Editorials - 06-02-2021

February 6 dawns amid extraordinary security arrangements made by the government against a call by protesting farmers to halt national and State highways. Jatin Anand and Anuj Kumar report on the preparations and assess the shifting realities

The capital wears the look of a city fortified and battle-ready. As far as the eyes can see are reams and reams of razor wires, which, as a senior police officer points out, have their origins in the trench warfare of World War I. Metal and concrete barricades and panels of nails fastened by cement to restrict breach by vehicles display the readiness of the state to take on the farmers. The three-hourchakka jam(gridlock) on Saturday announced by a section of protesting farmers on all State and national highways around and beyond Delhi — the first “big event” since a proposed march to Parliament on February 1 was postponed — will be a test of self-discipline for the agitating farmers, and of nerves for security personnel manning veritable fortifications behind metal and concrete walls.

Access to protest sites, for protesters, local residents and journalists alike, is controlled either directly through security personnel, especially at Singhu border, which is regarded as the headquarters of the movement, or indirectly via elongated routes through dirt roads replete with recently dug pits and concrete slabs. The Delhi Police, the Uttar Pradesh Police, commandoes, the Rapid Action Force (RAF) and riot police are on guard.

Internet services are restricted at all three locations, earthmoving equipment is on standby to make “modifications” to the topography of the area as and when required, alongside riot control vehicles. Heavy slabs — longish metal ones placed on large trucks under the Tikri Border metro station, concrete ones topped with iron bar pieces jutting out from the top at the Singhu border, and smaller ones on either side of beds of nails on both the main roads leading to and on the Ghazipur flyover — have been requisitioned.

Over two months since the mostly peaceful protests began, an interlude of a few hours on January 26 witnessed unprecedented violence at several locations, including the Red Fort, during the tractor rally taken out by farmers. The police say it was “a breach of trust” and a deliberate violation of terms related to the rally agreed upon by them and leaders of the farmer unions, and that has necessitated thebandobast(arrangements) this time.

As the ceremonial parade on Rajpath got underway on January 26, the ‘Kisan Gantantra Parade’, too, commenced around 10 a.m. on routes on the peripheries of the capital. However, within a few minutes, reports of farmers aboard their tractors attempting to breach the boundaries began pouring in from all sides.

Water cannons were used and tear gas shells were lobbed to stop the agitating farmers’ advance as tractors driven by men with faces covered rammed into DTC buses meant to demarcate the “permitted” route; men poured out from “private vehicles” to clash with security personnel and damage road dividers at Mukarba Chowk, Nangloi and Singhu border, among other locations.

Soon, tractors and vehicles had breached the route on the UP Link road near the Akshardham Temple and had driven on towards ITO, the arterial junction between Old and Lutyens’ Delhi. Those who were stalled clashed brazenly with police personnel. Some attempted to run them over with their tractors under the mural of a smiling Mahatma Gandhi adorning one side of the old Delhi Police headquarters. One of the protesters died allegedly after his tractor overturned at a high speed.

In the meantime, others, many of them on foot, had reached the Red Fort. As police personnel, a majority of whom had reported for duty almost 18 to 24 hours ago as per the standard protocol preceding Republic Day arrangements, scrambled onto the scene, a mob breached the gates of the 383-year-old fort, rampaging through its vicinity, and oversaw the hurried hoisting of the ‘Nishan Sahib’ flag on one of its poles amid cheers of triumph.

Close to 400 police personnel, including both men and women, were injured, some seriously, during the course of the day. Almost one-fourth of these injuries were reportedly inflicted at the Red Fort. Of these, a sizeable number were suffered as police personnel fell or chose the relative safety of jumping over 15 feet into the dry moat along the periphery of the fort to escape the sticks, batons and other improvised weapons of the mob.

Aftermath and resurrection

The Samyukta Kisan Morcha, an umbrella organisation of 41 farmer unions, alleged that some “anti-social elements” had infiltrated their otherwise peaceful movement. It called off the tractor march as the police administration took stock of its injured personnel and went into a huddle over the way forward at what a police source termed “the highest levels”.

