Election time in West Bengal has, for decades now, meant violent time.
There is violence during the campaigning, violence during the polling, violence during and after the counting of votes. The level of election-related violence and its duration vary but it is there.
So what does that fact show? What does it establish?
That Bengal is a violent state and Bengalis are a violent people?
Not just Bengal-centric
They are no more violent than any other part of India or section of Indian society when provoked, instigated, manipulated to think, speak and act violently. One has to only refer to the speeches made on the eve of Direct Action Day in 1946 at the Maidan, in Calcutta, to understand what I mean. Within hours of those incendiary speeches the city was bleeding. An estimated 4,000 people were killed. Very shortly thereafter, incitement and instigation doing their worst, the Noakhali region of East Pakistan saw appalling violence perpetrated on the Hindu minority there, with an estimated 5,000 killed. Bihar responded with matching fury, killing, according to information given to the British Parliament an equal number ofits Muslim minority and, according toThe Statesman, twice as many. A peace-cherishing province was leveraged thus into peace-shattering violence.
Battered as it was, Bengal was ‘bettered’ by other areas. The worst instance of Partition-time violence among all regions, took place in Punjab. “Virtually,” says Wikipedia, “no Muslim survived in East Punjab (except in Malerkotla) and virtually no Hindu or Sikh survived in West Punjab.” All this was around the partitioning of India. Much later, in the anti-Sikh riots in 1984 an estimated 2,800 were killed in Delhi, and another 3,350 nationwide. These are official figures, the actual numbers are likely to have been much bigger. In the Gujarat riots of 2002, official estimates put the toll at 1,044. The actual numbers, again, are perhaps much bigger.
So, let no one tar Bengal and Bengalis with the sweeping description of ‘violent’ . They are only as violent or non-violent as any other part of India or its people, not a whit more. Maoist violence, the other ogre that has menaced life in Bengal, is not by any means confined to the State where Naxalbari lies, but is spread across over 200 districts across nine States.
The violence that marred phase four of the eight phase elections now being held in the State is most unfortunate and to be bemoaned. But our distress over it misses another far more important, much more serious and infinitely more dangerous form of violence that is accompanying the elections in West Bengal.
That violence is being done to the mind of Bengal, to its thinking wires, its feeling nerves, to its very soul. It is being done by the unrelenting spread of the virus of communal hate, of sectarian animosity of the ‘line’ that Hindus and Muslims are different breeds of human species. Whichever side of the communal divide it comes from, hatred as an idea and a strategy is no less violent than ‘plain’ violence. Once planted, it incubates in the minds and hearts of people, like a virus, and then erupts with an uncontrollable febrile frenzy.
The Partition years
The then Muslim League Premier of undivided Bengal, H.S. Suhrawardy, had much to explain for the violence that disfigured Bengal in 1946 and 1947. On Suhrawardy’s last day in that office, August 14, 1947, he had on his hands a challenging ‘guest’ — Gandhi, who was staying in Hydari Manzil, at the Muslim quarter of Beliaghata in Calcutta. At his prayer meeting that evening, over 10,000 people gathered in the grounds around that house to hear him. It was the month of Ramzan. Pyarelal records in his iconic biography (Mahatma Gandhi – The Last Phase, Navajivan, pp. 368-9), that some in the congregation shouted, “Where is Suhrawardy?” Suhrawardy was inside that house at the time, engaged innamaz. Gandhi told them that. After the prayer meeting gave over and Gandhi returned to the house, there was an uproar. Many had surrounded the house, which at Gandhi’s behest was un-policed, and demanded that Suhrawardy appear. Gandhi opened a window and got Suhrawardy to stand beside him, resting one hand on the outgoing Premier’s shoulder.
One of the crowd to the Premier: “Are you not responsible for the Great Calcutta Killing?”
Suhrawardy: “Yes, we all are.”
‘Will you answer my question, please?”
“Yes, it was my responsibility”.
