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Andrew Buncombe's Asia Diary

The Independent's Asia Correspondent Andrew Buncombe is based in Delhi. His dominion ranges over India, Pakistan, Burma, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, occasionally parts of South East Asia and - or at least he is hoping - The Maldives.

Follow Andrew on Twitter: @AndrewBuncombe

It's been a shamefully long time since I voted in an election. Truth be told, the last time I actually crossed the ballot box with my pencil was 1997, the year of the Blair landslide, when I was living in Cardiff and working for a regional newspaper. During the last two previous elections I was out of the country, in the US, and the result appeared such a foregone conclusion that it appeared, frankly, to matter little. But this time it was clearly different, this time there were issues at stake and this time there was a real battle underway.
 As a result I'd planned to vote either by proxy or post in the Weston-Super-Mare constituency where I grew up and where my folks still live. The current MP, a Conservative, has a majority of 2,000, but in 2001 the seat was won by the Liberal Democrats - the first time in generations that Weston did not go to the Tories - by just 300 or so votes. It is a constituency considered a marginal.
In order to inform my decision, I decided I would email each of the candidates, without revealing I was a journalist, and ask them their views on three issues - one question on foreign policy, one question on domestic issues and one specific to Weston-Super-Mare. For that last question, my question was about the long-running saga over the demise of a seafront swimming pool called the Tropicana and the failure - now lasting more than 15 years - to build a new one.

I also sought the opinion of a popular local blogger, WestonsuperMeh, who told me: "The top three issues in the town are:
1. Drugs. Lots of rehab centres, lots of recovering addicts, lots of drug dealers. You see the dealers operating openly in the town centre, sitting outside cafés, meeting in the parks. They aren't hard to spot, yet nothing seems to be done about it. The rehab centres are many and once the addicts 'finish' their treatment they're out on the streets.
2. Junction 21 of the M5. It has been branded 'Malfunction Junction' as it's so poor. The queues to get out of Weston in the morning at rush hour are horrendous and the junction is too small to serve the surrounding population.
3. Jobs. There are very few jobs for professionals in Weston. Unless you want to work in caring for the elderly, of which Weston has plenty, you're looking at a commute to Bristol."
 In the end I ended up sending my three questions to the candidates for the Conservatives, Liberals, Labour, English Democrats, UKIP and BNP. I am afraid that I could find no email address for a sixth candidate, Steve Satch, who is standing as an independent.
After doing all this, I sadly discovered that I am only eligible to vote in Cardiff - the last place I voted. Given the slowness of India's postal system it was impossible for me to register, receive papers and then vote in time. I am therefore voteless again today. However, the exercise in reaching out to the candidates and their responses - or lack of them - was very interesting. For what it's worth, here are my three questions followed by the replies.

1. Looked at from abroad, the decision to support the invasion of Iraq looks like an utter disaster. Britain was dragged into a potentially illegal war that not only led to the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives, but which damaged Britain's reputation. How can your party ensure that Britain makes its own foreign policy decisions rather than being led by our more powerful friends?
 2. What is your view on immigration control?. I like the idea of a multicultural Britain but many people say the numbers of people coming into the country has soared recently. When I was last in Weston, I
noticed that many east Europeans were working in the hotels. Is there a danger they are taking the jobs from local people?
 3. The disaster that is the abandoned Tropicana resort has been an eye-sore on Weston's seafront for far too long. Why is it apparently impossible for the elected leaders of Weston-Super-Mare to find
someone prepared to build a simple covered swimming pool? What would you do about this?

And the answers:

