Editorials - 12-04-2021

There are several indications of a backchannel being in place between India and Pakistan since 2020

The absence of evidence, they say, is not the evidence of absence. More than a month after India-Pakistan border commanders agreed to strictly observe all agreements between the two countries, the absence of official acceptance of a backchannel seems far outweighed by indicators that there is, in fact, such a channel in place, approved by the Prime Ministers of both countries.

Several clues

For many, the statement issued by the Director Generals of Military Operations on February 25 was the first clue. The fact that it was a joint statement and employed terms like the resolution of “core issues” indicated both coordination at a diplomatic level and high-level political approval.

The events that followed, including the scheduling of the much-delayed Indus Water Treaty talks, the granting of sports visas, and the salutary messages between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan, strengthened rumours of a backchannel. These stand out after a particularly recriminatory period in India-Pakistan ties that followed the 2019 Pulwama attack, the Balakot strikes and capture of an Indian pilot thereafter, and the government’s decision on Jammu and Kashmir.

More recently, the lack of any references to Pakistan in electoral speeches by Mr. Modi and his Cabinet during the ongoing Assembly elections as well as the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA)’s decision not to criticise the obvious U-turn by Mr. Khan on trade are seen as more such clues. Nor has the MEA or Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) issued rebuttals or denials to news reports in credible international and national news organisations in the past few weeks that have said that talks overseen by National Security Adviser (NSA) Ajit Doval and Pakistan Army Chief General Qamar Bajwa have been taking place for months, in different neighbouring countries, facilitated by foreign governments including the United Arab Emirates. Quite the reverse, in fact: the MEA and MoFA’s responses to specific questions in the past week about the existence of a backchannel have been carefully worded non-denials.

An unbroken chain

For those aghast at the prospect, a look at the history of backchannels, or officially sanctioned contacts between nominees from India and Pakistan, is instructional. They have operated in the worst of times, including wars, terror strikes and military action, and their existence brought to light only years later. For example, it was only when former Inter-Services Intelligence chief Hamid Gul, reviled for his role in building the Taliban and arming Kashmiri militants, died that former Research and Analysis Wing chief A.K. Verma wrote about their channel for peace talks that began in 1988. The talks had been initiated by General Zia-ul-Haq and Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi through Jordanian Crown Prince Hassan. The leaders were close to an agreement when General Zia’s death in a plane crash ran the process aground, Mr. Verma wrote.

Later, during the Kargil War, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee chose an unorthodox back-channel interlocutor, R.K. Mishra, journalist and founder of the Observer Research Foundation. Mishra met with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s envoy, diplomat Niaz Naik, to hammer out the contours of the ceasefire and Pakistan’s withdrawal, with both men shuttling between Islamabad and New Delhi on secret visits. Both Mishra and Naik died in 2009, and never spoke of their work themselves, but their conversations were the beginning of an unbroken chain for the next decade, handed over on the Pakistani side from Tariq Aziz to Riaz Mohammad Khan and Shahryar Khanand on the Indian side from NSAs Brajesh Mishra and J.N. Dixit to Special Envoy Satinder K. Lambah.

Over the years, little has been said publicly, but stories abound of Indian and Pakistani diplomats scouring Delhi’s Connaught Place for a proper map of the India-Pakistan Line of Control in order to work out their resolution — of one interlocutor arriving at the hotel room of another’s past midnight to discuss some part of the plan, and of backchannel diplomats travelling across the border without visas or any official record. On one occasion, the Pakistani President did not even know about the arrival of the Indian interlocutor until he found the Indian plane parked next to his on the tarmac in Islamabad.

Learning from the past

Prime Minister Modi, by many accounts, initiated contacts even before he assumed office. In early 2014, a Washington-based Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh member, Jitendra Tuli, visited Pakistan and reportedly told the Pakistani NSA and other senior officials about a soon-to-be-sent invitation for Prime Minister Sharif from India. By his own account, he suggested that it would be advisable to hold off giving India ‘Most Favoured Nation’ status, something the Sharif government had already proposed to do, until after the elections in India. After Mr. Modi invited Mr. Sharif to his swearing-in, the two leaders were believed to have exchanged messages through steel magnate Sajjan Jindal, whose meeting with Mr. Sharif in Murree set off a controversy in Pakistan.

