Editorials - 26-06-2021

In June, six Maoists including top leaders of the CPI(Maoist) were killed by the Greyhounds in Koyyuru mandal in Visakhapatnam Agency.Sumit Bhattacharjeereports on the setback to the movement which is already at its lowest ebb in the region

On June 16, rain-bearing clouds loomed over Koyyuru mandal in Visakhapatnam Agency, about 170 km from Visakhapatnam city. The monsoon had set in. The entire mandal is thickly forested, with hillocks, deep caverns and perennial streams. Soon, there was a steady drizzle.

A team of around 30 Maoists, including some senior leaders, from the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist) were camping on a hillock about 800 m high in the middle of this jungle near a village called Theegalametta. At around 9 a.m., while one group of Maoists, sheltered under plastic tarpaulins, was busy cooking a meal, the others were reportedly gearing up for an important meeting.

There are two versions of what happened a few minutes later. According to a letter from the Maoists, the unsuspecting group suddenly came under heavy fire from the elite anti-Maoist force of Andhra Pradesh, the Greyhounds. Surprised by the fire power and stealth attack, the Maoists took time to respond. The exchange of fire reportedly lasted for about 25 minutes and left six Maoists — three women and three top leaders — dead. According to the official version, the Greyhounds asked the group to surrender but was forced to retaliate when the Maoists opened fire.

A serious setback

Visakhapatnam Agency, located in Viskhapatnam district, is around 6,200 sq km and has 11 mandals. Koyyuru is one among them. The district administration and the police have declared all the 11 mandals as “Maoist-affected”.

Among the dead were two Divisional Committee Members (DCM) and one Area Committee Member (ACM). The six were identified as Ranadev alias Arjun (DCM), Sande Gangiah alias ‘Dr’ Ashok (DCM), Santu Nachike (ACM), Lalitha, Madakm Chaite, and Paike. Ranadev and Nachike were from Odisha; Ashok was from Pedapalli in Telangana; Lalitha was from GK Veedhi, another Maoist-affected mandal in Visakhapatnam Agency; and Chaite and Paike were from Chhattisgarh.

Ranadev was among the few committed Maoist leaders left in the region. He had been part of the movement for about 20 years and was known to be an elusive and fierce fighter. He had earlier led the Kalimela Dalam. (Dalams are Maoist groups which operate in particular areas.) Not too long ago, he was moved to Boipariguda in Koraput, Odisha, after the merger of the Kalimela and Koraput Area Committees.

The killing of Sande Gangaiah alias ‘Dr’ Ashok is a serious setback to the group as he was leading the medical team in the region. Ashok was not a qualified doctor; he had learnt the rudiments of nursing from local Registered Medical Practitioners. It is said that he could even perform minor surgeries, including treating bullet wounds. He hailed from a family of committed Maoists. His older brother, Sande Rajamouli, was the mastermind behind the mine blast in Alipiri in 2003 in which former Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu was injured. Rajamouli was killed in 2007 by the police.

The security forces also recovered one AK-47 rifle, two carbines, two modified .303 Lee Enfield rifles, one country-made weapon, at least one single-barrel muzzle-loading gun, some ammunition, explosive materials, extremist literature, VHF sets, medicines and kit bags from the spot.

Sources say that some senior leaders such as Gajarla Ravi alias Uday, Secretary of the CPI (Maoist) Andhra-Odisha Border Special Zonal Committee; Aruna, the next in command; and Kakuri Pandana alias Jagan, who is in-charge of the Galikonda area were present at the campsite, too.

The attack

A senior police officer as well as tribals in the nearby villages say that the police had been aware of the Maoists’ presence as barely 20 days ago, there had been an exchange of fire at another place in Koyyuru. This attack was made possible by specific intelligence inputs, sources say.