Pyarelal writes: “This unequivocal, straight and candid answer by one who had made arrogance and haughtiness his badge and never known humility had a profound effect on the crowd.” But the incubating virus was working still. Riots broke out within days in Calcutta, viciously. Two young men, Sachindranath Mitra, 37, and Smritish Banerjea, 38, interposing between rioting mobs, were killed on the spot. On hearing that a truck carrying Muslim labourers had a bomb thrown on it in the same area — Beliaghata — killing two of them, Gandhi went to the scene. A fourannapiece was lying near one of them that had rolled out of the daily wager’s waist band. Gandhi started a defining fast. It was in complete and exact harmony with the mind and soul of Ramakrishna’s, Vivekananda’s and Tagore’s Bengal. And equally, with the stoic Bengal of the two simple, humble but absolutely true Bengalis, Sachindranath and Smritish.
“There should no longer be any more Hindu-Muslim riots in Calcutta…” the fasting Gandhi told Bengal’s leaders who implored him not to fast . “I shall terminate my fast if all of you accept this responsibility.” Seventy or so hours after his fast had begun, a group of leaders came to him to report that the innate good sense of the majority of the people of the city had prevailed over the furies let loose by the rioters. The mob that killed and burnt was not Bengal. The majority that stilled the mayhem, was.
“We the undersigned,” the leaders said in a paper they gave to him , “promise to Gandhiji that peace and quiet have been restored in Calcutta once again. We shall never again allow communal strife in the city. And shall strive unto death to prevent it.” Among the signatories were Suhrawardy and N.C. Chatterjee, the Hindu Mahasabha leader. Netaji’s elder brother, Sarat Chandra Bose, was a third.
Bengal then and now
That was and is Bengal. Its antibodies against the virus are strong. Its immune system is active. But if the load of the viral inoculum is huge, the balance can get affected. It can collapse.
Beliaghata 1947, representing Bengal’s immune system, checked the virus. It has, by and large, remained in check. In 1971, 50 years ago, the virus all but disappeared, with the State hailing the return of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Rahman to Dhaka and the birth of Bangladesh, even as another Tagore composition — “Amar Sonar Bangla” — became the national anthem of the new nation.
Bengal’s immune system should be spared the challenge of an overload of the communal virus. It is one thing to go through an election that seeks to win its favour; quite another to have a Radcliffe Line of hatred cut through its mind and torment its soul.
Beliaghata 1947, Bangladesh 1971 and the ballot for Bengal 2021 bear witness to its covenants with life unto death.
Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and governor
The foreign ministers of BIMSTEC (the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) met virtually on April 1. That they made time to hold their 17th meeting is good news. They advanced the agenda, which had been arrested by the pandemic, since the last ministerial meeting held in August 2018. Their major task was to pave the way for the next summit, the grouping’s fifth, due to be held in Sri Lanka in the “next few months”.
While most multilateral groupings from G20 to ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) and SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organisation) held their deliberations at the highest political level in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, BIMSTEC leaders failed to do so. In contrast to a meeting of even SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) leaders held at India’s initiative a year ago, BIMSTEC could not arrange its ministerial meeting until April 2021. This is due as much to contextual factors as the diplomatic environment prevailing today.
Established as a grouping of four nations — India, Thailand, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka — through the Bangkok Declaration of 1997 to promote rapid economic development, BIMSTEC was expanded later to include three more countries — Myanmar, Nepal and Bhutan. It moved at a leisurely pace during its first 20 years with only three summits held and a record of modest achievements. But it suddenly received special attention as New Delhi chose to treat it as a more practical instrument for regional cooperation over a faltering SAARC. The BIMSTEC Leaders’ Retreat, followed by their Outreach Summit with the BRICS leaders in Goa in October 2016, drew considerable international limelight to the low-profile regional grouping. This also opened up the path for its rejuvenation.
The fourth leaders’ summit, held in Kathmandu in August 2018, devised an ambitious plan for institutional reform and renewal that would encompass economic and security cooperation. It took the important decision to craft a charter to provide BIMSTEC with a more formal and stronger foundation. The shared goal now is to head towards “a Peaceful, Prosperous and Sustainable Bay of Bengal Region”. At the second swearing-in of the Modi government in May 2019, the leaders of BIMSTEC, not SAARC, were invited as honoured guests. Soon thereafter, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar observed that India saw a mix of “energy, mindset and possibility” in BIMSTEC.
