Producers of entertainment content, especially stand-up comedians, are increasingly becoming the target of legal action. To take just two examples, while Kunal Kamra is facing contempt proceedings for remarks about the Supreme Court, fellow comedian Munawar Faruqui had to spend more than a month in jail on vague charges before getting bail. Are Indians so lacking in humour that their first response to a joke is to take offence and then file a case? In a discussion moderated byG. Sampath, Agrima Joshua and Arti Raghavan explore this question. Edited excerpts:
All of a sudden comedians seem to be offending everybody’s feelings. What’s going on?
Agrima Joshua:I don’t think this is all of a sudden. The culture of taking offence started right around the time stand-up comedy began picking up an audience on the Internet.
Was this in 2011?
AJ:No, 2015. In 2011, comedy was still happening mostly in clubs. As soon as comedy began reaching out to the masses on YouTube, some mainstream comedians began attracting huge amounts of outrage. So, this culture of outrage and offence has been pretty standard.
What has changed since 2015?
AJ:The comedy scene has evolved. Initially, it was just people coming on stage and talking about their nagging wives, women drivers, and so on. But as a particular art form evolves, you start to explore different topics, the depth and richness of your material increases. Comedians began to have an impact. I remember AIB was able to do a successful campaign on net neutrality. As comedy as an art form began to gain traction, it led to people doing satire, making observations on society, questioning power structures. It was no longer limited to elites in a comedy club. It was picking up a mass audience and creating conversations online, which is why comedy started getting a lot of attention.
Is there something wrong with our laws? There seem to be so many that empower offence-takers.
Arti Raghavan:Yes, the offended members of society are spoilt for choice when it comes to legal provisions they can invoke in an attempt to criminalise creative expression. Under the IPC, there are provisions relating to offending religious sentiments, the criminal defamation law, the obscenity laws, and provisions for statements that amount to public mischief. If the objectionable content is available online, there are also implications under the Information Technology Act.
The problem is that the law affords protection to the prickliest common denominator in society. What’s notable about these laws is that they don’t only prohibit speech that harms vulnerable communities, or speech that reinforces historical prejudices against them, such as homophobic speech. Our speech laws are class agnostic and group agnostic. So, they lend themselves to powerful classes and communities, which may be quick to take offence, to use these laws even if they’re not tangibly harmed and seek prosecution on that basis.
How is offending someone’s ‘sentiments’ a crime when that person is not physically or otherwise materially harmed?
AR:Offending someone’s sentiments is itself recognised as a harm under criminal law. This is unfortunate because the role of art and comedy is often to provoke and to offend. So, it’s unsurprising that content that pushes the envelope has been sought to be criminalised.
How does such weaponisation of the law affect comedians?
AJ:Lots of brands and companies do not want to be associated with an artist who has a political background. I won’t say any comedian has a political background as such, but if you have certain political leanings, or they assume that your jokes do, they immediately tag you as a ‘controversial artist’.
Do you mean any kind of political leaning? What about a pro-government comedian?
AJ:There’s no such thing as a pro-government comedian because the very essence of comedy is to be audacious, to make fun of the people in power. If you are making pro-government jokes, I don’t know how anyone would find them funny.
Is Section 295A applicable only for official religions? Can I say that Sachin Tendulkar is my god and sue someone who has made fun of him, on the grounds that my religious sentiments have been hurt?
AR:There is no restrictive reading in the law as to what qualifies as a religion. It’s not been defined under the IPC. The consequence is that it can be applied to, for instance, a self-proclaimed godman or a cult. While Tendulkar, I hope, is still a stretch, it could apply to situations where it was never meant to really apply, as there is no tight definition as to what could amount to religious feelings, which is what makes this provision so prone to misuse.
AJ:So, can I just declare Fawad Khan as my religion and file an FIR against whoever makes insulting remarks about him?
AR:I’m sure there would be a police officer who may privately agree with you that Fawad is a more godly figure than a lot of other establishment figures or gods. But this hasn’t been tested in a court of law yet.
AJ:I can use the FIR as an intimidation tactic. If somebody makes a meme on Fawad Khan and I don’t like it, I can take a screenshot of that FIR and go like, ‘Buddy, I’ve done this for you. Now delete your tweet.’
