Editorials - 16-01-2021

The alleged rape and death of an Anganwadi helper in Budaun has once again highlighted the lapses on the part of the Uttar Pradesh administration in investigating crimes against women.Anuj Kumarreports on the brutal death of a woman who was the lifeline of her family, involving a temple priest and his aides

On the bitterly cold evening of January 3, when the skies of western Uttar Pradesh were a menacing grey, a middle-aged woman left her home in Kyawali village in Sahswan block of Budaun district to go to the Thakurji temple in the neighbouring village of Mevli, hermayka(mother’s village). She walked for 3 km through fields to reach the temple, surrounded on three sides by farmland and a god-fearing neighbourhood on the fourth. Given the inclement weather, she was in two minds whether or not to go, but the temple priest, Satyanarayan, had insisted over the phone that she come.

The habitual visit ended in unspeakable tragedy, however. The woman, a mother of five, was dumped in front of her house in Kyawali at midnight by Satyanarayan and his two aides, Vedram and Jaspal. Her faith had been betrayed, her private parts oozed with blood, and her rib cage and left leg were fractured. Within minutes, the woman, an Anganwadi helper, died in the arms of her son and two minor daughters. The priest and his aides made a hasty retreat into the darkness and clambered into their SUV, the lights of which were turned off, before the children could confront them. Their father, who was tending to his ailing brother in the neighbourhood, rushed home, but by then, his wife had almost lost her battle with life.

Had life not been snuffed out of her, the woman would have been contributing to the COVID-19 vaccination programme being rolled out today. The alleged gang rape and murder of the Anganwadi helper in a place of worship has, yet again, raised questions about women’s security in U.P. In October 2020, Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath launched the Mission Shakti programme for the security of women. He promised that those committing crimes against women in U.P. would be punished swiftly. The three accused have been arrested, but accounts show that there were multiple lapses on the part of the administration in the investigation. Mediapersons reached the crime spot before the police did. Two police officials have been suspended so far.

Delay in investigation

The morning after the incident, when the woman’s family members gathered the courage to go to the police station in Ughaiti, merely 2.5 km away, they were told that the police were busy. By the time the police collected the woman’s body and took it to Budaun, 42 km from Ughaiti, it was evening. Curiously, the post-mortem started only on January 5 at 3 p.m., and was not videographed.

It was only after the Chief Medical Officer confirmed injury to the private parts, signs of dragging, described the case as “prima facie a case of rape” and said that the woman had died of “excessive bleeding and trauma” that the administration woke up. The family was asked to give a written complaint and a First Information Report was lodged under Sections 376 (punishment for rape), 376D (punishment for gang rape) and 302 (punishment for murder) of the Indian Penal Code against the three accused. By then, at least 48 hours had passed from the time the crime took place.

Till then, Satyanarayan kept telling the villagers and the local media that the victim had fallen into the dry well in the temple premises, and that he had responded to her cries. Everyone including the Station House Officer (SHO) of the Ughaiti police station, Raghvendra Pratap Singh (now suspended), and the local pradhan fed his version of the story to the senior officers in Budaun. By January 5 evening, Vedram and Jaspal were arrested, but Satyanarayan had quietly slipped away. It took the police another 48 hours to nab him. Surprisingly, he was found hiding in Mevli whereas four teams of the Budaun Police and the U.P. Special Task Force were looking for him in the neighbouring districts.

Locals say that when mobile surveillance revealed Satyanarayan’s presence in the area, the message spread in the village that he must be handed over, else every household would be checked. “‘Lath bajega(everyone will be caned),’ said the officials on the ground. Policemen in civil clothes covered the entire village. Soon after the warning, those who were hiding the priest backed off. Within 10 minutes, Satyanarayan was nabbed in the fields just outside the residential areas of the Thakurs and Mauryas,” says a local, requesting anonymity. “The baba [as Satyanarayan is called in the village] was not a hardened criminal and could not have survived in the cold on his own,” he adds.

There were other lapses too. The local media declared that the age of the victim was 50. Her Aadhaar card says she was 38 and the post-mortem report records her age as 40. Officials haven’t put her correct age on record.

