Editorials - 29-03-2021

The AstraZeneca story shows that in research and development, logistics, transparency and communication also count

The AstraZeneca SARS-CoV2 AZD1222 vaccine, which was developed at the University of Oxford, is a chimpanzee adenovirus strain which was engineered so that it could not replicate any more in humans. The team at Oxford had already begun to use this chimpanzee adenovirus vaccine technology to produce candidate vaccines against many pathogens including influenza, Zika and the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus.

When work began

They had also begun, with the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), to use this technology in preparation for ‘Disease X’. When the sequence of SARS-CoV2 was released in January 2020, they moved very quickly to engineer a new candidate vaccine and begin work on a trial. Sarah Gilbert who led the team with others at the University of Oxford and the Jenner Institute announced very early on that she thought that we would have a vaccine available by October. This was really quite remarkable given that everyone else was predicting that we would not have vaccines available for at least 12 to 15 months.

The team at Oxford and the Jenner had been working for a long time on candidate vaccines, and had the capacity to make pilot lots for clinical trials, but they did not have the capacity to make vaccines at scale, particularly those that would require millions or billions of doses. So, working with CEPI and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Oxford team began discussions with multiple companies in order to figure out who could be a manufacturing and development partner for the vaccine. Initially, it was thought that it might be possible to engage with Merck, an American leader producing vast amounts of vaccines, but ultimately it was decided to go with AstraZeneca, a company that had no experience of vaccines other than a nasal flu spray, but was a British-Swedish pharma conglomerate.

The vaccine began to be tested in humans in April 2020 and technology transfer agreements were agreed with SKBio in South Korea and the Serum Institute of India, and others; the goal was to make a vaccine that was suitable for use in immunisation programmes around the world and could be made at very large volumes. By December we had results that indicated the vaccine worked.

Interpreting the vaccine data

But before and after December, it has been an incredibly bumpy road for AstraZeneca. Before the trial results became available, the trial was stopped for a while to investigate a case of transverse myelitis in the United Kingdom. In India, a case of neurolupus led to questions about the responsibilities of investigators, sponsors and regulators. When the results were announced in December, the first report was by press release and indicated an efficacy of 70%, with some peculiar results showing that in some groups, efficacy could be as high as 90%. It first turned out there were several issues. The vaccine trials compared a single dose and two doses, and decided to go with two doses, but with supply issues, wound up with some people with a single dose and others with two doses, but with varying intervals because there were long gaps while waiting for supply initially, and then closer to the originally proposed four week interval as enough vaccine became available.

To complicate matters further, there was an error in calculating doses, and some individuals had received vaccine doses that had less of the viral vector. Initially, it was reported that highest efficacy was seen with a lower first dose, and scientists scrambled to try and find an explanation. It was hypothesised that it might be because antibodies made in response to the first dose inhibited response to the second dose, but given that the difference was one of 25 billion and 50 billion viral particles, it seemed a bit unlikely.

Later, as more data became available, it was clear that the longer time there was between doses, the immune response and efficacy were better. But considerable damage had already been done because of the messy sequential communications, even though results from multiple analyses were being rapidly published by the Oxford team.

The vaccine data were reviewed by the regulator in the United Kingdom, the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency, which gave emergency use authorisation, and the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation recommended initiation of vaccination in the U.K. with a 12 week gap. The data were reviewed by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the European Medicines Agency (EMA) which also approved the vaccine and recommended its use. Since this vaccine was suitable for use within routine immunisation programmes, this was a reason to celebrate, because Serum, SKBio and AstraZeneca had all committed to making the vaccine available to the COVAX facility which is committed to providing vaccines to at least 20% of the world’s population, irrespective of the ability to pay.

The case in Europe

Unfortunately, the controversies continued. A few European countries refused to use the vaccine in older individuals, citing the lack of data from this subset in clinical trials. And then, cases of haematological side-effects which combined blood clots and low platelets began to be reported. So far, the data do not indicate a signal of side-effects that are above the baseline of thromboembolic events, but in a limited number of cases, the clinical picture is unusual and has been labelled vaccine-induced prothrombotic immune thrombocytopenia by researchers in Norway and Germany. This will continue to be investigated until we understand the association and the level of risk, but it is clear, and stated by the EMA and WHO, that the benefit far outweighs any rare risk.