AR:I wouldn’t advise it.
Under what provision of law can a comedian be penalised for making ‘anti-national’ jokes?
AR:It’s irresponsible and wrong for a government to be going after ‘anti-national’ content, which is not a legal concept. Often, criticism of the government is elevated to the status of sedition. And that’s what is used to prosecute individuals who criticise the government. Though the ‘anti-national’ label has no legal status, the labeling feeds into the prejudice that’s created against these individuals through the media. This prejudice is eventually leveraged when there is an intention to prosecute them, so that some antipathy is created against these individuals.
There was a time when, say, only rape jokes were taboo. Has the list of subjects one can’t joke about grown over time?
AJ:Are you really saying rape jokes are taboo? Please go through the so-called YouTube comedians and look at the kind of content they make. India is very okay with rape jokes, misogynistic jokes, casteist jokes, jokes that make fun of marginalised people. The limits to the topics that people can joke about have always been there. But they are only there to protect the already powerful. Tomorrow, they’ll say you can’t make jokes on Adani-Ambani also.
If something occurs to me as really funny, I will joke about it – it’s as simple as that. If I was a Delhi guy with an ex that I obsessed about, and I wanted to write jokes only about her, I would do that, because that was something I would think about all the time. But that’s not what I think about all the time. When I wake up, I see the news a lot. What I see seems ridiculous to me, and I write about it. It’s not that you sit with an agenda that I must make a joke on the establishment.
Is not having a sense of humour one of the eligibility criteria to become a lawyer or judge?
AR:As a lawyer, I should perhaps attempt a defence here, but I have to agree that the legal community in India takes itself too seriously. I don’t know if you’ve had the misfortune of actually being in a courtroom, because what passes off as courtroom banter will just bear out the point that you made: lawyers and judges lack a sense of humour.
Indian society in general lacks a sense of humour. But why this is a uniquely problematic aspect of the legal community is that it is instrumental in shaping and giving effect to the laws that protect freedom of speech. So, its conservatism has a direct impact on how the law is applied. For instance, obscenity laws adopt a community standard test. The test is whether the material is offensive in the context of contemporary social mores and attitudes. In a country of over 1.3 billion people, determining this standard is impossible. So, what is applied is the social and cultural consciousness of judges and lawyers.
Is our justice system inherently biased in favour of tradition, making for an intangible but real conservative bias?
AR:The legal community clings to tradition. It has very rigid hierarchies, and an almost comical reverence for authority. There was this case where a young woman was jailed for reposting a meme about West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. When she was released on bail, the Supreme Court directed her – remember that this is the stage of bail, when she’s not even been tried or convicted – to issue an apology to the Chief Minister. So, the servility that is so common in this profession manifests itself in the outcomes in courtrooms. Also, when sitting judges of the Supreme Court heap praises on the Prime Minister, referring to him as a ‘versatile genius’ and ‘visionary’, this isn’t the kind of judiciary that’s going to be robust in protecting the acts of citizens who are thumbing their noses at authority. As Agrima said, comedy, at its finest, is audacious. And that’s not a sentiment that finds any currency in the legal community.
AJ:If our freedom fighters had had this much reverence for authority, I don’t think we would have been able to get our freedom. If you have unquestionable reverence for authority, how are you going to fix systems that are broken? The problem with comedy is that because we are seeing things in such comical fashion, because it’s technically comedy, people assume it’s insulting rather than something that is supposed to make you think. So, people automatically assume the worst of us, they assume that we are just trying to offend people. I can write a 2,000-word essay to explain my point. But it won’t be funny, and nobody will listen to that in a comedy show. To convey my point, I have to say it in a funny way. If it is funny, it is going to be a little disrespectful.
In India, many would consider it fair that if you’re going to be disrespectful of authority, there will be consequences.
AR:You see this in contempt proceedings often. You have an institution that unfortunately suffers from a god complex — historically, judgments have had these self-serving, self-promoting notions of the majesty of justice coming from the courts of law, and how the Supreme Court is the temple of justice. A truly democratic institution will leave that to the people to judge and won’t be claiming such titles for itself. But that institutional circumspection and humility hasn’t happened yet.
