Editorials - 23-06-2021

With sedition cases rising, often solely based on word usage, people need to have a political and legal defence

Aisha Sultana, a film-maker from Lakshadweep, was recently booked for the alleged offences of sedition and statements prejudicial to national integrity. A crime was registered based on a complaint by a leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Ms. Sultana then moved the Kerala High Court for pre-arrest bail. The court allowed interim bail to her on June 17. Ms. Sultana thus got temporary relief from incarceration. The court will pass its final orders in the application shortly.

Ms. Sultana’s case is only one among the numerous sedition cases recently registered in the country. In Lakshadweep, people have had sedition slapped against them for putting up placards or posters against the Prime Minister. Ms. Sultana’s case also reveals the regime’s political strategy to threaten dissidents.

Background and implications

Ms. Sultana is alleged to have used the word ‘bioweapon’ in a television discussion about the recent developments in Lakshadweep and its draft reforms. She said it while deliberating over the Lakshadweep Administrator’s actions and omissions that allegedly contributed to the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic on the island, which was free from the virus in 2020. Ms. Sultana indicated in her petition before the court and to the media that she is apologetic about the word used. In an interview she said that her “bioweapon remark” was a “mistake” and that she was “entrapped”.

Hindutva forces have relied heavily on this subsequent posture which she publicly made, to strengthen their stand. They tried to create a false sense of moral victory and legitimacy to back their position, which they thoroughly lack.

Ms. Sultana is not a political activist. And it is probable that she may not be very articulate or even be able to present strong arguments on the affairs of the nation. It seemed like she was partly accusing herself or acknowledging the ‘mistake’ in some way. This self-accusation was, however, unwarranted. When the purpose of the sedition law is to curtail opposing ideas, her rescission had the effect of legitimising the state’s wrongful action.

Lessons from history

Ms. Sultana’s case is a case study for those who are concerned about the country’s liberal values. The offence of sedition under Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) was inserted in the Code in 1870. In the great trial of 1922, Mahatma Gandhi, charged with sedition, described the provision as “perhaps the prince among the political sections of the IPC designed to suppress the liberty of the citizen.” Gandhiji, who himself was a lawyer, made two points in his statement given on March 18, 1922. One, he admitted the charge of preaching disaffection towards the then existing regime. Two, he justified his act and said that it was his duty to do so as it is “a sin to have affection for the system (under the British Raj)”. He explained that “Affection cannot be manufactured or regulated by law. If one has no affection for a person or system, one should be free to give the fullest expression to his disaffection so long as he does not contemplate, promote, or incite to violence. (https://bit.ly/3vP9S2x)”

This statement is not only political but also legal. Curiously, this assertion that Gandhiji made in the court was indirectly laid down as the law by the Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court of India inKedar Nath Singh(1962) which said that incitement to violence is the gist of the offence of sedition.This proposition was followed by the top court consistently, tillVinod Dua(2021), where the Court said that a journalist cannot be booked for sedition for expressing dissent.

The law was clear even when Gandhiji was convicted and sentenced. Evidently, the charge and the conviction were political, not legal. Even today, the very registration of crimes against political opponents under the draconian laws is essentially a political act, though it takes a legal form. According to the report by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), between 2016 and 2019 there was a 160% increase in the registration of sedition cases whereas the conviction rate during this period fell from 33.3% to 3.3%. Thus, the process itself becomes the punishment.

Therefore, one needs to build up a political defence as well as legal defence against such charges. Litigation is not merely a means for the redress of grievance. When the charges are under ‘political sections’, as Gandhiji eloquently described, they need to be countered by a political praxis as well. Only such a course would expose the egregious motive of the state in accusing its citizens of the offence of sedition without any legal or factual foundation whatsoever. Only such a resistance would be able to re-educate our judicial institutions constitutionally and historically, and to ensure dialogic democracy.

Unfortunately, Ms. Sultana’s subsequent expression of regret does not pass this political test. She could have asserted that the word she used was correct and proper. It was possible for her to justify it as an imagery capable of exposing the regime’s unprincipled approach in Lakshadweep.

