Editorials - 20-01-2021

As examples show, the judiciary’s callous attitude at every level towards human liberty is destructive of the rule of law

In early November 2020, after the overnight listing of a defective petition, the Supreme Court of India granted bail to the television anchor, Arnab Goswami. In a section of the judgment, delivered later on November 27 and titled “Human Liberty and the role of courts”, the top court noted that “human liberty is a precious constitutional value”; that “the writ of liberty runs through the fabric of the Constitution”; that it was important for courts across the spectrum to ensure that “criminal law does not become a weapon for the selective harassment of citizens”; that the courts remained “the first line of defen[c]e against the deprivation of the liberty of citizens”; that “the remedy of bail is the solemn expression of the humaneness of the justice system”, and, most poignantly, that “deprivation of liberty even for a single day is one day too many” (https://bit.ly/3quEFiX).

The reality for many

Observers of the Indian judiciary would no doubt have been bemused by this eloquent encomium to human liberty. At the time of the Supreme Court’s judgment, social activists incarcerated in the Bhima Koregaon case had been in jail for more than two years, with the trial yet to start, and with multiple bail applications having been rejected by the courts (they still remain in jail). In the aftermath of the Delhi riots in February 2020, students had been jailed for months (again without trial), with bail having been refused on specious grounds such as a court telling an accused who was not even present at the scene of a riot that “if you play with embers you cannot complain when there is a fire” (most of them still remain in jail).

After the effective abrogation of Article 370 on August 5, 2019, thousands of Kashmiris had been locked up for months, with theirhabeas corpuspetitions going unheard, or dismissed with absurd invocations to the mythical Greek King Menelaus (whose accomplishments included a 10-year war of destruction to retrieve a wife).

The same Supreme Court that on November 27 sung paeans to personal liberty had, a year before, in 2019, told the daughter of a detained politician, in ahabeas corpuspetition, “why do you want to go to Srinagar when it is so cold there?”

Indeed, the same Supreme Court had, earlier in the year, in 2020, suspended the Karnataka High Court’s decision releasing certain Citizenship (Amendment) Act protesters on bail, and had kept that decision suspended for six months — leading to six months in jail, when, apparently, “a day” was “a day too many”.

In this background, the Supreme Court’s solicitude about human liberty appeared no more than a cruel joke. But perhaps, one could bring oneself to believe these words were implicit acknowledgement of past mistakes, and a promise to do better. Perhaps, one could bring oneself to believe that a judiciary that had visibly held human liberty in contempt over the previous few months would now turn over a new leaf. Perhapshabeas corpuswould start to mean something again, as would bail.

But in the two months that have elapsed since the judgment in Arnab Goswami’s case, it has become evident that the judicial hymn to personal liberty was not worth the paper it was written on.

Two glaring examples

After the horrific gangrape in Hathras (September), came the news of Kerala journalist Siddique Kappan along with three others being arrested and incarcerated by the Uttar Pradesh police, in October, while en route to Hathras. When Mr. Kappan’s lawyers approached the Supreme Court in ahabeas corpuspetition, it turned out that “deprivation of liberty even for a single day” was no big deal.

The Supreme Court adjourned the case on multiple occasions, harangued Mr. Kappan’s lawyers for not going to the High Court (when, it turns out that under the Constitution, moving ahabeas corpuspetition before the Supreme Court is a matter of right, while an appeal from a High Court decision, as in Mr. Goswami’s case, is only meant to be admitted in “special” circumstances). On one of the dates when the case was supposed to be heard, the Supreme Court did not take it up because it was hearingTata Sons vs Cyrus Mistryfor the third consecutive day. At the time of writing this piece, Mr. Kappan remains in jail.

At the turn of the year, a comedian named Munawar Faruqui, along with other individuals, was arrested and jailed while he was performing at a comedy show in Indore. The arrest took place on the apparent basis that Mr. Faruqui had “insulted Hindu gods” during his show. Leaving aside the larger point of what jailing comedians for cracking jokes about gods says about the present state of Indian democracy, it soon came out that Mr. Faruqui had not, as it turned out, made any jokes at all.

