Editorials - 14-05-2021

Political prisoners can be let out on bail and be treated like they are in detention

As the second wave of the pandemic rages across India, the country’s overcrowded prisons are in danger of becoming major hotspots for the spread of the disease. Dozens of political prisoners, mainly civil rights activists, continue to languish in prison indefinitely with no possibility of their trials commencing any time soon. In a conversation moderated byJayant Sriram, Sanjay Hegde and V. Suresh discuss whether political prisoners should be released in view of the pandemic. Edited excerpts:

The Supreme Court has dismissed the bail plea of Gautam Navlakha in the Bhima Koregaon case. When we talk about political prisoners in India, there are a few prominent cases that come to mind thanks to the media — activists arrested in the Bhima Koregaon case, activists arrested during the anti-CAA [Citizenship (Amendment) Act] protests, and those detained in Kashmir. How many others are there that we just don’t hear about and who is not getting any legal aid right now?

V. Suresh:The unfortunate reality is that people seem to think that political prisoners are there only with regard to these high-profile cases. Actually there are cases from about 12-13 States — hundreds of people have been arrested and kept in prison for what are essentially political offences. This means that they have been put in prison on account of their political affiliations or allegations that they participated in conspiracies of a political nature. It’s a pity that many of these prisoners are not known; their cases have not come to the public eye. There are hundreds of Adivasi prisoners in Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand. There are people belonging to the minority communities in Karnataka, Rajasthan, Gujarat, and Maharashtra, apart from Delhi and other places.

Even during the pandemic, we see that political prisoners are repeatedly denied bail with no indication that the trial for the offences they have been put in jail for will start any time soon. What could be the justification for keeping them in prison?

Sanjay Hegde:You have to see why they were arrested in the first place. They were arrested because a political executive, headed by the respective Home Ministries, whether of the Centre or the States, said, do something about these people. The police then file an FIR, do an investigation which results in a charge sheet, and then arrest the person. The arrest is then defended through the courts, and when particularly harsh provisions like the UAPA [Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act] are applied, then, thanks to certain judgments of the Supreme Court, there’s almost no chance of the person getting bail in the interim period. Now, if the UAPA is invoked, or if something like sedition is invoked, technically, the sentence could extend to life. So, these people do not even have the benefit of ordinary administrative orders which have been passed, which say that anybody likely to face a sentence of less than seven years can be released during the pandemic. The courts themselves have passed such orders. It’s a different thing that these trials do not even start. And when they are heard, it will be after the 14 years that a normal life sentence entails. We do not have a system in the country; we have a process. And the process is the punishment.

For prisoners held under provisions like the UAPA, is there any other recourse during the pandemic other than repeatedly applying for bail?

SH:The only other recourse is political, i.e., if the charges are dropped. The state always has the right to withdraw charges. The moment the UAPA or anything is invoked, the judges give it extremely careful attention, more than it deserves, and tend to lean more towards keeping the person detained. None of our laws were built with the idea that a pandemic would intervene. All that we are doing temporarily is suspending ordinary laws during the pandemic or saying that in ordinary cases, we will let prisoners go. But at the end of the day, the virus does not respect how long the person is likely to be imprisoned. The virus just sees people who are huddled together and it spreads. Now, I do not see the logic of keeping people in prison, not giving them bail and putting them at risk of catching the virus. And then letting them die without even a determination of innocence or guilt.

There has to be a method in which the court can say that during the pandemic, you can treat them to be continually in detention, but you can release them to be with their families. Those methods can also be evolved, but they have not been done.

VS:The first thing that we need to acknowledge is the irony in our criminal justice system. To put it as an aphorism, one can say that the law defines offence, but the state defines offender. The law may say that a particular offence will come under the UAPA or will constitute a terrorist offence or a seditious offence. But it is not merely what the law says; it is what the state determines through the arm of the police. When the state defines the offence, that’s when the mischief comes in. We saw that selective interpretation of who an offender is during the Delhi violence last year. Unfortunately, the reality is not taken into account by the courts who know very well the poor conviction rate in UAPA and sedition cases.

