The 2019 Lok Sabha election in West Bengal is a traumatic memory for Ali Hussain Mansuri, a resident of Barrackpore, about 50 km Kolkata. From a few days after the polls in 2019 till weeks before the Assembly polls of 2021, Mansuri went knocking on the doors of the Bhatpara police station with two complaints: one against the vandalism and looting of his shop and the other against his house being set on fire. In both the complaints, addressed to the officer-in charge of Bhatpara police station, which have been stamped as received, Mansuri mentions “violence anddanga(riot)” in May 2019.
Almost a month after the riots, which erupted on the day the by-polls to the Bhatpara Assembly seat were held in Barrackpore, on May 19, the people of Darba Line returned home under police protection, but Mansuri did not. He chose to live about 500 metres away from his earlier residence near Choti Masjid. Since then, he has been going around distributing copies of the police complaints to whoever he thinks might be able to help him.
The riots killed at least seven and injured dozens of people. The causes of the deaths and violence are contentious and differ depending on which family or political party you speak to. Some attribute it to political violence, others to communal strife. But what is evident is that since then, Barrackpore has emerged as a centre of conflict. It is, like many other places in West Bengal before the polls, a region on edge.
Riots along the banks of the river
Hindus and Muslims, largely Hindi- and Urdu-speaking, have worked in the jute mills along the banks of the Hooghly river in Barrackpore for nearly two centuries. They have survived on meagre wages producing yarns of jute. These areas are dilapidated and the economic distress of the inhabitants conspicuous. But it is not only talk of job loss and lockouts that dominate conversations today, but also the creation of political and communal divisions.
Darba Line, located in the Kankinara Jute Mill complex on the banks of the Hooghly, is a cluster of low-roofed homes. The houses lie on both sides of a lane that is so narrow that two people cannot cross it at the same time. There is fresh paint on the doors and new plaster to hide the vandalism that occurred in May 2019. The people talk in hushed voices while recollecting the harrowing memories of the bloodshed and chaos. They know very well who the masked men were who looted their belongings and set their houses on fire.
Before the turn into Darba Line lies a common bathroom where, under a large iron pipe, mill workers bathe in the open. “Have you ever seen a toilet in the jute mill quarters,” asks Subha Protim Roychowdhury, a civil rights activist. In the Kankinara Jute Mill and the adjoining Reliance Jute Mills, the common toilets for mill workers look identical: they are two-storey structures with handwritten signs in Hindi pointing to separate staircases for men and women. These toilets are rows of compartments not higher than four feet. They have no doors. “In the jute mills, on both sides of the Hooghly, such structures are not uncommon. These common bathing spaces and common toilets are reminiscent of what was once a composite mill culture,” he says.
Roychowdhury lives on the other bank of the Hooghly in similar quarters that witnessed the Telinipara riots in May 2020 in the midst of the COVID-19 lockdown. The riots happened on two days: May 10 and May 12. On May 10, several shops were attacked on Ferry Ghat, largely a Hindu-dominated region. On May 12, people from the community came out in large numbers with weapons alleging that the members of the other community were not maintaining COVID-19 norms. Several houses were attacked and ransacked. Roychowdhury says these riots were manufactured; that rumours regarding the spread of COVID-19 triggered them. Social media was used to heighten the campaign and Internet was suspended for days in parts of Hooghly after the riots.
About 11 km from Telinipara is the Chinsurah Dunlop ground. This is where Prime Minister Narendra Modi landed in a chopper for a large public meeting on February 22, 2021. At the meeting, for which several trees were cut, he accused the Trinamool Congress of appeasement and alleged that Durga Puja was not allowed to be held. He promised the crowd, comprising workers of the jute mills who have been grappling with frequent lockouts and job cuts, of “development for all and appeasement for none” if the Bharatiya Janata Party is voted to power in the State Assembly elections to be held from March 27 to April 29. The crowd burst into applause on hearing this promise.
On the other bank of the river in Barrackpore, Roychowdhury and his associates Sandip Sinha Roy and Bijay Kumar Rajak gathered testimony of those affected by the violence. The outcome is a report by civil rights and research collective group AAMRA and is titled ‘West Bengal: Post Ramnavami Communal Violence; Bhatpara Riot 2018-2020’.