‘The most industrious daughter’

Wailing in her rat-infested residence in Mevli, the mother of the victim describes her daughter as the most “industrious” of her four daughters. Her son-in-law, she says, is“moti buddhi(slow-witted)”. “Wohikamati, khawati thi(She was the one who used to earn and feed the family). She would buy me medicines and pass on her saris to me. She was helping me renovate this house,” she says, pointing at the tin-roofed residence that has an electricity meter firmly attached to the unplastered wall.

The victim’s mother lost her husband early and single-handedly raised her four daughters. “Like me, she sent all her children to school. I could afford to educate her only until Class 9. She made sure that her two older daughters completed intermediate education. Her son is in the first year of graduation.” To those pointing fingers at her daughter’s character, she says they are undermining her struggle. “Do they mean I also ‘compromised’ to give my children whatever I could,” she asks.

The mother says her daughter often visited the temple in the evening. “She knew she could stay back with me and return home the next morning to work. But on January 3, I had no idea that she was in the village,” she says.

Early on Monday morning, she reached the temple premises soon after her son-in-law came and broke the news to her, she says. “The baba was sleeping on a cot. When my son-in-law woke him up, I saw that his clothes had bloodstains. I also saw my daughter’s shoe and the string of her petticoat lying in the room.” When they confronted Satyanarayan, she says he told them that the woman had fallen into the well and his clothes got stained while he was trying to pull her out. “He had no answer when asked why my daughter would undress herself and then fall into the well. Also, why would she go into that quarter, considering that it is nowhere close to where the idols are placed and secured by doors,” she asks. The mother says they wanted to take the priestto Kyawali but the local pradhan refused as he felt that Satyanarayan would get beaten up by the villagers. “He promised us that he wouldn’t let the priest escape till the police came, but he didn’t stand by his promise,” she says.

Suresh Shakya, the pradhan, denies that he helped the priest in finding refuge in the village or brokered any deal on behalf of the priest after the incident. “I had no role in the case. Let the police investigate,” he says.

Death and the morning after

In Kyawali, the Anganwadi helper’s son, aged 18, is struggling to come to terms with the death of his mother who was building their home brick by brick. A section of the roof is still covered by tarpaulin. One room was built by his mother under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojna and the rest was being built after selling half of the six bighas of land.

It was the son who forced the administration to act when he spoke to the local media about the brutal treatment meted out to his mother. “We froze on seeing her that night. My father is not of much help, but on that day he was not home when the baba arrived with his aides,” he says. “I knew them all. The baba had visited us twice in the past. He told us she had fallen into the well. Vedram said my mother was lying outside the well when he reached the temple premises. Before I could say anything, they left. She was barely breathing. Her leg was twisted and she was bleeding only from her private parts. After a few minutes, my father came,” he recounts.

He looked for the only phone that the family had, which his mother carried. “I found it in the clothes she was wearing. It was smashed. I approached a neighbour, borrowed his phone and called up my brother-in-law who lives in Palpur, 7-8 km from our village,” he says.

The brother-in-law says he could go to the house only at around 4 a.m. the next morningas it was raining on January 3 night and he could not get any transport. “Later, I went to Mevli along with my father-in-law and some others to confront the priest. Satyanarayan said he had taken my mother-in-law to a private hospital in Chandausi after taking her out from the well with the help of his aides. But when the hospital refused to admit her, he dropped her home, he said. He took us to the well. In the torchlight, I could see a shoe of my mother-in-law lying in the well,” he says.

The victim’s son says Satyanarayan had called his mother at around 4 p.m. on that fateful day. “She left home at around 5 p.m, saying she would stay at my grandmother’s place at night. It was not unusual as she used to go to the temple every 8-10 days.”

After returning from Mevli, where they had gone to confront the priest, the son says they approached the Ughaiti police station, which falls between the two villages. “But we were told that the police were busy elsewhere. At noon, I called up 112. The police then took the body for post-mortem,” he says.