Let’s look at the conviction rates as per the NCRB [National Crime Records Bureau] report of 2019. The conviction rate for the UAPA shows a very low 3.1%. If you take earlier laws like TADA [Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act], it was 1.4%. POTA [Prevention of Terrorism Act] was relatively better, but on the whole, we have abysmal conviction rates. These conviction rates in many cases are poor not because the investigating officers goofed up but because these offences often did not actually take place, they were cooked up.

As Mr. Hegde mentioned, the process itself is the punishment and in PUCL [People’ s Union for Civil Liberties], we have been arguing that if you let people out on bail, that itself will reduce the harshness of many of these laws.

Now, in a context like COVID-19, there has been a classification of prisoners into those who are facing a sentence of seven years or less, those who are facing a sentence of more than seven years and those who have been convicted under special laws like the UAPA. This classification was made by a committee set up by the Maharashtra government and it recommended that only the first category can be eligible for release, to decongest the prisons.

This categorisation defies common sense. When you have such a low conviction rate, what is the justification for keeping people inside for long periods during the pandemic when they are at the mercy of the prison administration?

This was challenged in the Bombay High Court by the NAPM [National Alliance of People’ Movements] and went up to the Supreme Court as well, but the classification of prisoners was upheld.

Now, the latest order of the Bombay High Court in a PUCL application before it records that 241 prisoners tested positive. Another worrying fact is that a number of jail staff, too, have tested positive. So, when you look at it from any which angle — jurisprudential, political or humanitarian — there’s no justification for keeping these prisoners in jail for such long periods. The courts have also recorded the fact that 95% of the people who were let out on interim bail had reported back when the situation had improved in January this year. So, there’s no reason why these prisoners should not be out on bail.

Dr. Suresh brings up an issue here, that in India and globally, prisons are considered hotspots for the virus to spread. There have been numerous instances in which the courts have noted that there is an overcrowding of prisons. Have any reforms or solutions to this problem been advocated?

SH:The courts can pass orders but the responsibility for implementation lies with the administration. And if the administration doesn't implement it during a pandemic, it is hardly likely that there will be material before the courts to pull up the administration in contempt or anything like that.

To the best of my knowledge, all that the administrations have been doing is trying to decongest prisons, but this by itself is no guarantee against infection. We have no idea about prisoners’ vaccinations. The congestion still continues because even if people are released on bail or parole, many are unable to meet bail conditions, for instance.

The point is that unless the administration as a matter of policy really looks at all these prosecutions that it has launched and says, okay, where there are no repeat offenders, where the offences are relatively marginal, where people have spent a year or two in prison, it is better to just close the file by withdrawing the prosecution, or accepts plea bargains from the prisoners, so that they can be released into society and into the slightly better safety that the outside world affords, what they’re essentially doing is allowing the possibility of small sentences to degenerate into a sentence of death within the prison walls.

VS:Look at what happened with the case of Sudha Bharadwaj or Siddique Kappan, both very well-known cases. Sudha Bharadwaj was said to be COVID-19 negative but she fell very ill over the past couple of weeks. Kappan, who tested positive for COVID-19, was shifted from a U.P. jail to Delhi because of the Supreme Court. And even before the order had been worked out, the U.P. police took him back, right under the nose of the Supreme Court. Now this shows the type of disdain that the executive has towards even the Supreme Court.

In the case of political prisoners, nobody from outside can go in, there is no communication from inside coming outside. So, if at all you get to know what the situation is outside, it’s more by accident than by a system in place, which makes it all the more important for us to open up these jails. Otherwise, you will only have a sense of casualties which will add to the number of COVID-19 deaths. What’s the point in talking about it in a post-mortem manner when you could have very easily ensured that there is better care for these prisoners? The examples of Sudha and Kappan are only examples; there are probably numerous other examples in other States which are never heard about — Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Bengal, Karnataka, Andhra, and various other States. I think we need to really focus on many of these States because we don’t get to know what’s happening there.

