Editorials - 07-01-2021

A year of being homebound has deepened divisions in a society already fraught with prejudices

A year of restricting ourselves to the confines of four walls has made us keenly aware of our past exchanges, not only with our families, but also with the larger society. Of the many victims of the COVID-19 pandemic are social interactions and the millions of friendships that should have formed at schools and workplaces. In a country riven with oppressive prejudices, the past year may have widened the greatest fault line in the Indian society — religion.

Hindus and Muslims constitute not only the largest religious communities in India, but they perhaps also form the pair with the most fraught relations in the recent decade. Still, over the years, children and adults have mitigated the barriers created by socialisation through everyday interactions across religious groups. But what happens when everyone spends a year without forming new friendships or circumscribing their interactions to limited online (or offline) meetings? The pandemic’s collateral damage may include tolerance and understanding between the majority and the minority.

Many inequities

The religious identities of Hindus and Muslims have shaped their social ties, their political loyalties and their interaction with the Indian state. The long history of Hindu-Muslim ties in the subcontinent is marred by grotesque violence fuelled by myths, rumours and prejudice.

The prevalence of cow-vigilante violence and ‘anti-conversion’ laws in recent years stands testimony to the worsening of inter-religious ties and deepening of prejudice by the majority community. In fact, tropes used to concoct fear about the Muslim community in the 1920s, such as ‘cow-killers’ and ‘abductors of Hindu women’, have found appeal even in the 21st century. The propagation of such stereotypes and the resulting prejudices allow for, and even normalise, violence against the minority to ‘protect the self’. While it would be an exaggeration to claim that every social encounter between members of the two groups is troubled, all is certainly not well in India. The display of prejudice need not take a violent form at all. The refusal to grant tenancy to members of the Muslim community pushes them to seek houses in a more homogenised area, progressively creating ghettos and further fuelling stereotypes. How do you mitigate a prejudice that is so pervasive and intense?

‘Contact Hypothesis’

In 1954, Gordon Allport publishedThe Nature of Prejudice, which contained, among other analyses of inter-group behaviour, a theory on prejudice. Specifically, it contained a hypothesis on how to reduce prejudice among majority and minority groups, popularly called the ‘Contact Hypothesis’. The idea was simple: contact (with some caveats) reduces prejudice. Subsequently, decades of social psychology research arrived at a far simpler idea: friendship reduces prejudice. Could it really be that simple? Could that work in India? The answer to both questions is the same: yes, to some extent.

The empirical evidence largely supports the proposition. Multiple studies have noted that frequent interactions between members of different religious groups vastly reduce negative perceptions and anxiety towards ‘the other’. For instance, a youth study in 2017, conducted by Lokniti-CSDS and Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, found that 83% of Hindus who had a non-Hindu friend were comfortable having a non-Hindu neighbour, compared to 70% of Hindus who did not have a non-Hindu friend. Another paper discovered that even among people who consume media plentifully, interactions with people outside their community weakens prejudice.

Education, however, presents an interesting puzzle. A recent study finds that college-educated Hindus are more likely than non-literate Hindus to perceive the Muslim community negatively, irrespective of whether they had a friend from the community or not.

Although close interaction may ‘significantly’ reduce prejudices, this reduction is minimal at best. Firstly, the attitudes of suspicion and negativity towards the Muslim minority are deeply entrenched in the Indian society. Secondly, as this newspaper has reported over the last few years, the ghettoisation of Muslims continues to define both urban and rural landscapes. This ensures that most instances of quotidian social interactions — be it an evening tea or meeting at markets — are effectively denied, thereby limiting the building of lasting friendships at workplaces and schools. Thirdly, while Hindu individuals might hold great respect and affection for Muslim friends, they might not hold the same view about the community as a whole since they would consider a Muslim friend to be an ‘exception to the rule’. As a result, whilst interactions do take place and reduce prejudice, they do not cross a threshold already laid down by generations of socialisation and stereotypes.