The communal and the political
It is difficult to point out when these fissures started appearing in the social fabric of Barrackpore, but there were instances of communal flare-ups even before the 2019 explosion. The Hazinagar riots of November 2016, triggered by an attack on a Muharram procession, and the unrest following attacks on Ram Navami processions in 2017 and 2018 were alarms that were ignored.
Seven people were killed in the communal riots in 2019 — Ram Babu Shaw, Dharmendra Shaw, Rajesh Shaw, Prabhu Shaw, Lala Chowdhury, Mohammed Mustak and Mohammed Halim. According to the family members of these victims, some of them died in a crude bomb explosion and some were killed in police firing. Three of them, including 17-year-old Ram Babu Shaw, werepuchkasellers (street vendors). All the deaths were reported within a 2-km radius in the Kankinara-Bhatpara area.
While the families of the victims are united in their grief, they are divided in their opinions about political parties. This is because the Trinamool Congress and the BJP leadership have reached out to the families in different ways. Mustak’s son, Parvej, and Halim’s son, Tabrej, got jobs as contractual workers in the West Bengal Fire and Emergency Services Department. For at least three of the five Hindus killed in the violence, the BJP MP from Barrackpore, Arjun Singh, arranged a compensation ofRs. 5 lakh each. Some like Shyamali Devi, Prabhu Shaw’s widow, have failed to meet the criteria of compensation from either side. Shyamali, who has to take care of three daughters after her husband’s death, was appointed as a contract worker in Bhatpara Municipality. But she lost her job and has not got a salary for four months after Singh lost control of the municipality following defection to the BJP.
The violence which started in May 2019 continued to rage for the next 20 months. Activists like Roychowdhury point out that it is becoming difficult to separate the communal from the political. As communal passions subsided, the area was gripped by a bloody feud over area domination, and political murders became a regular affair. While there are definite numbers on how many have been affected in the communal riots, it is difficult to point out exactly how many people have died in the political violence. By some estimates the toll could be more than a dozen.
Even the supporters of the ruling party were not spared. In June 2019, a local Trinamool Congress leader from Nimta, Nirmal Kundu, was shot dead by men on motorbikes. The incident was captured on CCTV cameras. Among the other Trinamool Congress workers killed in the political violence was Akash Prasad in November 2020. Earlier, in September 6, 2020, two people died while allegedly manufacturing crude bombs at Kamarnati in the southern fringes of Barrackpore.
From October 2020, the Barrackpore subdivision was flooded with posters of a young, bearded man, a 35-year-old BJP youth leader. Manish Shukla was gunned down by semi-automatics on October 4, 2020, not even 100 metres from the police outpost in Titagarh. While most political murders have not created much of a ripple except for the customary tweets by political parties, the murder of Shukla, which was again caught on CCTV cameras, shocked the entire State.
But this has become more routine now. In the last week of January 2021, 35-year-old Trinamool Congress worker Rumani Khan was shot dead in Ward Number 18 of Barrackpore. Only a month earlier, on December 12, 2020, Saikat Bhawal, a 28-year-old BJP worker, was beaten to death in Halisahar area of the subdivision. Bhawal was distributing party posters when he was killed. The political strife has not only created divisions across families but also within families. Sagar Bhawal, Saikat Bhawal’s 23-year-old brother, says that while the BJP leadership has offered monetary compensation, a local Trinamool MLA approached his sister-in-law and offered her a job in the Fire Department. “She does not stay with us anymore. We would never have accepted such an offer,” he says. “My brother was the only earning member in the family. After his death there is no one to take care of me and my mother. And now the family too is divided,” he laments.
There is also friction between the Bengali and non-Bengali populations. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee addressed her first political meeting from the Naihati Muncipality building on Ghoshpara Road on May 30, 2019. She had met family members of the supporters of the Trinamool Congress who were driven out of their houses after the polls. “I remember parts of her highly charged speech,” Rajak says, “including her reference to a dialogue from a Mithun Chakraborty blockbuster,‘marbo ekhane(will beat you up here)’”.
Banerjee was enraged after locals had chanted ‘Jai Shri Ram’ at her convoy in Bhatpara area. She vented her anger against the non-Bengali speaking people of the jute mill belt saying that they were indulging in hooliganism while the State was providing them food and shelter.