When this was pointed out to the Police, the Police responded by saying that that did not matter, as “he was going to make those jokes”, bringing Indian policing firmly into the terrain of the film, “Minority Report”. Despite this, the local court rejected Mr. Faruqui’s bail application and, subsequently, the bail applications of his colleagues on the spurious basis that releasing him would be detrimental to law and order (who, one wonders, would have been responsible for disrupting law and order if these men had been released?).

The rejection of Mr. Faruqui’s bail application was on January 5, 2021. His lawyers immediately moved the High Court. On January 15, the High Court “adjourned” the case because the Police had failed to bring their Police Diary along with them. However, as it has been noted, the police station was two minutes away from the courtroom, and that it would not take much time to bring the diary to the court. It turned out, however, that indeed, “a single day”, or rather many days deprived of personal liberty were wholly irrelevant, and the case was “adjourned.” At the time of writing, Mr. Faruqui remains in jail.

These two cases present simply the most glaring examples of how every level of the Indian judiciary, from the trial court to the Supreme Court, has treated the issue of human liberty, after the judgment in Arnab Goswami’s case. Examples could be multiplied —after all, the social activists in the Bhima Koregaon case and the students in the Delhi riots case still remain in jail despite evidently specious prosecution cases against them, but these suffice.

Blow against rule of law

The rule of law in a society breaks down when the courts appear to be telling the citizenry, “show me the man and I’ll show you the law”. The rule of law in a society breaks down if the Supreme Court says, one day, that “a single day deprived of liberty is a day too many”, while every other court including the Supreme Court itself rejects bail applications of people jailed for years and months without trial, and in Mr. Faruqui’s case for something a man did not even do. And the rule of law breaks down when the Court declaims that “liberty is not for the few”, but by its conduct, extends liberty only to a few, while the unfortunate many count the weeks and months in jail cells. The judiciary’s undeniably callous attitude towards human liberty is deeply destructive of the rule of law; and in that context, its plaintive lament in Arnab Goswami’s case, that deprivation of liberty for even one day is a day too many, is reminiscent of Macbeth plunging his hands into the basin and asking the world: “Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood/Clean from my hand?”

Gautam Bhatia is a Delhi-based lawyer

Donald Trump is out of the White House but Trumpism will be a tougher challenge to deal with

The oldest democracy has been subjected to its most severe stress test; it came to the brink, stared at the abyss and just managed to clear it. The U.S. may have survived the test but considerable damage has been done. Defining pictures of 20,000 National Guard troops deployed in and around the capital, and of an outgoing President who has been impeached a second time in his term, a week before he relinquishes office, have hurt the country’s self-image as also its global standing. It is a grim reminder that democracy, however deeply rooted, can’t be taken for granted and needs constant nurturing and protection to prevent its descent into populism and mobocracy.

A polarising election

The stress test began two months earlier when incumbent President Donald Trump refused to accept the election outcome, alleging that his victory had been stolen through fraudulent means. The 2020 election was the most polarising one the U.S. has seen and what happened on January 6 was its reflection. The certification of the results by Congress will get Mr. Trump out of the White House but Trumpism will be a tougher challenge to deal with. In an election that saw the highest turnout (nearly 67%) since 1900, if Joe Biden won over 81 million votes, Mr. Trump managed an impressive tally of 74 million. The county-wise election map of the U.S. reveals that Mr. Biden won in 509 counties that account for over 70% of the GDP, while Mr. Trump won in 2,547 counties that provide the rest.

Even though media channels includingFox Newshad called the results by November 5, Mr. Trump refused to make the traditional concession speech, insisting that the election had been rigged. Legal challenges were mounted by his supporters in many States. By end-November, the recounts had been completed and legal challenges disposed of. The election result remained unchanged. Attorney General William Barr, a Trump supporter, announced on December 1 that the Justice Department had not uncovered any significant fraud that could have affected the election result. On December 14, the Electoral College met in each of the State capitals to formalise Mr. Biden’s victory by casting 306 votes for Biden/Kamala Harris versus 232 for Trump/Mike Pence.

