Mohammad Shahabuddin: Power in jail, power out of jail

Much hullaballoo has already been created with the release of Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) leader Mohammad Shahabuddin from the Bhagalpur jail on September 10, after 11 years in prison. The four-time MP and two-time MLA, who has often been regarded as the dreaded don of Bihar’s Siwan district, almost immediately stoked controversy when he called Bihar CM Nitish Kumar a “chief minister of circumstances”. He did not even spare PM Narendra Modi, calling his government “zero, bakwas (useless)” in an interview with a Times Network reporter.

The response to his release from prison has been that of contrasts: while the citizens of Siwan seem to have given him a grandiose welcome, the Bihar government – irked by his comments on Kumar – went to the Supreme Court seeking a cancellation of his bail. Notably, the apex court did not stay this bail order of the Patna High Court on Monday and sought the reply of Shahabuddin himself on the issue.

Shahabuddin jumped into the political arena in 1990, when he was first elected the MLA in Bihar. From 1996 till 2008, he was the Lok Sabha Member of Parliament (MP) representing the Siwan constituency. He was jailed in 2005 when Bihar was under President’s Rule, and the subsequent Nitish Kumar-led government ensured that he was properly persecuted with the formation of a special court dealing only with his cases. Notably, his wife, Heena Shahab contested the Lok Sabha elections from the district in 2009 and 2014. Both the times, she was defeated.

The 49-year-old has a total of 40 cases against him since 1986, with 24 of them still pending. The cases in which he has been convicted include the murder of CPI (ML) leader Chhotelal Shukla in 1999, attack on Siwan SP SK Singhal, and the murder of brothers Girish Raj and Satish Raj in 2004, among others. Not only this, his involvement has also been suspected in the infamous murder of Jawaharlal Nehru University Students Union (JNUSU) president and CPI (ML) member Chandrashekhar Prasad in 1997, as well as that of Siwan journalist Rajdeo Ranjan in 2016 – at a time when he was in the Siwan central jail.

Often referred to as bahubali, (strongman) Shahabuddin’s dominance over Siwan seems to have been based on both a culture of fear as well as patronage. Various tales of his contribution for the locals of Siwan, helped him gain a Robin Hood-like image with widespread popularity. But these stand in pale comparison with stories that narrate the assaults by his men on anyone who dared to raise a finger against him. Shahbuddin maintained direct control over health, education, trade, land deals and the liquor business. He took the delivery justice in his own hands with his own brand of courts. Tales go as far to suggest that when Shahabuddin was in power, people even avoided travelling at night.

This apart, Shahabuddin’s significance within the political fold over the years, despite his involvement in criminal activities, can be attributed to two important factors. First is the minority (Muslim) votes he commands in Siwan, as well as other neighbouring districts. These, according to him, have not moved to Nitish Kumar-led Janata Dal (United) (JDU), but have remained with his party. The second factor – which may not be very significant in the present context but was so in the past – was the large-scale support he enjoyed from the landed upper castes. Speaking on this, Shahabuddin was quoted by the Indian Express as saying, “In those days, those whom the CPI (ML) called feudal were with me and the RJD government. At that time, there were only two sides. I gave a political umbrella to those upper castes in Siwan who have now migrated to the BJP.”

Politically speaking, the release of Mohammed Shahabuddin comes at an inopportune time for the ruling Mahagathbandan alliance of JDU, RJD and the Congress. The 49-year-old, by overtly criticising Nitish Kumar and calling RJD leader Lalu Prasad Yadav his onlyneta (leader), has dealt a further blow to the alliance already suffering from internal fissures. The limbo is clearly reflected by the state government in its contrasting stands. While the government did file for a petition with the SC against the bail order and is now mulling a non-bailable warrant against him, this has been clearly at odds with Lalu Prasad Yadav defending Shahabuddin after his statement. In fact, RJD vice-president Raghubansh Prasad Singh even supported the jibe against the chief minister of his own alliance.