Defections and cases
Long before defections became commonplace in West Bengal politics, Barrackpore saw Arjun Singh, a four-term Trinamool Congress MLA, defect to the BJP. Singh wanted to contest the Lok Sabha polls from Barrackpore but the party decided to favour Dinesh Trivedi. Singh switched to the BJP and defeated Trivedi by a margin of over 14,000 votes in a contest marked by violence.
Following Singh’s defection, a number of civic bodies slipped out of the Trinamool Congress’s grip, but after a few months, the legislators returned to the ruling party. Political violence in the region has been marked by area domination, capture of party offices, wresting control of civic bodies, and killings.
Singh’s office-cum-residence ‘Majdoor Bhawan’ stands at the intersection of two jute mills, the Meghna Jute Mills and the Auckland Jute Mills, on Ghoshpara Road. By 10 a.m, more than 50 visitors gather at his place. This house was in the news a few days ago when it was attacked by crude bombs. The video was tweeted by the State BJP leadership. The house has been in the news earlier too, with the police conducting frequent raids.
At Majdoor Bhawan, on a winter morning last year, Singh was in a hurry to visit an injured party worker, but still made time to meet the people. “The lockdown has left me with no money. Can you ask my landlord to consider my request,” a woman pleaded. Another visitor wanted him to pressurise his employer so that he could retain his job. Before leaving his office, Singh also chided a party worker who had beaten up a technician. “What will you people do when we come to power,” he asked.
A few days later at Dalhousie, with a smaller group of people at his lawyer’s office, the Barrackpore MP talked about the criminal cases against him. “I may hold the record of having the highest number of cases against me. It had reached 96 at one point, now it has come down to 66,” he said. Emphasising his century-old family connection to the jute mills, Singh said, “Barrackpore was made a prestige fight by Mamata Banerjee. If it was Singur and Nandigram that brought down the Left rule, Barrackpore will be the Waterloo for the Trinamool Congress.”
Communal overtones in campaign
The campaign before the Assembly election has not only got shriller, but the communal overtones too have become more pronounced. At a rally organised on January 9, 2021, at Barrackpore, senior Trinamool Congress leaders including MP Kalyan Banerjee and Municipal Affairs Minister Firhad Hakim raked up the issue of the riots and warned that there could be riots again during the next Ram Navami. The TMC MP went a step further and referred to the Hathras gang-rape in Uttar Pradesh and Sita in one line, triggering outrage on social media.
In mid-February, Singh welcomed Trivedi, his political rival, into the BJP after the latter resigned as a Rajya Sabha MP from the Trinamool Congress. The BJP began making plans for its Rath Yatra (or Parivartan Yatra), which was expected to pass through Ghoshpara Road in Barrackpore.
On February 15, at a well-attended meeting at Naihati, not far from where Banerjee had addressed the 2019 meeting, Trinamool Congress leader Omprakash Mishra referred to the harmonious coexistence of Bengali and non-Bengali-speaking populations of the region. “Fifty per cent of the people here are Hindi speaking and the remaining are Bengali,” he said.
Around the same time, when the political campaign was gathering pace, activists under the banner of the Association for Protection of Democratic Rights, under the leadership of Debasish Paul and Sandip Sinha Roy, rallied about 150-riot affected victims including Mansuri to the office of the Sub Divisional Officer, demanding compensation. While the development brought some hope to Mansuri, who was called by the local authorities to submit his police complaint along with his bank account details, he decided not to return to his old home and handed over the keys of the Darba Line quarter to the jute mill administration.
On February 25, 2021 the BJP president J.P. Nadda visited Mangal Pandey Park in Barrackpore, had lunch at the home of a family of a jute worker at Gouripur Naihati, not far from Gouripur Jute Mill, which has been closed since the late 1990s. He also participated in the conclusion of the Parivartan Yatra.
A few weeks ago, Mansuri reopened his quilt and pillow shop in Kankinara after taking a loan of about Rs. 50,000. While business has started trickling in for the first time since May 2019, fears of a fresh communal flare-up continue to haunt the 64-year-old jute mill worker.
On February 25, Mansuri opened his shop with a lot of hesitation as the Parivartan Yatra was supposed to pass by his shop. Later in the day, he heard from Sandip Sinha Roy that the Parivartan Yatra had been denied permission on Ghoshpara Road because of violence in Kanchrapara further north. Mansuri heaved a sigh of relief and said, “Whatever has to happen will happen. I have opened the shop today. But how can we live in constant fear?”