Chaupals(village meetings) andpanchayatswere convened throughout the night across villages in Haryana, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh, and what had happened was discussed at length till noon the next day. We realised we had been betrayed not by our own but by the government,” said Suresh Dhaka, a resident of Haryana.

Two days later, a video of a crying Rakesh Tikait, the national spokesperson of the Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU), followed by his emotional appeal to rural India to join the movement to strengthen it, instilled a new-found resolve among the agitating farmers.

An old saying

There is a saying in western Uttar Pradesh:‘Jat mara tab janiyo jab tehervi ho jaye’(Don’t consider a Jat dead before 13 days have elapsed). On the evening of January 28, the Ghaziabad administration realised its import as Tikait’s emotional outburst reinvigorated the agitation that was seemingly on its last legs at the Ghazipur border. Shaken and demoralised after the violent incidents of January 26, wherein some protesters lost in more ways than one, the farmers had begun to pack their bags, and those who were left were waiting to be detained after being caned.

Rajveer Singh, State vice-president of the BKU, says he had warned the administration that“hum 500 se 5,000 kabhi bhi ho sakte hain”(we could swell within hours), “but that day even we were not sure”. Senior members of the BKU said they had conveyed to officials that they should arrest the protesters withpakke kagaz(proper charges), failing which, they would not vacate the almost 3-km space on the Delhi-Meerut expressway. “Otherwise, our position would have been worse than that of V.M. Singh [of the Rashtriya Kisan Mazdoor Sangathan] and Bhanu [BKU-Bhanu],” said a senior member. While Singh had left the protest site the previous day after blaming Tikait for mismanagement on Republic Day during the tractor rally, Bhanu Pratap Singh of the BKU-Bhanu vacated the protest site at Chilla on the Delhi-Noida border citing the violence.

As images of a teary-eyed Tikait flashed across western Uttar Pradesh after the Additional District Magistrate served him an eviction notice under Section 133 of the CrPC, the Ghaziabad administration started getting inputs about movement of farmers from neighbouring districts.

Police action, that had seemed imminent, was ultimately called off. On January 28, there had been indications: water and electricity supplies were cut off a night before and CCTVs were taken off.

Within hours of the video, Tikait became a national figure and Ghazipur no longer had to play second fiddle to Singhu and Tikri.

With his rival gone, Tikait, who had been saying that a section of farmers had let the movement down on January 26,took no time to embrace Sikh farmers from the Terai belt who were mobilised by V.M. Singh, and declared unflinching support for the community.

With his rustic wit and combative demeanour, Tikait handled both a prying media and impatient farmers with ease, but after January 28, he also shed the pro-BJP image, justifying his place in the coordination committee.

Galvanising fresh recruits not only from villages in western Uttar Pradesh and Haryana, but also from other protest sites in the city, Tikait’s appeal, however, underlined the fact that a peaceful resistance against alleged attempts at besmirching and defaming the movement would be crucial.

“This protest will continue till October-November; we have told the government this categorically and we have enough supplies to last us till then.Jab tak kanoon wapas nahin, tab tak kisan wapas nahin(There will be no farmers’ return home till the laws aren’t taken back),” Tikait announced on February 2. Apart from the tears that turned the ideological protest against the Central government’s farm laws into a fight for the dignity of farmers, Tikait’s allegation that the administration wanted the farmers to be beaten up by a crowd led by a BJP MLA decidedly turned the tide that night. It is not clear whether the BJP MLA from Loni, Nand Kishore Gurjar, was present at the spot — Ghaziabad Police say they are still verifying the charge — but his videos and a letter to the Union Home Minister, wherein he suggested that he and his supporters be allowed to remove the farmers from the protest site, gave BKU enough material to mobilise sympathy.