Even as the vaccine began to be widely used, the global community awaited trials of the vaccine in the U.S. and South America under Operation Warp Speed, and when a press release in March stated 79% efficacy, there was a sense of relief that, finally, clean and clear data from a study that included 32,000 people were available.

This was followed swiftly by an unusual announcement by the U.S. government’s National Institutes of Health to say that the Data and Safety Monitoring Board (DSMB) felt it essential to report that the data were outdated. The company said that they were reporting data until February 17 based on 141 cases and scrambled to get a fuller analysis of 190 cases showing an efficacy of 74% which was released last week. This throws up a lot of questions about why the DSMB felt it essential to bring this up, when other companies like Moderna and Pfizer had also reported first interim and then final results. In any case, the data will be independently reviewed by the Food and Drug Administration, the U.S. regulator, and then perhaps all the controversies can finally be put to rest.

This vaccine has potential, but if this saga highlights anything, it is that in clinical research and development, logistics, transparency and communication matter as much as the science.

Gagandeep Kang is Professor,

Christian Medical College, Vellore

The apex court’s order issuing notice on a petition challenging the Places of Worship Act is disturbing

On November 9, 2019, the Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court gave its judgment inM. Siddiq v. Mahant Suresh Das,which is known as theRam Janmabhoomi temple case. The Bench comprised Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi and Justices S.A. Bobde, D.Y. Chandrachud, Ashok Bhushan and S. Abdul Nazeer. The record does not show who the author of the judgment was, so all the five judges can be said to have authored it. The judgment is an unequivocal expression of approval of The Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991. The Preamble of the Act reads: “An act to prohibit conversion of any place of worship and to provide for the maintenance of the religious character of any place of worship as it existed on the 15th day of August, 1947, and for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto.” Section 5 expressly exempts Ram Janmabhumi-Babri Masjid, situated in Ayodhya, from the Act.

Supreme Court’s observations

After analysing the Act, the Supreme Court said: “The law imposes two unwavering and mandatory norms: (i) A bar is imposed by Section 3 on the conversion of a place of worship of any religious denomination or a section of a denomination into a place of worship either of a different section of the same religious denomination or of a distinct religious denomination. The expression ‘place of worship’ is defined in the broadest possible terms to cover places of public religious worship of all religions and denominations and; (ii) The law preserves the religious character of every place of worship as it existed on 15 August 1947. Towards achieving this purpose, it provides for the abatement of suits and legal proceedings with respect to the conversion of the religious character of any place of worship existing on 15 August 1947.”

The court said that the Places of Worship Act “protects and secures the fundamental values of the Constitution.” It further said, “The law addresses itself to the State as much as to every citizen of the nation. Its norms bind those who govern the affairs of the nation at every level. Those norms implement the Fundamental Duties under Article 51A and are hence positive mandates to every citizen as well.”

The court also emphatically held that “the Places of Worship Act is intrinsically related to the obligations of a secular state. It reflects the commitment of India to the equality of all religions. Above all, the Places of Worship Act is an affirmation of the solemn duty which was cast upon the State to preserve and protect the equality of all faiths as an essential constitutional value, a norm which has the status of being a basic feature of the Constitution.”

The court more pithily stated: “Historical wrongs cannot be remedied by the people taking the law in their own hands. In preserving the character of places of public worship, Parliament has mandated in no uncertain terms that history and its wrongs shall not be used as instruments to oppress the present and the future.”

The court took serious exception to the judgment of Justice D.V. Sharma of the Allahabad High Court wherein he had held, “Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991 does not debar those cases where declaration is sought for a period prior to the Act came into force or for enforcement of right which was recognised before coming into force of the Act.” The Supreme Court declared that this is directly contrary to Section 4 of the Act.

Despite the fact that Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid was exempted from the Act, the Supreme Court expressed its anguish. It said, “On 6 December 1992, the structure of the mosque was brought down and the mosque was destroyed... The destruction of the mosque and the obliteration of the Islamic structure was an egregious violation of the rule of law.”