It needs to be told that the British Raj used the draconian provision only when they alleged that a speech or a writing resulted in violence,or there was at least a remote connection between the overt act and social disturbance. Bal Gangadhar Tilak was tried in 1897 on an accusation that the articles inKesari, a Marathi paper owned by him, incited violence that led to the killing of two British officers. Tilak was convicted and sentenced to undergo rigorous imprisonment for 18 months. In 1908, he was again tried and later sentenced for writing “seditious” articles and by connecting them with certain instances of ‘social disorder’. Post-Independence, inKedar Nath Singh, the accusation among others, was that Kedar Nath, a Forward Communist Party leader, had asserted his belief in a revolution “in the flames of which the capitalists, zamindars, and the Congress leaders of India….will be reduced to ashes....” The Court said that “comments, however strongly worded, expressing disapprobation of actions of the Government, without exciting those feelings which generate the inclination to cause public disorder by acts of violence, would not be penal”. InBalwant Singh(1995), slogans for an independent Sikh nation were found to be not seditious for want of the ingredient of incitement to violence. None of these prominent cases relied on the mere use of words to make out the offence.

A new judicial activism

But after 2014, cases of sedition are frequently and intentionally registered solely based on words spoken, written, or tweeted. This can have a chilling effect on people’s movements. The clear political object behind the invocation of the law is to create an atmosphere of fear. This, in a way, is the price which the country had to pay for the retention of the law of sedition, among other draconian laws. Therefore, the Supreme Court of India and the High Courts should takesuo motucognisance of the incidents where the state ostensibly uses draconian laws to suppress criticism and protest. This is difficult, but not impossible. Suchsuo motuproceedings would reflect the kind of judicial activism that our time demands. The organised Bar, especially at the State level, must perform its libertarian role by constantly demanding for a judiciary that values freedom and acts for it.

Kaleeswaram Raj is a lawyer in the Supreme Court of India

The investigation into the forced landing of a Ryanair aircraft in Belarus could be long-drawn-out

On May 23, a Ryanair flight was forced to make an emergency landing in Minsk by a MiG-29 fighter jet of Belarus. The dissident Belarussian journalist, Roman Protasevich, who was travelling in the commercial, civilian aircraft, was subsequently arrested. The whole operation, it is alleged, was carried out on the orders of President Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus for 27 years.

Global reaction

The incident received considerable global attention. The European Union (EU) and the U.S. denounced it and called for a thorough investigation by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). EU-based carriers have since heeded the call to avoid overflight of Belarus. Belarusian flights have been barred from overflying EU airspace or landing at its airports. Air France, British Airways, Lufthansa, KLM and a host of other airlines have implemented their own suspensions.

At a special meeting convened on May 27, the ICAO Council expressed strong concern at the incident and launched a fact-finding investigation. Official requests for information were sent out to the countries involved in the event. Belarus and Poland have provided some preliminary details. Information is awaited from Greece, Ireland, Lithuania and Switzerland. An interim report is expected to be presented to the ICAO Council by the end of its current session, on or near June 23. The report is expected to be considered only at the next session, which begins on September 13.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called the incident an “attack on democracy”, an “attack on freedom of expression”, and an “attack on European sovereignty”. The U.S., EU, and the U.K. have slapped further sanctions on Belarus. How justified was Belarus in taking such a decision? The answer lies at the junction of Belarus’s domestic laws as a sovereign country and international laws governing the action that states can legitimately take to deal with threats to security, real or perceived.

Not the first of its kind

The flight that the 26-year-old fugitive blogger boarded was operated by the Irish low-cost airline, Ryanair. It was on its way from Greece to Lithuania. While traversing the airspace of Belarus, an ostensible ‘bomb scare’ forced the aircraft to make an emergency landing in Minsk for standard checks. It turned out to be a false alarm. Mr. Protasevich, whose presence on board is suspected to be the real reason behind the action, was taken into custody soon after.

According to media reports, Mr. Protasevich, who had fled Belarus for Poland in 2019, had been in Greece to attend an economic conference with other Belarusian dissidents. There, the blogger also covered the visit of exiled Belarus Opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya.

If convicted, he could face a long prison term or worse. After all, Belarus is the only country in Europe that hands down the death penalty.