Redefining the ‘us’

Prejudice is a peculiar phenomenon. It is sustained through time, remains unaffected by even positive interpersonal relations, and provides the ammunition for communalism. Ashutosh Varshney asks in his bookEthnic Conflict and Civic Life, “Why do Hindus and Muslims live peacefully in Calicut but not in Aligarh?”. The answer, as he notes, lies in civic engagement and redefining the ‘us’. Ties need to be forged not just between individuals, but also across larger communities such that the relationships breach the confines of religious identities and encompass a multitude of identities. Be it local neighbourhood associations, professional unions or linguistic associations, membership of this civil society creates a new ‘us’. It allows society to maintain open lines of communication, even during a pandemic.

During a year in which students and professionals have remained within the confines of their houses, what they have missed out on are unencumbered everyday interactions with their peers. Bonds of camaraderie are built over watercooler chats and rants about bus mates. In the absence of such avenues, it behoves parents, teachers and employers to encourage engagement through social organisations or other forms of safe civic engagement.

Asha Venugopalan is a PhD Student, Department of Political Science, Stony Brook University

The line between ‘reserved’ and ‘general’ is blurring, impacting reservation as an idea and as practice

Doctors dealing with head injuries ask certain questions to determine if the patient is fully oriented. What year is this? Who is the prime minister of India? And so on. These are questions to which “Don’t know” is definitely an abnormal response. I have often wondered whether “what are your views on reservation?” would be a good or a bad post-concussion diagnostic question. On the one hand, every Indian has an opinion. On the other hand, the most opinionated usually air their views without accessing their brains.

A changing divide

But things are changing. Until recently, reservation was at once our most divisive and our most unifying public issue. It divided Indians into the implacably opposed camps of the ‘reserved’ and the ‘general’ categories, with the latter dominating every aspect of public life with the partial exception of electoral politics. It also cemented internal solidarities within each camp, helping to hide hierarchical divisions and conflicting interests. As we enter the third decade of the 21st century, the tables are turning: the line separating ‘reserved’ and ‘general’ is becoming blurred, while long-simmering differences within each group can no longer be suppressed.

How have these changes impacted reservation as an idea and as practice? The answer to this question has many dimensions. Only those relating to dominant ideologies and the law are considered below.

Quota, ideology and merit

The ideologies that influence us most deeply shape our view of the world while remaining fully transparent themselves, like the lenses of our spectacles. Reservation — especially caste-based reservation — is a subject saturated in ideology. To eyes schooled in the dominant upper-caste ideology, quotas for “them” loom large and are seen as unambiguously bad and unjustified. Quotas meant for “us” — like the reservation for the Economically Weaker Sections (EWS), or for the wards of employees or alumni of universities and colleges — are not even visible as quotas, and even when they are, they do not look the same at all.

Here is an interesting example. Some years ago, the large public university where I teach formalised and standardised the uneven practices followed in the past by different departments. It created the largest quota we have by setting aside half of all postgraduate seats for the students enrolled in its own undergraduate honours programmes. In other words, 50% of our seats in MA/MSc are reserved for those with BA/BSc honours degrees in the same subject from our own university. This is a straightforward quota, but it is officially called the ‘Merit Stream’.

It does not matter whether the name was deliberately chosen to ward-off the stigma of reservation or whether it is a genuine case of ideological blindness. What is interesting about the name is that it unintentionally brings together words such as quota and merit that are thought to be ideological opposites. The seemingly contradictory name reminds us that, in fact, all quotas are merit quotas since they apply merit-based criteria of selection to the pool of eligible candidates.

Never mutually exclusive

This leads to the unsettling discovery that merit and reservation are not — they have never been — mutually exclusive. Just as every quota today involves fierce competition among the eligible, every claim to merit is also built on structures of exclusionary access, or reservation-like arrangements, that allow merit to be acquired. For example, expensive private schools or coaching institutes are effectively reserved for the rich. In the real world, what is called merit is always a mix of ability, effort, and social capital, with the latter usually playing a big role.

This may seem rather obvious, but it is vehemently denied by the ideology of merit which constructs it as an exclusively individual and innate thing. In practice, ‘merit’ has been a code word expressing the upper-caste sense of entitlement. But its magic is weakening as ever-growing numbers of “them” start to score higher marks than many of “us”. Moreover, the problems with depending exclusively on examination marks — the universal, and usually only, measure of merit in our system — are becoming hard to ignore. As competition forces a descent into the absurdity of third and fourth decimal place rankings, a new note of doubt is creeping into the language of upper-caste entitlement.

