Editorials - 05-02-2021

Inequalities in remote learning necessitate a creative solution, but a delay is problematic

With the COVID-19 pandemic disrupting the academic year 2020-21, for the first time, students of classes X and XII are set to face Board examinations based on knowledge gained almost entirely from virtual teaching. What are the challenges in conducting the examinations now? Chandra Bhushan Sharma (Professor, School of Education, Indira Gandhi National Open University, New Delhi) and K. Devarajan (former Director of Government Examinations, Tamil Nadu) share their views in a discussion moderated byD. Suresh Kumar. Edited excerpts:

An academic year has almost gone by with students having limited classroom learning. Should the school Board examinations be held now in the paper-and-pen mode?

Chandra Bhushan Sharma:I think this is the right time to revert to the normal process of pen-and-paper tests. We had a new normal and very successfully experimented with online teaching-learning as well as assessment and evaluation. It is time we revert to the default [method]. The population under [the age of] 18 is the least affected by COVID-19. They can fight it. But they cannot fight a situation where they are not allowed to conduct teaching-learning. We are not realising that while we have about one crore people suffering from COVID-19, in India alone, 40 crore children in schools and colleges are not allowed to meet or live their normal lives. This is worse than a pandemic. The teaching-learning [process] should also go back to normal. We had conducted NEET (National Eligibility cum Entrance Test) successfully. I believe it is a good decision to go back and conduct paper-pencil tests at least for Board exams. The rest can be left to schools.

K. Devarajan:I agree that Board examinations cannot be done away with, but the issue is when to conduct them. Most students were not able to connect for online classes. Besides, [most] teachers were not trained and oriented towards the online teaching-learning process. I know that even some private schools in Tamil Nadu were struggling to make teachers teach through the online mode.

So, firstly, we can start the classes and then decide on conducting examinations. Let me illustrate this. Three persons were engaged for a task. The first person had to dig a hole, the second had to drop a seed and the third had to fill the soil. One day, the second person was on leave, but the third person began filling the soil. When asked, he responded that “this is our job”. Similarly, there is a Board and they have to conduct an examination, but they don’t bother whether classes were conducted or not. In my view, first, classes should be conducted for three months. Then, examinations could be conducted for those portions, and later, we can have another examination for the remaining syllabi.

Given that access to quality online education was not uniform across the country due to the urban-rural digital divide, would it be fair to test all class X and XII students through a common Board examination at the State/national level?

CBS:See, I agree that it is not a level playing field. Some students are privileged to have access to modern gadgets and the best teachers. But don’t forget that the more we delay Board exams, the more we are depriving these students of the chance of getting into an institution of higher learning, as well as their teaching-learning time. I quite agree that we are not doing great justice to everyone, but we are left with no other option. Conducting exams will provide a level playing field in the sense that all the children would be writing the same exam.

The Central and State governments took efforts to provide access to content through Swayam Prabha, in which 33 television channels were put into use and in all Indian languages through the Diksha portal. Even radios were used extensively in States like Bihar and Jharkhand. So, it is not that if you did not have access to mobile phones or fast Internet, you were deprived. Whatever could be done during the pandemic has been done. Now, let’s get back and conduct the exams. We have no time left.

KD:Even Tamil Nadu started an educational [TV] channel. But the problem is that not all villages have uninterrupted power connections. Also, some families have a single TV set only, and some parents may not allow children to watch educational programmes as they want to watch other shows. Even if students watch [TV], it [the content] is very difficult to understand. While the governments took great efforts [to launch the channels], the question is, are they effective? We have to first check if students understand the classes, and then conduct the examinations. Otherwise, only privileged students from urban centres will get into higher education institutions. Even now, many students fail in the first year of engineering courses. My point is that you should at least make them study well in schools, cover the full syllabus, and then allow them to join higher education [institutions]. The academic year can be postponed till January. You will lose only six months. Who decided that the academic year should start only in June?