When you have such a low conviction rate [under the UAPA], what is the justification for keeping people inside for long periods during the pandemic when they are at the mercy of the prison administration?

V. Suresh

Cases especially in Asia are not decreasing, with domestic criminal law systems insufficient to deal with this atrocity

The democracy movement in Myanmar is at a critical juncture. On February 1, 2021, the military launched a coup d’état to overthrow the democratically elected government led by Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy.

The military is committed to suppressing the people’s movement, and the police are carrying out unimaginable acts of violence and oppression against those demanding freedom of expression and the restoration of democracy.

Since the coup, the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (WGEID) has received reports of enforced disappearances from the family members of victims. There is concern that there will be a plethora of cases of enforced disappearances, torture, arbitrary detention, and even murder if the situation continues to deteriorate.

Myanmar is not the only country in Asia that enforced disappearances are becoming a major concern. There are other leaders and regimes that have the mistaken notion that they can do anything to maintain their power. Regretfully, this includes using enforced disappearances as a tool to suppress the people.

Concerns around minorities

In China, the Working Group has received numerous reports from family members and concerned civil society organisations that a massive number of enforced disappearances have occurred in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Under the pretext of re-education to prevent terrorism, members of the Uyghur minority ethnic group are forcibly sent to what Chinese authorities call ‘vocational education and training centers’, with no information on their whereabouts and fate given to their families.

The Working Group Chair has met many people from the region who are trying to find out what happened to their family members and they are living in fear. It is especially concerning because the basis for such forced disappearances is often very trivial: for example, having relatives living abroad or maintaining international contacts could lead to an enforced disappearance. ‘Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location (RSDL)’ under Article 73 of the amended Criminal Procedure Law, is used against individuals accused of endangering state security, and is another issue of serious concern. Because RSDL places individuals under incommunicado detention without disclosing their whereabouts, it may amount to a form of enforced disappearance.

Post-conflict issues

Sri Lanka has experienced more than three decades of domestic conflict, which was accompanied by various forms of enforced disappearances. It seemed that there was some hope developing because of efforts by the government to confront its history. However, recently, the government is weakening initiatives it previously started to search for and investigate enforced disappearances and has now returned to promoting a culture of impunity for these crimes.

It is also disheartening to point out that enforced disappearances are being committed in the name of counter-terrorism measures. Increasing numbers of enforced disappearances are being reported in Pakistan and Bangladesh, and it does not seem that the situation will improve in the near future.

Enforced disappearances became widely known to the world in the 1970s and the early 1980s during the ‘Dirty War’ in Argentina where the Argentine military dictatorship committed the forceful disappearances of some 30,000 of its own citizens while denying that they kidnapped, tortured, and murdered them. To fight against these gross and systematic human rights violations, the UN Commission on Human Rights established the Working Group in 1980 as the first special procedure mechanism of the UN Commission on Human Rights.

An enforced disappearance is defined by several constituent elements. First, it is characterised by the deprivation of liberty, where persons are arrested, detained or abducted against their will or otherwise deprived of their liberty. Second, there are grounds for seeking governmental responsibility for the act, including of officials of different branches or levels of government or by organised groups or private individuals acting on behalf of, or with the support, direct or indirect, consent or acquiescence of, the government. Third, such an act typically occurs in the context of a state’s continuous refusal to take relevant action, including refusal to disclose the fate or whereabouts of the persons concerned or refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of their liberty, which places such persons outside the protection of the law.

Remedial measures

Under the Declaration on the Protection of all Persons from Enforced Disappearance (1992), the Working Group works to assist families of disappeared persons to ascertain the fate and whereabouts of the disappeared and to assist and monitor states’ compliance. Additionally, with the assistance of the secretariat members based in Geneva, the Working Group monitors states’ compliance, and documented cases of enforced disappearance. The Working Group receives individual petitions from victims’ families and civil society members, and channels them through to the relevant governments to demand searches for the disappeared persons, investigations, and punishment for those responsible. The WGEID also presses states to offer remedies, including compensation and a guarantee of non-recurrence of the violations.