During the monsoon, for at least two months, many villages in the interior parts of the district remain cut off from the mandal headquarters. Traversing the area, which has slippery red soil, and streams and rivulets in spate, is fraught with danger. Given the difficulty in negotiating the terrain, both the Maoists and the security forces normally let their guard down during this time. While the Maoists refrain from their tactical counter offensive campaign (when they carry out maximum attacks against security forces), the security forces scale down their combing and area domination operations.

According to sources in the police, the Greyhounds trekked overnight for at least 15 to 18 km in pitch darkness and swam the last lap to reach the vantage point early in the morning.

But the most difficult part was climbing the hill without getting noticed. Sources in the police say that initially, the security forces had asked the Maoists to surrender, but the Maoists opened fire and the Greyhounds team retaliated. There was no question of surrender, say the police, as all the senior Maoist leaders were reportedly present at the spot. Their surrender or death would have meant an end to the movement in the Andhra-Odisha Border region. “That is why they fired at us and escaped under cover fire. But six lost their lives,” says a senior officer engaged in anti-Maoist operations in the region.

This attack was similar to the Ramaguda attack that took place in the cut-off region of the Andhra-Odisha Border, in October 2016. In that attack, over 30 Maoists, including some top leaders, were killed in a single operation. That operation too was led by the Greyhounds.

Inhospitable terrain

The Greyhounds was raised in 1989 by IPS officer K.S. Vyas as an elite anti-Maoist force. Seeing its successful operations, many States facing the Maoist problem have raised their own forces.

Training for the Greyhounds is gruelling. Members of the force cannot be over 35 years. Once they cross 35, they are drafted into the civil police until retirement. “Being young gives us an edge in terms of agility, strength and stamina,” says a Greyhounds officer.

During combat operations, each party of the Greyhounds has about 30 men who are trained to trek long distances. They can stay in the jungle at a stretch for over five to six days. At times, they live only on dry fruits, as lighting a fire to cook a quick meal can attract enemy fire or help the enemy detect their location. The members communicate with the base using satellite phones or VHF sets and use scramblers to avoid being intercepted by the Maoists. The Maoists have the expertise to intercept radio communication.

The region is not kind to anyone, whether the Maoists or the Greyhounds. The forces and the rebels are prone to malaria fever. In recent times, COVID-19 has made its way into these remote areas too. Senior leaders such as Gajarla Ravi alias Uday and Central Committee member Akkiraju Haragopal alias Ramakrishna alias RK, who is in-charge of the Andhra-Odisha Border, are down with severe diabetes, eyesight issues and arthritis.

“Lack of sleep and good food has weakened us,” says a senior Maoist leader, who surrendered recently. Nachike, who was killed on June 16, had been diagnosed with COVID-19 and ‘Dr’ Ashok had recently recovered from the virus.

The Maoists use old, stolen police weapons including AK 47s, 9 mm carbines, Lee Enfield .303 rifles, SLRs and country-made weapons or double- or single-barrel shotguns. The Greyhounds naturally have superior arsenal including SLRs, MP-5 carbines, AK-47s with under-barrel grenade launchers, 5.56 mm Insas, 9 mm pistols and Tavor rifles.

While the Greyhounds have had many successes against the Maoists, they suffered a major setback in 2008 when 37 of their men were ambushed by the Maoists when they were crossing the Balimela reservoir in a boat.

The birth of a movement

In undivided Andhra Pradesh, the seed of the armed struggle was sown by the Telangana Rebellion of 1946. The peasant movement was led by communist leaders such as Ravi Narayana Reddy, Puchalapalli Sundarayya and Sulaiman Areeb. They rebelled against the feudal lords of the Telangana region in the princely State of Hyderabad. The armed struggle ended in 1951, when the last of the guerilla squads was subdued by police force.

