Infuriated by New Regulations, Indian Farmers Hit the Streets

For more than a week, tens of thousands of Indian farmers have been camped on highways leading into New Delhi, demanding the rollback of three new laws that will change the way they have sold crops for decades at government-regulated agricultural markets, to pave the way for free market trade.     “How will I sell directly to a private buyer? My produce is too small to transport to neighboring areas like Delhi to bargain for a better price,” says Krishan Kumar, who farms a small plot of land in Haryana state. “The government market is within 10 kilometers of my village and it is easy for me to sell it there.”  Like Kumar, the sea of farmers who have converged on the outskirts of Delhi are enraged that the government has rolled back regulations that they depend on to safeguard them from market forces.    While the government says the laws will transform Indian agriculture and allow farmers to sell their produce for a higher price anywhere in the country, farmers fear they will be left vulnerable to exploitation by private corporations. They say this will undercut incomes that are already meager.   Indian farmer Surender Singh, 70, sits on a chair and gets a massage, next to a truck parked on a highway as part of protests against new farm bills, at the Delhi-Haryana state border, India, Dec. 1, 2020.Protesting farmers camp out  After being refused permission to hold their protest in the heart of the capital, farmers have parked their tractors and trucks stacked with food rations, mattresses and blankets behind heavily barricaded highways guarded by police.  They brew tea, chop potatoes and cook vegetables in giant pots on the side of the road, spending the cold winter nights inside their trucks or in the open – fully prepared for a prolonged standoff with the government.  Seeking to assuage their anger, the government has held two rounds of negotiations with their representatives but there has been no breakthrough so far.   Most of the protesters have come from the states of Haryana and Punjab, a lush rice- and wheat-producing region that feels most threatened by the new laws. In these states, most farmers sell their grain in markets known as “mandis” at prices set by the government. The guarantee of what is called a “minimum price” gives farmers the confidence to invest and grow the crop.  Farmers talk during a protest against the newly passed farm bills at Singhu border near Delhi, India, Dec. 3, 2020.Government assurances dismissed  Despite Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s assurances that free trade will ensure better profits and raise their incomes, the protesting farmers remain unconvinced.  “The farmers should get the advantage of a big and comprehensive market which opens our country to global markets,” Modi said on Monday during a public meeting in Varanasi. He said they were being misled by opposition parties.     However, protesters point to the experience of farmers in some parts of the country where government-regulated markets have been dismantled. “Private traders bought wheat and rice at much lower prices in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh compared to what we got for our crop. Many farmers there have still not managed to sell their stocks,” says Lakshman Singh, a farmer from Punjab.   Their key demand is that the government continue to set a minimum price for two dozen major crops to ensure that private corporations and large supermarket chains will not undercut prices.   A farmer stands in front of police barricades during a protest against the newly passed farm bills at Singhu border near Delhi, India, Dec. 3, 2020.More than two-thirds of India’s farmers own small plots of land of less than two hectares and earn tiny incomes that leave them with little spare cash to buy even seeds or fertilizers.   While the mandis have often been criticized for being inefficient and controlled by commission agents who siphon off profits, many farmers defend the system, saying that these agents also serve as a crucial line of credit for them, supporting them with loans for everything from buying seeds to family emergencies.  “These middlemen have always been our ATM,” according to Shamsher, a farmer from Haryana. “If my child is ill, he gives me a loan. If I need anything, he gives it to me and this works well for us. We won’t have access to this when big private companies will buy produce.” Along with other farmers, he says they will not budge until their concerns are addressed. “We will only go back when the government takes back these “black” laws, whether it takes one month or six months.” Farmers shout slogans during a protest against the newly passed farm bills at Singhu border near Delhi, India, Dec. 3, 2020.Economists splitEconomists are divided over the issue. Some support the reforms as necessary to overhaul India’s agricultural sector that is increasingly in distress. Other economists say the government must continue to support farmers with price assurances given that they are already hit by dwindling incomes.  “Indian farming needs an infusion of capital and technology which dismantling controls can provide,” says commentator Gurcharan Das, pointing out that farm yields in India are half or even less compared to some countries. ‘Reforms are always hard and I hope the government can stand firm.”  As the numbers swell and calls to scrap the new laws become more intense, these protests in Delhi mark the biggest outburst of anger by farmers in recent years. In a country where agriculture sustains nearly half the population, they could pose a huge challenge for Prime Minister Modi, according to observers.   