One year since former United States President Donald Trump spoke about the India-U.S. relationship, and his own relationship with his “true friend” Prime Minister Narendra Modi in glowing terms at the Sardar Patel Stadium in Ahmedabad, much has changed for both countries. The U.S. has changed its leadership, growth prospects for both India and the U.S. — the two countries which have the highest number of coronavirus cases in the world — have dimmed considerably, and even the name of the stadium has changed. The new U.S. President, Joseph Biden, has spent much of his first month in office changing Mr. Trump’s policies, including reversing the U.S.’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, the World Health Organization, the UN Human Rights Council, and cancelling the “Muslim” ban and other immigration policies, among a slew of other domestic measures through executive orders.
The connect this time
It would seem, however, that Mr. Biden is not at present planning to change the course Mr. Trump chose in building closer ties with India, including the push for the Quadrilateral and Indo-Pacific policy. Mr. Biden called Mr. Modi right after he had called all treaty alliance partners, but before he spoke to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or King Salman of Saudi Arabia. There have been calls between the U.S. Defence Secretary and National Security Adviser with their Indian counterparts. There were also two calls between the U.S. Secretary of State. Anthony J. Blinken. and the External Affairs Minister. S. Jaishankar, in addition to a virtual Quad Ministerial meeting that included the Foreign Ministers of Japan and Australia.
Mr. Biden’s Climate Change Envoy John Kerry also appeared on a discussion with Mr. Jaishankar, where he praised India’s efforts on renewable energy and emissions, and charted an ambitious course ahead of the U.S.’s “Earth Day Summit” on April 22 (https://bit.ly/3pZOLHM). The State Department spokesperson also revealed plans for an “an overarching memorandum of understanding (MoU) to enhance health cooperation” which will deal with COVID-19 testing, vaccination and critical drug supplies.
Meanwhile, Mr. Biden’s decision to lift restrictions and caps on a number of visas and green cards has no doubt relieved the Modi government of one of the constant sources of worry that India has had with the U.S. Given the list of “Priorities” for the administration listed by the White House on its website (https://bit.ly/3kq3tXk), it is safe to say that on a majority of issues, including COVID-19, climate, health care, immigration and restoring America’s global standing, New Delhi and Washington are already engaging each other, and are on the same page.
China on the horizon
Where then, if at all, might trouble lie? While these are still early days to hazard anything, certain preliminary indicators could provide a clue. To begin with, there is China. There is no doubt that China’s aggression at the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in early 2020 brought India and the U.S. closer, galvanised greater military cooperation, intelligence sharing, and what former Trump National Security Council Director Lisa Curtis called America’s “moral and material support”.
Events at the LAC also made New Delhi give up years of hesitation over holding Malabar Exercises for the Quad, and hold two Quad ministerial meetings in the past year. The difference this year is that the Biden administration takes charge as India and China have disengaged from their heights in the Pangong Tso area, and are discussing what could be a long-drawn disengagement and de-induction of troops. As a result, the Modi government may have to be more reticent with the Biden administration as it seeks to take on China strategically. For the Biden administration too, which is walking a fine line with statements on the challenge from China as a competitor in areas such as defence, trade and technology, but also the need for cooperation in certain areas such as climate change and where it is in the U.S.’s “interests to do so” (https://bit.ly/3uyJL0q) , the messaging is likely to be more mixed than before.
Meanwhile, there will be areas where India may become collateral damage: in his latest executive order on securing America’s supply chains, for example, Mr. Biden has sought action in areas such as pharmaceuticals where India is a major producer and could be hit if the U.S. insists on localising production (https://bit.ly/3koJhoZ). The order is especially significant given that India-Japan-Australia are already working on a trilateral Supply Chain Resilience Initiative (SCRI) to counter their dependence on Chinese goods, that the U.S. is not a part of.
