India’s ultra-right Shiv Sena party forms coalition government with seculars

India’s ultra-right Shiv Sena party forms coalition government with seculars
The swearing in of 59-year-old Uddhav Thackeray as the 18th chief minister of the state marks a new political experiment in Maharashtra. (Reuters)
Updated 28 November 2019

India’s ultra-right Shiv Sena party forms coalition government with seculars

India’s ultra-right Shiv Sena party forms coalition government with seculars
  • Historic Maharashtra state alliance breaks three-decade-old tie with PM Modi’s ruling BJP
  • Dubbed the Maharashtra Progressive Alliance, the coalition took charge under the leadership of SS President Uddhav Thackeray

NEW DELHI: India’s right-wing Hindu nationalist party Shiv Sena (SS) on Thursday formed a coalition government in the key western state of Maharashtra.

Dubbed the Maharashtra Progressive Alliance, the coalition took charge under the leadership of SS president, Uddhav Thackeray, more than a month after the announcement of results of the regional poll.

Thackeray tied up with the Congress party and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), two secular entities that have not only been long-term ideological opponents but also bitter political rivals of SS in the state.

When the state assembly elections were announced on Oct. 24, the ruling coalition of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and SS secured an absolute majority in the house of 288.

However, the SS group refused to come on board until the BJP honored a pre-election commitment to give the rotational chief minister in the state a two-and-a-half-year tenure for each party. But the BJP refused to negotiate.

As a result, SS members broke the three-decade-old alliance and started negotiating with the opposition secular alliance of Congress and the NCP. After weeks of talks the three parties agreed to form a government on Nov. 22 and declared Thackeray as their chief ministerial candidate.

Within hours of the announcement of the opposition alliance, the BJP secretively swore in outgoing Chief Minister of Maharashtra Devendra Fadnavis as the new leader of the state, claiming the backing of the 54 legislators of the NCP and its legislative party leader, Ajit Pawar.

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court intervened and asked the BJP to prove its majority within 24 hours. Fadnavis had no option but to resign as NCP leader, and Pawar failed to convince his party legislators to support a BJP-led government.

The swearing in of 59-year-old Thackeray as the 18th chief minister of the state marks a new political experiment in Maharashtra.

He along with 43 ministers, took an oath of office during a public ceremony. Never before had the Congress, India’s oldest party, aligned with any right-wing Hindu party.

The Congress has always been a major political rival of SS, opposing its divisive agenda. Both the secular parties and SS have divergent political views on Kashmir and the abrogation of Article 370, that gave a special constitutional status to the state of Jammu and Kashmir.

SS has been actively involved in anti-Muslim politics and its leadership was indicted by a Congress government-appointed commission for its involvement in 1993 Mumbai religious violence that claimed hundreds of lives, mostly Muslims.

SS officials have said that the ideological contradictions will not get in the way and “the government would be stable as it would be guided by a common minimum program.”

BJP president and Minister of Home Affairs Amit Shah said on Wednesday that the SS party had “insulted the mandate of the people of Maharashtra,” adding that “all the three parties have abandoned their ideologies and values to form the government.”

The Congress party claimed that the alliance was “not a compromise of principles or ideology, it’s a byproduct of the political exigencies.” Party spokesperson, Pawan Khera, said: “The government would run on a common minimum program and the Congress party will not compromise with secular ideology.”

Political analysts called the development “a radical shift in the state politics.”

Prof. Shailendra R. Kharat, of Pune University, said: “Shiv Sena was an uneasy partner in the coalition with the BJP because it did not want to play second fiddle to the BJP. With the alliance a new possibility of stopping the BJP juggernaut is taking shape. It might result in the dent of the BJP’s influence.”

He added: “The alliance is intrinsically instable because of its inner ideological contradictions.”

Mumbai-based Girish Kuber, editor of Maharashtra regional newspaper Loksatta, said that “the alliance is delicately poised. Political alliance is not only about arithmetic there has to be some chemistry between the alliance partners. Unfortunately, this is completely missing in this alliance.”