Mike Bell, Lib-Dem.
 Many thanks for your message.
Iraq has been a disaster. The Liberal Democrats were the only major party to oppose the invasion on the basis that it was illegal under international law, diplomatic and economic measures had not been exhausted and an adequate long term plan had not been developed. It gives me no pleasure at all to say that we have been proved right. Countless lives have been lost to create, at best, a politically unstable and barely democratic nation.
Ultimately, Tony Blair chose to follow the Washington line and this proved to be wrong. As Liberal Democrats we believe in a strong Atlantic relationship, but like our relationship with our European partners, it must be a relationship or critical friends, not lapdogs.
Liberal Democrats would ensure that the law was changed to ensure that no war could be started by Britain again without a debate and free vote in Parliament.
 On immigration, the issue is complicated. There is good immigration and bad immigration. There are parts of Britain crying out for economic migrants (both skilled and unskilled) to do work that locals cannot or won't. There are other areas that are overpopulated.
We support the creation of a border police force, so that we can take effective control of our borders again, counting people in and out and helping to prevent illegal immigrants from entering Britain. We would established an Australian-style points based system to regulate immigration to ensure that only those with the skills we need could enter the country.
Many of the people eastern Europeans who have come to Britain in recent years have done so under European Union rules on freedom of movement and work. In Weston, they are largely filling low paid, unskilled jobs. In my discussions with hoteliers, they have welcomed them. They work hard and are filling jobs that previously were difficult to fill. It is fine balancing act to get it right.
 On the Tropicana, I have campaigned for many years for a council-funded covered swimming pool to be built on the site. I was born in Weston and have lived here almost all my life. I remember when the old Pool was open air, with diving platforms etc. When the revamped 'Tropicana' opened in the 1980s, it was exciting and new. It is a scandal to see it neglected and boarded up as it is today.
I opposed the deals that the council signed with private developers for massive schemes with hotels and cinemas. As a councillor, I proposed that the council should just show the courage to get on and rebuild itself.
Today, Liberal Democrat Councillors have a funded £10m plan to rebuild a covered swimming pool on the site. This would be paid for using some council reserves and through reductions in the pay of councillors and senior staff. I would be equally content to see a local business person to lead a development project with similar objectives.
All that is required is a little leadership to make it happen. If I am elected as our MP, I will make the Tropicana scheme a top priority and will demanding answers every day from the council.

David Bradley, Labour.
Failed to respond to two emails.

John Penrose, Conservative.
 Thank you for contacting me about all the issues that matter to you as we go into this election. I’ll try
to take each of your questions in turn and give them a straightforward answer – I only wish more
voters would take the trouble to write in the way you have!
I completely agree with you that it is vital that we learn from the mistakes that have been made in Iraq. We still haven’t got to the bottom of the ‘dodgy dossier’ scandal, or Dr Kelly’s death, and the results have damaged trust in the political handling of world conflicts. I quite agree right that a proper inquiry is vital. The Conservatives have been calling for one for some time, but I’m afraid the Government has tried to neuter the process by setting conditions and a format which help Labour Ministers in particular. To have real credibility, it should be open to the public whenever possible and have a wider and more diverse membership. Unfortunately, the Government has made no attempt to reach a consensus with other parties on any of the details. As a result Shadow Foreign Secretary William Hague tabled a motion calling on the Government to hold the Inquiry in public whenever possible and widen its membership. New terms of reference should be agreed by Parliament after a full debate and proper scrutiny, rather than be decreed unilaterally by the Government.
 On immigration, the sad truth is that Labour has little or no idea how many migrants (whether legal or not) are living and working in Britain today. They’ve let the entire system get completely out of
control. It doesn’t assess applications properly, reaches decisions too slowly, is riddled with errors and loopholes, and doesn’t impose any overall limits on the total number of people we should accept. The Government has been far too slow to introduce an effective border police force, and is completely  incapable of deporting migrants who are proven to be here illegally. Currently just 3% of claimants leave the country within three months of their case being decided, and almost a quarter of cases are reversed on appeal. Many applicants end up working illegally to survive, and some are left in limbo for years. Instead, we need a properly controlled system which sets a limit on the total number of people we will admit. That means granting a small number of visas to migrants and refugees, twinned with a proper border police force to secure our borders against terrorists who threaten our way of life. Labour has, at last, started to realise the problems they’ve caused and are moving (a bit slowly) towards the kind of system we’ve been proposing for years. But I’m afraid the emerging cross-party consensus doesn’t stretch very far because the Liberal Democrats are in favour of ‘earned regularisation’, which basically means granting an amnesty to immigrants living illegally in this country. When this policy has been used previously, it hasn’t solved the problem at all. In fact it can encourage even more people to sneak into Britain in the hope of being ‘regularised’ when the next amnesty is announced. I’m extremely saddened that this highly sensitive issue can’t be dealt with through a cross-party consensus where everybody speaks as one. But since there are real differences between the parties on this issue, I believe you’ve got a right to know about them before you go to vote in this election. 
Finally, on the Tropicana, I completely agree with you that it is high time that something is done about
it, and I’ve been pushing the Council hard both publicly and privately to get on with it quickly (some
of them have started to flinch when they see me coming!). The latest news we’ve heard – about a new bid from potential developers – should make us a bit more hopeful about its future.
Like many people in Weston, I felt frustrated that the plans drawn up by the developer Henry Boot had fallen through (although to be fair many other projects across the country have fallen victim to the
recession too). Everybody I speak to wants to make sure the new Tropicana contains a swimming pool but the practical difficulty, I’m told, is that every public swimming pool loses money (even places like Sedgmoor Splash and Hutton Moor). That means that any future owner taking on the project would have to put other facilities like cafes and shops around the pool to subsidise it and make it pay. Providing those facilities are reasonable and not too large, I think most people in Weston would see it as a price worth paying to sort the problem out once and for all.
Now a variety of possible projects – including one from Richard Nightingale, a local businessman –
are apparently being developed, which sounds like long-overdue good news for our seafront. I
supported Mr Nightingale’s original plans back in 2005, even though the (then Lib-Dem) council
decided to give the contract to Henry Boot instead, because I thought it was wonderful that a local
businessman was willing to invest millions of pounds of his own money in Weston’s seafront – we’ve
already seen what a committed local resident can do with the Michaels’ plans to rebuild the Grand Pier after the fire. That said, all the new proposals will obviously have to measure up to public scrutiny and, in meantime, the Council has to go through a frustratingly lengthy tender process because of EU rules applying to large public. Let’s hope that, once the process is complete, we finally get the right plan for Weston. I promise I won’t give up!
Yours sincerely,
John Penrose