Though the Srikakulam movement, which began in 1967, was squashed, it inspired leaders such as Kondapalli Seetharamaiah and K.G. Satyamurthi in the early part of 1980s. The movement grew in parts of what is now called Telangana, in districts such as Warangal, Khammam, Adilabad and Karimnagar. It was during Kondapalli’s leadership that the current crop of Maoist leaders such as former General Secretary of the CPI (Maoist), Muppala Lakshmana Rao alias Ganapathi, and the present General Secretary, Nambala Keshava Rao alias Basavraj, joined the movement.

The movement grew due to oppression by feudal landlords and attempts by zamindars to take over lands from tribals. It attracted young and educated leaders such as Lakshmana Rao, a science teacher, and Keshava Rao and Cherukuri Rajkumar alias Azad, both B. Tech graduates from Regional Engineering College, Warangal (now known as the National Institute of Technology). Azad also completed his M. Tech from Andhra University. He was shot dead by the Andhra Pradesh police in 2010.

When the Greyhounds was formed and the police began to make inroads into Maoist strongholds, the rebels were forced to seek a safe haven. “That was when Kondapalli asked leaders such as Lakshmana Rao and Nambala to find safer areas in the Dandakarnya forest and the forests of the Eastern Ghats, which included the districts of East Godavari and Visakhapatnam,” says a former Maoist who rose to the post of State Committee member.

Nambala Keshava Rao, the present General Secretary of the party, along with Bopanna, Ganti Prasad and Ganti Mohan entered Visakhapatnam district via the Chinturu and Rampa areas of East Godavari. For Nambala, getting a hold in the region comprising the districts of Visakhapatnam, Vizianagaram and Srikakulam was easy as he is from Srikakulam. This group led the movement under the People’s War Group banner. The group continued with its struggle until the CPI (Maoist) was founded by the then General Secretary, Ganapathi, with the merger of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist), People’s War Group, and the Maoist Communist Centre of India in September 2004.

The initial base for the CPI (Maoist) was on the East Godavari and Visakhapatnam border that touched Koyyuru mandal. That is why the Maoists named the division, their first in this region, as East Division. It comprises Addateegala, Chinturu and Rampa in East Godavari, Koyyuru in Visakhapatnam (also called Galikonda area), Parvathipuram in Vizianagaram and some tribal tracts of Srikakulam.

Koyyuru became a fertile ground for the Maoists as the area was backward. “Most of the villages were inhabited by the Kondhu tribals, a particularly vulnerable tribal group, who had migrated earlier from Odisha after the dams built across the Balimela reservoir had displaced them,” says Venkata Rao, DSP, Special Branch (Extremist), Visakhapatnam District Police.

“Since most of the villages in the interior parts were inhabited by particularly vulnerable tribal groups, it was easy for the Maoist leaders, who were educated, well-informed and steeped in ideology, to mould them,” says a former Additional Superintendent of Police who served in anti-Maoist operations for over three decades. “Moreover, oppression by the police, forest and revenue department officials paved the way for gaining popular and mass support.”

“Back then, the major issues in Visakhpatnam Agency were getting a good price for forest produce such as honey, rajma, bamboo pulp, neem and adda leaves. Coffee and pepper came later,” says Professor P.D. Satyapal from the Anthropology department of Andhra University. The Maoist even set the price for the forest produce to ensure that the tribals were not exploited by contractors and middlemen.

With Koyyuru in their control, the Maoists expanded their base slowly to Chintapalli and GK Veedhi, known as Korukonda area. Once in control, they established the Galikonda Area Committee and Korukonda Area Committee, which are still functional. The earlier dalams such as Nagulakonda and Thandava were merged with them. From Korukonda area, they moved to Pedabayalu and Munchingput on the Andhra side and Malkangiri, Koraput and Chitrakonda on the Odisha side. The Pedabayalu and Kalimela Area Committees were formed on the Andhra-Odisha Border region that encompassed the cut-off area.