Mr. Protasevich’s case is not the first of its kind. Abdolmalek Rigi, head of the Jundullah militant group, accused by Iran for fomenting attacks in the province of Sistan-Baluchistan, was similarly arrested in February 2010. According to Iranian media reports, Rigi’s plane was forced to land in Bandar Abbas by Iranian aircraft while on a flight from Dubai to Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan. Rigi was subsequently tried and executed. Itek Air, a small Bishkek-based airline, folded up in 2010 for unrelated reasons. There is no direct parallel between Mr. Protasevich and Rigi except that both men were wanted by the governments of their respective countries and their custody was secured through very unconventional means.

Pressure to divert passenger aircraft from preordained flight paths could be on grounds of a security threat or for political reasons. In 2013, during the manhunt by the U.S. for National Security Agency whistle-blower Edward Snowden, Bolivian President Evo Morales’s plane was forced to land in Austria after several European countries refused the aircraft permission to enter their airspace, allegedly due to pressure from the U.S. According to reports, there was suspicion that Mr. Snowden might have boarded the President’s plane in Moscow. As it turned out, Mr. Snowden, who later obtained asylum and stayed on in Moscow, was not in the aircraft. Following the incident, seven Latin American countries voiced their concerns to the then UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon, who asserted that “a Head of State and his or her aircraft enjoy immunity and inviolability”.

An issue with many dimensions

The issue of the use of military aircraft to neutralise potential threats posed by civilian aircraft acquired a different kind of urgency in the aftermath of terrorist attacks in the U.S. on September 11, 2001. Generally speaking, international law grants sovereignty to nations over their airspace as it does in territorial waters. The Convention on International Civil Aviation, better known as the Chicago Convention of 1944, to which Belarus is a signatory state, prohibits any unlawful intervention against a civilian aircraft. At the same time, it has various provisions under Article 9 which permit a sovereign state the right to impose restrictions, including enforced landings at a designated airport in its territory, in “exceptional circumstances or during a period of emergency, or in the interest of public safety”. Once a flight has landed, Article 16 provides the host country the right to board/search the aircraft. This is probably the clause that provided cover for the local authorities to board Mr. Morales’s aircraft in Austria in 2013. But the Chicago Convention applies only to civilian aircraft of the contracting parties. In this case, the national carrier, Belavia Belarusian Airlines, is not involved though it is part of the targeted sanctions by the EU.

International law might also have to be examined in light of the International Air Services Transit Agreement (IASTA), also concluded in Chicago in 1944. According to this agreement, contracting states grant to one another the freedom of air transit in respect of scheduled international air services, that is, the privilege to fly across territories without landing. Belarus is not a signatory of IASTA. For that matter, neither is Russia, which is the main supporter of Mr. Lukashenko.

Given the multiple interpretations possible under the Chicago Convention and related agreements, the investigation could be a long-drawn-out affair. The International Court of Justice does consider ICAO-related cases, but it cannot enforce its decisions. The United Nations Security Council is a divided house and, in any case, does not consider unlisted agenda unless the case constitutes a major threat to international peace and security. This is not a matter that easily lends itself to technical consideration, given that it goes beyond the issue of a forced landing of a civilian airliner to encompass broader geopolitical issues. A meaningful outcome from the ICAO investigation may therefore prove evasive.

Sujan R. Chinoy, a former Ambassador, is the Director General of the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi; views are personal

A new report shows that many Indians know misinformation about the pandemic often comes from the top

When asked what source of false or misleading information about the novel coronavirus they are most concerned about, many more Indians highlight domestic political actors than worry about activist groups, foreign governments, or journalists.

Source of prime concern

Nearly one in four (23%) in our recent survey say that the Government, politicians or political parties are the source they are most concerned about. That is more people than worry about misinformation from platforms such as Facebook (16%) or YouTube (14%). Among platforms, only messaging applications (e.g. WhatsApp) generate more widespread public concern among our respondents. They are named by 28%.

Meanwhile, Indian authorities often seem mostly interested in going after alleged misinformation from activists (only 9% of our Indian survey respondents identify activist groups as the most concerning source of false or misleading information about the coronavirus), select journalists and news organisations (named by 13%), or on Twitter (which just 4% identify as the platform they are most concerned about).