The most recent judgment of the Supreme Court on reservation (Saurav Yadav vs. State of Uttar Pradesh & Others, October 18, 2020) serves as a reminder that it is an increasingly complex intersectional issue because social identities are no longer singular. The judgment also upholds the principle, stated and clarified in the wake of the so-called “Mandal judgment” during the 1990s, that the un-reserved category must be open to all, including those belonging to categories entitled to reservations.

Not surprisingly, ideology has lagged behind the law. Upper-caste sentiment has been slow to accept that the un-reserved category cannot be treated as a quota reserved for the upper castes. A side-effect of the “reservation castes” forcing their way into the un-reserved category has been the grudging acknowledgement that rather than recognising excellence, merit criteria actually perform a rationing function in our system. They offer a socially acceptable way to reconcile the large number of meritorious candidates with the small number of places available. True merit cannot be measured by examination marks alone, as the late Arun Jaitley declared in Parliament when piloting the EWS reservation bill.

Turning points

The year 2021 happens to be the centenary year of the “Communal” Government Order (GO) in Madras Presidency, which introduced reservation based on castes and communities. January 9 will be the second anniversary of the EWS reservation law passed in 2019, which created the first explicit mechanism of reservation for the upper castes (though carefully not named as such). And January 26 will mark the 70th birthday of our Constitution, which created, for the first time in our history, the figure of the caste-less citizen. These three legal events also mark crucial turning points in the intertwined histories of merit-as-ideology and reservation-as-policy.

Acknowledging caste as norm

The Communal GO was the colonial government’s way of acknowledging the inequalities of caste and finding politically expedient ways of dealing with it. The two unintended consequences of our Constitution were first, the birth of the ideology of casteless-ness, and the positioning of reservation as the explicit exception to this implicit norm. The second was the consequent rise of the rhetoric of merit as caste-politics by other means. EWS reservation seems to bring the republic back full circle, tacitly acknowledging caste as the implicit norm despite continuing with the masquerade of casteless-ness.

We are nowhere near a resolution, but at least upper-caste politics is also in the open now. Most important, the ideological weaponising of merit is being exposed for what it is. Hopefully,this will enable us to tackle the shared challenge of finding better ways of distributing opportunities and measuring abilities.

Satish Deshpande teaches Sociology at Delhi University. The views expressed are personal

Beyond monitoring Chinese activity in the Indian Ocean, India’s initiatives could help generate intraregional synergy

The legendary military theorist, Sun Tzu, is once said to have observed that the critical element in battle was foreknowledge, but that it “could not be elicited from spirits, nor from gods, nor by analogy with past events, nor from calculations”. As the great Chinese general saw it, foreknowledge could only be gathered with specialised tools and by men who knew the enemy well. A prior reading of the adversary and the theatre of battle, the master tactician asserted, could decisively shift the balance of fortune in war.

Nature of the enemy at sea

In the modern maritime arena, war is a more complex proposition than in the days of Sun Tzu, but ‘foreknowledge’ is still critical. Today, the enemy at sea is often unrecognisable — a terrorist, a pirate, a criminal or a sea robber — an invisible presence that lurks behind regular actors such as fishermen and port workers. Law enforcement agencies today need to be a lot more vigilant, highly reliant on high-grade sensors and communication networks that observe and track suspicious movements, sharing information in real time. Practitioners describe this state of enhanced consciousness as maritime domain awareness.

Of late, the Indian Navy has been on a drive to improve domain awareness in the Indian Ocean. The Navy is seeking to expand India’s surveillance footprint by setting up radar stations in the Maldives, Myanmar and Bangladesh; Mauritius, the Seychelles and Sri Lanka have already integrated into the wider coastal radar chain network. The Indian Navy’s efforts seem focused primarily on monitoring Chinese activity in the Eastern Indian Ocean, particularly in the seas around the Andaman and Nicobar islands. Since June 2020, when the Indian Army and the People’s Liberation Army clashed in Galwan in northern Ladakh,

Indian maritime planners have been wary of the possibility of a greater Chinese presence in the eastern littorals. In recent months, India’s P-8I aircraft have scoured the near-seas for People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) submarines, and Indian naval ships have patrolled the Andaman Seas and eastern chokepoints to deter any maritime adventurism by Beijing.