A deeply disturbing move

Yet, on March 12, 2021, the Supreme Court issued notice to the Central government on a petition that was filed challenging the validity of certain provisions of the 1991 Act. The petition seeks setting aside of Sections 2, 3 and 4 of the Act on the grounds that they “validate ‘places of worship’,illegally made by barbaric invaders.” The Bench consisted of Chief Justice S.A. Bobde and Justice A.S. Bopanna.

The petition is founded, inter alia, on the basis that, “From 1192-1947, the invaders not only damaged destroyed desecrated the places of worship and pilgrimage depicting Indian culture from north to south, east to west but also occupied the same under military power. Therefore, S. 4 is a serious jolt on the cultural and religious heritage of India.”

The Supreme Court’s order on issuing notice on this petition is deeply disturbing on many counts. Every argument being raised now was repelled by the five judges in their binding judgment inM. Siddiq v. Mahant Suresh Das.

Freedom of religion is guaranteed to all citizens under Articles 25 and 26 of the Constitution. The framers of our Constitution debated these Articles extensively. Tajamul Husain said, “As I said, religion is between oneself and his God. Then, honestly profess religion and practise it at home. Do not demonstrate it for the sake of propagating... If you start propagating religion in this country, you will become a nuisance to others... I submit, Sir, that this is a secular State, and a secular state should not have anything to do with religion. So I would request you to leave me alone, to practise and profess my own religion privately.”

Lokanath Misra strongly objected to the right to propagate religion by saying, “Sir, We have declared the State to be a Secular State. For obvious and for good reasons we have so declared...” H. V. Kamath warned, “...because Asoka adopted Buddhism as the State religion, there developed some sort of internecine feud between the Hindus and Buddhists, which ultimately led to the overthrow and the banishment of Buddhism from India. Therefore, it is clear to my mind that if a State identifies itself with any particular religion, there will be rift within the State.”

Pandit Lakshmi Kanta Maitra said, “By secular State, as I understand it, is meant that the State is not going to make any discrimination whatsoever on the ground of religion or community against any person professing any particular form of religious faith... The great Swami Vivekananda used to say that India is respected and revered all over the world because of her rich spiritual heritage.”

T.T. Krishnamachari laid emphasis on the fact that “a new government and the new Constitution have to take things as they are, and unless the status quo has something which offends all ideas of decency, all ideas of equity and all ideas of justice, its continuance has to be provided for in the Constitution so that people who are coming under the regime of a new government may feel that the change is not a change for the worse.”

The 1991 law was enacted to assuage the feelings of the Hindus who had been seeking Ram Janmabhoomi for a long, long time and to reassure Muslims that other places of their worship existing on August 15, 1947 shall be protected. The court rightly gave a quietus to this burning issue. Hopefully that was final.

Dushyant Dave is a Senior Advocate practising at the Supreme Court of India and is former President of the Supreme Court Bar Association

The Muslim laity must shed its docility and challenge the ‘religious authorities’ to be open to Islam’s pluralistic teachings

If Islamist terror is a major international issue today, so is the response to it. For instance, the UN ‘Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief’ flagged the “epidemic proportions” of anti-Muslim hatred with the lament that member states responded to security threats “by adopting measures which disproportionately target Muslims and define Muslims as both high risk and at risk of radicalization”.

Exploring the reasons

In fact, the spread of Islamophobia across the globe has been so rampant over the last couple of decades that it is now considered an industry and a subject of study in psychiatry. Springer, one of world’s leading scientific publishers, brought out a volume in 2019 titledIslamophobia and Psychiatry: Recognition, Prevention, and Treatment.

The Cambridge dictionary describes Islamophobia as an “unreasonable dislike or fear of, and prejudice against, Muslims or Islam.”But the All-Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims (APPG) goes further and equates it with racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness. The APPG has a point because long before the term gained currency, Frantz Fanon, the celebrated anti-colonial writer and psychoanalyst, had engaged with Islamophobia without mentioning it, and saw it as an expression of religious racism of the colonising West.

InThe Wretched of the Earth, which Fanon wrote in the context of the French occupation of Muslim Algeria, he described “the church in the colonies,” as “the white people’s Church, the foreigner’s Church. She does not call the native to God’s ways but to the ways of the white man, of the master, of the oppressor.”

