Thirty-six years after it first began, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), appears to be all but dead in the water. The year 2020 marked the sixth year since the leaders of the eight nations that make up SAARC were able to meet. Further evidence of its perilous position, if any was needed, came on the SAARC charter day on December 8, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi made it clear that India’s position on cross-border terrorism from Pakistan that led New Delhi to refuse to attend the SAARC summit in 2016 in Islamabad, is still in place. This indicates that the grouping, which cannot convene unless all leaders agree to meet, is unlikely to do so in the near future.
The shadows over the meets
Over the past year, India-Pakistan issues have impacted other meetings of SAARC as well, making it easier for member countries, as well as international agencies to deal with South Asia as a fragmented group rather than a collective, working with each country in separate silos or in smaller configurations. However, the events of 2020, particularly the novel coronavirus pandemic and China’s aggressions at the Line of Actual Control (LAC) shone a new spotlight on this mechanism, and should make the Modi government review its position and reverse that trend.
India’s problems with Pakistan on terrorism, territorial claims and on its role in blocking SAARC initiatives on connectivity and trade are well known. Even so, India’s refusal to allow Pakistan to host the SAARC summit because of those problems is akin to giving Pakistan a ‘veto’ over the entire SAARC process. The insistence is particularly puzzling given that Mr. Modi and his cabinet ministers continued to attend Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) meetings along with their Pakistani counterparts, including the SCO Heads of Government meeting in November where New Delhi even invited Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan (he deputed another official).
While China’s incursions in Ladakh and the Galwan killings constituted the larger concern in the year, India did not decline to attend meetings with the Chinese leadership at the SCO, the Russia-India-China trilateral, the G-20 and others. No concerns over territorial claims stopped the Modi government from engaging with Nepal either, despite Mr. K.P. Sharma Oli’s decision to change Nepal’s map and Constitution to include Indian territories. In a year when the pandemic has forced most multilateral summits to go online, it is inexplicable that India cannot attend a virtual SAARC summit hosted by Pakistan, which would allow the South Asian process to move forward.
Second, reviving SAARC is crucial to countering the common challenges brought about by the pandemic. To begin with, studies have shown that South Asia’s experience of the pandemic has been unique from other regions of the world, and this needs to be studied further in a comprehensive manner (“Pandemic Preparedness and Response to COVID-19 in South Asian Countries”; https://bit.ly/3qdhCsN) in order to counter future pandemics. Such an approach is also necessary for the distribution and further trials needed for vaccines, as well as developing cold storage chains for the vast market that South Asia represents.
The pandemic’s impact on South Asian economies is another area that calls for coordination. Apart from the overall GDP slowdown, global job cuts which will lead to an estimated 22% fall in revenue for migrant labour and expatriates from South Asian countries (https://bit.ly/2MRZvKp), there is an expected loss of about 10.77 million jobs and US$52.32 billion in GDP in the tourism sector alone from the impact of COVID-19 (https://bit.ly/39oXRHV). World Bank reports that have estimated the losses have all suggested that South Asian countries work as a collective to set standards for labour from the region, and also to promoting a more intra-regional, transnational approach towards tourism, citing successful examples including the ‘East Africa Single Joint Visa’ system, or similar joint tourism initiatives like in the Mekong region or the Caribbean islands.
A time for regional initiatives
In the longer term, there will be a shift in priorities towards health security, food security, and job security, that will also benefit from an “all-of” South Asia approach. The impact of COVID-19 will be seen in broader, global trends: a growing distaste for ‘globalisation’ of trade, travel and migration all of which were seen to have helped the pandemic spread from China, as well as a growing preference for nativism, self-dependence and localising supply chains. While it will be impossible for countries to cut themselves off from the global market entirely, regional initiatives will become the “Goldilocks option” (not too hot and not too cold), or the happy medium between globalisation and hyper-nationalism. It would be important to note therefore, that as the world is divided between regional trade arrangements such as new United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, or USMCA (North America), the Southern Common Market, or MERCOSUR for its Spanish initials (South America), the European Union (Europe), the African Continental Free Trade Area, or AfCFTA (Africa), the Gulf Cooperation Council, or GCC (Gulf) and Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, or RCEP (South East Asia and Australasia including China), India’s only regional trading agreement at present is the South Asian Free Trade Area, or SAFTA (with SAARC countries).
