Editorials - 11-02-2021

Society needs to be protected from infodemics, to prevent the possibility of a breakdown, interruptions and violence

Cybersecurity focuses on protecting and defending computer systems, networks, and our digital lives from disruption. Nefarious actors use attacks to compromise confidentiality, the integrity and the availability of IT systems for their benefit. Disinformation is, similarly, an attack and compromise of our cognitive being. Nation-state actors, ideological believers, violent extremists, and economically motivated enterprises manipulate the information ecosystem to create social discord, increase polarisation, and in some cases, influence the outcome of an election.

There is a lot of similarity in the strategies, tactics and actions between cybersecurity and disinformation attacks. Cyberattacks are aimed at computer infrastructure while disinformation exploits our inherent cognitive biases and logical fallacies. Cybersecurity attacks are executed using malware, viruses, trojans, botnets, and social engineering. Disinformation attacks use manipulated, miscontextualised, misappropriated information, deep fakes, and cheap fakes. Nefarious actors use both attacks in concert to create more havoc.

Historically, the industry has treated these attacks independently, deployed different countermeasures, and even have separate teams working in silos to protect and defend against these attacks. The lack of coordination between teams leaves a huge gap that is exploited by malicious actors.

Cognitive hacking

Cognitive hacking is a threat from disinformation and computational propaganda. This attack exploits psychological vulnerabilities, perpetuates biases, and eventually compromises logical and critical thinking, giving rise to cognitive dissonance. A cognitive hacking attack attempts to change the target audience’s thoughts and actions, galvanise societies and disrupt harmony using disinformation. It exploits cognitive biases and shapes people by perpetuating their prejudices. The goal is to manipulate the way people perceive reality. The storming of the U.S. Capitol by right-wing groups on January 6, 2021, is a prime example of the effects of cognitive hacking.

The implications of cognitive hacking are more devastating than cyberattacks on critical infrastructure. The damage wrought by disinformation is challenging to repair. Revolutions throughout history have used cognitive hacking techniques to a significant effect to overthrow governments and change society. It is a key tactic to achieve major goals with limited means.

For example, QAnon spread false information claiming that the U.S. 2020 presidential election was fraudulent, and conspiracy theorists (in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Ireland, Cyprus and Belgium) burned down 5G towers because they believed it caused the novel coronavirus pandemic. COVID-19 disinformation campaigns have prevented people from wearing masks, using potentially dangerous alternative cures, and not getting vaccinated, making it even more challenging to contain the virus.

Spreading disinformation

Distributed Denial-of-Service (DDoS) is a well-coordinated cybersecurity attack achieved by flooding IT networks with superfluous requests to connect and overload the system to prevent legitimate requests being fulfilled. Similarly, a well-coordinated disinformation campaign fills broadcast and social channels with so much false information and noise, thus taking out the system’s oxygen and drowning the truth.

The advertisement-centric business modes and attention economy incentivise malicious actors to run a sophisticated disinformation campaign and fill the information channels with noise to drown the truth with unprecedented speed and scale.

Disinformation is used for social engineering threats on a mass scale. Like phishing attacks, to compromise IT systems for data extraction, disinformation campaigns play on emotions, giving cybercriminals another feasible method for scams.

A report (https://bit.ly/3q9Tg3B) released by Neustar International Security Council (NISC) found 48% of cybersecurity professionals regard disinformation as threats, and of the remainder, 49% say that threat is very significant; 91% of the cybersecurity professionals surveyed called for stricter measures on the Internet.

Deep fakes add a whole new level of danger to disinformation campaigns. A few quality and highly targeted disinformation campaigns using deepfakes could widen the divides between peoples in democracies even more and cause unimaginable levels of chaos, with increased levels of violence, damage to property and lives.