Our survey (https://bit.ly/3xECltc) only covers English-speaking Internet users in India, so while it captures an important minority, the data are not representative of India’s overall population. Still, it provides insight into how many Indians see the “infodemic” that has accompanied the pandemic, an immense wave of information that, unfortunately, also includes some false and misleading material, rumours, and attempts to exploit the crisis for propaganda or for profit.

The picture is clear — many Indians think that misinformation about the pandemic often comes from the top.

Are they right? Both academic research and independent journalism suggest that they might well be.

‘Network propaganda’

Study after study around the world has found such “network propaganda” (https://bit.ly/3zQ1djM), where misinformation is spread by some top politicians, nakedly partisan news media who cheer them on, and well-organised communities of political supporters active on social media and messaging applications.

Top-down misinformation from politicians, celebrities, and other prominent public figures are a small part of the false and misleading claims one can come across online in terms of raw volume, but our research (https://bit.ly/3zJKVst) during the pandemic shows it accounts for a large share of social media engagement.

Even when political actors are not busy drumming up outright propaganda in the media and on digital platforms, authorities also sometimes risk misleading the public in other ways.

In country after country, reporters have found that official COVID-19 death tolls are far lower than the actual excess deaths recorded during the pandemic – asThe Hindufound in Tamil Nadu (https://bit.ly/3gWGyBG) by comparing Civil Registration System data with the officially reported figure.

Unproven claims

And politicians have sometimes promoted supposed coronavirus remedies with no scientific basis. Former President of the United States Donald Trump and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro are prominent international examples. In India, some politicians have, for example, claimed that cow urine can protect people against COVID-19, even as the Indian Medical Association (IMA) pointed out there was absolutely no evidence for this, just as the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare last year came under severe criticism from for recommending a range of unproved, alternative remedies to prevent or treat the disease.

Some misinformation circulates peer-to-peer on social media and on encrypted messaging services as people share supposed miracle cures and ineffective alternative health tips in good faith or carelessly. This can create problems. But arguably, far more problematic is when people in positions of authority and prominent public figures promote measures that have no scientific basis in the middle of a deadly pandemic.

Examples from India

One prominent example is the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Haryana State government announcing last month that it would hand out one lakh Coronil kits to COVID-19 patients for free.

The ayurvedic remedy was launched in June last year by Baba Ramdev’s company, Patanjali Ayurved, and at a press conference the yoga guru claimed (https://bit.ly/3gKUPCI) the remedy guaranteed “100 per cent recovery from COVID-19 within seven days of consuming the medicine”. Hours later, the central government asked Patanjali Ayurved to stop advertising the drug (https://bit.ly/3gVPjfd) and the Uttarakhand Ayurveda Department responsible for licensing the remedy pointed out the licence was for an immunity booster, not a cure.

In February this year, Ramdev’s company falsely claimed Coronil was certified by the World Health Organization (WHO) — a claim WHO immediately pointed out was untrue. And the yoga guru appeared at an event with Union Minister of Health Harsh Vardhan promoting alternative medicines for COVID-19 patients, leading the IMA to ask the Minister how ethical it is “to promote the product in unethical, wrong and false ways to the whole country? (https://bit.ly/3wMJjwk)”

The promotion and provision of what the IMA describes as an “unscientific medicine” marketed with “false and baseless” claims is an example of how misleading information from prominent public figures and people in positions of authority can lead to bigger problems than random falsehoods spread by ordinary people online and offline.

If authorities in India are serious about addressing misinformation, they might take a cue from the fact that much of the Indian public clearly recognise that misinformation often comes from the top, and spend less time worrying about activists, journalists, and Twitter, and more time thinking about how to ensure that citizens can trust that the health remedies promoted by their own governments and by prominent political figures are actually safe and effective.

Professor Rasmus Kleis Nielsen is Director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford and co-author of the ‘2021 Reuters Institute Digital News Report’

Parents face many challenges but there are ways to cope

The pandemic-related lockdowns have not been easy for anyone, but they have been particularly difficult for children, parents, teachers and the elderly.