Two and a half years after the Kathmandu Summit, the grouping stands ready to move forward. The foreign ministers cleared the draft for the BIMSTEC charter, recommending its early adoption. They endorsed the rationalisation of sectors and sub-sectors of activity, with each member-state serving as a lead for the assigned areas of special interest. The ministers also conveyed their support for the Master Plan for Transport Connectivity, which will be adopted at the next summit. Preparations have been completed for the signing of three agreements relating to mutual legal assistance in criminal matters, cooperation between diplomatic academies, and the establishment of a technology transfer facility in Colombo.
What has been missing from recent deliberations is a reference to the lack of progress on the trade and economic dossier. A January 2018 study by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry had suggested that BIMSTEC urgently needed a comprehensive Free Trade Agreement to be a real game changer. Ideally it should cover trade in goods, services and investment; promote regulatory harmonisation; adopt policies that develop regional value chains; and eliminate non-tariff barriers. Also lacking was an effort to enthuse and engage the vibrant business communities of these seven countries, and expand their dialogue, interactions and transactions. On this score, BIMSTEC remains a work in progress. Over 20 rounds of negotiations to operationalise the BIMSTEC Free Trade Area Framework Agreement, signed in 2004, are yet to bear fruit.
In contrast, much has been achieved in Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief and security, including counterterrorism, cyber security, and coastal security cooperation. India has led through constant focus and follow-up — to the extent that some member-states have complained about the ‘over-securitisation’ of BIMSTEC. The trick to ensure balance is not to go slow on security but to accelerate the pace of forging solid arrangements for economic cooperation. Similarly, while national business chambers are yet to be optimally engaged with the BIMSTEC project, the academic and strategic community has shown ample enthusiasm through the BIMSTEC Network of Policy Think Tanks and other fora.
The goal now should be to overcome the obstacles leading to BIMSTEC’s success. First, a strong BIMSTEC presupposes cordial and tension-free bilateral relations among all its member-states. This has not been the case, given the trajectory of India-Nepal, India-Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh-Myanmar ties in recent years. Second, uncertainties over SAARC hovers, complicating matters. Both Kathmandu and Colombo want the SAARC summit revived, even as they cooperate within BIMSTEC, with diluted zeal. Third, China’s decisive intrusion in the South-Southeast Asian space has cast dark shadows. A renowned Bangladeshi scholar argued at a recent conference that BIMSTEC would make progress if China is accepted as its principal interlocutor and partner. This perspective has hardly any takers in India and its friendly partners in the grouping. Finally, the military coup in Myanmar, brutal crackdown of protesters and continuation of popular resistance resulting in a protracted impasse have produced a new set of challenges. Despite them, the BIMSTEC foreign ministers could meet virtually — but will it be as easy for the summit to be held, with the much-maligned Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing in attendance at Colombo?
As BIMSTEC readies itself to celebrate the silver jubilee of its formation next year, it faces a serious challenge: to effect “a paradigm-shift in raising the level of our cooperation and regional integration”, as Mr. Jaishankar said on April 1. The grouping needs to reinvent itself, possibly even rename itself as ‘The Bay of Bengal Community’. It should consider holding regular annual summits. Only then will its leaders convince the region about their strong commitment to the new vision they have for this unique platform linking South Asia and Southeast Asia.
Rajiv Bhatia is Distinguished Fellow, Gateway House and a former Ambassador to Myanmar
The recent visit to India by United States Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry gave an opportunity for both sides to discuss cooperation on climate change and the balance between near-term priorities and long-term targets. U.S. President Joe Biden’s ‘Leaders’ Summit on Climate’ scheduled for April 22-23 will also set the stage for major countries to outline their plans. One thing is clear: Climate action and climate leadership are being increasingly measured against a planetary imperative of emissions reducing to net-zero by 2050. This presents a conundrum for fast-growing developing countries such as India. They need the carbon space to develop but they are also among the most vulnerable countries to climate change. Is there an equitable way to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions for the planet?