Paul Spencer UKIP
Failed to respond, though I was copied in to an email asking someone to respond from the party's head-office.

Peryn Parsons, BNP.
Failed to respond.

John Peverelle English Democrats.
 The English Democrats main platform is an English parliament, so as we English can have a say in our future! We are losing sovereignty to the Scots/Welsh and becoming second class citizens in our own country.We believe we should leave the EU asap, but do it democraticaly by a referendum. Mass immigration should stopp asap, and replaced with a points system for posotions that cannot be filled by people living in the country. Refugees and asylum seekers should be looked after in neighbouring countries, rather than miles away from their homes. The present war and the war in Iraq were both wrong for us to be involved in. USA stopped us in Suez and since then we seem too keen to join then in their war ventures.
Sorry the delay in reply.

So who should I have voted for? I thank all those who bothered to take the time to respond. For those who did not, perhaps you should not put up email addresses on official websites if no-one is going to answer. Here's hoping whoever gets elected does a decent job for Weston and gets that darned swimming pool sorted out.

UPDATE: John Penrose won with an increased majority, beating the Liberals by 3,000. 

Fatima Bhutto and her dislike of "dodgy questions"

Posted by Andrew Buncombe
  • Monday, 26 April 2010 at 10:26 am
Fatima Bhutto, the smart, stylish and charming niece of the late Benazir Bhutto has been getting some pretty good press of late for her new memoir Songs of Blood and Sword. Much of the book is taken up with the by now well-known saga of the feud within the Bhutto clan and of the chilling murder of her father, Murtaza, the blame for which she directs at Pakistan's current president, Asif Ali Zardari, and his wife - Fatima's aunt -Benazir.
 From all accounts it is a roaring, fast-paced tale told with energy and emotion and it has certainly been getting the young writer plenty of attention. In India, dressed in a green Sari with a red tikka painted on her forehead, she wowed the literatti of Delhi and Mumbai, as she sipped white wine and answered questions about her family and the evil uncle who now runs the country.
 It has been pretty much the same in the UK, with lots of the British media also being won over by the writer and her tale. Janine Di Giovani travelled to Karachi and spent several days chatting and doing yoga with Ms Bhutto and wrote a very flattering profile of the young woman for the Daily Telegraph. For those seeking more balanced and less hagiographic accounts, I'd recommend a review  in The Independent's book pages or else this detailed account by my colleague Omar Waraich. Both suggest that Ms Bhutto's presentation of events is rather one-sided and skips certain inconvenient facts. I wondered about this when it emerged that while Ms Bhutto was heavily promoting her book in India and elsewhere overseas, she had declined requests to speak to journalists in Pakistan.
Now, I hear word that someone in Ms Bhutto's team has been trying to blacklist a certain Pakistan expert from interacting with the young writer while in London. Farzana Shaikh, an associate fellow at Chatham House, had been due to interview Ms Bhutto for an "In Conversation" event organised by the alumni association of the School of African and Oriental Studies (SOAS). Although the event had long been fixed, the association contacted Ms Shaikh to inform her that Ms Bhutto's team was instead to be interviewed by a current staff members of SOAS.[Declaration of interest: Ms Shaikh has written some analysis pieces for The Independent on Sunday and last year I gave her latest book a pretty positive review in the pages of that same paper.]
 You can see an original listing of the event that mentions Ms Shaikh here, while an updated advertisement for the "In Conversation", to be held on May 20, notes that screenwriter Michael Redford will now be in the chair.
Anyway, it has emerged that Ms Bhutto's team also objected to Ms Shaikh interviewing the writer for a similar "In Conversation" that had been organised by Chatham House itself. The decision to try and replace Ms Shaikh followed an earlier interview she had done with Ms Bhutto for an article published in Chatham House's magazine, The World Today. Readers can have a lot at the piece and decide for themselves whether they think it is fair.