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Azerbaijan Says Nearly 3,000 Troops Killed in Nagorno-Karabakh Fighting

Azerbaijan has revealed the number of casualties sustained by its military personnel during the recent 44-day war with Armenia over the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region.The Interior Ministry said in a On December 2, Armenian Health Ministry officials told RFE/RL that the remains of 2,718 servicemen killed in the war had been examined by medical personnel, adding that the bodies of Azerbaijani soldiers could be among the corpses.De facto officials of the Nagorno-Karabakh region have said that 1,741 Armenian soldiers and officers killed in the war had been identified so far.The office of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev announced on December 3 that November 8, the day when Azerbaijani troops regained control over the key Nagorno-Karabakh city of Susa (Shushi in Armenian), will be marked each year as Victory Day.A previous proposal to commemorate Victory Day on November 10, the day when the war was ended through a Russia-brokered truce, has been reconsidered as it coincides with the Ataturk Memorial Day in Turkey, the president’s office said. Ankara openly supported Azerbaijan during the war.Nagorno-Karabakh is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, but the ethnic Armenians who make up most of the population reject Azerbaijani rule.They have been governing their own affairs, with support from Armenia, since Azerbaijan’s troops and ethnic Azeri civilians were forced out of the region in a war that ended in a cease-fire in 1994.

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Rohingya Coerced Into Relocating to Remote Island, Refugees and Aid Workers Say

Refugees and humanitarian workers said on Thursday some of the thousands of Rohingya being shipped to a remote island had been coerced, despite government assertions that none would be forced to go.
Two Rohingya told Reuters their names appeared on lists compiled by government-appointed local leaders without their consent, while aid workers said officials used threats and enticements to pressure people into going.
Some refugees named as willing to go to the island were in hiding on Thursday, amid a heavy security presence at the sprawling camps.
Mohammad Shamsud Douza, the deputy Bangladesh government official in charge of refugees, said the relocation was voluntary.
“They are going there happily. No one is forced. The government has taken all measures to deal with disasters, including their comfortable living and livelihood.”
Police escorted the first group of 1,000 refugees in buses from Ukhiya in Cox’s Bazar for the journey to Chittagong port and then on to Bhasan Char – a flood-prone Bay of Bengal island that emerged from the sea 20 years ago.
“They have taken us here forcefully,” a 31-year-old man told Reuters tearfully by phone as he boarded a bus.
“Three days ago, when I heard that my family is on the list, I ran away from the block, but yesterday I was caught and taken here,” he said.
An 18-year-old woman said her husband had put their names on the list thinking it was for food rations. He fled when they were told to go to Bhasan Char, she said, adding that she is also hiding in the camp.
She was among more than 730,000 Rohingya who fled Myanmar in 2017 following a military-led crackdown that the United Nations said was executed with genocidal intent. Myanmar denies genocide and says its forces were targeting Rohingya militants who attacked police posts.
“We came here to save our lives facing different kinds of troubles and difficulties,” she said. “Why would we go to that risky island?”‘State of Panic’
Bangladesh says moving refugees who agree to go to the island will ease chronic overcrowding in its camps, which are home to more than 1 million Rohingya, members of a Muslim minority who have fled neighboring Myanmar.
A Bangladesh naval official said the first 1,500 refugees would on Friday morning leave from the port to cross to the island. The journey takes several hours.
Human Rights Watch said it had interviewed 12 families whose names were on the lists, but had not volunteered to go, while Refugees International said the move was “nothing short of a dangerous mass detention of the Rohingya people in violation of international human rights obligations.”
Two aid workers, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said refugees had come under pressure from government officials who used threats and offers of cash and other enticements to persuade them to go to the island.
A briefing note by a humanitarian organization, seen by Reuters, said refugees were promised to be given priority to go back to Myanmar when repatriation took place, priority to be resettled in third countries, and access to education.
“We’re deeply concerned about how this is unfolding, particularly in terms of continuity of care for some of our patients,” one of the aid workers said.
The worker cited a case of a refugee with a mental health condition in a “state of panic” after being told he had to move and his concerns over where he would get his medication on the island.
A senior foreign ministry official, who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said the refugees were being moved because there was little prospect of repatriating them to Myanmar.
The United Nations said in a statement it had been given “limited information” about the relocations and was not involved in preparations.
More than 300 refugees were brought to the island earlier this year after several months at sea in an attempt to flee Bangladesh. Rights groups say they are being held against their will and have complained of human rights violations.