Recent debates on whether India should declare a net-zero year or withstand mounting pressure have centred around two alternative strategies. The first is to delegitimise long-term targets. This view proposes focusing on measurable near-term progress, and paints the long-term (the year 2050 and beyond) as too far to be meaningful in terms of progress towards a deeply decarbonised world. The alternative approach argues that without long-term targets, the path to decarbonisation has little certainty.
This polarised debate needs some nuance. Consider the analogy of a retirement plan. It is a must for everyone. However young, we need to start saving now to meet the goals of a financially secure retirement. It would be foolish to not have a retirement plan on the grounds that it is in the distant future, that medical sciences might advance, or that we could consider retirement properly when we are richer in middle age. To only focus on smaller savings in our youth would ignore the compounding effect that actions today have in the long run. Planning for emissions mitigation is similar: The short- and the long-term cannot be delinked.
Ambitious renewable energy targets, improvements in energy efficiency and fast penetration of electric vehicles are among India’s critical low-carbon objectives in the next decade. Yet, rapid advances in these do not substitute for the need to set a clear direction of travel with the aim to reduce emissions to net-zero. Avoiding this choice makes India look like a climate laggard when its actions actually speak louder than the words of many developed countries.
India needs to replan
India should, instead, reframe the net-zero debate from the perspective of the planet and for the prosperity of its people. India had ensured that “climate justice” was inserted in the preamble to the Paris Agreement. As the climate crisis unfolds, climate justice should imply that humanity respects the planetary boundary of permissible greenhouse gases but also ensures that countries assume equitable responsibility based on their past and future emissions. This approach would be different from merely blaming developed countries for historical emissions and, instead, would establish the criteria by which economic advancement and climate responsibility could go hand-in-hand.
We propose a formulation that combines per capita income and aggregate emissions. The World Bank classifies a high-income economy as one with gross national per capita income of $12,536 or more in 2019 prices. Any high-income country should not get more than 15-20 years to achieve net-zero emissions from 2020 onwards. This would imply that the European Union or the United States reach net-zero no later than 2035-40, rather than 2050 as they currently propose. China will enter this income category after 2025, so it should achieve net-zero by 2045, rather than 2060 as it proposes. India is expected to become a high-income economy around 2050, and it should target net-zero close to 2070. As a recent Council on Energy, Environment and Water report (https://bit.ly/2Qm7scN) shows, today’s high-income countries would still have a much longer transition period between peaking emissions and net-zero than India would get.
Issue of aggregrate emissions
However, per capita income cannot be an excuse for inaction in correcting emissions-intensive development pathways. Aggregate emissions also matter. The historical (past century) and future (this century) aggregate emissions of each country not yet in the high-income category should aim to be progressively smaller than those which have achieved high-income status. This approach acknowledges the potential to tap into technological advances and cost reductions and reinforces the need to give a long-term net-zero signal. (This is how India benefited from falling solar costs over the past decade and was able to aim higher for its renewable energy ambitions.) This approach would trigger a rethink about each country’s sustainable development priorities and sectoral pathways — and create the conditions for further innovation and investment in climate-friendly infrastructure, technologies, business models, and lifestyle and behavioural changes. As the suite of mitigation technologies becomes more widely available and cheaper, all countries could achieve net-zero much earlier.
The debate between prioritising only near-term actions versus announcing long-term net-zero goals presents a false binary. Both are needed to establish certainty of action, credibility of promises and create incentives for markets to respond. The real debate should be about climate justice for people and the planet. India would do well to propose alternative formulations that establish equity, differentiate the pace of desired action, and yet be progressive in its ambitions.
Vaibhav Chaturvedi is Fellow and Arunabha Ghosh is CEO, Council on Energy, Environment and Water
As universities and higher education institutions (HEIs) across India prepare to bring students and faculty back on campus, COVID-19 cases are suddenly surging across the nation. More people are being infected and at a faster rate than before. Vaccination roll-out strategies targeting selected groups must be rapidly expanded along with public health efforts to bring normalcy.
In a recent letter to the Prime Minister, the Indian Medical Association has suggested that vaccination be allowed for all people above the age of 18 years. India has one of the highest proportion of young people with co-morbidities, including cancer, diabetes and tuberculosis, in the world. With a large part of COVID-19 deaths in India occurring due to co-morbidities, there is a compelling case for young people in universities and HEIs to be given priority in vaccination.