The results were conveyed to Congress for certification, but Mr. Trump had still not given up. He continued to urge Vice-President Pence, who was to chair the Congress session on January 6, to use his authority to question the returns submitted from the swing States. Mr. Pence demurred, pointing out that he had no “unilateral authority” to overturn the electoral votes submitted.

Mr. Trump had been urging his supporters to protest in Washington, D.C. against the certification, sending out tweets, “Big protest in D.C. on January 6th. Be there, will be wild!” On that day, he sent them to Capitol, urging, “If you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore”. Hours later, the mob had stormed the Capitol, disrupting the proceedings. The dedicated Capitol police force proved inadequate and the National Guard was called in. Five people died. After a day that will be remembered as one of the darkest days in U.S. history, Congress certified Mr. Biden’s victory clearing the way for him to be sworn in as the 46th U.S. President on January 20.

Yet, the shock at the events and Mr. Trump’s role in inciting his supporters led to growing demands for him to step down. Mr. Pence was reluctant to invoke the 25th Amendment (it was designed to deal with a president suffering incapacitation) leading to the House passing an impeachment motion on January 13. The charges framed included “threatening the integrity of the democratic system, interfering with peaceful transition of power and imperilling a coequal branch of government”. While many Republicans held Mr. Trump responsible, they were reluctant to impeach him. Only 10 of them supported the motion that was carried by 232 votes against 197.

The fate of the impeachment motion is uncertain in the Senate. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, though privately supportive of impeachment, has not indicated how he would vote. Given the requirement of a two-thirds majority for conviction and the Senate at 50-50, it is difficult to gauge if 17 Republican Senators will break ranks with Mr. Trump. In 2019, Mr. Trump was impeached by the House over his dealings with Ukraine but cleared by the Senate. For the Democrats, the impeachment is as much about Mr. Trump as it is about indicting Trumpism. For the Republican Party, however, it is a polarising moment. The question its leaders need to introspect is why they allowed Mr. Trump to take over the GOP. A recent poll suggests that 64% of Republican voters remain convinced that the election was stolen. The GOP’s challenge is how to reject Trumpism while retaining the Trump supporters.

The brutal reality is that in 2016, Republicans held the House, the Senate and won the White House but in the last four years, they first lost the House and now have lost both the White House and their Senate majority. This is despite the record turnout. In the process, the country has been badly divided. Purging GOP of Trumpism will not be easy, especially if Mr. Trump does plan to run again in 2024. That is why there is talk of invoking the 14th Amendment provisions by which a simple majority in Congress can bar Mr. Trump from running for any federal office.

Populism and social media

Somewhat belatedly, Twitter and Facebook removed Mr. Trump’s accounts along with a number of other right-leaning platforms linked to QAnon. Apple and Google stopped carrying the right-wing chat group Parler app while Amazon declined to host its data on its servers. This has led to legitimate questions about free speech, the monopoly of social media platforms, the viability of their economic model and who should determine policy in the digital public domain. The European Union is accelerating consideration of new rules to guide content moderation policies of social media networks.

InHow to Lose A Country(2019), Turkish writer Ece Temelkuran writes about how a democracy descends into populism, majoritarianism and finally authoritarianism. The Opposition is delegitimised; the leader claims to represent the real people, who claim title to victimhood thereby aggressively claiming their dignity; and the elites become either irrelevant or, worse, instruments of oppression. Terms of political discourse shift, secular liberals become “sickular libtards”, facts are questioned, and an alt-reality takes shape firing up the believers. This risk is not new but social media is a tool that aids such manipulation.