Even as official channels faltered, and Foreign Secretary-level talks in Islamabad and then NSA-EAM talks in Delhi were cancelled, other channels were activated. Mr. Doval’s first contact with Pakistan Special Envoy Lt Gen Nasir Janjua in Bangkok as well as Mr. Modi’s surprise visit to Lahore in December 2015 were clearly prefaced by some ‘non-official’ officially sanctioned contact. After the Pathankot attack in 2016, the Doval-Janjua backchannel worked to ease tensions and facilitate the visit of a Pakistani investigative team to the scene of the terrorist attack. After Kulbhushan Jadhav’s arrest, the channel worked until the MEA confirmed publicly in January 2018 that the two officials had met in Bangkok on December 26, the day after Mr. Jadhav’s family was allowed to meet him in Islamabad. “Terror and talks cannot go together but talks on terror can definitely go ahead,” the MEA spokesperson had explained.

In 2016, six former Pakistani High Commissioners also travelled to Delhi for a Track-II consultation with nine former Indian High Commissioners, where they met NSA Doval and senior MEA officials, indicating that the present dispensation is not averse to learning from the successes and failures of past channels.

Why a backchannel now?

As a result, the latest revelations of a backchannel being in place since 2020 should not be received with much surprise and comes with several instructional messages. To begin with, what appears to be clear is that while friendship and trust between inimical neighbours with a bitter history, such as what India and Pakistan share, may seem impossible, engagement is inevitable.

Second, domestic constraints and challenges on other fronts often put the spotlight back on the need for a workable peace on the India-Pakistan front. Pakistan’s dire economic condition and the mounting pressure from the Financial Action Task Force to shut down all terrorist safe havens or face severe sanctions is clearly one imperative for Islamabad’s willingness to engage via the backchannel even after India’s decision on Jammu and Kashmir.

For India, the stand-off with the People’s Liberation Army at the Line of Actual Control in Ladakh has made the possibility of a two-front war more real, and fuels the push to reduce tensions with Pakistan. For both Delhi and Islamabad, it is important to be mature parties in the regional engagement with Afghanistan as well, by not providing a conflagration at their boundaries. These reasons take precedence for the moment in the absence of a terror attack in India traceable to Pakistan.

Finally, the existence of a backchannel at this time, which would not be possible without support right from the top, could answer the question posed by former Pakistani Foreign Minister Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri, who, in his memoir titledNeither a Hawk Nor a Dove, wrote that every leader he had ever interacted with had said privately, “Let’s make history!” And he asked, “How could Prime Minister Modi, with a sense of destiny about himself,... be an exception to that?”

suhasini.h@thehindu.co.in

The proposed regime under the Bill seeks to be different from the existing regime which does not adequately protect users’ data

The pandemic has forced more people to participate in the digital economy. More people have taken to digital channels to fulfill a variety of needs like purchasing groceries and accessing health services. Unfortunately, the number of personal data breaches from major digital service providers has increased worryingly in the same period. The recent alleged data breach at MobiKwik could stand to be India’s biggest breach with the data of 9.9 crore users at risk. Robust data protection regimes are necessary to prevent such events and protect users’ interests. Unfortunately, the existing data protection regime in India does not meet this standard.

However, the Personal Data Protection Bill, 2019, now under scrutiny by a Joint Parliamentary Committee, could play a big role in providing robust protections to users and their personal data. In this context, this article seeks to answer a fundamental question: How can the Bill protect users’ interests in the digital economy?

No effective protection

How different entities collect and process users’ personal data in India is mainly governed by the Information Technology Act, 2000, and various other sectoral regulations. However, this data protection regime falls short of providing effective protection to users and their personal data.

For instance, entities could override the protections in the regime by taking users’ consent to processing personal data under broad terms and conditions. This is problematic given that users might not understand the terms and conditions or the implications of giving consent. Further, the frameworks emphasise data security but do not place enough emphasis on data privacy. In essence, while entities must employ technical measures to protect personal data, they have weaker obligations to respect users’ preferences in how personal data can be processed. As a result, entities could use the data for purposes different to those that the user consented to. The data protection provisions under the IT Act also do not apply to government agencies. This creates a large vacuum for data protection when governments are collecting and processing large amounts of personal data. Finally, the regime seems to have become antiquated and inadequate in addressing risks emerging from new developments in data processing technology.

