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Diversity is a fact of life in India, can not be wished away: President Mukherjee

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New Delhi, April 9 : Describing “pluralism and tolerance” as India’s core philosophy, President Pranab Mukherjee on Saturday said diversity was a fact of life in the country that cannot be wished away by any whims.

Mukherjee said democracy was not merely about numbers but rather a phenomenon that calls for consensus building.

“Diversity is a fact in India. It cannot be turned into fiction by whims and caprices of few individuals,” he said delivering the first Arjun Singh memorial lecture here.

“Democracy is not all about numbers but it also calls for consensus building,” Mukherjee said and described “pluralism and tolerance as core philosophy” that must be continued undeterred.

“While we must wield no space to anarchy, efficient democratic machinery must have the means and wherewithal to absorb public opinion for formulation of sound policies,” the president said.

He said India’s cherished communal harmony might be often put to test by “vested interests” but maintained that “we must remain alert to communal tensions rearing its ugly head anywhere.

“Rule of law must form the sole basis for dealing with any challenging situation. It is our democratic underpinning that must prevail at all times.”

“The multiplicity in culture, faith and language is what makes India special. We derive our strength from tolerance. It has been part of our collective consciousness for centuries. It has worked well for us and it is the only way it will work for us,” he said.

“India is a multi-faceted nation of 1.3 billion people, 122 languages, 1,600 dialects and seven religions,” Mukherjee said at the function attended among others by Congress president Sonia Gandhi, who speaking earlier, expressed “chinta” (concern) over the “increasing threat to the secular fabric of the country”.

The function was also attended by former prime minister Manmohan Singh, former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Farooq Abdullah and Congress leaders Digvijay Singh, Kamal Nath, M.L. Fotedar and others.

Recalling her long association with former union minister Arjun Singh, Sonia Gandhi said he was a true symbol of commitment to secularism and to the cause of the poor.

Paying tributes to Arjun Singh’s commitment to secular values, Gandhi said that by looking at things happening in the society, “I feel there is need to have more people like Arjun Singh”.

The president spoke at length on Arjun Singh’s steering of the country’s education portfolio and said his former colleague holds the distinction of handling the responsibility for eight years — in two stints.

Arjun Singh held the human resource development ministry portfolio under P.V. Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh.

“This (eight years) was the longest stint by any education minister after Maulana Abul Kalam Azad,” the president said.

On the overall higher education front, Mukherjee lamented that for long no Indian university has given any Nobel laureate and pointed out that the likes of Amartya Sen and Har Gobind Khorana could not be retained by Indian universities.

There must be “serious scrutiny” over this, he said and asserted that this trend must change.

In terms of numbers, he said while India has over 730 universities and 35,000 colleges but “the quality of education is not up to international standards”. (IANS)

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Across Asia’s Borders, Survivors Of Human Trafficking, Dial in for Justice

The trial has been ongoing since 2013

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Tara Khokon Miya is seen in her village home in Shipur, Bangladesh, Feb. 26, 2018. She is helping to prepare her 27-year-old daughter to testify via videoconferencing technology against the men who trafficked her to India.
Tara Khokon Miya is seen in her village home in Shipur, Bangladesh, Feb. 26, 2018. She is helping to prepare her 27-year-old daughter to testify via videoconferencing technology against the men who trafficked her to India. VOA

When Neha Maldar testified against the traffickers who enslaved her as a sex worker in India, she spoke from the safety of her own country, Bangladesh, via videoconferencing, a technology that could revolutionize the pursuit of justice in such cases.

The men in the western city of Mumbai appeared via video link more than 2,000 km (1,243 miles) west of Maldar as she sat in a government office in Jessore, a major regional hub for sex trafficking, 50 km from Bangladesh’s border with India.

“I saw the people who had trafficked me on the screen and I wasn’t scared to identify them,” Maldar, who now runs a beauty parlor from her home near Jessore, told Reuters. “I was determined to see them behind bars.”