Getting it right on rights
Human rights is the next area where India and the U.S. could be at odds both on the bilateral front and in the region, given Mr. Biden’s commitment to put human rights “at the centre of Foreign Policy”. The U.S. readout of his call with Mr. Modi held that a “shared commitment to democratic values is the bedrock for the U.S.-India relationship”, and Mr. Biden and U.S. Vice-President Kamala Harris are expected to be more vocal on these issues which the Modi government has been prickly about. After four years of what former diplomat Ashley Tellis called Mr. Trump’s “values holiday”, the U.S. is back to commenting on issues that India considers its internal affairs and what it calls “crackdowns on freedom of speech”. In the past month, the U.S. administration has weighed in on India’s lifting of the Internet ban in Jammu and Kashmir, farmers’ protests and the government’s face-off with Twitter. It is unlikely that the Biden administration will brush away the Modi government’s actions to shut down international agencies — Amnesty, Greenpeace, Compassion International — in the same way as the previous administration did.
Further afield, the U.S. will want India to partner in ensuring human rights in South Asia, particularly given its current term in the UN Security Council. Practically every call between the respective capitals has mentioned concerns over the coup by the Army in Myanmar (Burma). However, while Washington has stepped up sanctions and called for the Suu Kyi-NLD government to be reinstated, New Delhi has spoken only for the “rule of law” and democratic processes to be upheld, and the Ministry of External Affairs has laid emphasis on India’s interests in the region. A similar situation could arise over Sri Lanka which faces a country-specific resolution at the Human Rights Council for alleged wartime excesses in 2009 operations against the LTTE, and India’s support for its neighbour would place it closer to Beijing’s position than to Washington’s.
Russia bonds, trade concerns
Other areas of possible discord outlooked (flagged) by experts will be over India’s ties with Russia, in particular the arrival of the S-400 missile systems which will attract sanctions under the U.S.’s Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, a law that the Democrats in Congress pushed through during the Trump administration. Mr. Biden’s administration will seek to implement the law more stringently, calling it a “powerful tool” in its dealings with Turkey on the S-400 purchase and the Nord Stream2 pipeline project from Russia.
Trade is an ongoing concern from the Trump era, and India is still hopeful of reversing the U.S. decision to cancel its GSP status for exports. Meanwhile, the mega Indian investment plan announced during the “Howdy Modi” visit — Petronet India’s $2.5 billion stake in U.S. company Tellurian’s Driftwood LNG project — has ended abruptly after the MoU signed in September 2019 lapsed.
Afghanistan and Pakistan
On Afghanistan, New Delhi has charted an independent course from the U.S., standing firmly with the Ashraf Ghani government and resolutely refusing to engage the Taliban. This is pragmatic, but it also means the U.S. will continue to see India as “not part of the problem, not part of the solution”, and seek more support from Pakistan to facilitate its exit. In particular, the U.S.’s pre-Trump formulations that conflate peace in Kashmir in order to help its desired outcomes in Afghanistan, as its recent statement on the India-Pakistan LoC ceasefire shows, will become a sore point for New Delhi.
Above all, the shift from a year ago is likely to be evidenced by the stark contrast in Mr. Biden’s personal style from that of his predecessor. While South Block mandarins no longer wake up in the morning dreading the damage control required for the latest tweet from the U.S. President, it is clear that Mr. Biden is not as big on pushing the personal connection with Mr. Modi as Mr. Trump or even President Barack Obama was. The difference will make for a more sober, but perhaps more substantive bilateral relationship in the four years ahead.
National Science Day, on February 28, is a moment to celebrate the progress that India has made in science and technology research, thanks to its science policies. It is also an opportunity to ponder about the problems that we face in research. As for the metrics on scientific research in India, there is the good news, the not-so-good news, and some hope.
Publications and patents
The good news: from the report published by the National Science Foundation of the U.S. in December 2019, India was the third largest publisher of peer-reviewed science and engineering journal articles and conference papers, with 135,788 articles in 2018 (https://bit.ly/3qWY7FN). This milestone was achieved through an average yearly growth rate of 10.73% from 2008, which was greater than China’s 7.81%. However, China and the United States had about thrice and twice the number, respectively, of India’s publications.
The not-so-good news is that publications from India are not impactful. From the report, in the top 1% of the most cited publications from 2016 (called HCA, or Highly Cited Articles), India’s index score of 0.7 is lower than that of the U.S., China and the European Union. An index score of 1 or more is considered good. The inference for India is that the impact, and hence the citation of publications from India, should improve.