SOURCES: Indian Express

Scroll

Restaurant Review: Double Roti- Gourmet food without a hole in your pocket

For a restaurant like ‘Double Roti’ – a small burger cafe in Viman Nagar, Pune – the first intriguing thing is the name itself. While other restaurants serving similar food (read: Italian, American and French) choose fancy, and sometimes unpronounceable ‘Western’ names for themselves, Double Roti goes the other way round by using the Indian moniker for bread.

Call it shortsighted, but when the peculiar name did crop up for discussion, I automatically thought of the place as one of those quirky restaurants serving Indian food with an extra bit of dash and oomph. That was mistaken though.

On the face of it ‘Double Roti’ primarily serves items which are bread-based – burgers, hot-dogs, pizzas sandwiches etc.  A brainchild of Japtej Ahluwalia and Nikesh Lamba, the ‘Double Roti’ franchise kickstarted its journey in Gurgaon in the winter of 2013. From there, it successfully went to Chennai and then to Pune.

The Viman Nagar outlet is a cosy little place situated in one corner of a shopping complex. The glass panels of the restaurant lend a contemporary, urban feel to it, while the nifty colourful decorations add an amusing character. The menu is colossal, to say the least. It almost feels like going through a magazine. And the food descriptions are cheeky. The downside of having a plethora of options is obviously that the customer ends up getting utterly confused – not knowing what to choose from a number of equally tempting options.

Fortunately, the staff is quite amicable and willing to help you out.

After much dilly-dallying on what to order, I finally settled with non-vegetarian nachos as appetiser, along with what they call a ‘4th of July’ burger – having a lamb patty, barbecue sauce and fried egg. I also ordered an oreo shake to complement the two dishes. The service was not slow, but for a hungry person, even waiting for 15 minutes to be served can turn out to be an ordeal. No complains though. Once the food and the beverages arrived, one could not help but notice the attractive plates and glasses they were served in. Particularly the oreo shake. The quantity for each item was more than satisfying, making me contemplate about how difficult it would be to not take an afternoon siesta after the meal.

In terms of taste, all three items hardly gave me anything to complain about. While nachos may seem like a simple snack, getting it right in terms of taste can be tedious and many restaurants tend to falter. But ‘Double Roti’ didn’t, and especially nailed it when it came to the accompanying dips. The lamb burger was quintessentially American – big and juicy, with a whole lot of items thrown in together to make it filling. But then again, like the quintessential American food, it did not pack in enough overall flavour to give that ‘punch’. Now, this small complaint might be due to my eternal longing for spicy and pungent food, which American cuisine inherently lacks.

In short, for the quantity and quality of food that one is served here in an extremely friendly environment, a total of Rs 600-700 would not burn a hole in the pocket after all.

The experience at Double Roti has only strengthened my belief that the eating-out food culture in Pune stands much superior than that of Delhi. Most of the restaurants which I have gone to in Pune – such as La Plaisir, Minus 18 Degrees, The K-Factory and now Double Roti – have not made me feel cheated the way the ones in the opulent Khan Market or Hauz Khas village in Delhi do. But the fact that the very Double Roti franchise started off in Gurgaon instills in me some hope that good restaurants do exist in the capital, despite my bad experiences pointing to the contrary.

In terms of their future plans, Ahluwalia and Lamba, who were previously together at ITCs Hotels Management Training School in Delhi, plan to open a number of outlets at various locations in the next few months. Let us hope that this quintessentially ‘management-minded’ move does not end up compromising on the standards, and the restaurant chain maintains its focused approach.

Apple iPhone 7: Removing the jack not revolutionary

Even today, no phone launch creates as much hysteria as the iPhone does. This is despite the fact that Apple is gradually falling flat in terms of innovation, and does not really do things ‘differently’ from the other tech giants. In fact, manufacturers like Samsung, LG, Motorola and OnePlus have been going quite aggressive and trumped Apple on several fronts.

But the ‘cool’ cult image of brand still remains quite strong, and one is predisposed to attribute it to Steve Jobs’ legacy.