Neighbourhood synergies

But maritime domain awareness is also generating cooperative synergies in the neighbourhood. There are reports that seven Indian Ocean countries — Bangladesh, Myanmar, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Mauritius and the Seychelles — will soon post Liaison Officers at the Indian Navy’s Information Fusion Centre-Indian Ocean Region in Gurugram. . France already has an officer at the IFC, and four other Indo-Pacific navies — Australia, Japan, the U.K and the U.S. — have also agreed to position officers at the centre, fast emerging as the most prominent information hub in the Eastern Indian Ocean.

New Delhi is also upping its engagement in the Western Indian Ocean by positioning a Liaison Officer at the Regional Maritime Information Fusion Centre (RMIFC) in Madagascar. Established under the auspices of the Indian Ocean Commission that India joined recently as an ‘observer’, the RMIFC is a key centre of maritime information in the Western Indian Ocean. India has also posted an officer at the European Maritime Awareness in the Strait of Hormuz (EMASOH) in Abu Dhabi to assist in the monitoring of maritime activity in the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz.

The French connection

Delhi’s moves in the Western and South Western littorals have been facilitated by France, a key Indian Ocean power and a critical partner for India in the region. Having signed a logistics agreement with New Delhi in 2019, Paris is keen for a stronger partnership in the maritime commons. France has been instrumental in securing ‘observer’ status for India at the Indian Ocean Commission, and is pushing for greater Indian participation in security initiatives in the Western Indian Ocean. From an operational perspective, however, the Indian Navy’s priority remains South Asia, where the naval leadership remains focused on underwater domain awareness in the Eastern Indian Ocean.

China watch

There is concern among maritime watchers that the PLAN may be poised to develop a generation of quieter submarines that would be hard to detect in the near-seas. Three years after the Chinese staged a breakthrough in submarine propulsion by successful testing shaftless rim-driven pump-jets, analysts fear that the next generation of PLAN nuclear submarines could be stealthier than ever, capable of beating adversary surveillance. The recent discovery of a Chinese unmanned underwater vehicle close to a southern Indonesian island suggests that China may already be mapping the undersea terrain in the approaches to the Indian Ocean Region, with a view to advance submarine operations.

Not surprisingly, India has moved to expand its underwater detection capabilities in the Eastern chokepoints. In a bid to enhance surveillance over sensitive sea spaces, the Indian Navy has inducted two Sea Guardian drones on lease from the United States. With nine operational P-8I aircraft, the Navy’s coverage of the Bay of Bengal littoral is already considerable. With nine more aircraft planned to be inducted — three under an ongoing contract from the U.S. and six as part of a deal being negotiated with Washington — the surveillance footprint is set to further grow. Speculation abounds that New Delhi might also partner Japan in installing an array of undersea sensors near the Andaman Islands to help detect Chinese submarines.

The real test

India’s initiatives in the maritime domain are motivated by more than just strategic considerations. Indian decision makers recognise the need for cooperative tools to fight transnational crime in the littorals. White shipping agreements with 21 countries in the Indian Ocean have enabled a comprehensive picture of maritime traffic, even as efforts are under way to help smaller island states build capacity to combat regional threats. India’s military satellite (GSAT-7A) may soon facilitate a real time sharing of maritime information with partners. These endeavours, naval officers say, are a manifestation of Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR), Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s philosophical mantra that advances the idea of India as a ‘security provider’ and ‘preferred partner’ in the Indo-Pacific region.

Indian initiatives, however, are yet to bring about an alignment of objectives and strategies of regional littoral states. While cooperative information sharing allows for a joint evaluation of threats, countries do not always share vital information timeously. To bring real change, India must ensure seamless information flow, generating operational synergy with partners, and aim to expand collaborative endeavours in shared spaces. That would be the real test of the maritime domain awareness ‘game-changing’ potential.

Abhijit Singh is a retired naval officer and Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi

Once the euphoria of nationalism subsides, Britainwill have to face the real issues that affect it

Brexit was a bit of a cliffhanger, but a deal was reached, merely a week before the deadline on December 31, 2020. It put to end years of agonised speculation over whether Brexit would end in a calamitous no-deal.