Learning from home

Children have been mostly indoors for over a year. Toddlers may not remember this period later, but for older children, there is little at home to stimulate their curious, active minds. With schools remaining shut, children have been attending online classes. Many parents have reported that their children, especially in the 4-6 age group, have been finding it hard to focus during online classes. Mothers have said during counselling sessions that their children have shown disinterest and lack of motivation. Some don’t participate during class; they keep themselves busy on their parents’ phones and other gaming sites, or by chatting with their friends. To make matters worse, children are inclined to unwind after a long day of virtual learning by again being on their gadgets. Parents deal with this problem in various ways: they grab and hide the devices, turn the WiFi off, and beg and plead with their children to fall in line. But these requests often fall on deaf ears and finally the parents give in. Once the pandemic ends, a great challenge is going to be to cure children of their screen addiction. Studies have found that limiting the use of online time can lead to significant reductions in loneliness and depression.

Since this is a new system for schools too, teachers are unable to constantly keep track of what the children are up to. Online tests and assessments cannot always be monitored. Some parents have said that they have caught their children cheating during tests. Teachers too are heading towards a burnout. They have had to learn new ways of making virtual classes engaging and fun and prepare content accordingly. While in the classroom, teachers give special attention to children with learning difficulties, this hasn’t been possible during the pandemic. Children with dyslexia, dyscalculia, etc. have it especially hard at a time like this. It has become almost entirely the parents’ responsibility to help the child, when they themselves are overburdened. With no day-care centres, after-school care centres, play dates, sleepovers, birthday parties and so on, it has become the task of the parents to help in their children’s education, look after them, and entertain them, all while doing their own work.

Higher school students have reported different issues. There have been challenges in learning in the absence of laboratories and field visits. Many are set to graduate from school without having met their friends for over a year. While this may not be a problem for all students and some enjoy being at home, others may find it more challenging to re-enter social life and should do so slowly. Entrance exams have been postponed for college admissions and so, students feel demotivated to prepare.

Further, the pandemic has exacerbated the divide between the rich and poor. The lesser privileged children who have had little or no access to smartphones, computers and Internet have reported feeling dejected. School dropouts are becoming a problem.

How can parents help?

While the situation can improve only when the pandemic abates and schools reopen, parents and teachers can do a few things to keep the children happy and engaged. If parents are proactive and positive, this could have a big impact on their children. Children pick up quickly on parents’ fears and so it is important for parents to remain calm and patient and meet their children’s concerns in an age-appropriate manner. If parents show that they are resilient, children too will learn to be that way. To keep the children engaged at home, parents can assign them tasks and chores. They can train their children to cook, clean, and focus on basic hygiene. All this will help the children throughout their adult life. Parents should also look out for signs that indicate that the child is having trouble coping. If children are unable to follow a routine, sleep poorly, and constantly complain of anxiety, fear, etc., parents should take note. All these emotions could have a long-term impact on the children. Parents can also set an example by doing a digital detox. Spending time with young children and listening to their stories is important as they require a lot of attention. If parents are unavailable, children will seek out others online, which could be dangerous. Pursuing hobbies, exercising, and hitting the outdoors while following COVID-19 protocols will all help keep the body and mind active and refreshed. Each child is unique and needs to be dealt with differently.

Nandini Raman is a Chennai-based counsellor

The threat of a third wave and new variants make speedy, complete inoculation a priority

India began the week with a record, by administering over 8.6 million doses of vaccine on a single day, an impressive feat even from a global perspective. For most of May, India struggled to deliver over 2 million doses a day and beginning June, managed to hike it to over 3 million doses daily. These are substantial numbers, but inadequate, given that the benefits of mass vaccination would be discernible — in terms of reducing hospitalisation and mortality — only after a large percentage of the population is inoculated. By that metric, India is a global laggard with only 17% of the population covered by at least one dose and less than 4% by two. The U.S., in comparison, has inoculated at least 53% and the U.K. 64% with a single dose. In that light, India on a single day being able to administer over twice the previous weeks’ daily average makes plausible the Centre’s aspiration to inoculate all of India’s adult population by the year-end. So far, about 25% of them have been administered at least one dose and to reach the 944 million adult population, it requires above eight million jabs every day until the year-end.