So it was no surprise that by the time the Cupertino-based company’s CEO Tim Cook took the stage on Wednesday at Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in San Francisco, the rumour mills – like always – had churned, re-churned and re-re-churned a slew of expectations to keep the buzz going as strong as ever. The rumours largely turned out to be true when the company unveiled the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus.

 

Now cutting straight to the chase, apart from the slew of usual updates, the ‘Appleisque’ innovation this time was the removal of the humble and long-respected headphone jack (existing since the 1960s), and the doubling up of the power (Lightning) connector as the audio port. Yes, it is that headphone jack which has been there for donkeys of technology years and which has become the lifeblood of portable music listening. Apple will be bundling the iPhone 7 with a pair of earphones that will connect to the Lightning port. But along with that, it has also introduced the wireless AirPods, which ooze the characteristic ‘coolness’ of Apple products in their simplistic yet futuristic design and functionality. However, commanding a price tag of 159$ (read more than 10,500 rupees) for a pair, these tiny earphones would only appeal to those willing to splurge.

No doubt for many, the omission of the 3.5mm jack will initially equate to a forthright denial of music listening on their favourite earphones. But as Apple has rightly pointed out, it was necessary to take the bold step to end the convenient dependence on archaic audio technology, which has only hampered innovation and progress – in the form of high-quality audio accessories and noticeable design improvements in the phone itself. And since it is Apple which is doing this, everyone should (will) automatically follow suit. Just like they have done with the touchscreen smartphone, the tablet, a voice-assistant and a fingerprint scanner. And therefore, the company will succeed in making the removal of the 3.5mm port the next big thing.

 

In fact, Apple has had its share of trysts when it comes to disrupting the routine and well-tested technologies. The iMac of 1998 did away with the floppy drive, which was the norm of the time. The MacBook Air was a beautiful slim notebook which came at the cost of no CD drive. And then, the wafer-thin latest MacBook did away with almost everything – just keeping a multi-utility port and ironically the 3.5mm audio jack.

But one worrisome fact about Apple’s move is the use of the Lightning port as the connector for wired earphones. This is a port which is exclusive to only Apple products, as the company has shirked away from adopting the micro-USB standard used by others. What is certain therefore is that when companies do away with the 3.5mm jack in the near future, they will adopt a standard which is most definitely different from the Lightning port used by Apple. This will result in market fragmentation in the audio accessories market, which will only end up hurting the end-consumer. Until unless, the audio market shifts to using only advanced wireless technologies.

Nevertheless, in the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus, the absence of the headphone jack has helped the devices get IP67-certified water resistance, and perhaps fit in a larger battery and make the phone get a slightly slimmer profile.

Barring an attempt towards ushering in a new standard in audio connections (or lack thereof), this newest iteration of the iPhone got away with largely incremental updations. There were fancy additions (including a dual-camera setup in the iPhone Plus) to a camera module which has for long been the best in the smartphone market. A bump in the processor speed, enhanced display, stereo speakers, increased storage now starting at 32GB, a completely pressure-sensitive home button, and the latest version of the software (iOS 10) to complement the hardware, were among the other features.

While the keynote introducing was filled with the usual Apple-style honorifics for the iPhone, it did not have anything ‘revolutionary’ to offer at the end of the day. Though the replacement of the 3.5mm jack with a new standard can be seen as a courageous and welcome move, it stands in pale comparison with the path-breaking innovations that Apple has come up with in the past. This certainly does not bode well for the company in the near future.

 

Sources: VoxHindustan TimesTechRadarThe Verge.

Collegium System: A blotch on the judiciary?

In the last two years, a large part of the criticism of the Collegium system –  a five-member panel of the senior most judges in charge of recommending the appointment and transfer of judges – has come from the government. The government had repeatedly pushed for an alternative in the form of National Judicial Appointments Commission (NJAC), which was ultimately quashed by a five-judge Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court in October last year. Post that, a judgement oriented towards improving the functioning of the Collegium was passed, and the government and the apex court initiated consultations for a new Memorandum of Procedure (MoP) to bring in greater transparency in the process.