Lessons from cybersecurity

Cybersecurity experts have successfully understood and managed the threats posed by viruses, malware, and hackers. IT and Internet systems builders did not think of security till the first set of malicious actors began exploiting security vulnerabilities. The industry learned quickly and invested profoundly in security best practices, making cybersecurity a first design principle. It developed rigorous security frameworks, guidelines, standards, and best practices such as defense-in-depth, threat modelling, secure development lifecycle, and red-team-blue-team (self-attack to find vulnerabilities to fix them) to build cybersecurity resilience. ISACs (Information sharing and analysis centers) and global knowledge base of security bugs, vulnerabilities, threats, adversarial tactics, and techniques are published to improve the security posture of IT systems.

We can learn from decades of experience in the cybersecurity domain to defend, protect and respond, and find effective and practical solutions to counter and intervene in computational propaganda and infodemics. We can develop disinformation defence systems by studying strategy and tactics to understand the identities of malicious actors, their activities, and behaviours from the cybersecurity domain to mitigate disinformation threats. By treating disinformation as a cybersecurity threat we can find effective countermeasures to cognitive hacking.

Defense-in-depth is an information assurance strategy that provides multiple, redundant defensive measures if a security control fails. For example, security firewalls are the first line of defence to fend off threats from external systems. Antivirus systems defend against attacks that got through the firewalls. Regular patching helps eliminate any vulnerabilities from the systems. Smart identity protections and education are essential so that users do not fall victim to social engineering attempts.

We need a defense-in-depth strategy for disinformation. The defense-in-depth model identifies disinformation actors and removes them. Authenticity and provenance solutions can intervene before disinformation gets posted. If the disinformation still gets by, detection solutions using humans and artificial intelligence, internal and external fact-checking can label or remove the content.

Today, the response to disinformation is in silos of each platform with little or no coordination. There is no consistent taxonomy, definitions, policy, norms, and response for disinformation campaigns and actors. This inconsistency enables perpetrators to push the boundaries and move around on platforms to achieve their nefarious goals. A mechanism like ISACs to share the identity, content, context, actions, and behaviours of actors and disinformation across platforms is needed. Information sharing will help disinformation countermeasures to scale better and respond quickly.

Education is key

A critical component of cybersecurity is education. Technology industry, civil society and the government should coordinate to make users aware of cyber threat vectors such as phishing, viruses, and malware. The industry with public-private partnerships must also invest in media literacy efforts to reach out to discerning public. Intervention with media education can make a big difference in understanding context, motivations, and challenging disinformation to reduce damage. The freedom of speech and the freedom of expression are protected rights in most democracies. Balancing the rights of speech with the dangers of disinformation is a challenge for policymakers and regulators. There are laws and regulations for cybersecurity criminals. More than 1,000 entities have signed the Paris Call for Trust and Security in Cyberspace, for stability and security in the information space. Similarly, 52 countries and international bodies have signed the Christchurch Call to Action to eliminate terrorist and violent extremist content online.

The disinformation infodemic requires a concerted and coordinated effort by governments, businesses, non-governmental organisations, and other entities to create standards and implement defences. Taking advantage of the frameworks, norms, and tactics that we have already created for cybersecurity is the optimum way to meet this threat. We must protect our society against these threats or face the real possibility of societal breakdown, business interruption, and violence in the streets.

Ashish Jaiman, a technologist and innovator, is the Director of Technology and Operations for the Customer Security and Trust organisation at Microsoft

Both Asian giants can share prosperity and be independent of each other and of the West

In late January, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar said that while both India and China remained committed to a multipolar world, they should recognise that a “multipolar Asia” was one of its essential constituents. As it moves to becoming the third largest economy in the world, India needs to have a clear-eyed world view and strategy as it makes hard choices. It needs to reject the developing country regional mindset that has hobbled national aims and foreign policy.

The Year End Review of the Ministry of Defence pertinently refers to the “sanctity of our claims in Eastern Ladakh” instead of the term “border” used since 1954, opening space for a settlement. We are now confidently moving out of the predicament that Jawaharlal Nehru placed us in Kashmir, fully integrating it into the Indian Union and consolidating our claim line.