So is it fair to say India is criminalising comedy?
AJ:Comedy has existed in India in other forms. Long before YouTube and stand-up, there used to be Haasya Kavi Sammelans, which are satirical poetry gatherings. I would encourage everybody who has a problem with stand-up comedy to check out the works of these Hindi poets. Surender Sharma, for example. They make allusions to gods and goddesses, to mythology. They use religion as an allegory to comment on inequalities. So I really want to know why we keep isolating stand-up comedy as something evil and immoral when this form of satire has existed for such a long time.
There’s no such thing as a pro-government comedian because the very essence of comedy is to make fun of the people in power.
The recent judgment of the Supreme Court that refused to review its earlier verdict on the Shaheen Bagh protest is inseparable from its political context. The verdict of October 7, 2020 declared that there is no absolute right to protest, and it could be subjected to the orders of the authority regarding the place and time. Apart from thinking about the legal and constitutional issues, it can also lead to a discourse on the moral authority of the top court in dealing with such fundamental questions related to freedom.
Protests, a political challenge
Both the judgments came out at the time of ongoing street agitations. Protest “at anytime and anywhere” has not been as simple as conceived in the judgments. The agitations against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) and the farm laws also brought out the immense agony and hardship that the protesters had to face. In the anti-farm laws struggle, they experienced suffering over almost the entire winter for a cause which they believe as one that concerns the whole nation. They had to pay a heavy price for their convictions. Many were subjected to malicious prosecution by the state on serious charges of sedition and terrorist activities. Not only the protesters but also their supporters, including comedians and journalists, were not spared. All freedoms under Article 19 of the Constitution, from freedom of expression to that of peaceful association, were seriously impaired.
Even today, many languish in jail for the offence of dissent and the more serious offence of ‘andolan’. Disha Ravi, a 22-year-old climate activist, was booked recently for ‘conspiracy against the government’. Such arrests continue because the protests are a political challenge to the existing regime, a theme which the Court did not even address with contextual details.
A problematic ‘balancing’
There is a more significant question that a citizen could pose against the Court’s pronouncements on the Shaheen Bagh protest. The agitations on the street became an imperative because the issues were not subjected to a timely judicial examination. The subject matter of almost all the major protests which have happened recently in India, be it over ‘economic reservation’, the CAA or the farms laws, involved legal and constitutional issues requiring immediate and effective adjudication in terms of their constitutional validity. The top court could not exercise its constitutional role and ensure judicial scrutiny on an aggrandising executive and an equally imposing Parliament by exercising its counter-majoritarian function. Having failed to do so, the kind of ‘balancing’ which the Court now tries to attain by way of the Shaheen Bagh orders will pose more questions than it answers.
In the original judgment on Shaheen Bagh, the Court attempted to “mediate” the issue and admitted in the judgment that it “did not produce any solution”. The Court’s duty during the testing times is to adjudicate, and not to mediate. A reconciliatory approach is not a substitute for juridical assertion. The review petition provided the Supreme Court an opportunity to revisit its earlier folly where it merely acted as a judicial extension of the executive. It could have taken empirical lessons from a political situation that was almost proximate to an internal Emergency.
Constitutional morality is a philosophy that should primarily apply to the constitutional courts. Dr. B.R. Ambedkar used this idea in terms of institutions and not of individuals. Had there been a timely adjudication of the validity of the laws which was questioned by the process recognised by the law, the torment on the street could have been probably reduced.
Think fair and effective
A fair and effective adjudicative mechanism in constitutional matters can meaningfully sublimate the agitation on the street. Studies have shown that social movements could be less radical and less oppositional when the issues could be effectively sorted out by way of fair litigative means. Sociologist Luke Martell was of the opinion that the radical green movement in Britain has been at a slower pace when compared with other parts of western Europe, because the “public enquiry system” in the United Kingdom could “process ecological demands, integrate them into the political system and minimise radicalisation of the movement arising out of exclusion and marginalisation”. The principle can have application across the constitutional democracies.