“Shiv Sena’s positions on Kashmir, the Hindu Muslim issue and the question of the temple at the disputed religious site at Ayodhya, are completely at variance with the Congress and the NCP. Either Sena becomes secular or Congress agrees to become communal, it is only then the alliance will survive for long,” he told Arab News.

“For the BJP it is a big loss. It was also quite desperate to form the government in Maharashtra,” he added. “It will have implications at a national level. The BJP now looks more vulnerable with the emergence of a strong anti-BJP front at the regional level. It shows Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s appeal has also got fractured with people looking for an alternative at the regional level.

“With the elections lined up in Jharkhand and Delhi soon, and Uttar Pradesh next year, the BJP cannot be sure of its success. It can no longer say one party and one nation,” said Kuber.


Afghans count human cost of war, urge leaders to attend Turkey talks

Afghans count human cost of war, urge leaders to attend Turkey talks
Updated 22 April 2021

Afghans count human cost of war, urge leaders to attend Turkey talks

Afghans count human cost of war, urge leaders to attend Turkey talks
  • Nearly 111,000 civilians killed, injured in country’s decades of conflict

KABUL: Afghan teenager Habibullah finally stopped counting on his fingers at 27 – the number of his close relatives killed during four decades of conflict in the country.

“That’s how many I can recall. I may have forgotten two or three, but can you imagine losing at least 27 family members and relatives in the war? And I am not alone; there are some who have lost many more relatives,” he told Arab News.

Similar to many Afghans, the 19-year-old, who makes a living selling fruit and vegetables in the capital Kabul, has never witnessed peaceful times. And his family mourns its losses with numerous others.

According to UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan data, nearly 111,000 civilians have been killed or injured in the country’s prolonged conflict, and that figure is only since it began systematically recording civilian casualties in 2009.

Habibullah’s family victims of war include his sister, two brothers, an uncle, and his grandfather, all dying in aerial or suicide attacks.

Channeling arms and resources to their proxies, both Russia and the US have led separate invasions of Afghanistan, with Washington’s presence surpassing 19 years in one of the world’s most protracted and complicated theaters of war.

Habibullah, who fled drought in his village in the northern Samangan province to work in Kabul, was counting his losses a day after Turkey postponed a crucial meeting on the Afghan peace process to mid-May, without explaining the reasons why.

Many civilians in Afghanistan have viewed the peace talks as possibly the last international push in the reconciliation process. The planned April 22 Istanbul meet was part of Washington’s efforts to prevent a total collapse of the US-sponsored intra-Afghan talks which began in Doha, Qatar, between the Taliban and Afghan government delegates in September last year but have failed to make progress.

Last week, the Taliban said they would be boycotting Wednesday’s meeting and future conferences on Afghan peace until all American-led foreign troops withdrew from Afghanistan.

The group’s move followed an announcement by US President Joe Biden delaying the deadline for the total military pullout from May 1 to Sept. 11 – a key condition and basis for a historic agreement inked between former American President Donald Trump’s administration and the Taliban more than a year ago. The Taliban halted attacks on foreign troops as per the accord but have accused Washington of breaching the crucial part of the deal.

Ordinary Afghans now fear that the war could escalate if Kabul and the Taliban fail to reach a consensus on the country’s future during the Turkey meeting.

“The survivors of war, ordinary Afghans want peace. Our leaders, on all sides, need to sacrifice their demands for the sake of poor people like us,” Habibullah said.

The meeting, already delayed once, had sought to facilitate a future political roadmap for Afghanistan, including the formation of an interim government that would also include the Taliban and end Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s second term in office, which is set to expire in 2024.

Ali Reza, a 46-year-old bus conductor, said Biden’s move to extend US troops’ presence in the country showed “that America has no good intention to end the war in Afghanistan and must be held responsible.”

He told Arab News: “The Taliban want total power, Ghani does not want to leave power, and America makes excuses one after the other for its goals. We, the ordinary people, are stuck in the middle and make sacrifices every day.”