The case for mass vaccination involving students, faculty and staff in HEIs is not without precedent. Cornell University in the U.S. intends to have a requirement of vaccination for students returning to certain campuses, which not only has a direct positive impact on restoring academic continuity, but also curtails high-risk asymptomatic transmission. On-campus learning transcends conventional didactic approaches by offering experiential learning and co/extra-curricular activities that are impossible to replicate virtually. Some of these will have to be redesigned to follow COVID-19 protocols.
In 2020, while some HEIs initiated digital reforms to ensure academic continuity, many institutions faced impending challenges broadly around two key constraints. Privileged public and private HEIs were able to build the governance and infrastructural capacity for digital transformation to ensure academic continuity, supported by the Ministry of Education through several initiatives. SWAYAM deserves a special mention here. However, low Internet penetration and limited power and technology infrastructure impacted universities and students, particularly in rural India.
Multiple institutions have replicated the physical experience of campuses in the virtual world through pedagogical innovations and using technology to drive social engagement. However, all universities in India may not have the resources required to do so in the online space. In order to meet these challenges, close gaps and give a reasonable holistic academic experience, our public health efforts and vaccination strategies may have to reflect this very critical disparity.
At this stage, one may consider the possibility of resuming university campuses with upgraded infrastructure and COVID-19 protocols, but one must keep in mind two concerns of high-risk exposure and logistical complexities. First, universities host a large number of students, faculty and staff members representing diverse demographic groups. Since the essence of most campuses is to promote social interactions, their ‘normal’ functioning can increase the risk of infection. While the magnitude of risk varies, this is true for campuses with day scholars and fully residential campuses. With such high exposure and cumulatively rising risk of transmissibility, a vaccination strategy that involves them can help curtail the spread and revitalise their learning experience.
Second, reopening campuses will entail complex logistical implementation to ensure health and safety on campus. However, only a handful of institutions have been fortunate to make infrastructure enhancements in the past year. Also, while norms of social distancing and masks can be deployed, sustaining the rigour of adhering to all protocols will be strenuous for some. Compared to corporate organisations where it is easier to deploy such norms and protocols, we must be mindful of the challenges of doing the same for and in universities.
The recent spike in COVID-19 cases upon commencement of physical classes among certain renowned Indian universities reinforces the importance of vaccination prior to reopening. More than 37 million students enrolled in higher education, along with the university faculty and staff, is a number that is feasible for a special vaccination drive to be planned and executed. Since at least three months are needed for two doses and to ensure an effective immune response, the implementation of such a programme for all HEIs must begin by May for timely commencement of on-campus learning this year.
C. Raj Kumar is Vice Chancellor of O.P. Jindal Global University
The SARS-CoV-2 pandemic was declared by the World Health Organization (WHO) on March 11, 2020. The SARS-CoV-2 infection causes COVID-19. Doctors initially did not know how best to treat patients with COVID-19. Thus, in the first few months, clinical care was dominated by opinion, anecdotes and dogma. An example is the hype surrounding hydroxychloroquine as a potential cure for COVID-19. It took a huge global effort to prove that hydroxychloroquine does not benefit COVID-19 patients. One year on, there is still rampant misinformation on cures for COVID-19, with steam inhalation, multivitamins, mineral supplements, and drugs such as ivermectin, and chloroquine, all of which have not been demonstrated to treat COVID-19, still being prescribed.
High-quality evidence that informs best practice for treatments comes from randomised clinical trials. Until these trials produced results, what doctors did was treat symptoms and provide life support. Treatments include oxygen, breathing support in the form of mechanical ventilation in severely ill patients, and supporting other vital organs such as kidneys with dialysis and heart with blood pressure medications. Many COVID-19 patients developed blood clots and were therefore treated with blood thinning medications.