The need for a more robust data protection legislation came to the fore in 2017 post the Supreme Court’s landmark judgment inJustice K.S. Puttaswamy (Retd) v. Union of Indiathat established the right to privacy as a fundamental right. In the judgment, the Court called for a data protection law that can effectively protect users’ privacy over their personal data. Consequently, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology formed a Committee of Experts under the Chairmanship of Justice (Retd) B.N. Srikrishna to suggest a draft data protection law. The Bill, in its current form, is a revised version of the draft legislative document proposed by the Committee.

The upcoming regime

The proposed regime under the Bill seeks to be different from the existing regime in some prominent ways. First, the Bill seeks to apply the data protection regime to both government and private entities across all sectors.

Second, the Bill seeks to emphasise data security and data privacy. While entities will have to maintain security safeguards to protect personal data, they will also have to fulfill a set of data protection obligations and transparency and accountability measures that govern how entities can process personal data to uphold users’ privacy and interests.

Third, the Bill seeks to give users a set of rights over their personal data and means to exercise those rights. For instance, a user will be able to obtain information about the different kinds of personal data that an entity has about them and how the entity is processing that data.

Fourth, the Bill seeks to create an independent and powerful regulator known as the Data Protection Authority (DPA). The DPA will monitor and regulate data processing activities to ensure their compliance with the regime. More importantly, the DPA will give users a channel to seek redress when entities do not comply with their obligations under the regime.

The Bill seeks to bring a massive and meaningful change to personal data protection in India through this regime. However, the reality could be different. Several provisions in the Bill create cause for concern about the regime’s effectiveness. These provisions could contradict the objectives of the Bill by giving wide exemptions to government agencies and diluting user protection safeguards.

For instance, under clause 35, the Central government can exempt any government agency from complying with the Bill. Government agencies will then be able to process personal data without following any safeguard under the Bill. This could create severe privacy risks for users.

Similarly, users could find it difficult to enforce various user protection safeguards (such as rights and remedies) in the Bill. For instance, the Bill threatens legal consequences for users who withdraw their consent for a data processing activity. In practice, this could discourage users from withdrawing consent for processing activities they want to opt out of.

Additional concerns also emerge for the DPA as an independent effective regulator that can uphold users’ interests.

The way forward

The time is ripe for India to have a robust data protection regime. The Joint Parliamentary Committee that is scrutinising the Bill has proposed 86 amendments and one new clause to the Bill – although the exact changes are not in the public domain. The Committee is expected to submit its final report in the Monsoon Session of Parliament in 2021. Taking this time to make some changes in the Bill targeted towards addressing various concerns in it could make a stronger and more effective data protection regime.

Indradeep Ghosh is the Executive Director of Dvara Research and Srikara Prasad is a Policy Analyst at the Future of Finance Initiative housed at Dvara Research

The latest UGC draft clings to colonial reasoning and ignores the diverse facets of our past

The recent University Grants Commission (UGC) directive framing the undergraduate history syllabus points to the involvement of ‘experts’ who are still stuck in the discipline as it was practised and taught years ago in the 1950s.

A crucial element of the discipline is its division into different periods, or periodisation. The notion of periodisation in history was alien to all societies and civilisations, until Europe instituted it towards the end of the 17th century, though its evolution had started from the 16th century in the history of Christian theology and its Church. The tripartite division of ancient, medieval and modern history was formalised by a German,Christoph Cellarius, in 1688, and was extended beyond theology and Church. Underlying it was the assumption that with the “modern” age of rationality, Europe had left its ‘dark age’ of superstition and irrationality behind. As Europe colonised the rest of the world, its intellectual constructs were universalised as well — among them was periodisation. If Europe had emerged from its “dark age”, the rest of the world was still lodged there and needed to emulate Europe’s progress.