However, Tikait still needed numbers on the ground. That came after he got a call from Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) president Ajit Singh, followed by a tweet of support from the party’s vice-president, Jayant Chaudhary. Most of the farmers that reached Ghazipur that night were supporters of the RLD from neighbouring areas. However hard BKU leaders try to describe themselves as“arajnaitik” (apolitical), for Jat farmers in western Uttar Pradesh, the BKU and the RLD had been two faces of the same coin, until the BJP started making inroads into the community, particularly after the Muzaffarnagar riots in 2013.

Considered close to senior BJP leader and former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Rajnath Singh, who had supported the BKU in protests during the Congress regime, Tikait had toldThe Hinduin December 2020 that he expected Rajnath Singh to join the talks at a later stage. But that didn’t happen and farmers who supported the BJP in the last two Lok Sabha elections were left without a political cover.

Union Minister Sanjeev Balyan, the sitting MP from Muzaffarnagar, might be an effective polarising figure in the region, but he did not carry enough social or political weight to pull the farmers back from Ghazipur. Locals say the Tikaits are on a first-name basis with the Minister, who is a member of the Baliyankhapwhich Naresh Tikait heads, and yet, he could not force the farmers to return.

Social impact

After 2014, the BJP has tried to build a young, more Hindutva-friendly leadership among Jats. Locals say they were given the patronage of the administration during face-offs with other communities, but the elderly are still loyal to the clan of former Prime Minister Chaudhary Charan Singh, who created a robust social alliance among Jats, Yadavs, Muslims, and Gurjars in the 1970s.

“The farmer, who was free of the communal virus even during the Ayodhya movement, fell prey to it after the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots. There was communalisation of farmers in the region and a particular party benefited from it,” says Sokhendra Sharma, assistant professor in the History department in Digambar Jain Degree College in Baraut. The town saw a huge panchayat of variouskhapslast week.

Dr. Sharma says there has been tremendous social mobilisation throughkhapsafter January 26 as after the emotional appeal by Tikait, youngsters got connected with the protest.

“Before January 26, the impression in the region was that farmers were being misguided like Muslims during the anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act protests. The vernacular frontline media was not playing its part in explaining the clauses of the laws to the public,” says Dr. Sharma. But after January 26, he says, awareness spread through social media and the youth were mobilised quickly throughkhappanchayats.

“Unlike rallies, to which people are brought, here, people come out of their own will,” says Yudhvir Singh, general secretary of the BKU. While in urban areas colleges are key sites for mobilisation of youth, in rural areas, it is the panchayats, he adds. “Panchayats continue to play an important role in peasant mobilisation, irrespective of caste. A large section of protesters at Ghazipur border may be from Jat families; food and other material support is being provided by people of all castes in a village. Even student leaders attend them,” says Dr. Sharma.

On the slow mobilisation in western Uttar Pradesh, Dr. Sharma says that though census figures indicate that around 60% of the population is engaged in farming, the reality is different. “The direct involvement of the population in farming in this region has reduced considerably over the years as after globalisation, the children of farmers migrated to cities doing all kinds of jobs but not farming. Though they are from farming families, they are not aware of the interests of farmers.”

The contentious farm laws have given the youngsters a jolt because, as Rakesh Tikait says, they have put their identity as a farmer at stake. “They were facing issues such as rise in electricity and diesel prices, stray cattle, and non-payment of sugarcane dues, but after the farm laws, they feared that their lands would be taken away by corporates. The apprehensions also brought back those who have agriculture as their secondary source of income.”

“There are clauses that the government would intervene only if there is 50% increase over the previous year’s price in case of non-perishable goods and 100% rise over previous year’s price of perishable goods. It is against both the farmer and the consumer,” says Yudhvir Singh.

Suddenly, old-timers say, youth have begun to realise why the elders used to say never allowdiya aur bati(lamp and wick, the symbol of the erstwhile Bharatiya Jana Sangh, the predecessor of the BJP) to enter villages, as it is a party that keeps traders’ interest first.