CBS:See, I think Mr. Devarajan and I are on the same page, except that he is insisting that we first conduct classes for three months and then hold the exams. As far as the issue of electricity is concerned, I have been working on technology-augmented education, and for the last 30 years, we have been trying to answer this question. There will always be a difference or a gap between the haves and the have-nots, but we have to manage with that. What I believe is that we should not postpone exams any further. The sooner we bring back the students to normal schools, colleges and classrooms, the better it is. I believe that [the concept of] Board exams is sacrosanct in our country. We want to relax it. Through the National Education Policy 2020, we have relaxed a number of things, and you will witness that in the coming days.

The NCERT did a tremendous job in restructuring the curriculum during a pandemic ... I don’t think our students, who have undergone the revised online curriculum, will be in any way less than a normal batch, except that they have not done the repeat exercises. The U.K. invited students from across the globe, put them in quarantine at their [own] cost and [only] then let them start classes. We can provide such facilitiesas wellandstartour processes.

Could governments at least make Class X Board examinations optional, as these students have never given a Board exam? The CBSE did this a few years ago…

KD:The problem is that internal examinations have not been conducted for Class X students [in most schools]. Actually, they should have at least conducted tests at home and asked the students to send them by post, corrected it and given feedback. In any case, conducting Class X Board examination is not difficult. You can’t rely on internal marks as last time, many private schools [reportedly] fabricated scores, whereas government-school teachers gave real marks. Instead, staggered uniform exams could be conducted.

Is there a need to adopt a separate examination policy this year for students with special needs and those hailing from economically backward regions with limited access to online education?

CBS:You have raised a very important issue. We are so used to looking at school education from a bureaucratic perspective. We do not trust the teachers, we make a policy that is top-heavy, and then ask teachers to follow [it]. Look, we have schools in Arunachal Pradesh, we have schools in remote areas that do not have even a single case of COVID-19. Why did we stop those schools from going ahead with the normal teaching-learning process,[in places] where we had the problem of accessibility of online technologies? This is because we decide on policies from a centralised perspective, either [from that of] Delhi or Chennai, or Patna or Jaipur. We have forgotten that the person at ground zero — the principal of the school, the teacher of the classroom, knows the situation better. I have been talking to teachers from various parts of the country and they have said, “There is not a single [COVID-19] case, I don’t know why my school is closed, and we don’t have access to technology.”

When you make a policy which is top-heavy, which is bureaucratic, which is centralised, you have these problems for a country like India. There is a need to establish a School Education Commission that will look at things from the perspective of schools. This is an issue beyond the COVID-19 pandemic and the Board exams of 2021.

With your experience as an administrator of school education and in conducting Board examinations, what would be your suggestions to make these exams less stressful for students?

KD:The CBSE [could have] conducted a meeting of all [school] Board chairpersons and decided on how to make this examination stress-free through syllabus reduction. But they have not done that. The CBSE is a leading Board. They should have conducted a meeting of other Boards much before announcing the schedule because if even a single Board does not conduct exams and declare results, it would affect admissions to higher education courses. If five or six States do not conduct exams and declare the results, how will you conduct NEET or admissions to the IITs? Secondly, if all Boards decide on staggered syllabus-based exams, students won’t feel the same stress as in writing examinations for the entire portions.

Also, some students may miss the examinations due to personal reasons. So, if an average of two or three examinations is taken, their future will not be affected. There is no point in condensing textbooks. For instance, there is a chapter on electricity with five or six pages, how can you reduce the content to one page? The children will not be able to understand the concept. As an author of textbooks, I would say this will be very difficult.

As an exception, should a scheme of instant supplementary examinations be evolved to give students who fail a second chance this year?

CBS:I completely agree. See, we have made our exams very rigid and that is why we have seen so many [student] suicides. I have been the chairman of the National Institute of Open Schooling (NIOS), where we did it [reforms]. In the NIOS, students can choose the date of the exam. I believe we must do this [for all Boards]. We must hold multiple exams instead of assessing students on the basis of one exam. Why is this not happening? My take on it is that we take bureaucratic decisions about education. Those who take decisions on education have never ... taught [children]. They have no idea what a child is. So, they decide the way they have been trained — like an officer. School education must be managed by those who have been to a class and know students and their mentality.