Three periods

Its implantation in India came in a further distorted form: James Mill’s division of history into Hindu, Muslim and British periods in his notorious bookA History of British Indiapublished in 1817. Whereas the ancient-medieval-modern nomenclature implied Europe’s emergence from the medieval “dark age” to the “modern” age of reason through its own autonomous evolution, India, in Mill’s vision, was still stuck in its own dark age of religion from which the British colonial rule was obligated to rescue it. Hence, the asymmetrical Hindu-Muslim-British period.

As a utilitarian, Mill treated religion with utter contempt. If his comments on Islam were derogatory, those on Hinduism were scandalous. “The vices of falsehood, indeed they carry to a height almost unexampled among the other races of men” is one of his moderate comments on Hindus. However, the periodisation schema became pervasive in every book of Indian history irrespective of its author. Its basic frame implied that Indian history predominantly comprised the accounts of conquests and defeats, administrative measures and relevant “policies” of dynasties and individual rulers, and that their driving force was their religious fervour. History could thus be divided into the Hindu period beginning with the Aryans (Harappa had not been discovered yet) and ending with the death of Harsha in 647 CE, the Muslim period from 1206 with the establishment of the Delhi Sultanate and ending with Aurangzeb’s death in 1707, and the British period opening roughly from 1765 with the grant of Diwani to the East India Company. The gaps between 647 CE and 1206 and 1707 and 1765 were marked by a historical drought.

Mill also emphasised the exclusivity of and implicitly irreconcilable hostility between the Hindu and Muslim communities, a precursor of the two-nation theory of Savarkar-Jinnah, which perhaps explains the UGC’s preference for it.

Even when the nomenclature of periods was altered to ‘ancient’, ‘medieval’ and ‘modern’ in 1903 by Stanley Lane-Poole, the basis of the division remained unaltered until after Independence. Notably, the new nomenclature came in his bookMediaeval India Under Mohammedan Rule. However, for any undergraduate in 1955-60 at Delhi University, almost the same dates demarcated the three periods, with Hindu-Muslim-British often interchanged with ancient-medieval-modern. The scope of the study also remained largely tied to Mill’s parameters.

Multi-layered explanations

The 1960s saw a sea change in Indian historians’ understanding of the past, which undermined the given periodisation. The study of history tied to the story of dynasties and rulers and which located all historical explanation in a single cause, namely religion, was found very restrictive.

As historians began to explore new facets of the past — social structures, economic drives, cultural mores, politics as exercises in the notions of power and social and ethical norms, confrontations and accommodations at the social, cultural and politico-administrative levels — the discipline began to move from hitherto simple explanations to complex, multi-layered ones.

An immediate and major casualty of this metamorphosis was the inherited periodisation and fixed dates of transition from one period to the other. Changes in reigns and dynasties can be traced to fixed dates and years, but social, economic and cultural changes occur as long-term processes that are hard to pin down to specific dates, years, or at times, even decades. It is interesting that while the tripartite schema of periodisation remained, its temporal boundaries began to get flexible to account for these. The notion of the ‘early medieval India’ was an important intervention covering changes at the ground level between, say, the eighth and the 12th centuries, both being porous boundaries, thus giving the term a new meaning.

The use of the pre-fix ‘pre-modern’ for the period starting from the 16th century has gained considerable traction in recent decades.

By the 1980s and thereafter, history began to acquire much more expansive dimensions, such as the study of ecology (of deserts, forests and rains), of women’s role in shaping history both in the household or in the community, or even at the level of the state, ever-evolving notions of time and space, perceptions of the past, gender identities of local or regional deities, or gender identities even of state systems, diseases and their cures, migrations all through history, the history of memories, the history of substructures sustaining massive imperial structures, and so on. All this is already percolating to undergraduate levels in universities and colleges.

The UGC draft is completely ignorant of these magnificent departures Indian history has registered since Independence and wants to take us back to James Mill’s colonial format, which is too simplistic academically to be tenable and has already demonstrated its social and political consequences in the country’s Partition. The prescribed reading list reinforces this ignorance by recommending books mostly written in the 1950s. Is this the grand vision for our ‘New India’?