The U.S. is not the first democratic society to face this threat. Even as Mr. Biden tackles the challenges of COVID-19 and economic recovery, his real challenge will be rebuilding the traditions of democratic discourse aimed at enlarging the centrist consensus. With Ms. Harris casting the tie-breaker in the Senate, Democrats control Congress though taking recourse to this thin majority will only exacerbate divisions and mutual recriminations. That is the legacy of Trumpism that must be undone if U.S. democracy has to successfully graduate from its stress test.

Rakesh Sood is a former diplomat and currently Distinguished Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation

New Delhi is comfortable with some changes as its Nepal policy is heading towards deeper engagement with all sections

As a unique characteristic, Nepal’s internal political fundamentals continue to shape its foreign policy choices. In the process, what gets lost is the scope of pursuing ‘enlighted self-interest’. In such a scenario, any inbound or outbound delegation is seen from a different prism, and anything discussed or not equally gives ample space to interpretation and misinterpretation. The year 2020 marked China’s unprecedented aggression, with an aim to counter India’s conventional edge in Nepal and South Asia at large. Accordingly, China’s geo-strategic, economic and infrastructural drives were made tempting to a precarious Nepal with its fragile democracy and the adulterated ideological standing of the ruling Communist Party of Nepal (CPN).

The CPN is a divided house, and publicly, this was known when Nepal’s Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli dissolved the House of Representatives in late December 2020. The move was termed ‘unconstitutional’ by the experts and the country’s Supreme Court is hearing writ petitions against Mr. Oli. In fact, the Court has called for ‘serious constitutional interpretation’. This merits to be seen even as a moral denial of the Oli government’s stature as a ‘caretaker government’.

Amidst the domestic political chaos, the Minister for Foreign Affairs of Nepal, Pradeep Kumar Gyawali (picture), visited New Delhi for the sixth meeting of the India-Nepal Joint Commission on January 15, 2021(https://bit.ly/3bTMniG), that was co-chaired by the External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar.

Business as usual

The keenly awaited meeting proved to be more focused on confidence-building measures such as exchanges of courteous remarks on significant and concrete progress made since the last meeting of the Joint Commission in taking forward several bilateral initiatives, and the close cooperation between the two sides in combating the COVID-19 pandemic. An early provision of vaccines to Nepal was positively considered by India. On the development partnership front, the expansion of the Motihari-Amlekhganj petroleum products pipeline to Chitwan and the establishment of a new pipeline on the eastern side connecting Siliguri to Jhapa in Nepal formed a part of the discussions. For the upgraded first passenger railway line between India and Nepal from Jaynagar to Kurtha via Janakpur, the elusive operating procedures for commencement of train services have been discussed. Other “cross-border rail connectivity projects, including a possible Raxaul-Kathmandu broad gauge railway line”, were also discussed.

The Joint Commission laid emphasis on the need for facilitating cross-border movement of people and goods, thus giving the sub-regional cooperation, its actual due. The recently inaugurated Integrated Check Posts (ICPs) at Birgunj and Biratnagar have helped in the seamless movement of people and trade between the two countries. The construction of a third integrated check post at Nepalgunj has already commenced, while the new integrated check post at Bhairahwa would begin shortly. Since Nepal relies on India’s seaports in a big way for trading, and goods are transported by road, the integrated check posts are expected to ease trade and transit.

The joint hydropower projects, including the proposed Pancheshwar Multipurpose Project, should get positive momentum following this round of meeting. India’s support to two more cultural heritage projects in Nepal, namely, the Pashupatinath Riverfront Development and the Bhandarkhal Garden Restoration in Patan Durbar is significant in the times when China is exploring all avenues to disrupt Nepal’s natural choice in policy-making. Moving away from the recent hiatus, Nepal expressed support for India’s permanent membership of an expanded UN Security Council (UNSC) to reflect the changed balance of power. The next meeting of the Joint Commission in Nepal should be crucial in giving a new direction to the bilateral ties, keeping a balance between change and continuity.