Since its inception, the Working Group has transmitted a total of 58,606 cases to 109 states, and as of 2020, the number of outstanding cases under active consideration stood at 46,271 in a total of 92 states. Unfortunately, the number of cases of enforced disappearances in Asian states is not decreasing and we are seeing a rapid increase in some countries.

The Working Group has serious concerns about the impact of COVID-19 on enforced disappearances. Not only have enforced disappearances continued during the pandemic, but it has generated new contexts for enforced disappearances and has reduced the capacity of all actors to take the necessary action to search for and investigate cases of disappeared persons.

Ratifying the Convention

To protect the right to be free from enforced disappearances, the international community adopted the International Convention for the Protection of all Persons from Enforced Disappearance in 2006, which became effective in 2010. However, the number of participating states is still very low compared to other treaties. Among 63 member states of the treaty, only eight states from the Asia-Pacific region have ratified or acceded to the treaty. Only four East Asian states — Cambodia,Japan, Mongolia, and Sri Lanka have ratified it.

Asian countries should consider their obligations and responsibilities more seriously and reject a culture of impunity in order to eradicate enforced disappearances. They should also understand that their domestic criminal law systems are not sufficient to deal with the crime of enforced disappearance. An enforced disappearance is a continuous crime that needs a comprehensive approach to fight against it.

While working as an expert for the UN Human Rights Council’s Working Group for the past five years, I have come to understand that one of the most tragic dimensions of the crime of enforced disappearance is the suffering that is inflicted on the people who know the victims. Enforced disappearance is a serious crime that goes against the philosophy of humanity. The pain and suffering of the family members do not end until they find out the fate or whereabouts of their loved ones. Bottles of water and facial tissues should always be readily available when interviewing the family members of the disappeared persons because their stories cannot be told without tears.

Mothers looking for sons, wives looking for husbands, and the children looking for parents demonstrate the endless chain of tragedy in our contemporary world. This human atrocity must end immediately. I hope that the international community will strengthen its efforts to eradicate enforced disappearances as soon as possible.

Tae-Ung Baik, Professor, is Chair, UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances. The article has been co-published with the ‘Melbourne Asia Review’ (https://bit.ly/3fdkWjD), Asia Institute, University of Melbourne

Diabetes control can lower the chances of dangerous side-effects in COVID-19 treatment such as this fungal infection

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to play havoc all over the world and India is no exception to this. While 70%-80% of those affected with COVID-19 recover without many side-effects, about 20%-30% of patients affected with symptomatic COVID-19 might require hospitalisation — here, a minority can get worse and require treatment in an intensive care unit (ICU). Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic was first described from Wuhan in China, it is quite clear that it is people with comorbidities such as being of an older age, obese, having uncontrolled diabetes, heart or respiratory diseases and malignancies, who fare badly.

New worry

The new fear after the treatment of COVID-19, especially in an ICU setting, is contracting a severe disease known as mucormycosis. This is a serious, but rare, fungal infection caused by a group of fungi known as mucormycetes. Mucormycosis usually affects people who have poor immunity, and those with uncontrolled diabetes have the highest risk of developing it. Other risk factors of mucormycosis include steroid treatment, those who have malignancies, HIV/AIDS and those who have been treated with medicines such as deferoxamine for iron overload conditions. When the COVID-19 infection takes a more serious turn, heavy doses of steroids are given to the patient as a life-saving measure. Unfortunately, this can precipitate new onset diabetes in those who do not have diabetes, or substantially raise blood glucose levels in those persons who already have diabetes. This sets the scene for the development of mucormycosis.