As for the assessment of students, guidelines should be given to teachers ... Once you tell them “your assessment is sacrosanct, please be honest”, they will do a good job. We have stopped trusting our teachers. And that is why we are in a situation where we have to decide on so many things. Let the classroom teacher be in control of the class and the principal of the school control the school.

We take bureaucratic decisions about education ... School education must be managed by those who know students and their mentality

Chandra Bhushan Sharma

Neither the government nor the urban middle classes have felt a sense of unease over the farmers’ despair

Gifted journalist Ved Mehta, who passed away last month, believed that Gandhi was hard to copy. Writing about Martin Luther King’s struggle against racism in the United States, Mehta wondered if Gandhi could be replicated in that country. Mehta found Gandhi’s standards of ethical conduct far too high for emulation by others. He also thought that Gandhi was lucky not to have been born in Leopold’s Congo or Stalin’s Russia or Hitler’s Germany. Under such regimes, ‘he would have met his death in a purge’, Mehta wrote.

A complex legacy

In the same article, Mehta recalls a dialogue between Gandhi and Nehru during the non-cooperation movement of the 1920s. On hearing about a violent incident in the Chauri Chaura village of Uttar Pradesh, Gandhi decided to withdraw the first all-India movement he had led. Jawaharlal Nehru asked him, ‘Must we train the 300 and odd millions of India in the theory and practice of non-violent action before we (can) move forward?”

Gandhi’s reply was short and unequivocal: ‘Yes.’ Gandhi’s rigour did mellow with age and experience, but some of his tall contemporaries remained sceptical of his strategy of mass mobilisation. Tagore foresaw that Gandhi’s legacy might prove tough to follow in the absence of his leadership.

However, Gandhi’s legacy is complex and evokes some fundamental issues embedded in the theory of peaceful settlement of conflicts. It is useful to visit these issues today when we are in the middle of a mass movement focused on a subject of Gandhi’s deep concern: rural economy. Those in the forefront of this movement are farmers. The questions their protest brings into public attention go well beyond the validity of their apprehensions and doubts. Gandhi is highly relevant to these questions. His legacy for India, and the rest of the modern world, is not confined to the culture of protest. It also involves an interpretation of peace: its logic and the method of inquiry it demands. Can a conflict be peacefully resolved? A satisfactory answer to this question requires that we understand peace more precisely in the context surrounding the present mass protest.

Farmers’ agency

Several scholars, columnists and advisers have argued over the past few weeks that farmers need to be persuaded and their suspicion... about the new laws removed. This is also the state’s line of argument. As for the government, its initial position was that opposition to the new farm laws is based on misunderstanding. The government has maintained the view that the farmers who are agitating are misled and do not represent the farming community as a whole. Among experts, those who support the new farm laws have taken the stand that these laws are necessary for reforming the agricultural sector and such wider reform will eventually benefit farmers. Their protest has been attributed to insufficient dialogue.

Thus, both the government and the supporters of the new laws view farmers as objects of persuasion or guidance. In this jointly held view, the farmers are believed to have no agency of their own. For the government and its expert advisers, an outreach effort is the answer to protests. This idea is similar to the persuasion approach. The term ‘outreach’ reveals its inherent approach: that of spreading the word across the boundary that divides decision-makers and targets of decisions.

Persuasion and inequality

If persuasion is what this conflict requires for resolution, let us examine its nature. Along with mediation, persuasion ranks high among the means of achieving a peaceful resolution in a conflict situation. However, there is a condition attached to the use of persuasion in this context. The condition is that both sides, i.e. the persuaders and the ones to be persuaded will be equal partners in the act. It is not enough to say that during the negotiation they will behave as if they are equal. For persuasion to work, the two sides must be equal to begin with. They must feel equal. If there are mediators, their job is to make each side realise that they are equal. This condition is clearly difficult to apply in the present conflict.