 Unlike the organisers of the SOAS event, however, who agreed to the demand of Ms Bhutto's team, the folk at Chatham House thought that they would decide who would do the interview and not Ms Bhutto. As a result, the event was cancelled. Ms Shaikh has declined to comment on these events and emails to Ms Bhutto's publicity team at Random House, her UK publishers, as well as to the SOAS alumni organisation have not been answered. However, Keith Burnet, a spokesman for Chatham House told me by email: "We were working on two things with Fatima Bhutto. The first is an interview with our monthly magazine, The World Today, and the second an event for our members. The interview will be published in the May issue of the magazine but the event has been cancelled." As to the reasons for the cancellation, he added: "There was a disagreement over the choice of person chairing the meeting."
 I've never met or spoken with Ms Bhutto, but I do follow her on Twitter, where she has 4,700 followers, and I've been reading with interest the updates of her promotional tour for Songs of Blood and Sword, or SOBAS in Twitter-speak. She appears genuinely moved by the largely positive response she has received. However, not everything has pleased the young writer and activist. In one post she comments: "Am constantly amused by the colourful lot of folks attacking SOBAS in Pakistan. What do they have in common, I wonder..."
More recently she has commented about a talk she gave at the British Academy of Film and Television Arts. In particular she drew attention to a question asked by the veteran South Asia watcher, Victoria Schofield, a long-time acquaintance of Benazir Bhutto and who was on the late prime minister's convoy when it was attacked in Karachi in October 2007. Ms Bhutto clearly did not appreciate the interaction with her late aunt's friend, saying of the Q&A session she gave: "Dodgiest question came from Victoria Schofield, who announced that we met at my father's funeral and then about my cousins. Clearly the most important issue facing nuclear Pakistan today."
 I subsequently contacted Ms Schofield, who told me:"The fact that Fatima might think my question was 'dodgy' shows that there is a whole agenda she does not want to confront which is essentially 'how to heal the wounds of the past'."
I wonder what is eating Ms Bhutto and why. Any thoughts?

Was a gay Indian academic driven to take his own life?

Posted by Andrew Buncombe
  • Thursday, 8 April 2010 at 11:55 am

Amid the flurry of sad stories that filled the papers today - for instance, the awful, heart-breaking accounts of the Indian troops under deadly fire from Maoist rebels phoning their families to say good-bye - the tale of Shrinivas Ramachandra Siras caught my eye.
  Siras was a professor of Marathi, one of the many Indian languages, at Aligarh's University and earlier this year he had been suspended for "gross misconduct" after video footage emerged of him having sex with a rickshaw driver. Siras protested the suspension and insisted that the sex between the two men had been entirely consensual and that he had broken no laws. Indeed, it rapidly emerged he had been set up. Thankfully, while the university may have acted in an appalling way in deciding to suspend him, many of Siras's students and colleagues supported him.
 The high court in Allahabad agreed with them and decided that the 64-year-old should have his job back."I am happy because I have been judged in a wrong way. I have already said that I am gay. I am the same man, with the same qualification, with the same features and personality," he said at the time.
 Siras had returned to work on Monday, but was due to retire in September. According to a report in the Indian Express, Siras had told the reporter that he wanted to move to the US to teach Marathi and dedicate his life to working for gay rights. "America is the only place I will be free to be gay," he said. 
 Siras will never make it to America. On Wednesday, police broke into his rented room after the landlord complained of a smell and found his body, blood reportedly oozing from his mouth. The police are now conducting forensic tests. They have said while it is possible he could suffered a heart attack, they believe it more likely Siras took his own life.
 India is slowly making progress in confronting the prejudice towards gays. Last year, in a landmark ruling, the Delhi High Court ruled that gay sex was not a crime and the government is said to be rewriting notorious British-era legislation that had made it so. Both Mumbai and Delhi have also had their first gay pride marches.
 Yet for all of that, there is very long way to go in ending discrimination. The case of this academic, who happened to be Hindu and who was set-up by some Muslim students posing as journalists who installed secret cameras in his home and then passed on the subsequent video to the university administration, is depressing proof of that.