Reza added that similar to other Afghans, his demand for peace was “from our leaders, not America because it is an invader,” and he urged Kabul not to miss the opportunity for peace “and make good use of Turkey’s conference for the survival of Afghanistan.”

Bibi Raihana, 53, who works at a private factory in Kabul, said that the Afghan leaders would be “doomed in history” if they failed to settle the country’s problems “through understanding and talks.”

She added: “Afghans have suffered the most in aliens’ wars. When we can make peace with foreigners, why not make it among ourselves? I hope they agree on peace for the sake of God and the poor people of this land.”


Dhaka shops for vaccines as Russia offers to help to make it at home

Dhaka shops for vaccines as Russia offers to help to make it at home
Updated 22 April 2021

Dhaka shops for vaccines as Russia offers to help to make it at home

Dhaka shops for vaccines as Russia offers to help to make it at home
  • Bangladesh began its nationwide inoculation drive on Feb. 7 with the Serum Institute of India’s (SII) Covishield vaccine

DHAKA: Bangladesh’s government is urgently searching for COVID-19 vaccines for its population of 170 million, with health officials saying on Wednesday that it is considering a proposal by Russia to manufacture its Sputnik vaccine locally.

“We received a proposal from Russia to manufacture the Sputnik vaccine in Bangladesh with their technological assistance,” Dr. A.S.M. Alamgir, Chief Scientific Officer of the Institute of Epidemiology Disease Control and Research (IEDCR), told Arab News.

“We are assessing the proposal and may get a clearer picture in the next two to three days. At least three local companies can manufacture this vaccine.”

Bangladesh began its nationwide inoculation drive on Feb. 7 with the Serum Institute of India’s (SII) Covishield vaccine.

India donated 2 million doses of Covishield to Bangladesh during the last week of January, with another 1.2 million doses given during Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit in March.

Under an agreement signed with the SII in November last year, the SII said it would export 30 million doses of Covishield, at $4 per shot, to Dhaka by June.

However, Bangladesh has received only 7 million doses, with uncertainty surrounding the delivery of the next few batches, following New Delhi’s temporary ban on the export of locally manufactured vaccines recently to meet domestic demand amid an unprecedented spike in COVID-19 cases. This has forced Bangladesh to shop for the crucial jabs elsewhere.

“We are desperately looking for other sources of COVID-19 vaccines as, currently, we are short of around 1.8 million doses for the second dose of the vaccine,” Dr. Alamgir said.

According to official data, nearly 5.8 million people have received the first dose of the Covishield vaccine, while more than 7.3 million people above 40 years of age have registered for the vaccination.

More than 1.7 million people have received both doses of the Covishield vaccine.

Dr. Alamgir said that, based on available stocks, the national inoculation drive could continue “for only one and a half months more.”

“We are trying our best so that the country doesn’t face any crisis regarding the vaccine. However, we are still expecting 3-5 million doses of Covishield from the SII by the end of this month,” Dr. Alamgir said.

He noted that it would be more economical for Bangladesh to make the vaccines at home.

On Tuesday, Health Minister Zahid Maleque said Russia had offered to either export around 25 million doses of the Sputnik vaccine to Bangladesh or help in manufacturing them locally in phases by December this year.

Besides studying Russia’s proposal, Dr. Alamgir said Dhaka is also trying to get the vaccines from the US and China.

“By the first week of May, we are also expecting 2 million vaccines from Covax,” he said, referring to the vaccine initiative by the Global Alliance for Vaccine and Immunization (Gavi).

Health experts said it was important for Bangladesh to explore all “possible sources” for the vaccines without further delay.

“We need to inoculate around 120 million people to achieve herd immunity, and it should be done as quickly as possible,” said Professor Muzaherul Huq, former adviser of the South-East Asia region, World Health Organization (WHO).

He said that the proposal to manufacture the Sputnik locally was a good idea.