Stirrings for change

Notwithstanding the Nepali side’s demand to include the boundary in the Joint Commission Meeting, India made it clear to find a fresh mechanism to resolve any such crucial long-pending issue. Apparently, this was not something surprising, however, as Kathmandu had seen certain signals about this. The growing disenchantment among the Nepali masses over the increased centralisation of power, failure of the Provincial System in addressing the developmental issues, misuse of Presidential authority by Nepal’s President Bidya Devi Bhandari, and unprecedented corruption provide ample room for a re-setting of Nepal’s democracy. Worryingly, a large section of the people want the ‘cultural Monarchy’ back to substitute the Presidential system and a re-establishment of certain traditional ways to governance. While the unusual developments are taking place in Nepal, there are many who still think that India is comfortable with some changes as its Nepal policy is heading very clearly towards deeper engagement with all sections.

The timing of the high-profile visit was strategically important as in the last few months, as Mr. Oli had categorically placed conditions before engaging with India at the top decision-making level. With a possibility of surviving the self-created political stalemate feeble, Mr. Oli is believed to be receptive towards unexpected changes. This is not something unfounded as one of the key centres of the pro-monarchy agitation is his constituency in eastern Nepal, Jhapa. In the time of transition, his outreach to India is being seen in such contexts. A great survivor so far, he is believed to be open to gaining a new ground of support from different quarters including India. His China connection has been artificial and failed him at times, and he knows this better than anyone else. It is equally true that he has failed China too at times; by breaking even the cosmetic ‘Communist unity’ in Nepal, he has finally made China’s hyper-interventionism a wasted effort.

Democracy in Nepal is achieved, not ascribed, and Nepal and its people deserve a better deal than what has been offered by the Oli-Bhandari duo. Like many other democracies across the world, Nepal’s democracy has been affected with an extreme rise in majoritarian sentiments. Nepal cannot afford to enter in another round of political instability, and those who have commanding authority to spearhead India-Nepal bilateral relations must give a humane consideration to it. At the crossroads, Nepal needs action and to come to term with realities.

Atul K. Thakur is a policy professional and columnist

We need AI-backed technological tools to detect the unreal

The protesters who created chaos in Capitol Hill on January 6 believe that the 2020 U.S. election was stolen by the Democrats. This is largely due to misinformation and disinformation of which deepfakes are a part. Deepfakes — synthetic media, meaning media (including images, audio and video) that are either manipulated or wholly generated by Artificial Intelligence — even have the power to threaten the electoral outcome of the world’s oldest democracy. Sevreal social media platforms blocked President Donald Trump’s accounts after the attack.

Fabricating content

The cyberworld has been facing the challenge of deepfakes for a while now. AI is used for fabricating audios, videos and texts to show real people saying and doing things they never did, or creating new images and videos. These are done so convincingly that it is hard to detect what is fake and what is real. Detection can often be done only by AI-generated tools. Several books caution us against the threats of AI-generated content comprising non-existent personalities, synthetic datasets, unreal activities of real people, and content manipulation. Deepfakes can target anyone, anywhere. They are used to tarnish reputations, create mistrust, question facts, and spread propaganda.

In October 2020, the U.S. Senate summoned Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Twitter’s Jack Dorsey and Google’s Sundar Pichai to find out what they are doing to tackle online misinformation, disinformation and fabricated content. Senators said they were worried about both censorship and the spread of misinformation. According to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, a law which protects freedom of expression and innovation on the Internet, “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” This means that the companies are not responsible for the posts on their platforms. The chief executives said they need the law to moderate content, but industry watchers and some politicians feel that the law is outdated and needs to be revisited.

India also faces the same problem. So far, it has not enacted any specific legislation to deal with deepfakes, though there are some provisions in the Indian Penal Code that criminalise certain forms of online/social media content manipulation. The Information Technology Act, 2000 covers certain cybercrimes. But this law and the Information Technology Intermediary Guidelines (Amendment) Rules, 2018 are inadequate to deal with content manipulation on digital platforms. (The guidelines stipulate that due diligence must be observed by the intermediate companies for removal of illegal content.) In 2018, the government proposed rules to curtail the misuse of social networks. Social media companies voluntarily agreed to take action to prevent violations during the 2019 general election. The Election Commission issued instructions on social media use during election campaigns. But reports show that social media platforms like WhatsApp were used as “vehicles for misinformation and propaganda” by major political parties during the election.