Nepal's badminton-playing child goddess

Posted by Andrew Buncombe
  • Tuesday, 6 April 2010 at 01:32 pm

When I last saw saw Sajani Shakya she was playing badminton with her friends and family in the ancient cobbled yard next to her house in the remarkable Nepali town of Bhaktapur.
 The 10-year-old girl, considered a living goddess or Kumari by one of Nepal's ethnic groups and worshipped by Hindus and Buddhists alike, had just returned to her country from the US. The trip had been exciting for the ice cream-loving goddess but had also sparked trouble. Elders decided that it was inappropriate for the goddess to leave Nepal and, and a result, they had decided to strip her of her position. 
 After a lot of haggling - and the intervention of two British film-makers who had taken her to the US for the premiere of a documentary in which she was featured - the religious leaders agreed to let her keep her position. I'd been able to fly into Nepal with her from India and watched the noisy crowds meet her at the airport and then follow her home. [I also played her at badminton, see above picture, and won!]
 She had been selected to be a goddess when she was just two. There are plenty of people in Nepal, where there are more than a dozen such goddesses, who point out the real downsides of this tradition and say some children never get over the experience.
 That was three years ago. I was back in Bhaktapur at the weekend and I wanted to see how Sajani was doing, so we wound our way through the narrow alleyways of the medieval city to the family's house located next to an old Buddhist temple. Three years on the young girl is now aged 13 and no longer a kumari; at the first sign of menstruation the spirit is believed to depart from the girls' bodies and they lose their goddess status.
 Sanjani was wearing a very vibrant pink dress [see picture below] and, one sensed, growing up quite quickly. I asked if she missed her previous life, in which she would oversee religious ceremonies and perform blessings. "I am a little bit sad," she conceded. Her mother told me that, three years ago, after they had apologised to the religious guild, Sajani had continued as a kumari. Now she was just another normal girl, going to school and mixing with her friends without people telling her she is a deity. You couldn't help but think she was a lot better off.
 What hadn't changed was the same lively energy, with which she still overflowed. She told me: "I still like playing badminton."


I like to think of myself as someone respectful of the beliefs of others, especially when it comes to religion and food. If a Muslim wishes to avoid eating pork I have no problem with that and I would not eat pork if I was sitting with them and thought it would upset them. Likewise, despite the wretched condition of many of India's cows, I realise they are considered sacred by a number of people and can understand that they would have no wish to eat beef. [In India, McDonald's only serves chicken and goat.] Likewise, I have no problem with veggies. Indeed, my splendid partner is one, meaning I rarely eat meat at home.
 But am I wrong to eat beef myself? I was thinking this last night after consuming one of the most delicious meals I have had since arriving in India, some slices of perfectly cooked tenderloin beef that a friend had cooked for dinner for a largely ex-pat crowd. It was sensational, having been marinated overnight in herbs and olive oil and then seared in the pan. 
 The meat had come from a Muslim butcher, well-known among meat-eating of foreigners alike and whose contact details are passed around discreetly, as though he was selling drugs. But as I sat there yesterday evening, enjoying this rare treat, I contemplated that I was and my friends were breaking the law. According to the Delhi Agricultural Cattle Preservation Act of 1994 it is illegal to slaughter cattle or else eat the flesh within the city. [Buffalo is ok.] Indeed, similar laws exist across most of India, with the exception of Kerala (and perhaps Goa). 
 It was not always so. The pressure to enact bans on the slaughter of cows has come largely from right-wing Hindu groups and there have been plenty of protests from both intellectuals and Dalit groups (Dalits or untouchables have traditionally been permitted to eat beef) who argue that the bans are unfair and unconstitutional. Dalits have also traditionally been the makers of hide and leather for shoes, worn by everyone else - except for high-caste orthodox Brahmins.
 In recent weeks the debate has returned with added vigour because Hindu nationalists are threatening to disrupt the upcoming Commonwealth Games if organisers go ahead with their plan to serve beef to visiting athletes.  The organisers argue that if India wishes to host a global event, it cannot object to international dietary requests. 
 So was I wrong to have indulged or are these laws banning the eating the eating of beef hypocritical? I certainly know which way my stomach votes. 