The author taught history at JNU

To encourage critical enquiry, journalism must constantly remind citizens of the troubled past and difficult battles

Information in the public sphere often travels in two contradictory and contending trajectories. One is aimed at empowering citizens and helping them in sharpening their spirit of critical inquiry. The other is to serve the whims of the government, where the role of the information ecosystem is reduced to that of a mere amplifier of the claims of those in power. Journalism, in its desire to remain the node of empowerment, has to constantly remind itself and the citizens of the troubled past and the fragile present. But the battle to erase hard-won victories seems to be a new normal today.

Often, there were questions about the nature of this column itself. As I am the lone news ombudsman in a mainstream media outlet in India, with no peer comparison, each reader tends to read the terms of reference spelt out for the Readers’ Editor (RE) from different perspectives. Some expect the RE to look at complaints from readers alone. Some feel that the RE should expand his remit to include comments on the business side of the news such as advertisement, subscription and circulation. And a vast majority of readers are very appreciative of the media literacy component in the columns.

There are many reasons for drawing the attention of the readers to factors that govern our news ecology. From financial sustainability to an enabling legal and regulatory framework, a news organisation must be firmly wedded to the vibrancy of our democratic institutions. As a journalist and a media development professional, I worked closely with a team of journalists from Myanmar in creating a new, democratic and legal framework in the wake of the success of the pro-democracy movement in the country. There was international support for creating institutions that would ensure media freedom and accountability.

In my column, ‘From exile to excellence’ (June 9, 2014), I recorded with a sense of pride the creation of the first news ombudsman in Myanmar by Mizzima Media. I reproduced the letter from Soe Myint, editor-in-chief of Mizzima Media, based in Yangon, that read: “Dear Panneer, Mizzima has introduced Readers’ Editor for Mizzima Daily newspaper. It would be great if you could support Mizzima with advices and suggestions for the Readers’ Editor.”

Everyone who is invested in democratic values should know the story of Mizzima. A decade after the 1988 uprising, three veterans of the Burmese struggle for democracy — Soe Myint, Thin Thin Aung and Win Aung — came together to establish the Mizzima News Agency in New Delhi in August 1998. As I have mentioned elsewhere, the editorial team chose the name ‘Mizzima’, a word derived from the Pali language meaning ‘middle’ or ‘moderate’, to reflect their journalistic values of being an unbiased and independent media outlet. All of them were refugees. With no resources back home, they valiantly invested all their private savings to start the venture. When the military junta was blocking all the information from that country, Mizzima and other media outlets in exile provided credible news to the world.

A formidable challenge

Their journalistic journey was an uphill task. As a media organisation in exile, they knew about the dangers faced by those who contributed for them from back home. The desire to inform amidst a crackdown, where the information channel was under the close scrutiny of the military junta, helped them trump many an impediment to emerge as the voice of the people of Myanmar. Mizzima’s exhaustive coverage of the protest by Buddhist monks in 2007 and its untiring documentation of the wreckage caused by Cyclone Nargis in 2008 played a significant role in attracting the attention of the international community to the blight that had hit the country that lay sandwiched between India and China.

All this eventually led to a phased democratic transition. Inspired by the opening up of the democratic space, the editorial team decided to shift their base from India to Myanmar in 2012. But in less than a decade, their hopes have been dashed.

On February 1 this year, Myanmar’s military seized power after detaining Aung San Suu Kyi and other democratically elected leaders. The military has already ordered the closure of many independent media outlets. Nandita Haksar, a keen observer of Myanmar’s politics, has revealed that her friend Thin Thin Aung, the co-founder of the Mizzima news group, was arrested on April 8.

readerseditor@thehindu.co.in

The revival of the NYAY scheme in Congress’s Kerala manifesto is a welcome step

The Nyuntam Aay Yojana (NYAY) has become more relevant since it was first proposed two years back. By resurrecting it in its Kerala manifesto, the Congress has an opportunity to make the idea even more robust.

Even the best policy proposals find it hard to survive an unsuccessful election campaign. So, it was unexpected to see a version of NYAY, the Congress’s flagship 2019 scheme that proposed a monthly transfer of Rs. 6,000 to households living below the poverty line, resurface prominently in the Congress-led United Democratic Front’s manifesto for the Kerala Assembly election.