The textbook theory of “balancing” the right to protest and the right to move along the road does not need any reiteration in the constitutional climate of the present day. When fear is the new normal for the average Indian, the Court’s only role is to act as the guardian of the right to dissent.
In the review petition, the petitioners rightly apprehended that the observations in the earlier judgment against the indefinite occupation of public space “may prove to be a license in the hands of the police to commit atrocities on legitimate voice of protest”. The Court, by its present rejection of the plea, has reinforced an illiberal state’s intimidating stand during another unjust political situation. Its affirmation of the earlier view is not merely insensitive or surreal. It illustrates an instance of “abusive judicial review”, as described by David Landau and Rosalind Dixon, where the Court not only refuses to act as the umpire of democracy but aids the executive in fulfilling its strategies. In the process, it legitimises very many illegitimate state actions.
State’s intrusion is a worry
In the 2020 verdict,the Supreme Court has also failed to properly appreciate and contextualise the earlier Constitution Bench judgment inHimat Lal K. Shah vs Commissioner of Police(1972) even after referring to it. It is the state’s intrusion into the realm of rights that should worry the Court. InHimat Lal K. Shah, the Court said that the rule framed by the Ahmedabad Police Commissioner conferred arbitrary power on the police officers in the matter of public meetings and, therefore, was liable to be struck down. Justice Kuttyil Kurien Mathew, inHimat Lal K. Shah, explained that “freedom of assembly is an essential element of a democratic system” and that “the public streets are the ‘natural’ places for expression of opinion and dissemination of ideas”.
In the review petition, it was not the cause alone that was tried. It was also the Court.
Kaleeswaram Raj is a lawyer at the Supreme Court of India
In a rare exercise last week, the Government of India tabled the Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order (Amendment) Bill 2021 that seeks to give effect to a long-standing political demand to group seven Scheduled Caste subsects in Tamil Nadu under the heritage name ‘Devendrakula Velalar’ (DKV). The subsects include Devendrakulathan, Kadaiyan (excluding the coastal areas of Tirunelveli, Thoothukudi, Ramanathapuram, Pudukottai, Thanjavur, Tiruvarur and Nagapattinam districts), Kalladi, Kudumban, Pallan, Pannadi and Vathiriyan. These subsects have a predominant presence in south Tamil Nadu, which is a communally sensitive region.
Caste-based political parties and organisations, spearheading the demand, feel that shedding individual Dalit caste tags would help in the social advancement of the community. Their argument is that existing caste names were being used more in a derogatory sense to belittle the community. The DKVs, they insist, were prosperous wetland owners, and not oppressed sections, socially or economically. Besides, these seven Scheduled Caste subsects share similarities, culturally.
The demand for such grouping has its genesis in latter day British India when these subsects were included under the Scheduled Castes on the basis of their economic conditions. However, the voices remained feeble for long, only gaining traction in the 1990s with the emergence of influential community leaders such as K. Krishnasamy (founder, Puthiya Tamilagam) and John Pandian (founder, Tamizhaga Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam). Caste clashes between the Mukkulathors, an Other Backward Classes (OBC) community, and the Pallars, in the latter half of 1990s over the naming of districts and transport corporations after community leaders, led to a community consolidation.
By the turn of the millennium, the community leaders placed an unusual additional demand — to delist the seven subsects from the Scheduled Castes arguing that being in the Schedule, instead of being a facilitator, served as a detriment to social advancement. This was at a time when some OBC communities were vociferous in wanting to be socially devalued and included among the Most Backward Classes.
A political risk
Mr. Krishnasamy, as MLA, periodically raised the twin demands of grouping and exclusion from the Scheduled Castes list. Mainstream parties were cognisant of these demands but treaded cautiously given the sensitivity of the subject and the dissent among sections of the subsects over the ‘delisting’ proposal. Delisting and shuffling of castes from one reserved social class to another was fraught with political and administrative risks. It could not only disturb the internal sharing of the communal reservation quota pool by existing castes, but also invite objections from other communities or spur political demands for similar reclassification.
In February 2011, Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) responding to an appeal from senior Congress leader S. Peter Alphonse, constituted a one-man committee headed by Justice M.S. Janarthanam (retd.) to examine the grouping of the seven sub-castes. A change in regime in May 2011 halted progress.