New tools

This is worrying. Existing laws are clearly inadequate to safeguard individuals and entities against deepfakes. Only AI-generated tools can be effective in detection. As innovation in deepfakes gets better, AI-based automated tools must be invented accordingly. Blockchains are robust against many security threats and can be used to digitally sign and affirm the validity of a video or document. Educating media users about the capabilities of AI algorithms could help.

In July 2020, the University of Washington and Microsoft convened a workshop with experts to discuss how to prevent deepfake technology from adversely affecting the 2020 U.S. presidential election. The workshop identified six themes: a) deepfakes must be contextualised within the broader framework of malicious manipulated media, computational propaganda and disinformation campaigns; b) deepfakes cause multidimensional issues which require a collaborative, multi-stakeholder response that require experts in every sector to find solutions; c) detecting deepfakes is hard; d) journalists need tools to scrutinise images, video and audio recordings for which they need training and resources; e) policymakers must understand how deepfakes can threaten polity, society, economy, culture, individuals and communities; and f) the idea that the mere existence of deepfakes causes enough distrust that any true evidence can be dismissed as fake is a major concern that needs to be addressed. In today’s world, disinformation comes in varied forms, so no single technology can resolve the problem. As deepfakes evolve, AI-backed technological tools to detect and prevent them must also evolve.

K. P. Shashidharan is a former director-general in the office of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India

A new film shows that it is individual insurrections that could prove critical in challenging hegemony

About a month after actor-politician Kamal Haasan’s party manifesto said Tamil Nadu should recognise housework as labour and pay homemakers, the Malayalam film,The Great Indian Kitchen, has hit our screens. Given the brisk debate the manifesto stirred, the film couldn’t have been timed better — by listing in excruciating, exquisite minutiae everything a woman does at home, it seems to prove the case for payment many times over. Yet, that is hardly its intention. Its canvas is much larger, more elemental. It is arguably the most starkly ‘feminist’ Indian film of recent times, making its point with deadly stillness and accuracy.

Labour of love

The extent to which director Jeo Baby has internalised and mapped the average woman’s unending list of tasks is remarkable. He films it with implacable veracity, establishing the repetitive drudgery of housework with a cinematic artistry that rivals the assembly line of Charlie Chaplin’sModern Times. The film begins cheerfully, as the unnamed protagonist (played superbly by Nimisha Sajayan) embarks on married life. The countless dishes emerging from the kitchen are an orchestration of happy labour, the labour of love, set to the sounds of cutting, grinding, stirring, frying. Until slowly, the bride realises that she is trapped in an unacknowledged, unrewarding and unshared cycle of Sisyphean toil. The recurrent filming of the actions of cooking, serving, washing, wiping becomes a relentless, manic beat to which the woman must dance till she drops.

The paterfamilias of this family must be handed his toothbrush each morning. His son has inherited the same privileges. There is no violence — both men reinforce the patriarchy gently, confidently, invoking ‘family’ values. Harking back to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s description of sanitation work as “an experience in spirituality,” the daughter-in-law is told that household work is more valuable than a bureaucrat’s. But, as with sanitation work, the privileged don’t actually do it. And its value remains uncalculated and unpaid.

From the kitchen, the film strides into the bedroom, bathroom, manure pit and temple, establishing how the politics of each are closely interlinked and, in turn, linked to the ideas of purity and pollution, the sacred and profane. When the kitchen counter is replaced by the marital bed, the hierarchies of labour are replaced by the hierarchies of desire — the female body must accommodate desire but can’t express it.