However, one prominent judge within the Collegium itself who has been quite vocal about his criticism of the Collegium system is Justice J. Chelameswar, who was the sole member who defended NJAC in that five-judge bench which otherwise declared it invalid. Recently, his scathing letter to the Chief Justice of India (CJI) TS Thakur, bringing to light the festering faults of the Collegium system has once again underscored the imperativeness of reforms in a judicial selection process, which can be easily characterised as opaque and unaccountable.

In the letter which Chelameswar made public, he made clear his disagreement over the manner in which the Collegium functions by conveying to the CJI that he would not be attending the body’s meetings, and asking for the recommendations of his colleagues to be sent to him in writing for perusal. Through his letter, he highlighted how the Collegium, by not maintaining any records of its proceedings, can stifle any dissent within the body, possibly to the benefit of the CJI. In other words, the CJI, with the aid of the absence of records, can show a recommendation to be a unanimous one, even when it might be opposed by one or multiple members in the Collegium.

It is necessary here to shed light on functioning of the Collegium system in the country since its establishment. The system, which is not constitutional but was established by the Supreme Court, goes back to the Second Judges case in 1993 when a three-member body was created out of a nine-judge bench ruling spearheaded by Chief Justice JS Verma. The verdict was a setback to the executive, which earlier had greater powers in the matter, and more and more control started being concentrated in the hands of the CJI. Five years later, in the Third Judges Case (1998), the strength of the collegium was increased to five members, including the CJI.

What is surprising to note here is that the Third Judges case actually mandates maintaining records of proceedings, wherein the views or opinions of the Collegium members must be in “writing”. Moreover, the two landmark judgements of 1993 and 1998 also clearly discuss the eventuality of dissent within the Collegium, the need for subsequent reconsideration and then unanimous reiteration of the appointment. This is especially important to consider in the current context where the Collegium is being questioned for its opaqueness and perhaps unilateralism by the CJI. It shows that the mandates of the SC judgements are being conveniently not followed in the functioning of Collegium today.

As regards the issue of maintaining minutes of proceedings, its lack was felt in March this year in a case involving Lalit Kumar Mishra, former additional judge of the Orissa High Court. Mishra’s plea, challenging his non-appointment as a permanent judge despite the collegium’s recommendation, was quashed by a Supreme Court bench precisely because there were no records of the proceedings, which he had demanded to see if the Collegium had actually held meetings discussing the withdrawal of his recommendation.

Lastly, one needs to note apart from Chelameswar, several other judges have also criticised the Collegium system in the past. In fact, Justice Verma, who led the nine-judge bench which brought the Collegium into being, later himself said that there needs to be review of the judgement. PJ Kurien, who was Chelameswar’s colleague in the bench that dismissed NJAC, too emphasised on the lack of transparency in the collegium and the need for improvement. Former CJI RM Lodha too recently joined the bandwagon, saying that Chelameswar “has a point”, and underlining the need for transparency in the judiciary.

However, the situation till now has remained grim as the judiciary and the government have been in constant dispute over a new Memorandum of Procedure (MoP) to be followed for appointment. One result of this is that the vacancies and pendency of cases have risen drastically in the high courts and Supreme Court, something which has also started a blame game.

 

Sources The Wire, New Indian Express

Donald Trump: A man of U-turns

If there has been one thing to remotely admire about Donald Trump, it’s been the conviction (at least ostensibly) with which he has advocated his caustic ideas. But now, he seems to have lost that too. This was best shown on Wednesday when he first visited Mexico – a country he has repeatedly disparaged for its ‘illegal immigrants’ – to meet with its President, Enrique Peña Nieto, and then came back to give an anti-immigration speech in Phoenix, Arizona, which very much included Mexico in its uncompromising criticism.

The day was a wonderful showcase of droll but worrying irony.