However, in 2015 the issue drew national attention when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leadership, sensing a political opportunity to consolidate a vote bank in Tamil Nadu, a State where it has minimal presence, threw its weight behind the demand. As per Census 2011, the seven subsects constitute about 17.07% of the Scheduled Castes. In the southern districts, the concentration of their population in many constituencies would be far greater.
Amit Shah, then BJP president, along with S. Gurumurthy, co-convener of the Swadeshi Jagran Manch, at a public meeting organised by M. Thangaraj of the Thevendrar Thannaarva Arakkattalai, endorsed the demand. Mr. Krishnasamy, suspicious of Mr. Shah’s intent then, has since veered toward the BJP. Mr. Shah took it forward by arranging a meeting between a delegation led by Mr. Thangaraj and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who instantly offered support if the State government submitted a report.
Steps to a review
But State Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami’s All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) government was wary of being seen as hasty. It set up a committee headed by S. Sumathi, Professor of Anthropology, University of Madras, to study the issue. Her report, “Devendrakula Velalar – Cultural and Social Patterns of Seven Sub-Communities”, was not made public, but it favoured a grouping of the subsects.
To win over the Puthiya Tamilagam ahead of the last parliamentary elections, Mr. Palaniswami constituted a committee headed by Hans Raj Verma, IAS, to make recommendations on the demand. Significantly, the government had eliminated the Vathiriyan caste from the purview of the panel as there was opposition from the community to being classified under DKV.
With pressure from Mr. Krishnasamy mounting and the AIADMK fearing an erosion of its traditional support base of Mukkulathors due to the sidelining of the close aide of former Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, V.K. Sasikala, who belongs to the community, Mr. Palaniswami decided to act. In the midst of electioneering in December 2020, he announced that he would write to the Centre to classify the seven subsects (including Vathiriyan) as DKV following the Verma panel recommendation.
Picking up the gauntlet
The Centre lost no time and tabled the Bill in Parliament just a day before Mr. Modi visited Chennai on February 14, where he sought to personally connect with the community by saying, “Devendra rhymes with my own name Narendra.”
While community leaders see the Bill as a ‘crescent’, they still insist on the fulfilment of the second demand of exclusion from the Scheduled Castes for a ‘full moon’ to rise. However, there has been opposition from within. A section of Pallars and other castes is apprehensive of losing the benefit of Scheduled Castes reservation, which is essential for access to higher education and government job opportunities.
While electorally, the AIADMK-BJP alliance could now aim to consolidate the DKV vote bank, like any caste issue, it has its share of trouble. Apart from the resistance from the Vathiriyans, who even moved court challenging the demand for grouping, there is an undercurrent of resentment from within the Vellalar community, an influential OBC segment, to the assignment of the DKV title. The traditional Vellalars are spread across Tamil Nadu under sub-groups such as Kongu Vellalar, Thuluva Vellalar, Saiva Vellalar, Choliya Vellalar, Chera Vellalar and Pandya Vellalar.
Claiming entitlement for the exclusive use of the ‘Vellalar’ title, they see the demand for use of the same title by the Dalit subsects as “identity theft” and “cultural misappropriation”. They claim that the use of the ‘Vellalar’ title by the subsects was a modern day inclusion by community leaders and not a historic practice. They have no objection to the social advancement of the seven subsects including their demand to be delisted from the Scheduled Castes. The Vellalars suggest that the subsects could be grouped under the title ‘Devendrakulathars’ or ‘Devendrakulars’, but not ‘Vellalar’; an electoral fallout cannot be ruled out.
In fact, some Vellalar representatives have argued that in the parliamentary elections, the AIADMK-BJP alliance was hurt in Vellalar-dominated western region, its traditional stronghold, due to their backing of the DKV classification demand. They claim that Mr. Palaniswami, a Kongu Vellala Gounder, was unable to consolidate the community’s support. However, considering the anti-Modi sentiments prevalent then and in the absence of psephological evidence, it would be hard to judge if the community voted against the ruling alliance over the issue of using the Vellalar title.