The other relevant report is on patents filed by India. The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) through their Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT) is the primary channel of filing international patent applications. In its report for 2019, WIPO says India filed a modest number of 2,053 patent applications (https://bit.ly/3pYlddN). Compared to the 58,990 applications filed by China and 57,840 by the U.S., India has a long way to go. This was the first time that China filed more patent applications than the U.S.
The Indian Government put in place the National Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) Policy in 2016 to “stimulate a dynamic, vibrant and balanced intellectual property rights system”. One of the objectives is human capital development (https://bit.ly/3pYwZoe). The mission to foster innovation, replicate it at scale and commercialise it is a work in progress consequent to the policy. However, we need hawk-eye’s focusà laChina which filed just 276 patent applications in 1999 but rose to become an innovation titan in 2019.
Science policies over time
India realised early as a republic the need to use science to become a welfare state. As Robert Browning said in “Apollo and the Fates”, ‘Tis Man’s to explore..., ... Up and down, inch by inch, with the taper his reason’, it behoved us to chart new frontiers in science that would suit our priorities.
There have been four science policies till now, after 1947, with the draft of the fifth policy having been released recently. India’s first science policy adopted in 1958, Scientific Policy Resolution, aimed to develop scientific enterprise and lay the foundation for scientific temper. It led to the establishment of many research institutes and national laboratories, and by 1980, India had developed advanced scientific infrastructure with sufficient scientific personnel. The focus in the second science policy, Technology Policy Statement, in 1983, was technological self-reliance and to use technology to benefit all sections of the society, while strengthening research in fields such as electronics and biotechnology.
The Science and Technology Policy 2003, the first science policy after the economic liberalisation of 1991, aimed to increase investment in research and development and brought it to 0.7%. The Scientific and Engineering Research Board (SERB) was established to promote research.
In 2013, India’s science policy included Innovation in its scope and was called Science, Technology and Innovation Policy. The focus was to be one of the top five global scientific leaders, which India achieved through building partnerships with States, establishing more research and development centres and collaborating in international projects such as the Large Hadron Collider in the European Union.
The draft of the Science, Technology and Innovation Policy 2020 (STIP2020), the fifth science policy that was released in January 2021 offers hope to research in India (https://bit.ly/3dO9s73): it has an ambitious vision to “double the number of full-time equivalent (FTE) researchers, Gross Domestic Expenditure on R&D (GERD) and private sector contribution to the GERD every 5 years” and to “position India among the top three scientific superpowers in the next decade”. STIP2020 defines an Open Science Framework which will create a “one nation, one subscription” solution that will give all individuals and institutions in India access to all top journals through a central subscription. This scheme will provide fillip to improving access to knowledge. It also defines strategies to improve funding for and participation in research. India’s Gross Domestic Expenditure on R&D (GERD) is currently around 0.6% of GDP. This is quite low when compared to the investments by the U.S. and China which are greater than 2%. Israel’s GERD is more than 4% (https://bit.ly/3dM1WJV).
A key reason for India’s low funding in R&D is the low private sector contribution. STIP2020 defines solutions to improve funding thus: all States to fund research, multinational corporations to participate in research, fiscal incentives and support for innovation in medium and small scale enterprises. These are good ideas. The new measures should not become a pretext to absolve the Union and State governments of their primacy in funding research; the government should invest more into research.
Key areas and focus
Other critical focal areas are inclusion of under-represented groups of people in research, support for indigenous knowledge systems, using artificial intelligence, reaching out to the Indian scientific diaspora for collaboration, science diplomacy with partner countries, and setting up a strategic technology development fund to give impetus to research.
Science diplomacy is at the fore now with India offering COVID-19 vaccines to many countries; formulating a policy around it will yield dividends. Support for indigenous knowledge systems should enable them to improve upon their limitations in subscribing to transparency and verifiability.
The policy seeks to define strategies that are “decentralized, evidence-informed, bottom-up, experts-driven, and inclusive”. It is in draft stage and will have to be finalised and placed before the cabinet for approval. It makes the right moves and strikes the right notes to make India future-ready. More specific directives and implementation with a scientific temper without engaging in hyperbole will be key to the policy’s success; and its success is important to us because, as Carl Sagan said, “we can do science, and with it we can improve our lives”.