The meeting in Mexico City, taking place in a context of large-scale public opposition, saw Trump donning a different avatar. Perhaps slightly positive too. Emphatically proclaiming the meeting as an excellent one, the Republican firebrand managed to diplomatically discuss issues such as border security and trade with a Mexican President who has likened him to Adolf Hitler in the past. Surprisingly, Trump’s meeting was not reminiscent of his usually controversial and incendiary speeches back home.

But this was not to last for too long, as Trump immediately changed colours when he addressed the anti-immigration speech in Phoenix. The controversy and arson were back too soon, as he announced among other things, a “special deportation force”, “extreme vetting” of immigrants and toughening of rules on visas and seeking citizenship. He hit the nail on the head when he asserted that the Mexico would have to pay 100 percent for the infamous wall to prevent illegal immigration. This seemed a response to Nieto’s snub on Twitter, where he claimed that he had told Trump during the meeting that Mexico would not pay for the wall. Trump on the other hand, had claimed that the two did not discuss anything about financing the wall.

But then again, the Arizona speech was riddled with unclarity about Trump’s exact position on the deportation of 11 million illegal immigrants. To further add irony to his credit, Trump also ended up sprinkling a few reconciliatory statements in his otherwise vitriolic speech. Apart from assuring that everyone living or residing in the country will be treated with great dignity, he also said that the fate of most immigrants would be handled in a humane manner -very much what we can call ‘UnTrumpian’.

For a man who has had seldom experience with statecraft and foreign diplomacy, the visit to Mexico might have been a deliberate attempt to prove that he would make a capable statesman if elected President. Such a manoeuvre may have been seen by his campaign as important to tap into a large chunk of undecided voters – particularly the Hispanic population of the United States. And this, especially when Hilary Clinton has an edge over the Republican nominee in the the polls. But in doing so, and then immediately following it up with one of his usual anti-immigration speeches, Trump might have ended up undermining his influence instead. His desperation to win the election is making him dilly-dally between radically different positions. In the end, this might not help in capturing newer voter bases, and it would also alienate his existing support base, which has till now been particularly attracted to his anti-immigrant rhetoric.  As a result, Trump will then be left dangling somewhere in the middle with no one appeal to.

Sources: The New York Times , BBC

Explaining PAVA shells, a likely replacement for pellet guns

An expert seven-member committee of the Home Ministry recently recommended PAVA (Pelargonic Acid Vanillyl Amide) or Nonivamide shells as a viable alternative to the pellet guns, which have been highly criticised off lately for causing lethal injuries – especially eye-related – to the protestors during the Kashmir unrest.

To a layperson, this quintessentially scientific term translates to a highly pungent organic compound found in chilli pepper used for various purposes – as a food additive providing flavour and spice, in pepper sprays, and also in pain-related medicines.

With the death toll in Kashmir having risen to 70 in the context of the longest ever curfew in the state, there has been intense call for replacement of these pellet guns, which have been in use in the valley since 2010. Buckling under criticism, the political establishment, spearheaded by Home Minister Rajnath Singh, promised an alternative in place soon.

Unlike the metal pellets which can penetrate the body and lead to life-threatening injuries, the PAVA shells have been deemed to be “biosafe, better than chilli grenade or tear smoke shell” and those, which “can also be used in combination with stun and tear shells” by the expert panel – comprising of representatives from the Home Ministry, BSF, CRPF, Jammu and Kashmir Police, IIT Delhi and Ordnance Factory Board.

Likely to have bhut jalokia, the world’s hottest chilli, and phosphorous, these shells will be able to choke the respiratory tract of the target and temporarily paralyse him/her, along with causing severe eye and skin irritation. Notably, the shells fall in the “above peak” category of the Scoville index, a measure for chilli intensity, but are not said to be lethal, having only temporary effects.

Notably, though PAVA shells have been under development in the Lucknow-based Indian Institute of Toxicology Research for around a year, it was only last week when they were first tested and subsequently approved by the expert panel, The shells have also been reportedly used by Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel in Kashmir in the last few days.