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Human Rights Watch Accuses Azerbaijan of Abusing Armenian POWs

Human Rights Watch accused Azerbaijani forces Wednesday of brutalizing some Armenian troops captured in the conflict over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh.Acts of mistreatment were captured on video and circulated on social media over the past two months, HRW said.The rights group said in a statement the videos show “Azerbaijani captors variously slapping, kicking and prodding Armenian POWs” and forcing them to “kiss the Azerbaijani flag,” praise Azerbaijan’s president, swear at Armenia’s prime minister “and declare that Nagorno-Karabakh is Azerbaijan.”HRW official Hugh Williamson said humanitarian law requires that POWs be protected, and he called on Azerbaijani authorities to immediately end the inhumane treatment.Ethnic Armenian soldiers sit in a military truck on a road during the withdrawal of troops from the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh, Nov. 19, 2020.The number of POWs in custody is unknown but HRW, citing Armenian officials, estimated the number is in the “dozens.” Azerbaijan’s response to the HRW report was not immediately available.The report acknowledged that some of the prisoners depicted in the videos have since communicated with their families and said they are being treated well, but it said there remain serious grounds for concern about their safety and well-being.HRW also said Armenia has captured Azerbaijani troops and that it is investigating videos on social media that apparently show Azerbaijani POWs being abused.Armenia signed a Russian-brokered deal with Azerbaijan on November 9 after six weeks of intense fighting.The fighting between Azerbaijan and Armenia erupted September 27, marking the biggest escalation of the decades-old conflict over the Nagorno-Karabakh region since a 1994 cease-fire.The predominantly ethnic Armenian territory declared its independence from Azerbaijan in 1991 during the collapse of the Soviet Union, sparking a war in which as many as 30,000 people died before a 1994 cease-fire was declared. That independence, however, is not internationally recognized.

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US Hails Much-Awaited Breakthrough in Afghan Peace Talks

Delegates of warring sides in Afghanistan announced Wednesday they had agreed on a framework for their peace negotiations aimed at ending the country’s protracted conflict.The United States, which brokered the peace process, welcomed the agreement as a “major milestone” in the peace negotiations involving the Taliban insurgency and representatives of the Afghan government.“The procedure, including its preamble of the negotiation, has been finalized, and from now on, the negotiation will begin on the agenda,” read a statement released by both sides.The so-called intra-Afghan dialogue, which is being held in Doha, the capital of Qatar, started in September amid high hopes and fanfare. But disagreements over how to pursue the talks stalled them for the most part, with both sides blaming each other for the deadlock.Taliban spokesman Naeem Wardak said the two negotiating teams also held a “plenary meeting” Wednesday where a “joint working committee” was tasked with preparing the agenda for the dialogue.“The current negotiations of both negotiation teams show that there is willingness among Afghans to reach a sustainable peace, and both sides are committed to continue their sincere efforts to reach a sustainable peace in Afghanistan,” Wardak said.While welcoming the progress, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo explained in a statement that the agreement “codifies the rules and procedures” the two Afghan teams have been negotiating since the start of peace process.The decisions outlined in the document will guide the intra-Afghan negotiations on a “political road map” and a “comprehensive cease-fire,” Pompeo said.He congratulated Taliban and Afghan government negotiators on their “perseverance and willingness” to find common ground.“What has been achieved provides hope they will succeed in reaching a political settlement to this more than 40-year-old conflict,” the chief U.S. diplomat stressed.The intra-Afghan talks stem from the landmark agreement that Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. peace envoy for Afghanistan, negotiated and signed with the Taliban in February.The deal immediately initiated the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the South Asian nation to reach closer to an end to what has become the longest war in U.S. history.FILE – A patrolling U.S. armored vehicle is reflected in the mirror of a car in Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 23, 2017.The agreement calls for all U.S. and NATO troops to leave Afghanistan by May 2021 in exchange for counterterrorism guarantees from the Taliban, and pledges that the insurgent group will negotiate a sustainable cease-fire and a power-sharing deal with rival Afghan groups.The Feb. 29 pact and subsequent intra-Afghan peace talks have not helped reduce battlefield violence between government forces and the Taliban. The insurgent group insists that a cease-fire be discussed at the negotiating table.“As negotiations on a political roadmap and permanent ceasefire begin, we will work hard with all sides for serious reduction of violence and even a ceasefire during this period,” Khalilzad tweeted Wednesday.Deborah Lyons, U.N. envoy for Afghanistan, was in Doha on Wednesday and met with Taliban leaders. She hailed the progress achieved by both negotiating teams as a “positive development.”“This breakthrough should be a springboard to reach the peace wanted by all Afghans,” she said on Twitter.   
 