Among the Dalits too, opinion is divided on the grouping of subsects under a common title. There are apprehensions that over time, this could trigger arguments as to which of the larger groups is numerically stronger, thereby clouding the larger Dalit cause. This section argues that Dalits as such cannot be treated as a homogeneous group considering the differences within in terms of social status and geographical identity.
Whatever the outcome of the current move, it is indeed unique for a community to have placed social advancement as priority to be delisted from the Scheduled Castes forgoing the concessions it offers. Also, this would be a precedent for using anthropological study for social grouping in Tamil Nadu. Politically, though, this would remain a trapeze walk.
As COVID-19 upends our lives, a more persistent crisis demands urgent action on a global scale. Three environmental crises — climate change; nature loss; and the pollution of air, soil and water — add up to a planetary emergency that will cause far more pain than COVID-19 in the long-term.
For years, scientists have detailed how humanity is degrading nature. Yet the actions governments, financial institutions, businesses and individuals are taking fall short of what is needed to protect current and future generations from a hothouse Earth, beset by mass species extinctions and poisonous air and water.
In 2020, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) announced that, despite a dip in greenhouse gas emissions caused by the pandemic, the world is still headed for global warming of more than 3°C this century. This month, the Dasgupta Review reminded us of what UNEP has long warned: the per capita stock of natural capital (the resources and services nature provides to humanity) has fallen by 40% in just over two decades. We already know that a staggering nine out of 10 people worldwide breathe polluted air.
Towards a sustainable future
Finding answers to such daunting problems is complex. But experts have developed solutions. To guide decision-makers towards the action required, the UN has released the Making Peace with Nature report. The report pulls together all the evidence of environmental decline from major global scientific assessments, with the most advanced ideas on how to reverse it. The result is a blueprint for a sustainable future that can secure human well-being on a healthy planet.
Our environmental, social and economic challenges are interlinked. They must be tackled together. For example, we cannot achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030 if climate change and ecosystem collapse are undermining food and water supplies in the world’s poorest countries. We have no choice but to transform our economies and societies by valuing nature and putting its health at the heart of all our decisions. If we did this, banks and investors would stop financing fossil fuels. Governments would shift trillions of dollars in subsidies to nature-positive farming and clean energy and water. People would prioritise health and well-being over consumption and shrink their environmental footprint.
What must be done?
There are signs of progress, but the problems are escalating faster than our responses. The number of countries promising to work towards net-zero emissions stands at 126. The ask is for all countries to deliver stretched nationally determined contributions ahead of the climate Conference of the Parties (COP) and immediately kickstart the transitions to net-zero. At the climate COP, governments must also finally agree on the rules for a global carbon trading market. The $100 billion that developed countries promised to provide every year to help developing nations cope with the impacts of climate change must finally flow.
The ask is for us is to feed the world without destroying nature, felling forests and emptying our oceans. We can create an amazing economy by moving to circular economic systems that reuse resources, reduce emissions and weed out the chemicals and toxins that are causing millions of premature deaths – all while creating jobs. Addressing our planetary emergency is a whole-of-society effort. But governments must take the lead, starting with a smart and sustainable recovery from the pandemic that invests in the right places. They must create opportunities for future industries that generate prosperity. They must ensure that transitions are fair and equitable, creating jobs for those who lose out. They must give citizens a voice in these far-reaching decisions. This year, we must make peace with nature and, in every subsequent year, we must make sure that this peace lasts.
Inger Andersen is Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme
The latest retail inflation readings should, on the face of it, offer monetary authorities a fair amount of comfort given that the Consumer Price Index (CPI) rose by 4.06% in January, marking a deceleration for a second straight month to a 16-month low. Inflation appears to have cooled after having stayed stubbornly stuck above the Reserve Bank of India’s upper tolerance threshold of 6% for six months through November, helped by an appreciable softening in food prices. Specifically, the Consumer Food Price Index reflected a gain of a mere 1.89% last month as vegetable prices saw a disinflation of 15.8% and cereal prices eased considerably for a second month in the wake ofkharifcrop arrivals. The RBI in its monetary policy statement this month, cited “the bumperkharifcrop, rising prospects of a goodrabiharvest, larger winter arrivals of key vegetables and softer egg and poultry demand on avian flu fears” as factors that augured well for the months ahead. But the central bank was mindful of the risks too, especially with regard to food costs where the latest data had brought to the fore concerns over the prices of pulses and edible oils. While inflation in pulses and products was at 13.4%, that for oils and fats stood at 19.7%. Eggs and meat and fish — two other key sources of protein — both posted double-digit rates of 12.9% and 12.5%, respectively, with price gains in the former barely registering any telling impact from the avian flu outbreak.