Political ambitions

Politically, it is still an open game that depends on Tikait’s political ambitions after the new-found glory. Having bitten the dust on the hustings twice in the past, the seniors in the outfit hold that he is better placed as a farmer leader, with Jayant Chaudhary taking the political charge.

Naresh Tikait, the less combative of the two brothers, understands that hereon, the protest could be termed as a protest of Jat farmers, a label he could ill-afford when the elections in the State are still a year away. Hence, he is not making any statements against the BJP leadership in the region and is telling reporters that Balyan must have his political compulsions, and otherwise, he is with them.

Old-timers in the community do not foresee a profitable alliance between the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the RLD, unless SP chief Akhilesh Yadav concedes west Uttar Pradesh to the RLD. “The Jats still hold a grudge against Mulayam Singh Yadav for betraying the trust of his mentor Charan Singh by not giving his son Ajit Singh his share in the former Prime Minister’s political legacy,” says a senior BKU member. It was seen during the Bulandshahr Sadar bypoll in 2020, where the RLD candidate came a cropper. But those in favour of the alliance cite the Kairana win of 2018.

Response to fortification

Rakesh Tikait describes the turning of protest sites into citadels as a well-thought-out plan on the part of the police and the Centre, as that will only inconvenience people, which the authorities will then use to mobilise the public against farmers.

Already, on WhatsApp groups of residential societies in Ghaziabad, messages that question using the word ‘annadata’(food-provider) for farmers have begun to surface. An argument is being promoted that the so-called ‘food-providers’ get many subsidies.

On Friday evening, the BKU called off thechakka jamproposed for Saturday in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand citing ‘prevailing conditions’ and ongoing agricultural work in the region. Dharmendra Malik, media in-charge of the BKU, said the conditions in the two States are not conducive for the protest. “Now, members of BKU will give a memorandum to district officials in these two States. In the rest of the country, the call for thechakka jamremains as it is,” he said. The outfit has already kept Delhi out of Saturday’s protest. Sources in the BKU say to counter propaganda, it was proposed to keep Delhi-NCR out of the protest, but ultimately, only Delhi was kept out. Tikait says he had inputs that violence could be fomented in Uttar Pradesh by breaking windshields of cars during thechakka jam.

Sources say the BKU is being careful as those who are averse to the farmers’ movement could foment trouble during the protest. “We have already proved that we can mobilise hundreds of people within hours. So, there is no point in pursuing the protest belligerently. We know we are in for a long haul,” said a senior member. In a touch of Gandhigiri, Tikait on Friday also made a flowerbed on the Ghazipur border in response to nails fixed into roads by the Delhi Police. Farmers have been urged to distribute water and food items like groundnuts and jaggery among people who get stuck in the jam.

Music and noise

No movement is complete without music. Every evening, as the sun sets at the Ghazipur border, young Jats assemble around tractors fitted with huge speakers and dance away to artiste Ajay Hooda’s “Modiji thari top kde hum dilli aage”(Modiji, where is your canon? We have reached Delhi). Played in a loop, it is not the Punjabi beats, but the song’s biting lyrics —digital hogi duniya sari, annadata hua bhikari(the world has turned digital but the food provider is reduced to a beggar) — that pointedly capture the anguish of farmers.

However, as the dance began to border on hooliganism and spilt onto the streets, the discipline of the protest has been dented. After a couple of days, senior members of the community had to step in to restore order. “We have to constantly fight the stereotype: I told you they are unruly and can go berserk any time,” said Rajveer Singh. So, on Friday, one could also hear the sound of Mohammed Rafi’s“Aaj mausam bada beimaan hai”emanating from tents.

The curious deference of the judiciary is part of the precariousness of the rights to freedom in India today

Rioting in India’s capital city on a day reserved for the celebration of the Republic, was a new low in unravelling political concord. Within days of that trauma, points of entry into Delhi were barricaded with layers of concrete and steel, interwoven with vicious spools of concertina wire. Some locations had lethal iron nails embedded into the road and trenches dug deep to prevent the ingress of farmers long encamped around the capital city, protesting recent legislation that goes by the title of “agricultural reforms”.