The External Affairs Ministry is also now more forthright. We have a “special and privileged strategic partnership” with Russia, which provides more than three-quarter of India’s military equipment, and a “comprehensive global strategic partnership” with the U.S. despite the United States Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific, 2018, wishing that India sees the U.S. as its preferred partner on security issues. India’s relationship with the U.S.-led Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), where the others are military allies, has rightly been cautious, as U.S. President Joe Biden sees China as a ‘strategic competitor’ rather than a ‘strategic rival’. Realism dictates that India does not need to compromise on its strategic autonomy.

Diplomatic challenge

The foreign policy challenge for India is really two sides of the China conundrum: defining engagement with its neighbour which is consolidating an expanding Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) while remaining involved with the strategic, security and technological concerns of the U.S. located across the vast Pacific Ocean. The U.S. ‘Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments involving the People’s Republic of China’ cautions that U.S. aircraft carriers, symbols of the country’s military hegemony, may not enjoy unquestioned dominance for much longer. Former President Barack Obama’s military pivot to Asia failed to overawe China in the South China Sea and the costs of former President Donald Trump’s trade tariffs were borne by American consumers and companies.

In the financial sphere, there is the real possibility of the Chinese renminbi becoming a global reserve currency or e-yuan becoming the digital payments currency. China is the world’s largest trading economy. It could soon become the world’s largest economy — the Fortune Global 500 list of the world’s largest companies by revenue for the first time contains more companies based in China, including Hong Kong, than in the U.S. The BRI countries are using the renminbi in financial transactions with China, and can be expected to use it in transactions with each other. Even the European Union, smarting under Mr. Trump’s sanctions, created its own cross-border clearing mechanism for trade. China has stitched together an investment agreement with the EU and with most of Asia. Relative attractiveness will determine when the dollar goes the way of the sterling and the guilder. China, facing technological sanctions from the U.S., may well put in the hard work to make this happen soon.

Policy elements

Some form of the EU’s China policy of seeing the emerging superpower as a partner, competitor, and economic rival depending on the policy area in question is going to be the global norm. The EU’s reaching out to China despite misgivings of the U.S. means the West has given up on containing the rise of China. This broad perspective is also reflected in India’s participation in both the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, led by Beijing and Moscow and designed to resist the spread of Western interests, and in the U.S.-led Quad, with its anti-China stance. Within the United Nations, India’s interests have greater congruence with China’s interests rather than the U.S.’s and the EU’s; sharing the COVID-19 vaccine with other countries distinguishes India, and China, from the rest.

The congruence between India and the U.S. lies in the U.S.’s declared strategic objective of promoting an integrated economic development model in the Indo-Pacific as a credible alternative to the BRI, but with a caveat. China opening new opportunities for countries in the Eurasian landmass means that ASEAN will not easily move out of the BRI infrastructure, digital, finance and trade linkages; Sri Lanka is a recent example. The China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank has increased its membership to 100 countries. China is now the second-biggest financial contributor to the UN and has published more high-impact research papers than the U.S. did in 23 out of 30 “hot” research fields and enhancing its ‘soft power’ nearly to levels achieved by the U.S. earlier.

Instead of an alternate development model, India should move the Quad towards supplementing the infrastructure push of the BRI in line with other strategic concerns in the region. For example, developing their scientific, technological capacity and digital economy, based on India’s digital stack and financial resources of other Quad members, will resonate with Asia and Africa.

Policy evolution

Another area where India can play a ‘bridging role’ is global governance whose principles, institutions and structures now have to accommodate other views for issue-based understandings. President Xi Jinping’s “community with shared future for mankind”, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “climate justice” and asking how long India will be excluded from the UN Security Council, challenge the frame of the liberal order without providing specific alternatives. With respect to digital data, the defining issue of the 21st century, India has recently expressed that there must be reciprocity in data sharing, and this is the kind of ‘big idea’ for sharing prosperity that will gain traction with other countries.

