacked away? Because even in a perfect, parallel universe, in which the EU magically falls in line behind Catherine Ashton and the new EU diplomatic service, we will struggle to become one half as united as the American government is. Our 27 countries will always find it hard to match America when it comes to identifying and defending our interests. And though there can of course be differences in the messages sent out by the White House, the State Department, Congress and so on, in general America speaks with one voice to the outside world, in a way that the EU can barely hope to match.

And yet all that speaking with one voice, in defence of agreed, common interests, does not seem to shield the Obama administration from snubs.

The columnist then goes on to wonder if in this new world it would benefit Europe more to stick closer to the US in international affairs. The simple answer would be no. Europe and US indeed have strong historical ties, and have benefited greatly from this transatlantic relationship. And after the crazy Bush years, their diplomatic strategies also seem to be on a similar wavelength with an emphasis on dialogue and engagement.

However, it would certainly not be in a nascent EU’s interest to follow the American line in foreign policy. Surely, America with it’s greater foreign commitments would exert great pressure on Europe to fall behind it. Also, such bandying together on foreign policy issues would not send positive signals from the west to the rest of the world. Europe establishing its own place in the world, separate from the US, is necessary both for Europe and multi-lateralism.

Americas diplomatic failures are not the result of its soft approach, but a combination of factors that involves miscalculations on Obamas part, as well as the newly emergent powers feeling a need to assert themselves. There is no reason to believe that multilateralism would be a bed of roses, and even lesser reason for US/EU abandoning it for a ‘hard’ approach.

Europe’s best bet is to try and be an independent foreign player. Its  failure to show any sort of leadership on the international stage, an opportunity that it so gloriously squandered at Copenhagen, is more of a reason for its international stature than it’s competitive advantages. The big European powers that brought it together are now reluctant to see Europe forward. This is crucial for Europe, as Ashton recognized in her speech, to have a say in its own affairs on the international stage.

Lastly, despite the paranoia about decline that seems to be sweeping the western world, Europe certainly has the potential to be a powerful actor with great resonance in foreign affairs. Its social welfare system is the envy of  powers like China, its universities are host to millions of Asian students, its a great patron of artists, its leadership in infrastructure and R&D recognized world-over. Most importantly, its model for regional governance is one that would serve as an example for non-western powers as they try to achieve stability, security and economic prosperity in their own regions. Its internal diversity, enhanced by its assimilation of immigrants, would ensure that it has influence beyond its borers. The columnist misuses the term soft power, which refers to the influence that societies and cultures have on each other, and something that Europe has bucket-loads of.

It needs to organize itself and pull its weight as a hard power, capable of  protecting its interests and pushing its agenda based on the norms of social-democracy, welfare and respect of civil liberties. Speaking in one,independent, voice, Europe has a lot to gain, and I believe so does the world.

West Bank Story

The Na’avi characters from James Cameron’s blockbuster Avatar, a visually spectacular (if cliché ridden) allegory of imperialism, seem to be becoming an icon of protest.

In the village of Bil’in on the West Bank a group of Palestinian, Israeli and Arab activists protested against the building of an Israeli barrier by costuming-up as the blue-skinned Na’avi  from the blockbuster movie (albeit the women wore hijab) . The protesters at Bil’in, who consider the barrier a land grab by Israeli security forces, equated their struggle to the intergalactic battle for Pandora, the Na’vis homeland which humans try to forcibly occupy for its mineral resources.

Via The Lede:

Batsheva Sobelman of The Los Angeles Times reported from Jerusalem that last month “a screening of ‘Avatar’ erupted into a small ruckus in a suburb when one moviegoer loudly announced that the Palestinians should learn from this movie what to do to the Jews, causing a commotion and angering others in the audience.” Ms. Sobelman explained that the “opinionated moviegoer was Juliano Mer-Khamis,” an actor who was “Born in Nazereth to a Jewish mother and Arab father.”

Mr. Mer-Khamis told the Israeli newspaper Maariv:

No one dares to make the real analogy. ‘Avatar’ is one of the bravest films made. It portrays the occupation, but people aren’t making the analogy. Many would like to be like the blue people but don’t understand the meaning. This is why people got angry at the movie theater. It is no secret that I think the Israelis are occupiers and the Palestinians occupied. Israel sits forcefully on lands that belong to others and this is exactly what the movie is talking about.

Check out the video. Also, there are reports of state-meddling in the screening of Avatar in China since the government considered the movie to be close to ‘sensitive issues’ in China. However, other reports suggest that this maybe simply because of the Chines governments policy of helping local cinema by keeping Hollywood blockbusters out.

Megan Fox Brings Us Together

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This survey, which uses an analysis of over 100 million Facebook accounts across the world and provides country wise information about popular brands and user networks, hints to something that I have long held true: Megan Fox (and, to a lesser extent, Vin Diesel) have the power to unite people across cultures and biases.

The actress tops the list of ‘likes’  across cultures and continents, bridging even bitter rivalries such as that between India and Pakistan (her popularity amongst South American and African nations seems significantly lesser though, perhaps a hint of cultural preferences)

The graphic also elaborates on another interesting aspect: how Facebook users across the world are linked. Europe and North America show high degree of regional connections. This is also true with China, whose population seems to be connected to those of East Asian countries. On the other hand such connections seem to be absent amongst South Asian nations, who seem to be significantly more connected to the US and UK.

It also highlights how historic and diasporic links between nation are reinforced in people-to-people connections (except in the South Asian case). It also shows that the sun may have set on the British Empire, but the UK still seems to have the most globally-connected population.

Link via ChapatiMystery