In a leaked video, the victim’s husband could be heard telling someone that his wife told him before dying that she fell into the well. This was not mentioned in his complaint lodged on January 5. On January 11, his second son-in-law, who was in Delhi at the time of the incident, says the victim’s husband was hospitalised in Budaun after he tried to hurt himself. “He might have been tutored to say this as part of the deal that the pradhan and a ration dealer tried to broker on January 4,” he alleges.

Character of the priest

In Mevli, there are multiple opinions about Satyanarayan, a Thakur from Aonla town, Bareilly district. Some say he indulged in tantrik practices. Some say he used to roam around the village trying to impress upon women to visit the temple. Om Pal Singh, a neighbour of the victim’s mother, asks why the priest failed to inform the mother and other relatives of the incident if he was innocent. “One of the daughters of the victim is married in Mevli [She and her husband were in Delhi at the time of the incident]. Why were her in-laws not informed? It is clear that he wanted to hide something,” he says.

“He doesn’t have any knowledge of the scriptures. He doesn’t even have a flair for words that babas usually have,” says an officer who was present during the interrogation.

Local media reports suggest that the priest took drugs but police officials say he was addicted only to tobacco, which was what forced him to come out of his hiding place. This is corroborated by Mahesh Chandra Gupta, the old grocery store owner at the corner of the lane leading to the temple. “The baba’s behaviour was never in question. Otherwise he would not have survived in the village for seven years. Yes, there were rumours of his relationship with a 50-year-old woman, but the villagers had more or less accepted it. This is his first real transgression that has come to light,” he says.

Tikam Singh, a Jatav who was not allowed to enter the temple, says the baba believed in untouchability and did not accept any charity from his community. “But there was nothing else that made us doubt his character or intentions. He was feeding off the goodwill that the previous mahant had nurtured over decades. Devotees, especially childless couples, used to come to seek the blessings of the deity, not the priest. They believed that since the priest was thechela(disciple) of the previous guru, he must also have some knowledge. Even if two of the 200 people visiting the temple got the desired result, the priest’s influence remained intact,” he says.

Ompal, a Jat, hints at the hegemony of the Thakurs and Mauryas/ Shakyas in the village. “They are in a majority and perhaps that’s why they made a Thakur the priest,” he says. The victim comes from a Marwari Thakur family. Hers was one of the many families that migrated from Rajasthan years ago, say villagers.

Meanwhile, at Vedram’s residence in Mevli, empathetic relatives gather around his mother Shiv Devi. “He was trapped by the baba because my son had blind faith in him,” Shiv Devi claims. “The baba called him around 9 p.m. on January 3 and asked him to come to the temple as there was an emergency. He didn’t tell him what the emergency was,” she claims.

Pulling out medicines that her son was purportedly taking for a respiratory disorder, Shiv Devi says her son, a carpenter, came under the influence of Satyanarayan ever since he lost his wife.

Local sources say one more person helped Satyanarayan take the victim out from the well. His name is not being made public because he is not named in the FIR, they say. A senior police official says there is a strong possibility of another person being involved.

Official clarifications and beliefs

On the basis of call records, local intelligence and Satyanarayan’s statement during interrogation, a senior police officer claims that the priest was in a relationship with a 50-year-old woman, who, along with her two sons, tilled a section of the agricultural land of the temple, the proceeds of which go to Satyanarayan. “The woman got a hint that the priest was now moving on to a younger woman. Possibly, on the date of the incident, she came to know about the Anganwadi helper’s presence in the temple premises and confronted him. It could have spiralled into a series of events that will become clear once the forensic reports come out,” he claims. Asked how the woman went inside the shed where the dry well is located, he says it looks as though she visited the place using the back door.

The official adds that Satyanarayan’s claim that he took the victim to a private hospital in Chandausi, 32 km away in Sambhal district, has been corroborated by the CCTV footage of the hospital.

About 14 bighas of land separate the 50-year-old woman’s house from the temple premises. As the wheat crop is still young, she can see the temple clearly. “I went to the temple twice on Sunday evening but couldn’t find the baba. I called him over the phone to ask why he had left all the doors open in such weather. He said he had gone out to buy tobacco and would return soon. When the police picked me up for questioning, I told them the same thing,” she says. She lost her husband in 2018.