COVID-19 was a clarion call for generating such high-quality evidence at pace, in particular designing trials to test multiple treatments simultaneously with innovative designs such as platform trials and adaptive trials. The RECOVERY trial network in the U.K., the REMAP-CAP trial globally focusing on critically ill patients, and the WHO-led SOLIDARITY trial globally are examples of this approach. RECOVERY demonstrated the lack of benefit with hydroxychroloquine, azithromycin, lopanivir-ritonavir, colchicine and convalescent plasma. REMAP-CAP highlighted harm with use of hydroxychroloquine and lopanivir-ritonavir and demonstrated that there is no benefit with convalescent plasma. SOLIDARITY also highlighted the lack of benefit from many of these drugs, including Remdesivir, an antiviral drug that perhaps shortens the illness duration. It is important that lack of benefit of these drugs reported in well-conducted clinical trials should be translated into clinical practice by healthcare professionals managing COVID-19 patients.
Drugs that work
Let us also consider the drugs that have been proven to benefit COVID-19 patients. We have learnt that corticosteroids (dexamethasone) is effective in COVID-19 patients who need oxygen and in critically ill patients (hydrocortisone). These cheap and universally available drugs have saved thousands of lives. More recently, we have emerging evidence that two interleukin-6 receptor blocking drugs (tocilizumab and sarilumab) benefit COVID-19 patients, including enhanced benefit when used in combination with corticosteroids, particularly in patients with moderate and severe COVID-19. It is important to note the emerging evidence with heparin (a blood thinning medication). Heparin possibly harms critically ill COVID-19 patients whilst potentially benefiting non-critically ill COVID-19 patients. Therefore translating these high-quality evidence into clinical practice by healthcare professionals would involve administering corticosteroids and interleukin-6 receptor blocking drugs when treating COVID-19 patients who are moderate to severely ill as per the WHO clinical criteria. Indiscriminate use of steroids and blood thinners in mildly ill patients with COVID-19 who do not need oxygen or any other organ support must be avoided.
The pandemic continues to exert pressure on healthcare systems. It is important that apart from supportive care (oxygen, ventilatory support), the only drugs shown to reduce mortality are steroids and interleukin-6 receptor blocking drugs. Do not prescribe ineffective treatments to patients with COVID-19.
A.V. Ramanan is Professor of Paediatric Rheumatology, University Hospitals Bristol NHS Foundation Trust, and M. Shankar-Hari is Professor of Critical Care Medicine, Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospital NHS Foundation Trust, London
As India grapples with a vaccine shortage, the Drug Controller General of India has formally approved another vaccine candidate — Sputnik V — under emergency use authorisation. Since January, India’s vaccination strategy has hinged almost entirely on Covishield — the AstraZeneca vaccine — and to a very limited extent, Covaxin. Another significant move by the government is in allowing foreign-made vaccines approved by regulatory agencies in the U.S., the U.K., Europe, Japan or those that find mention in the World Health Organization’s list of approved emergency use vaccines which can avoid conducting a local clinical trial but opt for a parallel bridging trial post-approval. Last year, Pfizer had approached Indian regulators for permission but a sticking point was over this question of the conduct of local trials. It is important to note that bridging trials are critical. A vaccine that is approved in a different country may have untoward effects in another population. Past learnings from the history of drug and vaccine effects across geographies were what necessitated such rules in the first place.
However, India is in a crisis. When it had the opportunity to conduct clinical trials in the right way, in the case of Covaxin and even Covishield, India rushed through its regulatory process. This contributed to the hesitancy surrounding these vaccines. It is still a mystery why India did not plan for enough stocks like the U.K. and the U.S. did. Now, it seems India is taking a cue from these countries by conceding that no country can be entirely ‘atmanirbhar’ in vaccinating its population. While there are several vaccine candidates at various stages of approval that India can choose from, it must not repeat the same mistake of assuming that choice translates into immediate availability. All of the Indian companies that have tied up with foreign vaccine companies are private players. That is, while they may promise vaccines in the millions, it will always be the case that priority will be accorded to the highest global bidders. India must compete to ensure that these doses are available to a large fraction of its adult population in quick time. The pandemic wave seems to have ebbed in the U.S., to some extent, because at least 30% of its adults have got one dose. For India, this job of scaling up was always going to be uphill. Scenes from last year — paucity of hospital beds, ventilators, black marketing of drugs — are now being replayed in worrying proportions. With more vaccines come inevitably more complications associated with adverse events and rare side-effects. This is where India’s pharmacovigilance programme must step up. The easing up on conditions for facilitating more vaccines must be seen as a new beginning.