The West’s fear

Despite this depressing reality, the West’s fear of Islam or Muslims has little to do with religion and everything to do with cultural frictions and political rivalries as Graham E. Fuller rightly concluded inA World without Islam. In the case of India too it was the tussle for power that made people like Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, Chandranath Basu, Lala Lajpat Rai, and Bhai Parmanand suspect the Muslims.

If inAnanda Math,Bankim Chandra Chatterjee fictionalised Hindu nationalistic sentiments by narrating how “everyone was angry with the Muslims for the anarchy and lawlessness of their reign”, in the early 1900s, Rai and Parmanand floated the idea of territorially separating Hindus and Muslims long before Jinnah imagined Pakistan.

Even B.R. Ambedkar was not sure about the political stability of an undivided India. In his bookThoughts on Pakistanhe wanted the Hindus to concede Jinnah’s demand for a separate Muslim state because without Pakistan, India would have to contend with 65 million Muslims, while after its creation, this number would fall to 20 million thus greatly reducing the proportion of Muslim to Hindu seats in central and provincial legislatures, which would further fall once weightage was cancelled. It is this same unfounded fear of Muslim numbers that reflects in the recent enactment of laws against “love-jihad” by several Indian States, and raucous calls for a population regulation law in India to “tackle the problem of declining Hindu population and to stop the rise of non-Hindu population”.

The Muslim contribution

But what is inexplicable is, more than seven decades after Partition, anti-Muslim sentiment not just exists but continues to surge in India. Why is this so if Muslims have consciously stayed away from terrorism and never betrayed the faith reposed in them by Prime Minister Narendra Modi who in September 2014 had said, “Indian Muslims will live for India. They will die for India. They will not want anything bad for India.”?

Apart from the aforementioned reasons, the answer lies in the fact that Muslim religious leaders have done nothing to encourage the community to win the trust of other people, a basic requirement for peaceful coexistence. Unlike political trust in liberal democracies which according to British author Marek Kohn is founded upon the suspicion that the powerful will be tempted to abuse power, social trust (as argued by American political scientist Eric Uslaner) is based on the optimistic premise that although people may follow different religions or secular ideologies, they hold fundamental values in common.

The Muslim clergy has miserably failed on this front. It saw the illegal demolition of the Babri Masjid as condemnable act of religious extremism but remained a mute spectator when a Hindu temple was burnt down in Pakistan a few months ago. And when Pakistan’s Supreme Court ordered its reconstruction, no Muslim religious organisation welcomed the decision. However, provocative televangelist Zakir Naik issued a statement that non-Muslims in a Muslim state do not have the right to construct their places of worship even with their own funds. The unIslamic conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque was also greeted with either deafening silence or quiet support.

Similar clerical hypocrisy prevails when it comes to condemning draconian laws in Muslim countries such as those pertaining to blasphemy and apostasy in Pakistan whose blatant misuse has resulted in the murder of both Muslims and non-Muslims. The Islamically baseless concept ofghazwa al Hind(war against India) is another issue on which the Indianulemaare silent. The issue continues to be invoked by the Hindu right to question the loyalty of Muslims, and thus, is yet another reason for Hindu-Muslim mistrust.

Overcoming the suspicion

If this climate of suspicion has to be overcome, the Indianulemamust emphatically declare the concept ofghazwa al-Hindto be unIslamic apart from clarifying that India is notdarul harb(abode of war). They must also announce that the wordkafirhas no pejorative overtones and does not refer to non-Muslims. Apostasy and blasphemy have also got to be removed from the list of capital crimes under Islamic law.

In short, what is needed is a radical rethink of Muslim theology. As this is not possible in India with the outdatedmadrasasystem in existence, it is up to the Muslim laity to shed its deferential docility and start challenging the self-proclaimed epistemological supremacy of “religious authorities” and pressurise them into completely revamping themadrasacurriculum to harmonise it with the pluralistic teachings of Islam and modernity. There is no other antidote to Islamophobia from within.