India’s recent policies are gaining influence at the expense of China and the West, and both know this trend will accelerate. The steps to a $5 trillion economy, shift to indigenous capital military equipment, and a new Science, Technology and Innovation Policy underline impact, capacity and interests. ASEAN remains keen India re-join its trade pact to balance China. It is being recognised that India’s software development prowess could shape a sustainable post-industrial state different to the U.S. and China model.

As in the historical past, Asia is big enough for both Asian giants to have complementary roles, share prosperity and be independent of each other and of the West.

Mukul Sanwal is a former UN diplomat

The Islam which can co-exist with other religions is the one propagated by the likes of Maulana Wahiduddin Khan

This year’s Padma Awards had some surprises. Among the awardees are two prominent Islamic scholars,viz., Maulana Wahiduddin Khan and Maulana Kalbe Sadiq (posthumously), who have been awarded the Padma Vibhushan and the Padma Bhushan, India’s second and third highest civilian honour/awards, respectively. The nonagenarian scholar, Wahiduddin Khan had earlier been conferred the Padma Bhushan in 2000, and the Rajiv Gandhi National Sadbhavana Award in 2009.

To the extent perception shapes reality, the semiotics of these awards is unmistakable — few would have expected Islamic scholars to be honoured this way. Therefore, it can rightly be surmised that the conferment is as much a recognition of the services of these scholars as the signalling of what the government considers of value in national life.

India’s template for a good Muslim is the same as its template for a good Hindu, Sikh or Christian, etc. Neither is it any different from the Islamic or the universal model of a good person — that he should be a good citizen who enriches society by service, charity, peace and amity. It is from this vantage that Wahiduddin Khan dives into the vast resources of Islamic traditions to bring to the surface its universal human values.

The axiom of Islam as a religion whose very name means peace — particularly that which pervades following the submission to the divine will, by subscribing to the universal morality, to make the world an ever better place — could be borne out only if it reflected in the individual and collective behaviour of Muslims. A religion is only as peaceful as the narratives it spawns and the characters it shapes.

Ideology of peace

Maulana Wahiduddin Khan is among the very few traditional scholars who undertook to weave a narrative of peace for Muslims. He runs the Centre for Peace and Spirituality at New Delhi with the aim of presenting Islam as a complete ideology of peace. He has authored books such asThe Prophet of Peace,The Age of Peace,andIslam and World Peace.

In his system of thought, the defining moment in Muhammad’s prophetic career was the Treaty of Hudaybiyya(CE 628). To put an end to the incessant warfare with his Meccan adversaries, the Prophet entered into a treaty with them which, much to the indignation of his followers, had the appearance of abject capitulation. But he was determined to buy peace irrespective of the cost. The cessation of hostilities brought quick dividends as the resumption of social interaction between the erstwhile foes created avenues for an exchange of ideas in an atmosphere which conduced reflection on Muhammad’s message. Soon, many of his prominent adversaries were to come to his side and a couple of years later, Mecca was won over in what theKorancalls Fatah Mubin (the manifest victory). The hermeneutical pivot in Maulana Wahiduddin Khan’s interpretation of Islam is verse 41:34 of theKoranwhich says, “Good and evil are not equal. Repel evil with what is best, and you will see that the one you had mutual enmity with will turn as if he were a close friend”.

Political narratives

This understanding of Islam flies in the face of the supremacist theology which is at the root of Islamism or Islam as a political ideology. Wahiduddin Khan broke away from Abul A’la Maududi’s theo-fascistic interpretation of Islam as a totalitarian ideology which sought to instil in the Muslim psyche a sense of entitlement for the domination of the world. He made a thorough critique of it, and demonstrated its fallacy, in a tract,The Political Interpretation of Islam.

Muslim political narratives, predicated as they are on a sense of entitlement born of an imperial past, have been brimming with grievances and resentments.