In dealing with the challenge from China too, both at India’s borders and in its neighbourhood, a unified South Asian platform remains India’s most potent countermeasure. At the border, it is clear that tensions with Pakistan and Nepal amplify the threat perception from China, while other SAARC members (minus Bhutan), all of whom are Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) partners of China will be hard placed to help individually. Significantly, from 2005-14, China actually wanted to join SAARC. Officials recall that every SAARC summit during that decade period saw a discussion on whether China could be upgraded to member status (from observer status). On each occasion, it was fought back by India and most other countries in the grouping, with the logic that despite sharing boundaries with three South Asian countries, China is not South Asian.
Despite the rebuff, China has continued to push its way into South Asia, as several statistical indicators for investment, trade, tourism and South Asian student preferences for universities (https://bit.ly/3i4jfWI;https://brook.gs/2LMpv9q;https://brook.gs/2LG1t07). In the past year, the Chinese government, and its Communist Party of China party arms such as the United Front Work Department, or the UFWD have used the opportunities presented by the pandemic to push ahead with this quest. Apart from sending medicines, personal protective equipment kits, and promising vaccines to most SAARC countries as part of its “Health Silk Road” initiative, China’s vice minister has held three separate meetings with combinations of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, and discussed economic issues and Sinovac vaccine availability with them (https://bit.ly/3i2vlQk). Experts suggest that it is only a matter of time before Beijing holds a meeting of all SAARC countries (minus India and Bhutan), for they are all part of the BRI, and even that they will be invited to join RCEP, which India declined.
India’s steps, more bilateral
In contrast, India stepped up its health and economic diplomacy in the region, but apart from one SAARC meeting convened by Mr. Modi in March, these have been bilateral initiatives, not a combined effort for South Asia. These are some of the reasons that led all SAARC leaders other than Mr. Modi to urgently call for the revival of SAARC during their charter day messages.
Despite the despondency, the rationale for its existence remains intact: while history and political grievances may be perceived differently, geography is reality. Seen through Beijing’s prism, India’s SAARC neighbourhood may be a means to contain India, with the People’s Liberation Army strategies against India over the LAC at present, or in conjunction with Pakistan or Nepal at other disputed fronts in the future. New Delhi must find its own prism with which to view its South Asian neighbourhood as it should be: a unit that has a common future, and as a force-multiplier for India’s ambitions on the global stage.
More than a decade since the human clinical trial of the human papilloma virus (HPV) vaccine — it was controversial and carried out without proper consent on nearly 23,500 girls in the 10-14 age group in Vadodara, Gujarat and Khammam district of Andhra Pradesh — and eight years after the Supreme Court of India slammed the government for slipping into “deep slumber” in addressing the “menace” of illegal clinical trials carried out in India by multinational countries, nothing much seems to have changed.
The phase-3 clinical trial of Bharat Biotech’s COVID-19 vaccine, Covaxin, by a private hospital in the Bhopal-based Peoples College of Medical Sciences & Research Centre appears to suffer from serious violations and as a result, closely resembles the HPV vaccine trial. The HPV vaccine trial was carried out by the Program for Appropriate Technology in Health (PATH), a non-governmental organisation, in collaboration with the governments of Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat and the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR). Incidentally, the ICMR, tasked with promulgating research ethics guidelines, is the co-sponsor of the Covaxin trial.
The informed consent process, the cornerstone of ethics in clinical trials, was grossly violated during the HPV trial in Andhra Pradesh; consent forms of nearly 2,800 child participants were signed by a hostel warden or headmaster and not the parents.
During a press conference on January 10 and even earlier to other media outlets, the Covaxin trial participants alleged that they were ignorant of what they were signing up for. If true, it amounts to the consent nowhere close to being a truly informed one. According to them, no efforts were apparently taken to explain and inform them of the pros and cons of taking part in the trial, nor were they told that they would either get a vaccine candidate or a placebo. Instead, they were misled by the trial site to think they were getting a COVID-19 vaccine for free. The participants were not made aware of their rights to free medical care in case of any adverse events. They were not given any time or option to discuss with the family before signing the consent form, either. As documents show, at least in a few instances, the consent was taken after vaccination, which amounts to a serious violation. They also alleged that they were not given a copy of the consent form and other documents to prove their participation.