Inequality between farmers and the state has deep historical roots. It is reflected in the rural-urban gap. As a professional community, farmers suffer from the common stereotypes that the urban educated classes carry with regard to villagers. According to these stereotypes, farmers cannot be expected to know their own good — especially the benefits that are somewhat distant — on account of general ignorance and lack of education. The poor spread of education reinforces this stereotypical perception of the farming community as being simple-minded, and therefore prone to being misled.

Education is, in fact, quite crucially responsible for widening the hierarchical divide between the rural and the urban, and for portraying the latter as the engine of change in the former. The view that farmers’ opposition to the new laws is merely a reflection of certain “doubts” which can be removed in the course of further discussion is reminiscent of the stereotype that the villagers are like children who do not understand the complex decisions made to benefit them in the long run. Teachers in India typically conclude their class lecture by asking “Any doubts?” The assumption is that children can only have doubts, but no real questions.

The kind of protest the farmers have launched — and have done their best to sustain — carries unmistakable traces of Gandhi. Indeed, the very idea that a mass protest must remain peaceful is a legacy of Gandhi. His faith in non-violence has an unstated, hidden view of the adversary. While the one who protests is expected to shun violence, the other side must also fulfil an expectation. In Gandhi’s frame, the protester endures great suffering, and thereby arouses the deeper human instincts in the adversary’s heart. To see this as a strange, romantic idea is to miss its moral vision and where it comes from.

Tradition to political use

Gandhi did not invent this vision; he spotted it in tradition and put it to a new, political use. The value system he used and modernised can still be witnessed in certain settings and contexts. For instance, when an irksome neighbour falls ill or meets with an accident, a few people do ask if the family needs help. A similar customary value covers hospitality. Teachers ask children not to take advantage of an injured member of the rival team. Internationally maintained modern norms for warring nations have their origins in similar old ethics sustained by tradition in several cultures. Gandhi used this old value system to develop his ethic of non-violence in oppositional politics. It was rooted in the belief that an adversary has human instincts which can be activated by demonstration of self-inflicted suffering. Gandhi saw the protester’s willingness to endure physical discomfort as a means of awakening the adversary’s saner instincts.

The struggle versus values

The farmers’ struggle and suffering have failed to achieve this psychological goal. Neither the government nor the privileged urban middle classes seem to have felt a sense of unease over the physical suffering the farmers have endured in Delhi’s severe winter. Many among the protesters have lost their lives and their deaths have been ignored. Over the past few decades, a few lakh farmers have committed suicide. Their despair has not moved many in metropolitan centres and other cities. Apparently, India has gone through a sea change in values, both at personal and collective levels. The charade one routinely hears that education must inculcate moral values, overlooks the broader social context and direction of change. It is a romantic idea that education can compensate for psychological losses incurred in the pursuit of lopsided goals. It is hardly surprising that a farmers’ movement is reminding us of the legacy we inherited from Gandhi’s social experimentation.

Krishna Kumar is a former director of the National Council of Educational Research and Training and the author of ‘Education, Conflict and Peace’

India needs to revisit its disease control strategy to ensure a more robust and humane response in similar crises

January 30, 2021 marked one year since India detected its first case of COVID-19 — a student in Kerala who had returned from Wuhan, China.

Analysing the country’s response to the novel coronavirus pandemic so far reveals a mixed bag of successes and failures along with a host of unknowns looming ahead, that urgently need to be addressed to both limit damage due to the pandemic and get back to the path of economic and social recovery.

Till date the country has recorded 1,07,90,183 cases and 1,54,703 deaths due to COVID-19 — the second largest in the world in terms of cases, after the United States, and fourth in terms of deaths.