A. Faizur Rahman is Secretary-General of the Islamic Forum for the Promotion of Moderate Thought.

E-mail: themoderates2020@gmail.com

Reporting alone can confront the lack of transparency in the legislature and judiciary

On March 24 last year, the Government of India imposed a sudden, harsh lockdown to curb the spread of COVID-19. In doing so, it gave the people of the country less than four hours to prepare for the eventuality. How successful have the governmental measures been in containing the pandemic? What explains the second wave we are witnessing now? Apart from the health cost, the pandemic has taken a huge economic, ethical and moral toll on the population. In their research for the UNESCO, with the support of the International Center for Journalists, Julie Posetti and Kalina Bontcheva document how the pandemic has spawned potentially deadly misinformation and disinformation that directly impacts lives and livelihoods around the world. They point out that one of the techniques adopted by political players to deflect attention from their own inadequacies is to discredit journalists and credible news outlets.

In need of transparency

In these times of unprecedented difficulties, a transparent decision-making system is the only way forward. It will help citizens know where we went wrong and how we can course correct. It will create a situation where we do not heap new policy hardships on the populace over and above an imperious decision that has already pushed many to the brink. We hoped that the highest court will stand with the people of the country in their quest for transparency and openness. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court of India, which first introduced the notorious idea of sealed envelopes, has been in the forefront of upholding and valorising opacity. How else can one read the observation of the first bench in the electoral bonds case where it concurred that the scheme protected the identity of purchasers of electoral bonds in a cloak of anonymity, but came to the conclusion that eventually the State Bank of India will know the identity of the buyer? The editorial, ‘In-house secrets’ (March 27), listed out the perils flowing from adopting opaque methods in dealing with complaints against the judiciary: “Should the confidentiality rule always hold the field? Is it possible to dismiss the allegations without disclosing who were heard as witnesses and what material was considered as evidence?”

In this environment where seeking accountability is fast being replaced by endorsing those in power and their decisions, however harmful they may be, the question before journalists is this: How do we help people make informed choices? There are two components to good journalism: providing credible information and making sense of complex realities. One of the key elements that distinguishes a journalist from an onlooker is the nature of the observation. A journalist bears witness to events and happenings and that is vastly different from a casual and sometimes voyeuristic gaze.

The heart of journalism

In the last 35 years, I have been a reporter bearing witness and an opinion writer trying to make sense. I have no hesitation in declaring that reporting is the heart of journalism. It brings in elements of transparency, accountability and the voices of people who are impacted by the decisions taken by governments. Filmmaker Vinod Kapri exemplifies this act of bearing witness, in his documentary1232km,in which he meticulously records the difficulties encountered by a group of migrant labourers in their arduous journey from Ghaziabad, on the outskirts of Delhi, to Saharsa in Bihar.

Six years ago, British journalist Charlie Beckett posed a crucial question: Is good news really news at all? He asked a pointed question: “News can be informed and informing or crass, shallow and swift, but now it is all networked together. The choice is there for the journalists but it’s also there for consumers. Which do you want?” At that time, I did not realise that the executive would become the sole arbitrator of our life.

Let us look at the functioning of our Parliament. In the last six years, the accent has been in getting more bills cleared rather than debating the pros and cons of a policy. Can someone explain the meaning of the claims that the productivity of the Lok Sabha was more than 110% and that of the Rajya Sabha was more than 120%? It was a display of the might of the majority rather than the democratic mediation of ideas. Hence, reporting alone can confront the all-pervasive opacity in the legislature and the judiciary.

readerseditor@thehindu.co.in

Abhorrent practices discriminating against menstruating women should be considered abnormal

In February 2020, college authorities, including the principal, of the Shree Sahajanand Girls Institute (SSGI) in Bhuj, Gujarat, allegedly forced over 60 girls to remove their undergarments to check if they were menstruating. This shocking act, which rightly caused outrage, followed complaints that the girls had entered the temple and kitchen in the premises while on their period, which is against the institute’s rules. Four persons were later arrested.

Notions of purity and pollution

The stigma attached to menstruation and restrictions in the private and public sphere for the duration of menstruation have long been part of women’s lives in India. The stigma finds its roots in the notion of purity and pollution attached historically to menstruation. This was explained exceptionally by Justice D.Y. Chandrachud inIndian Young Lawyers Association v. The State of Kerala(2018), known popularly as the Sabarimala case, a decision that India is still struggling to accept. He reasoned — and rightly so — that any social practice which excludes women from participation in public life as a result of their menstruation is discriminatory on the ground of their sex. This is because it is drawn from the notion of menstruating women being “impure”, a notion which targets the physiological feature of being women.