Delhi bulldozes its poor. Literally

Posted by Andrew Buncombe
  • Friday, 12 March 2010 at 10:03 am
The wretched cluster of shacks squeezed tightly together is known both locally and officially as the Coolie Camp. For more than 20 years, hundreds of people have lived in this makeshift slum at the junction of a road located between Delhi's progressive and politically-astute  Jawaharlal Nehru University and the upmarket Vasant Vihar neighbourhood where apartments for diplomats and foreign businessman are rented out for up to $8,000 a month.
 Unlike the well-tended streets of Vasant Vihar, where every house has its own guard-box, teams of staff to look after the gardens and sweepers to keep the roads clear, the Coolie Colony is something of an eyesore, People have set up tea-shops and tyre puncture repair shacks on the edge of the colony, families cluster around the handful of hose-pipes to gather their water and children shit on the edge of the road. [There are no proper toilets here and adults have to make use of the scrubland behind the shanty.]
 This "unauthorised" colony - which has both practical and legal status and where many homes have metered electricity - is also located on a stretch of road the authorities wish to widen in advance of the Commonwealth Games.
And so this week, without a word of notice to the residents, the authorities sent in a bulldozer to tear apart the "commercial premises" of the shanty. I happened to by driving past as it happened and stopped to see what was going on. I stood and watched as a JCB started breaking apart the buildings as people looked helplessly on. There was no need for a JCB. When the authorities talk about commercial premises they mean an ill-constructed shack of bricks and branches from which a poor man might be selling tea and snacks, or else fixing punctures. "I sleep in my workshop," despaired a man called Imam Mohammed, who had three children to look after from the 100-200 rupees he earned a day fixing tyres.
 An official from the Delhi Development Authority who was overseeing the razing of the buildings insisted that they were "illegal" and the government had decided to get rid of them. He said that residential properties - he meant tiny shacks, but that would not have sounded good - were not being moved "for now". When they were moved, around a third of the people were eligible to be moved to a "relocation camp". The remaining two-thirds would have to fend for themselves.
 The official told me quite matter-of-factly that there had been pressure to act "from higher-ups". I asked him directly whether the Commonwealth Games were a factor and he said: "We need to widen the road for the Commonwealth Games. The issue is that".
 He came with me to another property that had been smashed up by the bulldozer. Rakesh, who sold cigarettes, from a window of his shack, was out when the police and the officials came. His wife said that the police were rough with the women when they protested. The bulldozer had smashed up his tiny shop and in one of the most pitiful scenes I have yet to see in India, Rakesh pleaded with the official to allow him to rebuild the shack so that his family could sleep in it. "I will sweep the streets instead. I will not have a shop," he begged.
 There appeared to be no joined-up thinking by the authorities. The official repeatedly told me that the buildings were illegal and I repeatedly asked him how the authorities expected these poor people to be able to provide for their families if what little livelihoods they had were destroyed. At that point the conversation turned surreal. The official asked me; "How do you know these people are poor?"