The agreement became yet another superficial grandstanding moment for British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, as he was photographed with arms triumphantly outstretched, thumbs upturned on either end. He, quite predictably, proclaimed that Brexit had been “done”. The reality, however, will be grimmer and the devil lying in wait in the detail of the document will inevitably catch up with Mr. Johnson. It may spell doom for his career in much the same manner as the Europe question has brought an end to the career of many a Conservative Prime Minister before him.

The deal was itself rushed through on December 30 for Parliamentary approval with little opportunity for any meaningful deliberation. It seemed as if everyone just wanted to put Brexit behind them and ‘get on with it’, as the catchphrase that caught on, put it. To the relief of many, a deal was struck, but the widespread sentiment seems to be that a bad deal is at least better than a no-deal.

Brexit may turn out to be a prop that hid the genuine problems of the country: deindustrialisation and the loss of manufacturing, a lopsided economy skewed far too heavily towards services and the financial sector, low productivity, and a country whose public services had been stripped almost to the bone by a decade of almost Scrooge-like Conservative government-enforced austerity measures. It was only the overwhelming presence of the COVID-19 pandemic that forced the British government to loosen the purse strings of the exchequer.

The question that now looms is what will happen to the U.K. and the EU. Both entities can never be the same again. The U.K. wants to be an independent island state with the full panoply of its sovereignty intact. Soon, the most ardent of Brexiteers are bound to realise the pyrrhic nature of this Brexit victory. What will Britain do with all the sovereignty supposedly retrieved from the EU? The sovereignty reclaimed will probably be like a currency whose value rapidly depreciates, or a worthless piece of ornamentation that no one knows what to do with.

Through the law of unintended consequences, Brexit might just result in huge changes for both the U.K. and the EU. Ultimately, the English nationalism at the heart of the Brexit project may be responsible for the break-up of Britain. One parliamentarian from the Scottish National Party (SNP) has described the recently concluded deal as a ‘steaming mug of excrement’. The position of Northern Ireland has become that much more precarious and untenable in the union. As for the EU, this is also a bloc riddled with many problems.

The role of the liberal-Left

This is where the liberal-Left in the U.K., grieving almost disconsolately for the loss of Europe, could play a significant role. The tendency to stare too long at the Brexit door that has been shut in the face of the European Union prevents the liberal-Left from looking at other doors and windows that might have opened.

What has really made the EU project meaningful and worthwhile for many in the liberal-Left is its ability to underline the dangers of renascent nationalism across various member states of the EU. To that extent, it is a worthwhile and noble project. The more fundamental flaw at the heart of the EU is the particular kind of economic neoliberalism that underpins it, ‘German ordoliberalism’ as it is known. It is this idea that may need to be redressed. Otherwise, it might become the undoing of the Europe project itself.

On a spectrum of soft and hard versions of Brexit, the deal that was effected by Boris Johnson was very much on the side of a hard one. Such a hard version of Brexit, favoured by the extreme Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative Party, has always wanted to create a deregulated, low-tax economy. This could bring the U.K. into greater conflict with the more regulation-friendly EU, which is likely to view the U.K. as a competitor, leading to an increase in tariff barriers. For a future free of conflict, both sides should perhaps rid themselves of the particular versions of neoliberalism that have beset them and brought them to this point of bitterness. For the U.K., it is a Thatcherite, low-regulation, and low-tax neoliberalism with its associated hatred of Europe; for the EU, it is the German ordoliberalism that creates economic rules-based orthodoxy, that may in its rigidity undermine the worthy nature of the EU project itself.

Amir Ali teaches at the Centre for Political Studies, JNU, New Delhi

Holding the International Film Festival of Kerala in four cities will help reach a wider demography

The International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK), hailed by many as the best film festival in the country, recently announced that the festival will be held across four locations in Kerala between February-March this year as a precautionary measure against COVID-19 to avoid crowding and eliminate travel for those willing to attend it. The festival, which is held in Thiruvananthapuram every year, will now also travel to Kochi, Thalassery and Palakkad. While this may be a special measure considering the state of the pandemic in the country and around the world, this model perhaps merits some serious consideration for the future.