Thence, to the hierarchy of purity. From the filthy dining table after the men eat to their dirty laundry, rooms and plates, everything is cleaned by the woman. But, as with the Dalit body mandated to clean people’s waste, the cleaning female body is the one labelled ‘impure’ when it bleeds. So impure that it pollutes simply by being of an age when it menstruates. So impure that its touch pollutes temple, tulsi plant, the men preparing for the pilgrimage to Sabarimala. This is the politics of exclusion, the pivot upon which society revolves, which is being extended today in newer, more horrific ways.

Shattering myths

The film’s clogged kitchen sink serves as a metaphor for the privileged, Brahminical, patriarchal male, who is cleaned, liberated, and nourished by other’s toiling hands but claims an innate purity and actualisation. It’s the woman who struggles with the clogged sink, and it’s the man who says mockingly, “You seem obsessed with waste”. At the end, the woman realises exactly what she must do with waste — throw it back to where it came from. It’s an action of controlled violence, anger and contempt, calculated to shatter the myths of purity, virility and male honour that continue to be used to defend many kinds of dehumanisation.

As in the film, we are still far from any universal solution. Mostly because hegemony is seldom ceded away. Of course, diverse movements, like the one for Sabarimala temple entry or the Una march, try to chip away at its foundations, but equally, as the film hints, it’s the small, individual insurrections that might provide the tipping point.


State intimidation of protesting groups cannot serve as a substitute for political dialogue

The NIA’s decision to summon people associated with the ongoing farmers agitation as ‘witnesses’ in a sedition case is definitely out of the ordinary, even if not entirely surprising. Punjabi actor Deep Sidhu and farmers’ leader Baldev Singh Sirsa are among 40 people it has summoned in connection with a fresh case registered on December 15, 2020 against Sikhs for Justice, a U.S.-based organisation that is banned by India. Others summoned include functionaries of Khalsa Aid, a Sikh charity that provided material support to agitating farmers, and those who organised a community kitchen for them. The insinuation of the NIA in the very act of summoning them as ‘witnesses’ follows statements by BJP leaders that linked the agitation to Khalistani separatism. Law officers of the government told the Supreme Court last week that anti-national forces that had infiltrated the protests were misleading the farmers. This portrayal of critics of a government policy as either misled and ignorant or anti-national actors forecloses all possibility of any honest dialogue with them. That may not be an unintended outcome for a government that has never been enthusiastic about consultative processes. In this instance, the government and the Court proffer dialogue with protesters while agencies employ intimidatory measures against them.

Efforts to undermine the legitimacy of political actors opposed to the government have acquired a predictable pattern. Its critics are routinely labelled anti-national by social media trolls and functionaries of the ruling BJP. Investigations follow, often by central agencies, the NIA and the Enforcement Directorate. The state responses to agitators in Kashmir, Bhima Koregaon and during the protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act have been heavy-handed. That, probably, is the message that the government wants to convey to all dissenters, current and prospective: it will not feel restrained by principles of federalism or democratic norms in putting down protests. The NIA’s move cannot be seen delinked from this broader context. Sikhs abroad are a vibrant segment of the diaspora, having links with the motherland, including through donations to religious and charity activities. Other diaspora groups also support activities, including in the fields of education and health. The Narendra Modi government has a policy of harnessing the strength of Indian diaspora everywhere for national progress. There has to be a high threshold to consider any such community activity as anti-national and no consideration of religion must influence that assessment. The NIA’s instant move has been condemned as intimidation, among others, by the Akali Dal, until recently a BJP ally. Strong-arm tactics may be unavoidable when there is an immediate threat of violence. But replacing political dialogue with state intimidation is never strategically prudent. The government must talk to the farmers in good faith.