Emancipation is seldom a linear progression to the finish; the hurdles are many, some entrenched in the mind. The passing of amendments to the Medical Termination of Pregnancy (MTP) Act in India recently is a step forward in recognising the rights of women, but is no giant leap. It does push the envelope way past how far the now antediluvian MTP Act of 1971 went, primarily by allowing the termination of pregnancy beyond 24 weeks if there are foetal anomalies. However, it also sets the decision on the shoulders of a medical board formed by State governments for this specific purpose. The amended Act also allows the termination of pregnancy until 20 weeks based on the opinion of one qualified doctor, an improvement from the consensus between the two doctors clause that was previously required. As per the amendment, unmarried women can also terminate their pregnancy, and by replacing the word ‘husband’ with the word ‘partner’, it, for the first time, takes the dialogue outside the confines of marital relationships that it was trapped in, legally. In a country where statistics put the number of unsafe and illegal abortions done every year at about 800,000, any extension of legal and safe provisions for termination of pregnancy is clearly welcome. Admittedly, in India where sex-selective abortions are performed, the state needs to keep a watchful eye on anything that might allow the sex ratio to nosedive further.
But this law stops short of reimagining an issue at the heart of any debate on abortions — a woman’s agency over reproduction. The key dramatis personae in a decision to keep or abort a foetus are essentially the woman and her gynaecologist; instead, the law envisages the decision to be made by a board of specialists if an abortion is required after 24 weeks. Among the reasons why the amendments were pushed was the laborious process a woman had to undergo in order to get an abortion, sometimes resolved by courts, but often frustrating and leading them to seek solutions surreptitiously, risking their life. This is retrograde, even positioned against a global trend — the laws in over 60 countries allow women to get an abortion on request at any point in the gestation. While old laws sought to protect the life of a woman on the grounds that medical procedures would be unsafe for the mother after a certain gestational limit — usually 12 weeks — medical capability is no longer a limit. Experts swear medical technology has advanced sufficiently to allow safe abortions in secure health-care settings at very advanced stages of the pregnancy too. The amended Act, then, scarcely recognises women’s agency at the centre of it all, and until it does so, through a fundamental change in mindset, measures such as these will count as but small progress on a jagged line.
Vigorous attempts are being made in all civilised countries to reduce the supply of fresh recruits to the army of criminals. In England and the United States the law prohibits the committal of children to prisons while the provision of special institutions for the segregation of juvenile offenders has been widely adopted. The establishment of “Borstal institutions” in Great Britain, it is stated, has tended to bring about a decrease in the jail population. The beneficent influence of the Borstal system on young prisoners, sentenced to imprisonment under the Act providing detention in such an institution, is being appreciated in an increasing measure. In England it is found that 73 per cent of the young fellows sentenced to detention in a Borstal institution and released on licence are permanently reformed. In recent years steps have been taken in this Presidency to collect adolescent offenders in the specially selected jail at Tanjore where they are detained and trained to learn good conduct; and a profession.
Lucknow, April 13: The Prime Minister, Mrs. Indira Gandhi to-day warned that India would not remain a silent spectator to the happenings in Bangla Desh and declared that China’s ‘open support’ to West Pakistan’s military regime against Bangla Desh would not affect the country’s stand on the issue. Mrs. Gandhi’s statements came at a news conference in Rae Bareli during her one-day visit to her constituency, and also at Congress (R) legislators’ meeting at Lucknow, before she left for Dhaka to-night. Mrs. Gandhi said at both places that her Government’s attitude did not depend on that of other countries and added, “we take actions independently”. Addressing the Congress (R) legislators’ meeting the Prime Minister warned that India would not like to remain a silent spectator to what was happening in Bangla Desh. Mrs. Gandhi said that although they should not interfere in the internal matters of other countries, what was happening in East Bengal could not be described as purely the internal affairs of Pakistan. Mrs. Gandhi felt that the developments in East Bengal might have their effect in other parts of the country. The people residing in East Bengal and India had blood relations and it was but natural to Indians to have their sympathies with the people of East Bengal.