It is a known fact that film festivals centred around cities have a certain logistical convenience. During such an event, film lovers from different parts of the State and country travel to the location to participate in the proceedings and catch up with the latest works in the world of cinema.

Film festivals, however, are not just screening avenues, but also spaces for dialogue and deliberation on the nature and craft of filmmaking. A film festival is thus much more than an event — it induces a culture of learning and thoughtful debate around the art of films. One could argue that the world of film festivals is a parallel institution and a breeding ground for generations of potential filmmakers. The educational role of such festivals cannot be overlooked or denied. Cinema, after all, is an outcome of sociopolitical and artistic sensibilities.

Local meets global

Film festivals usually offer a combination of foreign films with a generous dose of indigenous and homegrown filmmaking practices that are scheduled during the event. This lends a specific context to the festival, which exposes its viewers to films from various parts of the world, as well as some of the most exciting new works in the country. This rendezvous is paramount for festival programming and curation. The Kochi-Muziris Biennale also does a marvellous job of showcasing some of Kerala’s talent in the visual arts alongside artistes from all over the world. The creation of such a cultural cauldron is achieved not at the cost of erosion of local voices and talent.

The decision to hold the film festival across four locations in Kerala, a step towards decentralisation, is a welcome move. This will help reach a wider demography — a population that may be interested in films but may not have the means to travel to the centre to participate in the festival. Instead of the audience going to the centre, the centre, thus, chooses to reach the audience. This further strengthens peoples’ right to access cinema — to watch films made beyond their State and language, which are anyway released in local theatres for economic reasons.

Cinema literacy

The step also assumes significance in a film-literate State like Kerala, where a popular legend is that South Korean director Kim Ki-duk was once mobbed upon his arrival in the State; the recent outpouring of grief after his death also demonstrates that Malayalis thought of the director as one of their own. Only films can induce cinema literacy, and for such literacy to be broad-based, film festivals are crucial. During the ongoing pandemic, several film festivals went online and we saw movies from the confines of our homes. However, that was a small number considering infrastructural challenges. Physical film festivals, thus, do not have any alternative in terms of outreach.

While I am not suggesting that taking cinema to various locations will herald major changes in viewership, it could perhaps work as an introduction to a different aesthetic altogether. Hence, the inclusion of local content is of great importance in a festival’s programming. In recent times, the emergence of various locally-funded, smaller film festivals in non-metropolitan pockets of the country further indicates the need and desire to watch films beyond the usual commercial releases. In this spirit, the experience of a film festival should be regularly extended to all and not confined to cities alone.

The writer teaches literary & cultural studies at FLAME University, Pune

Beyond judicial clearance, Central Vista should be able to achieve national consensus

With the Supreme Court’s 2-1 judgment clearing the Central Vista project for New Delhi, the Narendra Modi government can now indelibly reshape the national capital’s visual landscape. Justices A.M. Khanwilkar and Dinesh Maheshwari found no infirmity in the approvals granted by the Central Vista Committee, Delhi Urban Art Commission, the Heritage Conservation Committee and other bodies, paving the way for a new Parliament building and other edifices of government to come up. Justice Sanjiv Khanna, while agreeing with the majority opinion on the call for bid, award and the decision of the Urban Commission, dissented on the key issue of public participation in the entire exercise, which vitiated the endorsement of land use change. Governments should naturally be free to plan policies and programmes on behalf of the people, with no prior restraint, but subject to judicial review to ensure accountability. Judged against this principle, the Centre is simply exercising its privilege to plan a new set of buildings to house its establishment and the federal legislature. While the final cost estimate is unclear, planned expenditures are in excess of Rs. 13,450 crore for, among other things, a new Central Secretariat, Vice-President’s enclave and Prime Minister’s residence, besides Rs. 971 crore for the new Parliament. With a national consensus, such a colossal plan might be a crowning achievement for the 75th year of Independence in 2022. What is germane to the question, however, is its appropriateness in a year of unprecedented disruption due to COVID-19. This is when an elected government must give its undivided attention to schemes for the common weal and not be tempted into extravagant indulgence.