While India has, as part of its polio vaccination programmes, administered vaccines to millions of children in a day, a one-day record is not evidence that the trend is sustainable. Most States substantially increased their daily count on June 21 but three stand out: Haryana, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh. However M.P., records show, never peaked over five lakh a day until Monday when it nearly quadrupled this number. Haryana’s historic high (and average) has hovered around 1.5 lakh but it more than tripled that on Monday and Karnataka, with a previous high of 2.6 lakh, multiplied that fivefold with 11 lakh jabs. To substantially increase vaccination, both the number of vaccination sessions and doses administered must increase. Some States had organised mass vaccination drives and the rules allowing spot-registration of those between 18-44 years unlike the previous requirement of pre-registration on CoWIN may have helped with the boost. India’s vaccination programme primarily rests on the shoulders of Covishield and by August the numbers of Covaxin are expected to at least equal the monthly supplies of Covishield. Were that to happen, it would help with administering at least between five to six million doses a day and ought to prompt the Government to rethink its policy of a 12-16 week gap between Covishield doses to ensure that more people are fully vaccinated. The threat of a third wave and new forms of the delta variant make speedy, complete inoculation a priority, and this ought to be the driving force of India’s vaccination programme.

Overregulation risks retarding growth andjob creation in the e-commerce sector

Barely 11 months after the Government notified the Consumer Protection (E-Commerce) Rules, 2020, the Department of Consumer Affairs has mooted a set of sweeping amendments, ostensibly “to protect the interests of consumers... and encourage free and fair competition in the market”. Among them is a norm stipulating the appointment of a chief compliance officer, a nodal contact person for 24x7 coordination with law enforcement agencies, and another requiring e-commerce entities offering imported goods or services to ‘incorporate a filter mechanism to identify goods based on country of origin and suggest alternatives to ensure a fair opportunity to domestic goods’. A third mandates a fall-back liability on online marketplaces in the event of non-delivery of goods or services to the consumer. Registration has also been made mandatory for all e-commerce players; specific ‘flash sales’, including ‘back-to-back’ ones, are set to be banned; and all entities must provide information within 72 hours on any request made by an authorised government agency probing any breach of law including cybersecurity issues. While on the face of it none of these new rules appears exceptionable, especially when e-commerce tops the National Consumer Helpline’s complaints chart, there is still a distinctly discernible pattern to the changes. Following on the heels of the recent IT (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, the draft e-commerce amendments show the Government’s increasing keenness to exercise greater oversight over all online platforms.

The Centre also appears to be signalling its intent to dig in its heels in an intensifying stand-off with Walmart’s unit Flipkart, and Amazon, which are both now in court battling an attempt by the Competition Commission of India to reopen a probe into their business practices. The two large e-commerce players have had to contend with accusations that their pricing practices are skewed to favour select sellers on their platforms and that their discounting policies have hurt offline retailers. The fact that the latest changes expressly seek to ensure that none of an e-commerce entity’s ‘related parties and associated enterprises is enlisted as a seller for sale to consumers directly’ could also impact several platforms that retail products supplied by vendors with arm’s length ties. The enforcement of many of these norms is bound to spur protracted legal fights. Asserting that the amendments were not aimed at conventional flash sales, the Government said it was only targeting certain entities engaged in limiting consumer choice by indulging in ‘back-to-back’ sales wherein a seller does not have the capability to meet an order. In trying to address shortcomings in its rules from last year, the Government appears to be harking back to an era of tight controls. Overregulation with scope for interpretative ambiguity risks retarding growth and job creation in the hitherto expanding e-commerce sector.

Dalit-Muslim alliances are not enough to restore secularism; upper caste Hindus are needed too

Ever since the Sachar Committee Report of 2006 demonstrated that the socio-economic conditions of Muslims have worsened compared to Dalits, some have argued that Muslims have become India’s new Dalits. It is further proposed that the two communities should forge an alliance to fight the Hindu Right to restore secularism because together they constitute a significant number: Muslims constitute 14.2% of the population and Dalits, 16.63% (Census 2011).