Among other options which the committee reportedly mulled over as effective alternatives to pellet guns, there was a laser shooter causing temporary blindness, along with a dye marker grenade, stun grenade, wooden pellets and bean-bag rounds among others. There have also been various examples of usage of non-lethal weapons in different parts of the world, including Skunk (used by Israel against Palestinian agitators), pepper spray (used during the Occupy Wall Street protests), and tear gas (used durin Tahrir Square protests in Egypt).

With the panel recommending to the government to “immediately” ask the Tear Smoke Unit of the Border Security Force (BSF), Gwalior to manufacture 50,000 shells, it might be a expected that they will replace the pellet guns in the coming days. However, as pointed out by a security official in Kashmir, the shells have not proved to be useful in all settings. The solution lies in having various substitutes.

The darker side of gymnastics in India

The fact that 23-year-old Indian gymnast Dipa Karmakar qualified for the Rio Olympics made history in itself as she became the first Indian female gymnast to do so, and also the first gymnast to represent the country after the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. That she qualified for the finals only exacerbated the national jubilation, and placed on her heavy expectations of winning a medal. She fell just short of winning one, finishing fourth in the penultimate round. Her achievement is nevertheless remarkable, given the fact that India has little history of success in the sport, and more importantly, a federation that has done more to undermine it rather than to manage it.

An analysis of the recent history of gymnastics in the country shows that the sport has been an exemplar of compromise, that is, one where ever-increasing promise shown by the athletes has been repeatedly undermined at the behest of bureaucratic negligence.

The watershed moment for gymnastics in the country came when Ashish Kumar won a bronze and silver medal at 2010 Delhi Commonwealth Games at the young age of 19. Keeping the momentum going, he also bagged a bronze at the Asian Games in the same year. Four years later, Karmakar provided cheer to the country once again when she won a bronze medal in women’s vault at the 2010 Glasgow Commonwealth Games.

However, while Kumar and Karmakar’s remarkable rise under hostile circumstances made for perfect media stories, it outrightly failed to wake the sports authorities from their slumber.

Instead of acknowledging Kumar’s feat, the Gymnastics Federation of India (GFI) (in-charge of the sport) president JS Kandhari taunted the athlete’s coach Vladimir Chertkov as to why they were able to manage only a bronze medal.

And this has only been the tip of the iceberg as in the six years since, a lot has transpired, leaving the sport in complete doldrums: starting from the GFI’s decision to arbitrarily pull out of world championships in 2010, to the absence of national tournaments in the last three years, to even the lack of a functioning federation as two factions fight for its control in the most ‘administrative’ of manners.

Reflecting on the state of the sport in the country, Kumar was recently quoted by ESPN as saying, “The day I won a CWG medal, more than the joy I felt about winning the medal was the thought I had about the sport in the country. I thought, chalo, gymnastics can now shine, and younger kids will also start to get medals and everything is going to improve from then on”

But looking at the current state of affairs, he speculated, “What could happen then is that Dipa will go to the Olympics and return and we will be back in the same place again. What is the advantage of her going to the Olympic and creating history?”

In terms of infrastructure, the country falls way too short. There are only a handful gymnastic centres in the country, especially housed in hubs such as Patiala, Amritsar, Allahabad, Hyderabad, Kolkata and Agartala. Barring a few like the Khel Gaon centre in Allahabad, they are generally found to be lacking in the necessary equipment and training facilities. This explains how a populous country like India has failed to leave a mark on gymnastics, as a large chunk of the talent pool – potential Olympic champions – goes unharnessed.

Though the recent achievements of Kumar and Karmakar might seem to suggest a veritable progress for the sport in the country, it is very important that we understand these achievements as a product of unprecedented individual hard-work and excellence. The authorities have only stagnated, if not become worse. For any consistent development of the sport, one which will translate into more and more laurels for the country, the sports ministry as well as the Sports Authority of India (SAI) must step up and bring the GFI back to life, this time with credible individuals having a knowledge of and sensitivity towards the sport. And the GFI for its part, should subsequently push for participation of Indian gymnasts in international competitions, initiate coaching courses for Indian coaches, and provide for better infrastructural development.