As Justice Khanna has pointed out, public consultation in a democracy requires citizens to be able to assess the project’s rationale, armed with information on the official reasoning, and with sufficient time at their disposal. The essence of their view should inform the final decision. Opportunities for public consultation, already incorporated into modern laws and also in the Delhi Development Act, in no way fetter the executive. It would be appropriate, therefore, for the Centre to attempt consensus-building on Central Vista, without showing undue anxiety and haste in taking up all planned structures together. The pandemic’s course points to uncertainty on restoration of economic health, and ameliorating the damage to large sectors of the economy, especially in services. In the run-up to 2022, the government will be tested on its ability to ensure good health for all citizens, revive normative education and provide stronger welfare. Prioritising Central Vista can prove to be a distraction from the task.

The U.S. must take a more benign view of WikiLeaks and drop Assange’s prosecution

The decision by a British district judge to block the extradition of Julian Assange to the U.S. on the grounds of his mental health is a temporary setback to America’s efforts to try the WikiLeaks founder under its law on spying charges. In her ruling, judge Vanessa Baraitser said “the mental condition of Mr. Assange is such that it would be oppressive to extradite him to the U.S.” While it is a small victory for his lawyers and supporters, their fight to prevent his extradition and secure his freedom is far from over. Judge Baraitser has blocked his extradition only on medical grounds because she thought his possible detention in isolation in the U.S. would likely result in a suicide attempt. She rejected the defence lawyers’ arguments that Mr. Assange’s prosecution was politically motivated and violated his rights to free expression. She also observed that his conduct “took him outside the role of investigative journalism”, agreeing with the U.S. authorities’ assertion on WikiLeaks. Mr. Assange, who is wanted in the U.S. on multiple charges of breaking espionage laws and conspiring to hack a military computer, has repeatedly defended his organisation’s operations, terming them public interest journalism. U.S. prosecutors allege that he helped former U.S. Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning crack an encrypted password and download classified information, the leaking of which endangered American intelligence sources. The Justice Department also claims that he had conspired with hackers to obtain classified information.

It is ironic that the U.S., which takes pride in its freedoms and commitment to protecting human rights, is relentlessly pursuing a man who exposed some of the worst rights violations by the American military. Until WikiLeaks released the classified documents that Ms. Manning downloaded, the world believed that the July 2007 killings of a dozen Iraqis, including two Reuters staffers, happened in a firefight with a U.S. aircrew. But video footage by WikiLeaks showed the aircrew laughing after they killed 12 innocent people. WikiLeaks files also exposed the killings of hundreds of Afghan civilians by U.S. forces. These were incidents the U.S. had swept under the carpet, and WikiLeaks had undoubtedly done public service, allowing the questioning of the conduct of war by the world’s supreme military power. Instead of accepting its military’s mistakes, the U.S. went after the messenger. In the U.S., sensitive or leaked information published by the news media is protected under the First Amendment, a reason why the Obama administration decided against prosecuting WikiLeaks. But the Trump administration reversed tack. The new Biden-led government must rethink its predecessor’s approach. It is unfortunate that a fresh bail application filed by Mr. Assange’s lawyers was rejected by a British judge on Wednesday. The British legal system should take a benign view of his condition and cause.

[NEW DELHI, January 6] A conference of representatives to recognised parties is likely to be called by the Election Commission to consider steps to check the use of unfair means in the coming mid- term elections to the Lok Sabha.

This was indicated by a team of nine Opposition leaders to pressmen after its meeting with the Chief Election Commissioner, Mr. S.P. Sen Verma, this morning. The parties represented in the team were Congress (O), the Swatantra, the Jan Sangh, the B.K.D., and the Samyuktha Socialist Party.

The Opposition leaders had presented a memorandum alleging blatant abuse of Government machinery by the ruling party (Congress-R) and suggesting that the Election Commission should go ahead with the proposed electoral reforms proposed a year ago to make the law more stringent in regard to corruption.

One instance mentioned by the Opposition leaders to Mr. Sen Verma was that the use of all vehicles could be stopped on the polling day, barring those relating to emergency transport.

The Opposition leaders in their memorandum said the press conference held by the Prime Minister, Mrs. Indira Gandhi on December, 29, 1970 was an instance of misuse of Government machinery for party ends by the Ruling Congress.