Types and diagnosis

Mucormycosis is of several types, of which the commonest is rhino-orbital-cerebral mucormycosis. This starts as a common cold or sinusitis, but soon spreads to the eyes producing redness of the eyes, and later bulging of the eyes known as proptosis. It may eventually lead to paralysis of some of the eye muscles, or even to blindness. It can also spread to the brain, and if this occurs, the prognosis is very grave. Other forms of mucormycosis include the pulmonary form in which the lungs are mainly involved and less common cutaneous mucormycosis or disseminated mucormycosis, where it spreads throughout the body. The last two are also associated with very poor prognosis.

A very high index suspicion of mucormycosis is needed by the clinician treating COVID-19 cases, particularly in the setting of diabetes and steroid use. If the condition is diagnosed early and aggressive treatment given, the prognosis is good. Antifungal drugs such as Amphotericin B are used, but they are quite toxic and also expensive. If the involvement is extensive, radical surgery may be needed as a lifesaving measure in some cases, including removal of the jaw or the eye.

Sugar control, steroid use

It is very important for those with diabetes to keep their sugar levels under very good control. The dose of antidiabetic drugs will have to be adjusted and, in most cases, insulin would be needed to keep the sugars under control throughout the day. If steroids have to be used, their judicious use is recommended. For e.g., steroids should be given only at the appropriate stage of the disease, in optimal doses, and for as short a period of time as possible. Meticulous hygiene and care of the equipment inside the ICU including oxygen tubes and ventilators should be done in order to reduce the risk of fungal and other infections. In the case of mucormycosis, the adage ‘prevention is better than cure’ could not be more true. It is worth emphasising the point that steroids do not have any role in the prophylaxis or the prevention of COVID-19. Indeed, steroids reduce one’s immunity and may actually increase the risk of developing COVID-19. Also, in the initial phase of viremia (medical term for viruses present in the bloodstream), the use of steroids can actually disseminate the virus widely, thereby worsening the COVID-19 infection. It is only when the cytokine storm is suspected, (which usually occurs in the second week of the COVID-19 infection) that steroids should be used, and that too with discretion.

Monitor blood glucose

I find that in many patients who were put on steroids for COVID-19, their blood glucose levels are not adequately monitored, leading to extremely, and often dangerously, high blood glucose levels. This can also precipitate diabetic ketoacidosis — a classic situation where the more dangerous forms of mucormycosis occur. Hence, those treating COVID-19 infection must pay equal importance to the control of diabetes.

To those with diabetes, my advice to them would be to have a healthy diet which has a lot of vegetables and less cereals (rice or chapati) and include more protein in the form of bengal gram, green gram, black gram, or mushroom. They must also have an active and regular exercise programme. It is very important for them to have their medicines regularly and if the sugars are not under control, to switch over to insulin if needed, at least for a short period. All these measures will help to effect good control of diabetes which can reduce the risk of developing COVID-19 and also its dangerous side-effects including mucormycosis.

Finally, frequent monitoring of sugar levels should be done by using a hand-held, blood glucose meter. it is possible to wear a small sensor patch on the upper arm which can continuously monitor a person’s blood glucose levels and thus keep it under good control throughout the day.

It is also very important to get oneself fully vaccinated. Vaccination will ensure that the risk of developing severe COVID-19, requiring hospitalisation and thus the risk of developing dangerous infections such as mucormycosis, can be drastically reduced.

Dr. V. Mohan is Chairman, Dr. Mohan’s Diabetes Specialities Centre, Chennai

An unfettered market approach is not the answer to the health workforce crisis

India’s health systems have been confronting numerous challenges. In order to effectively address these challenges, our health systems must be strengthened. One of the critical building blocks of the health system is human resources. The serious shortage of health workers, especially doctors, in some northern States is a major impediment for achieving the health-related Sustainable Development Goals. Health workers are critical not just for the functioning of health systems but also for the preparedness of health systems in preventing, detecting and responding to threats posed by diseases such as COVID-19. If urgent action is not taken, the shortage will amplify and health systems will get further weakened.

The workforce crisis has been aggravated by the imbalances within the country. For instance, the doctor-population ratio in northern States is far short of the required norm, while the southern States, barring Telangana, have enough doctors in possession. There is also a general lack of adequate staffing in rural areas.