S. Varahasimhan is a history of science enthusiast based in Chennai
The Centre has saved itself from continuing embarrassment at the international level by withdrawing the Education Ministry’s ill-thought-out guidelines for holding online conferences, seminars and training sessions. The sweeping circular, issued in consultation with the External Affairs Ministry, created a bottleneck for scientists in public universities, colleges and organisations and erected new bureaucratic barriers in a pandemic-hit phase when virtual conferences are the only viable channel for researchers to collaborate with global peers. Academicians and others organising the events were, as per the January circular, required to get prior official approval and ensure that the conference topics do not relate to security of the state, border, the northeast, Jammu and Kashmir, Ladakh, and broadly, any “internal matters”. Event organisers were also mandated to give preference to technological tools and channels not owned or controlled by hostile countries or agencies. The effect of such a vague and abstruse set of instructions could only be to abandon efforts to organise conferences. To their credit, Indian scientists spoke out, and the Indian Academy of Sciences sounded a warning on the order’s detrimental effect on development of science, prompting a rethink.
The pandemic from last year has underscored the value of virtual collaboration for many, although it cannot be argued that it completely substitutes for face-to-face interactions, trust-building and team formation. Without hurdles posed by visas, expensive travel, physical disability and so on, thousands of scientists have been able to participate in online conferences. Attendance at such events grew by 80% in 2020 over 2019 for the Plant Biology Worldwide Summit and over 300% for the American Physical Society meeting, as also for international meetings on cancer, lasers and electro-optics. Many scientists also think a combination of post-COVID-19 physical conferences and new possibilities enabled by virtual collaborations promise to forge even stronger alliances. An entirely new avenue has also opened up for national conferences with global experts taking part that researchers and students in the smallest towns can attend. This cannot, however, happen if institutions are bound by a bureaucratic straitjacket. India has made good strides in some fields with a growing number of peer-reviewed publications, especially in chemistry and physical sciences, as the Nature Index notes. Moreover, rigorous work can help allay concerns, such as on biopiracy, by documenting natural assets. The humanities, too, need to be freed from paranoid restrictions on research topics, curbs on scholars, and the growing pressure to sanctify cultural notions of science and history. Good sense has prevailed on the issue of online conferences, and it should lead to a more liberal approach to all research.
A sessions court in Delhi has affirmed the belief that a dispassionate scrutiny of outlandish claims by the police is necessary for protecting the liberty of those jailed on flimsy, often political, reasons. Rejecting the purported evidence presented by the Delhi Police against climate change activist Disha Ravi, as “scanty and sketchy”, Judge Dharmender Rana has granted bail to the 22-year-old arrested for nothing more than editing a document shared among a network of activists raising global support for the farmers’ protests against three central laws. Even though it was quite obvious that the claim of a global conspiracy behind the unsavoury and violent incidents that took place on January 26 in New Delhi lacked credence, the order of bail is still notable for subjecting the specific charges to strict judicial scrutiny at a fairly early stage. In particular, the judge has applied the established test for a charge of sedition under Section 124A of the IPC to pass muster: that the act involved must constitute a threat to public order and incitement to violence. He found that there was not even an iota of evidence indicating that the ‘toolkit’, a shared Google cloud document with ideas on how to go about amplifying the protests, in anyway incited violence. He was clear that there was no causal link between the violence and Ms. Ravi, a conclusion that confirmed widespread criticism that the arrest was unnecessary, and that the entire case was nothing more than a reflection of government paranoia.
The episode highlights a trend that has caused concern in recent times: the tendency of the rulers to treat instances of dissent, especially involving strident criticism of policies and laws in which particular regimes are deeply invested, as attempts to provoke disaffection and disloyalty. Hence, it is significant that the judge not only saw Ms. Ravi’s activism as related to her freedom of speech and expression, but went on to say that an attempt to reach a global audience is part of that freedom. In the backdrop of the claim that those who prepared the toolkit made common cause with Khalistani separatists, Judge Rana showed refreshing clarity in maintaining that mere interaction with a group with dubious credentials could not be used to consider someone culpable. It should also be underscored that such bail orders should not be rare or special, but be routine judicial responses to cases in which there is a mismatch between the accusation and the evidence. It is by now fairly clear to everyone except, perhaps, the government and its vociferous supporters, that there is no place in a modern democracy for a colonial-era legal provision such as sedition. Too broadly defined, prone to misuse, and functioning as a handy tool to repress activism, the section deserves to be scrapped.