From the first offence in 1981, in which a landlord was killed in Choudidibbalu in Galikonda area, the Maoists have committed over 500 offences, including arson, killing, and planning and executing landmine blasts. In 1993, they kidnapped MLA P. Balaraju and IAS officer Dasari Srinivasulu, and in 2011, they kidnapped IAS officer Vineel Krishna. Earlier, in 1987, they abducted 11 officers, including seven IAS officers, from Gurtedu village. All these officers were returned in exchange for the release of jailed Maoists and jailed tribals, compensation to the families of Maoist sympathisers killed in police custody, cancellation of projects in the area, among other things. From the early 1980s till date, there have been at least 100 “encounters” in which at least 60 policemen and over 100 Maoists have been killed.

An unusual gathering

Given this history and the state’s constant chase of the Maoists, why were all the Maoist leaders present at one spot in Theegalametta? One plausible explanation, according to the official version, is that the Maoists were trying to find a safe haven after the security forces on both sides of the Andhra-Odisha border stepped up the offensive over the last few years. On the Andhra side, four armed outposts under the CRPF have come up at Rallagedda in Chintapalli mandal, Rudakota in Pedabayalu mandal, Pedavalasa in GK Veedhi, and Nurmathi in G Madugula. In Odisha, about 25 company operating bases (COBs) of the Border Security Force and about 10 Indian Reserve Battalion (IRBn) bases have come up. Odisha has been successful in creating about six COBs in the cut-off region, a Maoist hotbed, in Badapadar, Jambai, Jantapayi, Vantalguda, Badapada and Gurasethu, and one IRBN base at Jodombo.

The other reason may have had to do with motivating the tribals to join the movement. Recruitment has practically dried up now due to factors such as lack of tribal leadership and development activities taken up by the police, say police sources and former Maoists. Except for Kakuri Pandana alias Jagan, there is no tribal leader of standing in this region, says Officer on Special Duty Sateesh Kumar, who coordinated the operation.

“The police have taken up a number of programmes. They have provided clean drinking water by sinking borewells, connected villages with roads, launched schemes to train the tribals in various skills, and coached them to join the police force and Central Armed Police Force. The tribals now want roads and cellphone towers, which the Maoists have been objecting to. This has distanced the tribals from left-wing extremism,” says B. Krishna Rao, Superintendent of Police, Visakhapatnam.

The police say that with the security forces stepping up the offensive, the Maoists are on the back foot and are finding it difficult to keep the movement going. From a strength of around 500 cadres in mid-2000, the group has shrunk to a mere 30 now. The recent killings are a big setback to the Maoist movement, which, today, is at its lowest ebb in the Agency and in the Andhra-Odisha Border region.

It must capture the best practices of democratic governance globally, yet be reflective of the idea of India

It is too early to conclude whether the all-party meeting held at Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s residence to reduce the trust deficit between New Delhi and the leaders of Jammu and Kashmir will succeed in building the foundations of a ‘Naya Jammu and Kashmir’. That the meeting was held, remarkably without rancor, does signal a new beginning after the momentous events of August 2019, which included the dilution of Article 370 and the preventive detention of many of the leaders who attended the all-party meeting .

There are also signals that a new minimal consensus could be forged between the mainstream of political leaders in Jammu and Kashmir and the central leadership that could lead to an early return of democratic governance and full Statehood. In its long and chequered history, there have been several and previous occasions during which federal relations have been rebooted and reset and this would not be the first time that a new, forward-looking political compact is executed.

Centre’s policies, the world

It is tempting, especially for out-of-work diplomats, to over-analyse New Delhi’s latest moves within a chessboard of a ‘great game’ being played out, reminiscent of 19th century British strategies in the region. Anyone who has studied New Delhi policies since the troubles of the 1990s will recognise that the Centre’s policies on Jammu and Kashmir rarely shift under international pressure, even while tactical gestures may be made to assuage the sentiments of what the establishment often describes as woolly-headed liberals.