“At present, Bangladesh needs to get involved with the COVID-19 vaccine manufacturing,” Prof. Huq, who is also the founder of Bangladesh’s Public Health Foundation, said.

Dr. Mohammad Mushtuq Husain, an adviser of the IEDCR, agreed that producing the Sputnik vaccine at home would keep the country “ahead” in terms of “mitigating the huge demand of vaccines at the moment”.

“Currently, Sputnik is being used in some countries of Africa and South America. So Bangladesh can consider it too if we want to inoculate 80 percent of our population,” Dr. Husain said.


Duterte calls for abolition of kafala system

Duterte calls for abolition of kafala system
Updated 22 April 2021

Duterte calls for abolition of kafala system

Duterte calls for abolition of kafala system
  • The kafala system requires migrant workers to have a sponsor in the host country before a visa or worker’s permit can be issued

MANILA: Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte called for abolishing the “unjust” and “exploitative” kafala system used for migrant workers in the Middle East before reiterating his government’s commitment to protecting millions of overseas Filipinos.

“We cannot justify the denial of basic human rights and fundamental freedoms to any individual, regardless of status,” Duterte said in his video message during a virtual forum on labor mobility and human rights organized by the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) and Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development (HRSD).

“This is why the Philippine government strongly calls for the complete abolition of the kafala system — sooner rather than later.”

The kafala system requires migrant workers to have a sponsor in the host country before a visa or worker’s permit can be issued. Duterte said the system has led to inhumane working conditions, non-payment of wages, movement restrictions, healthcare denial, and sexual abuse of overseas Filipino workers.

Citing the example of labor reforms introduced by Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar and Bahrain, Duterte thanked the Kingdom for improving the conditions of migrant workers.

“I’m hopeful that Saudi Arabia’s labor reform initiative will significantly improve the working conditions of migrant workers in the Kingdom, including the 800,000 Filipinos,” he said.

He added that the Philippines “recognizes the sovereign right of each state to adopt its own migration policy” but stressed that there are universal liberties and moral standards that must be adhered to at all times.

“The kafala system is unjust and exploitative,” he said at the forum.

“We are all familiar with many painful stories of abuse — from inhumane working conditions to non-payment of wages; from the restriction of movements to denial of healthcare; and from sexual exploitation to outright murder. For the Philippines and Filipinos, these tales are realities that hit us hard. This has got to stop.”

Duterte said the government also assumed its share of responsibility in ensuring that Filipinos live in safety and dignity, wherever they may be.

“As I have said before, the Filipino is not a slave to anyone, anywhere,” he said. “I dream of the day when working abroad becomes a choice and not a need for my countrymen. We continue to bravely speak against the ills of the kafala system. We will be relentless in our efforts to dismantle this unjust structure.”

Duterte highlighted the migrant workers’ contributions to growth and development in both origin and destination countries.

“But this comes with costs and challenges to both sides,” he said. “To be truly sustainable and transformative, migration must work for all stakeholders. This is our collective challenge and our shared responsibility.”

Philippines’ Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. said the virtual forum was important because these events focused on examining migrant labor governance in the Middle East for safe, orderly and regular migration.

“We are moving forward to our goal for migrant protection in accordance with decency and equal respect,” he said in a video message.

Meanwhile, DFA Undersecretary for Migrant Workers’ Affairs Sarah Lou Arriola said the Philippines’ mission is to provide a “safe and comfortable life for all Filipinos across the globe.”

“Our job at the department of foreign affairs is even clearer. We must ensure welfare, protect the rights, and better serve all overseas Filipinos wherever they may be,” she said.

HRSD Control Deputy Minister Satam Al-Harbi made a presentation on the Kingdom’s labor reform initiative, as well as other related programs, designed to support Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030.

“It is worth mentioning that the labor reform initiative entered into force on March 14 and during the first month of its implementation, more than 15,000 expatriate workers of different nationalities in all regions of Saudi Arabia benefited from its services,” Al Harbi said.