Differences

There are some basic differences between the two communities. Muslims are historically a multi-class community, whereas Dalits are evolving into one, boosted by reservation policies. There are further nuanced differences. Consider rhetorical questions such as: who is the Shah Rukh Khan or Sania Mirza or Bismillah Khan of Dalits? In the psychological domain, discrepancies are equally apparent. A working class Muslim can embrace the Red Fort or the Taj Mahal as a proud legacy of his ancestors, but Dalits have no such iconic symbols. Thousands of years of subjugation of Dalits by upper caste Hindus have presented them as people not worthy of history or even without history. The Hindu Right has weaponised the history of Muslims against them. Therefore, BSP leader Mayawati had compelling reasons to build statues of Dalit icons, which received flak from many upper caste Hindus.

Dalits continue to suffer from organised violence unleashed by upper caste Hindus. The flogging of a Dalit family in Una in 2016 is a case in point. Some Dalits, research suggests, have occasionally participated in violence against Muslims in riots (in Gujarat in 2002, for instance). In modern India, Muslims have not participated in organised violence against Dalits, nor have they systematically raised their voice against it because Muslims are quite lost as a political community. This explains their failure to organise a worthwhile resistance against lynching. Whatever protest occurred was spearheaded by secular forces with artists and intellectuals at the forefront. Muslims almost seemed like benign onlookers. The anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act protests were a face-saver, but those too was below the potential of a 200 million-strong community.

In rare instances, there are warm social relationships between a fraction of the Pasmanda community, Dalit Muslims and Dalit Hindus. Nevertheless, social bonding between the Ashraf Muslims and Hindu Dalits is constricted. B.R. Ambedkar knew this. Once he chastised a Muslim man who declined to offer him water by saying untouchability has no place in Islam. In his speech on conversion on May 31, 1936, Ambedkar exhorted Dalits to leave the Hindu fold for any religion including Islam.

In recent years, upper caste Hindus have gravitated towards the Hindu Right causing the breakdown of the secular project for at least two reasons. First, upper caste Hindus have been persuaded by the Hindu Right’s campaign that Indian secularism is a Muslim project. In every election, the BJP deploys incendiary concepts such as ‘appeasement’ and ‘vote bank politics’ with greater intensity to deepen the politics of polarisation. This triggers asymmetric counter-polarisation among Muslims. Second, policies of the Western states in the post-9/11 era contributed to Islamophobia’s rise. This swayed the Indian diaspora, drawn mainly from upper caste Hindus. They fail to register the distinct multicultural profile of Indian Muslims. While a good fraction of upper caste Hindus is now wedded to the Hindu Right’s majoritarian project, plenty embrace it for circumstantial reasons and remain indifferent to Muslim suffering.

The paradox of Indian democracy is that upper caste Hindus, a tiny minority, control the labyrinth of power in all spheres. Even historically, the Mughals and the British had to have upper caste Hindus in their army and bureaucracy to run their empire. Therefore, the upper caste Hindus have to be on board to restore India’s wounded secular project because Dalit-Muslim alliances are not enough.

Shaikh Mujibur Rehman teaches at Jamia Millia Islamia and is author of the coming book, ‘Shikwa-e- Hind: The Political Future of Indian Muslims’

New Delhi, June 22: Preliminary investigation has shown broadly that the Chinese literature airdropped by balloons in Bihar villages on June 18 last was of Kuomintang Chinese origin and it would therefore be far-fetched to link it with communist or naxalite activites, the Minister of State for Home Affairs, Mr. Ram Niwas Mirdha, told the Lok Sabha to-day. Mr. Mirdha was replying to a volley of supplementaries after making a statement in response to a calling attention motion on the reported air-dropping of Chinese literature, banner, garments, torchlights, biscuits and transmitters for the naxalites by a Chinese plane in the fields of Tidarampur and Palani villages in Monghyr district of Bihar last week. Mr. Mirdha told Mr. Bibhuti Mishra (Cong. R) and four others, who raised the issue, that a full report had not yet been received from the Bihar Government, which was inquiring into it. He was, therefore, unable to give details of the articles recovered and whether or not a tranmitter was among them.