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Kashmir Militant’s Families Accuse Officials of Using COVID-19 as Excuse to Prevent Them from Attending Funerals

On the night of September 27, the Reshi family of Samboora, a village located in the south of Indian-administered Kashmir, went to bed unaware of a gun battle between Indian troops and separatist insurgents at the other end of their village.When they woke up the next morning, their son, a militant, was dead.“People told us that my son had been martyred,” Azzi Begum recalled as she sat in her living room.Azzi Begum, mother of militant commander Aijaz Ahmad Reshi, sits in the drawing room of his house while narrating the details of the day when her son was killed. (UbaidUllah Wani/VOA)“We did not receive any phone call from Aijaz when he was encircled by the security forces, nor were we approached by the authorities to convince him to surrender,” she added.Security forces in the region sometimes bring family members to encounter sites to convince militants to surrender rather than fight to the death.Hours later, family members were approached by police to identify the body.“It was the first time I saw him in four years,” Begum told VOA, adding, “He did not visit home after joining the rebels because our area is surrounded by Indian troops on all side(s).”Aijaz Ahmad Reshi had left his home in 2016, the year when the killing by security forces of a popular militant commander, Burhan Wani, led to riots and mass protests in Indian Kashmir.He joined a Pakistan-based militant outfit, Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), to fight the Indian control of Kashmir.Kashmir, a Muslim majority Himalayan region, is a disputed territory between South Asian nuclear-armed neighbors India and Pakistan. Both countries control parts of it and have fought multiple wars over it.Family members of an Indian soldier, Shakir Manzoor, displaying his clothes after they were found in an orchid by his father in Shopian district of Indian administered Kashmir. (UbaidUllah Wani/VOA)“We can’t return the body to avoid the spread of coronavirus at his funeral,” an audio message from the militants said. “We performed his last rites the same way as government forces do when they deny bodies of militants to their families and bury them in unmarked graves.”At least one other similar case has been reported.Families of militants told VOA burials in far flung areas made it difficult to visit their graves.  “Not everyone can afford to re-visit,” said a cousin of a militant wishing not to be named.“If funerals pose a threat of spreading COVID-19, why are hundreds of people allowed at funerals of security people killed by militants? Why are official ceremonies held for them?” he further asked.When Altaf Hussain, a police constable, was killed by militants in central Kashmir in October, Indian media reported that hundreds of people participated in his funeral prayers in Srinagar.   Kashmir based political analyst Sheikh Showkat said that every dead body had a right to a decent burial.“Dead bodies can’t be denied to families using COVID-19 as an excuse,” Showkat said.“If COVID-19 poses a risk in the burial of combatants of one side, it should be true for the other side as well,” Showkat added. “Geneva Convention should be implemented without any discrimination.”

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