Words of counsel

Wahiduddin Khan rightly identified the victimhood syndrome to be at the root of the politics of confrontation and violence. The psychosis of suspecting an anti-Muslim conspiracy in things as diverse as the American foreign policy and the Indian security concerns could have a deleterious impact on both the Muslim community and the world at large. In his book,Indian Muslims: The Need for a Positive Outlook, he addressed this problem and argued against the penchant for wallowing in victimhood and regaling in confrontation. He counselled his fellow Muslims to focus on moral uplift and socio-economic development, and on seeking the goodwill of their compatriots.

Thus, on all the contentious issues which have shaped the Muslim identity since the mid-1980s, Wahiduddin Khan, swimming against the current of popular opinion, pleaded for sanity, and advised Muslims to eschew the frightening militancy in their discourse. In face of egregious slander, he reaffirmed the state’s jurisdiction to legislate for social reforms in matters pertaining to the Muslim Personal Law. He opposed Khomeini’sfatwaagainst Salman Rushdie. The saidfatwahas since been as good as withdrawn, vindicating the Maulana’s position that it was neither good in religion nor in politics, and a mix of the two was an abomination. He courted vicious calumny when he counselled Muslims to relinquish their claim on the Babri Masjid. Everyone understood that the matter had transcended the technical rights and wrongs of the ordinary situation. But only he had the well-cogitated conviction to tell Muslims to let go of the mosque lest a ferocious maelstrom engulfed them. The Muslim leadership had stretched its stridency to a pitch from where it was impossible to climb down. It could not get off the tiger it was riding, and the rest is history.

Endeavours that must win

In today’s plural, multicultural and secular world, the Islam which can co-exist with other religions is the one propagated by the likes of Maulana Wahiduddin Khan. Its lineage can be traced to the reinterpretation of the Koran done by Sir Syed Ahmad Khan and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad. These two scholars tried to update the interpretational tradition of Islam to make it relevant for the contemporary world. They demonstrated that an underlying unity of essence bound Islam with all other religions, and that their different forms were due to their culture-specific idioms. Maulana Wahiduddin Khan’s endeavours are met with the same cynicism and hostility as his aforementioned predecessors. In due time, he will be similarly vindicated. One can only hope that this happens before it is too late.

Najmul Hoda is an IPS officer. The views expressed are personal

The odds are stacked against the Left-Congress alliancein West Bengal

One of the first major opinion polls conducted in the backdrop of the upcoming West Bengal Assembly elections exhibited a dismal 12% vote share for the pre-poll alliance of the Left parties and Congress. While there is no reason to have blind faith in opinion poll results, there is little doubt that the Left-Congress alliance will become a distant third in the elections. The top two spots would be claimed by the Trinamool Congress (TMC) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), in no particular order.

Duverger’s Law

Duverger’s Law, theorised by French sociologist Maurice Duverger, states that single-ballot plurality-rule elections (such as first-past-the-post) structured within single-member districts tend to favour a two-party system. In the first-past-the-post system, the candidate winning the highest vote share in a constituency becomes the winner. And the electorates often choose candidates who are most likely to win. This mentality of the voters certainly affects the prospect of the third party/alliance. The electorates often care about the overall winnability of the political parties to form the government as well. For example, it is widely believed that many ‘floating’ Left voters of West Bengal voted for the BJP in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

Stanford politicial scientist Gary W. Cox modernised Duverger’s Law and made it more operational in his 2002 book titledMaking Votes Count. Duverger’s Law is criticised by some experts as the first-past-the-post system of voting has no tendency to produce two-party politics outside the U.S. In fact, India is often regarded as an exception to this law at the national level, but not at the district level. In the 2016 West Bengal Assembly elections, the combined vote share of the Left and Congress was 32%; in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, it shrunk to a mere 12%. And if the opinion poll is any sort of indication, Duverger’s Law might affect the poll prospect of the third force in West Bengal. Will the alliance’s vote share increase, or will it shrink further?