Shutting out the poor

These health system challenges will remain largely unaddressed with the government’s market-oriented approach towards medical education. There is no denying that in order to meet the significant shortfall of qualified doctors in northern States, scaling up of medical education is warranted. However, certain proposals, such as the NITI Aayog’s proposal of allowing private entities to take over district hospitals for converting them into teaching hospitals with at least 150 MBBS seats, may sound attractive but there are reasons to be deeply concerned. Through the implementation of such a policy, the private sector in medical education will be encouraged; it will also directly aid the corporatisation processes of healthcare provisioning while the under-resourced public health system will be a collateral damage.

District hospitals are considered as the last resort for the poor. This will change. The corporatisation will make the services very costly and exclude them from getting care. Even from the perspective of producing more doctors to meet the shortages in under-served areas, this is unlikely to yield the desired result. Private players treat medical education as a business. Thus, it would shut the door on a large number of medical aspirants who would otherwise have a strong motivation to work in rural areas but do not have the means to finance themselves. Additionally, the medical graduates trained in such private sector ‘managed’ medical colleges will prefer to find employment in corporate hospitals and not in rural areas to regain their investment. Further, this proposal is not aligned with India’s national health policy goals like achieving universal health care and health equity. Instead, it will widen health inequalities further.

Solving doctor shortage, therefore, needs long-term thinking and commitment from the political leadership. The government should learn from previous cases of public-private partnerships (PPPs). In the past, contrary to the expectation that markets would help increasing access to primary and tertiary care for the poor through private players, the evidence supporting their effectiveness is very limited. In fact, many PPPs had to be shelved owing to the non-compliance of the agreement conditions by the private sector under which they were also supposed to cater to the non-paying patients.

A public good

An unfettered market approach or a regulated market with medical colleges that are publicly funded but privately operated, providing competition for traditional government medical colleges, is not the answer to the health workforce crisis. Medical education is a public good as its purpose is to improve the population health and decrease disease burden.

The pandemic has provided us an opportunity to make medical education a public good once again. There should be a substantial step-up in public investment in medical education. By establishing new medical colleges, the government can increase student intake as well as enhance equitable access to medical education. Besides, it must allocate adequate financial resources to strengthen the overall capacity of existing medical colleges to enrich student learning and improve output.

Soumitra Ghosh is Associate Professor, Tata institute of Social Sciences

Price stability must be maintained evenas steps to boost demand are taken

The latest retail inflation and industrial output data from the National Statistical Office (NSO) offer some relief from the pall of gloom cast by the relentless second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. Provisional headline inflation slowed to a three-month low of 4.29% in April, helped by softer food prices and a statistical base effect. The rate using an imputed index for the year-earlier period was 7.22%. A separate NSO release showed March industrial output jumped by 22.4%, benefiting again from the fact that the Index of Industrial Production (IIP) had posted an 18.7% contraction in March 2020, when the economy was halted by the start of a nationwide lockdown. A closer look at the inflation data reveals a substantial cooling in the prices of cereals, milk and milk products, vegetables, and pulses and products. While both cereals and vegetables saw a deflationary trend widen to -2.96% and -14.2%, respectively, dairy products, which have the second-largest weight in the food and beverages category, also slid into deflation territory at -0.13%. And price gains in pulses, which had been bothering monetary policy makers by having been stubbornly stuck in the double digits over an 18-month stretch, decelerated into single digits to reach a 20-month low of 7.51%. The combined impact slowed inflation across the food and beverages group by more than 250 basis points to 2.66%.