Devendra Singh Dhama, the SHO of Ughaiti police station and investigating officer of the case, says he is pretty sure that the victim fell into the well. “But what circumstances contributed to that is still not clear,” he says. Dhama went down the well. It is 32 feet deep, he says.

Whether she fell into the well or not does not absolve the former SHO of laxity, says Senior Superintendent of Police Sankalp Sharma. “That is why he and the outpost in-charge, Amarjeet Singh, have been suspended and charged with dereliction of duty under Section 166A of the IPC. He tried to reach conclusions before the investigation and didn’t keep senior officials in the loop,” he says.

Sharma admits that sometimes, the constabulary fail to take into account the changed rape laws that followed the gang-rape of a woman in Delhi in 2012. He reels out figures to defend Mission Shakti. “We have taken remand of the accused for further questioning as some of their claims are not matching with our investigation. A forensic team from Lucknow has come to reconstruct the crime scene. Their report is awaited. We will also seek medico-legal opinion on the post-mortem report,” he adds.

The post-mortem report has not been given to the family. The District Magistrate, Kumar Prashant, has ordered an inquiry into the leaking of the post-mortem report to the media. When asked whether this is a priority, he says the post-mortem report is an important document of the investigation process. If leaked, it can help the accused plan for the trial even before the chargesheet is filed, he says. It also compromises the dignity of the deceased, he says.

Yashpal Singh, Chief Medical Officer, admits that videography of the post-mortem was not conducted. “It is the administration’s job. They didn’t ask for it,” he says. Sharma says the police will examine why the post-mortem was not videographed.

On the delay in conducting the post-mortem, Singh says while the body was with them, they were waiting for a three-member panel to be formed. A doctor took time in reaching the hospital. “It didn’t affect the forensic investigation and the slides were formed well within time,” he insists.

Prashant says the case will be heard in a fast-track court. The administration, he says, is contemplating invoking the National Security Act against Satyanarayan. “It is because of him that the peace and tranquility of the area remained disturbed for three days,” he says. He says the formalities of the U.P. Rani Laxmi Bai Mahila and Bal Samman Kosh, that provide Rs. 1,00,000 to the family of a victim of rape and murder, had started. “The victim’s son could be absorbed as a 4th class employee in the municipality of Sahaswan. As an Anganwadi helper, she was also insured under a scheme of the Integrated Child Development Services. At our level, we have provided ration and refilled the gas cylinder of her mother,” he says.

Meanwhile, Sunita Devi, an Anganwadi worker in a neighbouring village, says women’s security remains a major issue. “When we go out for work, some men pass obscene comments. They can’t digest the fact that women are working. We listen and move on. Recently, an Anganwadi worker ended her life because the pradhan allegedly called her to his residence,” she says.

The Thakurji temple remained sealed in Mevli on Lohri but a priest offered prayers in the Ughaiti police station.

The present government must shed its many distractions that now grossly impinge on the values and rights of Indians

Recent events in the country leave citizens wondering whether the Prime Minister can ensure his promise to the Nation, of ‘Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas’ (‘Together, for everyone’s growth, with everyone’s trust’). With one of the largest populations of Muslims in the world, India needs to tread carefully in its approach towards them.

Developments of concern

The race among States ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to issue ordinances or bring laws against the so-called “love jihad” and the challenging if not provocative statements by some of their Chief Ministers, the latest happenings in Madhya Pradesh, and lopsided investigations into the Delhi riots must be viewed with concern by sensitive citizens.

Of greater concern has been the Nizammuddin Markaz episode (in the context of the novel coronavirus pandemic) where many worshippers including several foreigners were arrested and jailed for no reason whatsoever as has now been pronounced by series of judgments including a powerful expression by the Division Bench of the High Court of Bombay, Aurangabad Bench in an order dated August 21, 2020 (https://bit.ly/2MWIOxs).