A happy visa story from the High Commission in Pakistan

Posted by Andrew Buncombe
  • Friday, 26 February 2010 at 05:52 pm
Last year when there was a mounting row about the backlog of visas being processed at the British High Commission in Islamabad, I spoke with several Pakistani students about a situation the Home Secretary Alan Johnson would later admit was unacceptable. Many of them told me how their plans had been derailed by the agonising process to wait for their visas, because of a backlog that some claimed totalled more than 60,000. (Mr Johnson said the backlog was 14,000) 
 Anyway, among the cases was that of a young Pakistani student who had secured a place to study for a PhD in computer programming at Lancaster University but had been turned down for a visa by British officials. I was intrigued by his case, partly because a long time ago I had graduated from Lancaster, and also because the young man appeared to have been unfairly treated. He had been turned down for a visa on three grounds - that he did not have funds to pay for the course, that he had not obtained the special security clearance the visa officials claimed that the course required and that he did not have enough funds to support his wife and himself for three years.
 The young man sounded utterly sad when he told me that the university was giving him a scholarship to pay for the course, that the course did not require special clearance and that a relative in the UK had set up a special bank account with sufficient funds for the three years. He was able to forward me all of the documents to support these points .
 Anyway, the young man appealed the ruling and won. That, however, was last September and he had still not got his visa. His course had started in January but Lancaster had allowed him to delay until the end of February.
 The student got in touch with me a few days ago in something close to a panic. Having struggled so hard to win his appeal, to obtain a place on the course and to arrange funding he could not believe that his future was being jeopardied by not actually having that all important visa stamp.
 I am pleased to say the visa process at the High Commission appears to be a lot healthier and more responsive than it was just a matter of months ago. When I inquired about the reported backlog, an official told me: "There were some delays in the Pakistani visa operation last year, mainly due to protracted technical difficulties, but we have made a lot of progress since this time. The UK Border Agency remains committed to providing an efficient and effective visa service to customers in Pakistan."
 As to the potential of frustrating and angering the sort of bright, smart, young Pakistanis that the West should be reaching out to, the official recognised the importance of providing student visas in building such a relationship. He said Pakistan was the UK's 4 th largest visa operation and received almost 200,000 visa applications every year. "We welcome genuine Pakistani travellers to the UK - who wish to visit family, work or study," he added.
 I was delighted earlier today to receive an email from the young student saying that he had just received his three year visa. When I telephoned to congratulate him he sounded utterly thrilled and excited. I allowed myself a brief moment of nostalgia remembering my happy student days at Lancaster and made him promise to send an email once he had arrived. I imagine it has changed quite a bit in the time since I was there. 

How many more people need to go missing in Sri Lanka?

Posted by Andrew Buncombe
  • Saturday, 20 February 2010 at 02:02 pm
Pattani Razeek is the head of an organisation called the Community Trust Fund, a non-profit organisastion in Sri Lanka that works to promote equality and protect human rights in a country where, to say the least, such niceties have been often overlooked as a result of a vicious civil war. Important work, you probably agree. But it appears that someone did not like what he was doing.
 Two weeks ago, on February 11, Mr Razeek was travelling home from a project with some colleagues near the town of Polonnaruwa in the centre of Sri Lanka when their vehicle was intercepted by another - a white van. Mr Razeek reportedly got out, went to the van and spoke to the occupants in Arabic, a clear indication that the men were Muslim. After talking to them for a few minutes,  Mr. Razeek went back to his colleagues and told them that he will be joining the group in the white van that, according to him, was heading to the eastern provincial town of Valaichchenai. He assured his colleagues that he will be meeting up with them later. The next day, 12 February, the CTF was informed by Mr Razeek's family that he had not arrived home. His relatives and colleagues have been looking for him ever since.  
 Anyone who has followed the history of the region and Sri Lanka in particular, will be all too aware of the phenomenon of "white vans". Indeed, the situation in regard to so-called disappearances of journalists and human rights campaigners is such that people crack dark jokes about these vehicles and their feared occupants. The government adamantly denies any involvement in such incidents. Yet dozens of journalists and activists have fled the country in fear for their lives. 
 Human rights campaigners have seized on Mr Razeek's case and called on the government to investigate this incident. The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, said it "strongly condemns MrPattani Razeek’s enforced disappearance and fears for his physical and psychological integrity". It added: "These events illustrate once more the situation of extreme insecurity faced by human rights defenders in Sri Lanka."

Do Muslims get a fair deal in India?