Following the October 2013 Supreme Court order, the Indian regulator had in 2019 made mandatory an audio-video recording of the informed consent process of each vulnerable individual participant before conducting clinical trials. And a written consent from the participant had to necessarily be taken before the audio-video recording of the informed consent process. Since many of the 700-odd participants are illiterate, an impartial witness should have been present during the entire informed consent process to append his/her signatures to the consent form. There is no evidence that this was followed, based on what the participants said during the press conference.
In the Covaxin trial in Bhopal, over a dozen of the 700 adults from three-four communities living close to the hospital have told the media that they were lured with monetary benefits of Rs. 750. Luring people to participate in clinical trials by offering money is unethical.
However, the company in a press release states that a decision was taken to reimburse all participants at the rate of Rs. 750 for each study visit. The company claims the reimbursement amount was approved by every institutional ethics committee at the study sites, and is not an inducement.
While reimbursement for actuals, such as lost wages and cost of transportation to the trial site, is permissible, it amounts to inducement when a payment of Rs. 750 is openly announced; during the press conference, the participants highlighted the payment announcement. It is unclear if the institutional ethics committee even approved street announcements to be made inviting people to the trial. Whether a site can advertise and even the content of such promotional material need prior approval from the institutional ethics committee.
Follow-up and care
While free medical care in case of any adverse event is a right of each trial participant, there have been at least a few documented instances of violation. In other cases, the participants, unaware that they were part of a clinical trial and hence entitled to free medical attention, had sought care from private practitioners. With at least some participants not possessing their own mobile phones, medical follow-up over phone, even if there was one, was not actually possible.
If the HPV vaccine trial was investigated by a Parliamentary Standing Committee, such an independent investigation becomes all the more necessary as the ICMR is the co-sponsor of the trial.
One of the participants at the Peoples College of Medical Sciences & Research Centre died on December 21. While Bharat Biotech claims that all due processes were followed following this development, it is unclear why no information about the death of the trial participant, who belongs to a tribe, was made public by the Indian regulator. In the case of serious adverse events following injection with AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine in a trial outside India, the information was made public, and the trial was halted at all sites while an investigation was under way. The Serum Institute was also ordered to halt the trial by the Indian regulator pending investigation.
Only a thorough and impartial probe will restore confidence in clinical trials. All the more as a couple of COVID-19 trials have already progressed to the phase-3 trial stage and few more are in the early stages of testing. With two vaccines already approved for restricted use and the virus spread slowing down, recruiting participants will prove to be all the more challenging. The conduct of a highly unethical trial, if not thoroughly and quickly investigated, can adversely impact the conduct of these studies already under way.
On January 5, the leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) met at the ancient town of Al-Ula in Saudi Arabia to end the bitter discord that three of its members — Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain, along with Egypt — have had with their partner, Qatar.
On June 5, 2017, the Arab Quartet, as they styled themselves, subjected Qatar to an onerous diplomatic boycott and a total land, sea and air embargo. They accused Qatar of destabilising the region with its support for Islamist groups. They then presented Qatar with 13 demands including severing ties with the Muslim Brotherhood, diluting relations with Turkey and Iran, and shutting down the Al Jazeera network, in order to normalise ties. Viewing these demands as an encroachment on its sovereignty, Qatar rejected them. This led to the boycott which was accompanied by shrill invective against Qatar on national media, which included threats of violence and even regime change. Now, three and a half years later, the boycott has ended.
Background to the boycott
Ten years ago, the Arab Spring uprisings across West Asia had thrown up popular demands for reform — an end to authoritarian rule and the restoration of Arab “dignity” through freedom and democracy. Four leaders fell under these pressures, which also gave rise to two new developments: one, Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated parties came to power in Egypt and Tunisia; and, two, Saudi Arabia decided to divert demands for domestic reform by highlighting a threat from Iran. Asserting that Iran had hegemonic designs across the region, the Kingdom shaped opposition to Iran on sectarian basis and confronted it in theatres of its influence – Syria and later Yemen.
The Brotherhood, with its grassroots mobilisation and a political platform that marries Islamic principles with Western-style democracy, poses a serious challenge to the existing monarchical order that provides no scope for popular participation. Hence, Saudi Arabia and the UAE watched with horror the Brotherhood’s electoral successes, culminating in Mohammed Morsi being elected President in Egypt in 2012. Fearing that a successful Brotherhood administration would become a model for their countries as well, the two GCC allies supported the Egyptian army’s coup against Morsi in July 2013.