India versus the world

Official statistics show that India has fared better on rates of infections and deaths than many higher income countries. For example, India’s case fatality ratio on February 3 stood at 1.4% compared to 2.8% in the United Kingdom or 3.1% in South Africa, while India’s deaths per million is 112, compared to 1,362 in the United States, 1,486 in Italy, or 1,831 in Belgium.

However, it has not done so well compared to countries of similar income and demography in South Asia. While India’s case fatalities ratio was lower than Bangladesh (1.5%) and Pakistan (2.1%) it was but significantly higher than Bhutan (0.1%), Nepal (0.7%), the Maldives (0.3%) and Sri Lanka (0.5%). Deaths due to COVID-19 per million population in Bangladesh was 50, Pakistan was 54 and Sri Lanka was just 16, lower than in India.

India’s initial response was marked by political commitment at the highest level, with several steps taken early in screening international travellers, restricting inbound traffic from severely affected countries, and preparing quarantine facilities for those testing positive. However, like with many other countries, India too has not been able to figure out till now what the best way to open its borders to normal travellers is while keeping out those carrying COVID-19 infection, particularly the new more virulent strains.

Lockdown and after

India was also among the few countries to announce a stringent nationwide lockdown much before it had a significant number of cases. The U.K. and the U.S. hesitated to impose a lockdown, costing many lives due to their late response. However, the Indian lockdown was imposed at very short notice without stating the strategy or specific objectives.

To begin with, there was no evidence-based justification provided for such a sudden imposition of the lockdown without any lead time, nor was its purpose clearly communicated to the public. Was the lockdown meant to eliminate the epidemic through contact treatment, isolation and case management? Was the valuable time gained to be used to strengthen the health system and prepare for the expected rise in cases?

Ultimately when India ended up lifting the lockdown, cases were already rising rapidly with confirmed cases per million people going further from 200 on June 9, 2020 to 7,454 on January 1, 2021.

Unfortunately, the lockdown was also marked by excessive dependence on security forces to ensure enforcement of physical distancing measures and quarantine-related restrictions. An unintended offshoot of the lockdown was the large-scale exodus of migrants and families forced to walk hundreds of kilometres back to their homes in the countryside. Dozens died in the exodus, with many in horrific road accidents. There were also deaths due to lack of sufficient food, drinking water and the sheer stress of travelling. Their plight highlighted the lack of a social safety-net for poor Indians both from before as well as during the pandemic.

State-level ownership

In terms of lessons learnt, there are many. First, in the context of the country’s federal structure, no public health response can be successful without ownership at the state level. The lack of consultation with State governments saw many of them implementing COVID-19 response policies hesitantly without much initiative or innovation. This experience has however not prompted any rethink of the top-down approach towards States at the national level.

Second, in all epidemic responses, generation and use of strategic information plays a crucial role. Given India’s global reputation as a software superpower, the pandemic would have been an ideal staging ground for fast-tracking plans to create an integrated digital health information system to improve the efficiency and transparency of the COVID-19 response. The Integrated Disease Surveillance Programme (IDSP), India’s national disease surveillance framework, was not visible throughout the response. While the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) carried out selective sero-surveillance studies in metropolitan areas, these surveys were limited in coverage and periodicity. It is therefore still a matter of guesswork as to what percentage of India’s population have been infected with the virus — an indicator of herd immunity.

Civil society’s role

The response was also marked by a lack of involvement of civil society organisations as partners with state agencies. On earlier occasions such as polio eradication and AIDS response, civil society played an important preventive and promotional role in bringing the infections under control. It goes to the credit of many civil society organisations that they voluntarily stepped into the response and played a meaningful role in providing social support and lobbying with funding organisations such as the Global Fund for AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria (GFATM) to provide social support to affected families.

As India joins the select group of vaccine-producing countries, there is light at the end of the tunnel. With health-care workers, frontline workers, people above 50 and those with underlying health conditions covered by the vaccination programme launched in mid-January 2021, it can be expected that the epidemic would slow down. However, here again the end game strategy for the vaccination programme remains unclear, raising questions about whether its benefits will be sustainable in the long term.