While analysing voter behaviour with respect to the previous election, voters can be classified into three groups: Stickers, Switchers, and the Undecided. The last two groups constitute the ‘swing’ voters. While Stickers vote for the same party as in the previous election, the voting pattern of the swing voters can be explained by Game Theory models. Let’s illustrate a situation like West Bengal using a set-up where three major parties/alliances – A, B, C – and ‘Others’ combining the remaining are contesting the election. Let’s suppose the vote shares of each of the top two parties are around the 40% mark. C is poised to get 12% support, and the remaining vote share is attributed to the Others. For each party/alliance, a part of their support comes from swing voters who are open to voting for any other party as well. Although the swing voters might care for the ‘winnability’ of the parties in terms of forming a government, for which more than 50% of the seats are needed, the ‘vote to seat conversion’ is a complicated non-linear mechanism in our electoral system – more so due to the multiparty set-up. Therefore, ‘winnability’ is often a perception, and not quite backed by simple calculations or numbers.

Let’s suppose the voters believe that neither of the top two parties can form a government of their own even if all the swing votes are pooled in their bag, and it is believed that A and B will not form the government together. If both the top parties are eager to resist the other, in the possibility of a hung assembly, an equilibrium maybe obtained if all the swing voters switch to C, provided it is believed to be open to allying with both A and B, if needed, to form a government. This might do wonders for the electoral prospects of C. For example, in 2018, despite winning only 37 seats in the Assembly, H.D. Kumaraswamy could become the Karnataka Chief Minister through an alliance with the Congress, which had 80 seats.

Disadvantage: C

However, in the possibility of a hung assembly, if the electorate believes that the Left-Congress alliance would be reluctant to ally with the TMC or the BJP, the 2018 Karnataka moment is very unlikely to occur for the Left-Congress alliance in 2021 Bengal. The alliance will not get the swing votes of other parties, and a part of its own swing voters might even go to the TMC and/or the BJP. Duverger’s Law would work to shrink the vote share of the alliance further in this case. So, public perception really matters.

Also, if it’s believed that the total swing votes are substantial to take the TMC and/or the BJP beyond the halfway mark, the Left-Congress alliance’s swing voters might be influenced by the ‘bandwagon’, and the alliance’s own vote share might shrink further.

Atanu Biswas is Professor of Statistics, Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata

Neither the state nor doctors have any right to deny a woman a safe abortion

Recently, Argentina’s Congress legalised abortions up to the 14th week of pregnancy. The Indian Parliament too will consider an amendment to our abortion laws this Budget Session but unlike the Argentina law which is touted as being historic, the Medical Termination of Pregnancy (Amendment) Bill, 2020 (MTP Bill), will not translate into greater autonomy for women over their own bodies.

History of the law

The MTP Act of 1971 was framed in the context of reducing the maternal mortality ratio due to unsafe abortions. It allows an unwanted pregnancy to be terminated up to 20 weeks of pregnancy and requires a second doctor’s approval if the pregnancy is beyond 12 weeks. Further, it only allows termination when there is a grave risk to the physical or mental health of the woman or if the pregnancy results from a sex crime such as rape or intercourse with a mentally challenged woman.

Therefore, the law is framed not to respect a woman’s right over her own body but makes it easier for the state to stake its control over her body through legal and medical debates. Suppose a woman has had voluntary sex and she decides, for personal reasons, to end her pregnancy. If she is 24 weeks pregnant, then this would be a criminal offence. So, she moves the court under the condition that the pregnancy was affecting her mental health. However, here the court can refuse her despite the woman’s choice to end it.

In one such case, a State government had argued that there were no grounds for an abortion since the pregnancy was the outcome of a voluntary act and she was “very much aware of the consequence” and the court agreed.

In such circumstances, women usually resort to unsafe methods of abortion. Unsafe abortions are the third largest cause of maternal deaths in India.

