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Monday, July 26, 2010

Israel & Palestine: After Mavi Marmara

“What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or the holy name of liberty or democracy?”
Mahatma Gandhi

Indians and Israelis have long felt a strong kinship with each other. 
Perhaps it has partly to do with both nations celebrating their birth and freedom from British rule barely 6 months apart. Or that both peoples have been invaded, persecuted and ruled by foreigners, and both share a rich history of culture and civilization dating back many centuries. 
In fact, a 2009 extensive International Study called "Branding Israel" done by the Israeli Foreign Ministry, looked at 13 countries (considered to be important in the world, including US, India, Canada, Great Britain, France, China and Russia), the greatest level of sympathy towards Israel was found in India.

People always talk about the United States’ unconditional support and pro Israeli bias, but amazingly 58% of Indians showed sympathy to the Jewish State, with the United States coming in second.

This kinship is also evident in our countries military and trade relations, with India being Israel’s second largest military and economic partner, after the US and Russia respectively.

Even more fascinating is that the Bnei Menashe (“Children of Manasseh”) is a group of more than 9,000 people from the North East of India who claim descendant from one of the Lost Tribes of Israel. Their oral history, passed down 2,700 years, charts their escape from slavery in Assyria and journey to Persia. They travelled through Afghanistan toward the Hindu-Kush and proceeded to Tibet, then to Kaifeng, reaching the Chinese city around 240 B.C.E.

During their years there, large numbers of the Israelites were killed and once again enslaved and persecuted. From here they pressed on to India where they were welcomed and stayed for the next few centuries (Source: Wikipedia).

Today many are starting to learn and practice Judaism again and a few hundred have also relocated to Israel. I am told that Hindi movies are hugely popular in Israel, even played on prime time television. So India too, much like the US, has historically had a pro-Israel default position in every situation regarding Palestine.

However, when Israeli Commandos recently raided a Turkish flotilla killing 9 people, India for the first time was openly critical of Israel’s actions. India’s stance made me wonder how things have gone so horribly wrong, for in the last decade things seems to have gotten much worse between Israelis and Palestinians, and now it feels like there is not even an inkling of light at the end of this tunnel.

To my mind this is directly a result of a severe dearth of leadership on both sides.

What Mahatma Gandhi realised was that Indians could not defeat the might of the British Empire on the battlefield or through freedom fighter’s tactics, as we called them, used to disrupt the Empire in small ways through bombs blasts and using small arms. He knew that the only way to defeat the British was to take the higher ground, to boycott their products, their rule and their way of life - much like Mandella who followed Gandhian principles decades later to unshackle South Africa from the chains of Apartheid and even Martin Luther King Jr. who followed Gandhi’s principles to fight for civil rights in America.

All these men understood that freedom can only be won by stirring the masses and waking within them a sense of patriotism, pride and conviction that is not hindered by the thought of losing one’s life – it has to be more precious and worth more than the fear we feel in the absence of it.

This is something no leader has stirred within the Palestinian people until now. There is a small and growing movement stirring within the West Bank, where men who once wore masks and carried guns are joining unarmed protest marches, goods produced in Israeli settlements are being burned in defiance and the Palestinian Prime Minister is visiting areas officially off limits to him and his people to plant trees to declare the land a part of a future state.

It is an extremely powerful way to empower the ordinary citizen, the majority of whom do not agree with the violent path their leaders have lead them on, a path that has seen no results after decades. In the last few months Rajmohan Gandhi, grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, visited and joined a protest march and Martin Luther King III is scheduled to speak at a conference on nonviolence. It is still far from what can be called a mass movement, but it feels like Palestinians are realizing that violence and hard-nosed diplomacy have gotten them nowhere and that perhaps another approach is necessary to break this endless deadlock.

In recent times it feels like Israel in particular has lost its once strong leadership and the actions of the men and women who now govern her seem increasingly desperate, and more poorly thought out than ever before.

From the war with Lebanon, to the current blockade of Gaza and the most recent botched Commando raid, Israel has not only not managed to accomplish the goals she stated at the outset of these operations but also seems to be rapidly losing the much more costly moral high ground and public opinion.

In the most recent incident, where 9 civilians carrying humanitarian aid were killed, it is hard not to see Israel as the bad guy. To make a case for self-defense for highly trained Commandos (arguably among the best in the world) facing a group of men armed with chairs, clubs and sticks – hardly the makings of an armed and trained terrorist unit – is a tough one. At least in the court of global public opinion.

Granted the Palestinians have not stopped their attacks on Israelis as the peace roadmap states, but Israel too has not held its end of the agreement, to dismantle illegal outposts and not build any new ones. By building a fence and walling in the Palestinians, Israel is only succeeding in cutting them off from their land, means of economic survival and livelihood which will in all probability have the opposite effect it intended.

By creating more hunger, poverty, unemployment, and lack of education and opportunity, it will serve to make the next generation of Palestinians even more desperate. If you cage people like animals long enough, one day they will behave like animals.

Ultimately, somebody will need to take the higher ground for there to be any resolution and lasting peace for both peoples. It feels to me like the Turkish flotilla incident is a real chance for Israel’s leadership to reset course. To change their tactics, their policies and take the higher ground to forge a new peace agreement with the Fatah backed Palestinian government.

If they can do this to create a two-state solution which brings peace and economic prosperity to the West Bank, its economy and people, then Hamas will be totally isolated and the people of Gaza less likely to support them and their failed policies – forcing Hamas to come to the negotiating table on Israel’s terms.