Contrast this with the “Namaste Trump” meeting attended by thousands of people between February 24-25, 2020 at Ahmedabad, and, separately, hundreds of congregations, religious, social and political, which were permitted during the height of COVID-19 in India. Were they not super-spreaders as well? Constitutional institutions, especially the judiciary, need to be on guard and pro-active in this regard.

Clearly, the BJP, the dominant ruling party at the Centre and in the majority of States in India, is paying no heed whatsoever to the warnings given by India’s greatest leaders, during the Constituent Assembly debates.

Past advice still relevant

On November 4, 1948, Dr. Ambedkar had cautioned future India with these words (https://bit.ly/2XFD39B): “... To diehards who have developed a kind of fanaticism against minority protection I would like to say two things. One is that minorities are an explosive force which, if it erupts, can blow up the whole fabric of the State... The other is that the minorities in India have agreed to place their existence in the hands of the majority... It is for the majority to realize its duty not to discriminate against minorities....”

Prime Minister Narendra Modi while laying the foundation stone of the Ambedkar Memorial in 2016 said, “Baba Saheb was guardian of Human Values” and that “... if you make a list of founding fathers whose ideas are most relevant today, Baba Saheb will be right at the top”. He added: “... the time has come when we must again strengthen the unity of our society and we can learn about this from Baba Saheb.” Yet, the Prime Minister maintains virtual silence even when citizens from the minority community are killed in the name of cow protection or jailed in the name of being COVID-19 and ‘love jihad’ spreaders.

Sardar Vallabhai Patel, another towering figure, and who Mr. Modi paid tribute to by giving the nation a statue of him, its tallest, in Gujarat, was the Chairman of the Advisory Committee on Minorities in the Constituent Assembly. On May 25, 1949, he presented the report of the said Committee, and in his speech had these poignant words for future India (https://bit.ly/39Nhud5), “... It is not our intention to commit the minorities to a particular position in a hurry. If they really have come honestly to the conclusion that in the changed conditions of this country, it is in the interest of all to lay down real and genuine foundations of a secular State, then nothing is better for the minorities than to trust the good-sense and sense of fairness of the majority, and to place confidence in them. So also it is for us who happen to be in a majority to think about what the minorities feel, and how we in their position would feel if we were treated in the manner in which they are treated. But in the long run, it would be in the interest of all to forget that there is anything like majority or minority in this country and that in India there is only one community....”

Yet, Mr. Modi, as the undisputed leader of the BJP, does little to follow the sound advice of the Iron Man of India and reassure the minority community.

Even Dr. Syama Prasad Mookerjee on December 17, 1946 declared, “... We shall go ahead with our work in spite of all difficulties and obstacles and help to create that great India, united and strong, which will be the motherland of not this community or that, not this class or that, but of every person, man, woman and child, inhabiting this great land, irrespective of race, caste, creed or community, where everyone will have an equal opportunity, an equal freedom, an equal status so that he or she could develop himself or herself to the best of his or her talents and serve faithfully and fearlessly this beloved common motherland of ours.”

Undisputably, the BJP and other respectable organisations supporting it have treated Dr. Mookerjee with great adulation and rightly so. Yet, the BJP, the governing party, is following a path different from the one he envisioned.

A blow against rights

Laws in the name of stopping ‘love jihad’ strike at the very basic principles of human values and the fundamental rights. Nobody can justify forceful conversions but when two adults fall in love, it can never be equated as such. ‘Jihad’ has been defined in the dictionary as “religious warfare or a war for the propagation for the defence of Islam” or “a campaign or crusade in some cause”. Some of the most respected Indians from all walks of life — judges, lawyers, politicians, artists, bureaucrats, men in uniform belonging to both majority and minority communities — have fallen in love and married. It has been happening for centuries. To regulate it in the garb of stopping forced conversions is to strike at the very freedom of conscience that citizens possess.