The amendment too continues this legacy of hetero-patriarchal population control, which does not give women control over their own bodies. The proposed amendment still requires one doctor to sign off on termination of pregnancies up to 20 weeks old, and two doctors for pregnancies between 20 and 24 weeks old. Thus, it is not based on any request or isn’t at the pregnant person’s will but on a doctor’s opinion.

Personal beliefs

The Bill also mandates the government to set up a medical board in every State and UT. Medical boards can rely on the facts of the case but personal beliefs could impact the medical board’s opinion, which is one of the biggest challenges in having a third-party opinion on a decision which is very personal. For instance, the Madhya Pradesh High Court denied permission for terminating a 26-week-old pregnancy to a 13-year-old rape survivor with the psychiatrist on the medical board arguing against the mental and emotional trauma that the survivor would go through. The psychiatrist stated that while the survivor was “feeling anxiety at times”, she was “not suffering from delusion and hallucination”.

While the current Bill provides that safe abortions can be performed at any stage of the pregnancy in case of foetal “abnormalities,” it fails to consider any other reason such as personal choice, a sudden change in circumstances due to separation from or death of a partner, and domestic violence.

Last, the proposed amendment uses the word “women” throughout, denying access to safe abortion to transgender, intersex and gender diverse persons.

Abortion rights are central to a woman’s autonomy to determine her life’s course. Neither the state nor doctors have any right to deny a woman a safe abortion. Doing so means that women are not being treated properly as adults who are responsible for their own choices.

T. Sumathy aka Thamizhachi Thangapandian is an academic, Tamil poet, an MP (South Chennai constituency), and member of the Standing Committee (Information and Technology)

There must be no room for suspicion that agencies are being used for curbing dissent

Ordinarily, searches and seizures are the legitimate starting point of an investigation, done on the basis of prior information. But the ED’s raids in the office of independent digital news platform NewsClick, and in the residence of its promoter and editor-in-chief, have invited justified condemnation from organisations representing the media. There is every likelihood that this operation is linked to the platform’s in-depth coverage of ongoing protests as well as the various struggles of the people and the grassroot organisations that represent them. Ostensibly arising from an FIR registered by the Delhi police some months ago, the ED is said to be investigating alleged money-laundering to the tune of Rs. 30 crore. Not much is known about the nature of the police case, but the agency is empowered by the Prevention of Money-Laundering Act to investigate if the proceeds of crime related to a ‘predicate offence’ have been laundered. Whether such a primary offence has been established or not, and if so, whether NewsClick is in any way linked to it, is unclear. However, in the light of the manner in which the central agency is wont to enter the scene to investigate both real and imaginary allegations against anyone vocally critical of the government, it is difficult to brush aside the suspicion that the website is being targeted for its coverage of the farmers’ agitation as well as last year’s country-wide protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act.

The present regime’s record is quite dismal when it comes to the obvious use of central agencies such as the CBI, ED, IT and even the NIA, to rein in dissenting voices. It is unfortunate that specialised agencies are allowing themselves to be used as force multipliers in political battles against sections of the Opposition. Amidst claims that there are varying kinds of conspiracies against the government and India, it is no surprise that relentless journalistic focus on protests, which are basically steps taken in pursuit of redress for public grievances, is inviting repressive action. Laws that are serious in nature and ought not to be invoked lightly are being used with abandon against those seen to have invited the establishment’s wrath. This may explain the frequency with which the offence of sedition is being invoked for speeches and writings, while allegations of anti-national activity peddled by those groomed to build such narratives lead to action under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. In other instances, cases of promoting social enmity or outraging religious sentiments are also slapped selectively to ‘discipline’ comedians and script-writers. The Supreme Court’s intervention has protected prominent journalists from arrest for defamation for tweets that turned out to be incorrect. It no more behoves a responsible and responsive government to dismiss criticism of its treatment of dissenters, including journalists who do not agree with it, as motivated or inspired by foreign elements.