The first ground for rejecting such practices is thus differential treatment, which directly discriminates women on the ground of their sex and is impermissible under Article 14 of the Constitution. Viewed from another lens, it is also against the notion of substantive equality adopted by the Constitution. In fact, it supports a more formal notion of equality of ‘separate but equal treatment’. Women are treated differently because they have distinct physiological features than men but are nevertheless equal to men. An attractive explanation also used to justify caste discrimination previously is nothing but a guise to perpetuate and exacerbate regressive patriarchal notions of our society and must also be readily dismissed under Article 14.

That apart, such social exclusion can be attacked on the ground of privacy. Incidents such as what took place in SSGI not only attack the ‘sex’ of women, but also impact a deeply personal and an intrinsic part of their privacy, namely, their menstrual status. Restrictions of movement imposed on these students are one of the many attempts of state and non-state actors to take control of their person. It is an outrageous exercise of power to prevent them from leading a dignified life during their period. It is undoubtedly an excessive invasion of a biological feature that makes them women. This surely cannot be the intent of our Constitution and its values we adopted, and needs to change.

Court intervention

Taking cognisance of the incident at SSGI, the Gujarat High Court, in early March this year, proposed to introduce a set of guidelines that prohibit the social exclusion of menstruating women from private, public, religious and educational places. The court also emphasised on the negative impact created by such practices on a woman’s emotional state, lifestyle and, most significantly, her health. While surely a ray of hope, the effect of court intervention is yet to be seen in a society where previous decisions of courts categorically holding menstruation to be a part of the fundamental right to (private) life have failed to change societal notions surrounding it.

The hope for women is that society will slowly but surely get past the taboo around menstruation, and abhorrent practices discriminating against menstruating women will be considered abnormal. That will be a society where no exclusion will be practiced and tolerated, and no discrimination will be perpetrated. It will be a society where women can freely live dignified lives, nurturing all facets of their womanhood. And it will be a society where women will be considered neither polluted nor impure during their menstruation, but will be treated with respect.

Shivani Vij, an advocate, is pursuing a Masters degree from the University of Oxford

Policymakers should mitigate the crisisfacing borrowers during the pandemic

The Supreme Court’s decision on a batch of petitions seeking waiver of all interest during the period of the pandemic-specific moratorium, relief from compound interest for the period for all borrowers without distinction and extension of the moratorium period itself is a fair verdict. The Court has sought to limit the scope of its juridical intervention to the questions of whether any laws have been violated and whether any actions that banks may have taken under the policy guidance of the government and central bank likely violated any rights of the petitioners. Observing that “wisdom and advisability of economic policy are ordinarily not amenable to judicial review”, the Bench denied all but one of the petitioners’ pleas: it held that the government’s decision to limit the waiver of compound interest to loans under Rs. 2 crore was “arbitrary and discriminatory” and directed a refund of all compound interest levied during the moratorium period. The Court justly flagged the absurdity of levying the compound interest on any category of loans since by its very nature it was a penal interest intended to impose a cost on wilful or deliberate default, while a borrower’s decision to defer repayment of instalment by availing of the moratorium could not be considered wilful default by any stretch. This part of the ruling would surely come as a welcome relief to borrowers across categories and loan size, while adding a relatively smaller burden — estimated at about Rs. 7,500 crore — on lenders (or the Centre, if the government decides to foot the bill and spare banks the cost).

On the other hand, the Court appears to have taken a literal view of whether the National Disaster Management Act’s provisions were contravened by authorities’ response to the economic fallout of the pandemic, which it acknowledged to be a disaster due to “biological emergencies”. While the Centre’s and Reserve Bank of India’s arguments that any attempt to extend the moratorium and/or widen the waiver to include regular interest would undermine overall stability in the financial system are undeniably germane, the fact that the pandemic has proved to be an unprecedented disaster in terms of the health and economic costs it has imposed on all sections of society and the economy ought to have evoked a more holistic and expansive fiscal response from the government. Vast sections of small formal and informal enterprises as well as lower income households are saddled with debt that they are certainly bound to struggle to service in the absence of some direct credit support mechanism. So, the Court’s ruling notwithstanding, it behoves policymakers to urgently come up with measures to help mitigate this crisis before lenders are deluged with more defaults.