In the hostile atmosphere of the early 1990s, when India was confronted with a full-blown insurgency in the Kashmir Valley and India’s staunchest ally, the Soviet Union had collapsed, the United States Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia (and Central Asia), Robin L. Raphel (with direct access to U.S. President Bill Clinton) questioned Jammu and Kashmir’s accession to India. Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao’s fragile coalition, within an economically precarious India, refused to concede ground in any substantial measure. Surely, it is surreal to believe that the Modi government would do so under pressure from the Joe Biden administration or gratuitous advice from its Acting Assistant Secretary for South Asia, even while the photo opportunity presented by the all-party meeting would, of course, be flashed by the media czars of the Ministry of External Affairs across the globe.

Similarly, while the dangers to Afghanistan from the gradual takeover by the Taliban are real and present, it is difficult to find any evidence that the once-messianic students rooted in the madrassas of the Frontier will now turn their attention to Kashmir. Moreover, any backchannel that exists between India and Pakistan that led to a successful ceasefire on the Line of Control is reflective much more of Rawalpindi’s own internal fault lines and problems on multiple fronts, than any real concession toward India. To be sure, if Pakistan’s leadership wanted a face saver to stand down from its fierce reaction to the ‘Ides of August’, Mr. Modi has provided the very steps to down the ante.

From a position of strength

Counterintuitively, the Modi government seems to have acted unilaterally precisely because there is a window of opportunity where it can speak and act from a position of almost absolute strength. Even while there are stray incidents of violence, terrorism and militancy are at their lowest levels in recent years; there is little popular disquiet that is finding expression in the streets of the towns and the cities of Kashmir; and the separatists are either in jail or are surprisingly silent. The popular press, once a source of anxiety for the establishment, has either been arm-twisted into projecting good news or found it pragmatic to do so given the scrutiny of central law enforcement agencies on almost every private institution of importance and influence in the Union Territory.

The mainstream of political parties, who had been derided by the Centre as the ‘Gupkar gang’et aland detained for months, (who had taken an absolutist stand on the dilution of Article 370) seem to have found at least a modicum of accommodation with the Centre, at least good enough for all of them to respond positively to the Prime Minister’s invitation. In sum the employment of the entire spectrum of Kautilyan policies (saam,daam,dandandbhed— persuade, purchase, punish, and exploit the weakness) have helped to create this new space; this is not to justify the Centre’s conduct, but merely find a convincing explanation for the remarkable degree of acquiescence to the Centre’s policies, admittedly within the convenient judicial cover provided by the Supreme Court of India having admitted but not heard the case on the legitimacy of the dilution of Article 370. As the Harvard trained legal ace, Muzaffar Beigh, apparently declared in the all-party meeting : any discussion on Article 370 could be tantamount to contempt of the Supreme Court given itssub judicestatus.

In turn, the Centre also seems to have realised that there are limits to which Chaplinesque ‘little dictators’ from the bureaucracy, and their minions can deliver in terms of better public services or investment opportunities despite the laudable intentions of the Lieutenant Governor of Jammu and Kashmir, Manoj Sinha.

The state of delivery of public service has not improved significantly nor has promised investment from corporate groups translated into reality. The promise of Kashmir remains just that: the promise of Kashmir!

Need for a local connect

Moreover, the experience in Jammu and Kashmir has amplified the Sangh Parivar’s long-standing recognition that real leaders cannot be manufactured, but have to be connected organically to the grassroots and supported by a cadre of dedicated workers. The over-reliance on a new crop of shifty leaders, who were paraded into television studios or before visiting diplomats (and who zealously mouthedBharat mata ki jai) had the strong imprint of an intelligence operation, and was, in any case, counterproductive amongst even those already sympathetic to New Delhi’s narrative on Kashmir. The elections to the District Development Council demonstrated that the Bharatiya Janata Party, the National Conference, the Congress, Peoples Democratic Party, People’s Conference and the Apni Party — all of whom relied on the political leaders of the so-called Ancien Régime — still had a significant constituency amongst the voters of the State.