Qatar and the Brotherhood
Qatar, a GCC member, has over several years been a maverick in GCC counsels. Besides supporting its independent television channel, Al Jazeera, that often criticises regional leaders, it is a major supporter of the Brotherhood. Though explained as an expression of its independent foreign policy, the reason goes deeper: the former Emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, and his son, Sheikh Tamim, the present ruler, aspire to play a major role in regional affairs, overcoming with their wealth the disadvantage of Qatar’s small size.
In pursuing their regional role, they have been sensitive to U.S. interests. Thus, after the events of 9/11, when the U.S. was convinced of the need for wide-ranging reform in the region, it believed that the Brotherhood, with its blend of Islam and democracy, could achieve change. Hence, Qatar’s backing for the Brotherhood from the early 2000s and later, specifically of Morsi, was in line with U.S. interests.
U.S. President Donald Trump’s visceral hostility towards Iran and total support for Saudi Arabia gave the quartet the opportunity to change Qatar’s ways: through the boycott of June 2017, they sought to pressurise their partner into submission. This approach failed: with its huge resources, Qatar could weather the financial assault, while the backing of Turkey, Iran and two GCC partners, Kuwait and Oman, ensured that the movement of goods and people was maintained.
Turkey, led by an Islamist party, became Qatar’s strategic partner, and even challenged Saudi regional leadership on doctrinal and political bases. Recently, when the UAE and Bahrain “normalised” ties with Israel, both Qatar and Turkey affirmed their support for Hamas, the Islamist party in power in Gaza. The two countries are also partners in Libya, ranged against the group backed by Egypt and the UAE in the ongoing civil conflict.
The most likely reason for the reconciliation at Al-Ula is the incoming Biden presidency in the U.S.: it is expected that, besides reviving the nuclear agreement with Iran and easing sanctions, Joe Biden could focus on Saudi Arabia’s dismal human rights record and the war in Yemen. Hence, the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was anxious to project his conciliatory approach to the incoming administration by patching up with Qatar.
The reconciliation has evoked no enthusiasm from the other sponsors of the boycott. The UAE and Egypt feel particularly threatened by the Brotherhood; they sent low-level delegations to Al-Ula and their media comment has been tepid. Both have made clear, as has Bahrain, that future ties with Qatar will depend on its conduct. No one, however, believes that Qatar will dilute its backing for the Brotherhood, delink itself from Turkey, or even tone down commentary on Al Jazeera.
The UAE has its own reasons for hostility towards Qatar. It has far greater concerns relating to the threat from the Brotherhood than other GCC members due to the influence of its domestic Brotherhood-affiliated Al Islah party. Again, its leaders are also keen to emerge as major players in regional affairs on the back of close links with the U.S. They therefore see Qatar as a rival hindering their aspirations.
The Al-Ula conclave could herald some major shifts in regional alignments. There could be a nascent Saudi-UAE competition, with the UAE ingratiating itself with the U.S. and supporting its interests in diverse theatres – Yemen, the Horn of Africa and the western Indian Ocean. Turkey and Qatar, possibly with Iran, could then seize the opportunity to re-engage with Saudi Arabia and Egypt, thus shaping an alternative regional coalition that would perhaps be closer to Russia and China than to the U.S. As Mr. Biden takes charge in the U.S., the Al-Ula conclave could trigger the emergence of a new regional order in West Asia.
Talmiz Ahmad served as Indian Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman, and the UAE
On January 6, a violent mob loyal to President Donald Trump attacked the iconic Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. Ever since it started becoming clear that Democrat Joe Biden was set to win the 2020 presidential election, emotions started running high. Many threatened to resort to violence if Mr. Biden was declared the winner. The assault on Capitol Hill was therefore not an unexpected event, particularly when viewed against the backdrop of Mr. Trump’s own inflammatory rhetoric preceding the incident. For those who supported Mr. Biden, Mr. Trump’s verbal assault bordered on instigation. Congress is now determined to impeach the President for this.
Failure to protect Capitol Hill
More than the ugly conduct of Mr. Trump and his supporters, what is now also being discussed — and rightly so — is whether the assault could have been foiled. How prepared were the law and order agencies for the worst-case scenario? Did they arm themselves adequately to meet all probable contingencies? These are questions that will normally be raised anywhere in the democratic world after such an outrageous incident takes place. The Washington Police and intelligence establishments face the heat squarely for their failure to protect the sanctity of the historic institution.