Media clampdown

A few days after the riots, expectations that public resentment would enable the forceful dispersal of protests seemed belied. Active efforts to deter critical reporting were by then under way. Nine senior journalists were charged under the law of sedition, for reporting the ambiguous circumstances of the sole fatality in the riots.

A young freelance journalist was arrested and charged with lacking appropriate media credentials. Even as he was granted bail, in a rare exception to what is becoming the general rule of denial, the Home Ministry decreed that only journalists with press credentials granted by the central government could legitimately report on the farmers’ agitation.

A number of social media pages run by newspapers and websites were blocked by executive order. For media platforms that did not relent, the legal process of securing injunctions began, along with an unsubtle threat that employees of the social media company, Twitter, could face arrest for failure to comply.

The tragedy of a government that remains deaf to the anxieties of a significant section of Indian citizens was transformed into farce, when formidable machines of propaganda were mobilised on February 3, to push back against two inconsequential Twitter posts, by a music artiste from the United States and an environmental campaigner from Sweden.

Imperfections made worse

Events since Republic Day constitute an unprecedented assault on three of the “rights to freedom” granted under Article 19 of the Constitution: free speech, free movement, and peaceful assembly. Like several other Articles in the Fundamental Rights chapter, Article 19 includes anon obstanteclause: notwithstanding all its promises, each of the rights comes with certain conditions attached.

These clauses were in most part inserted by the First Amendment to the Constitution, when the government of a fledgling nation sought to negotiate the fine line between freedom and necessity. It was a manifestly imperfect job of resolving a conundrum that has defied the most determined philosophical inquiries. And those imperfections have been compounded by decades of judicial default and executive caprice.

The Supreme Court has spoken up in its lucid interludes, but often retreated rather than face down obvious abuses. In matters of sedition, the first impulse of the judiciary in the afterglow of the Republic’s emergence, was to strike the law down. Article 13 of the Constitution annulled every law that was inconsistent with the fundamental rights chapter and the Patna High Court was on solid ground when it held the sedition clause in criminal law unconstitutional. A few years later, in a milieu more sensitive to possibilities of disorder, the Supreme Court reinstated the law, but held it applicable only to “activities as would be intended … to create disorder or disturbance of public peace by resort to violence”.

In 2012, the Gujarat High Court upheld this precedent in a matter involving the country’s largest English language newspaper,The Times of India, after sedition charges brought by the Commissioner of Police in Ahmedabad city. It also added that the Constitution protected strong commentary on “measures or acts of the Government, or its agencies, so as to ameliorate the condition of the people or to secure the cancellation or alteration of those acts by lawful means”.

It took the newspaper and three employees, four years to secure full discharge. A luxury by the standards of the judicial system, this is one denied to most independent journalists and smaller media houses, entrapped in the coils of whimsical prosecution by police and other actors anxious to evade public scrutiny.

State’s new weapon

The nine journalists charged after the violence at the Red Fort have been spared arrest, but that possibility will hang heavy over their practice for years, potentially inducing a “play-safe attitude”. The State government in Uttar Pradesh, inattentive to even these niceties, has used arrest as literally the first recourse against critical journalism.

Siddique Kappan, who works with a number of news organisations and is a member of the Kerala Union of Working Journalists, was arrested by the police while on his way to Hathras early in October, to report on the death after alleged sexual assault, of a young girl of the Dalit community. He was charged with sedition and other offences, and the statutes invoked, including the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, could potentially result in indefinite detention.

Angle of religion

Politics of religious offence constitute another clear threat to freedom of speech and expression. The arrest of a stand-up comic, Munawar Faruqui, in Indore, for jokes that he did not crack, represents a particular depth of absurdity. He was denied bail in successive hearings and the Madhya Pradesh High Court was particularly severe in its strictures about an intent which remained unexpressed. He finally was granted bail after over a month in detention, by the Supreme Court.