Still, the same Consumer Price Index data also point to persistent price pressures that could potentially fan faster inflation in the coming months, especially at a time when the socio-economic burden of the crippling pandemic and the impact of the lockdown that several States are resorting to is yet to be fully gauged. Price gains in meat and fish quickened to 16.7% and was little changed at 10.6% in the case of eggs, while inflation in oils and fats accelerated almost 100 basis points to 25.9%. Transport and communication also remained in the double-digit range at 11.04%, despite benefiting from the virtual freeze in the pump prices of petroleum products that coincided with last month’s Assembly elections. Now, with global crude oil starting to firm again and local petrol and diesel prices resuming their upward trajectory, the prospect of haulage costs — for transporting goods from factory and farm gates — rising in the near term is very real. Add to the mix rising international commodity prices and the outlook for inflation gets even more cloudy. Industrial production numbers may also provide cheer only for a limited period, aided in no small measure by output having cratered in the first few months of the last fiscal. IHS Markit’s PMI survey for April showed new orders and output having slowed to eight-month lows, and with the pandemic-triggered factory shutdowns threatening supply disruptions, industrial production and inflation face challenges. Policymakers must stay vigilant to ensure price stability even as measures to bolster demand are the need of the hour.

Himanta Biswa Sarma cannot continue with the BJP’s evasive position on citizenship

The transfer of power in Assam, from Sarbananda Sonowal to Himanta Biswa Sarma was a smooth affair albeit mediated by the Bharatiya Janata Party’s central leadership. Mr. Sarma has been the key strategist and troubleshooter for the BJP, not only in Assam, but in the entire northeast, for six years now. It would have been unsustainable for the party to keep him away from the post of the Chief Minister any longer. He was a key figure in the Congress until 2015, when he walked out of it to instantly emerge as the face of the BJP. A champion of pluralism as a Congress leader, Mr. Sarma grew strident as a polarising figure in Assam as a BJP leader. The BJP won Assam for a second consecutive time on the back of intense Hindu consolidation that swept through autonomous tribal regions, and across Bengali and Assamese speakers. Mr. Sarma has said his government would expand the welfare schemes started in the BJP’s first term, particularly targeting women and tea garden workers. That is hardly a controversial move, apart from the additional burden it might put on the State finances. The real challenge for him is in balancing the conflicting expectations of the constituents of the party’s support base with regard to the new citizenship regime legislated by the Centre.

Mr. Sarma’s government has already moved the Supreme Court for a re-verification of the Assam National Register of Citizens (NRC). The State government alleges “major irregularities” in its making — ineligible inclusions and unreasonable exclusions. An application by the State also prays for the deletion of illegal voters from Assam’s electoral rolls. The final draft of the NRC published in August 2019 had excluded 19.06 lakh out of 3.3 crore applications for lack of adequate documents establishing them as Indian citizens. Some think too few have been excluded. The CM wants up to 20% re-verification in the NRC for areas bordering Bangladesh and 10% for interior areas; and the Supreme Court’s guidance on the issue if discrepancies are found. The BJP’s evasive position on the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, which Assamese nationalists fear will open a floodgate of Bengali Hindus into the State besides granting citizenship to those who are already there, has been successful as an electoral strategy this time. That it is a central law and the State has little to do with it is technically correct, but it is disingenuous for a party that is in power at both levels. The BJP has been riding a tiger on the citizenship question. The party must use its fresh mandate in Assam as an opportunity to refresh its approach towards peoples and their movements in the northeast with compassion and realism.

Only science, free from politics, can help us understand the origins of the virus

Was this the smoking gun? “Chinese military scientists discussed weaponising SARS coronaviruses” was the headline of a report inThe Australian, which flashed on my WhatsApp one morning this week. Before noon, I’d received the report from half a dozen people with the familiar prescription: “Must read!”

The report said it had unearthed a leaked document written by Chinese military scientists speaking of weaponising coronaviruses, confirming what has for long been suspected by conspiracy theorists ever since the pandemic began in Wuhan, China.

But there was a small catch. The secret document cited in the report was from a not-so-secret book published in China in 2015, which is still available in Chinese bookstores. It also turned out that the authors, including Xu Dezhong, formerly a professor at the Air Force Medical University, were speaking of the first SARS epidemic being “weaponised” not by China, but by foreign powers unleashing a virus on the Chinese population. Not that these two details made much of a difference as the story continued to go, well, viral.