The forum also included representatives of the International Organization for Migration, who said these initiatives were consistent with “international strategic principles and objectives that promote the creation of a labor market that primarily protects human rights.”


Over 1,000 reported arrested at Navalny rallies in Russia

Over 1,000 reported arrested at Navalny rallies in Russia
Updated 21 April 2021

Over 1,000 reported arrested at Navalny rallies in Russia

Over 1,000 reported arrested at Navalny rallies in Russia
  • Police arrested over 1,000 demonstrators, according to a human rights group that monitors political repression
  • Navalny’s team called for unsanctioned demonstrations after weekend reports that his health is deteriorating

MOSCOW: More than 1,000 people were arrested across Russia in connection with nationwide demonstrations calling for imprisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s release on Wednesday, said a human rights group.
Thousands of Navalny supporters marched in central Moscow as part of nationwide protests calling for his freedom as his health reportedly is in severe decline while on a hunger strike.
Russian police arrested over 1,000 demonstrators, according to the human rights group that monitors political repression. Many were seized before the protests even began, including two top Navalny associates in Moscow.
Navalny’s team called for the unsanctioned demonstrations after weekend reports that his health is deteriorating.
“The situation with Alexei is indeed critical, and so we moved up the day of the mass protests,” Vladimir Ashurkov, a close Navalny ally and executive director of the Foundation for Fighting Corruption, told The Associated Press.
“Alexei’s health has sharply deteriorated, and he is in a rather critical condition. Doctors are saying that judging by his test (results), he should be admitted into intensive care.”
Navalny’s organization called for the Moscow protesters to assemble on Manezh Square, just outside the Kremlin walls, but police blocked it off.
Instead, a large crowd gathered at the nearby Russian State Library and another lined Tverskaya Street, a main avenue that leads to the square. Both groups then moved through the streets.
“How can you not come out if a person is being murdered — and not just him. There are so many political prisoners,” said Nina Skvortsova, a Moscow protester.
In St. Petersburg, police blocked off Palace Square, the vast space outside the Hermitage museum and protesters instead crowded along nearby Nevsky Prospekt.
It was unclear if the demonstrations would match the size and intensity of nationwide protests that broke out in January after Navalny, President Vladimir Putin’s most prominent opponent, was arrested. Turnout estimates varied widely: Moscow police said 6,000 people demonstrated in the capital, while an observer told Navalny’s YouTube channel that the crowd was about 60,000.
The OVD-Info group reported 1,004 arrests in 82 cities.
Navalny’s team called the nationwide protests for the same day that Putin gave his annual state-of-the-nation address. In his speech, he denounced foreign governments’ alleged attempts to impose their will on Russia. Putin, who never publicly uses Navalny’s name, did not specify to whom the denunciation referred, but Western governments have been harshly critical of Navalny’s treatment and have called for his release.
In Moscow, Navalny spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh and Lyubov Sobol, one of his most prominent associates, were detained by police in the morning.
Yarmysh, who was put under house arrest after the January protests, was detained outside her apartment building when she went out during the one hour she is allowed to leave, said her lawyer, Veronika Polyakova.
She was taken to a police station and charged with organizing an illegal gathering.
Sobol was removed from a taxi by uniformed police, said her lawyer, Vladimir Voronin.
OVD-Info reported that police searched the offices of Navalny’s organization in Yekaterinbrug and detained a Navalny-affiliated journalist in Khabarovsk.
In St. Petersburg, the State University of Aerospace Instrumentation posted a notice warning that students participating in unauthorized demonstrations could be expelled.
The 44-year-old Navalny was arrested in January upon his return from Germany, where he had spent five months recovering from a nerve agent poisoning he blames on the Kremlin. Russian officials have rejected the accusation.
Soon after, a court found that Navalny’s long stay in Germany violated the terms of a suspended sentence he was handed for a 2014 embezzlement conviction and ordered him to serve 2 1/2 years in prison.
Navalny began the hunger strike to protest prison officials’ refusal to let his doctor’s visit when he began experiencing severe back pain and a loss of feeling in his legs. The penitentiary service has said Navalny was getting all the medical help he needs.
Navalny’s physician, Dr. Yaroslav Ashikhmin, said recently that test results he received from Navalny’s family showed sharply elevated levels of potassium, which can bring on cardiac arrest, and heightened creatinine levels that indicate impaired kidneys and he “could die at any moment.”
On Sunday, he was transferred to a hospital in another prison and given a glucose drip. Prison officials rebuffed attempts by his doctors to visit him there.
Russian authorities have escalated their crackdown on Navalny’s allies and supporters. The Moscow prosecutor’s office asking a court to brand Navalny’s Foundation for Fighting Corruption and his network of regional offices as extremist organizations.
Human rights activists say such a move would paralyze the activities of the groups and expose their members and donors to prison sentences of up to 10 years.
Navalny’s allies vowed to continue their work despite the pressure.
“It is, of course, an element of escalation,” Ashurkov told the AP. “But I have to say we were able to regroup and organize our work despite the pressure before. I’m confident that now, too, we will find ways to work. ... We have neither the intention nor the possibility to abandon what we’re doing.”