An Indian policeman would wonder how the rampaging mob was allowed to go so close to Capitol Hill and then enter the building. In my view, the Indian police would have kept the mob at a distance of at least one kilometre from the building and erected a police wall to prevent such an invasion. The more boisterous among the gathering would also have been removed from the scene at the earliest. This would no doubt have led to mob violence. But the Indian police have never hesitated to use force to disable rioting crowds.
There is no report to suggest that the Capitol Police used sufficient force to keep the crowd at bay. The situation no doubt demanded huge reinforcements from neighbouring agencies and the National Guard. According to some reports, no one at the Capitol requested for additional security requirement, although the former chief of the Capitol Police has denied this.
The intricacies of policing Washington D.C. are somewhat analogous to those administering Delhi. Although Delhi is for all purposes a ‘State’ as defined by the Constitution, operational control over the Delhi Police rests with the Union Home Ministry. This is an arrangement laid down by the Constitution (Sixty-ninth Amendment) Act. Under this law, the Delhi Legislative Assembly can make laws in all subjects except in matters pertaining to public order, police and land. Successive Chief Ministers have cribbed about this strange arrangement, but to no avail. The position will remain unchanged unless a constitutional amendment is brought about to confer full Statehood on Delhi. An amendment to this effect will, however, remain a pipe dream for a long time to come. This is the lacuna that permits politics to be injected into policing matters in India. No Central government, whatever its political complexion, is a saint in the matter.
The mode of policing the American capital is a shade different from what prevails in India. The U.S. Capitol Police is an independent police department which reports to the House Speaker and Senate President. It can and frequently does ask other Washington D.C. law enforcement agencies for extra resources. It can also ask the National Guard and federal law enforcement agencies for assistance. The National Guard is drawn from the U.S. Army and Air Force and is somewhat weighed down by the dual control of the States and the federal government. The inexplicable fact here is that despite intelligence and warnings, the Capitol Police failed to reinforce itself ahead of the January 6 attack. Was there some politics here that accounted for the apparent reluctance to beef up security? President Trump could have drawn on the National Guard, but he did not do so for obvious reasons. He was possibly abetted by a Republican-controlled Senate.
A poor track record
The charge levelled by many observers in the U.S. is that law enforcement was guilty of providing kid-glove treatment to the rioters. This, they say, was in sharp contrast to the ruthlessness displayed in countering the Black Lives Matter agitators. The huge numbers arrested during the Black Lives Matter movement are highlighted to contrast the modest figure rounded up at Capitol Hill. It is difficult to support or reject this charge of a police bias, although the U.S. police have often been accused of racism.
While discussing the happenings in Washington, some critics of our Central government allege that the track record of our own police is not any better. They cite the incidents at Jawaharlal Nehru University on January 5, 2020 and the Jamia Millia campus on December 15, 2019 to establish that the police turn a blind eye when it is politically inexpedient to haul up law breakers. The allegations made on both occasions were that several outsiders were allowed by the authorities to infiltrate into the two institutions and physically handle students who were protesting against the administration. No one has been arrested following the JNU incident. In the case of Jamia, there have been a few arrests, but allegedly selective so as to not offend those who wield influence in the institution. Official inquiries have been held into both incidents, but to little avail. In such cases, only painstaking investigation can establish that outsiders went in with the intention of causing trouble. Even an investigator with a high reputation for objectivity and political neutrality finds it difficult in such instances to find the required evidence.
Policing a democracy is a complicated exercise. An acceptable balance has to be struck between operational autonomy and the need for the political executive to retain control over the police so that the latter do not commit excesses or become politicised. Such a formula is attractive on paper but rarely works in the field.
R.K. Raghavan is a former CBI Director and a former High Commissioner of India to Cyprus
In an unprecedented move, the U.S. House of Representatives will be voting on Wednesday to impeach President Donald Trump a second time. The Republicans’ need to impeach Mr. Trump is even greater than that of the Democrats. They must exorcise Trump’s ghost so that they can regain some of the credibility they lost following their leadership’s abject surrender to the President’s narcissistic whims and lies that instigated the attack on Capitol Hill.
Why support impeachment?
The only way for them to redeem themselves is to take the lead in the impeachment process both in the House and the Senate. There are many reasons that should prompt them to do so. First, Mr. Trump made the Republican Party his personal preserve and used it for his own glorification and profit. Most Republican leaders fell into his trap because they believed that this was a small price to pay in order to curry favour with Mr. Trump’s raucous base that had become the public face of the Grand Old Party (GOP), and which was seemingly their most loyal vote bank. Now they must extricate themselves from Mr. Trump’s clutches after he has brought the party into disrepute.