Judiciary’s path

Sadly, even the Supreme Court of India did not credit itself well when in August 2017 (https://bit.ly/3bSmIXF), it asked the National Investigating Agency to examine the marriage between two adults, Hadiya and Shafin Jahan. Pertinently, the Bench comprised the Chief Justice of India, J.S. Khehar and Justice D.Y. Chandrachud. Ultimately, the young lady appeared before the Court and confronted the judges by professing her love for the man she had married, compelling the Supreme Court to set aside the judgment of the High Court which had annulled their marriage, and allowing the happy couple to be united. But in the interregnum, the legally wedded wife was kept away from her husband under the protection of paramilitary forces. This was the seed that was sown in the country to justify so-called ‘love jihad’.

Political footprints were made and many who were associated with the case were conferred benefits by the BJP government. Sadly, some of us lawyers, who appeared for the hapless husband were targeted by the government by instituting an inquiry through the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Income Tax Department.

The Supreme Court has decided to examine the validity of the laws on ‘love jihad’ but declined to protect citizens being arrested and jailed under them. The laws on ‘love jihad’ are draconian. The words of Justice Hidayatullah must sound a warning bell, “…If a halt is to be called, we must declare the right of Parliament to abridge or take away Fundamental Rights. Small inroads lead to larger inroads and become as habitual as before our freedom was won. The history of freedom is not only how freedom is achieved but how it is preserved. I am of the opinion that an attempt to abridge or take away Fundamental Rights by a constituted Parliament even though an amendment of the Constitution can be declared void. This Court has the power and jurisdiction to make the declaration.”

Let us hope the Court does not put this case also in cold storage as it has done with many cases which the Executive may not want to be heard. Since 2014, the Executive has had an almost total approval by the Court of all its Executive actions, the latest being the Central Vista case. One can only wonder: does the government ever falter?

The Supreme Court, which showed great alacrity in staying the implementation of the Farm Laws, ostensibly to save the lives of innocent people, failed to stay the implementation of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, resulting in avoidable violence that caused the deaths of many innocent citizens and damage to properties worth crores. Many people are languishing in jails following violence. What should a citizen make out of this selective administration of justice by the highest court of the country?

India needs to move forward and the present government has a great role to play here. It does not need such distractions, even for political mileage. The ruling party is firmly in the saddle and can continue its popularity with development and progress.

Let us hope and trust that we can together re-affirm‘Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas’.

Dushyant Dave is a Senior Advocate at the Supreme Court of India and currently the President of the Supreme Court Bar Association. The views expressed are personal

Amidst the vaccine rollout, there is a critical need for a climate of transparency and data sharing for scrutiny and debate

With its robust domestic vaccine industry and strong fundamentals of the Universal Immunisation Programme, India is now embarking on the world’s largest COVID-19 vaccination programme, on January 16, 2021. This represents the forging of a novel public-private collaboration wherein the vaccine supply is under the responsibility of Indian pharma companies and the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare for the implementation of the vaccination programme.

The vaccine development programme has received unstinted support from the government, and two vaccines (Covishield and Covaxin) have been granted permission for restricted use in an emergency situation subject to certain regulatory conditions. The clinical trial ongoing within the country by the firms will continue. These vaccines are thus deemed to be market ready while regulatory processes and logistic requirements are being laid out.

The expedited development was guided by the “adaptive and seamless” approach advocated by the World Health Organization (WHO) for public health emergencies and promoted by the Central Drugs Standard Control Organisation, and some of the current discourse of regulatory issues is focused on the authorisation process.

Traditional clinical trials follow a straightforward but mandatory three-step approach: designing, conducting and analysing the collected data, according to a pre-specified analysis plan. Seamless adaptive designs add a ‘review-adapt’ loop to the linear design-conduct-analysis sequence, with a pre-defined one primary endpoint and several secondary endpoints.An adaptation is referred to a change made to the trial procedure, such as eligibility criteria, study dose, treatment duration or study endpoints, and/or statistical procedures such as randomisation, study design, study hypothesis or statistical analysis plan, while a clinical trial is at the design stage.These are aprioriplanned adaptations and should be based on data collected from the study itself, and different from unplannedad hocmodifications that are common in traditional trials.