Divide widened

Another critical unknown in India’s COVID-19 response is over its plans to revive the economy and restore livelihoods of millions of people, who are today in danger of starvation and for whom even basic health care has become unaffordable. The pandemic period has exacerbated existing social inequalities and the poor face a ‘lost decade’ ahead, a challenge which needs to be addressed on priority.

There is an urgent need to examine all these critical gaps in the response to the pandemic, whether they occurred through acts of omission or commission. Without such an open inquiry and widespread debate, India will miss yet another chance to learn the right lessons and ensure a more robust, well-thought out and humane response to similar crises in future.

J.V.R. Prasada Rao is a former Health Secretary, Government of India. Amartya Chowdhury is Research Assistant, H.P. Ghosh Research Centre, Bandhan-Konnagar, Kolkata

There are several lessons to be learnt fromthe country’s tortuous politics

In May 2008, Cyclone Nargis struck Myanmar, causing at least 138,000 deaths and displacing 1.5 million people. Surprisingly, the government announced a pre-scheduled referendum on the military-scripted constitution around the same time.

Amid limited communication channels available to reach out to Myanmar generals, there were calls for international military intervention to secure access to relief as the Myanmar military refused to allow foreign aid. It took several rounds of diplomacy from various members of the international community to gain access. This sums up the zeitgeist of Myanmar generals and the dilemma before the international community of isolating a country riven with mass-scale poverty and ethnic strife.

There are indeed some common lessons for the international community to avoid making mistakes made in the past. One, the developments in Myanmar will invariably bring back the old debate around the prudence of sanctions. The coup in Myanmar coincided with the first month of the Biden administration in the U.S., which has promised to bring back the values of democracy and respect for human rights to the core of the U.S. foreign policy. Notwithstanding the western sanctions before 2010, China, Thailand and Singapore were the key trading partners of Myanmar. The present reality is no different. Singapore was reportedly the largest foreign investor in Myanmar in 2020, accounting for 34% of the overall approved investment. Given that the military has been able to economically withstand sanctions by striking deals with Asian countries in the past, sanctions are unlikely to bring any major political change. The limited European trade with Myanmar that started after 2010 benefits the poor — the European Union’s ‘Everything But Arms’ scheme targets the poor in Myanmar’s garment industry. The scheme allows the world’s least-developed countries, such as Myanmar, to export most goods to the EU free of duties.

Two, the old debate around the need for accountability for crimes against humanity will resurface. As political changes got underway in 2010, many generals, such as Than Shwe, who was the de-facto head of Myanmar from 1992 to 2011 and was on the radar of the international community for perpetuating a regime of human rights abuses, quietly vanished from the scene. This bred a culture of impunity. During the 2017 Rohingya crisis, senior military officials brazenly exploited social media to mobilise public support for brutality against Rohingyas.

China’s influence

Three, a critical international player in Myanmar is China. China has appointed specific envoys for Asian affairs, who are de-facto working on Myanmar-related issues since 2013. The international community, particularly the West, has to factor in China’s multi-layered influence on Myanmar.

Four, many international mechanisms comprising Western and Asian countries that were formed to coordinate strategies on Myanmar were disbanded after the 2015 election. That the changes in Myanmar were irreversible was the standard thinking. Relevant actors should be brought on a common platform by reviving past mechanisms.

Five, the expectation that Myanmar will see a nationwide protest against the Tatmadaw after the coup should be examined with the geographical extent of Bamar, Myanmar’s largest ethnic group, who support the National League for Democracy. The minorities in the country form around 35% of the population. In the current scenario, the military will continue to exploit ethnic and religious fault lines. Engagement with domestic stakeholders, including ethnic minorities, especially from the north, should be pursued by the international community.

No one possesses a magic wand of solutions. But there is one consistent lesson, that no change is irreversible, particularly in a context where military leadership scripted the meaning of democracy, and domestic forces and geopolitics continuously fail to deter its actions and impulses to rule.