Identifying the source of SARS-CoV-2 is important for containing fresh outbreaks

By concluding that a virus leak from a laboratory in China’s Wuhan, where the SARS-CoV-2 virus first emerged, is “extremely unlikely” and did not require further study, a 17-member WHO team and its Chinese counterparts have put to rest conspiracy theories that emerged early during the pandemic. While many scientists had dismissed the lab-origin theory, in mid-February 2020, a group of 27 prominent scientists from outside China “strongly condemned conspiracy theories” in a letter published inThe Lancet. The group said scientists who had analysed virus genome sequence data shared by China and multiple countries could “overwhelmingly conclude” that SARS-CoV-2, like emerging pathogens, had originated in wildlife. Even a year since the letter and after nearly half-a-million genome submissions to a public database, scientists have not found any sign of direct human influence. The WHO team’s investigation now strongly suggests virus origin to a natural reservoir in bats, but unlikely to have been in Wuhan, which is miles from any natural bat habitat. The virus jumping directly from bats to humans is highly unlikely and initial investigation too suggests the role of an intermediary host species. The team has not been able to confirm the intermediary host.

While early data suggest that the virus could have been circulating in Wuhan for weeks before it was identified in the Chinese city, it asserts that there is no evidence of large outbreaks in Wuhan prior to December 2019. Chinese media reported in early 2020 based on unpublished government data of a Hubei resident infected with the novel virus in mid-November. Also, in a report inThe New England Journal of Medicine, scientists from the China CDC found evidence of human-to-human transmission as early as mid-December 2019, which again suggests virus circulation weeks before it was identified in Wuhan. China officially confirmed human-to-human transmission only in mid-January. While the possibility of transmission via frozen food, a theory embraced by Chinese officials, has not been ruled out, the possibility of such a route appears unlikely as instances of live viruses on packaging have been “rare and isolated”. The WHO visit is just the beginning of a long endeavour to uncover the origin of the virus. It will succeed only when scientific investigation is allowed to follow its course without being politicised. As in the case of the SARS outbreak in the 2000s, China again failed to be truly transparent during the SARS-CoV-2 outbreak. It can partially undo the damage done by now being more open and cooperative so that future outbreaks of related coronaviruses can be identified and contained early, if not prevented.

When the Bengal Legislative Council reassembled this afternoon, 2 hours were devoted to the discussion of a resolution commending stoppage of export of rice from India except for surplus remaining after the country's demands had been met. To this there was an amendment substituting “Bengal” for “India”. But attention was confined almost exclusively to the main resolution and the amendment was eventually defeated without division. Mr. Kerr pointed out with regard to the main resolution that the matter was really one for the Government of India and quoted the Central Government’s pronouncement on the subject in December last, which he submitted was in accord with the mover's intention. He added that the Government had no objection to accepting the resolution, but they were not prepared to accept the amendment. Before they could ask for reimposition of provincial prohibition of export they must be able to show that the removal of control last year had disastrous results or that such were likely to follow if control were again imposed now. Mr. Kerr added that the record of discussion would be submitted to the Government for consideration.

The debate was, however, continued with fewer than 15 speakers taking part. Interest in the matter seemed to be dying and the House thinned out considerably. After interval to allow the Muhammeden members time for prayers the House divided and the resolution was carried 63 votes to 31.

The similarity between the palm fringed beaches of Kerala and Goa to-day [Panaji, February 10] landed five Pakistanis and 60 Keralaites in police custody. The Keralaites returning clandestinely from Dubai mistook the moonlit Goa coast to be Kerala and landed at Pernem, the northern-most part of Goa. The mechanised boat ran aground soon after the Keralaites had disembarked and the five member Pakistani crew also got down only to discover in the morning they were in Goa. All the 65 persons have been arrested by the Goa police and the boat seized. On interrogation, the police found each of the Keralites had paid Rs. 300 to the Pakistanis to bring them into India. They left Dubai on January 17.