“I told them how I was beaten for refusing to work in the brothel in the beginning and how the money I made was taken away,” she said, adding that she had lied to Indian authorities about her situation after being rescued, out of fear.

Thousands of people from Bangladesh and Nepal — mainly poor, rural women

and children — are lured to India each year by traffickers who promise good jobs but sell them into prostitution or domestic servitude, anti-slavery activists say.

Activists hope the safe, convenient technology could boost convictions. A Bangladeshi sex trafficker was jailed for the first time in 2016 on the strength of a victim’s testimony to a court in Mumbai via video link from Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital.

Convictions for cross-border trafficking in the region are rare as most victims choose not to pursue cases that have traditionally required them to testify in Indian courts, which meant staying in a shelter for the duration of the trial.

“They have always wanted to go back home, to their families,” said Shiny Padiyara, a legal counsel at the Indian charity Rescue Foundation that has facilitated videoconferencing cases and runs shelters for trafficking victims. “And most never return to testify.”

But videoconferencing is making it easier to pursue justice. Survivors have given statements, identified their traffickers, and been cross examined in at least 10 other ongoing international cases in Bangladesh, advocates said.

“Enabling victims to testify via video conference will lead to a possible decrease in acquittal rates for want of prime witnesses,” said Adrian Phillips of Justice and Care, a charity that supports the use of video testimony to help secure justice.

Even then, it is tough. During Maldar’s three-hour deposition, she withstood a tough cross-examination, showed identity documents to prove her age and countered allegations by the defense lawyer that she was lying about her identity.

Students Combat Human Trafficking
Students Combat Human Trafficking, flickr

‘Unpardonable’

Tara Khokon Miya is preparing her 27-year-old daughter to testify against the men who trafficked her to India from Dhaka, where she had been working in a garment factory.

“I almost lost my daughter forever,” she said, sitting in her home in Magura, less than 50 km from Jessore, describing how she disappeared after work and was taken to a brothel in India, and raped and beaten for almost a year before being rescued.

“What the traffickers did to my daughter was unpardonable,” Miya said, wiping her tears. “We seek justice. I nurtured her in my womb and can’t describe what it felt like to not know about her whereabouts.”

The trial has been ongoing since 2013 when the young woman, who declined to be named, was repatriated. The charity Rights Jessore is helping the family through the process, by providing counseling and rehearsing cross-examination.

“The best thing is her father will be by her side when she talks in court,” Miya said, finally breaking into a smile.

India signed a bilateral agreement with Bangladesh in 2015 to ensure faster trafficking investigations and prosecutions, and with Nepal in 2017, and laid down basic procedures to encourage the use of videoconferencing in court proceedings.

“The procedure is very transparent,” said judge K M Mamun Uzzaman at Jessore courthouse, which often converts its conference hall into a courtroom for videoconferencing cases to protect survivors’ privacy.

“I’m usually present and victims are able to testify confidently … it is easy and cost effective for us,” he said. “But the biggest beneficiaries are the survivors.”

Silencing Victims
Silencing Victims, pixabay

The future

Videoconferencing in Bangladesh has been plagued by technical glitches such as power cuts and poor connections.

“Sometimes the internet connection is weak or it gets disconnected during the testimony,” said Binoy Krishna Mallick head of Rights Jessore, a pioneer in using this technology to encourage trafficking survivors to pursue justice. “But these are just teething troubles.”

The bigger challenge, activists say, is to ensure survivors remain committed to the trial despite delays caused by a backlog of cases and witnesses’ failure to appear to testify.

Swati Chauhan, one of the first judges to experiment with video testimony in 2010, is convinced that technology can eliminate many of these hurdles.

Also read: Imagining Panun Kashmir: Dissent And Detente in South Asia

“Victims go through a lot of trauma, so it is natural that they don’t want to confront their trafficker in a court — but that doesn’t mean they don’t want the trafficker to be punished,” she said. “A videoconference requires meticulous planning and it is not easy coordinating between departments and countries. But it is the future for many seeking justice.” (VOA)