Unconditional cash transfers to the poor is a resoundingly good idea. Of course, cash transfers lead to important short-term effects: better nutrition, less food insecurity, higher consumption, and so on. But their benefits extend beyond this. Research shows that by freeing people from being held hostage to hunger and insecurity and anxiety about basic needs, even a modest cash transfer can radically transform people’s futures, unlocking stymied entrepreneurship, investment, and eventually a sustainable exit from poverty. It is hard to dream and plan on an empty stomach, and cash transfers help ease that problem. They are, thus, a powerful instrument for sustainable poverty reduction.

Behavioural tools

NYAY was already a good idea in 2019. But the COVID-19 pandemic and the hardships endured by rural-urban migrants during the countrywide lockdown, followed by the crippling economic slowdown, have only made the case for it stronger. Had a NYAY-like scheme been in place, migrant workers who found themselves thrown out of work by the lockdown might have had the wherewithal to remain where they were, rather than being forced to make perilous journeys home. Businesses that faced labour shortages might have found it easier to restart activity once restrictions eased, and cash in the hands of potential consumers could have helped in recovering from the dramatic economic slump that the pandemic set off.

This is not mere speculation. A non-profit behavioural science research and design firm, ideas42, has been testing several ‘nudges’ to help people make the most of their government cash benefits, in partnership with the World Bank and governments in Africa. Much of this work predated the pandemic, and it was being seen that the behavioural methods that were designed, consisting of a simple tool to help people articulate long-term goals and figure out how much money to set aside to achieve these goals (often things like purchasing livestock or inputs for a small business), helped people save more, make some productive investments, and pay off high-interest debt.

After the pandemic hit, ideas42 was able to interview beneficiaries of cash transfer schemes in Kenya’s rural areas — both those who had received only cash and those who had also received the behavioural ‘planning tools’. Several months into the pandemic, everyone reported a loss of income and said the cash they had received helped them cope. However, those who received the “nudge” tools fared better because they had saved more, were more likely to have made productive investments, and were more optimistic about their future. Even during a pandemic, cash transfers helped people feel in control, and adding behavioural tools increased the cash’s impact on people’s well-being.

A state-level implementation of a programme like NYAY facilitates the necessary tinkering and ironing out of logistical challenges. It also allows for strategically incorporating ‘nudges’ and other proven interventions that can help magnify the impact of cash transfers. Such interventions can help ensure that people receiving cash are not only able to meet their immediate needs, but are also able to set some money aside for contingencies, such as a pandemic or natural disasters. Whether or not NYAY sees the light of day in Kerala depends on the outcome of the election. But the Congress is right to stick with a concept that has become more significant now.

Saugato Datta is managing director at ideas42, where he oversees anti-poverty work in the developing world

ECI must take measures to prevent violence, and keep the election process fair

Five people were killed on Saturday during the fourth phase of polls in West Bengal, where the first three phases were largely eventless. While one person was allegedly killed by political rivals, four others were killed when security personnel fired more than 15 rounds in a span of two hours at Cooch Behar’s Sitalkuchi Assembly constituency. The Election Commission of India (ECI) has concluded that the police action was necessary, and taken in “self defence,” but the political storm kicked up by the episode continues to rage. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has alleged a conspiracy by the BJP to scare her supporters and called for the resignation of Home Minister Amit Shah. Mr. Shah, in turn, has said the Chief Minister’s call to gherao personnel of the Central security forces led to the flare-up. The Trinamool Congress has alleged that Central forces are restricting it and helping the BJP in the campaign. It is unclear whether the force used to control the mob was proportionate and the deaths were avoidable. Elsewhere in the State, a group of people tried to stop the vehicle of a BJP MP. All these are bad omens, against the backdrop of an intensely competitive political battle between Ms. Banerjee’s Trinamool and the BJP.