In deciding the S. Rangarajan versus Jagjivan Ram case in 1989, the Supreme Court declined to embrace a doctrine of censorship. The benchmark for judging the potential for offence had to be a “reasonable” person and not someone of “weak and vacillating” mind. Yet, in the case of the TV serial,Tandav¸whose producers and cast face charges despite multiple apologies, the Court has now chosen to underline the conditional nature of the free speech right. An actor seeking exemption from arrest because he was only a paid professional, was told that he should not “play a role which hurts religious sentiments”.

Another blow

In the matter of regulating the right to freedom of movement, the Supreme Court has encountered unanticipated turbulence. Last year, while hearing a petition seeking the dispersal of protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act in Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh area, the Court ruled that expressions of dissent should take place in “designated places only”.

When called upon to apply the same principle to ongoing farmers’ protests, the Court baulked. A ruling that the protests were unconstitutional would have been the legal basis for a coercive dispersal of the farmers. Hesitant about that, the Court sought to play problem solver, nominating a team of mediators to find the solution the government had set its face against. It did not end well for the parties involved, and least of all, for public perceptions of the integrity of judicial institutions.

Asymmetry in the application of the law, when charges are brought against partisans of the ruling party is another feature, widely commented on. While hearing a recent matter involving hate speech, the Chief Justice of India observed that the Court is trying to discourage litigation under Article 32, which enables any citizen to invoke the writ jurisdiction of the higher judiciary when fundamental rights are threatened. This ambivalence towards an article that B.R. Ambedkar called the “heart and soul of the Constitution”, and the curious judicial deference to the political executive, are central parts of the story of how precarious the rights to freedom are today.

Sukumar Muralidharan teaches at the school of journalism, O.P. Jindal Global University, Sonipat. The views expressed are personal

The Perarivalan case is an example of state agencies sacrificing the lives of those with a ‘peripheral role’ in a conspiracy

Perarivalan has been in prison for almost 30 years for his role in the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi during the 1991 election campaign. At the heart of the injustice being inflicted on Perarivalan is that government agencies have continued to insist on his incarceration despite being unsure of his role. It really is a classic case of state agencies being unable to identify and arrest those at the heart of the conspiracy while sacrificing the lives of those who might have had a peripheral role at worst.

Prolonged injustice

The charges of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) against Perarivalan for terrorist offences under the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act, or TADA, were upheld by the trial court along with the conspiracy to commit murder under the Indian Penal Code (IPC). Over the course of many rounds of litigation, his conviction only for the conspiracy to commit murder under the IPC has been sustained and he has served 30 years as part of his life imprisonment sentence (his death sentence was commuted in February 2014). But that procedural narration does not capture the profound injustice of Perarivalan’s incarceration.

At the core of his conviction is his confession to a police officer, a violent legacy of the TADA that was carried forward under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA). While confessions to a police officer are inadmissible as evidence under the Indian Evidence Act (to protect people from coerced police confessions), terrorism legislations such as TADA and POTA made confessions to the police admissible as long as it was made to an officer not lower than the rank of Superintendent of Police.

A suspect ‘confession’

The CBI’s main weapon against Perarivalan was his confession to V. Thiagarajan (SP, CBI) where he allegedly confessed to his role in procuring a car battery for the main conspirator and purchasing two 9-volt batteries that were used in making the bomb to assassinate Rajiv Gandhi. All of this was damning until Mr. Thiagarajan came out in November 2013 and made the startling revelation that he had not recorded Perarivalan’s ‘confession’ accurately.

In a sworn affidavit filed before the Supreme Court in December 2017, Mr. Thiagarajan stated that he had omitted to record Perarivalan’s statement that he did not know the purpose for which the battery was being procured. It was a glaring omission that completely changed the nature of Perarivalan’s involvement. In effect, Perarivalan was convicted based on a manipulated confession to a police officer.