Second, even if Mr. Trump is not impeached or not removed under Article 25 (which allows the Vice-President to become acting President when a President is unable to continue his duties due to various reasons), he will face charges of a serious nature for inciting insurrection and mayhem against legally constituted authority after he leaves office. This will rub off on his supporters in Congress who either applauded him or were mute spectators of his despicable behaviour.
Third, as long as Mr. Trump is politically active and has the support of his hard-core base, he and his supporters will not allow a credible GOP candidate to emerge for the 2024 election. If Mr. Trump is nominated again, which is possible if he is not impeached and disqualified, he will drag the party and its Senate and House candidates down with himself in 2024 thus damaging the party’s revival prospects in the near future.
It is therefore in the party’s interest, and especially of those Republicans with presidential ambitions, to see that his political career is finished and that the impeachment also includes the clause that will not allow him to run for office in future. Mr. Trump’s removal is essential for a leader of national stature to emerge in the GOP who can be a credible candidate in 2024. Surveys show that a majority of Americans not only condemn the attack on the Capitol but also hold Mr. Trump personally responsible for it. A politically active Mr. Trump could send the GOP into a tailspin for years if not decades.
Even an impeachment after Mr. Trump leaves office could disqualify him from running again. This appears to be an increasingly likely scenario for two reasons. One, even if the House passes the articles of impeachment this week, the Senate will not be able to take it up until inauguration day, as it is not scheduled to reconvene until January 19. Two, Speaker Nancy Pelosi may decide not to send the articles of impeachment to the Senate for consideration until 100 days after Mr. Biden has taken office to allow the new President to get his cabinet confirmed and take steps to combat the pandemic, and ensure that his first three months in office are not overshadowed by the controversy surrounding impeachment.
There is much talk in Washington about the relative merits of accountability versus healing. This is a false dichotomy. Both can take place simultaneously reinforcing each other. As severe wounds have been inflicted on America’s body politic by a Republican President enabled by a collaborating GOP leadership, several of whose members outpaced the President in their inflammatory rhetoric, it is imperative that the Republican Party takes the lead on both counts — holding Mr. Trump accountable and reaching out to the Democrats. Only this will begin the healing process.
Mohammed Ayoob is University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of International Relations, Michigan State University
The Supreme Court’s interim order in the ongoing contestation between large sections of the farmers and the Centre over the new farm laws may be motivated by a laudable intention to break the deadlock in negotiations. However, it is difficult to shake off the impression that the Court is seeking to impose a compromise on the farmers’ unions. One portion of the order stays the three laws, seeks to maintain the Minimum Support Price as before and prevents possible dispossession of farmers of their land under the new laws. The stated reason is that the stay would “assuage the hurt feelings of the farmers” and encourage them to go to the negotiating table. However, it is somewhat disconcerting that the stay of legislation is effected solely as an instrument to facilitate the Court’s arrangement rather than on the basis of any identified legal or constitutional infirmities in the laws. The order forming a four-member committee may indeed help relieve the current tension and allay the government’s fears that the Republic Day celebrations may be disrupted, but it is not clear if it would help the reaching of an amicable settlement as the Samyukt Kisan Morcha, the umbrella body spearheading the protests, has refused to appear before the panel. The Court’s approach raises the question whether it should traverse beyond its adjudicative role and pass judicial orders of significant import on the basis of sanguine hope and mediational zeal.
The Court did make its position amply clear during the hearing, with the Chief Justice of India, S.A. Bobde, faulting the Centre for its failure to break the deadlock arising out of the weeks-long protest by thousands of farmers in the vicinity of Delhi, demanding nothing short of an outright repeal of the laws. It is only in the wake of the government’s perceived failure that the Court has chosen to intervene, but it is unfortunate that it is not in the form of adjudicating key questions such as the constitutionality of the laws, but by handing over the role of thrashing out the issues involved to a four-member panel. It is not clear how the four members on the committee were chosen, and there is already some well-founded criticism that some of them have already voiced their support for the farm laws in question. The Court wants the panel to give its recommendations on hearing the views of all stakeholders. Here, the exercise could turn tricky. How will the Court deal with a possible recommendation that the laws be amended? It would be strange and even questionable if the Court directed Parliament to bring the laws in line with the committee’s views. While a negotiated settlement is always preferable, it is equally important that judicial power is not seen as being used to dilute the import of the protest or de-legitimise farmer unions that stay away from the proceedings of the panel or interfere with the powers of Parliament to legislate.