Federal relations are dynamic even in countries with almost inviolable rights of the States, including the United States. For most of the 20th century, even much before India’s Independence, New Delhi’s policies towards this border region have moved between tight central control and a gentler federal grip that provided space for autonomous self-governance. When the British sold Kashmir to the Dogra ruler, Gulab Singh, they wanted to secure the frontiers, but not be responsible for governance. But the British Empire too realised, especially within the reign of Pratap Singh, that they could not firewall security from governance.

Use the bedrock of the young

Twenty-first century governance and empowerment requires a federal solution that is contemporary and built on best practices globally. The fresh consensus for a ‘Naya’ Jammu and Kashmir must capture the best practices of democratic governance globally, especially from a country such as Australia which I know best, and yet be reflective of the idea of India: a celebration of diversity in all its forms. The challenge before Jammu and Kashmir’s leaders, old and new, is to arrive at a compelling blueprint for good governance within a framework of healthy federal relations that will be rooted in a vision for peace, prosperity and real empowerment. The bedrock of such a vision must be the extraordinarily talented and gifted young people of the State, who have, despite the troubles, been able to carve out a niche for themselves across the world.

Amitabh Mattoo is Professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and Honorary Professor at the University of Melbourne

With COVID-19 compounding maternal and neonatal complications, vaccination and special facilities must be priorities

India’s demographic dividend is largely dependent on its high birth rate. The number of births in India is ~ 72,000 per day; taking into account the 10 month duration of gestation and pregnancy losses, the number of pregnant women on any single day will be much larger. Currently, the number of new cases of COVID-19 per day and the number of daily COVID-19 deaths in India are among the highest in the world. Maternity services in India, both public and private, already overburdened with large numbers even in pre-COVID-19 times, face a crisis situation with the conditions caused by the pandemic.

A danger

Recent reports from Kerala (The Hindu, May 14, 2021) on pregnant mothers, have uncovered many serious medical problems faced by pregnant women who contract COVID-19 and their new-born — pre-eclampsia, pre-term labour maternal infections, increased caesarean section rates, fetal growth restriction due to placental insufficiency, still births, neonatal infections and respiratory distress. According to a recent publication in theJournal of the American Medical Association, maternal mortality is several-fold higher in COVID-19 positive pregnant mothers than in non-COVID-19 pregnant women. Many pregnant women need admission to the intensive care unit and prolonged hospitalisation. Of all the COVID-19 deaths in the paediatric age-group, neonatal deaths are the most common.

All maternal and neonatal complications increase with maternal obesity and diabetes in pregnancy — problems that are common in pregnant women in India. These facts underscore the need for urgent action to minimise the impact of the coronavirus infection on pregnant mothers and new-born.

There is an urgent need for action from professional bodies to avert a serious calamity; the Government, in consultation with these bodies, should immediately facilitate counselling and care for women in the reproductive age group and provide resources to health-care professionals involved in their care.

Quite early during the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, we cautioned about the potential adverse effects of COVID-19 in pregnancy and urged pre-conceptional advice for women planning a pregnancy during COVID-19 times (The Hindu, September 14, 2020; https://bit.ly/2U3Nghq) — a simple precaution that could have averted serious problems for large numbers of women in the reproductive age group.

Steps to be taken

With the massive increase in numbers of COVID-19 infections with the second wave of the novel coronavirus pandemic in India, and its effect on pregnant mothers, this important matter should be taken up on a war footing, alerting women in the reproductive age group and the medical profession.

Two important steps must be considered immediately: Advise all women to postpone pregnancy till both partners are vaccinated; Offer vaccination to all un-vaccinated pregnant women

Temporary and reversible contraception during COVID-19 times is a simple and effective way to postpone pregnancies and thereby decrease the number of women who would otherwise seek antenatal advice in crowded hospitals and risk exposure to infection. The demands on health-care personnel who provide antenatal care would decrease; they can be redeployed for COVID-19 care and the vaccination programme, public health measures that make huge demands on health-care professionals.