It is incredible that despite the Supreme Court dropping the TADA charges, his confession which was admissible only due to provisions of the TADA was then used to convict him for IPC offences. Beyond the untenable legal basis of Perarivalan’s conviction, details of the broader investigation into Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination only exacerbates the injustice. Justice M.C. Jain’s Report (Jain Commission Inquiry) to Parliament in March 1998 identified massive gaps in the CBI’s investigation, including lack of clarity on the source and the making of the bomb.

To address these concerns, the CBI constituted the Multi-Disciplinary Monitoring Agency (MDMA) in December 1998 to conduct further investigations into the larger conspiracy and the origins of the human belt bomb used in the assassination. Over two decades, the MDMA has been submitting reports in sealed covers to the TADA Court and Perarivalan has been denied access to these. However, the MDMA has repeatedly stated that Perarivalan and the other accused are not part of these ongoing investigations. In essence, we have a situation where there is an acknowledgment at the highest levels that the origins and the making of the bomb remain unknown, and yet Perarivalan continues to be in prison for purchasing batteries whose use remains a mystery.

Despite all these indications of tenuous connections to the larger conspiracy, Perarivalan and his mother, Arputham, have been on a tireless crusade to end his incarceration. Having served 30 years of life imprisonment for the conspiracy to murder, his effort to get a remission under the Code Of Criminal Procedure was rejected by the Central Government in April 2018.

However, Perarivalan continued to be entitled to have his pardon considered by the Governor of Tamil Nadu under Article 161 of the Constitution. His application for a pardon had been pending with the Governor since December 2015 and under the Constitution, the Governor is bound by the aid and advice of the State government in the exercise of pardon powers.

Meanwhile, the central government employed obfuscation as a strategy to prolong Perarivalan’s incarceration. Having initially maintained that the issue of pardon was solely between the Governor and Perarivalan, the Centre took a constitutionally untenable argument before the Supreme Court in December 2020 that it was the President of India who had the power to consider Perarivalan’s pardon.

Then on January 21, the Centre submitted to the Supreme Court that the Governor would take a decision on Perarivalan’s pardon within a matter of days.

On February 4, the Centre informed the Court that the Governor had finally considered Perarivalan’s pardon and had decided that the President alone had the power to consider such an application. It is a shocking abdication of a constitutional duty and a blatantly unconstitutional manoeuvre to ignore the advice of the State government, which the Governor is constitutionally bound to follow.

Life in jail

Perarivalan was 19 years old when he was imprisoned, and 30 years later is still fighting for his freedom. In those 30 years, he has earned BCA and MCA degrees from the Indira Gandhi National Open University along with completing a whole host of certificate courses involving two wheeler mechanics, managerial skills, nutrition etc. In his book,An Appeal from the Death Row, Perarivalan says the MDMA will ultimately find that he had nothing to do with making the bomb. He then asks us, who can ever give him back his life. We must ask ourselves why Perarivalan continues to be incarcerated when we know that his confession was manipulated, that the government agencies themselves admit not knowing the origins of the bomb, and that Perarivalan is not part of the investigations on the bomb. Is it our fear that releasing Perarivalan would be a collective admission of our failure to successfully investigate the assassination of a former Prime Minister? It is cruel to ask Perarivalan to pay for our failures with his own life.

Anup Surendranath and Trisha Chandran are with Project 39A at National Law University, Delhi. The views expressed are personal

ICMR’s serological survey findings may have relevance for modifying vaccination policy