British-Muslim family offered pork burgers in ‘nightmare’ quarantine 

British-Muslim family offered pork burgers in ‘nightmare’ quarantine 
Updated 21 April 2021

British-Muslim family offered pork burgers in ‘nightmare’ quarantine 

British-Muslim family offered pork burgers in ‘nightmare’ quarantine 
  • ‘It’s been extremely hard in this situation. We’re not even being treated like humans’
  • Judge: ‘The genuine difficulties they are experiencing in quarantine ought to be addressed immediately’

LONDON: A British-Pakistani Muslim family has been served pork burgers in the enforced hotel quarantine for arrivals in the UK, as government ministers face legal challenges over the conditions and service.

The family, who paid £4,025 ($5,610) for the hotel, was given the food that they cannot eat due to their religious beliefs.

Other families have reported waiting hours for water deliveries, in what lawyers describe as “morally reprehensible and plainly unlawful” conditions.

In pandemic measures since Feb. 15, all arrivals to Britain who visit countries that are on the so-called “red list” — of which there are now 50 — are required to quarantine for 10 days. 

The Muslim family said when they were offered food other than bacon and pork burgers, it was “stale and rock hard.”

Naheeda Khan, the mother, said the enforced hotel stay was a “nightmare,” adding: “The food has been terrible. It arrives cold and is really tasteless — hardly eatable. They have given us pork burgers and paninis which we cannot eat because we are Muslim. The kids have just been eating cereal and crisps.

She said: “Because we only have one chair, most of us have been having to eat on the bed, which made a mess. Then for three or four days we were ringing and asking them to bring us clean bed sheets. We had no choice but to sleep on it. It was really disgusting.”

Khan added that the situation was worsened by restrictions on exercise, keeping them to their room with windows that did not open, which was contrary to what they were told on arrival, where hotel staff informed the family that they could exercise in the car park on request. 

This was particularly difficult for their 10-year-old son, who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

“When we’re at home he will go to his room, go to the garden. He cries a lot, but he doesn’t like to cry in front of us. It’s been extremely hard in this situation. We’re not even being treated like humans,” she said.

Last week, lawyers acting on behalf of the family lodged a claim about the conditions to the High Court.

On Friday, a judge ordered the government to “take all necessary steps” to urgently change all conditions by Monday morning.

“The genuine difficulties they are experiencing in quarantine, in particular the health and wellbeing of their children, and the lack of respect for their dietary needs as Muslims, ought to be addressed immediately,” Mrs Justice Lang’s order read.

However, the Khan family’s lawyers returned to the High Court on Monday afternoon after reforms had not been made. 

Mr Justice Henshaw said the court was “not satisfied” that Mrs Justice Lang’s order had carried out, adding that the situation was unjustifiable.