But if Israel continues to flounder and the peaceful moment within the Palestinians begins to take real and meaningful root and, much like Gandhi’s famous salt march to Dandi, we see start to see widespread civil disobedience with unarmed Palestinian women creating roadside blockades, protests and showing peaceful defiance against armed Israeli soldiers and there is even one drop of bloodshed in this situation – then it will be hard for India and America to continue defending Israel, and for the world not to see Israel as the bad guy.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Bhopal to BP: A Stark Contrast

“When the people fear their government, there is tyranny; when the government fears the people, there is liberty.”
Thomas Jefferson

People in America are seething with discontent about their President’s handling of the immediate aftermath of the BP rig explosion and oil spill. They feel he has not done all he could and that the Federal government has dragged its feet, not putting the full weight of their resources behind fixing the problem. Many Republicans even believe the government should have taken over the cleanup effort, even though the government does not have the necessary equipment, expertise or means to cap a deep water oil well break. Obama’s popularity has taken a huge beating as a result of this discontent around the country. There has also been growing resentment to his constantly cool and calm demeanor. That he never shows emotion and certainly never seems to fume or display any indignation or rage. Ironically, it was this same trait that catapulted him into a lead in many minds over John McCain during the financial crisis in 2008. However you feel about his personal handling of the response, what cannot be debated is that from the outset he has held British Petroleum fully accountable for the entire disaster and for all the ensuing damage, stretching even the most generous legal definitions of liability for foreign companies operating on US soil. He has made them liable, not only for all costs incurred by the Federal government for the cleanup operation, but also for lost wages of fisherman, riggers and small business owners in affected town. Somehow he even got BP to pony up $25 million for the State of Florida to invest in advertising to re-assure tourists that Florida beaches remain unaffected, open and safe. All this in addition to coaxing BP into putting a down payment of $20 billion into an account administered by a government-appointed third party, which will enable them to process and pay claims in a more expedient manner. And during all of this he managed to help the BP board see the wisdom in not issuing any further dividends to shareholders for the remainder of 2010. Whether you are satisfied with his administration’s sense of urgency and speed of response or not, I think it is fair to say that he has been single-mindedly focused on protecting his citizen’s well-being and livelihoods by ensuring that the blame and liability rests firmly with this foreign company and that taxpayers will not be the ones to bear the burden of this catastrophe.

Now contrast this with the Indian government’s response to the greatest industrial disaster the world has ever seen by an American company called Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) which operated a majority owned chemical plant in the city of Bhopal, India. One fateful night in December 1984 the plant leaked toxic gas engulfing the city of Bhopal and its environs, exposing some 500,000 people to lethal and poisonous gas. Government estimates indicate that 8,000 people died within the first week. Another 8,000 people died since from gas related causes. Some 5,000 women were widowed. The gas exposure is also blamed for birth defects ranging from minor to very severe disabilities for the next two generations and is still causing unusually high clusters of cancer and other diseases in the families of the exposed. Today, 390 tons of toxic chemicals abandoned at the plant, never cleaned up by UCIL or the Indian government is said to continue to leak and pollute the groundwater in the region and affect thousands of Bhopal residents who depend on it. In 1985 the Indian government filed a suit in US court for damages worth $3.3 billion. In February 1989 the Indian government, led by then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, agreed to an out of court settlement with Union Carbide for a paltry $470 million - approximately 14% of their original claim. To add insult to injury, the then Chief Executive of Union Carbide, Warren Anderson, was arrested in 1985 and released on bail on a visit to India. He fled the country, and while still considered an absconder, has since retired and lives a lavish life in the exclusive Hamptons community on New York’s Long Island. “Greenpeace asserts that as the Union Carbide CEO, Anderson knew about a 1982 safety audit of the Bhopal plant, which identified 30 major hazards and that they were not fixed in Bhopal but were fixed at the company's identical plant in the US” (Wikipedia).

Twenty-six years after the tragedy India’s Supreme Court delivered its ruling in the world’s greatest industrial disaster. The Supreme Court is punishing the 7 of the 8 living Union Carbide board members with a 2 year prison sentence, which can be appealed. The culpable homicide charge was effectively reduced to a charge usually used for reckless driving cases. After a wait of a quarter century this is the justice the tens of thousands of victims of Bhopal received. This is the only justice the President, Prime Minister and government has been able to deliver to their citizens. And it seems the perpetrators will continue to go unpunished even as the people of Bhopal continue to suffer the consequences of their negligence. Dow Chemicals, the company which acquired UCIL, has repeatedly stated it accepts no responsibility for this “tragic accident” and recently also retracted a 2002 statement by DOW’s PR Head saying the US$500 compensation per victim was "plenty good for an Indian.” Curiously though, Times of India found Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) filings from February 2010, where DOW has disclosed that it has taken on all liability for Carbide lawsuits in the US dating back to 1977 (Bhopal happened in 1984), and expects to pay a further $839 million in the coming years to settle these. Carbide became a subsidiary of Dow through a merger in 2001 (‘Bhopal gas tragedy: Dow's double standards exposed’ – Times of India).

Based on a unanimous public outcry the Indian government is now pushing through new measures that include increased compensation for victims, and a renewed effort to extradite the 90 year old Warren Anderson  (an extradition request by India in 2003 was turned down by the US government) along with a pledge to clean up the abandoned UCIL factory. While Dow’s poorly worded statement above says it all, there is another and bigger issue at stake here that goes beyond corporate responsibility and companies doing the right thing in such extreme and tragic situations. It has to do with the weak response and seeming lack of muscle of the Indian government. As India continues to pride its steady advance onto the global stage as an economic and military powerhouse, the government continues to show its impotence when it comes to protecting its own citizens. Victims groups claim that the Indian government did not want to create a hostile climate for foreign companies and foreign direct investment and thus cushioned much of its actions against Union Carbide and DOW Chemicals. I hope this is not true because a government, who does not use every means possible to first and foremost protect its own people, has no business playing on the global stage or calling itself a Superpower.