The results of the ICMR’s third serological survey to ascertain the spread of COVID-19 show that nearly one in five Indians — about 270 million — may have been infected. The headline findings were publicised at a press conference and it will be a while before granular details of the course of the infection — as was known till December — will be made public in a peer-reviewed journal. However, what is known so far is that compared to August — when data for the second serological survey was announced — there has been a three-fold rise in infections. There has also been a five-fold rise (in percentage terms) of the infection in those aged 10-17 years. The third edition also included a serological survey of doctors, nurses and paramedical staff, revealing that nearly 25% — significantly above the national average — had been infected. Compared to reports of city-focused serology surveys in Delhi and mathematical modelling estimates, the ICMR survey-results appear to be more conservative in estimating the true spread. Experts of various hues point to the declining trend in infections since September, and the absence of multiple peaks in coronavirus cases as a pointer to the spread being far wider and speeding up ‘herd immunity’— a state when a significant proportion of people in a locale have been infected, thereby retarding future spread. But it would be wrong to derive comfort from this situation. The ICMR emphasises that the results point to a significant number still potentially vulnerable, underscoring the need to be vaccinated and continuing with distancing and masking up. Also, neither this survey nor any city-wide survey has evaluated how long antibodies persist and if certain virus mutant variants can overcome the protection from antibodies.

Given that vaccines are round the corner for the general public and that no district has been immune from the virus, it is now no longer useful to know that 80% of India is still vulnerable. Rather, such surveys must shift focus to asking more granular questions: should the rise in spread among teenagers and children mean that they be considered for vaccination earlier than scheduled? Should companies accelerate trials to test protection in children? Should the rise in rural India — the survey is designed in a way to sample more villages than urban pockets — mean that they be given vaccines earlier? These and many more questions are no doubt already on the minds of specialist researchers but alongside the vaccination drives, the ICMR and the government health facilities must coordinate with a broader spectrum of specialists to investigate questions that can be used to guide and modify vaccination policy.

India and Japan are important donors, andSri Lanka must try and salvage the ECT deal

The Rajapaksa government’s decision to overturn Sri Lanka’s tripartite agreement to develop Colombo’s East Container Terminal is a setback to India and Japan. The project, worth an estimated $500-$700 million, was a key marker for infrastructure investment in the island nation where Chinese projects are most prominent. More than two-thirds of trans-shipment at this port is tied to India, making it an important trade and connectivity link. Japan has been a keen supporter of Sri Lanka’s growth story, with its loans of about ¥1.1 trillion and grants and technical cooperation of about ¥300 billion. As a joint venture for India and Japan to invest in, the ECT project was also expected to showcase how the two Indo-Pacific partners, and also Quad members, could provide South Asia with viable, transparent and sustainable alternatives for financing and development. The sharp statements from New Delhi and Tokyo now reflect their deep disappointment and their suspicions about the motivations. The ostensible reason for the Rajapaksa government’s decision is growing pressure from port union groups which have opposed any foreign participation, and threatened a “work-to-rule” agitation if ECT operations were handed to the Adani group, as proposed. India has also had some misgivings about whether the Rajapaksa brothers, who became President and Prime Minister in 2019-2020, would in fact honour the commitments made by the previous government, given the acrimony between the two governments. Similar commitments made by former PM Ranil Wickremesinghe during a visit to Delhi when he signed an MoU for developing the Eastern city of Trincomalee through oil and infrastructure projects also appear to have fallen by the wayside. The larger question of a possible Chinese role in the ECT decision also hangs over the decision, given that other terminal projects at the Colombo Port such as the Colombo International Container Terminal, have not faced similar pushback. It is also curious that given its financial difficulties, Sri Lanka felt confident in taking a decision guaranteed to upset such important donors.

New Delhi has said it continues to engage Sri Lanka on the ECT issue, although it remains cold to Colombo’s alternative offer of developing the West Container Terminal. Over the past year, the Modi government has invested much time and resources to India-Sri Lanka ties, including a new credit line, currency swap agreement, and COVID-19 assistance and vaccines. NSA Ajit Doval and EAM S. Jaishankar have visited Colombo more than once, and Mr. Modi has hosted President Gotabaya and Prime Minister Mahinda. India has also set much store by its partnership with Japan, which could be a template for similar projects, as a counter to China’s BRI. There is much at stake for all three countries to derail the partnership. It is in all their interest, but primarily Colombo’s, to find a compromise formula to salvage a deal that has far-reaching consequences for the region.