Now, with the favourable base effect beginning to wane — inflation moderated by more than 100 basis points in February 2020 to 6.58% before slowing to 5.84% in March — the outlook is far from reassuring. Of particular worry is the trend in input costs for multiple sectors in the real economy, including manufacturing. From automobile manufacturers to builders, rising raw material costs are beginning to force them to pass on the impact to the end consumers, and this at a time when demand is still to gain a firm footing. The latest IHS Markit India Manufacturing Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) points to the sharpest increase in purchasing costs for more than two years as ‘a lingering supply-side squeeze’ fanned inflationary pressures and manufacturers raised their product prices at the fastest pace in over a year. Add to the mix the unrelenting and dizzying climb in transportation fuel prices to newer and newer record highs in recent days and the outlook for inflation becomes distinctly darker. Diesel, the main fuel for freight carriage, has now exceeded Rs. 80 per litre and is bound to feed into prices of almost everything being transported across distances — from fresh produce to intermediate and finished industrial goods. With banks still flush with liquidity, policymakers need to maintain a strict vigil to keep inflation from resurging and posing a threat to macro-economic stability.
The removal of Kiran Bedi as Puducherry’s Lieutenant Governor has provided a sense of relief to the elected government, led by the Congress, in the Union Territory. Her acrimonious relationship with Chief Minister V. Narayanasamy over the last four and a half years, eventually led the Centre to being forced to act against its own nominee to enable smooth administration at a time when the announcement of the Assembly elections is just round the corner. Despite her laying emphasis on sanitation, rejuvenation of waterbodies, and transparency and accountability in the administration, Ms. Bedi ended up, in the eyes of the public, being someone who was disrupting administration. Her many differences with the CM were well known. Be it the suspension of an official over obscenity on social media, the helmet rule for two-wheeler riders, the free rice scheme, the appointment of the State Election Commissioner, the quota for government students in medical admission, or even the manner of release of money from the CM’s Fund, she was caught up in a war of words with the CM instead of being more discreet. She should have shown more restraint as a constitutional functionary and adopted a consensual approach on matters affecting the people directly, even though the Lt. Governor in a Union Territory, as the President’s nominee, enjoys powers superior to those of the CM and the Council of Ministers. Though it was an amusing sight of the CM holding “dharnas”, not once but twice in the last couple of years, the fault was not entirely his own. All along, he regarded the Lt. Governor as a political adversary, with his political activity centred around her. His demand for her ouster grew louder in recent months. It is likely that the Bharatiya Janata Party, which aims to build a base in Puducherry, concluded that her continuation in office in the backdrop of the Assembly elections could prove a political liability.
Her exit comes at a time when Puducherry is in the midst of political instability. The strength of the Congress-led coalition (including the Speaker) is now on a par with that of the Opposition, after four party MLAs, including two Ministers, quit the Assembly since January. On assuming charge as the officiating Lt. Governor on Thursday, Tamilisai Soundararajan, the Telangana Governor, ordered a floor test to be held on February 22. Dr. Soundararajan, who is perceived to be cordial towards political leaders of all hues, is expected to restore some measure of cohesion between Raj Nivas and the rest of the official machinery, irrespective of the outcome of the floor test. Ms. Bedi’s innings in Puducherry should serve as a lesson to those in constitutional positions that however well meaning one’s actions may be, one should not go beyond the mandated role.
Towards the end of the Left Front regime in West Bengal, a CPI(M) leader, Subhas Chakraborty, created a flutter in political circles by publicly participating in a Kali puja. He was asked by the party to distance himself from his statement that he was a “Hindu first and a Communist later”. The Left not only discouraged its leaders and cadres from participating in public religious events, but also referred to communal tensions as “violence between two communities”.