Posted by Andrew Buncombe
  • Tuesday, 16 February 2010 at 11:46 am

 Last night I was in the audience for the filming of the of the latest of the Doha Debates, the series of discussions headed by Tim Sebastian and broadcast by BBC World News. Held within the quite solace of St Stephen's College, one of the most prestigious colleges within Delhi University, the debates were breaking new ground by holding their first event in Asia.
 I had been in two minds whether to go, mainly because I thought the issue being discussed, "This house believes that Muslims are not getting a fair deal in India", seems to be so overwhelmingly obvious. Ever since the government-appointed Sachar Committee reported in 2006 that Muslims in India had less access to education, government jobs and survived on lower incomes than average, it seemed the issue was settled. Of course, there are plenty of Muslims who reach the heights in India, from politicians through to Bollywood stars such as Shah Rukh Khan, but taken as a whole it would be hard to argue that Muslims did not suffer discrimination. 
  Indeed, when the debate got started it seemed everyone taking part agreed on this issue, including the two participants challenging the motion. The veteran journalist MJ Akbar, who has spent much of his career highlighting discrimination in India, was one of the two taking on this task and even he admitted "you cannot say that Muslims get an entirely fair deal". Sachin Pilot, a young government minister, (he is also the son of a former Congress minister) and an alumni of St Stephen's, also admitted things were not perfect. Yet he argued that there were many elements within Indian society that suffered and it was not that Muslims suffered particular discrimination. 
 Against this, Seema Mustafa, a journalist and political commentator, said the government had done little for Muslims who had been especially victimised by security forces since the 9/11 attacks. Teesta Setalvad, a prominent civil rights activist, claimed that Muslims were being excluded from the "elite political and economic leadership of India". "The Muslim today lives in a segregated class leading to ghettoisation and a consequently very dangerous situation. Above all, Muslim women are discriminated against to make sure a credible leadership does not emerge," she said.
 They also mentioned the Indian establishment's refusal to properly bring to justice those responsible for attacks on Muslims, be it the destruction of the Babri Masjid of the appalling misnamed Gujarat "riots" in which hundreds of Muslims were brutally murdered in a systematic operation assisted by elements within the local government, headed by the right-wing nationalist Narendra Modi, a man who has been tipped as a possible future leader of the country.
 In fact, so obvious to me was the outcome of the debate, that I left early. I was rather surprised therefore to wake up and discover that the vote had gone the other way. The vote by the students of the college, alumni of which account for six current government ministers, found that 63 per cent opposed the motion while only 37 agreed.
 So what to make of this? In a situation where the statistics apparently prove one thing, how could a group of such young smart people have voted the other way. Were they really taken in by Sachin Pilot's disingenuous argument that "everyone in India has an equal opportunity" or what it simply that was this was what they wanted to believe (and who would not wish for such a situation). I couldn't help thinking there was something of a cycle here: if the sorts of people that get to become government ministers in India are drawn from educational establishments seemingly so blind to the obvious pitfalls of their society then maybe that's why nothing gets changed. And yes, one could say the same thing about plenty of other countries all around the world.

Profiling the people of Delhi one by one

Posted by Andrew Buncombe
  • Friday, 12 February 2010 at 01:12 pm

So many people in this vast, sprawling, awful, remarkable city. So many crowds, so much pushing. You can never find any space, any quiet. Who are all these people, these housewives, these labourers, these office workers, these shop-owners. Where do they all come from? What's their story?
 The official 2001 census figure for the Indian capital and its surrounding suburbs reckons the population stands at close to 14m, though I suspect - and many observers of Delhi agree with me - that the unofficial figure is much larger. What's more it's growing all the time, with people from states such as Bihar and Uttar Pradesh pouring into the city in search of a livelihood, the chance to pursue their slice of the shining Indian dream. 
 Much of the time - too much of the time, if I am horribly honest - one is too busy rushing around, arguing with officials, trying to fix the A/C, to stop and talk. Individuals become a mass and just morph into a crowd.  
 One smart writer and photographer who has been trying to address this problem is Mayank Austen Soofi, a talented young man with an obsession for all things literary, who has launched a project to profile one per cent of the city's population. At his must-read blog, the Delhi Wallah, he has undertaken to interview and photograph a remarkable 130,000 Delhites to tell the stories behind the blurred bustle of the crowd.
He writes: "You don’t understand a city by its buildings and bazaars, but by its people. That's why you can’t take in the entire Delhi in one lifetime - we have 13 million souls here. The Delhi Walla plans to make portraits of one per cent of this 8-digit figure, that is 130,000 Delhiwallas. Each portrait will have a photograph of the person along with a peek into his life."
 Mayank admits he has little chance of completing such a vast task, but that is not the point. He is a believer that everyone has a story to tell, a unique narrative of their lives in this city. The dozen or so portraits he has already completed are compelling. Who cannot smile at the honesty of the man shopping at Khan Market with his penchant for "brands" or be charmed by the bookseller in Connaught Place and his enthusiastic daily dusting of his wares.
 I had a cup of tea yesterday evening with Mayank in a cafe in Khan Market where he enthusiastically outlined his vision for the project. "It's all about how these people interact with Delhi," he said. I think his portraits are good enough to warrant an exhibition of their own. 



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