The author was a member of the UN Secretary-General’s Good offices on Myanmar

The government must not see all criticismas part of a conspiracy against India

India’s unusual response to comments on the ongoing farmers’ protests by some international celebrities comes across as highly sanctimonious. “The temptation of sensationalist social media hashtags and comments, especially when resorted to by celebrities and others, is neither accurate nor responsible,” the Ministry of External Affairs said in a statement. It advised these celebrities to ascertain facts and properly understand the issues at hand “before rushing to comment on such matters”. The response is somewhat supercilious in the immediate context of what singer and performer Rihanna had said in a single tweet. She had asked why the issue was not being talked about more, while drawing attention to a news report on the extraordinary measures taken by the government to put down the farmers’ protests, including the laying of trenches and barricades and banning the Internet. Other international personages who had ventured to talk about the issue included some lawmakers from the U.S. and the U.K. too, but even that did not warrant a formal response from the government. If the MEA statement’s claim that “some vested interest groups” were mobilising international support smacked of paranoia, the fact that a few isolated comments could send the Indian government into a tizzy, and lead to a lengthy riposte, reflects a siege mentality arising from deep insecurity. Whether it is organised dissent within the country, or informal criticism from elsewhere, it sees everything as a conspiracy against itself, a design on the country’s unity and the stuff of propaganda.

The registration of a police case after Greta Thunberg, the teenaged Swedish climate change activist, shared a protesters’ ‘toolkit’ on Twitter, has added another twist to this unedifying demonstration of touchiness. Many Indian celebrities, from the fields of cinema and sports, joined issue with Rihanna to state their case against what they saw as external interference. Many of them professed their desire to keep the country together and voiced their disapproval of ‘propaganda’. The larger issue, of course, is something the government itself has drawn attention to. What is the limit to the claim that a problem is a country’s internal matter and something those outside its borders are not entitled to comment upon? Given India’s recent comment voicing concern over the military takeover in Myanmar or the attack on Capitol Hill in the U.S., and its oft-expressed views on developments in neighbouring countries, it requires no iteration that some issues that have a bearing on human rights, survival of democracy and international relations do tend to invite comment. It is not as if only the farmers’ protests have got traction overseas. The best way for the government to avoid international criticism is not to allow more people to see it as authoritarian, disrespectful of rights, and given to attempts to undermine institutions of democracy.

While provocative posts have no place on any platform, free speech should not be hit

The Government’s notice to Twitter after it reinstated several handles that mentioned a controversial hashtag, which the former wanted blocked, marks a critical point in an already uneasy relationship between a powerful government and an influential technology platform. A showdown seems inevitable now, what with the Government threatening Twitter with penal action for not complying with its orders. The issue pertains to tweets put out by some handles on the ongoing farmer protests as also a hashtag that suggested that a farmer genocide was being planned. The Ministry of Electronics and IT ordered these handles (257 URLs and one hashtag) to be blocked on the grounds that they were spreading dangerous misinformation about the protests. Twitter initially complied with the order but then restored these tweets and handles, which included those of media houses. The Government’s initial order was issued under Section 69A of the Information Technology Act, 2000, under which it can direct an intermediary to block any information for public access “in the interest of sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India, security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States or public order or for preventing incitement to the commission of any cognizable offence relating to above…” This is the same Section under which hundreds of Chinese apps have been banned in recent months.

The world over, technology platforms have enough safeguards to act as intermediaries without being liable for the content that is published. But Twitter’s act of defying the orders as per the law means it is on slippery territory. Though the use of Section 69A has been often criticised for the secrecy surrounding the process, it was upheld by the Supreme Court in the landmarkShreya Singhal vs Union of India(2015). The Court then was satisfied with the safeguards available. The technology platform’s stance may perhaps even lead to a legal challenge to the provisions of the Section. On the other hand, while there are many grounds on which this Government’s handling of the farm protests can be criticised, including its hyper-sensitivity to any criticism, reflected in the FIRs filed against many journalists, it has to be unequivocally said that the hashtag that it wanted blocked was not merely distasteful but seriously problematic, and indefensible on the grounds of freedom of speech. In a very sensitive setting, one that at least at one point was simmering with the potential for large-scale violence, provocation of any kind is unacceptable. What further happens in this face-off will be of interest not just for the two parties but for the governments of the world as well as the platforms of the world.