Reduction in the number of antenatal visits, online consultations, protocols for ultrasonography, glucose tolerance test and antepartum fetal evaluation have been introduced by many institutions. This must be followed by all caregivers.

Ultrasound scans are routinely done during pregnancy. Dedicated and safe ultrasound scan centres for pregnant women, manned exclusively by immunised personnel (either vaccinated or after recovery from previous COVID-19 infection) is a need of the hour.

Pregnant women with fever should be considered to have COVID-19 unless proven otherwise and be taken care of in triage areas with all personal protective measures in place till COVID-19 test results are available.

At present, COVID-19 and non-COVID-19 pregnant women coming for delivery are not strictly segregated in many hospitals, it is high time that COVID-19 pregnancies and non-COVID-19 pregnancies are handled in different settings to prevent infecting susceptible mothers. Both types of facilities should be manned by immunised personnel, the first to prevent infections in health-care personnel and the second to prevent infections in susceptible mothers. Unvaccinated health-care workers providing care for pregnant women should be quickly vaccinated.

Clear benefits of vaccination

The health authorities in the United Kingdom and the United States have realised the benefits and the safety of vaccinating pregnant women and have approved vaccination of all pregnant women with mRNA vaccines (https://bit.ly/3xYZIxX). These COVID-19 vaccines have been found to produce a good immune response and, maternal antibodies, demonstrated to cross the placenta and enter the fetus, confer protection against maternal to fetal transmission of the virus. The benefits of vaccination far outweigh the risks.

Pregnancy and the immediate postpartum period are pro-thrombotic states — they favour the formation of blood clots in veins. Of the two vaccines readily available in India, the vectored vaccine (Covishield) was found to be associated with rare but serious side-effects pertaining to thrombosis of the veins draining critical areas such as the brain and intra-abdominal organs, a feature shared by the single dose (Janssen) vaccine; indeed, this side-effect may be a feature of all vectored vaccines against COVID-19. In general, inactivated virus vaccines are safe during pregnancy and the World Health Organization has given a nod to the use of the inactivated Synovac vaccine (https://bit.ly/35WzIHa). Therefore, the inactivated vaccine available in India (Covaxin) may have advantages over the vectored vaccines (Covishield and Sputnik) for vaccinating pregnant women.

The availability and advantages of the vaccine for pregnant women should be publicised and awareness should be created among the public. Vaccine hesitancy in pregnant women is likely to be much higher than in the general population — this should be addressed by information, education and effective communication. Professional bodies recommended to the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare that vaccination be offered to pregnant women after providing adequate information and counselling — and the Indian Council of Medical Research and the Ministry of Health have approved this, welcome steps in the right direction (https://bit.ly/3xRBAgl).

India will do well to enhance vaccination coverage of couples planning pregnancy and pregnant women on a priority basis in order to protect mothers and their new-born.

Lakshmi Seshadri, a former Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, Christian Medical College (CMC), Vellore, is currently Senior Consultant Gynaecologist, Thirumalai Mission Hospital, Ranipet, Tamil Nadu.

M.S. Seshadri, a former Professor of Clinical Endocrinology, CMC, Vellore, is currently Medical Director, Thirumalai Mission Hospital, Ranipet

Restoration of Statehood should be at the start of the revival of the democratic process in J&K