The electoral bonds scheme undermines the voters’ right to know about funding of parties

The reasons given by the Supreme Court for not staying the issuance of electoral bonds are unconvincing. A Bench headed by the Chief Justice of India, Justice S.A. Bobde, has said there is no justification for staying the scheme as electoral bonds have been released in 2018, 2019 and 2020 without any legal impediment; and that “certain safeguards” have been provided in the Court’s interim order of April 12, 2019. The Court ought to have considered that when the earlier order was passed, the time available was deemed to be too limited for an in-depth hearing. An order favouring the continuance of the scheme cannot be repeated year after year. The portion of the 2019 order asking political parties to submit to the Election Commission in a sealed cover all details of the anonymous contributions received through electoral bonds was meant to avoid tilting the balance in favour of either side until the matter was heard in detail. It was also underscored then that “weighty issues which have a tremendous bearing on the sanctity of the electoral process in the country” were involved. In this context, it defies logic for the Court to maintain that no interim stay is necessary while not giving any indication when it will take up the case for final disposal. The latest order also fails to note that the submission of contribution particulars by political parties was a one-time arrangement. There is nothing to suggest that it applies to subsequent tranches of the sale of electoral bonds. Therefore, to describe it as a ‘safeguard’ has little meaning.

The problem with taking up only applications for stay is that vital constitutional issues do not fall under the zone of consideration. The infirmity in the electoral bonds scheme is not, as the Court seems to suggest, limited to ‘black money’ being used to fund parties. It has laboured to point out that the scheme works solely through banking channels and can be utilised only with KYC-compliant entities. However, the crux of the issue is the anonymity given to corporate donors in combination with the absence of any ceiling. This means that the right to know of voters, recognised as a constitutional right in past rulings, is abridged. Further, the link between contributions and policy-making remains impenetrable to the citizen. Any number of shell companies can be created, and their bank accounts used for making anonymous contributions. The claim that the veil of anonymity can be pierced with a little effort by matching the audited accounts of parties with the statutory filings of companies is quite way off the mark. Parties declare a cumulative figure of amounts received through the bonds. No inference can be drawn by a company’s disclosure of its total contribution to one or more political parties. It is time the Court recognised that the electoral bonds scheme, by its very nature, undermines the voters’ right to know.

The third Conference of the Indian Mathematical Society met to-day [March 26] at the Town Hall, a large and distinguished gathering being present. The Hon’ble Sardar Sunder Singh Majithia, Chairman of the Reception Committee, welcomed his Excellency the Governor in a short speech. The Governor in declaring the Conference open said that he was glad to see there that day not a few of the best known mathematicians in India and he felt that great honour had been conferred on the city of Lahore by their visit. The Governor deplored the death of that brilliant genius Mr. Ramanujan, but he hoped that they had others of similar calibre still. He wished the Conference all success. After the Secretary, Professor Kapadia of Poona had read the report of the society, Mr. Balakram, I.C.S., delivered his presidential address.

Free Bangla Radio to-day [Calcutta, March 28] announced the formation of a Provisional Bangla Desh Government headed by Maj. Zia Khan and said its forces were on the march to Dacca from Chittagong. The march began at 8-45 a.m. to-day, the radio said. The Government would be guided by “Bangla Bandu”, Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, who is directing the liberation struggle from his revolutionary headquarters in Chittagong, the radio said. Major Zia Khan, who also to-day became the chief of the Liberation Army, in a broadcast appeal sought recognition to his government from peace-loving governments. He also sought material assistance for the freedom fighters. Meanwhile fresh troop reinforcements from Karachi disembarked at the Chittagong port to-day and ran against barricades put up by Bangla Desh freedom-fighters, reports reaching here said. The Pakistani soldiers tried to make their way into the town, burning down houses and other structures along the route. The troops arrived by shop three days ago, but could not disembark earlier because of obstructions caused by freedom fighters. An S.O.S by the Pakistani military authorities in Dacca to their west wing headquarters monitored at Shillong, to-day called for more troops and other help. “It is impossible to save Dacca” said the message in seeking to impress upon the military headquarters of the urgency of the demand.