For a healthy democracy, complex ideas ought to be made accessible to all

The passing of Patna-based social scientist Shaibal Gupta recently got me thinking about the relationship between experts and journalists, which is a complicated one.

Many experts, particularly those in academia, use the word ‘journalistic’ in a rather disapproving way. The implication is that journalism is non-rigorous and lacking in nuances. It is a different matter that good journalists are expected to be, and are, rigorous and attentive to nuance. A more counterproductive approach by many experts is to assume that complex questions cannot be presented in a simple language. Some experts, who are not really rigorous themselves, resort to complicated writing to hide their own inadequacies. Gupta was someone who did not wear his knowledge and wisdom on his sleeve — he was generous with everyone who sought him out, as legions of journalists from all over the world would easily attest.

Intense commitment

In 2002, when I reached Patna as a reporter, he was among the first people I met. Until the last weeks of his life, he remained in touch and was a source of immense wisdom and patience. He wrote forThe Hindueven from his deathbed. What drove him was not fame or attention, but an intense commitment to public communication — that an idea should not merely remain in an academic paper or a book, but must be channelled into public debates.

Gupta never lost an opportunity to meet journalists, and it was never about advancing his own standing as an expert. As his fans from around the world would vouch, he was always humble and modest enough to seek opinions and information from those who met him. “After you have finished your travels, call me,” he would tell reporters who went to cover Bihar. He would take special efforts to connect to the readers of a particular outlet. He could compare Tamil Nadu or Kerala with Bihar to make a point so that his idea is communicated well.

Considering the crisis of expertise in public debates, remembering him is important. While a section of media parades partisans and bigots as experts on one hand, on the other, most experts draw further into isolation.

Gupta did not shy away from offering a comment piece and patiently pressing for its publication. He presented his comments in a gentle and inoffensive manner while speaking and writing. Unlike many seekers of media space, Gupta came across as someone who did it all with a sense of public service.

Legitimate expertise

Expertise on hire that validates vested interests in politics and business delegitimises expertise itself. There is also the danger of media taking state authorities’ opinion as the final word on many issues, particularly in those related to national security. All this has created a vicious knowledge ecosystem that endangers democracy and civil society.

Journalists and experts must have a mutually respectful relationship. Experts must increasingly engage with the public and communicate in the language and idiom of the masses. Their failure or unwillingness to do so significantly adds to the crisis of our time.

The Apollo 14 astronauts have begun an eight and a half hour rest period. Earlier the spacecraft with its crew primed and all systems proclaimed fit for third lunar landing went into orbit around the moon, and while behind the dark side of the moon emerged into an orbit 107 to 313 km high before shifting, four hours later, into a path 17 to 109 km high, the closest approach yet by an Apollo command ship. On Apollos 11 and 12, the lunar ships were released at altitudes above 104 km. Command ship pilot Stuart Roosa to-day [February 4] told Mission Control here [SPACE CENTRE (Houston)], “we’re going to try to get secured for a big day to-morrow.” Then he said: “That’s about it. See you to-morrow.” Roosa and the two who will leave him alone while they land on the moon, Alan Shepard and Edgar Mitchell, were in their fourth revolution around it when they began the rest period. Their landing time is set for 4:16 a.m. E.S.T. (14-46 hrs. I.S.T.) to-morrow [February 5]. The moon landing programme got the “go” signal after a worrisome battery on the lunar lander was checked and found okay and Mission Control told the astronauts “it looks good.” “We’re here,” shouted Shepard as the spacecraft skimmed over the craggy landscape at the low point of the orbit.