The recent three-day-long protest, led by Puducherry Chief Minister V. Narayanasamy, under the banner of the Secular Democratic Progressive Alliance, against Lieutenant Governor Kiran Bedi came as no surprise, given the strained ties between the two constitutional functionaries. They have been at loggerheads over many matters, most recently on the appointment of the State Election Commissioner, an office critical to holding elections to local bodies in the Union Territory. But the principal issue of contention is the implementation of direct benefit transfer in the public distribution system using cash, instead of free rice, being given to beneficiaries. The agitation was meant to highlight the demand of the Congress and its allies for the recall of the Lt Governor. As a prelude to the stir, the Chief Minister presented memoranda to President Ram Nath Kovind and Union Minister of State for Home Affairs G. Kishan Reddy, accusing Ms. Bedi of “functioning in an autocratic manner” and adopting an “obstructionist attitude” in ensuring the progress and welfare of people. On her part, Ms. Bedi has advised him to refrain from misleading the public about the Centre and her office. She has even attributed his “anguish and disappointment” possibly to the “diligent and sustained care” exercised by the Lt Governor’s secretariat “in ensuring just, fair and accessible administration following the laws and rules of business scrupulously”.
With the Assembly election likely in April or May, the Chief Minister leading the protest against the Lt Governor was clearly an act of political mobilisation, even though the Congress’s major ally, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, chose to stay away from it. The agitation should be seen as a reflection of the political reality in the Union Territory as Mr. Narayanasamy does not have any effective Opposition. This allows him to turn all his energy and time against the Lt Governor instead of on his political adversaries at a time when the election is near. And this seems to be his strategy to ward off any criticism against his government’s “non-functioning” by laying the blame at the doorstep of the Lt Governor. On her part, Ms. Bedi should take into account the legitimate requirements of an elected government and try to accommodate Mr. Narayanasamy’s views on important matters such as the free rice scheme. After all, the Centre itself did not see any great virtue in the DBT mode when it decided to give additional food grains (rice or wheat) free of cost at five kg per person a month to ration cardholders during April-November last year — a relief measure during the COVID-19 pandemic. With the near breakdown of communication between the Lt Governor and the Chief Minister, the Centre should step in, in the interest of smooth administration.
At his talks to-day [January 12, New Delhi] with the Prime Minister, Mrs. Indira Gandhi, the Canadian Prime Minister, Mr. Pierre Trudeau, made a fervent plea that India and Canada should exert their influence to see that the Commonwealth did not break up over the proposed British arms sales to South Africa. The two Prime Ministers were agreed that the Commonwealth was a useful institution, but shared the fear that it would be extremely difficult to deal with the chain reaction produced by this ill-advised British move to placate South Africa at the risk of provoking retaliation by the African nations. The Canadian Prime Minister was making a gallant bid to enlist India’s co-operation to salvage the Commonwealth with some face-saving formula if the African leaders decided to precipitate a crisis by staging a mass walk-out in Singapore. But he confessed that he did not have any plan of action or strategy in mind at the moment, even after his talks last night with Mr. Edward Heath, British Prime Minister. Mrs. Gandhi made it clear to Mr. Trudeau that while India would do what it could to avert a showdown in Singapore, it would have to consider whether it was worthwhile for it to continue in the Commonwealth if the African countries decided to quit in protest against the British action. She said the basic concept behind the Commonwealth was not only complete equality between all the member-States, but also avoidance of racial discrimination.
London, January 11: Replying to the congratulations of the Bar voiced at the High Court this morning by Sir Gordon Hewart, Lord Reading who was greatly moved said, he did not propose to guess the reasons for his selection as Viceroy, seeing that he had no knowledge of India but he abided by the assertions of those competent to judge. “I leave the Judicial Bench,” he said, “not forsaking nor abandoning the pursuit of justice but rather pursuing it in larger field but on a road not so certain or well-laid. In the law courts a man is limited by the facts of evidence before him, whereas in politics he has not all the factors always before him until perhaps long after he has given the decision”. Lord Reading said, he was going to India with the sole desire to do the right and he believed he could not make a failure.