I remember the communal tensions in Murshidabad district in July 2009 that resulted in four deaths. The District Magistrate warned me against visiting the riot-affected areas and threatened to slap cases against me if I did so. That was the first time I saw how the harmonious relationship between Hindus and Muslims in rural Bengal ran deep. Muslims in the riot-affected villages took me to an isolated Hindu household. They stood there guarding the women as the men in the family had all fled.
The Trinamool Congress (TMC) regime also tried to hush up communal flare-ups by referring to them as “minor incidents” till the violence that broke out during the Ram Navami processions in 2018 made it impossible to do so. There had been riots earlier too, triggered by local issues, but after 2018, communal divisions became visible. Riots began to take place at industrial centres where communities had lived together in harmony for centuries.
For journalists covering the TMC, it became evident that the party’s policies such as giving an honorarium to Imams had caused resentment. Years later, the State government announced an honorarium for priests too, to neutralise the negative impact, but the damage had already been done. Similarly, giving money to clubs for organising Durga Puja and allowing COVID-19 relaxations for certain festivals seem to have precipitated the situation.
Today, communal polarisation in West Bengal has become normal in the political discourse. It is not only evident in aggressive sloganeering of ‘Jai Shri Ram’, but also in political campaigning. For instance, when West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee announced her decision to contest from Nandigram in January 2021, BJP leader Suvendu Adhikari said she was relying on 62,000 votes while his party had the support of 2.13 lakh voters. He said at a public meeting that the lotus would bloom by Ram Navami. BJP leaders speak in hushed tones that they will make more political gains if their Rath Yatras (Parivartan Yatras) in all the 294 Assembly constituencies are stopped at any place by the administration or people from any other party.
But amidst the divide, there are also stories of hope. During the Basirhat riots of 2017, 65-year Kartik Ghosh was stabbed. His son, Prabhasish Ghosh, while rushing his father to a hospital in Kolkata, also took Fazlul Islam, another victim, in the same ambulance. While Ghosh died, Islam survived.
Similarly, in the Asansol riots of 2018, Maulana Imdadullah Rashidi urged people from his community to exercise restraint even after the Imam’s 16-year-son was killed in the riots. “I will leave the city if members of the community target the other community,” he said.
Dr. Koman’s report on the indigenous system of medicine has just been published. Dr. Koman is of opinion that all the important medicinal plants have already been investigated by previous workers in the field from the days of Ainslie, that the theory of three humours, on which Ayurveda depends, is out-of-date, that “in vain have I attempted to find any drug or medicine whose reputed marvellous properties are shrouded in mystery or are not already known,” and that no surgical work worth mentioning is done in any of the Ayurvedic dispensaries. He states further that the popular opinion that Ayurvedic methods are cheaper has no foundation on fact, it being his view that “the cost of important compound drugs prepared by vaidyans and hakims, is, in several instances, prohibitive.” Dr. Koman also believes that the practitioners of indigenous medicine confine themselves almost solely to medical cases, practically leaving out of account surgical and obstetrical diseases and diseases of the ear, throat, nose, etc.
President Nixon yesterday [February 17, Washington] held out the threat of unlimited bombing of North Vietnam to protect the dwindling United States military presence in the South from a major Hanoi offensive. Mr. Nixon reaffirmed his readiness to blast communist military with the full might of U.S. air power if necessary to crush any North Vietnamese attempt to pour troops across the demilitarised zone. “I am not going to place any limitation on the use of air power, except of course, to rule out... the use of tactical nuclear weapons,” he told a White House press conference. Mr. Nixon warned that time was running out for Hanoi to negotiate a settlement. But he declined to speculate about the possibility of a South Vietnamese invasion of the North as a follow up to the U.S. backed thrust into Laos. He told reporters in his first press conference since December 10: “I won’t speculate on what South Vietnam may decide to do with regard to a possible incursion into North Vietnam in order to defend their national security.” He emphasised that if South Vietnam’s decision hinged on American co-operation “then of course it could not be undertaken without our approval.”