Political leaders from Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) who attended a meeting called by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Thursday came away with a sense of optimism: restoration of Statehood is somewhere on the horizon, even if a total reversal of the withdrawal of the special status remains unlikely. The meeting itself was a surprise, and came at a time when expectations of any quick resolution were very low. But the fact that a spectrum of political leaders got the invitation from the Centre without any set pre-conditions had raised hopes of progress. Eventually, the meeting gave reason to Kashmir’s political class to believe in possibilities that did not seem to exist just a week earlier. But restoration of Statehood to J&K, which was reorganised as two Union Territories, should be the first step in the revival of the democratic political process and not the culmination of some elaborate negotiation strategy. Mr. Modi described the meeting as an “important step in the ongoing efforts towards a developed and progressive J&K”. While committing to strengthen grassroots democracy, he called for quick delimitation of constituencies, after which legislative polls could be held. Home Minister Amit Shah insisted the restoration of Statehood will follow delimitation and elections. Not surprisingly, many participants were not convinced by this sequence suggested by the Centre. But the positives are that the long meeting was freewheeling, without rancour and all parties were united in the demand for the restoration of Statehood. Most participants also sought an assurance to return the domiciliary rights concerning land and State services, but considering the BJP’s strident position, this might be difficult.

As Mr. Modi argued, the focus must be on the future, but this will have to be built on the trust and cooperation of the people of J&K. Decades of turmoil have created unique problems of governance and mistrust. The NC and the PDP, with all their deficiencies, remain India’s best messengers to the people of the Valley. In deciding to engage them, and other parties, the Centre has made a departure from its earlier position. By seizing the opportunity, these parties also showed maturity. Global and domestic factors might have nudged the Centre towards what appears to be a tentative accommodation of other viewpoints. But the political challenge to its decision to hollow out Article 370 is all but fading. The restoration of Statehood has been placed so far down the path that any discussion on special status is unthinkable in the near future. In that sense, the Centre and the BJP have irreversibly reset the conversation on J&K. That success should not blind them to the resentment among the people. Mr. Modi and Mr. Shah will have to look forward to the future rather than being bound by their past rhetoric on Kashmir.

Euro 2020 seems to belie fears of subdued performances due to the pandemic

Conservative play is often international football’s bugbear. National team players spend very little time together for attacking structures and synchronous moves to develop, and a safety-first approach always seems around the corner. Ahead of Euro 2020, there were fears that players will be less on the front foot because of the physical and mental toll the COVID-19 pandemic had exacted. By that yardstick, Euro 2020 has thus far proved to be an entertaining fare, with the enthralling play matching the energy of the returning fans. Compared to the previous edition’s group stage, there have been 25 goals more (94 to 69) and four fewer matches with one goal or less (10 to 14), with just two goalless draws (down from four). Overall, 15 of the 16 countries in the knockouts have a better group stage record than champion Portugal five years ago. Top sides such as the Netherlands, Italy, Belgium and Spain have not moved away from their lively, pressing style of football, despite the tournament coming at the fag end of a long and tiring season. World Champion France has not been swashbuckling, but seems efficient, while Portugal is always a threat with Cristiano Ronaldo around (five goals and one assist). Denmark’s has been the feel-good story, recovering from talisman Christian Eriksen’s on-field collapse owing to cardiac arrest in its opening match, to make it to the next round. Eriksen is now out of danger and Denmark has quickly become the neutral’s choice.

However, it remains to be seen how much of the positivity spills over into the round-of-16, which begins in Amsterdam on Saturday with the Denmark-Wales clash. If ever there was a time for cautious play, it is now, with the competition essentially a single-elimination, winner-take-all affair. France, having won the 2018 World Cup, knows a way around such situations, and with midfielder Paul Pogba in imperious form, it remains the favourite. Italy has been the stand-out team, with its young and energetic outfit coached by the astute Roberto Mancini expected to go far and bury the ghosts of 2018 when it did not qualify for the World Cup. Belgium’s golden generation, led by Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku, seems well-placed to realise the dream of a first major trophy. But its shaky defence needs some shoring up, first against Ronaldo’s Portugal. The most-anticipated pre-quarterfinal clash will however be between England and Germany at Wembley. But both sides have been middling so far, with their halos significantly dimmed. Germany, in particular, was minutes away from elimination, before Leon Goretzka’s deflected goal against Hungary saved the day. But the weight of history can hang heavy on England, for it has won just three out of 11 competitive fixtures against Germany, the last coming 20 years ago.