The belated publicity was not entirely bad news for Mr. Xu. On one online Chinese bookstore, Dangdang, there was “a 10-fold increase” in the price of the book, observed Pan Chengxin, a professor at Deakin University in Australia. The book, by most accounts, wasn’t taken very seriously in China — perhaps until this week.

Shortly beforeThe Australianreport, another article on the origins of COVID-19 evoked discussion. A 10,000-word essay by Nicholas Wade, previously a science reporter forThe New York Times, made a strong case for why a laboratory accident couldn’t be ruled out, citing, among other things, the outbreak beginning in Wuhan, home to the premier Chinese lab studying coronaviruses; the absence of a natural bat population there; and the inability to find an intermediate animal host, as was found after the first SARS epidemic, establishing its natural origins. Mr. Wade went a step further, suggesting there were scientific reasons to suggest this virus was not natural. That claim was, however, rebutted by many virologists including Kristian Andersen, who pointed out that his argument of an unusual “furin cleavage site” being a smoking gun was “the only specific argument put forward to support a lab leak” and was “false”.

If you are confused at this point, you are not alone. For news reporters trying to separate fact from fiction, furin cleavage sites and codons might as well be Latin or Greek.

What Mr. Wade did, however, get right is his conclusion that there is no clear evidence either to support or rule out whether the virus came from nature or a lab. Indeed, a lab accident and natural origins are not mutually exclusive possibilities, considering we may never know if the natural source was in a cave or in a cage.

Further muddying the search for origins is the politics. If the Trump administration in the U.S. prematurely wanted to claim the virus was lab-made despite thin evidence, China has spread its own conspiracy theories, with one Foreign Ministry spokesperson claiming that the virus was brought by the U.S. army to Wuhan. China has also been far from forthcoming, delaying access to Wuhan and not providing a WHO team with raw data. And forget about foreign researchers ever getting unrestricted access to the insides of Wuhan’s labs, all of which will only lead to more doubts.

Ultimately, only science, free from politics, can give us a clear answer. But good science takes time, which is in short supply in an age where we demand immediate answers.

Mr. C.F. Andrews writes: It is with the deepest sense of pain, that I am obliged to write to the Press once more, in order to make a double protest. On the one hand, certain acts on the part of those who represent the Government of India in its official capacity, such as the imprisonment of young students, the prohibition of the wearing of Gandhi caps, the licentious use of Section 144 of the Indian Penal Code — these and other arbitrary and high-handed measures appear to me to have had the inevitable effect of inflaming the passions of the people. It is true, I have come across instances of admirable self-restraint in the exercise of penal force on the part of Government officials and to these I would bear personal testimony but there have been other instances, which have savoured directly of tyranny and against these I would make emphatic and indignant protest. On the other hand I have to protest against the violence of speech and the increasing action of violence on the popular side. During the past few weeks, I have been in constant touch with huge crowds of famished and desperate people, who have been on the strike in our great cities. I have, through this experience, realised more than ever before, how inflammable this material is; and if I have myself transgressed the bounds of calm and reasoned statement, in the excitement of the time in which we live, I sincerely regret it.

The President, Mr. V.V. Giri, to-day [New Delhi, May 13] issued a proclamation taking over administration of Gujarat State. The State Assembly has also been dissolved. This step has been taken following a report received from Mr. Shriman Narayan, Governor, that since no party was in a position to form a Government following the resignation of the Hitendra Desai Ministry, President’s rule should be imposed. The Governor’s report was not, however, released since it has to be placed before Parliament first before it is made public. But it is learnt that the Governor had clearly indicated that the political situation in the State was such that the party alignments had become uncertain and it would not be possible for any group to form a stable Ministry either alone or in association with others. He has also recommended dissolution of the State Assembly as advised by Mr. Hitendra Desai. To-day’s action of the President paves the way for a mid-term election in the State which is expected to be held some time in November or December.