Impact of modifications

In the current situation, where the clinical trial of both vaccines shall continue, community engagement is critical to establish community acceptability of control arms, placebo, and blinding and should adhere to WHO’s guidelines on good participatory practice (GPP). Acceptability may impact whether trials are individually or cluster randomised, blinded or unblinded, and have use of a placebo or other comparator. Unique cultural considerations such as drawing of blood may impact the study design, and in turn the choice of endpoints collected in the study.

There are some key regulatory concerns and the challenge of communicating them to the users and beneficiaries of research including policymakers. What is the level of adaptation that is agreed to by the regulatory agencies? What are the regulatory standards for the review and approval process of data obtained from adaptive trials with different levels of modifications? And, most critically, has the trial become a totally different trial after the modifications for addressing the study objectives of the originally planned clinical trial?

Need for more caution

The European Medicines Agency cautions that while the increased flexibility of this option may well fit the needs in early phases of drug development, their use in late Phase II or confirmatory Phase III trials deserves a more cautionary approach. Pharmacology experts thus opine that “not every trial can be rescued by adaptation and adaptive designs... these should not be a cure for poor planning”. While adaptive designs do have a risk of introducing bias in a trial, that is not to be construed as a reason for staying away from these designs. The challenge is to minimise operational bias by rigorous planning and transparency. There is also a need to build and sustain trust through clear and comprehensive sharing of the adaptive design protocols in scientific journals for peer guidance, particularly in projects with major translational relevance. These challenges are as critical to the regulators as to those designing communication strategies and messages, with obvious implications for vaccine confidence.

Given the conditions under which the vaccines are being rolled out, there is considerable debate among scientists, the medical community and the public at large. Among these diverse constituencies, there are optimists and sceptics about the effectiveness and safety of the vaccines. According to WHO, vaccine confidence encompasses trust in the effectiveness and safety of the vaccine as much as in the system that delivers.

Adequacy of processes

An important aspect is also the perceived motivations of policymakers making decisions about the vaccine. Given the fact that data are still awaited on the effectiveness and safety of the vaccine, the rollout decisions may well add to the scepticism. In addition, there is a need for imaginative social and behavioural research that takes on board the scientific uncertainties and helps to build trust in the health service system and the community. Trust-building in the vaccine and its rollout is important for a robust communication strategy. The lack of this does not augur well for programme implementation even while efforts are being made to promote and sustain vaccine demand.

Therefore, it is critical at this stage for the government and establishment scientists to communicate how the regulatory processes and authorisation are adequate and appropriate. Are we, as a community of researchers and policymakers, making adequate and appropriate efforts to communicate these uncertainties? Communicating uncertainty entails identifying facts that are specifically relevant to potential vaccinees, characterising the relevant uncertainties, assessing their magnitude, drafting possible messages and evaluating their success. Underlying the vaccine optimism is the search for a strong signal that the evidence is certain enough and how far the predictions of valued outcomes can be relied upon.

Needed, openness

Scientists are trained and professionalised in dealing with doubt and uncertainty, given that all scientific knowledge is uncertain. To quote Richard Feynman, “... to solve any problem that has never been solved before, you have to leave the door to the unknown ajar. You have to permit the possibility that you do not have it exactly right. Otherwise, if you have made up your mind already, you might not solve it.” The task, particularly in the current context, is to be able to communicate scientific uncertainty — both to policymakers and the public at large. This requires a climate of transparency and data sharing that allows for public scrutiny and a healthy debate.

Rajib Dasgupta and Rama V. Baru are professors at the Centre of Social Medicine and Community Health, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. The views expressed are personal

Making public notices optional under Special Marriage Act is a relief for inter-faith couples