India’s series win in Australia came in difficult circumstances, and will be the stuff of folklore

On a magical Tuesday, India’s cricketing history gained a luminous chapter even as the shadows lengthened at Brisbane’s Gabba. When Rishabh Pant’s winning four aptly concluded a tense pursuit of 328 on a nerve-wracking fifth day of the fourth Test, Ajinkya Rahane’s men seized the series at 2-1 to retain the Border-Gavaskar Trophy. As far as role-reversals go, this was stunning in its execution and jaw-dropping in its impact. It was a verdict that seemed improbable after India’s 36, its lowest ever Test score, during the debilitating loss in the first game at Adelaide. But India progressed despite losing personnel to injuries or personal reasons. Skipper Virat Kohli took paternity leave while other regulars had to be benched following a spate of injuries. Yet, Rahane’s men persevered, right from the established Cheteshwar Pujara and R. Ashwin to the latest rookies in the squad — Shubman Gill and Washington Sundar. At various points, the experienced professional and the fresh debutant joined forces and nourished miraculous dreams. The turn-around at Melbourne was followed by the stone-walling at Sydney. Finally, in a long tour that commenced on November 12, last year, a second-wind was found in the climax. India did not have any of its frontline bowlers at Brisbane but Mohammed Siraj astutely helmed the attack and Tim Paine’s men were defeated by three wickets.

Winning a Test series against Australia in its backyard is considered as cricket’s highest benchmark for excellence. This yardstick has lasted for two decades ever since the previous dominant outfit, the West Indies, suffered a decline. Seen in that context, what India has achieved over the course of two tours — in 2018-19 and the just concluded 2020-21 face-off — is nothing short of stupendous. Twice, India has defeated Australia by identical margins (2-1). However, the latest act will rank right up in an all-time list of great Test series ever since the sport’s longest format commenced at Melbourne in 1877. When India last toured Australia, the host was blighted by the ball-tampering scandal and Steve Smith and David Warner were rightly put to pasture. Cut to the present, the visitor was up against a full-strength home unit. These are fraught times due to the pandemic and resultant bio-bubble angst, and even stepping out for a coffee is deemed an offence. To make it worse, India was never at its optimum potential and with every passing day, its list of the walking-wounded grew. There were even wry jokes about how coach Ravi Shastri may be forced to turn out considering his diminishing resources. But India thrived and just like it did at Eden Gardens in 2001, adversity became its springboard for success against an old adversary.

A Chinese merchant of Penang appears to have been rather hard hit by the regulations against the importation of gold. Going to China to collect monies due he arranged with his agent in Hong Kong to remit the amount in care of Chinchew of S.S. “Hongmoh” to Amoy where he intended to join the vessel and return to Penang. The amount was, as usual it is said, remitted in gold and amounted to 14,600 British sovereigns and 6,150 United States 20 dollar pieces. The merchant missed the steamer at Amoy; the Chinchew on arrival at Penang could not, in his absence, make any arrangement to handover the gold and kept it hidden in the vessel itself. The Indian customs officers discovered the thing and confiscated it. The merchant appears to have appealed to the Government of Burma and India for restitution in consideration of these peculiar accidents but for which the gold would not have come concealed to the Indian shore. The loss of this large amount, he says, would ruin him and his business; for this circumstance as well as for the absence of proved criminal intention this sufferer’s case would seem to be one in which the law might have been tempered with mercy, especially as the object of the law was not confiscation for its own sake.

Mrs. Indira Gandhi said here [Eluru] to-day [January 19] that her goal was to build a united and strong India and socialism was merely a tool to achieve that aim. Socialism was not an aim by itself. Addressing a public meeting here, Mrs. Gandhi said that she wanted to improve not merely the people’s standard of living but also the standards of public life and thinking. Idealism should inspire their lives, she said. Mrs. Gandhi characterised as absolutely false the allegation that her policies were influenced by the ideology of any party. “Neither by words nor in action have we deviated a bit from the accepted policies of the undivided Congress.” She described as misleading propaganda the charge that her policies flowed from a desire to stick to power. Mrs. Gandhi said there could be no real democracy without socialism and secularism. The young should take upon themselves the task of building a strong and prosperous India. They should be committed to programmes and not personalities.