The ECI’s role in Bengal has been called into question by Opposition parties for various reasons. Its explanation for spreading the polls over eight phases over a month has not mitigated the concern that it gave undue advantage to the BJP. Its practice of redeploying civil and police officials is a time-tested measure to keep the election process fair. However, if redeployment leads to administrative chaos and partisanship, it is a matter of concern. While the ECI has been proactive in acting on charges of religious appeals made by Trinamool leaders including Ms. Banerjee, such alacrity has been missing in its dealings with the BJP. BJP leaders have made brazen communal appeals and gone scot-free. ECI advertisements that invoked the sacrifices of security personnel amounted to the Commission overstepping its strictly apolitical role. The personal role of the Prime Minister in a State election has made the task of the ECI much more difficult, and it has not risen up to the challenge. Ms. Banerjee may have gone over the top in trolling the ECI to “rename MCC as Modi Code of Conduct”. But it is not the first time that a Chief Minister has questioned the ECI’s impartiality. Narendra Modi himself had questioned the fairness of the ECI when he was Gujarat Chief Minister. Its reputation built over decades kept public trust intact, through all this. That trust is now being eroded, through acts of commission and omission. There are four more phases of polling in Bengal and the ECI must take measures to prevent violence, and keep the process fair and enabling for voters.

India will have to deal with the open challenge the U.S. has posed to its maritime claims

For several years now, the relationship of the U.S. and India has been marked by their sensitivity to each other’s concerns as they deepened cooperation on strategic issues, and aligned positions on multilateral issues. As a result, the April 7 press release by the U.S. Navy that announced that its 7th fleet’s Destroyer, theUSS John Paul Jones, had traversed India’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in order to “challenge” India’s claim that it must be notified before any military activity in these waters came as a surprise, particularly as it followed two successful visits by senior U.S. officials, including the U.S. Defence Secretary and Climate Envoy to Delhi. In the press release, the U.S. Navy said its ship had “asserted navigational rights and freedoms approximately 130 nautical miles west of the Lakshadweep Islands, inside India’s exclusive economic zone, without requesting India’s prior consent,” claiming this was “consistent” with international law, referring to the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). While the U.S.’s decision to conduct “Freedom of Navigation Operations” (FONOPs) is not new, as it regularly carries out such operations in order to “assert” international law off the coasts of 19 countries, most notably China, what appears to be new is the statement issued by the U.S. Navy itself. The government, which responded to the operation on April 9, said it had expressed its “concerns” to the U.S. government through diplomatic channels. In addition, India contested the U.S. claim about international law, saying that UNCLOS did not authorise military manoeuvres on the continental shelf or EEZ, as the 7th fleet had carried out, without prior consent.

While the matter has been disposed of diplomatically for the moment, it is clear that the government must prepare to grapple with the issue with the U.S. in the long term. The U.S.’s announcement indicates that a new SOP (Standard Operating Procedure) for these FONOPs is being adopted. To begin with, the government must clearly explain its own position, making it clear to all partners how the Indian law governing maritime claims is in line with international law. Next, it must analyse the U.S.’s motivations for this belligerence, and chart out a course accordingly. Primarily, the U.S. naval actions maybe a message to China, whose maritime claims are increasingly coming into conflict with those of the U.S. and its allies, but Washington is attempting to send a broader message that it will not tolerate any other country’s claims. As New Delhi contends with this new reality, it must seek answers from Washington about how their newly intensified Quad partnership, especially their stated objective to cooperate on keeping a “free and open Indo-Pacific”, can co-exist with the open challenge the U.S. Navy has posed.

[Agartala, April 11] Sheikh Mujibur Rehman’s forces to-day launched their “operation Dacca” by opening a new front near Narsingdi, highly reliable reports from across the border said even as reports came in that Liberation Forces are in complete control of Mymensing district. The Liberation Forces engaged men of the Pakistani Army at Tarapur, near Narsingdi, where fierce fighting was going on.

Meanwhile, Pakistan Army columns moved out of Dacca to-day for capturing Narsingdi. Crossing the Demra river, Pakistani troops took positions for the assault on the strong Liberation Force units at Narsingdi, according to reports. The Pakistan troops appeared to be making cautious moves for the assault, and have entrenched themselves at a distance of eight km from the Liberation Army formations at Narsingdi.

The Liberation force inflicted a crushing defeat on a Pakistan army column near Tangail, a sub-divisional town of Mymensing district close to Dacca.