The Allahabad High Court ruling that people marrying under the Special Marriage Act, 1954, can choose not to publicise their union with a notice 30 days in advance may not exactly be a judicial pushback against problematic anti-conversion laws enacted by several BJP-ruled States. But it serves to get a major irritant out of the way of couples wanting to marry against the wishes of their parents or their immediate community. Many intercaste and inter-faith marriages have faced violent opposition from those acting in the name of community pride or those raising the bogey of ‘love jihad’. Hindutva activists have been targeting Muslim men marrying Hindu women, especially if the women have converted to Islam prior to the marriage. The court said that mandatorily publishing a notice of the intended marriage and calling for objections violates the right to privacy. According to the new order, if a couple gives it in writing that they do not want the notice publicised, the Marriage Officer can solemnise the marriage. Under Section 5 of the Act, which enables inter-faith marriages, the couple has to give notice to the Marriage Officer; and under Sections 6 and 7, the officer has to publicise the notice and call for objections. But, in his order, Justice Vivek Chaudhary said the Act’s interpretation has to be such that it upholds fundamental rights, not violate them. Laws should not invade liberty and privacy, he said, “including within its sphere freedom to choose for marriage without interference from state and non-state actors, of the persons concerned”.

The HC ruling came on the plea of a Muslim woman who converted to Hinduism for marriage as the couple saw the notice period under the Special Marriage Act as an invasion of their privacy. Justice Chaudhary’s remarks on ‘state and non-state actors’ will undoubtedly be read in the context of the Uttar Pradesh Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Ordinance, 2020, that particularly targets inter-faith marriages. This new law declares conversion of religion by marriage to be unlawful, mandates a 60-day notice to the District Magistrate and also requires the Magistrate to conduct a police inquiry to find out the explicit reason for the conversion. Enacted last November, there have been 54 arrests till date by the U.P. police. The HC ruling can now be cited across India to prevent public notices under the Special Marriage Act. Inter-faith couples will hope that when the Supreme Court hears pleas on the U.P. conversion law, it will be guided by progressive verdicts, such as the 2017 Aadhaar ruling, on the right to privacy as a basic right, and the 2018 judgment on Hadiya, upholding the student’s right to choose a partner, a Muslim man in Kerala, as an essential freedom.

Second impeachment is an opportunity for Republicans to reassess the Trump presidency

Outgoing U.S. President Donald Trump has entered the record books for being the only American President to be impeached twice. The moment of ignominy came after the House of Representatives passed a motion of impeachment against him, this time for “incitement of insurrection,” following the assault on the U.S. Capitol building on January 6 by a violent pro-Trump mob. His first impeachment, in September 2019, was for “abuse of power” and “obstruction of justice” over his dealings with Ukraine and attempts by Congress to investigate the same, yet he survived in office owing to a Senate acquittal. On this occasion, not only did the House vote resoundingly, by a margin of 232-197, to impeach him but it passed with an unprecedented margin of bipartisan support after 10 Republicans crossed the aisle. This might signal a broader mood across Congress, particularly in the Senate, to vote differently to the outcome last time, specifically that there will be sufficient support among Republican ranks for a Senate conviction. Given the tight timeline leading up to the inauguration of Democratic President-elect Joe Biden on January 20, it might be that the Senate does not have the opportunity to conduct a full trial based on the article of impeachment sent to it by the House, before Mr. Trump demits office. Nevertheless, Senate Democrats have vowed to carry out the trial even after the fact, including not only a vote on convicting him for high crimes and misdemeanours but also potentially on barring him from running again.

The question looming before Congressional Republicans is this: are they, as a group united in safeguarding mainstream conservative values, convinced that the harm that Mr. Trump has done to the presidency and the fabric of American society warrants banning him from the highest office in the land, or will there be too many holdouts within their ranks to successfully bring closure to this turbulent saga in American politics? The answer also depends on what Senate and House Republicans make of the broader “movement” that he has come to represent — a rowdy, vicious campaign built on white privilege and regularly indulging in racist attacks, yet one that has pulled in elements of economically disenfranchised middle America. Will they believe that they can cut off Mr. Trump from leading this cohort, yet appear responsive to the needs of the 74 million Americans who voted for him? Or will they fear that they have no other leaders of national standing who could bring the kind of support that he did into the Republican tent? The course of action that Senate Republicans choose now will determine which vector the country’s battered politics will travel along — one that strikes a balance between national interest and the traditional formula of economic growth with social pluralism, or one that gives ever greater voice to nativist populism and disregard for the cherished institutions of democracy.